Basic Poetics – Ballads – (Mary Hamilton)

Mary Hamilton Before Execution, St Petersburg – Pavel Svedomsky (1849-1904)

AG: “Mary Hamilton” – I think there is a recording of “Mary Hamilton” by Joan Baez Did we ever track that down? Anyone got 1t? – Well, I’ve heard of it, I’ve heard her sing it, I think. That, or “Lady Hamilton” or something. Does anybody know it? know of it?
– Well, stanza two – “He’s courted her in the kitchen/He’s courted her in the ha’/He’s courted her in the laigh cellar,/And that was warst of a”” – And then, in stanza nine, there’s a great detail, great psychological detail… let’s see what is happening here.. she’s going up to.. actually, the beginning is interesting, there’s a great rumor – “Word’s gane to the kitchen/And word’s gane to the ha’/That Marie Hamilton gangs wi’ bairn/To the hichest Stewart of a'” – So she’s taken to Court, to the Parliament, which, in stanza nine, “When she gaed up the Parliament stair,/The heel cam off her shee” – (her shoe) – “And lang ere she cam down again/She was condemned to dee” – That’s really fast! – I mean, that’s another fast action – and a perfect one – going up the Parliament stair/The heel cam off – (her heel comes off her shoe) – And long before she came down again, she was condemned to die – just in that one fast stanza, the whole tragedy comes on, breaking her heel on her shoe going up the stair. And it’s such a humble detail, that it’s amazing, but also, like, ominous. Because you’ve got this… It’s like Marie Antoinette in the tumble to the gallows, the guillotine. Robespierre and the tumble to the guillotine. I think.. I remember
my brother [Eugene] was studying the French Revolution in high-school and the one detail that I always remember was that he was so beaten and bruised that one.. that one eye was hanging on his cheek! – in the tumble, on the way to the guillotine – but it reminds me of this one detail here – they’re going up to they doom?, there’s this little pathetic stumble, there’s this nervous stumble, going up the stairs and her heel came off her shoe! – How’d they think of that? (unless it were historically so, unless this was a true story, how could someone make up an amazing detail like that, that’s so ominous and so perfect, that fits so much into the picture.Then it has a great ending – stanza fifteen and sixteen – “Oh little did my mother think,/ the day she cradled me,/ What lands I was to travel through,/What death I was to dee,/ O little did my father think,/The day he held up me/ What lands I was to travel through,/What death I was to dee.” – (That’s pretty good. That really gives the finality of it. It’s probably pretty much what people would think when they came to an utter conclusion  – “Gee, my mother never thought, I never thought, I’d come to this! .”Little did my mother think..?”
So, it’s like an archetypal perception, actually, for that moment
The very end is very sweet – “Last niche there was four Maries,/The nicht they’l be but three:/There was Marie Seton and Marie Beton/And Mary Catmichael, and me.” – (This is Mary Hamilton – There’ll be no more Mary Hamiltons tonight – She’ll be dead, hung in Edinburgh-town).

[Audio for the above can be heard here,beginning at approximately thirteen minutes in, and concluding at approximately sixteen-and-three-quarter  minutes in]


An earlier notice by Allen (from 1975) of the ballad, Mary Hamilton, may be found on the Allen Ginsberg Project – here 

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