The Wife of Ushers Well

Posted: July 21, 2006 in Literature
Tags: ,

The Wife of Ushers Well portrays the very unusual (and only therefore worth portraying) return of three ghosts to the everyday world. The ordinariness of their former home is emphasized to heighten the extraordinariness of the presence of the very earthly and palpable but nevertheless otherworldly ghosts. Since we cannot take them as seriously as probably the poet and certainly the Wifdid, our interest is likely to be fixed rather on the world they returned to. Even then what we want is to see how it compares with our own familiar world.

The Wife appears to be the matriarch of a farm whose men-servants are either absent or not worth mentioning; her property includes barn and byre, her wealth deriving, evidently, from corn and cows, and she is rich enough to send her sons over the sea: for what purpose we can only guess, but she calls all the shots. It is a world of syke and sheugh (marsh and ditch, or seed-furrow), and certainly not Paradise, where the ghosts’ birch hats come from. It is a world where people sleep three to a bed, where time is measured by cocks, not clocks, where water is fetched by women from a well, not turned on and off at a pipe, where cooking is done not in a microwave oven but by maidens blowing up a fire. It is a world of sooty or muddy maidservants subservient to their mistress, but one where class distinctions do not prevent the bonny ones attracting her sons.

The fact that much of the poem is taken up with showing that people ate and slept in those days probably does not much interest us, for so do we; but we would like to be told what the feast specially prepared to celebrate the return of the lost sons consisted of, and what was entailed in making a large wide bed for the three of them. How high was it, when their mother sat down and later slept beside it, wrapped in her mantle against the cold of murky November?

But the strangest (and therefore to us most interesting) aspect of the everyday is surely the folk religion that made so little of the separation between dead and living which seems so fundamental nowadays. We know the dead do not come back. The Wife not only didn’t, but somehow had the power to bring them back, if only, and tragically, for a short time.

“I wish the wind May never cease, Nor fashes in the flood,

Till my three sons come hame to me,

In earthly flesh and blood!”

And about Martinmas they did. Just as well, or the weather would have remained intolerable. Was her wish a prayer? Was her prayer a curse? To whom did she offer it: to the spirit of Ushers Well? Then what idea did the name of the feast of St Martin convey to her? We may wonder how faithfully the poem represents not only contemporary social conditions, but also popular belief. It does not seem unreasonable to infer that everyday, carline (rural) belief in the supernatural was sub-Christian, related to seasons and weather, and absurdly inconsistent. If the sons drowned, why do they fear the channerin’ worm? If they have qualified for hats from beside the gates of Paradise, why would they be punished with a sair pain for staying out after cockcrow? Nobody seems to recognize them as ghosts: there is nothing ethereal about such everyday mortals as they appear to be. Does this mean that everyday religion made little of the body-soul dichotomy familiar from contemporary preaching and debates?

Perhaps we prefer our own everyday explanation. We note that the Wife was no infidel. She believed until she saw, and then refused to believe that what she saw was not the everyday that she had always seen before her sons departed. To us this will appear a case of mind over matter, which we can explain psychologically; denial of reality to the point of hallucination under the pressure of bereavement.

  1. hiro says:

    One cannot help think you’re missing the nuances here somewhat, probably because of your reading of Wife in a modern sense. The intention is more probably to use Wife in the archaic terminology meaning simply ‘woman’, albeit one of more subtstantial age and means and by implication here a business woman of some description. The natural default interpretation would actually be Alewife – a very common occupation for a widow in the late medieval/early modern period that would often lead to significant wealth – certainly of the level where she could afford to send her sons away to better themselves. The final reference to barn and byre might suggest a farm, but that is by no means conclusive given the ubiquity of such in any large household of the period.
    The core of the song is really the common folk superstition that the living should not morne the dead for too long else they prevent the dead from moving on – the traditional time is often given as a year and a day. The dead here come back to force their mother to accept their death and allow them to proceed onwards, and this interpretation is undelined by the birch hats – in folk superstition a tree that protects the dead from the living (yes, that is the right way around).
    Incidentally the metion of clay and grass isn’t really inconsistant as the boys were sent over the sea (at least in most versions) not to sea.

  2. pam says:

    A carline wife is an old woman. A carle is a male peasant (as in the Carles o Dysart).
    Their hats come from the gates of paradise, so they are still outside, in Purgatory, presumably (although it doesn’t say which side of the gates, I suppose!) so they need to move on. I think they are farmers, as the birk is not found in syke nor ditch, nor sheuch, all of which are farming terms for the various parts of a field, and other terms would have been used if they had had a different occupation. The boys as revenants is part of the beliefs surrounding Halloween, which was the same date as Martinmas in the old calendar, 11th November.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s