Poem of the Week: The Woman of Usher’s Well | Poetry

Usher’s Well Woman

There lived a woman in Usher’s Well,
And a rich woman was she;
She had three strong and valiant sons,
And sent them to the sea.

They weren’t a week away from her,
A week but barely one,
What word came to Carline’s wife
That his three sons were gane.

They weren’t a week away from her,
A week but barely three,
What word came to the pug woman
That her sons that she would never see.

‘I wish the wind would never stop,
Neither flashes in the flood,
Until my three sons come to me
In earthly flesh and blood.

He fell on Saint-Martin,
When the nights are lang and mirk.
The three sons of the wife Carline came to the house,
And their hats were crazy.

It did not grow in the syke or in the ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates of paradise,
This birch has become quite beautiful.

“Light the fire, my young girls,
Bring water from the well;
Because my house will feast tonight,
Since my three sons are doing well.

And she made them a bed
She made it tall and broad;
And she took her coat,
Sitting at the bedside.

Then ride the crew of the red rooster, red,
And ride and equip the gray
The eldest to the youngest said,
“It’s time for us to go. “

The rooster he had never eaten once,
And flapped his wings to a ‘,
When the younger to the older said,
‘Brother, we must awa’.

‘The rooster spits, the day daw,
The channerin worm reprimands;
Gin we miss from home,
A pain sair us maun bide.

‘Lie down quietly, lie down quietly but a little while,
Lie down, but if we can;
Gin my mother should be missed when she wakes up
She’ll go mad before it’s daylight.

“Farewell, my dear mother!
Farewell to the barn and the stable!
And go ahead, the beautiful girl
It kindles my mother’s fire!

This ancient ballad, shaped over the centuries by the bright tongues and inventive memories of “Anon”, first appeared in print in 1802, in Walter Scott’s Scottish border minstrelsy. Scott’s incomplete version was recited to him by an old woman living in Kirkhill, West Lothian. Also collected by Francis James as a child, the ballad has become particularly popular in America. There are many variations. The extended version I chose is online here.

The first stanza brightly sets the scene. Our suspense, now heightened, is built in the one to three week period noted in the refrains of the second verse of verses two and three. The wife’s three marine sons are “gane” (but might have survived the shipwreck) in stanza two, but the worst is confirmed in three:. “

The term “carlineCan apparently refer to both “old woman” and “witch” – concepts once thought to be naturally interchangeable. Stanza four can echo a mother’s cry of pain or a witch’s spell: it may be both. The vow focuses on images of relentless wind and “fashes” “in the flood” – a time of eternal shipwreck until the drowned sons “come to me / In earthly flesh and blood”. It’s a formidable stanza, true to the psychology of intense mourning, in which lamentation for the unjustly dead can be mixed with a vengeful anger against the living.

Saint-Martin, a festive occasion, falls on November 11. It’s time for the ghostly visit. Night is “lang and mirk”… and all we first see from visitors are the three hats hanging from the birch. Anon is clearly a poet with imagistic potential …

More mysteriously still, the tree itself appears to be a sort of haunt. It does not grow in any land “syke” (swamp, small stream), ditch, or trench, but only at the “gate to heaven” – so why is it here in Usher’s Well? Have the woman and her retinue been “introduced” to an outpost in paradise? Maybe the entire worlds of death and life have merged somehow – a pleasantly scary thought. During this time, the maids light the fire, we go to fetch water, we prepare the feast. The narrator does not show us any direct interaction between the sons and their mother. The mother is simply happy that they are “good”. And in the next verse, the feast is already over: the mother wrapped herself in her cloak to sit near the carefully made boys’ bed, as if she was finally keeping the death vigil that had been denied to her.

The crowing of the dawn rooster, as is tradition, warns the ghosts to rush to their graves. That there are two roosters, one red, one gray, might be another suggestion that two states, red-blooded life and dark death, work in counterpoint. The story is suddenly brought to life by the voices of older and younger sons. The different pronunciation of “away” and “awa” adds a bit of characterization.

Touchingly, in the current version, the sons decide not to move until the mother wakes up, due to the distress their sudden disappearance would cause them. This stanza is omitted from Scott’s version, leaving us simply with the collective expression of the sons’ regret – a regret for appetite and sexual vigor, almost restored, and now lost again.

This tragicomic ghost story still retains its appeal. It demonstrates the power of love (aided or not by witchcraft) to invoke the dead in defiance of logic and these channeling worms. The chronological repeats in the tale (“They hadn’t been a week away from her,” “The rooster he hadn’t cracked once”) are the ballad’s conventional rhythmic tropes, but they sound recognizable as the pulse of all life stories – rituals and assurances, hopes and losses, and the rapid drumbeat of time, time, time.

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