Barbara Allen


Barbara Allen
(15th century)
   The anonymous Barbara Allen (sometimes Barbara Allan) is one of the most famous traditional ballads and dates at least as far back as the 16th century. The ballad follows the traditional pattern of an unyielding woman and her starry-eyed lover. Barbara Allen is unusual in that the practical heroine finally does succumb to irrational love and thus meets her own demise.
   The oral tradition inherent in ballads has given us several extant versions of this song. The story varies, but the constant aspects are that a man who is in love with Barbara Allen requests that she come to his deathbed. She complies, but denies his love. His death causes her to die the next day from remorse over her hardheartedness. The name of the young man varies from one version to the next. In some he is known as “Sweet William.” In Child’s 84-A version, he is “Sir John Graeme, in the West Country”; in Child’s 84-B version, he is known only as a “young man” (Morgan 1996, 31–32).
   Another of the poem’s variants is Barbara Allen’s motivation for denying the love of the dying man. In Child’s 84-A version, the man insulted Barbara Allen by not buying her drinks at the tavern.
   “O didn’t ye mind, young man,” said she,
   “When ye was in the tavern a-drinking,
   That ye made the healths go round and round,
   And slighted Barbara Allen?
   (Morgan 1996, 31)
   Barbara Allen denies his love as retaliation for this affront.
   Child’s 84-B version shows Barbara Allen to be less emotional and instead pragmatic:
   “If on your death-bed you be lying,
   What is that to Barbara Allen?
   I cannot keep you from your death;
   So farewell,” said Barbara Allen.
   (Morgan 1996, 32)
   In this version she finds no logical purpose to give him her love since he will die soon, so she instead withholds it.
   The ballad also varies in the song of the deathknell. Barbara Allen purportedly hears a message in the ringing and it is alternately, “Woe to Barbara Allen,”“Unworthy Barbara Allen,” and “Hardhearted Barbara Allen.”
   In some versions Barbara Allen sees the corpse of the young man. Her reaction is different depending on the version one reads. In Child’s 84-B version, her response is abhorrent:
   She turned herself round about,
   And she spied the corpse a-coming:
   “Lay down, lay down the corpse of clay,
   That I may look upon him.”
   And all the while she looked on,
   So loudly she lay laughing,
   While all her friends cried out amain,
   “Unworthy Barbara Allen!
   (Morgan 1996, 32)
   Her actions in this version make her death in the following lines appear to be retribution for the dead lover rather than her reformed heart causing her to die in sorrow. “When he was dead and laid in grave/ Then death came creeping to she” (Morgan 1996, 32).
   Contrastingly, Child’s variant 81 reveals Barbara Allen’s change of heart, and her resulting sorrow-filled death seems sincere.
   She looked to the east, she looked to the west,
   She saw the corpse a-coming
   “Lay down, lay down that deathly frame
   And let me look upon it.”
   The more she looked, the more she wept,
   Until she burst out crying:
   “I might have saved one young man’s life
   If I’d a done my duty. . . .”
(Cartwright 1985, 241)
   This version clearly shows Barbara Allen’s compassion and we feel sympathy not only for the young man, but also for her as she realizes her own culpability in his death. Further deserving of our sadness is Barbara Allen’s mother who, in this version, “. . . died for love of both/ She died on Easter Monday,” which in this text is the day following Barbara Allen’s Easter death (Cartwright 1985, 241).
   Even the death of the heroine does not bring an end to the variations of her tale. In at least one version, the couple finds love after death.
   Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard;
   Sweet William was buried beside her.
   Out of Sweet William’s heart grew a rose;
   Out of Barbara Allen’s a briar.
   They grew and they grew in the old churchyard
   Till they could grow no higher.
   At the end they formed a true-lover’s knot,
   And the rose grew round the briar.
   (Wilhelm 1971, 371–372)
   The use of the sympathetic grave plants predates the ballad and was first linked with the TRISTAN AND ISOLDE romance. The plants symbolize “the transcendence of true love” (Morgan 1996, 29). Here they give a peaceful end to the otherwise sad tale.
   Throughout its many variations, Barbara Allen remains a mournful ballad of the sorrows of unrequited love.
   Bibliography
   ■ Cartwright, Christine A. “ ‘Barbara Allen’: Love and Death in an Anglo-American Narrative Folksong,” in Narrative Folksong New Directions: Essays in Appreciation of W. Edson Richmond, edited by Carol L. Edwards and Kathleen E. B. Manley. Boulder, Colo:Westview Press, 1985, 240–265.
   ■ Child, Francis James, ed. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1965.
   ■ Morgan, Gwendolyn A., ed. and trans. Medieval Ballads: Chivalry, Romance, and Everyday Life, A Critical Anthology. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
   ■ Wilhelm, James J., ed. and trans. Medieval Song: An Anthology of Hymns and Lyrics. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1971.
   Malene A. Little

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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