Chasing Storms: Christiana Spens on The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens

As a child, my father would occasionally break out the old family ballad—“The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens”—about a doomed sailor in the twelfth century. “Not one of our success stories,” he liked to joke, since the sailor in question had been asked by the King to transport the Princess of Norway back to Scotland, only for the ship to wreck in the North Sea, drowning all on board. As one version of the Ballad begins,

The king sits in Dumfermline town,
Drinking the blude-red wine;
“O whare will I get a skeely skippe,
“To sail this new ship of mine?”

O up and spake an eldern knight,
Sat at the king’s right knee,–
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor,
“That ever sail’d the sea.”

We grew up a few miles up the Fife coast from where the Ballad began, where my family had been since that time. I heard whispers of it over the years, never quite understanding how well known the song was, or how unusual it was to be reminded of your ancestor, a doomed sailor, so frequently and in this fashion. Perhaps I can attribute to this my own melancholy as a child and then an adult, and then my awe of seas and storms. Perhaps my own tempestuousness, too.

I forgave myself for my passions, in this moment; I loved storms, that is all, even the worst of them.

It was just the other night that I was woken up by a flash of lightning at five in the morning, and remembered another storm, last summer, in Glasgow. I had been both in love and terror at the time, and this storm provided an exciting backdrop to all this heightened emotion. There is nothing like getting drenched in the summer rain after a long, dramatic train journey, and then the lightning and thunder tearing over one’s own noise, to feel connected to something sublime. I forgave myself for my passions, in this moment; I loved storms, that is all, even the worst of them.

“I saw the new moon, late yestreen,
“Wi’ the auld moon in her arm;
“And if we gang to sea, master,
“I fear we’ll come to harm.”

In so many Gothic novels, our protagonists are stranded in some natural disaster; the Brontë sisters were particularly fond of them. Wuthering Heights is often battered by bad weather, as its characters succumb to forces within them that they cannot control. Then in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, after Jane has—after much taunting and cruelty on Rochester’s part—confessed her love to him, and he has responded with a proposal, a storm breaks out, and the newly engaged couple rush inside, away from the rain. Rochester kindly assists Jane out of her sodden clothes, and he kisses her; Jane then notices that the maternal Mrs. Fairfax is watching them.

That night, the storm still raging, a lightning bolt strikes the tree where Rochester had proposed earlier; this is of course an omen. For all the passion and twin perversions, their dreams of a wedding are doomed by the lady in the attic, who emerges to thwart it, to expose its impossibility. Whether we see this specter as Rochester’s estranged wife or Jane’s subconscious (or their shared, symbiotic madness), for a time, at least, it splits them. The storm passes, and the ideal of a quick marriage, too. Jane breaks down over the Moors and retreats to religion; Rochester is blinded in a fire. But eventually the storm is over. Like any passion or disaster, it must always pass.

Sometimes, in my own life, I do wonder about the decisions I have made, the places I have gone, and the people I have gone there with. At a party recently, I met a scholar of Ballads, who asked me if I was related to Sir Patrick, since I had just mentioned I had also grown up in Fife. Yes, as it happens! I said. Or at least, it’s what my father had told me, and the Spens clan is a very little one. I hadn’t thought about the Ballad in a long time, and so I went home and played The Fairport Convention’s cover of it. These lines stood out, this time:

They had not sailed upon the sea
A day, but barely three,
When loud and boisterous grew the winds
And stormy grew the sea.

Then up there came a mermaiden
A comb and glass in her hand,
“Here’s a health to you my merry young men,
For you’ll not see dry land!”

I had not paid much attention to the mermaid part before, which is written into this newer version, but now I did. I had been working on some poems lately and in one, there appeared a mermaid, and this motif of doomed sailors, tortured men, swimming and drowning had developed accordingly. Now, I could not ignore the mermaid in this ancestral tale either; in many ways, in recent times, the mermaid had been me. My old publisher had liked to tease me about this, likening me to a siren. “You draw them out,” he said. “These men.” But I began to wonder if it was more of a curse than a joke.

We think of mermaids as mystical, dangerous things, luring men to their death, or perhaps comforting them as they fall. They sing a sweet, eerie song. They stay forever in the water. In the Ballad, the women at the shore mourn their husbands and sons, taken by the storms, forever at sea. Was I playing out a strange karma, now? Or had my father’s reciting of this Ballad simply had a deeper effect on me than I realized, and so I, too, internalized such stories of doomed romance? These days, the men did not drown, thankfully; at least, they made it to dry land. I tried to help them, and I tried to find dry land myself. In one version of the Ballad, these lines stand out to me.

And many was the feather-bed
That fluttered on the foam;
And many was the good lord’s son
That never more came home.

And yet, for all the damage bad weather may bring, and for all the loneliness of finding oneself adrift, when that storm broke the other night, it was like a calling home. The following week, craving more water, and a little less gravity, I went back to the pool on the Heath, the closest thing to a sea I could find in London, and started swimming every day. I had somehow forgotten how much I loved and needed it, how I only felt truly myself in the water, whether it was an ocean or a pool.

The ocean is sublime and fearful, and I rest in it even as the waves rise.

In John Cleever’s 1964 short story, The Swimmer, published in The New Yorker, its protagonist decides, on a whim, that he too feels so aligned in the water, that he will swim all the way home from a party, by swimming lengths in his friends’ swimming pools, over the length of the county. What starts out as a blissful, invigorating, quite dazzling adventure, gradually turns into a terrible confrontation with the main character’s concerns—ageing, drinking, and the dissolution of his marriage—discovered as he stretches out for one more stroke, one more vague acquaintance.

Apparently in denial about the true state of his affairs, this swimming home is a slow realization of himself. The swimming pool can be an intentionally lonely place, and the act of swimming, too. When you are underwater, no one can really reach you; no one can talk to you or communicate other than in some urgent sign language, or a cry for help. There is not so much gravity as usual, and less sound. For this reason, it is both a blissful and dangerous place to be.

Perhaps there is this implicit likening of swimming to drinking, in Cleever’s story, or the desire for both things is rooted in that need to be in another world, where voice is muffled, where you cannot breathe, and yet you feel somehow freer than ever. You launch yourself into an expanse that could kill you, and you take pride in this. As Cleever writes, “He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had a simple contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every other stroke or every fourth stroke…”

The week I went back to the pool and also read that short story, two ex-boyfriends surprised me by making amends, apologizing for the tempestuousness of the past, and their words gave me an unprecedented sense of peace. They had freed me; I had freed myself. And yet I was still out at sea; it is just that it was a peaceful ocean, now. The sun was shining, the storm had passed. I floated in cerulean water, my eyes closed. The water beat very softly against me.

Sometimes I remember the North Sea of my childhood—where I swam, where my sisters swam, and where my father swam, which is also the sea of my ancestors—and I think of how much it contains, all the old sailors, all the strange stories, all hidden beneath a steely blue horizon. I remember the last lines of the Ballad, and I know I am just continuing an old tale, a story told in song, a siren song. The ocean is sublime and fearful, and I rest in it even as the waves rise.

Oh, long may my lady look
With a lantern in her hand
Before she sees my bonny ship
Sailing homewards to dry land.

Forty miles off Aberdeen
The water’s fifty fathoms deep
There lies good Sir Patrick Spens
With the Scots lords at his feet.

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