‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is, for the most part, an archetypal early ballad being composed in quatrains, with the typical alternating four-stress and three-stress lines and the second and fourth line of each stanza rhyming. The poem is set in medias res, telling certainly of a tragedy, possibly based on two voyages in the thirteenth-century on which Scottish noblemen transported princesses to royal marriages, with many members of Alexander III’s daughter Margaret’s escort drowning on the journey home. The theme of tragedy and having a plot based on local history are both elements often seen in the ballad form.
However, the poem does also defy characteristics of the traditional ballad; it includes a third person narrative voice that is not necessarily impartial, which contradicts the typically impersonal, distanced narration commonly found in this genre of poetry. There is an example of a satirical view of the higher classes, mocking the king’s decision to not withhold the voyage and also mocking the fact that the nobles boarded the ship, for if they had not, then the tragedy would have been avoided.
The dark humour found in the personification of their hats that ‘swam aboon’(line 32) exemplifies a view not particularly sympathetic with the drowning victims, which coupled with the idea that ‘the play were played’(line 31) suggests the inevitability that this would be the situation, clearly signifying a mockery of the decisions made by the higher classes. Early ballads often contain strong regional dialect as they were originally orally transmitted. This particular dialect gives the reader a strong idea of the origins of the ballad and lends a sense of authenticity to the text, reaffirming the typicality of this particular ballad, being a further reference to it’s foundations in local history.
The dialect can also be used as a tool to highlight sections of the ballad, for example, when it is used to describe the King drinking blood-red wine or ‘blude-reid wine’ (line 2). This strong image is prefigurative of the tragic ending of the poem and echoes the previously displayed idea that the narrator feels the king is responsible for this misfortune. The narrator’s view reflects the idea of ‘power without responsibility’ which makes this ballad somewhat ahead of its time. It was rare that royalty were questioned when the ballad form flourished in Scotland from the fifteenth century onward. This notion that the poem is quite a ahead of it’s time implies that at least this ballad negates the view of Ben Johnson’s dictum ‘a poet should detest a ballad maker’ as clearly here the early ballad demonstrates a brilliant use in it’s ability to convey a person’s personal political view in a rather active way, passing on their message by word of mouth and challenging the accepted.