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‘You had your will of me’

Q: James Joyce mentions “The Lass of Aughrim” at the end of “The Dead.” I looked the song up online, but was puzzled by the use of “will” here: “Oh Gregory, don’t you remember, / In my father’s hall. / When you had your will of me? / And that was the worst of all.”

A: Joyce has only a small excerpt from the ballad in “The Dead,” the last story in his collection Dubliners (1914): “O, the rain falls on my heavy locks / And the dew wets my skin, / My babe lies cold…”

“The Lass of Aughrim” is an Irish version of “The Lass of Roch Royal,” a Scottish ballad that “relates the story of a young woman who seeks admittance for herself and her baby to the dwelling of her lover, Lord Gregory,” according to Julie Henigan, an authority on Irish music.

In “The Old Irish Tonality: Folksong as Emotional Catalyst in ‘The Dead’ ” (New Hibernia Review, Winter 2007), Henigan says that “the Scottish variants of the ballad tend to provide greater detail than the Irish ones,” but most contain this skeletal plot:

“Lord Gregory’s mother, feigning the voice of her sleeping son, asks the girl to identify herself by naming love tokens that she and Lord Gregory have exchanged, and eventually turns the young woman away. When Lord Gregory awakens and learns of his mother’s treachery, he curses her and sets off in pursuit of his lover and child.”

While Henigan refers to Lord Gregory as a “lover,” some other scholars use more critical terms. Richard Ellman, for example, calls him a “civilized seducer” (James Joyce, 1957), and Margot Norris sees his conduct as “date rape” (“Stifled Back Answers: The Gender Politics of Art in Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ ” Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn 1989).

The ballad first appeared in a manuscript written in the 1700s but not published until the late 1800s, according to Francis James Child, a literary scholar and folklorist at Harvard University.

In The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98), where the manuscript was first published, Child writes that the oldest copy “is from a manuscript of the first half of the eighteenth century.”

Here’s an excerpt from the old manuscript in the Child Ballads, as the book is popularly known: “Lord Gregory, mind’st thou not the grove, / By bonnie Irvine-side, / Where first I own’d that virgin-love / I lang, lang had denied.”

And this is the much-altered later Irish version that you found online: “Oh Gregory, don’t you remember, / In my father’s hall. / When you had your will of me? / And that was the worst of all.”

“Will” here has the sense of sexual desire. The Oxford English Dictionary says it refers to “physical desire or appetite; esp. (and usually in later use) sexual desire.” The dictionary labels the usage “obsolete.”

The OED’s earliest example for “will” used in that way is from the Old English Blickling Homilies, believed written in the late 10th century: “Þa flæsclican willan & þa ungereclican uncysta” (“the desires of the flesh and the untamed vices”).

In a construction like “you had your will of me,” the OED says, the noun “will” refers to “that which a person desires, (one’s) desire. Chiefly as object of to have. Often followed by of indicating the person affected.” It labels that usage “now archaic or poetic.”

Finally, here’s an example that we found in an 18th-century English translation of Don Quixote, the epic novel by Cervantes that was originally published in Spanish in the early 1600s.

In this passage from Charles Jarvis’s 1742 translation, Donna Rodriguez asks Don Quixote to force a wayward lover to marry her daughter:

“my desire is, that, before you begin making your excursions on the highways, you would challenge this untamed rustic, and oblige him to marry my daughter, in compliance with the promise he gave her to be her husband, before he had his will of her.”

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