Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Andrew Lang
IN treating of the Ballads, or old popular poetry of England, it is impossible to follow the plan generally adopted in this collection. We cannot arrange them by date of composition, for, while the plots and situations are often of immemorial age, the language is sometimes that of the last century. They are therefore inserted here, as they were first committed to the press and sold as broad-sheets not much later than the period at which we have arrived. About the authors of the ballads, and their historical date, we know nothing. Like the Volks-lieder of other European countries, the popular poems of England were composed by the people for the people. Again, the English ballads, and those of the Lowland Scotch, deal with topics common to the peasant singers of Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, and the Slavonic countries. The wide distribution of these topics is, like the distribution of märchen or popular tales, a mark of great antiquity. We cannot say when they originated, or where, or how; we only know that, in one shape or other, the themes of romantic ballads are very ancient. There are certain incidents, like that of the return of the dead mother to her oppressed children; like the sudden recovery of a fickle bridegrooms heart by the patient affection of his first love; like the adventure of May Colvin with a lover who has slain seven women, and tries to slay her; like the story of the bride who pretends to be dead that she may escape from a detested marriage, which are in all European countries the theme of popular song. Again, the pastimes and labours of the husbandmen and shepherd were, long ago, a kind of natural opera. Each task had its old song,ploughing, harvest, seed-time, marriage, burial, had appropriate ballads or dirges. Aubrey, the antiquary, mentions a song sung in the ox-house, when they wassel the oxen. A similar chant survives in Berry. Further, each of the rural dance-tunes had its ballad-accompaniment, and the dance was sometimes a rude dramatic representation of the action described in the poem. Many of the surviving volks-lieder are echoes from the music of this idyllic world of dance and song from the pleasant England in which
Other European ballads are echoes from the same stage of social life, but they are clearer, sweeter, more full and unbroken in tone than the lays of rural England. Our ballads speak of adventures known to Romaic, Danish, and Italian peasants; but in listening to them we hear the drawl of the dull rustic, and catch the snivelling drone of the provincial moralist. Unlike the Provençal, or Romaic, or Lowland Scotch ballads, the English remains are too often flat, garrulous, spiritless, and didactic. They lack the picturesqueness, the simplicity, the felicitous choice of expression, the fire, the speed of the best European volks-lieder. The probable reason of this flatness and languor will be stated presently; in the meantime we must note that the ballads of the Lowland Scotch, recovered from oral tradition, have the fire which we miss in English popular poems. It is for this reason that many of our selected ballads are chosen from the northern Border. The poets were none the less English in blood and language.
Before attempting to assign the causes of the poverty of English ballads, it may be as well to prove the fact. The death of Douglas in the English ballad of Chevy Chase is a passage that has won the praise of Addison. It runs thus:
In the Scotch ballad this event is prepared for by a dream which visits Douglas, a dream singularly impressive and romantic.
But I hae dreamed a dreary dream,
Beyond the Isle of Sky;
I saw a dead man win a fight,
But I think that man was I.
This supernatural effect is repeated at the moment of Douglass fall, and thus a new charm is won for the poem, which is missed in Chevy Chase. The supernatural is almost invariably treated in a gross and flat style by the English balladist. He never thrills the reader with that shudder of awe which is caused by Clerk Saunders, the Wife of Ushers Well, the Demon Lover, and Sir Roland. To give another example: the story of the Dead Mans Ride is common in European popular poetry. The German popular version has been lost in the fame of Bürgers Lenore. Everywhere the ballad tells how a dead lover (in Greece it is a dead brother), is roused from the sleep of death by the grief of a mistress or a mother, how the dead man carries his bride, or his sister, behind him on the saddle in a swift night ride, while the birds in the roadside cry, who is the fair girl that rides with the corpse? who is the lover, perfumed with the incense of the dead? The Romaic version is perhaps the most moving of all. The dead brother gallops with the living sister to the house of the bereaved mother; she hears his knock, and comes to the door, thinking that he is Charon, the emissary of deathCharon, who need not visit her, for she has already given him all her children but one daughter, and she is in a distant land,
Thus she speaks; and even as she speaks, she recognises the ghost of her son, and dies of terror in the presence of the living and the dead. In England this ballad becomes The Suffolk Miracle (Child, English and Scotch Ballads, vol. i. p. 217); a relation of a young man, who, two months after his death, appeared to his sweetheart, and carried her on horse-back behind him for forty miles in two hours, and was never seen after but in her grave. The ballad tells us how the young people loved each other, and how the father of the girl disapproved of the engagement:
Forty miles distant was she sent
Unto his brother, with intent
That she should there so long remain,
Till she had changed her mind again.
The lover dies of grief, and his ghost pays a morning visit to the house where the lady is living,
Which, when her uncle understood,
He hoped it would be for her good;
and gave his consent to the homeward ride, which the spectre accomplished at the creditable pace of twenty miles an hour. It would be easy, but it is perhaps superfluous, to go on multiplying examples of the poetic flatness of the English ballad. The enthusiasm of the specialist and the collector may be fired by the combat between Robin Hood and the bloody Butcher, but who can call this sort of thingpoetry?
Robin he marcht in the greene forest,
Under the greenwood spray,
And there he was ware of a proud bucher,
Came driving flesh that way;
The Bucher he had a cut-tailed dogg, &c.
If this be not enough, consider the exquisite final stanza of The Ladyes Fall:
Take heed you dainty damsells all,
Of flattering words beware;
And to the honour of your name,
Have you a specyal care!
As a general rule the Lowland Scotch ballads have escaped the didactic drivel and the long-drawn whine of the English examples. It is true that in one of them we learn, from a marvellously prosaic bard, how
John Thomson fought against the Turks,
and how this young chieftain (namely Thomson) sat alone. But this weakness is rare enough in the poetry of the Northern Border. Even in a comparatively modern ballad, composed on a murder committed at Warristoun, near Edinburgh in 1600, there are picturesque touches. The lady of Warristoun had procured the death of her cruel husband. In the ballad she exclaims:
I wish that ye may sink for sin,
I was but fifteen years auld,
When first I entered your gates within.
To any one who knew the gloomy house of Warristoun, hanging over the deep black pool below, this verse must have seemed charged with the sentiment of The Fall of the House of Usher. The ballad is a fine example of the working of popular fancy on a historical datum.
Popular poetry has often been compared to the wild rose, the wild stock out of which the richer garden roses are grown. If the wild stock be so poor and feeble in England, how comes it, we may ask, that English cultivated poetry is so rich in colour and perfume? In simpler language, if the people is so devoid of poetry, how has the race come to produce so many great poets and the noblest poetic literature of the modern world, while artistic poets are rare indeed among races which have great wealth of popular song? This is not the place to attempt a full answer to the question; we can only defend the natural imagination of the English people by saying that we do not really possess its unsophisticated productions. The English ballads are not, or are very rarely, pure volks-lieder. The vast majority of them have not been collected from oral tradition, like the ballads of the Scotch Border, of Italy, and of Greece. As soon as printing was firmly established in England, the traditional songs were distributed in cheap broad-sheets. The people love a ballad but even too well; if it be doleful matter, merrily set down, or a very pleasant thing indeed, and sung lamentably. Pedlars like Shakspeares Autolycus had songs for man or woman of all sizes. These songs may originally have been true volks-liedermany of them, indeed, can have been nothing else. In passing, however, through the hands of the printers and poor scholars who prepared them for the press, they became dull, long-drawn, and didactic. The loyalty, good-humour, and love of the free air and the greenwood remain, but the clerks have spoiled the praise of Robin Hood, the good outlaw. The ballads wandered about the land, corrupted from the simplicity that pleased the untaught, into harmony with the roughest educated taste. By Addisons time these broad-sheet ballads had been pasted on the walls of chambers in country houses. In the country, says The Spectator (No. 85, June 7, 1711), I cannot, for my Heart, leave a Room before I have thoroughly studied the Walls of it, and examined the several printed Papers which are usually pasted upon them. And on a wall, Addison says, he found the old Ballad of The two Children in the Wood, which is one of the darling songs of the common People. Most of our English ballads are gathered from old broad-sheets and ancient MS. collections. To say that is to say that they are dashed with the humblest literary commonplace, that they do not come straight from the heart and lips of a singing people, like the modern Greeks or Italians. They have acquired, in the hands of half-educated printers and editors, a tone which is not the tone of the people. They are almost as bald, often, as Dr. Johnson declared them to beas bald as Johnsons parody:
I put my hat upon my head, and went into the Strand,
And there I saw another man, with his hat in his hand.
The history of English ballad-collecting may be summed up very briefly. We know from Sir Philip Sidneys Defence of Poesie, and from many passages in the Elizabethan drama, that ballads were both sung by blind crowders, like the minstrels on the modern Greek frontier, and distributed by pedlars. Addison not only studied English volks-lieder, but also those of France and Italy. He tells us that Lord Dorset had a numerous collection of old English Ballads, and took a particular pleasure in the reading of them. Mr. Dryden was of the same humour, so was Pepys of the famous diary. The little conceited wits of the age laughed at Addison, but Dryden ventured to publish some ballads in Miscellany Poems (16841708). A Collection of Old Ballads (since reprinted) was put out in 1723. Ramsays Evergreen, containing many popular songs, appeared in 1724. The great event in the history of the taste for ballads was the publication of Percys Reliques of Ancient Poetry, in 1765. Percy, as is well known, altered, softened, and diluted the old copies which he found in a folio MS. that came into his possession. A correct text from the folio, with excessively copious notes and prolegomena, was published by Messrs. Furnivall and Hales (London, 186768, 3 vols.). Other noteworthy collections are those of Herd (1769), Ritson, Buchan, Motherwell, Kinloch, Jamieson (1806), and above all, The Border Minstrelsy of Scott. Perhaps the best modern collection, the most scholarly, and the least overladen with notes, is that of Professor F. J. Child (English and Scotch Ballads, Boston, 1864). The Ballad Book of Mr. W. Allingham (London, 1864) is the companion of every true ballad lover.
The poetic character and quality of the ballads will be best learned from these poems themselves. They have the imaginative daring of early and simple minds; they often deal with great tragic situations, with deep and universal passions. They are most poetical when the ardour, the anguish, the love, the remorse of some passionate mind becomes for once articulate, as in the cry of Waly, waly, the regret of Edom o Gordon, the mysterious wail of The Wife o Ushers Well, or the monotonous chant of The Lyke-wake Dirge.
In selecting Ballads for a purely poetical collection, it is necessary to choose, not those which the historian, the antiquary, the student of early society might prefer, but those which have most poetical power and charm, and are least embellished by modern editors. We may, for the purposes of this work, divide Ballads into five classesthe Historical, or Mythico-historical, to represent which we pick out Sir Patrick Spens, and Edom o Gordon. In each of these poems the popular fancy works on true historical data. The second class is the Romantic, and here Glasgerion, The Douglas Tragedy, The Twa Corbies, and Waly, Waly are chosen. As specimens of the popular treatment of the Supernatural, we take Clerk Saunders, The Wife of Ushers Well, and the fragment of a popular Dirge, like those which are still sung by the women of Corsica and the Greek isles. Ballads of the adventures of outlaws and wild marchmen will find their representative in Kinmont Willie. As any selection, however limited, is incomplete without fragments of the Robin Hood cycle, we end with Robin and the Widows Three Sons, and Robin Hoods Death and Burial, while The Bailiffs Daughter illustrates the more domestic ballads of the English people. These are representatives of different classes of volks-lieder, but few poems suffer so much in the process of selection. Too many of the highest quality have to be omitted for want of space. And the ballads are wronged too, when they are made to appear among the more ornate and various measures of cultivated and artistic poetry.