Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea

‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ is a traditional English folk song and nursery rhyme. It describes a speaker’s longing for her love, Bobby Shafto, who is out on a sea voyage.

Unlike some of the most popular rhymes, this one is far less entertaining and nonsensical. Most children’s songs are uplifting in their absurdity. The story is a classic tale of love, one that is facing a serious impediment. There are a few different versions of the song, several of which are discussed below. This is a very common feature with folk songs and nursery rhymes. The lyrics are passed down orally until someone finally writes down a definitive version. This changes as the times change and previous versions are remembered and perhaps reincorporated.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,

Silver buckles at his knee;

He’ll come back and marry me,

Bonny Bobby Shafto!

Bobby Shafto’s bright and fair,

Combing down his yellow hair;

He’s my love for evermore,

Bonny Bobby Shafto!

Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea Nursery Rhyme

Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea


Summary

Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ is a song delivered by a lover longing for her true love’s return.

The speaker starts the lines describing her love, Bobby Shafto, and stating that he’s gone to see. She hopes he’ll return one day and marry her. Although there are few details in this song, it seems likely that Bobby may run into trouble that prevents him from getting back to the speaker. Plus, it’s unclear if the love the speaker admits to is reciprocated.

The second set of four lines adds more details to the story. It’s clear the speaker admires Bobby’s looks, repetitively returning to language that praises them. She declares that he’s her love “for evermore” at the end of the nursery rhyme.

Structure and Form

‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ is an eight-line nursery rhyme that’s usually contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of AAAB CCCB. Sometimes, this pattern changes depending on the version of the text.

Literary Devices

Throughout ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ there are a few interesting literary devices that readers should take note of. The examples included below come from the most popular version of the song.

  • Repetition: seen through the use of a refrain. The fourth and eighth lines are exactly the same.
  • Anaphora: a type of repetition that occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. In this case, “Bobby Shafto’s” starts the first line and fifth line.
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Bonny Bobby” and “Bobby” and “bright.”


Detailed Analysis

Like most nursery rhymes, there is more than one version of ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea.’ Below is the most common version used today.

Lines 1-4

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,

Silver buckles at his knee;

He’ll come back and marry me,

Bonny Bobby Shafto!

In the first lines of ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea,’ the speaker begins with the line that came to be used as the title of the poem. This is an incredibly common feature of nursery rhymes. Plus, as is the case here, this line is repeated in one form or another. The line describes a man named Bobby Shafto who went to sea with silver buckles at his knee. This sets a simple scene that becomes more complex in the next two lines. It is quickly revealed that the speaker is a woman, someone who loves Bobby and who wants him to return from his sea voyage and marry her.

She uses the word “Bonny” to describe Bobby. This is a way of describing his beauty and attractiveness to her. It’s uncommon in contemporary conversations and even less common in reference to a man. Readers should note the use of a simple and unbroken rhyme scheme in these lines of AAAB. This is repeated in the next stanza with different end ‘A’ end sounds but the same ‘B,’ “Shafto.”

Lines 5-8

Bobby Shafto’s bright and fair,

Combing down his yellow hair;

He’s my love for evermore,

Bonny Bobby Shafto.

In the next four lines, the speaker describes Bobby’s appearance further. He is bright and fair. Perhaps this refers again to his attractiveness or perhaps to the way he carries himself.  When she adds the line about his yellow hair, it seems to suggest that she’s thinking about his appearance a great deal. He’s a good and beautiful man who the speaker knows she’s going to love “for evermore.”

Additional and Alternative Verses

As mentioned above, there are a few different versions of this song. Another version reads:

Bobby Shafto’s tall and slim,

He always dressed so neat and trim;

The ladies they all kick at him,

Bonny Bobby Shafto.


Bobby Shafto’s gettin’ a bairn,

For to dangle on his arm;

In his arm and on his knee,

Bobby Shafto loves me

One other version, which includes a few alterations and a new spelling for Shafto, reads:

Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea,

With silver buckles on his knee;

He’ll come back and marry me,

Pretty Bobby Shaftoe!


Bobby Shaftoe’s fat and fair,

Combing down his yellow hair;

He’s my love for evermore,

Pretty Bobby Shaftoe!

One of the most popular theories in regard to who Bobby Shafto was is that he was Robert Shafto, a member of parliament during the 1700s. There is a section of the verse that his supporters used:

Bobby Shafto’s looking out,

All his ribbons flew about,

All the ladies gave a shout,

Hey for Bobby Shafto!

Origins of Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea

This nursery rhyme has mixed origins. Some believe that it dates back to the mid-1700s where the real Bobby died in Ireland. Others have attempted to disprove this by citing the origins of the tune from an earlier poem, ‘Brave Willie Forster.’ It does appear that the song comes from some period in Irish history with multiple references to different possible men playing the role of Bobby. One version suggests that the speaker was meant to be a woman named Bridge Belasyse who had her heartbroken by Bobby and died soon after when he married Anne Duncombe instead.

FAQs

Who is Bobby Shafto?

It’s unclear who exactly Bobby Shafto is. There are a few different theories. One of the most popular is that he was Robert Shafto, a member of parliament for County Durham in the mid-to-late 1700s. There is, in fact, another verse that relates to this theory.

What is the tone of ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea?’

The tone is mournful and longing. The speaker is waiting for her true love, Bobby Shafto, to return from a sea voyage. She hopes to marry him when he comes back and spend the rest of her life with him.

What is the mood of ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea?’

The mood is interested and perhaps concerned, depending on the way in which the lines of the song are delivered. A reader might consider the possibility Bobby isn’t coming back and what the speaker is going to do then.

When was ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ written?

It was written sometime around the late 1700s or early 1800s. It was in 1805 that the first print version appeared. But, like most old nursery rhymes, it’s hard to determine exactly when they were written.

What is the purpose of ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea?’

Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ is a folk song. This means that it’s meant to tell a story, one that dates back to before the singer was alive. It is a perfect example of a tale of love and loss.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ should also consider reading some other nursery rhymes. For example:

  • Solomon Grundy‘ – was meant to teach children in an amusing and memorable way, the days of the week.
  • Sing a Song of Sixpence‘ – has several different possible meanings. There is historical evidence that suggests the act of putting a live bird in a pie was something that really happened.
  • Ring a Ring o’ Roses‘ – is a well-loved nursery rhyme that is usually associated with the Black Death.

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
>

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

Ad blocker detected

To create the home of poetry, we fund this through advertising

Please help us help you by disabling your ad blocker

 

We appreciate your support

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Send this to a friend