Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Drowned Lovers

16th February 2015

You know those moments when everything that has been entrancing you one minute before – in my case, time, story, memory, things – suddenly seem flat and tedious? Well, at just such a moment on a Thursday afternoon I hear from upstairs such a beautifully miserable song that I call up the stairs, ‘What are we listening to?’ and back comes the answer, ‘”Clyde Waters”‘ by Anais Mitchell.’  So now I stop to listen and within about two minutes I am thinking enviously to myself, ‘Wow, I wish I’d written those words’ – because the lyrics are beautiful, although also breathtakingly harsh.  (The story tells of a mother’s jealous love so unforgiving that she curses and kills her own son.)

It is clearly a very old song and it has the same peculiar beauty as a fairy story, the same solidity that fairy tales have, as if they were a thing carved out of wood, the same trick of splashing the story with specks of colour (‘the coal-black steed’), the same sudden lurches into physicality (‘Let me in,’ says the near-drowned lover, ‘My boots are full of Clyde Waters and I am shivering to my skin’).  There is also the same dream-like quality of danger ascribed to water, as well as dreams that spookily foretell the lover’s ending – the drowned lover dreams of how it all turned out.

So now I am intrigued enough to want to know more. I google ‘Clyde Waters’ (also known as ‘The Drowned Lovers’) and I discover that it was collected by a late Victorian scholar called Francis James Child, that it is in fact number 216 in a collection of ballads he put together, all of which were characterised by themes of enchantment, jealousy, treachery, cruelty, murder and forbidden love – stories so dark that these days we wouldn’t even try to put them into a literary novel – because we can’t make head or tail of them.  (‘But maybe we’re a wimpy lot?’ I think to myself.)

Like all the old ballads, ‘Clyde Waters’ is saturated in memory, many memories – but of what exactly we no longer know.

I also discover that Francis Child was a Professor of English, that he was attracted to the beauty of the language of these ballads, that he thought they were an important part of early English literature, along with Geoffrey Chaucer. And I also discover that the story overlaps here with the story of 19th century museums, that in each case the collections came about because the Victorian collectors believed that they had to save the things from a world that was vanishing.  (So in this way sadness is deep in the DNA of all the old museums.) Like the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ the song is the product of an oral culture and prompts the same feeling of disbelief.  How could generations of anonymous singers hold on to the beauty of the language and not lose nor spoil it?  And yet somehow they did.

By virtue of their shared qualities and the fact that one person brought them together, the Child Ballads are in effect a mini-museum – if that is, we define a museum as that moment when we draw a line and say, ‘Everything on this side of the line makes sense of the universe, but everything on the far side is still chaos.’  It’s amazing how wide-ranging and flexible, and yet also how physical and particular is the concept of a museum.

And now, of course, I have forgotten the tedium of a Thursday afternooon and am entranced all over again by time, story, memory and things.

For ‘Clyde Waters’ by Anais Mitchell, go to –