Tom o’Bedlam is an amazing English broadside ballad. It’s wildly different from pretty much any other ballad I’ve encountered, but before I blather on too long, I’ll let Tom speak for himself.
From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
And the spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moons, defend ye,
That of your five sound senses
Ye never be forsaken,
Nor wander from yourselves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon.
While I do sing, any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing?
Come, dame or maid, be not afraid,
poor Tom will injure nothing.
Of thirty barren years have I
Twice twenty been enraged,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly caged
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam,
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips, ding-dong,
And a wholesome hunger plenty.
With a thought I took for Maudlin,
And a cruse of cockle pottage,
With a thing thus tall, sky bless you all,
I fell into this dotage.
I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never waked,
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stripped me naked.
When I short have shorn my sour-face,
And swigged my horny barrel,
In an oaken inn I pound my skin
As a suit of gilt apparel.
The Moon’s my constant mistress,
And the lowly owl my morrow;
The flaming drake and the night-crow make
Me music to my sorrow.
The palsy plagues my pulses,
When I prigg your pigs or pullen,
Your culvers take, or matchless make
Your chanticleer or sullen.
When I want provant, with Humphry
I sup, and when benighted,
I repose in Powles with waking souls,
Yet never am affrighted.
I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at bloody wars
In the wounded welkin weeping,
The Moon embrace her shepherd,
And the queen of Love her warrior,
While the first doth horn the star of morn,
And the next the heavenly Farrier.
The gipsy Snap and Pedro
Are none of Tom’s comradoes.
The punk I scorn, and the cutpurse sworn,
And the roaring boys’ bravadoes.
The meek, the white, the gentle,
Me handle, touch, and spare not;
But those that cross Tom Rhinoceros
Do what the panther dare not.
With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world’s end,
Methinks it is no journey.
This is highly, highly atypical. You can tell it was composed as a poem by someone who knew what they were doing, rather than being made “by the people” or undergoing a long process of evolution in oral transmission. It has an unusual meter, consistent internal rhymes in the third line of almost every quatrain, consistent feminine endings, occasional alliteration, scads of classical and contemporary-to-1600’s-England allusions, and a couple of enjambments. I’m no ballad scholar, but the only enjambment I remember encountering, ever, was one I put there myself when I was rewriting a verse of Alison Gross, and it still felt foreign. If it didn’t appear in song sourcebooks, and didn’t have a chorus, I would never have guessed it was a song.
(In case your eyes glazed over when you read that pile of jargon, take my word for it that Tom o’Bedlam is a Piece Of Literature with capital letters, not just a good song and a good story.)
You can read quite a bit about the history of Bedlam and wandering “Toms” on the Wikipedia page. It makes me kind of sad to sing about homeless wandering beggars with mental illnesses, because this is really not a supported way of dealing with mentally ill people but it still happens. If anything, it reminds me of Don Quixote, which I was once assigned to read in a comedy class but couldn’t finish because it was too hard to read about a delusional guy riding around the countryside with no thought for food, drink, or broken damn ribs. But it’s such a rollicking ballad… still, I think this is my limit as far as singing songs and frantically disclaiming their contents in the same breath.
Now, to unpack allusions and old words. A lot of this information comes from Wikipedia and the OED, but I’m not going to be rigorous about sources.
the spirit that stands by the naked man / in the Book of Moons: ???
thirty bare years… / Twice twenty: Seems to imply “I’ve been imprisoned longer than I’ve been alive”, which might be just another nonsensical indication of insanity.
stubble soft and dainty: not hair, but the stubbly ends of wheat/oats/etc that are left on the ground after harvest.
brave bracelets: handcuffs
Maudlin: wait for it…
a cruse of cockle pottage: Pottage is stew; “cruse” is an old word for some kind of container.
a thing thus tall, sky bless you all: ???
the Conquest: Norman conquest of England in 1066.
the roguish boy of love: ???
swigged my horny barrel: ???
In an oaken inn I pound my skin / As a suit of gilt apparel: ???
pulses: Literally, the veins; figuratively, life-force or vitality.
culvers: doves or pigeons
provant: food, provender
with Humphry / I sup: apparently, to go hungry.
Powles: St. Paul’s church (graveyard).
The moon embrace her shepherd: Diana and Endymion.
And the queen of Love her warrior: Aphrodite and Ares.
the heavenly Farrier: Aphrodite was actually married to Hephaestus, but cheated on him with Ares. I suppose that the Moon was also wed to “the star of morn” in the previous line.
Do what the panther dare not: ???