Since this poem's dialogue form is pretty darn obvious, you guys are about to roll your eyes in a minute. but bear with us. This poem, being a dialogue between mother and son, really sounds like a dialogue between mother and son. What we mean is, even though these characters are only barely sketched out, we can still hear their relationship in the way they speak to each other, formulaic and typical though it may be.
We can imagine Lord Randall's mother being any worried mom, whose questions grow more and more panicked as she realizes that her son has been murdered of all things (what happened to the normal kinds of mischief, like cutting class and shoplifting?). Lord Randall, like anyone who's just suffered a terrible heartbreak (and been poisoned, to boot), responds with a kind of depressing quietness, as though he can't bear to tell his loving mother the truth.
While the mother's lines seem more dramatic and fraught with emotion, Lord Randall's lines are equally emotional because they express the dreadful weariness and sadness of betrayal. A perfect example is the heart-wrenching finale to this ballad, in lines 17-20:
"O I fear ye are poisoned, Lord Randall my son!
O I fear ye are poisoned, my handsome young man!"
"O yes, I am poisoned: mother, make my bed soon,
For I'm sick at the heart, and I fain wald lie down."
We can just hear the hysterical panic of Lord Randall's mother, but then he answers with a calm resignation that's a whole lot more effective and a whole lot more of a bummer than it would be if he'd freaked out. Also, remember that this poem would have originally been performed to music: imagine two actors singing this song in highly dramatic, maybe even over-the-top, tragic fashion, à la Broadway musical… and now we're picturing a very special Renaissance episode of Glee. So there's that.
To be fair, this poem can be found in many different forms, under many different names. The simplest and most common among them is plain old "Lord Randall," though in other versions, the main character's name might be different (it's sometimes Lord Ronald or Donald, or King Henry, or in the Italian version of this ballad, the title is simply "L'avvelenato," or "The Poisoned Man," which kind of gives away the whole thing from the get-go). Generally, though, this poem is referred to by the name of the tragic young man whose story it tells. Simple enough.
We can't really offer much in terms of setting except to say that it's vaguely Medieval, and, in this version, vaguely Scottish. You know, Braveheart-type stuff, like half-timbered cottages and wind-swept barren heaths. Based on his name, we assume that Lord Randall is a young nobleman, so personally, we imagine him coming home to a castle after a long day's hunt. He says that he's been to the "wild wood," which to us suggests a kind of Robin Hood-y setting, complete with bows and arrows, horses, and long, swishy cloaks.
Beyond that, there's really nothing else to go on. Not that it matters. If we're being honest, we'll tell you that the setting is all but irrelevant in this poem, which is part of its timeless appeal. Though it's specifically the story of a Medieval or Renaissance-era nobleman, it's also a tragic tale that we could plop down in any period and have it make sense (and hey, wasn't this story on a episode of Revenge?). Actually, part of what makes ballads and other folk songs such enduring favorites is this ability to imagine their timeless themes (like love, hate, death, et cetera) in any contemporary moment. In fact, various other folk song versions of this poem do transfer it to other times and places, depending on the singer.
Young Lord Randall, like many a young lad, isn't exactly the most forthcoming son. His mother has to coax his story out of him one question at a time (to which his answers are anything but clear). But this is way more than your average case of teenage silence. Here, it seems that our protagonist is suffering from a severe case of avoidance.
You know when something bad happens, and you don't want to talk about it because that would make it seem more real? We feel like that's sort of what's happening to poor Randall here. Instead of busting in and saying, "Mom, call 911! My girlfriend poisoned me, and my little dogs, too!" he draws out this tale of woe, and only admits the truth in the very end: he's been sorely betrayed by the one he loves, and to say it out loud seems to make it even more painful, for both him and us.
This method of storytelling reveals a lot about the teller. Lord Randall, it seems, is more of a lover than a fighter; instead of demanding vengeance right away, he draws out the story, so that the focus is ultimately his profound sadness (and weariness, to boot), not his anger. While some other versions of the ballad end in a more bloodthirsty fashion, with Lord Randall wishing hell and brimstone and various other punishments upon his murderous girlfriend, the classic version of the ballad that we're working with simply ends on this melancholy note of heartbreak. He lingers not on the act of poisoning—bless his heart—but instead chooses to focus on the emotional betrayal here.
A more pragmatic and literal-minded hero might have said something more straightforward (and less catchy) at the end, like "make my bed soon / for I'm sick in the gut, and am probably going to croak any minute," but that's just not Lord Randall's style. His insistence upon his weariness throughout the poem shows that he has come to terms with the major fact that he's about to die, but the thing he just can't get over the "sickness" of his lover's betrayal.
Okay, you got us. We don't have much to say here. It's not like Lord Randall's Mother is a fully fleshed out character. And you can tell from her name (or lack thereof) that she's not exactly a real person. She's more like a tool of information; she's there to express concern and ask a ton of questions, so we can know what Lord Randall's been up to. We don't know anything about her, except that she's his mom, and frankly, we don't really need to. This poem may be a dialogue, but it's all Lord Randall's show, as far as we're concerned.
We never actually meet this lady, but we know that she's a real… piece of work. Lord Randall's mysterious, poisoning girlfriend is the mysterious villainess of this poem, though we don't discover this until the last lines. She's the cause of his ambiguous sadness throughout (indicated by his emphasis on his exhaustion in his oft-repeated refrain), and all we know about her is that he loves her, but she clearly doesn't love him (or if she does, she has a right strange way of showing it). The fact that we don't have any motive for her motive of her supposed true love makes her all the more villainous. Boo! Hiss!
Yes, this poem is super old. Yes, it looks confusing at first glance, what with all the repetition and everything. However, once you realize that it's a pretty straightforward story about a guy who's been betrayed, and imagine the set up of the scene (Lord Randall getting home from a long night and having a heart-to-heart with his worried mom), it gets a lot easier.
No heavy duty climbing on this one. Instead, it's more like a kind of grim walk on an overcast, wintry day. And it's snowing. And you just slipped on some black ice and bruised your tailbone. It's not that difficult, but it is pretty depressing.
To be fair, we have know idea who originally penned this poem, so it might be more than a little difficult—okay, impossible¬—to pin down a calling card for this poem's style and features. But we've got a ballad in Scottish dialect, which we can tell right off the bat, so that's enough to be getting on with Shmoop thinks.
Plus there's that whole question-and-answer format that this "Lord Randall" has got going on. This particular format does a lot more than give us a formal template for the poem. It also adds to the feeling of suspense and the building sense of melancholy that distinguishes "Lord Randall" from the rest of the ballads you might encounter on your travels along the Scottish moors.
Though this story could easily be told in a more straightforward way by a third person narrator, or by a single, first-person narrator, we gain a lot through the give-and-take of the dialogue form. We readers (or listeners) are in the position of Lord Randall's mother; we want to know what happened to him, and his cryptic, gradual answers only makes us feel more and more of her mounting concern.
Let's start with the easy part: this poem is actually a kind of song, called a ballad. For the most part, ballads are conventionally written in quatrains (stanzas or verses of four lines), which are sung to musical accompaniment. A lot of our pop songs even today follow this very same pattern.
Meter-wise, the ballad is a form that comes to us from oral tradition, which accounts for the fact that the meter of "Lord Randall" is a lot less precise than some other, more modern poems you may have read. Basically, these lines are written to fall within the more flexible rhythms of a song, and not to fit within the kinds of metrical patterns we often think of when scanning poems.
That means there isn't a consistent number of syllables per line, nor is there a clear pattern to the stresses and unstresses in each line. Basically, the only rule is that there are four stressed syllables per line (meaning this puppy's written in tetrameter), though they're distributed rather unevenly. Again, this is another thing that makes this poem more akin to a pop song than a more rigorous poetic form, like a sonnet or a villanelle. For example, if you read the poem aloud, you can hear the italicized words stand out more:
Oh where ha'e you been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh where ha'e you been, my handsome young man?
I've been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
For I'm weary wi' hunting and I fain would lie down.
While these lines aren't all the same length, the stanza achieves a kind of consistency by the fact that the stressed syllables create a solid rhythm that persists throughout the whole poem.
The rhyme scheme of this poem also provides a kind of formal backbone. You'll notice that all of the stanzas have the same four final words: son, man, soon, and down. These are basically paired in two couplets, based on the speakers. Lord Randall's mother's lines always end with "son" and "man," and while these words don't exactly rhyme, they are clearly a matched pair; they're what we call slant rhymes, which means that they look alike, but don't sound perfectly alike. The second couplet, Lord Randall's lines ending in "soon" and "down" actually do rhyme if they're pronounced with the requisite Scottish accent; "down" would originally have been pronounced "doon."
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the traditional ballad also has some particular stylistic quirks that are unique to it. The one that really stands out here is a little thing called incremental repetition. This phrase sounds oddly scientific, but really, it's pretty simple.
Basically, this means that there is repetition of a set of phrases throughout the song, and each one adds something to the story. A famous example of this formal tool is a song like "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (a lot of Christmas carols are folk songs with their roots in medieval culture, and thus follow the same ballad conventions that "Lord Randall" does). In that song, the cue "On the first (second, third, etc) day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…" is followed by a growing string of bizarre items—a list that grows incrementally, or bit by bit, with each repetition of the formula.
The same thing goes for "Lord Randall," though without the weird list of terrible presents (Seriously: do you really want six geese a'laying? We didn't think so. Seems like a hassle to Shmoop.). The formula here is the set of questions asked by Lord Randall's mother, followed by Lord Randall's response, which is always framed by his refrain. Every time mom asks a question, she uses the same formula, with slight changes; the same goes for her son's answers. As they go on and on with this formal back and forth, we learn more about the story bit by bit, until eventually, at the end, we know what has happened to poor Lord Randall.
Entering the world of "Lord Randall" can be a little disorienting. Being an older poem, with different literary conventions, it isn't necessarily that easy for us to access, if we read it like we'd read a more contemporary poem. It's not brimming with metaphors and similes, the way we've come to expect. Instead, it uses rather unexpected formal characteristics and bits of wordplay to make its point. So, what is that point? Well, at its heart, this is a poem about death, and the little figurative language that we find here has to do with the latter. And you can take everything else on the literal level.
Lord Randall's refrain occurs at the end of each stanza, and every time it does, its true meaning becomes clearer. While in the beginning, it seems that he actually means that he wants to go to bed because he's tuckered out from hunting, the answers that he gives to his mother's formulaic questions (an example of parallelism, by the way), all reveal that there's more going on than meets the eye.
The key to this revelation is the phrase "make my bed soon." It was something of a Medieval cliché to use this phrase as a euphemism for death. The "bed" referred to here can certainly refer to a normal bed, but it can also be a euphemism for a deathbed, or even a grave. In other ballads from the time, you'll often see speakers referring to beds, which usually means that someone's going to die. A particular cue is when a bed is "long and narrow" (like a coffin or a grave). A famous example of this trope occurs in the well-known folk song, "Barbara Allen." In our case, Lord Randall's weariness is not just due to hunting, but life itself. He's weary and "sick at heart" from his loved one's betrayal (oh yeah, and from poison), and he "fain wald lie down" not to sleep, but to die.
If we were able to somehow talk to poor Lord Randall himself, there's just one thing we'd say to warn him: in the immortal words of 90s rappers Bell Biv DeVoe, "That girl is poison!" Literally. Not only is poison a stand-in for the pains of love and betrayal, it's also a legit, non-metaphorical element here; through Lord Randall's fate, we begin to see that love itself can be poisonous, and even fatal. That is, if your main squeeze turns out to be a murderous wacko.
Though young Lord Randall makes reference to a special lady friend (his "true love," who turns out not to be so true after all), the raciest thing he admits to doing with this femme fatale is eating a dish of eels. Yes, we know that sounds a little fishy, but as far as we can tell, it's meant quite literally here.
Lord Randal's death-by-eel is often read as a reference to King Henry I of England, who is said to have died from eating too many lampreys in 1135. We'd guess that this is probably among the top ten most embarrassing celebrity deaths of all time.