by Club Members
Robert Burns’ "The Banks o’ Doon" treats a theme that goes back at least to the middle ages -- a theme of sadness in the midst of burgeoning spring. Consider this example from the goliardic "Carmina Burana," from the 1300s:
The noble forest is blooming
with blossoms and leaves.
But where is that old
lover of mine?
He’s galloped away!
Oh no! Now who will love me?
The tradition continues after Burns. One good example from the last century is the beginning of T. S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land":
Of course, this theme in song and literature is not just a hollow symbol or a silly device. It is well known that most suicides occur in spring. The reason for this, psychologists tell us, is that many people suffering from depression in winter tell themselves that they are going to feel better once the weather becomes more hospitable. Then spring comes, and there is still no relief in sight.
The Banks o’ Doon is actually the third of three different versions of the same song -- the first being Sweet Are the Banks, and the second being Ye Flowery Banks. The three versions give us a rare glimpse at Robert Burns in the midst of the creative process.
Burns sent the first version in a letter dated 11 March 1791 to Alexander Cunningham, saying that it should be sung to a reel called "Ballendoch’s Reel" or "Cambdelmore." This same tune is also known as "Gordon Castle".
The second version was sent in an undated letter to John Ballentine of Ayr, and uses the same tune as the first.
The third and most well known version of the song was published in The Scots Musical Museum in 1792, and this version uses a different air than that of the first two -- a slowed-down reel called The Caledonian Hunt’s Delight. In a letter dated November 1794 to George Thomson, Burns has this to say about the melody:
However, James Chalmers Dick points out that the tune’s origin and nationality have been disputed over the years.
John Ashmead and John Davison say of the melody: "The meandering shape of the tune can perhaps suggest, as a muted but audible background, the warbling birdsong referred to in the song, and even the meandering nature of the stream."
The stream in all three songs is, of course, the River Doon, near Alloway, Burns’ birthplace. It is also the river that the protagonist of Tam o’ Shanter has to cross with his mare in order to escape the witches of "Alloway’s auld haunted kirk."
The "woodbine" in all three songs is also known as the honeysuckle. Its woody stems wrap or "twine" clockwise upwards around anything in their path -- hence its botanical name caprifolium, "goat leaf", for its ability to climb like a goat.
"But my fause Luver staw my rose" (as it is phrased in the first version is suggestive of deflowering, and this is reinforced by the lines that follow in the first version: "Sae I flourished on the morn, / And sae was pu’d or noon!"
By the second version of the song, the abandoned lass is addressing the banks of the river as well as the birds, and the lines, "How can ye blume sae fair? / How can ye chant, ye little birds, / And I sae fu’ o care?" add an emotional depth that was lacking in the first version.
William Ernest Henley says, rather nastily, that Burns’s third version of the song, "being the worst, is naturally the most popular."
I suspect that Burns reworked the song one last time simply because he preferred the melody, "The Caledonian Hunt’s Delight," to "Ballendoch’s Reel," and wished to make the words fit this new air. All lines now have four beats each instead of the four/three/four/three of the earlier versions. At the same time, this version is actually the shortest of the three.
Besides changing the melody, Burns seizes the opportunity for a few subtle additions. It is in this version that Burns first uses "wantons," which means "frolics," but also adds to the atmosphere of sexual wantonness. Likewise, having both "rose and woodbine twine" is more suggestive of a couple getting entwined.
In the first and second versions, there are the lines: "But my fause Luver staw my rose, / And left the thorn wi’ me." In the third, Burns changes these to: "And my fause lover staw my rose, / But left the thorn wi’ me" -- the transposition of "and" and "but" in this last version being slightly more suggestive of thoughtlessness, of getting "caught up in the moment" of lust, before being left with "the thorn" of solitude, and also, probably, "the thorn" of an unwanted pregnancy.
Furthermore, in this last version, Burns adds the word "fondly." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "fond" still retained its older meaning of "foolish" in Burns’ time -- thus suggesting the "wist na o’ my fate" of the earlier versions.
Finally, in this version, the "fause Luver" is not mentioned until later in the song, thus piquing our curiosity as to why the lass is so sad in such a happy setting. One of the functions of a ballad, after all, is to tell a story -- and here Burns as a balladeer is at his best.
I must therefore disagree with Henley’s assertion that Burns’ third version of "The Banks o’ Doon" is the worst of the three versions of the song. Though a certain amount of tinkering was clearly necessary to make the words fit the change of melody, the song has everything that the other two versions have, while adding a few masterful finishing touches.