“Raggle Taggle Gypsy”: Child Ballad 200


“The Raggle Taggle Gypsy”

There were three old gypsies came to our hall door
They came brave and boldly-o
And one sang high and the other sang low
And the other sang a raggle-taggle gypsy-o

It was upstairs downstairs the lady went
Put on her suit of leather-o
And there was a cry from around the door
She’s away wi’ the raggle-taggle gypsy-o

It was late that night when the Lord came in
Enquiring for his lady-o
And the servant girl she said to the Lord
“She’s away wi’ the raggle-taggle gypsy-o”

“Then saddle for me my milk-white steed
– my big horse is not speedy-o
And I will ride till I seek my bride
She’s away wi’ the raggle-taggle gypsy-o”

Now he rode East and he rode West
He rode North and South also
Until he came to a wide-open plain
It was there that he spied his lady-o

“How could you leave your goose feather bed
Your blankeys strewn so comely-o?
And how could you leave your newly wedded Lord
All for a raggle-taggle gypsy-o?”

“What care I for my goose feather bed
Wi’ blankets strewn so comely-o?
Tonight I lie in a wide-open field
In the arms of a raggle-taggle gypsy-o”

“How could you leave your house and your land?
How could you leave your money-o?
How could you leave your only wedded Lord
All for a raggle-taggle gypsy-o?”

“What care I for my house and my land?
What care I for my money-o?
I’d rather have a kiss from the yellow gypsy’s lips
I’m away wi’ the raggle-taggle gypsy-o!”

“Raggle Taggle Gypsy”: Child Ballad 200

Barbara Allen: Child Ballad 84


From A Book of Old Ballads. Designed by Alice Havers. Circa 1885.


The first page of “Barbara Allen” as printed in the Forget-Me-Not Songster circa 1840.

“Barbara Allen”

In Charlotte town, not far from here,
There was a fair maid dwellin.’
Had a name was known both far and near,
An’ her name was Barb’ry Allen.

‘Twas in the merry month of May,
Green buds they were swellin’,
Poor William on his death-bed lay,
For the love of Barb’ry Allen.

He sent his man down to town
To the place that she was dwellin’
Sayin’, “Master bids your company,
If your name is Barb’ry Allen.”

Oh slowly, slowly she got up
To the place where he was lyin’,
And when she pulled the curtain back,
Said, “Young man, I b’lieve you’re dying!”

“Oh yes, oh yes, I’m very sick
And I shall never get better
Unless I have the love of one,
The love of Bar’bry Allen.”

“Don’t you remember not long ago,
The day down in the tavern?
You toasted all the ladies there,
But you slighted Barb’ry Allen.”

“Oh yes, oh yes, I remember well
That day down in the tavern.
I toasted all the ladies there,
But I gave my heart to Barb’ry Allen.”

She looked to the East, she looked to the West,
She saw his pale corpse a-comin’,
Cryin’, “Put him down and leave him there
So I might gaze upon him.”

The more she gazed, the more she mourned,
Until she burst out cryin’;
Sayin’, “I beg you come and take him away,
For my heart now too is dyin’!”

“Oh, father, father, come dig my grave,
Dig it wide an’ narrow.
Poor William died for me today;
I’ll die for him tomorrow.”

They buried him in the old churchyard,
They buried her beside him,
And from his heart grew a red, red rose,
And from her heart a briar.

They grew, they grew so awful high
Till they could grow no higher,
An’ ’twas there they tied a lover’s knot,
The red rose and the briar.

In Charlotte town, not far from here,
There was a maid a-dwellin.’
Had a name was known both far and near,
An’ her name was Barb’ry Allen.

Barbara Allen: Child Ballad 84

“Mary Hamilton”: Child Ballad 173


Mary Hamilton Before Execution, St. Petersburg by Pavel Svedomskiy, 1904


“Mary Hamilton” by anonymous

Word is to the kitchen gone, and word is to the Hall
And word is up to Madam the Queen, and that’s the worst of all
That Mary Hamilton has borne a babe
To the highest Stuart of all

Oh rise, arise, Mary Hamilton,
Arise and tell to me
What thou hast done with thy wee babe
I saw and heard weep by thee

I put him in a tiny boat
And cast him out to sea
That he might sink or he might swim
But he’d never come back to me

Oh, rise arise, Mary Hamilton,
Arise and come with me
There is a wedding in Glasgow town
This night we’ll go and see

She put not on her robes of black
Nor her robes of brown
But she put on her robes of white
To ride into Glasgow town

And as she rode into Glasgow town
The city for to see
The bailiff’s wife and the provost’s wife
Cried Alack and alas for thee

You need not weep for me she cried
You need not weep for me
For had I not slain my own wee babe
This death I would not dee

Oh little did my mother think
When first she cradled me
The lands I was to travel in
And the death I was to dee

Last night I washed the Queen’s feet
And put the gold in her hair
And the only reward I find for this
The gallows to be my share

Cast off cast off my gown she cried
But let my petticoat be
And tie a napkin ’round my face
The gallows I would not see

Then by them come the king himself
Looked up with a pitiful eye
Come down come down Mary Hamilton
Tonight you will dine with me

Oh hold your tongue my sovereign liege
And let your folly be
For if you’d a mind to save my life
You’d never have shamed me here

Last night there were four Marys
Tonight there’ll be but three
It was Mary Beaton and Mary Seton
And Mary Carmichael and me.

“Mary Hamilton”: Child Ballad 173

Notes on ‘The Library of Babel’

While researching a possible monograph on various mutant, blood-thirsty species of killer bees native to Argentina, I chanced across the name Borget, an expatriated Parisian who had done some seminal work in the area. It was the end of a long day, I was tired, and the resultant loose associations of my weary mind led me to thinking of Borges, the famous Argentine writer. Realizing I was at an impasse in my research, I retired to the parlor for a smoke and the leisure of letting my mind go where it would.

But my mind remained stuck on Borges, or, rather, the name “Borges”. I knew little of the man, himself, or his work. I had seen his name in a letter at my grandparents’ house when I was quite young and the name had stuck with me simply because I wondered how it was pronounced. A few years later, I took a class in world literature in college and Borges was covered. The class was taught by two excellent professors, but they both pronounced “Borges” differently, and, to make things worse, neither pronounced it the way I had guessed it should be pronounced! But that’s neither here nor there.

The letter was written by my maternal great-uncle Gunnar Erfjord, a sailor born in Lofoten, Norway, who had emigrated to the United States, sailed both the Atlantic and the Great Lakes, and put in at the ports of Mar del Plata, Hamburg, and Duluth among others. As my uncle was quite learned (mostly self-taught, although he had mastered Greek and Latin in grade school) and a good conversationalist who seemed to be fluent in almost every European language (although curiously not Spanish), he had made many friends around the world. Including Borges.

This letter was contained in a box of letters and documents that had belonged to my great-uncle (who had died a few years before I was born) that was kept at my grandparents’ house in Green Town, Illinois. I used to go through this box as a young child (the box was called an “ant-proof case” by my older relatives—that alone made it fascinating to me). I later inherited the box and its contents from my maternal grandmother (the only sister of my great-uncle). The box contained, among other things,

* some monographs my great-uncle had written on celestial navigation,

* all the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories in Norwegian translation,

* a book titled “Die Philosophie des Unvollendbar” by someone named Emanuel Lasker,

* a 15 puzzle, which I got quite good at,

* and some letters to and from Borges.

The letters written to Borges I have are in Norwegian. I have inferred from some of their contents that they were fair copies that were then translated into Spanish by a friend of my great-uncle, with the Spanish translations being sent to Borges and the Norwegian originals being saved by my great-uncle.

I have translated one of the letters from my great-uncle from Norwegian to English. Some of the words are technical and I hope that my translation is accurate (my Norwegian is fair, but not great). Here is my translation of the letter:


Port of New York City

Aboard the Mary Celeste

Señor Jorge Luis Borges

Buenos Aires, Argentina

6 November, 1872

Dear Borges,

I visited our mutual friend, Professor Cantor, while I was recently in port in Germany. He asked me to relay some advice to you regarding the story “The Library of Babel”, which I know you are currently working on. He said that he has discussed the story with you and that you have three versions, the finite version, the countable version, and the uncountable version. His advice is:

* finite version: Cantor said that you should feel free to publish this version, although he said he thinks it lacks “daring”.

* countable version: Cantor said that this is a variation he suggested in which the number of pages in each book in the library is unbounded (but finite) and not restricted to four hundred and ten. Hence there is an infinite number of books in the library with no duplicates. He further said that this was a more “audacious” version of the story and he preferred it to the first.

* uncountable version: Cantor said this was an extended variation of the countable version of the story. In this third version, each of the books has an infinite number of pages and, hence, an infinite number of characters (although many of these books may end in an infinite number of spaces). He said some sort of “diagonal argument” can be used on the individual letters in these books. He said this proved that this version of the library somehow contained more books than the preceding version. It wasn’t clear to me whether this third version was his idea or your idea. I asked him how the librarians could hold one of these endless books in his hands. He said something about how perhaps each leaf of the book could be half as thick as the preceding leaf while waving his hand in a strange manner.

Then Cantor told me very explicitly that you should not pursue work on the “uncountable” version. He said that “like the ‘Matilda Briggs’ and the giant rat of Sumatra, the world is not yet prepared for this story”. He said that he did not want you to follow him in his “descent into the Maelström”. He said that pursuing this version of the story could lead you to professional ruin as happened to him. I thought at the time that the statement seemed a bit melodramatic, but, out of respect for his great intellect, I held my tongue.

I hope this all makes sense to you. He said that it would from your previous discussions and some “personal tutoring” he gave you in “the theory of sets”.

Of our mutual friend’s health, I am sad to report that he has been hospitalized with melancholia. I think that his perhaps exaggerated doubts on the wisdom of publishing the “uncountable version” of your story (not to mention his strange hand waving) were but a symptom of his illness. I tried to discuss this further with him, but he became greatly agitated, so I dropped the discussion.

We set sail for Genoa tomorrow. Assuming the Mary Celeste can successfully navigate the doldrums, I hope to see you in person next year for our annual game of chess.


Gunnar Erfjord


That is the entirety of the letter. For the most part, I don’t understand it. I don’t know what “uncountable” means nor I do know what a “diagonal argument” is. (I am a professor of entomology and I hope to widen my knowledge of other subjects after I retire.)

However, I do know about the tale of the giant rat of Sumatra. It was published as the thirteenth story in “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have my great-uncle’s copy of a Norwegian translation of this book. “The Adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra” is the thirteenth story in the collection. I’ve read the story, but, unfortunately, the title is the best thing about it. Curiously, the story doesn’t appear in the English edition I have.

[Editor: I requested from the author a Wikipedia-style article, but was given instead these random reminiscences, with no references and I believe many inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Here are a few links to Wikipedia entries that might help the reader understand the contents of the letter, since the author seems to be too lazy to do any research himself:

* [Countable set](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countable_set)

* [Uncountable set](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncountable_set)

* [Cantor’s diagonal argument](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantor%27s_diagonal_argument)

Unlike the author, I know enough of set theory to understand what the letter is about. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to use Cantor’s diagonal argument to prove that the library in the third version of the story contains more books than the library in the second version of the story (although each contains an infinite number of books).]

Notes on ‘The Library of Babel’

The High School Tapes

These are the songs that best document my high school years. I didn’t start paying attention to lyrics until my late 20s, so these are all songs that I liked for musical reasons.

Nick Lowe: The song “I Knew the Bride” from Stiffs Live.

The Stiffs Live record is perhaps the best live/”sampler” album ever. It’s certainly the best non-Motown live/”sampler” album ever made. The idea was that everyone on the Stiff label would go on a package tour like the Motown package tours of the 60s. I know nothing about the Motown package tours of the 60s. I only know that I read somewhere that Jake Riviera (and the other Jake whose last name I can’t remember (Robinson?)) based the Stiff tour on the Motown revue tours of the 60s. Anyway. It certainly seems like every one of the “new wave”/”punk”-era musicians were on the Stiff label. But that wasn’t the case. The Clash, for one, was on Epic (which was part of the Columbia label, which I would see on every Bob Dylan record (except for two, but that’s another story (which you can look up for yourself (because I’m not going to type the whole thing in)))). But with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads (with a Clash connection via Mickey Gallagher/Sandinista!) on Stiff, it seemed like the whole world was on Stiff. Maybe to show how “cool” I am, I should have picked something obscure from this album. “Police Car” by Larry Wallis would have worked. But each song on this album was a gateway drug to the individual artist, and all the songs were great.  (Including Nick Lowe’s brilliant throw-away, “Let’s Eat”.)

Elvis Costello: “This Year’s Girl”

This Year’s Model is another I-could-have-picked-any-song-from-this-album album. For example, I could have picked “The Beat.”  I’m not going to pick “Pump it Up” because that would be too obvious. But, as Elvis Costello himself said, the fourth song on the album is always the best. Somehow I bought the British version, rather than the U.S. version of this album, so I had “Night Rally,” rather than “Radio, Radio” on my copy. For years, I thought “Night Rally” was about some sort of car rally. I could also have picked “My Funny Valentine” from Stiffs Live. Or was the Burt Bacharach-Hal David, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”, live cover on Stiffs Live? (No, “My Funny Valentine” was on Taking Liberties and it wasn’t live.)  I suppose it doesn’t matter. This was Elvis Costello’s second album, but his first to be released in the U.S.  I’m pretty sure I was the first person in Mason City, Iowa to buy it the week it came out

The Clash: “Stay Free”

Mick wrote this about a male friend of his, but I took it to be about a female friend. The lyrics weren’t printed on the album, and you couldn’t really hear all the words, so how could I know? Anyway, I projected the lyrics onto a girl I had a crush on in high school (at the time). That makes my appreciation of this song premature nostalgia. Now it’s mature nostalgia. I always considered Mick the center of the Clash because he wrote the music, while Joe “only” wrote the words. I still think that (sort of). I know that there are bumper stickers that say “What Would Joe Strummer Do?”.  But Joe Strummer would have fired Mick and Topper for “ideological” reasons, wouldn’t he have, mate. This was the Clash’s second album, but the first to be released in the U.S.  I’m pretty sure I was the first person in Mason City, Iowa to buy it the week it came out.

The Beatles: “You Really Got a Hold on Me”

I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of picking a Lennon-McCartney song, so I’m picking a cover version. The funny thing about every song that the Beatles covered was that I only knew the Beatles’ versions for decades. I never heard the originals until years later (and I probably still haven’t heard the original of “Mr. Moonlight”). John’s singing on this is gorgeous. They also do a brief version of this song in the Let it Be movie. John and George smile a lot while playing this song. Then the song finishes, and they both go back to their why-am-I-stuck-in-cold-Twickenham-studio-at-10-A.M.-being-bossed-around-by-Paul looks. If I were to pick a Lennon-McCartney song, I’d probably pick something from A Hard Day’s Night. Maybe “If I Fell” or “I’ll Be Back.” Or maybe “Don’t Let Me Down” from Let It Be. The rooftop version where John forgets his own lyrics and improvises nonsense lyrics. Or maybe I should pick something from In His Own Write. Would that count? I forgot to mention: this is a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song.

Bob Dylan: “Idiot Wind” from Hard Rain

Maybe I should have picked “If Dogs Run Free” from New Morning because I genuinely like that song and then I would be the first person in the history of the world to say that “If Dogs Run Free” is my favorite Bob Dylan song. But the live Hard Rain album is Bob Dylan in the snarling, raging, angry portion of his prolonged, drawn-out failed (well-documented on record) marriage with Sara Dylan. A lot of people don’t like this album, which I don’t understand at all. Even Patti Smith said something about not liking this album, which means that even Patti Smith can be wrong occasionally. Out of Bob Dylan’s failed marriage came at least one brilliant album and 2–6 (depending on how you count them) very good to excellent records. On the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Bob Dylan wore this Middle-Eastern-looking thing on his head, and he looked more like Jesus than Jesus did. He looks beautiful. I include the video of this from the Hard Rain television special to prove this.


“Disco Inferno” by whoever recorded it. I was too much of a Rock Snob to like any disco songs in the late Seventies. I was wrong about that in several cases.

The High School Tapes

Make It Better: “Venus and Mars”


Venus and Mars by Wings came out in May 1975. At that time, each of the four Beatles was very active, but each was on a separate journey. John Lennon had released his Rock ‘n’ Roll album that February. Rock ‘n’ Roll was all covers of songs he had grown up with and sung in the Cavern and Hamburg. It sounded like a benediction, and it almost was one. He didn’t release another record for five years. George Harrison had released Dark Horse the previous December, which was followed by a tour of the U.S. that didn’t go well because of vocal cord troubles. Ringo Starr had released Goodnight Vienna the previous November. Even though Lennon wrote the title track, it was okay but not as good as Ringo’s previous album, Ringo.

In 1975, Paul was doing quite well. He had recorded some low-key albums such as McCartney. But with the Band on the Run album the previous year, he was starting to ramp things up. Band on the Run had done well both critically and commercially (and John even liked it). He had done some unannounced gigs in college towns around England, but he had not been on a major tour since the Beatles’ 1966 tours. However, he hadn’t played many, if any, Beatles songs at the English university gigs and he didn’t want to make Beatles songs a prime focus of upcoming tours. But he needed more songs for a great stage show. In particular, he needed more hits.

McCartney crafted Venus and Mars with the basic template used for Band on the Run (which happened to share its structure with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). The template consisted of a theme song, a reprise of the theme song, and the general idea of a concept that was never really all that conceptualized. In the case of Venus and Mars, the concept was presumably the interactions of men and women. The album has a consistent sound, but it’s no more thematically consistent than Sgt. Pepper, which isn’t saying much.

Paul and Linda never intended to be John and Yoko. Johnandyoko were an abstract concept—as abstract as Yoko’s art (which I happen to like). Their records together, such as “Double Fantasy,” were not a blend of the two, but were John responding to Yoko’s thoughts and Yoko responding to John’s thoughts. Wings’ songs have something that Beatles records never had, and Paul McCartney post-Wings solo records never had. It was that harmonious blend of Paul’s, Linda’s and Denny Laine’s voices. You can hear it in “Listen to What the Man Said.” That sweet pop song was perfect for 1975, which was a pure pop/AM radio year. You could hear that pure pop sound in 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” (released in 1975), the Raspberries “Go All the Way,” (released in 1972), and “Love Grows” by Edison Lighthouse (released in 1970). There was a whole generation who grew up in the 1970s, missed out on the Beatles, and grew up on AM Top Forty songs.

I believe that it was this generation that McCartney set out to conquer with Venus and Mars, and the massive Wings Over America tour. Wings Over America was planned almost like a WW II invasion. This generation was 10 and still going out for recess when the Beatles broke up. Wings, Monty Python, and every great Top 40 song of the ’70s were ours and ours alone. You can keep your Donovan.

The Venus and Mars album is filled with excellent rock songs and lovely ballads. What’s a better way to open a rock show than with “Venus and Mars/Rock Show”? And he did. “Love in Song” is a haunting ballad. I don’t know what the words to it are. If you can write a melody that lovely, I would say you have the right to use any cliched lyrics you like. People will hum it anyway.  “You Gave Me the Answer” is this albums “Honey Pie.” But much better than “Honey Pie.” “Letting Go” is this album’s “Let Me Roll It.” It’s got that Lennon guitar sound to it. “Medicin Jar” is a hard-rocking song that Paul gave to Jimmy McCulloch to sing. And McCulloch still didn’t learn. He left the band and died a few years later from an overdose.

“Call Me Again” is a killer song. McCartney is a great mimic, but I’m not sure who he is emulating here. It’s not his Fats Domino voice (which you can hear on “Lady Madonna,” or his Elvis, or his Little Richard voice. Maybe it’s something he picked up in New Orleans where he recorded this album and hung out with Professor Longhair.

You can’t fault Paul McCartney for not being John Lennon, although people seemed to for years and years and years. And you can’t blame 14-year-old kids for liking what they hear on the radio. If it were 1975 again and I was 14 and was going to a Wings concert, you can bet that I would like to hear “Magneto and Titanium Man.” Sure, I’ve listened to John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” a million times and loved it. But when I go to a rock concert, I want to hear a rocking song like “Letting Go,” not “My Mummy’s Dead.” (That’s probably not a fair comparison, but, anyway.)

The album ends with “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People,” with another lovely melody. The very last piece is “Crossroads,” which was the theme song to an English television show.

This album comes with two posters, two gummed decals, a flashy inner cover, etc. Just like “Sgt. Pepper”! So “put your wig on straight, don’t be late, we got a date.”, put this record on, forget about climate change for forty minutes, and be fourteen again.

Make It Better: “Venus and Mars”

The Just God of Michael Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom”


You hear a lot about God these days: God, the beneficent; God, the all-great; God, the Almighty; God, the most powerful; God, the giver of life; God, the creator of death. I mean, we’re hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary. So people better be able to deal with that, too.

—Bob Dylan in an interview with Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, December 22, 2001.

Religion, Then and Now

New England Puritans’ belief in predestination and eternal hell for the Reprobate is foreign to the modern mind and even to the modern Christian mind. New England Puritans believed that after death one’s soul spent eternity in heaven or hell. Among those who would be subject to eternal damnation were “reprobate” infants and “heathen” men who did not have access to the written Word. Eternal damnation today strikes us as a mark of a barbarous god. However, must God, if there is a God, be beneficent? Perhaps, as Bob Dylan once said, “God is arbitrary.” Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and pestilences happen. If God is not necessarily good, then there is no contradiction to resolve when He drops a still-born babe into the eternally burning Lake of Fire. The Reverend Michael Wigglesworth was a sincere, intelligent, and well-educated man, and The Day of Doom was a serious book. It is easy to write off the book as a curious period piece. It is much harder to try to understand the ideas of Original Sin and Damnation as seen through the eyes of Wigglesworth and his fellow Puritans. However, it is worth the effort. We can learn as much about ourselves in this task as we learn about the Puritans. In Day of Doom, using the simplest of meters and rhyming schemes, Michael Wigglesworth wrestles to reconcile the beneficence of God with eternal damnation.

Sin and God

Modern people do not think much about sin. Most people today believe that they are innately good. Most people believe that people are born innately good. Also, modern people do not think much about hell. When they think about the afterlife, they assume, if there is an afterlife, that it will be a pleasant state. Most Americans today profess to a belief in God. However, their belief is in a watered-down God, a god who wishes them the best. Today’s God is a personal god to some, a deistic god to others, but a beneficent and merciful God to all. The New England Puritans, including Michael Wigglesworth, had very different views on sin, God, and heaven and hell. The Puritans believed that Man was inherently depraved and sinful and that we all share equally in Adam’s Fall. Thus, the Puritans believed that everyone deserved hell. However, the Puritans believed that God had decided that some men and women were of the Elect and were destined for heaven. The Puritans attributed this dispensation for some to the goodness of God. After all, we are all sinful. Letting some go to heaven is more than anyone deserves as Wigglesworth says in stanza XLIII (in the voice of Christ):

“My grace to one is wrong to none;
  none can Election claim;
Amongst all those their souls that lose,
  none can Rejection blame.["]

To modern men and women, this division between the saved and the damned sounds arbitrary. The Puritan’s God, as we will see, was foremost a god of justice.

Poetic Scheme of the Day of Judgement

We first examine the poetics of Day of Doom. Wigglesworth uses an unobtrusive poetic scheme for The Day of Doom. The stanzas are in a simple meter with internal rhymes. Consider the first stanza:

Still WAS the NIGHT, se-RENE and BRIGHT, when ALL men SLEEP-ing LAY; (14-A)
Calm WAS the SEA-son, & CAR-nal REA-son thought SO 'twould LAST for AY. (14-A)
Soul TAKE thine EASE, let SOR-row CEASE, much GOOD thou HAST in STORE; (14-B)
This WAS their SONG their CUPS a-MONG the EV-e-NING be-FORE. (14-B)

The lines are in iambic heptameter. (Professor New says that these lines are in trochaic meter, and they can certainly be read that way, also.) The stanza has two rhyming couplets. Also, note the internal rhyme in each line:

  • “night”/”bright”
  • “season”/”reason”
  • “ease”/”cease”
  • “song”/”among”

The rhythm and rhyme are quite regular, easy to read and recite (assuming you read it as iambic meter, rather than trochaic), and, probably, easy to memorize (at least at the stanza level). As John Ward Dean, 1815–1902, states in his memoir of Wigglesworth, “[The Day of Doom] commended itself to those zealous Puritans, who had little taste for lofty rhyme or literary excellence.” Nonetheless, the poem does contain quite memorable imagery, such as these lines from Stanza 192.

And by and by the flaming Sky
  shall drop like moulten Lead

A poem was more fun to read than a sermon.

A verse may find him who a sermon flies,
Saith Herbert well. [...]
—J. Mitchel, in "On the Following Work and its Author"

There is no reason why Wigglesworth could not have written the poem’s message in a prose sermon (and was—–many, many times in Puritan, colonial America). However, by writing it in verse, Wigglesworth is increasing its accessibility to the casual reader of the time.

A Just God

The God of “The Day of Doom” is not a God of goodness, compassion, or mercy, necessarily, but a God of justice. We read in Stanza CXLIII:

“God hath no joy to crush or ’stroy,
  and ruin wretched wights;
But to display the glorious Ray
  of Justice he delights.

This god is a just god, a judge on high. We see this judicial view of God in many places in Day of Doom:

  • “[…] adjudging him to pain […]” —from Stanza 200
  • “[…] just are all his ways.” —from Stanza 219

There are many more examples in the poem. Not only that, but the subtitle of the book is A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgement. It is much harder to find God described as beneficent or merciful in Day of Doom. The most difficult cases for Wigglesworth to argue are the damnation of “reprobate” infants and “heathen” men.

“Heathen” Men

Wigglesworth’s marginal note to stanza CLVII reads, “heathen men plead want of the Written Word.” The Puritans interaction with Native Americans, such as the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes, was frequent, often fraught with tension on both sides, and, periodically, broke out into violent skirmishes with deaths on both sides. When Wigglesworth writes of “heathen” men, he is not talking in the abstract. Nor is he talking of remote tribes in, for example, the Congo. He is speaking of people living in the “howling wilderness” right outside the borders of his town. Stanza CLVII reads:

Whose wicked ways Christ open lays,
  and makes their sins appear,
They making pleas their case to ease,
  if not themselves to clear.
“Thy Written Word,” say they, “good Lord,
  we never did enjoy;
We ne’er refus’d, nor it abus’d;
  Oh, do not us destroy!“

It is clear from this stanza that Wigglesworth believes that men and women who never heard or read the Christian Bible must make their case for salvation.

“Reprobate” Infants

In stanza CLXVI, “Reprobate Infants plead for themselves.” The Puritans believed that even infants were guilty of Original Sin. The fact that they had not even had the chance to sin did not matter a whit if they were not one of the Elect. If one was damned, one was damned. There was no getting around it. Stanza CLXVI reads:

Then to the Bar all they drew near
  Who died in infancy,
And never had or good or bad
  effected pers’nally;
But from the womb unto the tomb
  were straightway carriéd,
(Or at the least ere they transgress’d)
  who thus began to plead:

“The Easiest Room in Hell”

It is tempting to think that Wigglesworth’s God is like a human judge who is most exacting in his or her determination of guilt, yet willing to be lenient in his or her punishment due to extenuating circumstances.

“Heathen” Men

Stanza CLVIII reads,

“You ne’er abus’d, nor yet refus’d
  my Written Word, you plead;
That’s true," quoth he, “therefore shall ye
  the less be punishéd.
You shall not smart for any part
  of other men’s offense,
But for your own transgressi-on
  receive due recompense.“

Thus they are punished only for their sins, not the sins of others, while still punished for Original Sin.

“Reprobate” Infants

In stanza CLXXXI, God seems to offer some mercy by allotting to the infants “the easiest room in Hell.”

"A crime it is, therefore in bliss
  you may not hope to dwell,
But unto you I shall allow
  the easiest room in Hell."
The glorious King thus answering,
  they cease, and plead no longer;
Their Consciences must needs confess
  his Reasons are the stronger.

Wigglesworth’s God is shown to be lenient in his punishment in these two stanzas. However, eternity is still eternity. So, it is a stretch to consider Him merciful. Damnation is where the modern conception of the Christian God differs the most from that of the Puritans. God rules by the letter of the Law and judges guilty those whom today would be considered innocent. Although there is a lessening of punishment, eternal damnation is a difference of kind, not degree.


Understanding the New England Puritan’s beliefs on Man, God, Sin, and Heaven and Hell is quite tricky. These beliefs are mostly foreign to the beliefs of modern men and women and even modern Christians. For example, the Puritans believed in both free will and predestination. These beliefs, at first glance, seem contradictory. However, if God is omniscient, he can surely predict a person’s behavior. Moreover, one cannot do what one is not going to do. Hence, there is no contradiction. One has to immerse one’s self in Puritan theology for weeks to merely begin to understand it. Such immersion reveals a beautiful internal consistency to Puritanism. Whether it is true is another question. (In my opinion, it’s an unanswerable question.) The god of Day of Doom is a just god, and the world of Day of Doom is one of predestination. One cannot become one of the Elect through good works. In the Puritan view, there is nothing a person can do to earn salvation. God’s selection of the Elect may seem arbitrary to us. Perhaps God is arbitrary. The seeming lack of mercy modern people find in the God of Day of Doom is not a contradiction with the idea of a beneficent God. The Puritans considered all men and women to be guilty of Original Sin. Stanza LXVI reads,

All have transgress’d, even the best,
  and merited God’s wrath,
Unto their own perditi-on
  and everlasting scath.

God’s mercy and goodness, in the Puritan view, is evident in Christ dying for Man’s sins, and in Christ’s allowance of any man, woman, or child to be saved.


For background information and elucidation on the religious beliefs of the Puritans, I consulted:

  • Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction by Francis J. Bremer.
  • God in America, a television program by PBS.

This essay was originally written for ENGL E-182A.

The Just God of Michael Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom”

From Bach to Bessie to Bop

How African-American Music Changed America

While others had earlier described jazz, often at a remove—notably Carl Sandburg in his “Jazz Fantasia”—Hughes knew that with jazz the form is the feeling.
—Kevin Young in a foreword to The Weary Blues

1. Introduction

Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” was first published in the Spring 1949 edition of Common Ground. Its story takes place sometime between 1942 (the start of bebop) and 1949. The poem is ostensibly an essay written by the poem’s speaker for a college English course. The poem is partly about the student’s love of jazz music, and the sound of the poem’s verse reflects the sound of jazz.

Langston Hughes loved and listened carefully to music, wrote about it, wrote song lyrics, and even recorded music appreciation records for the Folkways label. From 1920 through 1942, American music went through a profound change. These changes were a result of the infusion of the sorrow and joy of black blues and jazz music into popular white music, which was sentimental, albeit lovely, parlor music. More generally, African-American music was the vanguard of the integration of black and white cultures.

Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” uses the example of blues and jazz music to illustrate the interweaving of black and white culture.

2. The young, black man in mid-century America

I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.

—from “Theme for English B”

The poem’s speaker’s move from the South to the North, from Winston-Salem to Manhattan, from a formerly Confederate state to a once-Union state mirrors the postbellum African-American diaspora.

The speaker represents many urban, young, black American men during the 1940s and 1950s. They went to college or were self-educated, were well-spoken and well-read. Undoubtedly they encountered racial obstacles but endeavored to overcome these obstacles with the belief that the face of dignity could over time dissolve racial prejudices. They did their best to be “[c]ool, calm, and collected,” as Hughes said in Ask Your Mama. They “like[d] to work, read, learn, and understand life.” They were not white, but they were American.

You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

The student and the teacher learn from each other. The personal, cultural changes in a black student and a white professor is merely an example of what was playing out in the Harlem Renaissance, in general, and in music, in particular.

With the Harlem Renaissance, a mighty river started overflowing its banks. This river washed away long-standing levees in the process. Its broad, soulful waters and the dark, pulsating rhythms of its currents spilled into another stream. This stream’s banks had become parched in the long, hot day of the Civil War and the long night of the Reconstruction had corrupted its water. With the Harlem Renaissance, the streams of black music and white music began merging into a type of music that was uniquely American.

3. “Bessie, bop, or Bach”

I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.

Consider Bessie, bop, and Bach. Hughes did not select them merely for their alliterative qualities. They cover the spectrum from black to white, from a tent show in Tennessee to Symphony Hall in Boston, and from Harlem to Greenwich Village. Using your imagination and a gramophone, you could hear the whole of America, in some sense, from a small collection of shellac discs.

3.1. Bach

I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.

—Langston Hughes in The Big Sea

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was a German, Protestant composer of classical music and about as white as one can be.

3.2. Bessie

Never so famous in her lifetime as she became after death, Bessie Smith sang mostly for Negro audiences. […] She was a great favorite with the simple people of color. She sang their songs, the blues.

—Langston Hughes in Famous Negro Music Makers

Up to the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, blues music was mainly played by African-Americans for other African-Americans. Blues music grew out of plantation spirituals, work songs, and field hollers. Blues music contained “the soul of the Sorrow Songs” as W. E. B. Du Bois put it. But blues music was also a way to—at least temporarily—free yourself of the blues. Like the speaker of the poem, the rural, country blues originated in the South, then moved North and became urbanized. Also, like the speaker of the poem, blues music was not entirely ’black’, but also partly ’white’. For example, the blues used European harmonies and variants of European scales with ’flatted’ blue notes. Blues music used the 4/4 time signature of Western classical music but added African polyrhythms.

Bessie Smith (about 1896–1937), a ’classic blues’ singer, was about as black and soulful as one can be. As shown in the movie Bessie, a common requirement for a black woman back-up singer at the time was the “brown paper bag test”. The candidate’s skin had to be as light as or lighter than a brown paper bag. Despite her musical talent, Bessie Smith always failed this test. When she became successful enough to lead her own band, her backup singers were required to pass the reverse paper bag test. That is, they had to be darker than a brown paper bag.

Out of blues music and ragtime grew jazz.

3.3. Bop

Unfortunately, in the old days there was in jazz music, as in most of American life, a color line. White musicians and Negro musicians did not play together. Nevertheless, each learned from the other. And the large number of exciting Negro jazz musicians greatly colored all of American popular music. […] It was in the 1930’s that the clarinetist and band leader, Benny Goodman, formed his famous inter-racial quartette as a part of his band. From then on the color bar in the performance of popular music began to disappear. […] When be-bop came in around 1942, none of the younger jazz players thought of the color line any more. The great bop musicians, white and Negro, played together.

—Langston Hughes in Famous Negro Music Makers

In the middle, between white and black forms of music, we have bop (or bebop)—a style of jazz music. Bebop was a sophisticated form of music that could be played well by only the most technically and musically adept and the most creative artists. Bebop’s complexity allowed for a racially integrated meritocracy to emerge.

Like Modernist poetry, bebop was not polite and did not try particularly hard to be your friend. Bebop musicians played for other bebop musicians. Like the Modernist poets, they were not particularly concerned about their popularity with the masses.

Not only does Hughes write about these musical changes in his poem, but also the sound of the poem further emphasizes them.

4. The musical language of “Theme for English B”

Most of “Theme for English B” is free verse, with two odd exceptions. The first is the professor’s instructions to the students.

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—–
Then, it will be true.

These are iambic couplets (or close enough for jazz)—not something one would expect for essay requirements. The voice of the remainder of the poem is that of the student. In contrast to the professor’s lines, the student’s lines are free verse. However, there is one exception—the last line, written by the student, is iambic:

This is my page for English B.

Not only is it iambic, but also it rhymes with the preceding line:

and somewhat more free.

The student shows his professor that he, the student, can write in strict poetic forms if he wants to. But his natural voice is freer, artfully contradicting the literal meaning of the penultimate line, which is that the professor is “more free”.

Hughes wanted to bring the rhythms and the feel of the blues and jazz into his writing. One feature of jazz is the break: a very brief, often improvised, passage between musical phrases.

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?

One can hear Dizzy Gillespie’s “Oopapada” (a favorite of Hughes, which he featured on a Folkways record) in these lines. The repetition of short, mostly one-syllable words is like the beat of a bass drum. One can hear the call-and-response of a New Orleans band in the internal rhymes and hear melodies in the assonance of the long ’e’s and the “oo” sounds. One can discern New York musicians riffing back and forth after hours in a club on West 118th Street. We hear the sound of white musicians from the Village and black musicians from Harlem building something together. Egos dissolve (“Me—who?”), and race distinctions fade in the early hours of the morning.

Note that the speaker talks of Harlem and New York as being separate cities, although Harlem geographically is a part of New York. Harlem represents African-Americans and their culture in this poem, while New York (meaning lower- and mid-Manhattan) represents white Americans and their culture. As with the geography of the city, the black population was part of the city’s population, but the white community and culture surrounded it with an increasingly permeable border.

This musical call-and-response is echoed later in the poem by a more general description of the interplay between the cultures of the young, black student and his older, white professor:

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—–
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

Musical change is but one part of the more substantial cultural shift happening in America at the time; this is Hughes’ implied, but most significant, point.

5. Conclusion

In this poem, Hughes has shown us how African-American musical culture became integrated with white musical culture during the 1940s and 1950s. He has also demonstrated the cultural interplay between individuals using the example of a black student and his white professor. Langston Hughes not only describes the integration between whites and blacks in his poem but also uses the rhythm and sound of African-American jazz music to emphasize his point. He moves from the personal level to the level of music and, by implication, to the level of American culture in general.

6. References

The Weary Blues. Langston Hughes. Introduction by Carl Van Vechten. With a new Foreword by Kevin Young. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2017. Originally published in 1926.

The Big Sea. An autobiography by Langston Hughes. Introduction by Arnold Rampersad. Hill and Wang, New York, 1993. Originally published in 1940.

“Theme for English B” Langston Hughes. Common Ground, Spring, 1949.

The Story of Jazz. Written by Langston Hughes. Narrated by Langston Hughes with Documentary Recordings. FC 17312, Folkways Records & Service Corp., N.Y. 1954.

Famous Negro Music Makers. Langston Hughes. Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1955.

The First Book of Jazz, Updated edition. Langston Hughes. Franklin Watts, New York and London, 1976. Originally published in 1955.

Ask Your Mama. Langston Hughes. 1961.

Bessie (2015). Directed by Dee Rees.

Bessie Smith and others. Blues Women. Compiled by Neil Record. Sleeve Notes by Neil Record. Music Rough Guides RGNET1352LP.

From Bach to Bessie to Bop