and so our heroine withdraws to metafilter!
September 29, 2010 12:06 AM   Subscribe

What exactly is Colin Meloy saying when he singing "When wilt thou trouble the waters in the cistern" in the song "A Bower Scene" on the album "The Hazards Of Love"?

It is a line spoken to an illegitimately pregnant woman by either her sister or a nun. I've googled around and found a lot of discussion but no actual conclusion. (It sounds a bit to me like the sister-character is asking when she's going to take a bath, but that doesn't really make any sense in the context of the narrative.)
posted by NoraReed to Grab Bag (13 answers total)
That should read "sings" and not "singing". Sort of embarrassing for a language-related question.
posted by NoraReed at 12:18 AM on September 29, 2010

It's really hard to say for sure.

I'm going to go with the theory that she is being advised by a not very sympathetic nun to throw herself in the well, because of the word "unconsolable." Like not just that she is sad, but that she is such a sinner she is a hopeless case.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:20 AM on September 29, 2010

Alternatively, and more horribly, drown the baby.
posted by holterbarbour at 12:30 AM on September 29, 2010

In anatomical latin, "cisterna" refers to a fluid-filled structure, and is usually translated as "cistern" in English e.g. the various subarachnoid cisterns of the brain. "Cyst" comes from the same root, IIRC.

As for the lyrics, I always figured it as the sister asking when her waters are going to break i.e. when is she due?
posted by Pinback at 1:17 AM on September 29, 2010

Probably not on the right track, but, since it's coming from a nun it may be a reference to ritual cleansing. IIRC the New Testament mentions a cistern where an angel periodically comes down to trouble the waters, and the first person to jump in is cleansed from sins and accompanying ailments.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:42 AM on September 29, 2010

I vote for drown the baby. A cistern is a generally a big stone rain barrel; though Wikipedia informs me that there are giant, reservoir-like ones in some parts of the world, AFAIK know most are the size of barrels, too small to drown an adult. "To trouble the water" within one would suggest doing something to make it turbulent --- eg, drowning something in it.

I dunno, though, the song's short and the versions I've found online don't seem to present a conclusion to the tale. So it's hard to say.
posted by Diablevert at 2:48 AM on September 29, 2010

It seems like it could mean several things:

1. "When will you have your period?" (leading to the conclusion in the next line that she's pregnant)

2. "When will you repent / be baptized?" (i.e. this old spiritual)

3. "When will you tell everyone about the pregnancy?" ("Trouble the waters" being perhaps an old expression meaning "cause a commotion" or "rock the boat")

4. "When is the baby due?" (childbirth being a messy thing sometimes conducted in waters)

Obviously you'd have to ask the writer to know for sure...
posted by mmoncur at 3:07 AM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's Adam Scheinberg's attempt at an interpretation of the album lyrics, and it seems to be a reasonable stab.

What he says on the subject:
(I had some trouble with the line “when wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern“, but I’ve decided that troubling the water must mean draining it or reducing the level, which would mean an event that would require lots of cleaning, in short: the birth.) [Update 2010-04-12: By far, the most popular debate in the comments is the relevance of the line "trouble the water in the cistern." It could mean the birth, it might reference Margaret's next cycle, or it may even suggest a baptism. Truth be told, it's irrelevant. All basically hint at the same thing: her peers suspect she's pregnant. The specifics of the line are generally unimportant to the storyline.]
There's a great deal of speculation in the comments, with varying degrees of plausibility. My own take on it, though, is that Meloy is just playing with the words 'sister' and 'cistern'; he often engages in wordplay at the expense of clarity (and I'm generally fine with that in music).
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:26 AM on September 29, 2010

On further thought, baptism is my favourite explanation; the 'cistern' could be the baptismal font, while 'trouble the water' is the act of baptism. It's the sort of thing one might say as a jibe to an unmarried mother.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:31 AM on September 29, 2010

It refers to the Pool of Bethesda (or Bethsaida) which was a cistern in the city of Jerusalem. The story is in the Gospels.

1Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 2Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.[b] 5One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"

7"Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me."

8Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." 9At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
posted by MasonDixon at 7:48 AM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Call me simple, but I always took the speaker to be Margaret's actual sister, complaining that she wasn't doing her chores because she was moping around, preoccupied with the pregnancy. In this interpretation, "trouble the water" simply means "fetch water," which I have assumed to be a daily chore assigned to Margaret in her family.

Having read all these other ideas about bathing or performing infanticide in the cistern, I will point out that both of these things would be really gross when we're talking about your only supply of drinking water. And why drown the baby there when the Taiga would serve so much better?
posted by richyoung at 8:02 AM on September 29, 2010

It's mmoncur's #1 above. "When will you have your period?". The sister (nun) assumedly keeps an eye on these things. It's the only explanation that makes sense to me.
posted by rocket88 at 8:36 AM on September 29, 2010

I think she's obliquely asking "When are you due", i.e. "When will the baby be drowned?" Which is logically followed by "And who is the father?" But Meloy often has double metaphors/meanings going on in his lyrics, so it could intentionally be many things at once. That's what's so great about it, morbid as that is!
posted by iamkimiam at 11:26 AM on September 29, 2010

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