A Fair Maid Walking is one of many 19th century songs about men returning to their wives and lovers after spending years abroad either at sea or fighting for the British Army.
The theme is nearly always the same: the woman doesn’t recognise the man as her lover when he approaches her because he has been away for so long.
He acts as if he is a new suitor and asks her to marry him. She refuses, insisting that she will remain faithful to her true love and wait for him to return.
Songs often use a token as proof of identity
When the man hears that his lover is faithful to him he then reveals his true identity.
Sometimes, as in A Fair Maid Walking, the woman insists that the man proves his identity because he has been away for so long she cannot be sure.
This is usually accomplished by showing her a token she gave him years before, sometimes broken in two and divided between them.
Only when the woman is completely satisfied that the man is her true love does she agree to go with him.
Fair Maid Walking Lyrics in full
A fair maid walking all in her garden.
A brisk young sailor she chanced to spy.
He stepped up to her, thinking to gain her,
And said “fair maid can you fancy I.”
“You seem to me like a man of honour,
A man of honour you seem to be.
How can you impose on a poor young woman
Who is not fit your servant to be.”
“Well if you are not fit to be my servant,
Yet I have great regard for thee.
I’ll marry you, I’ll make you my lady,
And you’ll have servants to wait on thee.”
“But I have a true lover of my own sir,
And seven years he’s been gone from me,
And seven more I will wait all for him,
For if he’s alive, he’ll be true to me.”
“If for seven years your love has endured,
I’m sure he’s either dead or drowned.”
“Well if he’s alive, I do love him dearly,
And if he’s dead I hope he’s in glory crowned.”
When he did see his true love was loyal
All down before her he did fall,
Saying “I am your poor and young single sailor,
For many years on the ocean did sail.”
“Well if you are my poor and young single sailor,
Show me the token I gave to thee,
For seven years have made alteration
Since my true lover has gone to sea.”
He pulled his hand out of his bosom,
His fingers they being long and small,
Saying “here is the ring that was broke between us”
And when she saw it then down she fall.
He took her up all in his arms
And kisses gave her one, two and three,
Saying “I am your poor and young single sailor
Just now returned for to marry thee.”