(1740) Published in a collection of miscellany in 1740, Bonny Barbara Allan had long been sung as a ballad. It bears many traditional ballad characteristics, falling into the narrative category. It remains anonymous, probably altered over time by various balladeers before appearing in print. It begins in the midst of action, with Sir John Graeme on his deathbed attended by Barbara Allan, a woman he had spurned in the past but still deeply loves; he even attributes his death to a broken heart. The ballad's tone remains unemotional, but the plotline and poetic elements elicit emotion from listeners/readers. It also complies with the traditional four-line verse format, and its rhyme scheme fits the usual abcb pattern. Composed of nine stanzas, it includes some Irish dialect, for which most anthologies in which it appears offer explanations.
The first verse sets the date of the action at about "the Martinmas time," which is November 11. The late autumn timing remains symbolic of approaching death, emphasized by the line "When the green leaves were a-fallin." Listeners learn that an aristocrat named Sir John Graeme "in the West Country" had fallen in love with Barbara Allan. Her lack of title establishes the traditional conflict between social classes that produced star-crossed lovers, couples who could not marry because of social edict against the mixing of the classes. Graeme's status is emphasized when he sends "his man down through the town." The man is his servant, and the direction indicated by down symbolizes that Graeme literally lives above the masses, probably on an estate, as suits his place in the social hierarchy. The servant searches for Barbara Allan, finds her, and asks that she attend "my master dear." The third verse begins, "O hooly, hooly rase she up, / To the place where he was lyin," with hooly meaning "gently," while rase means "rose." Her movement "up" represents both a literal and a metaphoric climb to a higher order. Apparently not one for subtlety, Barbara, upon seeing Sir John, tells him, "'Young man, I think you're dyin'.'" Sir John claims his illness is due to his desire for her, but she counters by asking whether he does not recall having " 'slighted Barbara Allan'" while he " 'the cups were fillin','" and making " 'the healths gae round and round,'" meaning he bought rounds of drinks and toasted the health of his fellow drinkers. Barbara was not included in his revelry. The repentant Graeme next "turned his face unto the wall," while "death with him was dealin'," and he bids his friends, " 'Adieu,'" telling them "'to be kind to Barbara Allan.'"
The seventh stanza gains emotional momentum through repetition and an alliteration and rhythm especially pleasing to the ear:
And slowly, slowly, rase she up, And slowly, slowly left him; And sighing said she could not stay, Since death of life had reft him, with the term reft, probably a shortened form of bereft, meaning "deprived."
As the ballad concludes Barbara starts back toward her home, hearing "the dead-bell knellin'," with the bell personified, crying, " 'Woe to Barbara Allan!'" In the final verse Barbara says,
"o mother, mother, make my bed, o make it soft and narrow: Since my love died for me today, I'll die for him tomorrow."
The narrow bed evokes imagery of a grave, while calling on the allusion to death as sleep.
While Bonny Barbara Allan recalls a tragic scene, it is not without an edgy wit. Because Barbara is labeled Bonny she remains an attractive woman, probably still in her prime, an arguable truth because she refers to Graeme as "young man." As the well-resourced aristocrat, he could take her for granted, something she obviously does not. He tells her, " 'o it's I'm sick, and very, very sick, / And 'tis a' for Barbara Allan,'" but she does not accept that explanation. Her sarcasm is real when she counters, "'O the better for me ye sal [shall] never be, / Though your heart's blood were a-spillin'.'" The grief he now experiences over the loss of their relationship has no practical worth to a working girl like Barbara, a woman still living with her mother, and she basically tells him he offers too little too late. She also knows enough not to linger after Graeme's death, as a woman of her social status would not be welcome during the formal grieving rituals that would follow.
The final lines can be interpreted as expressing simply a sweet sentiment, that Barbara now has no reason to live, her love having died for her. However, they may also be seen as expressing irony. She did not fall down in a death swoon beside Graeme's bed but instead managed to walk home and delay her death for 24 hours. of the duo Graeme may have possessed the material power, but Barbara's strength and will, which may be seen as positive characteristics, obviously overshadow his. Her fate remains her own choice, emphasizing the fortitude of the working class over that of the wasteful aristocracy, as well as her rebellion against his treatment of her.
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