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Poem of the week: The Unquiet Grave


Concise and musical, this is one of the most popular versions of a much-reworked ballad of aching love and loss

This week's poem is among the most beautiful of the "Child" ballads. It's an unusually compact and harmonious narrative, constructed around a conversation between a young man and the ghost of his beloved, and with very little extraneous or expository material. In fact, the focused intensity is almost that of a lyric poem rather than a storytelling ballad.

The Harvard scholar, Francis James Child, collected these ballads mainly from printed sources. The resulting magnum opus, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1892-98), initially ran to 10 volumes, and that was without the commentary, which Child didn't live to complete. His unique contribution to the field of ballad scholarship lies in his meticulous inclusion of different versions of the same text.

Child prints a number of variants for "The Unquiet Grave". This one, the favourite of many folksingers and anthologists, is numbered 78A.

The first two stanzas are spoken by the young man (compare 78F with its female mourner). At first, it seems he directly addresses the dead woman, although it's not impossible that he's talking to a new, living beloved: "The wind doth blow today, my love,/ And a few small drops of rain." The reference to the "small drops of rain" faintly recalls the lovely quatrain from the early 16th century, "Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow/ The small raine down can raine?/ Cryst, if my louve were in my armes/ And I in my bedde again!" The speaker continues in lines three and four either to address his new lover, or to turn to another auditor: if the latter, the effect is of an "aside" spoken on-stage: "I never had but one true-love./ In cold grave she was lain." The device is more than expository: its simple directness confirms the speaker's emotional authority.

At first, the woman's death seems recent. But the pledged period of mourning ("a twelvemonth and a day") passes between stanzas two and three. The belief that graves become "unquiet", and the restless ghosts enact an angry or violent haunting because excessive grief prevents their leaving the earth, is an ancient one, far older than the poem.

This mourner refuses to accept that his time is up, and, as a result, "the dead began to speak". There's something eerie in the fact that the woman, though clearly the one referred to, is not specified: she is simply "the dead". Now the dialogue proper begins: the spectral woman asks whose weeping is disturbing her, and the young man promises he'll leave her in peace in return for one kiss.

The repetitions from verse to verse, a common mnemonic or musical patterning, here have the effect of bringing the lovers touchingly close, as if one echoed the other. "I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips" is reinforced almost tenderly by the response, "You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips", while the clagginess of the alliteration leaves a contrasting impression of un-sentimentalised mortality.

Although it could be the man speaking in stanza six, it seems more likely that the woman's ghost is the speaker throughout five, six and seven. Her description of the dead flower is a parable about loss and its acceptance. The mourner still wants to believe the "finest flower" (their love) can grow again. The woman knows regeneration is impossible: the flower is "withered to a stalk" and this withering happens to lovers' hearts, too: it's an inevitable fact of time. The message is harsh and sad, but the subsequent words are kindly. "So make yourself content, my love,/ Till God calls you away." Permission to forge new connections seems to be offered in that "make yourself content".

Contemporary readers largely share the realistic attitude shown by this thoughtful ghost. We stress the importance of "moving on" as the eventual aim of mourning. But we need to remember that, whenever this ballad originated, it was long before modern psychologising about death. The superstition that kissing a dead person results in one's own death would have had a logical basis at a time when many people died of infectious diseases such as the plague. Read with a historically distanced perspective, the ballad may be a practical warning about how the living should treat the dead (for both their sakes) rather than advice on how best to survive traumatic loss.

It's interesting to compare 78B. There the lovers do kiss, and the poem ends ominously, as the male ghost tells the young woman, "I am afraid, my pretty, pretty maid,/ Your time will not be long."

Whatever the ballad's "message", its harmonies leave us in no doubt of the depth of the lovers' empathy. The images are memorably simple, almost archetypal. Intermittently liquid sounds and the flowing, predominantly iambic rhythm suggest at times a lullaby. The rain-flecked wind, the "earthy strong" breath and the green garden with its one withered flower are details that, although this is a "supernatural" ballad, create the impression of a natural cycle, ever-present and compelling.

Ballads are notoriously difficult to date. Some sources suggest c.1400; others say that there is no evidence that "The Unquiet Grave" existed in written form before 1800. In fact, not many of Child's ballads date from before 1600. In some versions, it's the young man who has died: like a medieval knight, he lies "slain" in the "greenwood". 78D has a literary diction at times, a hint of Scots dialect, and a nautical setting. The quality of 78A could reflect the later crafting and processing of some rougher, older material. But there are many versions in addition to Child's and you may have a favourite of your own.

The Unquiet Grave

"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?"

"'T is 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.

"'T is down in yonder garden green,
  Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that e're 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."

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