I'll start out satisfying my recent blogging impulse with a brief post about the song my husband and I used as a sort of theme for the secular part of our wedding. "The Water is Wide" is derivative of an old, old song, the original of which itself has been lost. In the Child Ballads there are several related but dissimilar songs. "The Water is Wide" is also related to "Oh Waly, Waly."
The modern version I've chosen to learn is as follows:
1. The water is deep, I can't swim o'er,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Build me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.
2. There is a ship, and she sails the sea.
The sea's sae deep—as deep can be—
But not so deep as the love I'm in...
And I know not how I'll sink or swim.
3. I leaned my back against an oak,
Thinking it was the strongest tree,
But first it bended and then it broke,
And that's the way love treated me.
4. I reached my hand into the thorn,
Thinking the fairest flow'r to find.
I pricked my finger to the bone
And left the fairest flow'r behind.
5. Oh love is handsome and love is kind,
Gay as a jewel when first it's new.
But love grows old and waxes cold
And fades away like the morning dew.
(Sometimes, two additional verses are included, as follows. These I often omit, as we did at our wedding.)
6. Must I go bound while you go free?
Must I love a man who doesn't love me?
Must I be born with so little art
As to love a man who'll break my heart?
7. When cockle shells turn silver bells,
Then will my love come back to me.
When roses bloom in winter's gloom
Then will my love return to me.)
The best commentary I have on this song is found in what I wrote to my husband when we were choosing songs for our wedding reception:
Here's what I've been writing to help me think about this song, as I would like to give some sort of verbal and/or written explanation:
The Water is Wide
At first glance, this song may not impress the listener as being particularly happy or relevant to a wedding. It has a mournful, sober approach. But on deeper inspection, these lyrics deal quite realistically with the reality of marriage and speak to our hopes for our married life.
The Water is Wide relates two principles – the insufficiency and transience of the passion of love and the necessity of the boat which will carry the couple as they labor together.
Love alone is a poor support for us. Like the oak, which the singer thought “was the strongest tree,” it bends and breaks when one relies on it and like the rose for all its beauty, it pricks one’s finger when one grasps for it.
The feelings of love we have for each other are both overwhelmingly deep, but also shallow and transient against the test of time and hardship. Sentiments and passions are “gay as a jewel, when first it’s new.” But unguarded and unnourished “love grows auld and waxes cold and fades away like morning dew.”
Against all the perils of love and cynical disappointment in marriage is set the boat. Whether or not the early development of the song intended the metaphor, a boat has historically been viewed as a metaphor of the Church. Though the waters of love or hardship be wide or deep and despite our lack of swimming skills or wings to pass over or through the ship of Christ’s Church, in which we receive forgiveness of sins, life, and peace, in Jesus’ Name, will carry us over, even in the times when we “know not if [we] will sink or swim.”