A dead lover returns to his still-alive fiance in the form of an apparition. He asks her to free him of their engagement or he’s bound for hell (dramatic much?). That’s essentially the gist of this English Ballad, which has many lyrical and musical variations.
Of course, there’s a push and pull between the ghost and the fiance. Usually, the ghost to appear is named William, hence the name of the ballad, and the fiance is typically called Margaret. She pushes him to marry her. He insists he’s dead. She tries to get William to kiss her, but he claims a kiss from her will end him. In some variations, she asks what the afterlife is like—because let’s be honest, if a dead lover appeared at the foot of your bed, you might be curious, too. He throws her a bone (pun intended) and tells her a little bit about what it’s like to be part of the undead.
And then the dramatic part. William insists that if his Margaret does not release him from his promise of marriage, his soul will be cast into the fiery abyss called hell. Margaret always releases him, and in some versions Margaret dies on his grave. (I hope William treated you well when he was alive, Margaret, because otherwise it would have been wiser to send him to the devil.)
Where did this ballad originate? It’s heavily based on folklore and superstition. Sir Walter Scott once wrote he’d heard a story similar to “Sweet William’s Ghost” from a Shetland woman. He’d been told that a woman with a broken engagement went to see her love in London. When she found him dead, she touched his hand to ensure he didn’t come back to haunt her. Sir Walter Scott based Advertisement to the Pirate (italics) on the tale.
Early versions of “Sweet William’s Ghost” come from Allan Ramsay’s The Tea-Table Miscellany in 1740 and Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. A version of the ballad would find itself included into The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, compiled by Francis James Child. There’s also many songs similar to “Sweet William’s Ghost,” such as “Fair Margaret and Sweet William,” “Lady Margaret,” and “The Unquiet Grave.”
A Canadian version of “Lady Margaret,” a variation of “Sweet William’s Ghost,” can he read and listened to here.
The Child Ballads: 77. Sweet William’s Ghost, Text to one version.
Specter Bridegrooms: Folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 365, translated and edited by D.L. Ashliman
Sweet William’s Ghost, version by Thomas Percy
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume 2 by Francis James Child