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Ch. 8: Percy and the Ballads

The regeneration of English poetic style at the close of the last century came from an unexpected quarter. What scholars and professional men of letters had sought to do by their imitations of Spenser and Milton, and their domestication of the Gothic and the Celtic muse, was much more effectually done by Percy and the ballad collectors. What they had sought to do was to recall British poetry to the walks of imagination and to older and better models than Dryden and Pope. But they could not jump off their own shadows: the eighteenth century was too much for them. While they anxiously cultivated wildness and simplicity, their diction remained polished, literary, academic to a degree. It is not, indeed, until we reach the boundaries of a new century that we encounter a Gulf Stream of emotional, creative impulse strong enough and hot enough to thaw the classical icebergs till not a floating spiculum of them is left.

Meanwhile, however, there occurred a revivifying contact with one department, at least, of early verse literature, which did much to clear the way for Scott and Coleridge and Keats. The decade from 1760 to 1770 is important in the history of English romanticism, and its most important title is Thomas Percy's "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and Other Pieces of our Earlier Poets," published in three volumes in 1765. It made a less immediate and exciting impression upon contemporary Europe than MacPherson's "Poems of Ossian," but it was more fruitful in enduring results. The Germans make a convenient classification of poetry into Kunstpoesie and Volkspoesie, terms which may be imperfectly translated as literary poetry and popular poetry. The English Kunstpoesie of the Middle Ages lay buried under many superincumbent layers of literary fashion. Oblivion had overtaken Gower and Occleve, and Lydgate and Stephen Hawes, and Skelton, and Henryson and James I. of Scotland, and well-nigh Chaucer himself—all the mediaeval poetry of the schools, in short. But it was known to the curious that there was still extant a large body of popular poetry in the shape of narrative ballads, which had been handed down chiefly by oral transmission, and still lived in the memories and upon the lips of the common people. Many of these went back in their original shapes to the Middle Ages, or to an even remoter antiquity, and belonged to that great store of folk-lore which was the common inheritance of the Aryan race. Analogues and variants of favorite English and Scottish ballads have been traced through almost all the tongues of modern Europe. Danish literature is especially rich in ballads and affords valuable illustrations of our native ministrelsy.[1] It was, perhaps, due in part to the Danish settlements in Northumbria and to the large Scandinavian admixture in the Northumbrian blood and dialect, that "the north countrie" became par excellence the ballad land: Lowland Scotland—particularly the Lothians—and the English bordering counties, Northumberland, Westmoreland, and Cumberland; with Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, in which were Barndale and Sherwood Forests, Robin Hood's haunts. It is not possible to assign exact dates to these songs. They were seldom reduced to writing till many years after they were composed. In the Middle Ages they were sung to the harp by wandering minstrels. In later times they were chanted or recited by ballad-singers at fairs, markets, ale-houses, street-corners, sometimes to the accompaniment of a fiddle or crowd. They were learned by ancient dames, who repeated them in chimney corners to children and grandchildren. In this way some of them were preserved in an unwritten state, even to the present day, in the tenacious memory of the people, always at bottom conservative and, under a hundred changes of fashion in the literary poetry which passes over their heads, clinging obstinately to old songs and beliefs learned in childhood, and handing them on to posterity. Walter Scott got much of the material for his "Ministrelsy of the Border" from the oral recitation of pipers, shepherds, and old women in Ettrick Forest. Professor Child's—the latest and fullest ballad collection—contains pieces never before given in print or manuscript, some of them obtained in America![2]

Leading this subterranean existence, and generally thought unworthy the notice of educated people, they naturally underwent repeated changes; so that we have numerous versions of the same story, and incidents, descriptions, and entire stanzas are borrowed and lent freely among the different ballads. The circumstance, e.g., of the birk and the briar springing from the graves of true lovers and intertwisting their branches occurs in the ballads of "Fair Margaret and Sweet William," "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet," "Lord Lovel," "Fair Janet," and many others. The knight who was carried to fairyland through an entrance in a green hillside, and abode seven years with the queen of fairy, recurs in "Tam Lin," "Thomas Rymer,"[3] etc. Like all folk-songs, these ballads are anonymous and may be regarded not as the composition of any one poet, but as the property, and in a sense the work, of the people as a whole. Coming out of an uncertain past, based on some dark legend of heart-break or blood-shed, they bear no author's name, but are ferae naturae and have the flavor of wild game. They were common stock, like the national speech; everyone could contribute toward them: generations of nameless poets, minstrels, ballad-singers modernized their language to suit new times, altered their dialect to suit new places, accommodated their details to different audiences, English or Scotch, and in every way that they thought fit added, retrenched, corrupted, improved, and passed them on.

Folk-poetry is conventional; it seems to be the production of a guild, and to have certain well understood and commonly expected tricks of style and verse. Freshness and sincerity are almost always attributes of the poetry of heroic ages, but individuality belongs to a high civilization and an advanced literary culture. Whether the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" are the work of one poet or of a cycle of poets, doubtless the rhetorical peculiarities of the Homeric epics, such as the recurrent phrase and the conventional epithet (the rosy-fingered dawn, the well-greaved Greeks, the swift-footed Achilles, the much-enduring Odysseus, etc.) are due to this communal or associative character of ancient heroic song. As in the companies of architects who built the mediaeval cathedrals, or in the schools of early Italian painters, masters and disciples, the manner of the individual artist was subdued to the tradition of his craft.

The English and Scottish popular ballads are in various simple stanza forms, the commonest of all being the old septenarius or "fourteener," arranged in a four-lined stanza of alternate eights and sixes, thus:

"Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the gray;
The eldest to the youngest said
''Tis time we were away.'"[4]

This is the stanza usually employed by modern ballad imitators, like Coleridge in "The Ancient Mariner," Scott in "Jock o' Hazeldean," Longfellow in "The Wreck of the Hesperus," Macaulay in the "Lays of Ancient Rome," Aytoun in the "Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers." Many of the stylistic and metrical peculiarities of the ballads arose from the fact that they were made to be sung or recited from memory. Such are perhaps the division of the longer ones into fits, to rest the voice of the singer; and the use of the burden or refrain for the same purpose, as also to give the listeners and bystanders a chance to take up the chorus, which they probably accompanied with a few dancing steps.[5] Sometimes the burden has no meaning in itself and serves only to mark time with a Hey derry down or an O lilly lally and the like. Sometimes it has more or less reference to the story, as in "The Two Sisters":

"He has ta'en three locks o' her yellow hair—
Binnorie, O Binnorie—
And wi' them strung his harp sae rare—
By the bonnie mill-dams of Binnorie."

Again it has no discoverable relation to the context, as in "Riddles
Wisely Expounded"—

"There was a knicht riding frae the east—
Jennifer gentle and rosemarie
Who had been wooing at monie a place—
As the dew flies over the mulberry tree."

Both kinds of refrain have been liberally employed by modern balladists.
Thus Tennyson in "The Sisters":

"We were two sisters of one race,
The wind is howling in turret and tree;
_ _She was the fairer in the face,
O the earl was fair to see."

While Rossetti and Jean Ingelow and others have rather favored the inconsequential burden, an affectation travestied by the late Mr. C. S. Calverley:

"The auld wife sat at her ivied door,
(Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese)
A thing she had frequently done before;
And her spectacles lay on her aproned knees.

"The farmer's daughter hath soft brown hair
(Butter and eggs and a pound of cheese),
And I met with a ballad, I can't say where,
Which wholly consisted of lines like these."[6]

A musical or mnemonic device akin to the refrain was that sing-song species of repetend so familiar in ballad language:

"She had na pu'd a double rose,
a rose but only twa."

"They had na sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three.

"How will I come up? How can I come up?
How can I come to thee?"

An answer is usually returned in the identical words of the question; and as in Homer, a formula of narration or a commonplace of description does duty again and again. Iteration in the ballads is not merely for economy, but stands in lieu of the metaphor and other figures of literary poetry:

"'O Marie, put on your robes o' black,
Or else your robes o' brown,
For ye maun gang wi' me the night,
To see fair Edinbro town.'

"'I winna put on my robes o' black,
Nor yet my robes o' brown;
But I'll put on my robes o' white,
To shine through Edinbro town.'"

Another mark of the genuine ballad manner, as of Homer and Volkspoesie in general, is the conventional epithet. Macaulay noted that the gold is always red in the ballads, the ladies always gay, and Robin Hood's men are always his merry men. Doughty Douglas, bold Robin Hood, merry Carlisle, the good greenwood, the gray goose wing, and the wan water are other inseparables of the kind. Still another mark is the frequent retention of the Middle English accent on the final syllable in words like contrié, barón, dinére, felàwe, abbày, rivére, monéy, and its assumption by words which never properly had it, such as ladý, harpér, weddíng, watér, etc.[7] Indeed, as Percy pointed out in his introduction, there were "many phrases and idioms which the minstrels seem to have appropriated to themselves, . . . a cast of style and measure very different from that of contemporary poets of a higher class."

Not everything that is called a ballad belongs to the class of poetry that we are here considering. In its looser employment the word has signified almost any kind of song: "a woeful ballad made to his mistress' eyebrow," for example. "Ballade" was also the name of a somewhat intricate French stanza form, employed by Gower and Chaucer, and recently reintroduced into English verse by Dobson, Lang, Goose, and others, along with the virelay, rondeau, triolet, etc. There is also a numerous class of popular ballads—in the sense of something made for the people, though not by the people—are without relation to our subject. These are the street ballads, which were and still are hawked about by ballad-mongers, and which have no literary character whatever. There are satirical and political ballads, ballads versifying passages in Scripture or chronicle, ballads relating to current events, or giving the history of famous murders and other crimes, of prodigies, providences, and all sorts of happenings that teach a lesson in morals: about George Barnwell and the "Babes in the Wood," and "Whittington and his Cat," etc.: ballads like Shenstone's "Jemmy Dawson" and Gay's "Black-eyed Susan." Thousands of such are included in manuscript collections like the "Pepysian," or printed in the publications of the Roxburghe Club and the Ballad Society. But whether entirely modern, or extant in black-letter broadsides, they are nothing to our purpose. We have to do here with the folk-song, the traditional ballad, product of the people at a time when the people was homogeneous and the separation between the lettered and unlettered classes had not yet taken place: the true minstrel ballad of the Middle Ages, or of that state of society which in rude and primitive neighborhoods, like the Scottish border, prolonged mediaeval conditions beyond the strictly mediaeval period.

In the form in which they are preserved, a few of our ballads are older than the seventeenth or the latter part of the sixteenth century, though in their origin many of them are much older. Manuscript versions of "Robin Hood and the Monk" and "Robin Hood and the Potter" exist, which are referred to the last years of the fifteenth century. The "Lytel Geste of Robyn Hode" was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1489. The "Not-Brown Maid" was printed in "Arnold's Chronicle" in 1502. "The Hunting of the Cheviot"—the elder version of "Chevy Chase"—was mentioned by Philip Sidney in his "Defence of Poesie" in 1850.[8] The ballad is a narrative song, naïve, impersonal, spontaneous, objective. The singer is lost in the song, the teller in the tale. That is its essence, but sometimes the story is told by the lyrical, sometimes by the dramatic method. In "Helen of Kirkconnell" it is the bereaved lover who is himself the speaker: in "Waly Waly," the forsaken maid. These are monologues; for a purely dialogue ballad it will be sufficient to mention the power and impressive piece in the "Reliques" entitled "Edward." Herder translated this into German; it is very old, with Danish, Swedish, and Finnish analogues. It is a story of parricide, and is narrated in a series of questions by the mother and answers by the son. The commonest form, however, was a mixture of epic and dramatic, or direct relation with dialogue. A frequent feature is the abruptness of the opening and the translations. The ballad-maker observes unconsciously Aristotle's rule for the epic poet, to begin in medias res. Johnson noticed this in the instance of "Johnny Armstrong," but a stronger example is found in "The Banks of Yarrow:"

"Late at e'en, drinking the wine,
And ere they paid the lawing,
They set a combat them between,
To fight it in the dawing."

With this, an indirect, allusive way of telling the story, which Goethe mentions in his prefatory note to "Des Sängers Fluch," as a constant note of the "Volkslied." The old ballad-maker does not vouchsafe explanations about persons and motives; often he gives the history, not expressly nor fully, but by hints and glimpses, leaving the rest to conjecture; throwing up its salient points into a strong, lurid light against a background of shadows. The knight rides out a-hunting, and by and by his riderless horse comes home, and that is all:

"Toom[9] hame cam the saddle
But never cam he."

Or the knight himself comes home and lies down to die, reluctantly confessing, under his mother's questioning, that he dined with his true-love and is poisoned.[10] And again that is all. Or

"—In behint yon auld fail[11] dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.

"His hound is to the hunting game,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's ta'en another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet."

A whole unuttered tragedy of love, treachery, and murder lies back of these stanzas. This method of narration may be partly accounted for by the fact that the story treated was commonly some local country-side legend of family feud or unhappy passion, whose incidents were familiar to the ballad-singer's audience and were readily supplied by memory. One theory holds that the story was partly told and partly sung, and that the links and expositions were given in prose. However this may be, the artless art of these popular poets evidently included a knowledge of the uses of mystery and suggestion. They knew that, for the imagination, the part is sometimes greater than the whole. Gray wrote to Mason in 1757, "I have got the old Scotch ballad [Gil Maurice] on which 'Douglas' [Home's tragedy, first played at Edinburgh in 1756] was founded. It is divine. . . Aristotle's best rules are observed in it in a manner which shews the author never had heard of Aristotle. It begins in the fifth act of the play. You may read it two-thirds through without guessing what it is about; and yet, when you come to the end, it is impossible not to understand the whole story."

It is not possible to recover the conditions under which these folk-songs "made themselves,"[12] as it were, or grew under the shaping hands of generations of nameless bards. Their naïve, primitive quality cannot be acquired: the secret is lost. But Walter Scott, who was steeped to the lips in balladry, and whose temper had much of the healthy objectivity of an earlier age, has succeeded as well as any modern. Some of his ballads are more perfect artistically than his long metrical romances; those of them especially which are built up from a burden or fragment of old minstrel song, like "Jock o' Hazeldean"[13] and the song in "Rokeby":

"He turned his charger as he spake
Upon the river shore,
He gave the bride-reins a shake,
Said 'Adieu for evermore,
My love!
And adieu for evermore!'"

Here Scott catches the very air of popular poetry, and the dovetailing is done with most happy skill. "Proud Maisie is in the Wood" is a fine example of the ballad manner of story-telling by implication.[14]

As regards their subject-matter, the ballads admit of a rough classification into the historical, or quasi-historical, and the purely legendary or romantic. Of the former class were the "riding-ballad" of the Scottish border, where the forays of moss-troopers, the lifting of blackmail, the raids and private warfare of the Lords of the Marches, supplied many traditions of heroism and adventure like those recorded in "The Battle of Otterburn," "The Hunting of the Cheviot," "Johnnie Armstrong," "Kinmont Willie," "The Rising in the North" and "Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas." Of the fictitious class, some were shortened, popularized, and generally degraded versions of the chivalry romances, which were passing out of favor among educated readers in the sixteenth century and fell into the hands of the ballad-makers. Such, to name only a few included in the "Reliques," were "Sir Lancelot du Lake," "The Legend of Sir Guy," "King Arthur's Death" and "The Marriage of Sir Gawaine." But the substance of these was not of the genuine popular stuff, and their personages were simply the old heroes of court poetry in reduced circumstances. Much more impressive are the original folk-songs, which strike their roots deep into the ancient world of legend and even of myth.

In this true ballad world there is a strange commingling of paganism and Catholic Christianity. It abounds in the supernatural and the marvelous. Robin Hood is a pious outlaw. He robs the fat-headed monks, but will not die unhouseled and has great devotion to Our Blessed Lady; who appears also to Brown Robyn, when he is cast overboard, hears his confession and takes his soul to Heaven.[15] When mass has been sung and the bells of merry Lincoln have rung, Lady Maisry goes seeking her little Hugh, who has been killed by the Jew's daughter and thrown into Our Lady's draw-well fifty fathom deep, and the boy answers his mother miraculously from the well.[16] Birds carry messages for lovers[17] and dying men,[18] or show the place where the body lies buried and the corpse-candles shine.[19] The harper strings his harp with three golden hairs of the drowned maiden, and the tune that he plays upon them reveals the secret of her death.[20] The ghosts of the sons that have perished at sea come home to take farewell of their mother.[21] The spirit of the forsaken maid visits her false lover at midnight;[22] or "the dead comes for the quick,"[23] as in Burger's weird poem. There are witches, fairies, and mermaidens[24] in the ballads: omens, dreams, spells,[25] enchantments, transformations,[26] magic rings and charms, "gramarye"[27] of many sorts; and all these things are more effective here than in poets like Spenser and Collins, because they are matters of belief and not of make-believe.

The ballads are prevailingly tragical in theme, and the tragic passions of pity and fear find an elementary force of utterance. Love is strong as death, jealousy cruel as the grave. Hate, shame, grief, despair speak here with their native accent:

"There are seven forsters at Pickeram Side,
At Pickeram where they dwell,
And for a drop of thy heart's bluid
They wad ride the fords of hell."[28]

"O little did my mother think,
The day she cradled me,
What lands I was to travel through,
What death I was to dee."[29]

The maiden asks her buried lover:

"Is there any room at your head, Sanders?
Is there any room at your feet?
Or any room at your twa sides,
Where fain, fain would I sleep?"[30]

"O waly, waly, but love be bonny
A little time while it is new;[31]
But when 'tis auld it waxeth cauld
And fades awa' like morning dew. . .

"And O! if my young babe were born,
And set upon the nurse's knee,
And I mysel' were dead and gane,
And the green grass growing over me!"

Manners in this world are of a primitive savagery. There are treachery, violence, cruelty, revenge; but there are also honor, courage, fidelity, and devotion that endureth to the end. "Child Waters" and "Fair Annie" do not suffer on a comparison with Tennyson's "Enid" and Chaucer's story of patient Griselda ("The Clerkes Tale") with which they have a common theme. It is the medieval world. Marauders, pilgrims, and wandering gleemen go about in it. The knight stands at his garden pale, the lady sits at her bower window, and the little foot page carries messages over moss and moor. Marchmen are riding through the Bateable Land "by the hie light o' the moon." Monks are chanting in St. Mary's Kirk, trumpets are blowing in Carlisle town, castles are burning; down in the glen there is an ambush and swords are flashing; bows are twanging in the greenwood; four and twenty ladies are playing at the ball, and four and twenty milk-white calves are in the woods of Glentanner—all ready to be stolen. About Yule the round tables begin; the queen looks over the castle-wall, the palmer returns from the Holy Land, Young Waters lies deep in Stirling dungeon, but Child Maurice is in the silver wood, combing his yellow locks with a silver comb.

There is an almost epic coherence about the ballads of the Robin Hood cycle. This good robber, who with his merry men haunted the forests of Sherwood and Barnsdale, was the real ballad hero and the darling of the popular fancy which created him. For though the names of his confessor, Friar Tuck; his mistress, Maid Marian; and his companions, Little John, Scathelock, and Much the miller's son, have an air of reality,—and though the tradition has associated itself with definite localities,—there is nothing historical about Robin Hood. Langland, in the fourteenth century, mentions "rhymes of Robin Hood"; and efforts have been made to identify him with one of the dispossessed followers of Simon de Montfort, in "the Barons' War," or with some still earlier free-booter, of Hereward's time, who had taken to the woods and lived by plundering the Normans. Myth as he is, he is a thoroughly national conception. He had the English love of fair play; the English readiness to shake hands and make up when worsted in a square fight. He killed the King's venison, but was a loyal subject. He took from the rich and gave to the poor, executing thus a kind of wild justice. He defied legal authority in the person of the proud sheriff of Nottingham, thereby appealing to that secret sympathy with lawlessness which marks a vigorous, free yeomanry.[32] He had the knightly virtues of courtesy and hospitality, and the yeomanly virtues of good temper and friendliness. And finally, he was a mighty archer with the national weapons, the long-bow and the cloth-yard shaft; and so appealed to the national love of sport in his free and careless life under the greenwood tree. The forest scenery give a poetic background to his exploits, and though the ballads, like folk-poetry in general, seldom linger over natural descriptions, there is everywhere a consciousness of this background and a wholesome, outdoor feeling:

"In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song:

"To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hillis hee,
And shadow hem in the levës grene,
Under the grene-wode tre."[33]

Although a few favorite ballads such as "Johnnie Armstrong," "Chevy Chase," "The Children in the Wood," and some of the Robin Hood ones had long been widely, nay almost universally familiar, they had hardly been regarded as literature worthy of serious attention. They were looked upon as nursery tales, or at best as the amusement of peasants and unlettered folk, who used to paste them up on the walls of inns, cottages, and ale-houses. Here and there an educated man had had a sneaking fondness for collecting old ballads—much as people nowadays collect postage stamps. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, made such a collection, and so did John Selden, the great legal antiquary and scholar of Milton's time. "I have heard," wrote Addison, "that the late Lord Dorset, who had the greatest wit tempered with the greatest candor, and was one of the finest critics as well as the best poets of his age, had a numerous collection of old English ballads, and a particular pleasure in the reading of them. I can affirm the same of Mr. Dryden." Dryden's "Miscellany Poems" (1684) gave "Gilderoy," "Johnnie Armstrong," "Chevy Chase," "The Miller and the King's Daughter," and "Little Musgrave and the Lady Barnard." The last named, as well as "Lady Anne Bothwell's Lament" and "Fair Margaret and Sweet William,"[34] was quoted in Beaumont and Fletcher's "Knight of the Burning Pestle," (1611). Scraps of them are sung by one of the dramatis personae, old Merrythought, whose speciality is a damnable iteration of ballad fragments. References to old ballads are numerous in the Elizabethan plays. Percy devoted the second book of his first series to "Ballads that Illustrate Shakspere." In the seventeenth century a few ballads were printed entire in poetic miscellanies entitled "Garlands," higgledy-piggledy with pieces of all kinds. Professor Child enumerates nine ballad collections before Percy's. The only ones of any importance among these were "A Collection of Old Ballads" (Vols I. and II. in 1723, Vol III. In 1725), ascribed to Ambrose Philips; and the Scotch poet, Allan Ramsay's, "Tea Table Miscellany," (in 4 vols., 1714-40) and "Evergreen" (2 vols., 1724). The first of these collections was illustrated with copperplate engravings and supplied with introductions which were humorous in intention. The editor treated his ballads as trifles, though he described them as "corrected from the best and most ancient copies extant"; and said that Homer himself was nothing more than a blind ballad-singer, whose songs had been subsequently joined together and formed into an epic poem. Ramsay's ballads were taken in part from a manuscript collection of some eight hundred pages, made by George Bannatyne about 1570 and still preserved in the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh.

In Nos. 70, 74, and 85, of the Spectator, Addison had praised the naturalness and simplicity of the popular ballads, selecting for special mention "Chevy Chase"—the later version—"which," he wrote, "is the favorite ballad of the common people of England; and Ben Jonson used to say he had rather have been the author of it than of all his works"; and "the 'Two Children in the Wood,' which is one of the darling songs of the common people, and has been the delight of most Englishmen in some part of their age." Addison justifies his liking for these humble poems by classical precedents. "The greatest modern critics have laid it down as a rule that an heroic poem should be founded upon some important precept of morality adapted to the constitution of the country in which the poet writes. Homer and Virgil have formed their plans in this view." Accordingly he thinks that the author of "Chevy Chase" meant to point a moral as to the mischiefs of private war. As if it were not precisely the gaudium certaminis that inspired the old border ballad-maker! As if he did not glory in the fight! The passage where Earl Percy took the dead Douglas by the hand and lamented his fallen foe reminds Addison of Aeneas' behavior toward Lausus. The robin red-breast covering the children with leaves recalls to his mind a similar touch in one of Horace's odes. But it was much that Addison, whose own verse was so artificial, should have had a taste for the wild graces of folk-song. He was severely ridiculed by his contemporaries for these concessions. "He descended now and then to lower disquisitions," wrote Dr. Johnson," and by a serious display of the beauties of 'Chevy Chase,' exposed himself to the ridicule of Wagstaff, who bestowed a like pompous character on 'Tom Thumb'; and to the contempt of Dennis, who, considering the fundamental position of his criticism, that 'Chevy Chase' pleases and ought to please because it is natural, observes that 'there is a way of deviating from nature . . . by imbecility, which degrades nature by faintness and diminution'. . . In 'Chevy Chase' . . . there is a chill and lifeless imbecility. The story cannot possibly be told in a manner that shall make less impression on the mind."[35]

Nicholas Rowe, the dramatist and Shakspere editor, had said a good word for ballads in the prologue to "Jane Shore" (1713):

"Let no nice taste despise the hapless dame
Because recording ballads chant her name.
Those venerable ancient song enditers
Soared many a pitch above our modern writers. . .
Our numbers may be more refined than those,
But what we've gained in verse, we've lost in prose.
Their words no shuffling double meaning knew:
Their speech was homely, but their hearts were true. . .
With rough, majestic force they moved the heart,
And strength and nature made amends for art."

Ballad forgery had begun early. To say nothing of appropriations, like Mallet's, of "William and Margaret," Lady Wardlaw put forth her "Hardyknut" in 1719 as a genuine old ballad, and it was reprinted as such in Ramsay's "Evergreen." Gray wrote to Walpole in 1760, "I have been often told that the poem called 'Hardicanute' (which I always admired and still admire) was the work of somebody that lived a few years ago. This I do not at all believe, though it has evidently been retouched by some modern hand." Before Percy no concerted or intelligent effort had been made toward collecting, preserving, and editing the corpus poetarum of English minstrelsy. The great mass of ancient ballads, so far as they were in print at all, existed in "stall copies," i.e., single sheets of broadsides, struck off for sale by balladmongers and the keepers of book-stalls.

Thomas Percy, the compiler of the "Reliques," was a parish clergyman, settled at the retired hamlet of Easton Maudit, Northamptonshire. For years he had amused his leisure by collecting ballads. He numbered among his acquaintances men of letters like Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, Grainger, Farmer, and Shenstone. It was the last who suggested the plan of the "Reliques" and who was to have helped in its execution, had not his illness and death prevented. Johnson spent a part of the summer of 1764 on a visit to the vicarage of Easton Maudit, on which occasion Percy reports that his guest "chose for his regular reading the old Spanish romance of 'Felixmarte of Hircania,' in folio, which he read quite through." He adds, what one would not readily suspect, that the doctor, when a boy, "was immoderately fond of reading romances of chivalry, and he retained his fondness for them through life. . . I have heard him attribute to these extravagant fictions that unsettled turn of mind which prevented his ever fixing in any profession." Percy talked over his project with Johnson, who would seem to have given his approval, and even to have added his persuasions to Shenstone's. For in the preface to the first edition of the "Reliques," the editor declared that "he could refuse nothing to such judges as the author of the Rambler and the late Mr. Shenstone"; and that "to the friendship of Mr. Johnson he owes many valuable hints for the conduct of his work." And after Ritson had questioned the existence of the famous "folio manuscript," Percy's nephew in the advertisement to the fourth edition (1794), cited "the appeal publicly made to Dr. Johnson . . . so long since as in the year 1765, and never once contradicted by him."

In spite of these amenities, the doctor had a low opinion of ballads and ballad collectors. In the Rambler (No. 177) he made merry over one Cantilenus, who "turned all his thoughts upon old ballads, for he considered them as the genuine records of the natural taste. He offered to show me a copy of 'The Children in the Wood,' which he firmly believed to be of the first edition, and by the help of which the text might be freed from several corruptions, if this age of barbarity had any claim to such favors from him." "The conversation," says Boswell, "having turned on modern imitations of ancient ballads, and someone having praised their simplicity, he treated them with that ridicule which he always displayed when that subject was mentioned." Johnson wrote several stanzas in parody of the ballads; e.g.,

"The tender infant, meek and mild,
Fell down upon a stone:
The nurse took up the squealing child,
But still the child squealed on."

And again:

"I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand;
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand."

This is quoted by Wordsworth,[36] who compares it with a stanza from "The
Children in the Wood":

"Those pretty babes, with hand in hand,
Went wandering up and down;
But never more they saw the man
Approaching from the town."

He says that in both of these stanzas the language is that of familiar conversation, yet one stanza is admirable and the other contemptible, because the matter of it is contemptible. In the essay supplementary to his preface, Wordsworth asserts that the "Reliques" was "ill suited to the then existing taste of city society, and Dr. Johnson . . . was not sparing in his exertions to make it an object of contempt": and that "Dr. Percy was so abashed by the ridicule flung upon his labors . . . that, though while he was writing under a mask he had not wanted resolution to follow his genius into the regions of true simplicity and genuine pathos (as is evinced by the exquisite ballad of 'Sir Cauline' and by many other pieces), yet when he appeared in his own person and character as a poetical writer, he adopted, as in the tale of 'The Hermit of Warkworth,' a diction scarcely distinguishable from the vague, the glossy and unfeeling language of his day." Wordsworth adds that he esteems the genius of Dr. Percy in this kind of writing superior to that of any other modern writer; and that even Bürger had not Percy's fine sensibility. He quotes, in support of this opinion, two stanzas from "The Child of Elle" in the "Reliques," and contrasts them with the diluted and tricked-out version of the same in Bürger's German.

Mr. Hales does not agree in this high estimate of Percy as a ballad composer. Of this same "Child of Elle" he says: "The present fragment of a version may be fairly said to be now printed for the first time, as in the 'Reliques' it is buried in a heap of 'polished' verses composed by Percy. That worthy prelate, touched by the beauty of it—he had a soul—was unhappily moved to try his hand at its completion. A wax-doll-maker might as well try to restore Milo's Venus. There are thirty-nine lines here. There are two hundred in the thing called the 'Child of Elle' in the 'Reliques.' But in those two hundred lines all the thirty-nine originals do not appear. . . On the whole, the union of the genuine and the false—of the old ballad with Percy's tawdry feebleness—makes about as objectionable a mésalliance as in the story itself is in the eyes of the father."[37] The modern ballad scholars, in their zeal for the purity of the text, are almost as hard upon Percy as Ritson himself was. They say that he polished "The Heir of Linne" till he could see his own face in it; and swelled out its 126 lines to 216—"a fine flood of ballad and water."[38] The result of this piecing and tinkering in "Sir Cauline"—which Wordsworth thought exquisite—they regard as a heap of tinsel, though they acknowledge that "these additional stanzas show, indeed, an extensive acquaintance with old balladry and a considerable talent of imitation."

From the critical or scholarly point of view, these strictures are doubtless deserved. It is an editor's duty to give his text as he finds it, without interpolations or restorations; and it is unquestionable that Percy's additions to fragmentary pieces are full of sentimentalism, affectation, and the spurious poetic diction of his age. An experienced ballad amateur can readily separate, in most cases, the genuine portions from the insertions. But it is unfair to try Percy by modern editorial canons. That sacredness which is now imputed to the ipsissima verba of an ancient piece of popular literature would have been unintelligible to men of that generation, who regarded such things as trifles at best, and mostly as barbarous trifles—something like wampum belts, or nose-rings, or antique ornaments in the goût barbare et charmant des bijoux goths. Percy's readers did not want torsos and scraps; to present them with acephalous or bobtailed ballads—with cetera desunt and constellations of asterisks—like the manuscript in Prior's poem, the conclusion of which was eaten by the rats—would have been mere pedantry. Percy knew his public, and he knew how to make his work attractive to it. The readers of that generation enjoyed their ballad with a large infusion of Percy. If the scholars of this generation prefer to take theirs without, they know where to get it.

The materials for the "Reliques" were drawn partly from the Pepys collection at Magdalen College, Cambridge; from Anthony Wood's, made in 1676, in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford; from manuscript and printed ballads in the Bodleian, the British Museum, the archives of the Antiquarian Society, and private collections. Sir David Dalrymple sent a number of Scotch ballads, and the editor acknowledged obligations to Thomas Warton and many others. But the nucleus of the whole was a certain folio manuscript in a handwriting of Charles I.'s time, containing 191 songs and ballads, which Percy had begged, then still very young, from his friend Humphrey Pitt, of Prior's-Lee in Shropshire. When he first saw this precious document, it was torn, unbound, and mutilated, "lying dirty on the floor under a bureau in the parlor, being used by the maids to light the fire." The first and last leaves were wanting, and "of 54 pages near the beginning, half of every leaf hath been torn away."[39] Percy had it bound, but the binders trimmed off the top and bottom lines in the process. From this manuscript he professed to have taken "the greater part" of the pieces in the "Reliques." In truth he took only 45 of the 176 poems in his first edition from this source.

Percy made no secret of the fact that he filled lacunae in his originals with stanzas, and, in some cases, with nearly entire poems of his own composition. But the extent of the liberties that he took with the text, although suspected, was not certainly known until Mr. Furnivall finally got leave to have the folio manuscript copied and printed.[40] Before this time it had been jealously guarded by the Percy family, and access to it had been denied to scholars. "Since Percy and his nephew printed their fourth edition of the 'Reliques' from the manuscript in 1794," writes Mr. Furnivall in his "Forewords," "no one has printed any piece from it except Robert Jamieson—to whom Percy supplied a copy of 'Child Maurice' and 'Robin Hood and the Old Man' for his 'Popular Ballads and Songs' (1806)—and Sir Frederic Madden, who was allowed—by one of Percy's daughters—to print 'The Grene Knight,' 'The Carle of Carlisle' and 'The Turk and Gawin' in his 'Syr Gawaine' for the Bannatyne Club, 1839." Percy was furiously assailed by Joseph Ritson for manipulating his texts; and in the 1794 edition he made some concessions to the latter's demand for a literal rescript, by taking off a few of the ornaments in which he had tricked them. Ritson was a thoroughly critical, conscientious student of poetic antiquities and held the right theory of an editor's functions. In his own collection of early English poetry he rendered a valuable service to all later inquiries. These included "Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry," 1791; "Ancient Songs," 1792; "Scottish Songs," 1794; "Robin Hood," 1795; besides editions of Laurence Minot's poems, and of "Gammer Gurton's Needle," as well as other titles. He was an ill-tempered and eccentric man: a vegetarian, a free-thinker, a spelling reformer,[41] and latterly a Jacobin. He attacked Warton as well as Percy, and used to describe any clerical antagonist as a "stinking priest." He died insane in 1803. Ritson took issue with the theory maintained in Percy's introductory "Essay on the Ancient Minstrels," viz.: that the minstrels were not only the singers, but likewise the authors of the ballads. But Ritson went so far in his rage against Percy as to deny the existence of the sacred Folio Manuscript, until convinced by abundant testimony that there was such a thing. It was an age of forgeries, and Ritson was not altogether without justification in supposing that the author of "The Hermit of Warkworth" belonged in the same category with Chatterton, Ireland, and MacPherson.

Percy, like Warton, took an apologetic tone toward his public. "In a polished age, like the present," he wrote, "I am sensible that many of these reliques of antiquity will require great allowances to be made for them. Yet have they, for the most part, a pleasing simplicity and many artless graces, which, in the opinion of no mean critics, have been thought to compensate for the want of higher beauties." Indeed how should it have been otherwise? The old ballads were everything which the eighteenth century was not. They were rough and wild, where that was smooth and tame; they dealt, with fierce sincerity, in the elementary passions of human nature. They did not moralize, or philosophize, or sentimentalize; were never subtle, intellectual, or abstract. They were plain English, without finery or elegance. They had certain popular mannerisms, but none of the conventional figures of speech or rhetorical artifices like personifications, periphrasis, antithesis, and climax so dear to the Augustan heart. They were intent on the story—not on the style—and they just told it and let it go for what it was worth.

Moreover, there are ballads and ballads. The best of them are noble in expression as well as feeling, unequaled by anything in our medieval poetry outside of Chaucer; unequaled by Chaucer himself in point of intensity, in occasional phrases of a piercing beauty:

"The swans-fethers that his arrowe bar
With his hart-blood they were wet."[42]

"O cocks are crowing a merry mid-larf,
A wat the wild fule boded day;
The salms of Heaven will be sung,
And ere now I'll be missed away."[43]

"If my love were an earthly knight,
As he's an elfin gray,
A wad na gie my sin true love
For no lord that ye hae."[44]

"She hang ae napkin at the door,
Another in the ha,
And a' to wipe the trickling tears,
Sae fast as they did fa."[45]

"And all is with one chyld of yours,
I feel stir at my side:
My gowne of green, it is too strait:
Before it was too wide."[46]

Verse of this quality needs no apology. But of many of the ballads, Dennis' taunt, repeated by Dr. Johnson, is true; they are not merely rude, but weak and creeping in style. Percy knew that the best of them would savor better to the palates of his contemporaries if he dressed them with modern sauces. Yet he must have loved them, himself, in their native simplicity, and it seems almost incredible that he could have spoken as he did about Prior's insipid paraphrase of the "Nut Brown Maid." "If it had no other merit," he says of that most lovely ballad, "than the having afforded the ground-work to Prior's 'Henry and Emma,' this ought to preserve it from oblivion." Prior was a charming writer of epigram, society verse, and the humorous conte in the manner of La Fontaine; but to see how incapable he was of the depth and sweetness of romantic poetry, compare a few lines of the original with the "hubbub of words" in his modernized version, in heroic couplets:

"O Lord, what is this worldes blisse
That changeth as the mone!
The somer's day in lusty May
Is derked before the none.
I hear you say farewel. Nay, nay,
We departe not so soon:
Why say ye so? Wheder wyle ye goo?
Alas! what have ye done?
Alle my welfare to sorrow and care
Shulde change if ye were gon;
For in my minde, of all mankynde,
I love but you alone."

Now hear Prior, with his Venus and flames and god of love:

"What is our bliss that changeth with the moon,
And day of life that darkens ere 'tis noon?
What is true passion, if unblest it dies?
And where is Emma's joy, if Henry flies?
If love, alas! be pain, the pain I bear
No thought can figure and no tongue declare.
Ne'er faithful woman felt, nor false one feigned
The flames which long have in my bosom reigned.
The god of love himself inhabits there
With all his rage and dread and grief and care,
His complement of stores and total war,
O cease then coldly to suspect my love
And let my deed at least my faith approve.
Alas! no youth shall my endearments share
Nor day nor night shall interrupt my care;
No future story shall with truth upbraid
The cold indifference of the nut-brown maid;
Nor to hard banishment shall Henry run
While careless Emma sleeps on beds of down.
View me resolved, where'er thou lead'st, to go:
Friend to thy pain and partner of thy woe;
For I attest fair Venus and her son
That I, of all mankind, will love but thee alone."

There could be no more striking object lesson than this of the plethora from which English poetic diction was suffering, and of the sanative value of a book like the "Reliques."

"To atone for the rudeness of the more obsolete poems," and "to take off from the tediousness of the longer narratives," Percy interspersed a few modern ballads and a large number of "little elegant pieces of the lyric kind" by Skelton, Hawes, Gascoigne, Raleigh, Marlowe, Shakspere, Jonson, Warner, Carew, Daniel, Lovelace, Suckling, Drayton, Beaumont and Fletcher, Wotton, and other well-known poets. Of the modern ballads the only one with any resemblance to folk-poetry was "The Braes o' Yarrow" by William Hamilton of Bangour, a Scotch gentleman who was "out in the forty-five." The famous border stream had watered an ancient land of song and story, and Hamilton's ballad, with its "strange, fugitive melody," was not unworthy of its traditions. Hamilton belongs to the Milton imitators by virtue of his octosyllabics "Contemplation."[47] His "Braes o' Yarrow" had been given already in Ramsey's "Tea Table Miscellany," The opening lines—

"Busk ye, busk ye, my bonny, bonny bride,
Busk ye, busk ye, my winsome marrow"—

are quoted in Wordsworth's "Yarrow Unvisited," as well as a line of the following stanza:

"Sweet smells the birk, green grows, green grows the grass,
Yellow on Yarrow's bank the gowan:
Fair hangs the apple frae the rock,
Sweet the wave of Yarrow flowin'."

The first edition of the "Reliques" included one acknowledged child of Percy's muse, "The Friar of Orders Grey," a short, narrative ballad made up of song snatches from Shakspere's plays. Later editions afforded his longer poem, "The Hermit of Warkworth," first published independently in 1771.

With all its imperfections—perhaps partly in consequence of its imperfections—the "Reliques" was an epoch-making book. The nature of its service to English letters is thus stated by Macaulay, in the introduction to his "Lays of Ancient Rome": "We cannot wonder that the ballads of Rome should have altogether disappeared, when we remember how very narrowly, in spite of the invention of printing, those of our own country and those of Spain escaped the same fate. There is, indeed, little doubt that oblivion covers many English songs equal to any that were published by Bishop Percy; and many Spanish songs as good as the best of those which have been so happily translated by Mr. Lockhart. Eighty years ago England possessed only one tattered copy of 'Child Waters' and 'Sir Cauline,' and Spain only one tattered copy of the noble poem of the 'Cid.' The snuff of a candle, or a mischievous dog, might in a moment have deprived the world forever of any of those fine compositions. Sir Walter Scott, who united to the fire of a great poet the minute curiosity and patient diligence of a great antiquary, was but just in time to save the precious reliques of the Minstrelsy of the Border."

But Percy not only rescued, himself, a number of ballads from forgetfulness; what was equally important, his book prompted others to hunt out and publish similar relics before it was too late. It was the occasion of collections like Herd's (1769), Scott's (1802-03), and Motherwell's (1827), and many more, resting on purer texts and edited on more scrupulous principles than his own. Futhermore, his ballads helped to bring about a reform in literary taste and to inspire men of original genius. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Scott, all acknowledged the greatest obligations to them. Wordsworth said that English poetry had been "absolutely redeemed" by them. "I do not think there is a writer in verse of the present day who would not be proud to acknowledge his obligations to the 'Reliques.' I know that it is so with my friends; and, for myself, I am happy that it is so with my friends; and, for myself, I am happy in this occasion to make a public avowal of my own."[48] Without the "Reliques," "The Ancient Mariner," "The Lady of the Lake," "La Belle Dame sans Merci," "Stratton Water," and "The Haystack in the Floods" might never have been. Perhaps even the "Lyrical Ballads" might never have been, or might have been something quite unlike what they are. Wordsworth, to be sure, scarcely ranks among romantics, and he expressly renounces the romantic machinery:

"The dragon's wing,
The magic ring,
I shall not covet for my dower."[49]

What he learned from the popular ballad was the power of sincerity and of direct and homely speech.

As for Scott, he has recorded in an oft-quoted passage the impression that Percy's volumes made upon him in his school-days: "I remember well the spot where I read these volumes for the first time. It was beneath a huge plantain tree in the ruins of what had been intended for an old-fashioned arbor in the garden I have mentioned. The summer day sped onward so fast that, notwithstanding the sharp appetite of thirteen, I forgot the hour of dinner, was sought for with anxiety, and was still found entranced in my intellectual banquet. To read and to remember was, in this instance, the same thing; and henceforth I overwhelmed my school-fellows, and all who would hearken to me, with tragical recitations from the ballads of Bishop Percy. The first time, too, I could scrape a few shillings together, I bought unto myself a copy of these beloved volumes; nor do I believe I ever read a book so frequently, or with half the enthusiasm."

The "Reliques" worked powerfully in Germany, too. It was received in Lessing's circle with universal enthusiasm,[50] and fell in with that newly aroused interest in "Volkslieder" which prompted Herder's "Stimmen der Völker" (1778-79).[51] Gottfried August Bürger, in particular, was a poet who may be said to have been made by the English ballad literature, of which he was an ardent student. His poems were published in 1778, and included five translations from Percy: "The Child of Elle" ("Die Entführung"), "The Friar of Orders Grey" ("Graurock"), "The Wanton Wife of Bath" ("Frau Schnips"), "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury" ("Der Kaiser und der Abt"), and "Child Waters" ("Graf Walter"). A. W. Schlegel says that Burger did not select the more ancient and genuine pieces in the "Reliques"; and, moreover, that he spoiled the simplicity of the originals in his translations. It was doubtless in part the success of the "Reliques" that is answerable for many collections of old English poetry put forth in the last years of the century. Tyrwhitt's "Chaucer" and Ritson's publications have been already mentioned. George Ellis, a friend and correspondent of Walter Scott, and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, who was sometimes called "the Sainte Palaye of England," issued his "Specimens of Early English Poets" in 1790; edited in 1796 G. L. Way's translations from French fabliaux of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and printed in 1805 three volumes of "Early English Metrical Romances."

It is pleasant to record that Percy's labors brought him public recognition and the patronage of those whom Dr. Johnson used to call "the great." He had dedicated the "Reliques" to Elizabeth Percy, Countess of Northumberland. Himself the son of a grocer, he liked to think that he was connected by blood with the great northern house whose exploits had been sung by the ancient minstrels that he loved. He became chaplain to the Duke of Northumberland, and to King George III.; and, in 1782, Bishop of Dromore in Ireland, in which see he died in 1811.

This may be as fit a place as any to introduce some mention of "The Minstrel, or the Progress of Genius," by James Beattie; a poem once widely popular, in which several strands of romantic influence are seen twisted together. The first book was published in 1771, the second in 1774, and the work was never completed. It was in the Spenserian stanza, was tinged with the enthusiastic melancholy of the Wartons, followed the landscape manner of Thomson, had elegiac echoes of Gray, and was perhaps not unaffected, in its love of mountain scenery, by MacPherson's "Ossian." But it took its title and its theme from a hint in Percy's "Essay on the Ancient Minstrels."[52] Beattie was Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Aberdeen. He was an amiable, sensitive, deeply religious man. He was fond of music and of nature, and was easily moved to rears; had "a young girl's nerves," says Taine, "and an old maid's hobbies." Gray, who met him in 1765, when on a visit to the Earl of Strathmore at Glammis Castle, esteemed him highly. So did Dr. Johnson, partly because of his "Essay on Truth" (1770), a shallow invective against Hume, which gained its author an interview with George III. and a pension of two hundred pounds a year. Beattie visited London in 1771, and figured there as a champion of orthodoxy and a heaven-inspired bard. Mrs. Montagu patronized him extensively. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted his portrait, with his "Essay on Truth" under his arm, and Truth itself in the background, an allegoric angel holding the balances in one hand, and thrusting away with the other the figures of Prejudice, Skepticism, and Folly. Old Lord Lyttelton had the poet out to Hagley, and declared that he was Thomson come back to earth, to sing of virtue and of the beauties of nature. Oxford made him an LL.D.: he was urged to take orders in the Church of England; and Edinburgh offered him the chair of Moral Philosophy. Beattie's head was slightly turned by all this success, and he became something of a tuft-hunter. But he stuck faithfully to Aberdeen, whose romantic neighborhood had first inspired his muse. The biographers tell a pretty story of his teaching his little boy to look for the hand of God in the universe, by sowing cress in a garden plot in the shape of the child's initials and leading him by this gently persuasive analogy to read design in the works of nature.

The design of "The Minstrel" is to "trace the progress of a Poetical Genius, born in a rude age," a youthful shepherd who "lived in Gothic days." But nothing less truly Gothic or medieval could easily be imagined than the actual process of this young poet's education. Instead of being taught to carve and ride and play the flute, like Chaucer's squire who

"Cowde songes make and wel endite,
Juste and eek daunce, and wel purtraye and write,"

Edwin wanders alone upon the mountains and in solitary places and is instructed in history, philosophy, and science—and even in Vergil—by an aged hermit, who sits on a mossy rock, with his harp beside him, and delivers lectures. The subject of the poem, indeed, is properly the education of nature; and in a way it anticipates Wordsworth's "Prelude," as this hoary sage does the "Solitary" of "The Excursion." Beattie justifies his use of Spenser's stanza on the ground that it "seems, from its Gothic structure and original, to bear some relation to the subject and spirit of the poem." He makes no attempt, however, to follow Spenser's "antique expressions." The following passage will illustrate as well as any the romantic character of the whole:

"When the long-sounding curfew from afar
Loaded with loud lament the lonely gale,
Young Edwin, lighted by the evening star,
Lingering and listening, wandered down the vale.
There would he dream of graves and corses pale,
And ghosts that to the charnel-dungeon throng,
And drag a length of clanking chain, and wail,
Till silenced by the owl's terrific song,
Or blast that shrieks by fits the shuddering aisles along.

"Or when the settling moon, in crimson dyed,
Hung o'er the dark and melancholy deep,
To haunted stream, remote from man, he hied,
Where fays of yore their revels wont to keep;
And there let Fancy rove at large, till sleep
A vision brought to his entrancëd sight.
And first a wildly murmuring wind gan creep
Shrill to his ringing ear; then tapers bright,
With instantaneous gleam, illumed the vault of night.

"Anon in view a portal's blazing arch
Arose; the trumpet bids the valves unfold;
And forth a host of little warriors march,
Grasping the diamond lance and targe of gold.
Their look was gentle, their demeanor bold,
And green their helms, and green their silk attire;
And here and there, right venerably old,
The long-robed minstrels wake the warbling wire,
And some with mellow breath the martial pipe inspire."[53]

The influence of Thomson is clearly perceptible in these stanzas. "The Minstrel," like "The Seasons," abounds in insipid morality, the commonplaces of denunciation against luxury and ambition, and the praise of simplicity and innocence. The titles alone of Beattie's minor poems are enough to show in what school he was a scholar: "The Hermit," "Ode to Peace," "The Triumph of Melancholy," "Retirement," etc., etc. "The Minstrel" ran through four editions before the publication of its second book in 1774.


Footnotes:


[1] Svend Grundtvig's great collection, "Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser," was published in five volumes in 1853-90.

[2] Francis James Child's "English and Scottish Popular Ballads," issued in ten parts in 1882-98 is one of the glories of American scholarship.

[3] Cf. The Tannhäuser legend and the Venusberg.

[4] "The Wife of Usher's Well."

[5] It should never be forgotten that the ballad (derived from ballare—to dance) was originally not a written poem, but a song and dance. Many of the old tunes are preserved. A number are given in Chappell's "Popular Music of the Olden Time," and in the appendix to Motherwell's "Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern" (1827).

[6] "A Ballad." One theory explains these meaningless refrains as remembered fragments of older ballads.

[7] Reproduced by Rossetti and other moderns. See them parodied in Robert Buchanan's "Fleshly School of Poets":

"When seas do roar and skies do pour,
Hard is the lot of the sailór
Who scarcely, as he reels, can tell
The sidelights from the binnacle."

[8] "I never heard the old song of Percie and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crouder, with no rougher voice than rude style; which being so evil apparelled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil age, what would it work, trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar!"

[9] Empty: "Bonnie George Campbell."

[10] "Lord Randall."

[11] Turf: "The Twa Corbies."

[12] I use this phrase without any polemic purpose. The question of origins is not here under discussion. Of course at some stage in the history of any ballad the poet, the individual artist, is present, though the precise ration of his agency to the communal element in the work is obscure. For an acute and learned view of this topic, see the Introduction to "Old English Ballads," by Professor Francis B. Gummere (Atheneum Press Series), Boston, 1894.

[13] From "Jock o' Hazel Green." "Young Lochinvar" is derived from "Katherine Janfarie" in the "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border."

[14] "Scott has given us nothing more complete and lovely than this little song, which unites simplicity and dramatic power to a wildwood music of the rarest quality. No moral is drawn, far less any conscious analysis of feeling attempted: the pathetic meaning is left to be suggested by the mere presentment of the situation. Inexperienced critics have often named this, which may be called the Homeric manner, superficial from its apparent simple facility."—Palgrave: "Golden Treasury" (Edition of 1866), p. 392.

[15] "Brown Robyn's Confession." Robin Hood risks his life to take the sacrament. "Robin Hood and the Monk."

[16] "Sir Hugh." Cf. Chaucer's "Prioresse Tale."

[17] "The Gay Goshawk."

[18] "Johnnie Cock."

[19] "Young Hunting."

[20] "The Twa Sisters."

[21] "The Wife of Usher's Well."

[22] "Fair Margaret and Sweet William."

[23] "Sweet William's Ghost."

[24] "Clerk Colven."

[25] "Willie's Lady."

[26] "Kemp Owyne" and "Tam Lin."

[27] "King Estmere."

[28] "Johnnie Cock."

[29] "Mary Hamilton."

[30] "Sweet William's Ghost."

[31] "The Forsaken Bride." Cf. Chaucer:

"Love is noght old as when that it is newe."
Clerkes Tale.

[32] What character so popular as a wild prince—like Prince Hal—who breaks his own laws, and the heads of his own people, in a democratic way?

[33] "Robin Hood and the Monk."

[34] For a complete exposure of David Mallet's impudent claim to the authorship of this ballad, see Appendix II. to Professor Phelps' "English Romantic Movement."

[35] "Life of Addison."

[36] Preface to second edition of the "Lyrical Ballads."

[37] "Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript" (1867), Vol. II. Introductory Essay by J. W. Hales on "The Revival of Ballad Poetry in the Eighteenth Century."

[38] Ibid.

[39] "Advertisement to the Fourth Edition."

[40] In four volumes, 1867-68.

[41] Spelling reform has been a favorite field for cranks to disport themselves upon. Ritson's particular vanity was the past participle of verbs ending in e; e.g., perceiveed. Cf. Landor's notions of a similar kind.

[42] "The Hunting of the Cheviot."

[43] "Sweet William's Ghost."

[44] "Tam Lin."

[45] "Fair Annie."

[46] "Child Waters."

[47] See Phelps' "English Romantic Movement," pp. 33-35.

[48] Appendix to the Preface to the 2nd edition of "Lyrical Ballads."

[49] "Peter Bell."

[50] Scherer: "Geschichte der Deutschen Literatur," p. 445.

[51] In his third book Herder gave translations of over twenty pieces in the "Reliques," besides a number from Ramsay's and other collections. His selections from Percy included "Chevy Chase," "Edward," "The Boy and the Mantle," "King Estmere," "Waly, Waly," "Sir Patric Spens," "Young Waters," "The Bonny Earl of Murray," "Fair Margaret and Sweet William," "Sweet William's Ghost," "The Nut-Brown Maid," "The Jew's Daughter," etc., etc.; but none of the Robin Hood ballads. Herder's preface testifies that the "Reliques" was the starting-point and the kernel of his whole undertaking. "Der Anblick dieser Sammlung giebts offenbar dass ich eigentlich von Englishchen Volksliedern ausging und auf sie zurückkomme. Als vor zehn und mehr Jahren die 'Reliques of Ancient Poetry' mir in die Hände fielen, freuten mich einzelne Stücke so sehr, dass ich sie zu übersetzen versuchte."—Vorrede zu den Volksliedern. Herder's Sämmtlichee Werke, Achter Theil, s. 89 (Carlsruhe, 1821).

[52] Stanzas 44-46, book i. bring in references to ballad literature in general and to "The Nut-Brown Maid" and "The Children in the Wood" in particular.

[53] Book I. stanzas 32-34.

Henry Augustin Beers

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