The "Lyke-Wake Dirge
" is a traditional English song that tells of the soul
A soul in certain spiritual, philosophical, and psychological traditions is the incorporeal essence of a person or living thing or object. Many philosophical and spiritual systems teach that humans have souls, and others teach that all living things and even inanimate objects have souls. The...
's travel, and the hazards it faces, on its way from earth to Heaven
Heaven, the Heavens or Seven Heavens, is a common religious cosmological or metaphysical term for the physical or transcendent place from which heavenly beings originate, are enthroned or inhabit...
. Though the song is from the Christian
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...
era and features references to Christianity much of the symbolism is thought to be of heathen origin.
The title refers to the watch over the dead between the death and funeral, known as a wake
A wake is a ceremony associated with death. Traditionally, a wake takes place in the house of the deceased, with the body present; however, modern wakes are often performed at a funeral home. In the United States and Canada it is synonymous with a viewing...
. "Lyke" is an obsolete word meaning a dead body, and is related to the German word leiche
and the Dutch word lijk
, which have the same meaning. It survives in modern English in the expression lych gate
, the roofed gate at the entrance to a churchyard, where, in former times, bodies were placed before burial, and the fictional undead monster type lich
In modern fantasy fiction, a lich is a type of undead creature. Often such a creature is the result of a transformation, as a powerful magician or king striving for eternal life uses spells or rituals to bind his intellect to his animated corpse and thereby achieve a form of immortality...
. "Lyke-wake" could also be from the Norse influence on the Yorkshire dialect: the contemporary Norwegian and Swedish words for "wake" are still "likvake" and "likvaka" respectively("lik" and "vaka"/"vake" with the same meanings as previously described for "lyke" and "wake").
The song is written in an old form of the Yorkshire dialect
The Yorkshire dialect refers to the varieties of English used in the Northern England historic county of Yorkshire. Those varieties are often referred to as Broad Yorkshire or Tyke. The dialect has roots in older languages such as Old English and Old Norse; it should not be confused with modern slang...
of Northern English
Northern English is a group of dialects of the English language. It includes the North East England dialects, which are similar in some respects to Scots....
. It goes:
- THIS ae nighte, this ae nighte,
A refrain is the line or lines that are repeated in music or in verse; the "chorus" of a song...
: Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
—Refrain: And Christe receive thy saule.
- When thou from hence away art past
Gorse, furze, furse or whin is a genus of about 20 plant species of thorny evergreen shrubs in the subfamily Faboideae of the pea family Fabaceae, native to western Europe and northwest Africa, with the majority of species in Iberia.Gorse is closely related to the brooms, and like them, has green...
-muir thou com'st at last
- If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Sit thee down and put them on;
- If hosen and shoon thou ne'er gav'st nane
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane.
- From Whinny-muir when thou may'st pass,
To Brig o' Dread
Brig of Dread or Bridge of Dread is a bridge to Purgatory that a dead soul had to cross. Evil souls fall from the bridge into hell. This is a common afterlife theme found in some form or other in many cultures....
thou com'st at last;
- From Brig o' Dread when thou may'st pass,
Purgatory is the condition or process of purification or temporary punishment in which, it is believed, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for Heaven...
fire thou com'st at last;
- If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
- If meat or drink thou ne'er gav'st nane,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
- This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
—Every nighte and alle,
Fire and sleet and candle-lighte,
—And Christe receive thy saule.
- Note: ae: one; hosen: stockings; shoon: shoes; whinnes: thorns; bane: bone; brig: bridge
The safety and comfort of the soul in faring over the hazards it faces in the afterlife
The afterlife is the belief that a part of, or essence of, or soul of an individual, which carries with it and confers personal identity, survives the death of the body of this world and this lifetime, by natural or supernatural means, in contrast to the belief in eternal...
, are in the old ballad made contingent on the dead person's willingness to participate in the sorts of charity
In Christian theology charity, or love , means an unlimited loving-kindness toward all others.The term should not be confused with the more restricted modern use of the word charity to mean benevolent giving.- Caritas: altruistic love :...
mentioned in Matthew
The Gospel According to Matthew is one of the four canonical gospels, one of the three synoptic gospels, and the first book of the New Testament. It tells of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth...
25:31-46. The poem was first collected by John Aubrey
John Aubrey FRS, was an English antiquary, natural philosopher and writer. He is perhaps best known as the author of the collection of short biographical pieces usually referred to as Brief Lives...
in 1686, who also recorded that it was being sung in 1616, but it is believed to be much older.
There would appear to be a lacuna
A lacunaPlural lacunae. From Latin lacūna , diminutive form of lacus . is a gap in a manuscript, inscription, text, painting, or a musical work...
in the version that Aubrey collected. Unlike the preceding and following pairs of stanzas, nothing happens at the Brig o' Dread. Richard Blakeborough, in his Wit, Character, Folklore, and Customs of the North Riding
, fills this apparent gap with verses he says were in use in 1800, and which seem likely to be authentic:
- If ivver thoo gav o' thy siller an' gowd,
At t' Brig o' Dreead thoo'll finnd foothod,
- Bud if siller an' gowd thoo nivver gav nean,
Thoo'll doan, doon tum'le towards Hell
In many religious traditions, a hell is a place of suffering and punishment in the afterlife. Religions with a linear divine history often depict hells as endless. Religions with a cyclic history often depict a hell as an intermediary period between incarnations...
- Note: siller: silver; gowd: gold; foothod: foothold
In this version, the Brig o' Dread is the decisive ordeal that determines whether the soul's destination is Heaven or Hell.
This ballad was one of 25 traditional works included in Ballads Weird and Wonderful
(1912) and illustrated by Vernon Hill (sculptor)
Vernon Hill was a sculptor, lithographer and Illustrator.-Biography:Vernon Hill was born in Halifax and undertook formal training in print-making from an early age, being apprenticed as a lithographer in his early teen....
of this tale also appears in The Well of the World's End
The Well of the World's End is an Anglo-Scottish Border fairy tale, recorded in the Scottish Lowlands, collected by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales. His source was The Complaynt of Scotland,and he notes the tale's similarity to the German Frog Prince...
as the "Muir o' Heckle-pins"
Fire and fleet
Aubrey's version of the words includes fire and fleet
, rather than fire and sleet
, and this is also how it appears in the Oxford Book of English Verse
. F.W. Moorman, in his book on Yorkshire dialect poetry, explains that fleet
and references the OED
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...
. He also notes that the expression Aboute the fyre upon flet
appears in the mediaeval story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance outlining an adventure of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. In the poem, Sir Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious warrior who is completely green, from his clothes and hair to his...
and explains that "Fire and fleet and candle-light
are a summary of the comforts of the house, which the dead person still enjoys for this ae night
, and then goes out into the dark and cold."
Versions and performances
The poem has been recorded a number of times as a song. Benjamin Britten
Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM CH was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. He showed talent from an early age, and first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy Was Born in 1934. With the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes in 1945, he leapt to...
set it to music as a part of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is a song cycle written in 1943 by the English composer Benjamin Britten, scored for tenor accompanied by a solo horn and a small string orchestra...
in 1943, and, in his Cantata on Old English Texts of 1952, Igor Stravinsky
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky ; 6 April 1971) was a Russian, later naturalized French, and then naturalized American composer, pianist, and conductor....
uses individual verses as interludes between the longer movements. English composer Geoffrey Burgon
Geoffrey Alan Burgon was a British composer notable for his television and film themes.-Life and career:Burgon was born in Hampshire in 1941, and taught himself the trumpet in order to join a jazz band at school...
wrote a duet (This Eane Night) for two countertenors (recorded by James Bowman
James Thomas Bowman CBE is a famous countertenor born in Oxford, England. His career spans opera, oratorio, contemporary music and solo recitals. In 2010 it was announced that he would give his last London concert in 2011 at the Wigmore Hall, although will continue to give recitals outside the...
and Charles Brett
Sir Charles Edward Bainbridge Brett CBE . Born in Holywood, County Down, was a Northern Irish solicitor, journalist, author and founding member, and first chairman, of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society...
)with words altered slightly to fit the canonical single melody, the second countertenor starting one bar behind the first. At the end of each versicle the line rises by a semitone producing an eerie and climactic ending on top D before dropping back down to the starting tone.
A version with a different tune (but with the "fire and fleet" version of the lyrics) was collected by the folk song collector, Hans Fried, from the singing of "an old Scottish lady", Peggy Richards. The Young Tradition
The Young Tradition were a British folk group of the 1960s, formed by Peter Bellamy, Royston Wood and Heather Wood. They recorded three albums of mainly traditional British folk music, sung in arrangements for their three unaccompanied voices.-Biography:...
used this version for their a cappella
A cappella music is specifically solo or group singing without instrumental sound, or a piece intended to be performed in this way. It is the opposite of cantata, which is accompanied singing. A cappella was originally intended to differentiate between Renaissance polyphony and Baroque concertato...
recording on their 1965 debut album, using quite a primitive harmonisation, in which two of the vocal parts move in parallel fifths. The folk band Pentangle
Pentangle are a British folk rock band with some folk jazz influences. The original band were active in the late 1960s and early 1970s and a later version has been active since the early 1980s...
performed a version on their 1969 album Basket of Light
Basket of Light is a 1969 album by the folk rock group Pentangle. It reached #5 on the UK charts largely on the basis of the single "Light Flight" , the theme from BBC1's first colour drama series Take Three Girls.-A side:-B side:...
, using the same tune as The Young Tradition, but elaborating the arrangement. Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie, OC is a Canadian Cree singer-songwriter, musician, composer, visual artist, educator, pacifist, and social activist. Throughout her career in all of these areas, her work has focused on issues of Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Her singing and writing repertoire includes...
also included this song on her 1967 album Fire & Fleet & Candlelight
Fire & Fleet & Candlelight was the fourth album by Cree singer and songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie.More than its predecessor Little Wheel Spin and Spin, it marked a significant departure from the simple folk songs of her first two albums...
. Most later renditions of the song use the Richards-Fried melody; these include versions by Steeleye Span
Steeleye Span are an English folk-rock band, formed in 1969 and remaining active today. Along with Fairport Convention they are amongst the best known acts of the British folk revival, and were among the most commercially successful, thanks to their hit singles "Gaudete" and "All Around My Hat"....
, the Mediaeval Baebes (titled 'This Ay Nicht') and Alasdair Roberts. The annual Spiral Dance in San Francisco has reclaimed the song's pagan roots, changing the refrain to "May earth receive thy soul". This version can be found on [Let It Begin Now: Music from the Spiral Dance].
Maddy Prior is an English folk singer, best known as the lead vocalist of Steeleye Span.-Early life:...
, writing in the liner notes to the Steeleye Span retrospective Spanning the Years
, drily characterizes the song's countercultural appeal, in describing one 1970s performance:
5 nights at the LA Forum with Jethro Tull
Jethro Tull are a British rock group formed in 1967. Their music is characterised by the vocals, acoustic guitar, and flute playing of Ian Anderson, who has led the band since its founding, and the guitar work of Martin Barre, who has been with the band since 1969.Initially playing blues rock with...
. We were opening our set at the time with the Lyke Wake Dirge, a grim piece of music from Yorkshire concerning pergatory [sic] and we all dressed in dramatic mummers ribbons with tall hats. The effect was stunning. 5 gaunt figures in line across the front of the stage, lit from below casting huge shadows, intoning this insistent dirge alarmed some members of the audience whose reality was already tampered with by 1970s substances. It was most satisfying.
"Lyke-Wake Dirge" is sometimes considered a ballad
A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads were particularly characteristic of British and Irish popular poetry and song from the later medieval period until the 19th century and used extensively across Europe and later the Americas, Australia and North Africa. Many...
, but unlike a ballad it is lyric
Lyric poetry is a genre of poetry that expresses personal and emotional feelings. In the ancient world, lyric poems were those which were sung to the lyre. Lyric poems do not have to rhyme, and today do not need to be set to music or a beat...
rather than narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...
Allusions to the song
The Lyke Wake Walk
The Lyke Wake Walk was started by a local farmer, Bill Cowley, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England, in 1955. He claimed that one could walk over the North York Moors from east to west on heather all the way except for crossing one or two roads and he issued a challenge that walkers took up...
is a 40-mile walking route across the North York Moors
The North York Moors is a national park in North Yorkshire, England. The moors are one of the largest expanses of heather moorland in the United Kingdom. It covers an area of , and it has a population of about 25,000...
, first popularised in 1955 and named after the Lyke Wake Dirge.
The Lyke Wake Dirge was also invoked in Antonia Forest
Antonia Forest was the pseudonym of a British children's author who was christened Patricia Giulia Caulfield Kate Rubinstein...
's 1959 novel End of Term
End of Term is a book by British children's author Antonia Forest, published in 1959. End of Term is the fourth Marlow book, between Falconer's Lure and Peter's Room.-Plot introduction:...
and Diana Wynne Jones
Diana Wynne Jones was a British writer, principally of fantasy novels for children and adults, as well as a small amount of non-fiction...
's novel Deep Secret
Deep Secret is a 1997 novel by Diana Wynne Jones. It is the first in the Magid series.-Plot:The multiverse, shaped like a lemniscate, contains Ayeward and Nayward worlds. It is the task of the magids to urge the worlds in an Ayewards direction. In Ayeward worlds, magids can operate openly...
, "When Will There Be Good News?" by Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson MBE is an English author.She was born in York, and studied English Literature at the University of Dundee, gaining her Masters Degree in 1974. She subsequently studied for a doctorate in American Literature. She has often spoken publicly about the fact that she failed at the viva ...
, as well as Neil Gaiman
Neil Richard Gaiman born 10 November 1960)is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. His notable works include the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book...
's 1999 fantasy Neverwhere
Neverwhere is an urban fantasy television series by Neil Gaiman that first aired in 1996 on BBC Two. The series is set in "London Below", a magical realm coexisting with the more familiar London, referred to as "London Above". It was devised by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry, and directed by Dewi...
and Arnold Wesker
Sir Arnold Wesker is a prolific British dramatist known for his contributions to kitchen sink drama. He is the author of 42 plays, 4 volumes of short stories, 2 volumes of essays, a book on journalism, a children's book, extensive journalism, poetry and other assorted writings...
's 1962 play Chips With Everything
. It is used, with one major modification, by members of the Chantry Guild in Gordon Dickson's 1962 science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...
. There, in keeping with their philosophy of universal destruction, the Chantry Guild changes the second refraine from "And Christe receive thy saule" to "Destruction take thee alle."