Verse 1: 'When night's dark mantle has covered all / I come in fire arrayed; / many a victim I've seen fall, / Or fly from me dismay'd. / Will-o'-the-wisp! they trembling cry, / Will-o'-the -wisp! 'tis he! / To mark their fright as off they fly / Is merry sport for me.' This ballad was to be sung to an 'Original' tune, and was priced at one penny. It was published on Saturday, 1st May 1869 by the Poet's Box, probably in Glasgow.
The subject of this poem is a natural phenomenon that has long been regarded in British folklore as a portentous symbol. Will-o'-the-wisp is the popular name for standing flames that are occasionally seen on boggy ground. These are thought to be caused by the spontaneous ignition of methane gas that has been produced by rotting marsh vegetation. Myth has associated will-'o-the-wisp with the spirits of the dead or with supernatural agents, and stories abound of the peculiar natural lights luring men and women into danger or appearing where death is about to occur.
The Poet?s Box in Glasgow operated from 1849 to 1911. Matthew Leitch was the proprietor at 6 St. Andrew Lane?s, a narrow street on the south side of Gallowgate, from 1850 to 1858. His son William Munsie Leitch worked at the same address from 1859 to 1865 and at varous addresses in London Street until 1911. Many of the broadsides published by the Glasgow Poet?s Box were dated and some carried advertisements, not just for printed items but also for shoe blacking and ?soap for lovers?! Like the other ?boxes? in Dundee and Edinburgh, the Glasgow one sold love songs, sea shanties, parodies and dialogues. It is not clear what the connection between the different Poet?s Boxes were. They almost certainly sold each other?s sheets. It is known that John Sanderson in Edinburgh often wrote to the Leitches in Glasgow for songs and that later his brother Charles obtained copies of songs from the Dundee Poet?s Box. There was also a Poet?s Box in Belfast from 1846 to 1856 at the address of the printer James Moore, and one in Paisley in the early 1850s owned by William Anderson.
Early ballads were dramatic or humorous narrative songs derived from folk culture that predated printing. Originally perpetuated by word of mouth, many ballads survive because they were recorded on broadsides. Musical notation was rarely printed, as tunes were usually established favourites. The term 'ballad' eventually applied more broadly to any kind of topical or popular verse.
View Transcription | Download PDF Facsimile
Date of publication:
1869 shelfmark: L.C.1269(159a)
View larger image