I recently came across an interesting old ballad called ‘The Sailor’s Tragedy’. Also known as ‘The Dreadful Ghost’, the song was published in 1826 by Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns in an eight-page booklet that included three other ballads. It reminds me of the maritime Lotharios and skirt-chasers I have encountered in real life.
A familiar tale
‘The Sailor’s Tragedy’ is about a sailor who abandons a lover after getting her pregnant. Gripped by shame and despair, she hangs herself and returns as a ghost to take revenge on the man. It’s a familiar tale that calls to mind the vengeful women of Japanese legends and the famous German legend of Lorelei.
The following is the full text of Robert Burns’ version of ‘The Sailor’s Tragedy’. Scroll further down to watch a live performance of the ballad.
The Sailor’s Tragedy
I am a sailor, and home I write,
And in the the seas took great delight,
The female sex I did beguile
At length two were by me with child.
I promised to be true to both,
And bound myself under an oath,
To marry them if I had life,
And one of them I made my wife.
The other being left alone
Saying you false deluding man,
To me you’ve done a wicked thing,
Which public shame will on me bring.
Then to the silent shade she went,
Her present shame for to prevent,
And soon she finished up the strife,
And cut her tender thread of life.
She hung herself upon a tree,
Two men a-hunting did her see;
Her flesh by beasts was basely tore,
Which made the young men weep full sore.
Straight they went and cut her down,
And in her breast a note was found;
This note was written out at large,
Bury me not I do you charge.
But on the ground here let me lie,
For every one that passes by,
That they by me a warning take,
And see what follows e’er too late.
As he is false, I do protest
That he on earth shall find no rest,
And it is said she plaug’d him so,
That to the seas he’s forc’d to go
As he was on the main-mast high,
A little boat he did espy.
In it there was a Ghost so grim,
That made him tremble every limb.
Dewn to the deck the young man goes,
To the Captain his mind for to disclose;
Here is a spirit coming hence,
O Captain stand on my defence.
Upon the deck the Captain goes,
Where soon he spy’d the fatal Ghost;
Captain said she you must and can,
With speed help me to such a man.
In St Helen’s this young man died,
And in St Helen’s is his body laid;
Captain, said she, do not say so,
For he is in your ship below.
And if you stand in his defence,
A mighty storm I will send hence,
Will cause you and your men to weep,
And leave you sleeping in the deep.
From the deck did the Captain go,
And brought this young man to his foe,
On him she fix’d her eyes so grim,
Which made him tremble every limb.
It was well known I was a maid,
When first by you I was betray’d,
I am a spirit come for you,
You beguil’d me once but I have you now.
For to preserve both ship and men,
Into the boat they forced him;
The boat sunk in a flash of fire,
Which made the sailors all admire.
All you that know what to love belong,
Now you have heard my mournful song.
Be true to one whatever you mind,
And dont delude poor woman-kind.
Watch American singer Debra Cowan perform ‘The Dreadful Ghost’ (aka ‘The Sailor’s Tragedy’) at The Prince Albert pub and music venue on Trafalgar Street, Brighton, East Sussex. The lyrics shown after the video are different from the Robert Burns version, but the storyline is essentially the same.
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It’s of a sailor of whom I write,
Unto the seas he took great delight,
Two maidens fair he did beguile
And those two maidens he had with child.
Oh, one of them, for public shame,
Unto some handsome grove she came,
And there, at length, for to end all strife.
She cut it there, the thread of life.
She hung herself down from a tree,
Where two men a-hunting did her see.
They got a knife and cut her down,
And on her bosom a note was found.
And this was writ in letters large:
“Don’t bury me, I do you charge,
But on the ground there let me lie,
That maids may see me as they pass by.
“Let them take warning by my fate,
And quit this folly before it’s too late.”
And while on land she plagued him so,
To the seas at length he was forced to go.
One morning on the topmast high,
A little boat he chanced to spy,
A little boat with a large crew of men,
And a female ghost who stood up then.
Down decks, down decks this young man goes,
To greet the captain in his morning clothes,
He says, “Captain, captain, stand my defence,
For I see a spirit a-coming hence.”
So up on deck this captain goes,
And there he spies this dreadful ghost,
She says, “Captain, Captain, come tell me true,
Does such a man sail among your crew?”
“It was in St. Taliens this young man died,
And in St. Taliens his body lies.”
She says, “Captain, Captain, don’t tell me so,
For he’s sailing down in your ship below.
“And if you don’t bring him up to me,
A mighty storm you soon shall see,
Which will cause both you and your gallant men to weep,
And leave you slumbering in the deep.”
Down decks, down decks this captain goes,
And brings this young man up to his foes,
And when she fixed her grim eyes on him,
It made him tremble in every limb.
“Oh, don’t you remember when I was a maid,
You caused my poor trembling heart to bleed;
Now I’m a spirit come for thou,
You baulked me once but I’ve got you now.”
Down in her boat she forced him,
Down in her boat he was forced for to go,
And as he did, we all did admire,
For the boat went down in a flame of fire.
And as she sank, she rose again,
And aye she sang this mournful strain:
“You sailors all who are left behind,
Never prove false to young womankind.”
~ Barista Uno