October 9th, 2018


A poem for Hallowe'en

For some reason, a line from this old ballad came to me this morning. I looked it up and savored it again.

The Wife of Usher's Well

There lived a wife at Usher’s Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them o’er the sea.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
Whan word came to the carlin wife
That her three sons were gane.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three,
Whan word came to the carlin wife
That her sons she’d never see.

‘I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood.’

It fell about the Martinmass,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carlin wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o’ the birk.

It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in any sheugh;
But at the gates o’ Paradise,
That birk grew fair eneugh.

‘Blow up the fire, my maidens,
Bring water from the well;
For a’ my house shall feast this night,
Since my three sons are well.’

And she has made to them a bed,
She’s made it large and wide,
And she’s ta’en her mantle her about,
Sat down at the bed-side.

Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the gray;
The eldest to the youngest said,
‘Tis time we were away.’

The cock he hadna crawd but once,
And clapped his wings at a’,
When the youngest to the eldest said,
‘Brother, we must awa.’

‘The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin’ worm doth chide;
Gin we be mist out o’ our place,
A sair pair we maun bide.’

‘Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass
That kindles my mother’s fire!’

This ballad carries the old motif of a return of the dead from the afterlife, to the great joy of their family left behind; but they cannot stay. The birch hats are symbols of death -- birches were supposed to grow in the afterworld, and shoes for the dead were also made of birchbark in Norse lands. Probably the Norse influence has bled over into this Scots/Border ballad.

Anyway, the event took place at Martinmas, which was November 11. Why is that significant? Because Martinmas is also called "Old Hallowmass Eve." When Pope Gregory XIII reformed the Julian Calendar in 1582, he dropped ten days from that year to bring the calendar into alignment with the seasons. People fretted that he took ten days from their lifespans, which is silly, but you can understand how that might unsettle people. But that means that Martinmas that year and thereafter fell on what was "really" (that is, had been) November 1 -- All Saints' Day (All Hallows). The evening before would have been October 31 -- Hallowe'en, when the dead come back. Which makes this a Hallowe'en poem.

BTW, the fasting associated with St. Martin's Day and after, which lasted until Epiphany, was later shortened and became the season of Advent.