Meg Merrilies

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This well thumbed, scruffy little book was published in 1954 – before I was born. It belonged to my mother. Although I’m sure she must have done, I have no recollection of her ever reading a story book to me. She did however often read poetry. This was never of the kind written especially for children and some of it went completely over my head but there are a handful which have remained with me through the intervening decades. She knew every line of some of those which formed her repertoire.  The one that I most enjoyed as a small child was Keates’ Meg Merrilies and I have to say that my mother did recite it beautifully. As an adult it is still a poem that I enjoy, not least for the ease with which the simple text  conjours up such a vivid picture of Meg’s life. What a skill.  It’s astonishing to think that now considered one of the greatest poets in English Literature, Keates died at only 25 years old.

Sir Walter Scott’s 1815 novel Guy Mannering was the first to feature Meg Merrilies, whose character was drawn from the 18th century wife of a Gypsy King, Patrick Faa from the Cheviot Hills.   It is said that Keates wrote the poem during a walking tour in Kirkcudbrightshire. His companion suggested that this might be the area in which the story of Mannering was set. Keates had not read the book but after hearing about it, included the poem in the letter he was sending to his sister.

Old Meg she was a gypsy
And lived upon the moors
Her bed it was the brown heath turf
And her house was out of doors 

Her apples were swart blackberries
Her currants, pods of broom
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose
Her book, a churchyard tomb 

Her brothers were the craggy hills
Her sisters, larchen trees –
Alone with her great family
She lived as she did please 

No breakfast had she many a morn
No dinner many a noon
And ‘stead of supper she would stare
Full hard against the moon 

But every morn of woodbine fresh
She made her garlanding
And every night the dark glen yew
She wove, and she would sing 

And with her fingers old and brown
She plaited mats of rushes
And gave them to the cottagers
She met among the bushes 

Old Meg was brave as any queen
And tall as Amazon
An old red blanket coat she wore
A straw hat she had on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere –
She died, full long agone 

(John Keates 1795-1821)

10 comments

  1. I’ve heard of meg but never read this poem! I love it and will read to my grandchildren next time they stay over. I’ve actually been to kircudbrigh (pronounced so differently to how it’s spelt) so loved reading this post! 🤗

    Like

  2. That is a nice poem! I don’t think I’ve read it, before, although I’ve read his “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; we studied them at school for English, I remember.

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