Study Guide

Lord Randall

Lord Randall Summary

Plot-wise, there's both a lot and a little that goes on here. If we're going by the actual events of the poem, the summary is short and not-so-sweet: young man returns from hunting, and answers a round of questions from his mother.

The real story, however, is the cryptic narrative that Lord Randall offers in response to his mom's queries. He reveals that he went hunting, then had dinner with his special lady friend, who fed him a dish of eels in broth. His dogs, who probably ate some of the same food, died rather horribly. This leads Lord Randall's mother to the terrible conclusion that he has been poisoned, like the dogs.

Lord Randall confirms this, and, stating that he's "sick at heart," also confirms that it was his treacherous "true love" who poisoned him. Yikes. We discover at the end that his refrain, "make my bed soon" refers to the fact that he is "weary" because he's actually going to die soon (in olden days, talk of making beds or going to bed was often a way of referring to death, so the bed in question is either a deathbed or a grave, depending on circumstances).

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    "Oh where ha'e ye been, Lord Randall my son?
    O where ha'e ye been, my handsome young man?"

    • The first two lines establish the poem's formula: the mother asks questions to her son (her "handsome young man," which he answers in the second half of the stanza
    • Here, mom asks a pretty familiar question to most of us: "Where on earth have you been?" Of course, in this day and age, she'd probably follow that up with, "It's a school night!" 
    • But hey, at least she ends it with a compliment, calling her kiddo a "handsome young man." There's love there! Not just nagging.
    • Allow us one brief Scottish vocab explanation: "ha'e" is a contraction of "have," so every time you see it, you can make that substitution.

    Lines 3-4

    "I ha'e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
    For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

    • Lord Randall responds rather enigmatically, saying that he's been to the "wild wood." 
    • This place seems like it could either be exciting or ominous. Or both, as it turns out.
    • He asks his mama to make his bed, and then Lord Randall states the poem's refrain for the first time, which concludes stanzas 1-4. And keep an eye out for the notable change in Stanza 5.
    • In this original version of the refrain, he asks his mother to make his bed, because he's tired from hunting in the woods. Our suspicions might also be roused by this line. After all, Lord Randall is a bold young man, and his old ladyish complaint here seems a little out of place. Why is he so tired? What has he really been up to?
    • Another note on linguistic weirdness: "wi'," like "ha'e" is another contraction, this time for "with." While we're on this archaic word explaining kick, we should tell you that "I fain wald lie down" basically means "I'd really like to lie down"; "fain wald" is another old-fashioned, poetic way of stating desire. 
    • The gist here is that this dude is not in good shape after his time in the wild wood. Whatever happened there has tuckered him out—a lot.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 5-6

    "Where gat ye your dinner, Lord Randall my son?
    Where gat ye your dinner, my handsome young man?"

    • Lord Randall's somewhat nagging mom begins by asking another familiar parent-type question: "Where did you eat?" ("gat" being a Scottified version of "got"). Her son totally can't just head off to bed without having eaten.
    • Note how her questions follow the same formula, ending in "Lord Randall my son" and "my handsome young man." This is a classic trait of the British ballad form (for more on this, see "Form and Meter"). This kind of pattern is the same thing we see in a song like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," in which a formulaic set-up—for example, "On the nth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…"—helps us remember and keep track of the evolving list of things.
    • It's the same deal here.

    Lines 7-8

    "I dined wi' my true love; mother, make my bed soon,
    For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

    • Lord Randall, who's not exactly the most forthcoming of speakers, answers that he dined with his true love. That is, he had a dinner date with his special lady friend. His main squeeze. The love of his life.
    • And again, the refrain comes back. Get used to it, since it'll appear in every stanza. Again, the emphasis on Lord Randall's exhaustion jumps out at us. We don't know what's wrong with him yet, but we're getting a bad feeling about it.
    • After all, he is asking his mother to make his bed for him, right after he's saying he dined with his true love. Shouldn't he be less exhausted and more in a good mood?
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 9-10

    "What gat ye to your dinner, Lord Randall my son?
    What gat ye to your dinner, my handsome young man?"

    • So Lord Randall's nosy mother already asked where he ate dinner, and now she wants to know what he ate there.
    • When she says "what gat ye to your dinner," we would say "what did you get for dinner?" Pretty standard question.

    Lines 11-12

    "I gat eels boiled in broo: mother, make my bed soon,
    For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

    • Lord Randall's answer to his ma's pretty standard question may not seem so standard to us modern day readers. He responds that he ate "eels boiled in broo" (we imagine "broo" is a kind of broth. An archaic spelling of "brew," perhaps?). 
    • Though some of us may not be big eel fans, eels and their creepier suction-mouthed cousins, lampreys, were eaten with greater frequency in Medieval and Renaissance England, so a line that stands out to us as odd wouldn't have been back strange at all when this ballad was being sung. (And for an interesting eel-eating historical link regarding this line, take a look at the "Shout-outs" section.)
    • Then we get the same old song again—Lord Randall's refrain. Is this making you nervous yet? We mean, what does eating eels have to do with feeling so weary?
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 13-14

    "What became of your bloodhounds, Lord Randall my son?
    What became of your bloodhounds, my handsome young man?"

    • Lord Randall's mother notices that his dogs (bloodhounds are a kind of hunting dog) are missing. Where did they go?
    • More nagging questions from the mom. More worries for us readers.

    Lines 15-16

    "O they swelled and they died mother, make my bed soon,
    For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

    • Oh dear… the dogs, it turns out, met a terrible end. They didn't just die—they swelled and they died, which is particularly awful (and by awful, we mean gross). They clearly met an unnatural death. 
    • The refrain swoops in for a fourth go-around. Clearly, the air of menace that has been building with every repetition has come to a head here, with this evidence of tragic dog-murder. We're starting to get the idea that poor Randy is weary from more than just hunting. 
    • Look out next time—the refrain will definitely change in the fifth stanza.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 17-18

    "O I fear ye are poisoned, Lord Randall my son!
    O I fear ye are poisoned, my handsome young man!"

    • Hearing that the poor pups died in this terrible way after dinner, Lord Randall's mother figures out the trouble—her son has also been poisoned. 
    • Must have been those dodgy eels…
    • Needless to say, we're betting mama's gone from nagging to frantic by now. This revelation brings a whole new meaning to what her son's been saying all along.

    Lines 19-20

    "O yes, I am poisoned mother, make my bed soon,
    For I'm sick at the heart, and I fain wald lie down.

    • Lord Randall confirms that he has been poisoned. Tradition has it that it was his so-called "true love" who committed the crime, for reasons we'll never know.
    • Here, Lord Randall's refrain changes to reflect the fact that we know his fate now. Instead of simply saying that he's tired and needs to lie down, he asks his mother to make his bed (we now realize that he means his death bed), because he's "sick at heart." 
    • "Sick" here both refers to his poisoned state, and to his brokenhearted misery. It's never stated directly in this version of the ballad, but we take this to be a definite sign that he was poisoned by his unfaithful girlfriend. 
    • Some alternate, even more morbid versions have other stanzas describing how he wants the authorities to arrest his girlfriend and have her hanged (if you're interested, see the link in "Best of the Web"), but we think this version's plenty gruesome, thank you very much.
    • We also finally realize that Lord Randall's many references to being tired and going to bed are actually talking about a very different kind of bed, as in a coffin. 
    • This euphemism, which draws a link between going to sleep and the Big Sleep, was pretty common in Medieval and Renaissance literature. For Shakespeare fans, think of the moment in Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy when he muses, "To die, to sleep…"