If the minstrel boy to the war had gone

A few weeks back, I re-listened to the Clancy Brothers' rendition of “The Minstrel Boy,” and it's been running through my head intermittently ever since. Stirring and patriotic in an enjoyably over-the-top kind of way. But one thing keeps bothering me about the lyrics.

The second half of the first verse goes like this, according to Wikipedia:

“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,

“Tho' all the world betray thee,

One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,

One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

What's the problem? Well, “betray thee” and “praise thee” don't rhyme.

No problem, you may be thinking; just change it to “betrays thee.” And indeed, that may be how the original version went; a copy of the sheet music from 1895 says “betrays,” and that's how the Clancy Brothers sing it, so Wikipedia's version of the lyrics may be wrong. (The song was originally written between 1798 and 1852, though, so I'm not sure whether the 1895 version reflects the original lyrics or not.)

But there's still a problem:

“Though all the world betrays thee” gets the subjunctive form of the verb wrong. [Updated this paragraph and the following one a few days after posting, to clarify my confusing original phrasing.]

I realize that few today care about the poor subjunctive. But every time the song has run through my head in the past few weeks—and that has been a great many times—I've been mildly annoyed by this. When forced to choose between correct rhyme and correct subjunctive, which should one choose?

I suppose that another option is to take the line out of the subjunctive entirely, and make it a prediction instead, perhaps something like “When all the world betrays thee.” But somehow the semi-archaic phrasing of “Though all the world” appeals to me and seems to me to fit the general tone of the song well.

At any rate, I don't have a good answer. But I'm hoping that if I write this up as a blog entry, it will stop nagging at me.

3 Responses to “If the minstrel boy to the war had gone”

  1. shmuel

    I confess the problem here is eluding me. What’s improper about the use of the subjunctive?

    • Jed

      Oops, missed your comment, sorry.

      The correct subjunctive version of that phrase, as far as I can tell, is “Though all the world betray thee.”

      I see now that my phrasing was misleading. I didn’t mean that the subjunctive was being used incorrectly; I meant that “betrays” is not the subjunctive form of the word. I’ve now attempted to clarify the phrasing of the entry. Sorry about that.

  2. shmuel


    [Shmuel rereads the relevant bits in Evans and Evans a few times, just to be sure.]

    Good point. (And thanks for the clarification!)


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