Things Impossible

DESCRIPTION: "As I was walking in a grove All by myself as I supposed," the singer meets a pretty girl who asks "To tell her when I would marry." He sets conditions: "When saffron grows on every tree," "When Michaelmas falls in February," etc., then he will marry
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1869 (Logan)
KEYWORDS: love courting humorous rejection
FOUND IN: Britain(England) US(Ap,MW)
REFERENCES (9 citations):
Gardner/Chickering 158, "Things Impossible" (1 text)
Wyman-Brockway II, p. 106, "The Inquisitive Lover" (1 text, 1 tune)
Logan, pp. 360-362, "Improbability" (1 text)
Williams-Thames, p. 200, "Then My Love and I'll Be Married" (1 text) (also Wiltshire-WSRO Ox 221)
Huntington-Gam, pp. 258-260, "A Lady's Answer" (1 text, 1 tune; the text seems to mix "Things Impossible" and "My Wife Went Away and Left Me," in that the speaker is male but asks the woman to marry, not to return to him; perhaps it is close to the original source)
ADDITIONAL: J Woodfall Ebsworth, The Roxburghe Ballads, (Hertford, 1891 ("Digitized by Microsoft")), Vol. VII Part 2 [Part 21], pp. 294-298, "O Then My Love and I Will Marry" (2 texts: "The Young Man's Resolution it the Maiden's Request", "The Maiden's Reply to the Young Man's Resolution")
Joseph Woodfall Ebsworth, editor, The Bagford Ballads: Illustrating the Last Years of the Stuarts (Hertford, 1878 ("Digitized by Google")), Second Division, pp. 534-538, "The Maiden's Answer to the Young Man's Request" (1 text).
John Ashton, A Century of Ballads (London, 1887 ("Digitized by Google")) pp. 315-318, "The Young Man's Resolutionto the Maiden's Request" (1 text) [redundant; included here because Gardner/Chickering includes it as an example]
G.L. Kittredge, editor, "Ballads and Songs" in _The Journal of American Folklore_, Vol. XXX, No. 117 (Jul-Sep 1917 (available online by JSTOR; the entire vol. XXX is "Digitized by Google")), pp. 352-353 "The Inquisitive Lover" (1 text, 1 tune)

ST GC158 (Partial)
Roud #3686
Bodleian, Johnson Ballads 366 [many illegible words], "Improbability" or "The Batchelor's Dislike to a Married Life" ("As I was walking in the grove") , J. Evans (London), 1780-1812; also Harding B 17(137b), "Improbability" or "The Batchelor's Dislike to a Married Life"; Harding B 28(283), Harding B 25(895), "Improbability" or "An Answer to the Question"
EngBdsdBA 21225, Pepys 3.212, "The Young Man's Resolution to the Maiden's Request" ("As I was walking under a Grove, within myself as I supposed"), Josiah Blare (London), no date, accessed 08 Dec 2013.

cf. "My Wife Went Away and Left Me" (lyrics)
cf. "Of Late I've Been Driven Near Crazy" (list of improbabilities)
NOTES: This song has lyrics in common with the one indexed as "My Wife Went Away and Left Me"; both involve lists of impossible conditions. But this is a song in which the girl seeks the young man's hand; that is a song in which the man begs her to return after she abandons him. The conditions set are similar, the plots are not.
In addition, although there is a report of this song from Michigan and Kentucky and somewhere in New England, it seems to exist mostly in Britain, whereas "My Wife Went Away and Left Me" seems to be mostly from the southern United States. On this basis, I split them; Roud of course lumps them. Best to check both, though, the Huntington-Gam version, for instance, seems to live between the other two.
Rorrer's notes on "My Wife Went Away and Left Me" mention a song by Charles D. Vann called "Then My Darling I'll Come Back to Thee." I have not seen it, but it strikes me as possible that Vann took the English piece and rewrote it, resulting in the American version. - RBW
This comparison looks at the six texts I have seen for "Things Impossible." In chronological sequence:
-- "Young Man's Resolution"(c.1659): (Ebsworth-Roxburghe, Broadside EngBdsdBA, Pepys 3.212, and Ashton). Ebsworth cites a reference to a 1658 event relating to Cromwell and estimates the date c.1659-1660
-- "Maiden's Reply"(c.1676): (Ebsworth-Roxburghe). Ebsworth believes this must be later than "Young Man's Resolution" and earlier than his Bagford "Maiden's Answer".
-- Bagford(c.1684): (Ebsworth-Bagford). Ebsworth makes the date "about 1684, perhaps earlier, but after 1677."
-- Logan (c.1809): (Logan and Bodleian broadsides Johnson Ballads 366, Harding B 17(137b, Harding B 28(283) and Harding B 25(895)). With minor exceptions [must "swans" or "swarms" breed [probably should be "swim"] "upon dry banks] and a few omitted lines these are essentially the same. Logan found his text in "a broadside, printed in Scotland about 1809; the earliest of the Bodleian broadsides is dated before 1813.
-- Gardner(c.1865): (Gardner/Chickering) Gardner/Chickering cites "the Gernsey manuscript" as the source. The date of the manuscript was "written from 1841, or perhaps before, until the time of the Civil War at least" (p. 489).
-- Kittredge(1916): (Kittredge) "... taken down in 1916 ... [in] Kentucky."
-- Williams(c.1923): (Williams-Thames) before 1923
The ballads may have an introduction and a conclusion. The body of each ballad is a set of one or more verses. Each verse has seven "improbabilities" and a final phrase close to "O then my love and I'll be married."
All of the versions beginning with the Logan (c.1809) set are derived from the three Ebsworth texts printed between c.1659 and c.1684: "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659), "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676), and Bagford (c.1684). Of those, by far the most influential is "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) and the least influential is Bagford (c.1684). The influences are in the introduction and each of the "improbabilities." None of the later texts has a conclusion.
Description of "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659): The singer, walking in a grove, meets his sweetheart, who asked him "to tell her when I meant to marry." She promises not to interrupt him. Improbabilities. She wishes him well and hopes he might find a wife. She says if all young men were of his mind "it would be when the Devil is blind, that we and our Lovers should be marryed."
Description of "Maiden's Reply" ( c.1676): The singer tells "a young man" not to "think that I do wait your leisure." She "can have sweet-hearts at my pleasure" and will tell him "when I mean with you to marry." Improbabilities. No conclusion.
Description of Bagford (c.1684): "A Damsel fair ... In a silent Grove stood musing, She seem'd to Marriage to incline, And yet she often was refusing. A young man then by chance came by And aske'd her why so long she tarried." Improbabilities. She has seen many married women wish they had remained single. She herself will remain single until "all these things shall come to pass."
Logan (c.1809), Gardner (c.1865) and Kittredge (1916) have introductions. Logan (c.1809) and Gardner (c.1865) introductions include most of the first verse of "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659); specifically, the singer, walking in a grove, meets his sweetheart, who asked him "to tell her when I meant to marry." Kittredge (1916) includes almost the entire introduction of "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659). The question, to be asked again, is what versions after Pepys carried the words to Kentucky 1916?
Williams(c.1923) has no introduction.
The "improbabilities" of the three Ebsworth texts are different. "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) has 49 improbabilities (a multiple of seven, as expected). "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676) has 63, of which only one is shared with "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) [a variant of "when saffron groes on every tree"]. Bagford(c.1684) has 56 improbabilities, of which one is shared with both earlier texts, two others with "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) and one other with "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676).
Of the later texts, allowing for variations discussed below, Gardner (c.1865) has one improbability and Williams (c.1923) has two that cannot be traced back to "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) or "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676). All of the Logan (c.1809) 35 improbabilities can be found in "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659). Of the Gardner (c.1865) 20 improbabilities [the oral texts no longer keep the structure of seven unique improbabilities to the verse], 17 can be found in "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) and two others in "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676). All 13 of the Kittredge (1916) improbabilities can be found in "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659). Of the Williams (c.1923) nine improbabilities three can be found in "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) and four others in "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676).
"Can be found in" is fine for trying to find ultimate sources of improbabilities but hides the intermediate texts. For that aspect we have to look at shared improbabilities. For example, while Logan (c.1809) cannot be an ultimate source for an improbability [since all of its improbabilities are found in "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) it is a likely intermediate text. Looking backwards:
-- "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676) [63 improbabilities] shares one improbability with "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659).
-- Bagford (c.1684) [56 improbabilities] shares three improbabilities with "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) and two with "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676).
-- Logan(c.1809) [35 improbabilities] shares 35 improbabilities with "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659), one with "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676), and two with Bagford(c.1684).
-- Gardner (c.1865) [20 improbabilities] shares 17 improbabilities with "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659), three with "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676), two with Bagford(c.1684) and 13 with Logan(c.1809).
-- Kittredge (1916) [13 improbabilities] shares all 13 improbabilities with "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659), 11 with Logan (c.1809), and 8 with Gardner (c.1865).
-- Williams (c.1923) [9 improbabilities] shares three with "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659), four with "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676), and two with Logan (c.1809).
I mentioned "variations" in improbabilities. "Shared" improbabilities are not always identical but seem to me to be closely related. Here are some examples:
-- What improbably grows on trees? "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) and Logan (c.1809): "when Saffron grows on every Tree"; "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676): "[when] Peasecods grow on every tree"; Bagford (c.1684): "when Guinnies grow on every tree"; Gardner (c.1865): "When sugar grows on cherry trees."
-- What about judges and February? "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659): "When Countrymen for judges sit, and Lambmass falls in February"; Logan (c.1809): "When country men for judges sit, And Michaelmass falls in February"; Gardne r(c.1865): When country girls for judges set, And leaves don't fall till February"; Kittredge(1916): "When countrymen for judges sit, And lemons fall in February."
-- What do swans -- or in some Logan (c.1809) broadsides, "swarms" -- do, and is it improbable at all? "Young Men's Resolution" (c.1659): "[When] Swans upon dry rocks are breeding"; Logan(c.1923): "[When] swans upon dry banks are breeding"; Gardner (c.1865): "[When] swans around dry rocks are swimming"; Kittredge(1916): "[When] swans upon dry rocks are swimming." And -- since I see mute swans breeding on dry banks -- why do we wait until Kittredge(1916) to get this "right"?
-- Notice that, in this case, Logan (c.1809) is skipped as a carrier. "Young Men's Resolution" (c.1659) and Gardner (c.1865): "[When] England into France is carried"; Kittredge (1916): "[When] Old English into France is carried."
How, if at all, does "My Wife Went Away and Left Me" fit? It doesn't. I have looked at the Poole and Harrell texts and Ray B Browne's 1953 text of "My Wife's Gone Off and Left Me" (The Alabama Folk Lyric (Bowling Green, 1979), #85A pp. 216-217). The introduction follows none of the Ebsworth introductions and, instead, has the deserted husband write a letter to his deserting wife. She replies with a list of improbabilities, none of which are shared with "Things Impossible" improbabilities. Sharing among "My Wife Went Away" improbabilities is similar to sharing among "Things Impossible" improbabilities (for example: Poole and Harrell: "When the groc'ry man puts sand in the sugar"; Browne: "When the grocer don't put sand in sugar"), but with more unshared lines (Harrell: "After the ballgame is over"; Browne: "When Texas goes for Prohibition"). The plots vary -- Poole has the husband write two letters; Harrell has the husband visit the wife and get beaten; Browne has no plot beyond the introduction - but the texts are still recognizable as the same song, though not at all "Things Impossible."
An entirely different song following the same idea is "Of Late I've Been Driven Near Crazy" (see Harry B. Peters, editor, Folk Songs Out of Wisconsin (Madison, 1977), pp. 176-177). The deserted husband -- "She ran away with a Chinee" -- writes her "a million of letters" and she replies with lists of improbabilities ("Wait 'til the bank robbers in Canada Bring back all the money they stole. When Jay Gould and the great Knights of Labor And all the trade unions agree."). Once again, no direct connection with "Things Impossible." It was sung in 1946 by a man 75 who heard it at a circus "as a small boy."
EngBdsdBA notes to Pepys 3.212 have J.S. [John Shirley] as the author. Ebsworth notes that the initials are variously reported as J.S and S.P., and suspects "the initials form another disguise for J[ohn] P[hillips], S[atyrist of Hypocrites]" and claims J.S "cannot be James Shirley."
EngBdsdBA have the tune of "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659) as "In summer time." Ebsworth assigns "the Robin Hood tune, 'In summer time when leaves grow green,' to "Young Man's Resolution" (c.1659), "Maiden's Reply" (c.1676) and the Bagford "Maiden's Reply." - BS
Last updated in version 4.2
File: GC158

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2017 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.