I was a bit scathing about true love in my last post. So to redress the balance I’m going to quote, in full, my all time favourite ballad. It’s The Unquiet Grave (Child Ballad no. 78; Oxford Book of Ballads no. 34). It is, quite simply, a very sad and very lovely love song. I’ve come across various forms of the words and setting, and have even got so far to try to play it on the piano using Cecil Sharp’s arrangement (aka, Cold Blows the Wind). Very badly. Not ever a thing I’d inflict on another – the words deserve far better than I can give them. If you want to listen, I’d start with this version by Lau.
Folk songs arise out of the oral tradition. They are honed into shape by repetition and selection, successful songs survive and develop in a process akin to natural selection. But in terms of a finished product, something that is simple, deep and beautiful, I doubt many poets could manage better.
Enough wittering. Here it is:
‘The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.
‘I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.’
The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
‘Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?’
‘’Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek.’
‘You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips;
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.
‘’Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen
Is withered to a stalk.
‘The stalk is withered dry, my love,
‘So will our hearts decay;
‘So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away.’