The most famous performance of "Matty Groves" is by Fairport Convention, but, typically for me, I came to it backwards and sideways by encountering it first in the Inspector George Gently episode "Gently with Class," where it was plot-relevantly performed by Ebony Buckle. (At some point, I'll review George Gently, if only because even other people who like it seem to like it in a way that differs very greatly from mine.) That's the version I'll refer to here--it's shorter and choppier, with key transitions cut out, and that somehow succeeds in increasing its power, giving the impression that it's a story known so well that it can be abridged to its most relevant scenes and listeners will piece it together on their own. It's not unusual for referents in folk art to be lost or fragmented, so the abridgment of the song here seems to add to its age, and therefore to its feeling of immortality. "Matty Groves" is an old song--it was collected as one of the Child Ballads--and not just a folk ballad but a murder ballad, told to recount and hauntingly describe a crime.
Murder ballads can function as oral histories to keep facts alive, but the facts and names in "Matty Groves" are malleable. Matty is a young man coaxed into an adulterous tryst with Lord Arlen's wife, his resistance easily overcome when he hears that Lord Arlen won't be at home. But Arlen returns in time to catch the two in bed together and kills them both. It's not the nature of the crime that's shocking here but the unapologetic appetites and confessions of the people involved, and how clearly they proclaim themselves and their world. It's that Lady Arlen picks up Matty at church, on a holy day, and does so seemingly at random--"and when the meeting it was done, she cast her eyes about / and there she saw little Matty Groves walking in the crowd"--and it's how easily she overrules the true source of Matty's reluctance--"It's true I am Lord Arlen's wife / Lord Arlen's not at home."
The class overtones are surely part of what has made the story last so long--they're why the song was used in "Gently with Class," as if the episode name didn't give it away--and they'll provide critics, even amateur ones like me, with significant material for dissection. They also lead to one hell of a punchline: "'A grave, a grave,' Lord Arlen cried, 'to put these lovers in' / 'But bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin.'" The heart of Lord Arlen is the heart of the speaker in Browning's "My Last Duchess," one of my favorite poems:
She thanked men,—good! but thanked Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame This sort of trifling? Even had you skill In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse, —E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands As if alive.
But the difference is this: the speaker in "The Last Duchess" is an elegant portrayal of evil, whose wife has probably done nothing to incur even a sliver of a wrath, whose crime is merely undiscriminating friendliness. It's enough to offend, and he succeeds in making her into an object, a flat portrait that can be admired but not choose on its own who deserves admiration; the moment when his explanation of his actions crystallizes is genuinely chilling. But it's a horror poem, not a crime poem, because its emotional effect is perfect, pointed, and focused. "Matty Groves" is not just a song but a story, and not a horror story but a crime story. A single, unequivocal emotional response isn't asked for, only fascination with the boldness, messiness, and socially dangerous actions of the people involved, who aren't required to be innocent.
Consequently, the most significant moments in "Matty Groves" are those where the victims seem like anything but, where they're defiant. It's where Lady Arlen is sat on her husband's knee and declares (though she was "never known to speak so free") that she'd "rather kiss dead Matty's lips than you in your finery," and so incurs her own death. Best of all, it's this excerpt:
Little Matty Groves, he lay down and took a little sleep When he awoke, Lord Arlen was standing at his feet Saying, "How do you like my feather-bed, and how do you like my sheets? How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?" "Oh, it's well I like your feather-bed and well I like your sheets, But better I like your lady gay who lies in my arms asleep."
Which is to say: damn, Matty Groves.
What makes stories last is that they're told with enough vividness and detail that they lose their own points and can't be satisfactorily distilled to a thesis, even one that's greatly needed. You could change the details of "Matty Groves," and many people have; Lord Arlen's name, in particular, is prone to getting mangled. Names, of course, often have meaning, whether they were originally from true-to-life reportage or whether they were carefully chosen by some original author. What stays is Matty in the bed, refusing to be afraid of Lord Arlen, explaining that he likes his lady very well, thanks for asking; what stays is Lady Arlen saying it's true she's married but her husband's not at home. Frills--the literature of stories--have a way of vanishing. Actions don't.