What Is a Summary of “Sir Patrick Spens”?

In the ballad “Sir Patrick Spens,” the king of Scotland sends Sir Patrick Spens, a great sailor, on an errand in a ship, and at some point the ship sinks, killing Spens and his noble crew. Different versions of the poem exist, but they all agree on this basic plot.

In some versions of the poem, Spens’ mission is to bring Margaret, the daughter of the king of Norway, to Scotland, while other versions don’t mention his mission’s purpose. When asked to perform this royal errand, Spens first reacts with amused laughter and then with tears, saying, “O wha is this has done this deed, / This ill deed done to me, / To send me out this time o’ the year, / To sail upon the sea?” He knows that the trip is potentially fatal.

In some versions, Spens makes it to Norway, and after spending some time there, he sales for home, meeting his doom on the return voyage. In other versions, he meets his doom on the outward voyage. In most versions, a member of his crew warns against the trip, noting that he “‘saw the new moon / Wi’ the old moon in his arm.” This astronomical phenomenon foretells potential storms. The warning proves true. By the end of the poem, Sir Patrick Spens and the Scottish nobles sailing with him lie “fifty fathoms deep” at the bottom of the sea.