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.”
One version of “Sweet William’s Ghost” can be found here. Another version, where Margaret dies on William’s grave, can be found here.
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.
Sweet William’s Ghost [Child 77]
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
I didn’t get the same version as you perhaps. In the version edited by Lisa Morton & Leslie Klinger, Wm says that if he kissed her she will die. “… I am no earthly man … Thy days will not be lang.” My version doesn’t have him in hell either.
Thank you for your question! I looked back at my notes, and it looks like there’s nearly a dozen different versions of “Sweet William’s Ghost” (From what I can find).
One of the versions is the one you’ve indicated, but there’s also one where William is accompanied by three hellhounds waiting to take him to hell: “Upon my heart are three hell-hounds / Bound my soul to keep. / One is for my drunkenness / And another is for my pride, / And one is for promising a pretty fair girl / That she should be my bride.” That version is called “Lady Margaret” can be listened to here: http://www.contemplator.com/child/margaret.html
There’s another that mentions William being aware of hell’s torments. Lady Margaret asks him: “Your faith and troth ye sanna get, / Nor will I twin wi thee, / Till ye tell me the pleasures o heaven, / And pains of hell how they be.” William replies: “The pleasures of heaven I wat not of, / But the pains of hell I dree [know]; / There some are hie hangd for huring, And some for adulterie.” That version can be found here, along with others, at 77E: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch077.htm
Hope this helps!