Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

The Scariest Ballad

Like most kids, I loved the old Scots ballads as a child – where else, other than the Bible, could a Fifties child with respectable parents come by so much gore and gruesomeness between hard covers? And lord, were they menacing! Not just the overtly blood-and-guts ones - Lady Wearie meeting the vengeful Lamkin on the stairs, Margaret's seven brothers debating whether to kill the sleeping Saunders in front of them, John Steward stabbing Gil Morice, Margery's kinfolk building the fire around her… But in some ways the oblique ones were still more scary: bonnie George Campbell rides out and never comes home and we have no more idea what has become of him than his wife does.

And the scariest of all was "Get Up And Bar The Door", which stayed with me both for that reason and because it was the subject of the silliest question on poetry that I ever saw in a school textbook, which is saying something.

It begins in a mediaeval Scottish cottage, in winter, with night coming on. A married couple live there: the wife is boiling "puddings" in a pan (the kind with blood and guts rather than currants and jam) while the man is doing nothing special. It is, therefore, understandable that when he says to her "Get up and bar the door", she should point out irritably that she is otherwise occupied and that he might care to do it himself.

This leads not only to a row but to a stand-off: the couple vow not to speak to each other; the first to utter a word will have to bar the door, but until then it stands unbarred. It looks a petty cause of dispute, but this is less important than the enormous risk they are taking; there is a reason for barring doors at night, which will soon become apparent.

Two men, strangers, walk in, uninvited. They begin to eat the puddings the wife has just made, but the couple, still fixated on their quarrel, are obstinate in silence:
Tho' muckle the goodwife thought to hersel,
Yet never a word she spak.
Then, however, the strangers progress to thoughts of violence:
"Do you tak aff the auld man's beard
And I'll kiss the goodwife."
We may assume, I think, that "kiss" is being used euphemistically. At any rate, this threat finally brings a spoken protest from the man of the house – at which his wife skips in triumph:
"Goodman, ye've spoken the foremost word,
Get up and bar the door!"
There could hardly be a more savage irony than this last line: yes, bar the door, now that the danger is inside – and even now, she fails to see past her household quarrel to the outside threat against which both should have united. I don't think many ballads really have what one could call a moral; they relate tales of cruelty and tragedy in a laconic matter-of-fact way and generally without passing judgement: this happened, that happened. This one is different; it does not take much acumen to see the man and wife as emblematic of more than themselves.

More acumen, though, than was possessed by some of the people who were writing school textbooks at the time, because believe it or not, the question they wanted us to answer on the poem was "who deserved to win the argument?" The "right" answer, in case you're interested, was at the end of the chapter: the wife deserves to win because the husband should have recognised that she was busy and barred the door himself. Whoever read the poem and set this asinine question had, apparently, not noticed that very soon both husband and wife were going to be assaulted or worse and wouldn't much care who occupied the moral high ground.

Fortunately our class teacher had far more insight than the fool who wrote the textbook and was able to make it clear that he had entirely missed the point. Her theory was that he had taken the whole ballad for light humour. Makes you wonder, though. People make money out of writing textbooks… Not many questions I've seen set on poems, whether in textbooks or exam papers, are quite as brainless as that one, but many strike me as essentially irrelevant and extraneous. Some require students to speculate on facts and possibilities outside the poem and bearing little or no relation to its technique or quality; some want value judgements on the poet's world. Very few seem to relate in any way to poetic technique, to what the writer was trying to achieve and how s/he set about it. A question-setter on this poem might, for instance, profitably ask how tension is achieved, how season and time of day colour the poem, how conversation is used. But if the English exam papers which students obligingly scan in for me every so often are any guide, they mostly don't.
Tags: criticism, education, poetry
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