Poetry Friday: The Water Is Wide

August 22, 2008 @ 6:58 am | Filed under: ,

Another old Scots ballad I’ve been humming almost incessantly lately.

The water is wide,
I canna cross o’er.
Neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row,
my love and I.

A ship there is,
And she sails the sea.
She’s loaded deep as deep can be.
But not so deep
As the love I’m in…
I know not if I sink or swim.

I love these old songs so very much. This one goes way, way back, and has many variations, some Scottish, some English. The most common version, the one I’ve quoted above, goes on to tell a very sad tale of love lost, betrayal, faithlessness. But I like the song best just like this: these two simple verses, which by themselves seem to me to speak to a true love, a real love, the kind between two people who, pulling together, can navigate stormy waters no matter how burdened the boat.

If you’d like to listen to the melody—perhaps even more beautiful than the lyrics—here’s a lovely version by Jewel, Sarah MacLachlan, and The Indigo Girls. (YouTube clip.)

Or here’s James Taylor.

The singer in this YouTube clip sounds like Charlotte Church to me, though she isn’t credited. The visuals are scenery.

This week’s Poetry Friday round-up can be found at Read. Imagine. Talk.

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19 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Barbara H. says:

    Oh, I love this song! Like you, I especially like those two verses. The rest of it is sad, even cynical. My favorite rendition so far is by The King’s Singers

  2. Kelly Fineman says:

    Oh how I love that song, which I sing from time to time myself (only I never remember the second verse). It is so haunting and lovely. And often, it makes me cry. It’s not the words, really, so much as the haunting nature of the tune – the build and the rise in the middle of the stanza.

    And now, I can learn all the words to verse 2. Thank you.

  3. Jamie says:

    This is one of my favorites. I actually know it by the title Wally Wally….not sure why, but assume it is Gaelic or something(?).

    There is also a similar song by the Peasall Sisters (look them up…they are WONDERFUL!!! Great harmonies as only sisters can do!)

  4. Melissa Wiley says:

    Waly Waly is the even older Scottish version…

    O waly waly up the bank
    And waly waly doon the brae,
    And waly way by yon burn side
    Where I and my first love did gae.

    I leaned my back against an oak
    Thinkin’ it was a trusty tree,
    But first it bent and then it broke,
    And so did my first love tae me.

    When we cam in frae Glasgow toun,
    We were a comely sight tae see,
    My love was clad in the velvet black,
    And I mysel in cramasie.

    Noo Arthur’s Seat shall be my bed,
    No sheets shall e’er be pressed by me,
    Saint Anton’s Well shall be my drink,
    Since my fause love’s forsaken me.

    ‘Tis not the frost that freezes fell
    Nor blawin’ snaw’s inclemency,
    ‘Tis not sic cauld that makes me cry
    But my love’s heart’s grown cauld tae me.

    Oh Martinmas wind when wilt thou blaw
    And shake the green leaves off the tree ?
    Oh gentle death, when wilt thou come ?
    For of my life I am weary.

  5. Alice Gunther says:

    Oh this brings back a great memory.

    Two years ago (just after the baby was born) we were away on vacation, when the children joined a talent show. Almost all the contestants in the show sang songs from High Musical or danced to hip hop, but Margaret (then still 8) sang The Water is Wide, a capella. She absolutely brought the house down with her pure, young, earnest voice. People went crazy. It was such a great moment for her!

  6. LB says:

    Thank you for the reminder of this lovely old song. I really like James Taylor’s arrangement of the lyrics – and having the BSO (or even the Pops) behind you never hurts.

  7. MelanieB says:

    Oh, thank you. I love these old songs too but somehow have never heard this one before. It’s so very lovely.

    And may I add that it interrupted the baby’s nursing session. She seriously pulled off and craned her neck to watch the you tube videos over her shoulder. I finally had to just sit her up where she could watch the computer. I can already tell she’s going to be just like her big sister: Video, mama, video. I want video.

  8. TadMack says:

    How odd. I learned this song in the first grade — and learned the first verse you wrote, the second verse of Wally Wally, and a third verse that I think my teacher must have made up:

    I trust my heart/to God’s good care,
    And He shall be/ My Guardian Guide,
    And I shall walk/ Forever free,
    His Presence near/ Right by my side.

    Our teacher played a lap heart, and it was really pretty.

    Incidentally, King Arthur’s Seat is a massive cliff in Edinburgh, just below the palace. What a horrible place to lie down and die.

  9. Karen Edmisten says:

    I *love* this song, too. Have you heard Niamh Parsons sing it? Here’s a link:

  10. Jamie says:

    The other tune I was thinking of was Carrick Fergus. Have you heard it?

  11. Melissa Wiley says:

    Oh Karen, I LOVE Niamh’s version!! Lovely!

    Jamie, I don’t know that one–I will look it up. Can’t wait to hear. 🙂

  12. MelanieB says:


    I don’t know, I climbed King Arthur’s seat with my friend when on a breezy February holiday. I have very fond memories of that trip and rather thought it would be a nice final resting place.

  13. Ivy says:

    I love this song too. First heard it sung by Maybelle in Homecoming (movie version of Cynthia Voigt’s book) and bought Charlotte Church’s Enchantment album because of this and Carrickfergus. I also love the Lilith Fair version with Jewel, Sarah Mclachlan, and the Indigo Girls singing it. 🙂

  14. Rachel says:

    That’s one of my favorite songs. It never fails to move me, no matter how many times I hear it.

  15. Beck says:

    That’s one of my favorite songs, too!

  16. Katherine says:

    There is a beautiful hymn to the tune of “The Water is Wide” as well. So lovely!

    Though I may speak with bravest fire,
    And have the gift to all inspire,
    And have not love, my words are vain,
    As sounding brass, and hopeless gain.

    Though I may give all I possess,
    And striving so my love profess,
    But not be given by love within,
    The profit soon turns strangely thin.

    Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control,
    Our spirits long to be made whole.
    Let inward love guide every deed;
    By this we worship, and are freed.

  17. Jackie says:

    I’m so glad I followed a link to your blog today. I love this song, but didn’t remember it by name until I pulled up the u-tube spots. I heard an African choir sing it when I was in college–so haunting and beautiful. I can’t wait to share it with my kids in the morning. I have visited here before–you inspire me each time. Your words always fill me with wishes.

  18. john guzlowski says:

    I was looking for a youtube of The Water is Wide and found your lovely discussion. Thank you so much. I will be passing this site on to a friend who I was telling about The Water is Wide.

  19. Steve says:

    I knew of the old Christian hymn in this tune. Thanks for sharing the lyrics. I used to memorize James Taylor’s version of this song while waiting for my wife to get off work (I taught at the seminary she worked at the hospital). Then I discovered the old hymn from a prof. in the music school. Thanks for including those lyrics above. They are beautiful.