The Daily

The Poem Stuck in My Head

Sir George Douglas’s “The Strange Visitor”

January 16, 2013 | by

When my brother and I were small, our parents would read to us each evening. When it was my mother’s turn, she generally read poetry. I don’t know from which children’s collection she read, but it was terrifying: in particularly heavy rotation (at my request) were “Don’t Care,” in which the insouciant protagonist is made to care by being “put in a pot / and boiled til he was done,” “Ozymandias” (I found the idea of the head lying in the sand frightening), and my favorite, “Strange Visitor.”

When I decided to find the poem online, I came across several variations; in the original, compiled by the folklorist Sir George Douglas, the dialect is Scottish; in other adaptations (including that anthologized by George Jacobs) more modern English. The plot is always the same: a woman, sitting at her spinning wheel, wishes for company. A series of mismatched, disembodied parts come in—knees, shoulders, neck, hands—and the figure gives a series of gnomic answers to her questions. “What have you come for?” she asks at last. “FOR YOU!” the reader shouts, leaving any listening children in a state of blissful petrification. The following is Douglas’s transcription, and his stage directions.

A WIFE, was sitting at her reel ae night;
   And aye she sat, and aye she reeled, and aye she wished for company.

In came a pair o’ braid braid soles, and sat down at the fireside;
   And aye she sat, etc.

In came a pair o’ sma’ sma’ legs, and sat down on the braid braid soles;
   And aye she sat, etc.

 

In came a pair o’ muckle muckle knees, and sat down on the sma’ sma’ legs;
   And aye she sat, etc.

In came a pair o’ sma’ sma’ thees, and sat down on the muckle muckle knees;
   And aye she sat, etc.

In came a pair o’ muckle muckle hips, and sat down on the sma’ sma’ thees;
   And aye she sat, etc.

In came a sma’ sma’ waist, and sat down on the muckle muckle hips;
   And aye she sat, etc.

In came a pair o’ braid braid shouthers, and sat down on the sma’ sma’ waist;
   And aye she sat, etc.

In came a pair o’ sma’ sma’ arms, and sat down on the braid braid shouthers;
   And aye she sat, etc.

In came a pair o’ muckle muckle hands, and sat down on the sma’ sma’ arms;
   And aye she sat, etc.

In came a sma’ sma’ neck, and sat down on the braid braid shouthers;
   And aye she sat, etc.

 

In came a great big head, and sat down on the sma’ sma’ neck.

“What way hae ye sic braid braid feet?” quo’ the wife.
“Muckle ganging, muckle ganging” (gruffly).
“What way hae ye sic sma’ sma’ legs?”
Aih-h-h!--late--and wee-e-e--moul” (whiningly).
What way hae ye sic muckle muckle knees?
“Muckle praying, muckle praying” (piously).
“What way hae ye sic sma’ sma’ thees?”
“Aih-h-h!--late--and wee-e-e--moul” (whiningly).
“What way hae ye sic big big hips?
“Muckle sitting, muckle sitting” (gruffly).
“What way hae ye sic a sma’ sma’ waist?”
“Aih-h-h!--late--and wee-e-e--moul” (whiningly).
“What way hae ye sic braid braid shouthers?”
“Wi’ carrying broom, wi’ carrying broom” (gruffly)
“What way hae ye sic sma’ sma’ arms?
“Aih-h-h!--late--and wee-e-e--moul” (whiningly).
“What way hae ye sic muckle muckle hands? “
“Threshing wi’ an iron flail, threshing wi’ an iron flail” (gruffly.)
“What way hae ye sic a sma’ sma’ neck?
“Aih-h-h!--late--and wee-e-e--moul” (whiningly).
“What way hae ye sic a muckle muckle head?
“Muckle wit, muckle wit (keenly).
“What do you come for?

“FOR YOU!” (At the top of the voice, with a wave of the arm and a stamp of the feet.)

The poem’s theme—that of Death, or the devil, coming to claim a soul—is not uncommon in folklore. It is sometimes called the coming for the dying story. I think what made this version particularly terrifying to me as a child (well, beyond the obvious) is the fact that the woman in question doesn’t seem to have done anything. At least in “The Golden Arm,” crimes have been committed; in “Rumpelstiltskin” or Faust stories, covenants have been broken. And she doesn’t seem ill; at least, she’s well enough to spin.

Spinning, of course, is loaded with its own connotations, dating back at least to the Fates. And the idea of outsized or grotesque physical features is also common in fairy tale and myth (“The Three Spinners,” after all, contains both.) But the combination here feels particularly sinister. Talking about the theme of claiming souls, in The Lore of Scotland, Jennifer Westwood writes that the idea may have been inspired by the witchcraft panic (ended by the Witchcraft Act of 1563.) If so, it explains some of the story’s menace.

But I don’t believe this is what so terrified me. Rather, it is the spinning woman’s implacability. The parade of body parts, and the obscure answers to her questions, and the periodic wailing—Aih-h-h!--late--and wee-e-e--moul—seem to phase her not at all. This in itself is horrifying; this is, well, normal. And then there is that refrain: And aye she sat, and aye she reeled, and aye she wished for company. Her wish for said company is such, it seems, that even the horrific is preferable to loneliness.

The pleasure of hearing that poem arose from more than the satisfaction of strong emotion. It came from containment; from the fact that, after all, we could always turn on the light, and call for our parents if we got scared, and generally revel in the security of being well cared for. As an adult, it is easier to understand that aching loneliness is stronger even than fear. And that, whatever the historical and cultural trappings of a piece of folklore, there are reasons they persist.

5 COMMENTS

5 Comments

  1. Joe Carlson | January 16, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Not as creepy as the pure dialect but still….
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVkMBLd1Eho

  2. Joe | January 16, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    I’ve a feeling I’m going to be describing many things as “muckle muckle” in the next few days.

  3. Irene | January 17, 2013 at 7:52 am

    “Blissful petrification” is perfect.

  4. GZ | January 17, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Thanks Sadie. Here’s my very brief take on things: I imagine the woman of the poem lives a life of constant childbearing, rearing and ceaseless manual labor (threshing, spinning, sweeping). The deformities of the ‘the visitor’ echo the woman’s own body as her long labors have shaped it. She is not phased by the visitor because this isn’t simply fate, but her own fate. She recognizes those features which she herself has grown accustomed to in life and regards death as she does her own tired body.

  5. Sadie Stein | January 17, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    GZ, I love this take. I need to think on it, but fascinating.

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