Basic Poetics – Ballads – (“The Bitter Withy”)

AG: “The Bitter Withy” (on page one-hundred-and-seven) has one exquisite line in it. Well, there’s one pretty Donovan-esque line  (Donovan? the English [Irish -sic] ballad-maker of contemporary days?) – stanza six (it’s about the little Saviour, out playing with his friends and being put down by his friends, and (he) announces himself to them, and then, “Our Saviour built a bridge with the beams of the sun,/And over He gane, He gane He/And after followed the three jolly jerdins/And drownded they were all three” – I don’t know what the.. “Drownded” – that’s funny, because people do say that – kids say that – “he drownded” – and they’re rebuked for saying “drownded” – “spelt wrong”  (but, actually, that’s the old archaic spelling of “drownded”) – “Mummy, he was drownded”.

Student: What’s a “withy” and a “jerdin”?

AG: Er..”jerdin”? – What have we got here? – “(a whole handful of) bitter withy”? – “Withy” is a willow, willow tree. The “jerdins”? – boys? – It just says so there.. You’ve got the.. If you look on the right-hand side of the page..

Student: … Further off in stanza three…

AG: Yeah,  “Oh, there he met three jolly jerdins” – and on the right-hand side – “boys? (probably aristocrats)” –  I just like that line then – “Our Saviour built a bridge with the beams of the sun”. It’s a little bit like, you know, Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz – airy-fairy imagery, but it’s kind of nice, actually – “Our Saviour built a bridge with the beams of the sun” – Then you have these kids drown on it! – It’s a bitter withy!
I mean, it’s a funny picture of Christ as a nasty kid, oddly enough. So Mary spanks him for these misdeeds. He went out to play with these kids. They didn’t treat him right. So he took this God-like revenge on them. The mothers came to complain to Mary, saying, “Our sons are “drownded all”.

Student: .. Mary mild!..

AG: Yes, Mary spanked him with a “bitter withy” – “She gave Him slashes three”. And then, at the end, (which weirds everything out), then he says to his mother, “Oh, the withy! Oh the withy!/The bitter withy that causes me to smart, to smart/Oh, the withy, it shall be the very first tree/That perishes at the heart!” – So there is a thing in the Bible about the fig tree that didn’t bear figs and Christ had cursed it and it withered forever also.
It’s just a very sharp, mean ballad, that one.

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

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