The Ballad

Version sung by Ewan MacColl (Jimmy Miller), English Folk Dance and Song Society

‘Spens’ exemplifies the common form for the popular ballads: an abcb rhymed quatrain, with four beats in the a and c lines and three beats in the b lines; the shifting of speakers without introduction (e.g. from Spens to the sailor in the sixth stanza); the use of adjective-phrases that are formulaic yet symbolically significant (e.g. ‘blude-red wine’); and the repeating of significant lines (e.g. ‘lang, lang may the ladies…’) and images (e.g. men depicted at another’s feet).

One of the reasons why ‘Spens’ is continually anthologized is because it is a clean representative of this ballad form. In M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, he uses ‘Spens’ as the example under his definition of ‘ballad’. Below are three versions of ‘Spens’, beginning with the first published version in Percy’s Reliques (1765). An annotated version can be found in the Norton Anthology of Poetry.


(1765) First published by Bishop Thomas Percy in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, based on ‘two MS. copies transmitted from Scotland’. PDF file
(1769) First Scottish version by D. Herd in Ancient and Modern Scots Songs, Heroic Ballads, & c.
(1794) J. Ritson’s A Collection of Scottish Songs
(1787-1803) James Johnson’s musical version in The Scots Musical Museum
(1802) Sir Walter Scott published a version in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Vol. 1.
(1876) Version printed by G.J. Bennet: ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, edited and arranged for 8 voices
(1882-98) Francis James Child gathers 18 versions of ‘Spens’ in English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Internet Archive.

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