Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ghost Lovers

Orpheus and Eurydice by Sir Edward John Poynter (19th century)
The last couple of posts (here, here, and here) have dealt with the way in which love and death are intertwined in Renaissance literature, provoking melodramatic liebestod finales to a host of 15th and 16th century narratives. In the process of considering these narratives in which the desire to love lead to a desire for death, however, I was reminded of the stories in which death failed to create an insurmountable boundary for the lovers. The surge in popularity of classical Greek mythology in humanist Renaissance Europe makes me think that it would not be a huge leap of faith to assume the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice was fresh in the minds of poets and authors composing sentimental romances.

Orpheus is prepared to descend to the underworld to bring back his lover, not accepting death as the final act of his love story. But in his refusal to accept Eurydice's death, he confirms its permanence, looking back over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of her ghost materializing behind him. In popular folk narratives, stories in which lovers return from the grave for one final visit are not uncommon. This "one final visit," I believe, can be seen to function in two ways. On the one hand, the ghost returns to comfort their lover and properly say goodbye. On the other hand, it affirms the finality and permanence of death's grip, ending with the ghost vanishing back into the realm of the dead.
Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (19th century)
Although none of the 15th century Iberian stories that I've looked at over the past week narrate a lover returned from the dead, I do recall an Irish folksong that my mother always used to sing when I was little. It is a night visiting song, in which the ghost of a young woman's lover who died at sea wakes her one night to say one last farewell.

Here is a nice version of the song:

A similar tale is recounted in "The Night Visiting Song" by Luke Kelly:

These are potent stories that emerge across many cultures and historical periods. I recently stumbled across a cajun-French song from Louisiana, "Pa Janvier," performed beautifully by the International Blues Express. The song is a sorrowful appeal to Father January (Pa Janvier), the allegorical figure for winter, whose icy cold wind stole the health and life of a young woman. The song is the lament of the young woman's lover who has survived her, and he pleads with Father January to return to him his love.

They were recorded doing the song by the 78 Project, a husband and wife duo traveling the country recording traditional musicians on a 78 recording machine, very much in the style of Alan Lomax. Take a listen to these incredible musicians (who hail from the American Delta and West Africa) perform the doleful tune for their recording session:

Do you know any night visiting songs? What are your favorite tales of ghost lovers?

Until next time - keep rustling!


  1. This is another of my favorites -- the great Sandy Denny singing "She Moves Through the Fair"

  2. There are also so many versions of Lady Margret and Sweet Williams Ghost. I can't seem to remember who sang my favorite version (that I might find it on youtube -- though there are plenty of versions there by others.) What I loved about the song, is that the ghost come to Margaret, begging to be freed of his "plighted trouth" of marriage. She refuses and instead makes demands of the ghost -- take me to my father's hall, as they go at midnight of course) the "gares flew open" so that they couple may pass and she will be married. Once the ghost has fulfilled his promise to marry her, they go to the church and she lays her hands "upon his breast" giving back his plighted and asking the ghost to find rest in heaven. It is never sure to me whether it is the longing of the woman or the ghost to finish the undone task that holds him to the earth. You can hear a lovely and very slow version from Kate Rusby here:

    You might also look at the classic "The Unquiet Grave" which I learned as a kid from Joan Baez (so many beautiful versions of this ou there too). Here it is more about the yearning of the living disturbing the rest of the dead (and the suggestion that such a path will lead to dead oof the yearner.)

  3. Ugh...sorry about all the typos! "The gates" flew open so that the couple may pass...