John Barleycorn Must Die

Emma’s literary studies generally focus upon late-twentieth literature (science fiction novels to be precise, which via her ecocritical perspective, seem to fit Dan Bloom’s description of clifi). However, one of the novel’s she has been analysing begins with an epigraph from a traditional English folksong (circa 1650s), her thoughts about which she shares in this post. 

There were three men came out of the west

Their fortune for to try

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn must die.

So begins “John Barleycorn.” As the folksong progresses, the audience learns that John Barleycorn is not a person, but a personification of a crop of barley, and the three men who want him dead are farmers. The verse continues by describing the agricultural and manufacturing processes by which barley is made into alcohol: farmers, field workers and a miller plant, harvest and grind the barley, turning it into whisky and beer. However, these seemingly benign farming practices are inscribed as acts of brutality in the folksong:

They’ve [the farmers have] hired men with the scythes so sharp

To cut him off at the knee

They’ve hired men with the sharp pitchforks

Serving him most barbarously.

They’re hired men with the flailing sticks

To cut him skin from bone

And the miller he has served him worse than that

For he’s ground him between two stones.

This scene does not depict the image of active humans working upon a passive Nature, instead it depicts one group of men with tools torturing another man who is defenceless. Through the technique of personification, on the one hand, the actions of the farmers, field workers and miller are constructed as torture, and on theo other hand, “nature” is constructed as the victim of agriculture and manufacturing. Personification encourages audiences to sympathise with a lifeform that is typically backgrounded and ignored. 

In the ballad’s final stanza however, John Barleycorn ceases to be the victim of the men’s barbarous acts:

And little Sir John in the nut-brown beer

And the whisky in the glass

And little Sir John in the nut-brown beer

Proved the strongest man at last.

John Barleycorn’s final strength is twofold; firstly, it resides in his regenerative capacity. Despite being buried in the ground and pronounced “dead,” he “sprung up his head” in springtime; and despite being cut and pulverised, he is reborn in whisky and beer. In this way, John Barleycorn is represented as a symbol of “nature’s” resilience in the face of human technology in the folksong.

Secondly, John Barleycorn’s strength resides in the capacity of alcohol to change the drinker. Jack London describes this strength in his autobiographical novel called John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs: “[s]ometimes, under the spell of John Barleycorn, the most frightful things were done—things that shocked even my case-hardened soul … is there a greater maker of madness of all sorts than John Barleycorn?” Interestingly, John Barleycorn can only exert his power over humans after they have transformed him into alcohol. In this instance, it is human endeavour that enables “nature” to seek revenge on its human torturers by inflicting drunkenness (and hangovers) on them.

Reading “John Barleycorn” in the early twentieth-first century, the poetic imagination of the seventeenth century seems to carry some sage advice. “Nature” is mighty resilient and has a non-intential agency that, if we continue to dig it up, cut it down an burn it, will end up inflicting upon us an end that will be a lot worse than a hangover.

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3 thoughts on “John Barleycorn Must Die

  1. Pingback: Your doctoral cohort: network with your peers | 100 days to the doctorate & beyond

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