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Introductory Rema r ks'
AND ON THE
VARIOUS COLLECTIONS OF BALLADS OF BRITAIN, PARTICULARLY
THOSE OF SCOTLAND.
The Introduction originally prefixed to “ The Min- | various devices, often more ingenious than elegant, strelsy of the Scottish Border," was rather of a his- that they may establish, if not an absolute claim to torical than a literary nature; and the remarks which originality, at least a visible distinction betwixt themfollow have been added, to afford the general reader selves and their predecessors. Thus it happens, that some information upon the character of Ballad early poets almost uniformly display a bold, rude, Poetry.
original cast of genius and expression. They have It would be throwing away words to prove, what walked at free-will, and with unconstrained steps, all must admit, the general taste and propensity of along the wilds of Parnassus, while their followers nations in their early state, to cultivate some species move with constrained gestures and forced attitudes, of rude poetry. When the organs and faculties of a in order to avoid placing their feet where their predeprimitive race have developed themselves, each for its cessors have stepped before them. The first bard who proper and necessary use, there is a natural tendency compared his hero to a lion, struck a bold and conto employ them in a more refined and regulated man- genial note, though the simile, in a nation of hunters, ner for purposes of amusement. The savage, after be a very obvious one; but every subsequent poet who proving the activity of his limbs in the chase or the shall use it, must either struggle hard to give his lion, battle, trains them to more measured movements, to as heralds say, with a difference, or lie under the imdance at the festivals of his tribe, or to perform obeis- putation of being a servile imitator. ance before the altars of his deity. From the same It is not probable that, by any researches of modern impulse, he is disposed to refine the ordinary speech times, we shall ever reach back to an earlier model of which forms the vehicle of social communication be- poetry than Homer; but as there lived heroes before twixt him and his brethren, until, by a more ornate Agamemnon, so, unquestionably, poets existed before diction, modulated by certain rules of rhythm,cadence, the immortal Bard who gave the King of kings his assonance of termination, or recurrence of sound or fame; and he whom all civilized nations now acknowletter, he obtains a dialect more solemn in expression, ledge as the Father of Poetry, must have himself to record the laws or exploits of his tribe, or more looked back to an ancestry of poetical predecessors, sweet in sound, in which to plead his own cause to and is only held original because we know not from his mistress.
whom he copied. Indeed, though much must be asThis primeval poetry must have one general cha- cribed to the riches of his own individual genius, the racter in all nations, both as to its merits and its im- poetry of Homer argues a degree of perfection in an perfections. The earlier poets have the advantage, art which practice had already rendered regular, and and it is not a small one, of having the first choice out concerning which, his frequent mention of the bards, of the stock of materials which are proper to the art; or chanters of poetry, indicates plainly that it was and thus they compel later authors, if they would | studied by many, and known and admired by all.2 avoid slavishly imitating the fathers of verse, into It is indeed easily discovered, that the qualities ne
1 These remarks were first appended to the edition of the doubted that the Iliad and Odyssey were substantially the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," 1830.--Ed.
works of one and the same individual. He said of the Wol.
fian hypothesis, that it was the most irreligious one he had * Su Walter Scott, as this paragraph intimates, never heard of, and could never be believed in by any poet.-ED.
cessary for composing such poems are not the portion different nations differs still more widely in the degree of every man in the tribe; that the bard, to reach ex- of excellence which it attains. This must depend in cellence in his art, must possess something more than some measure, no doubt, on the temper and manners a full command of words and phrases, and the knack of the people, or their proximity to those spirit-stirriro of arranging them in such form as ancient examples events which are naturally selected as the subject of have fixed upon as the recognised structure of na- poetry, and on the more comprehensive or energetic tional verse. The tribe speedily become sensible, that character of the language spoken by the tribe. But besides this degree of mechanical facility, which (like the progress of the art is far more dependent upon making what are called at school nonsense verses) the rise of some highly gifted individual, possessing in may be attained by dint of memory and practice, much a pre-eminent and uncommon degree the powers de higher qualifications are demanded. A keen and manded, whose talents influence the taste of a whole active power of observation, capable of perceiving at a nation, and entail on their posterity and language a glance the leading circumstances from which the in-character almost indelibly sacred. In this respect cident described derives its character; quick and Homer stands alone and unrivalled, as a light from powerful feelings, to enable the bard to comprehend whose lamp the genius of successive ages, and of disand delineate those of the actors in his piece; and a tant nations, has caught fire and illumination; and command of language, alternately soft and elevated, who, though the early poet of a rude age, has purand suited to express the conceptions which he had chased for the era he has celebrated, so much reverformed in his mind, are all necessary to eminence in ence, that, not daring to bestow on it the term of the poetical art.
barbarous, we distinguish it as the heroic period. Above all, to attain the highest point of his profes- No other poet (sacred and inspired authors excepted) sion, the poet must have that original power of em- ever did, or ever will, possess the same influence orer bodying and detailing circumstances, which can place posterity, in so many distant lands, as has been acbefore the eyes of others a scene which only exists in quired by the blind old man of Chios; yet we are ashis own imagination. This last high and creative sured that his works, collected by the pious care of faculty, namely, that of impressing the mind of the Pisistratus, who caused to be united into their present hearers with scenes and sentiments having no ex- form those divine poems, would otherwise, if preserved istence save through their art, has procured for the at all, have appeared to succeeding generations in the bards of Greece the term of Ilonons, which, as it sin- humble state of a collection of detached ballads, congularly happens, is literally translated by the Scottish nected only as referring to the same age, the same geepithet for the same class of persons, whom they termed neral subjects, and the same cycle of heroes, like the the Makers. The French phrase of Trouveurs, or metrical poems of the Cid in Spain, or of Robin Hood Troubadours, namely, the Finders, or Inventors, has in England. the same reference to the quality of original conception In other countries, less favoured, either in language and invention proper to the poetical art, and without or in picturesque incident, it cannot be supposed that which it can hardly be said to exist to any pleasing or even the genius of Homer could have soared to such useful purpose.
exclusive eminence, since he must at once hare been The mere arrangement of words into poetical rhythm, deprived of the subjects and themes so well adapted or combining them according to a technical rule or for his muse, and of the lofty, melodious, and flexible measure, is so closely connected with the art of music, language in which he recorded them. Other nations, that an alliance between these two fine arts is very during the formation of their ancient poetry, wanted soon closely formed. It is fruitless to enquire which the genius of Homer, as well as his picturesque scenery of them has been first invented, since doubtless the and lofty language. Yet the investigation of the early precedence is accidental; and it signifies little whether poetry of every nation, even the rudest, carries with it the musician adapts verses to a rude tune, or whether an object of curiosity and interest. It is a chapter in the primitive poet, in reciting his productions, falls the history of the childhood of society, and its resemnaturally into a chant or song. With this additional blance to, or dissimilarity from, the popular rhymes accomplishment, the poet becomes saidos, or the man of other nations in the same stage, must needs illusof song, and his character is complete when the addi- trate the ancient history of states; their slower or tional accompaniment of a lute or harp is added to swifter progress towards civilisation; their gradual or his vocal performance.
more rapid adoption of manners, sentiments, and reHere, therefore, we have the history of early poetry ligion. The study, therefore, of lays rescued from the m all nations. But it is evident that, though poetry gulf of oblivion, must in every case possess considerseems a plant proper to almost all soils, yet not only able interest for the moral philosopher and general is it of various kinds, according to the climate and historian. country in which it has its origin, but the poetry of The historian of an individual nation is equally or
1 The " Poema del Cid" (of which Mr. Frere has translated dently more ancient than the detached ballads on the Advent pome specimens) is, however, considered by every historian tures of the Campcador, which are included in the Cancion o Spanish literature, as the work of one hand; and is cri
more deeply interested in the researches into popular Such also is the unvared account of the rose and the poetry, since he must not disdain to gather from the brier, which are said to spring out of the grave of the tradition conveyed in ancient ditties and ballads, the hero and heroine of these metrical legends, with little information necessary to confirm or correct intelli- effort at a variation of the expressions in which the gence collected from more certain sources. And incident is prescriptively told. The least uainalthough the poets were a fabling race from the very tance with the subject will recall a great number of beginning of time, and so much addicted to exagge- commonplace verses, which each ballad-maker has mtion, that their accounts are seldom to be relied on unceremoniously appropriated to himself; thereby without corroborative evidence, yet instances fre- greatly facilitating his own task, and at the same quently occur where the statements of poetical tra- time degrading his art by his slovenly use of overdition are unexpectedly confirmed.
scutched phrases. From the same indolence, the To the lovers and admirers of poetry as an art, it ballad-mongers of most nations have availed themcannot be uninteresting to have a glimpse of the selves of every opportunity of prolonging their pieces, National Muse in her cradle, or to hear her babbling of the same kind, without the labour of actual comthe earliest attempts at the formation of the tuneful position. If a message is to be delivered, the poet sounds with which she was afterwards to charm pos- saves himself a little trouble, by using exactly the terity. And I may venture to add, that among sarne words in which it was originally couched, to poetry, which, however rude, was a gift of Nature's secure its being transmitted to the person for whose first fruits, even a reader of refined taste will find his ear it was intended. The bards of ruder climes, and patience rewarded, by passages in which the rude less favoured languages, may indeed claim the counminstrel rises into sublimity or melts into pathos. tenance of Homer for such repetitions; but whilst, in These were the merits which induced the classical the Father of Poetry, they give the reader an opporAddison to write an elaborate commentary upon tunity to pause, and look back upon the enchanted the ballad of Chevy Chase, and which roused, like the ground over which they have travelled, they afford sound of a trumpet, the heroic blood of Sir Philip nothing to the modern bard, save facilitating the Sidney.?
power of stupifying the audience with stanzas of dull It is true that passages of this high character sel- and tedious iteration. dom occur ; for, during the infancy of the art of Another cause of the flatness and insipidity, which poetry, the bards have been generally satisfied with a is the great imperfection of ballad poetry, is to be rude and careless expression of their sentiments; and ascribed less to the compositions in their original even when a more felicitous expression, or loftier state, when rehearsed by their authors, than to the numbers, have been dictated by the enthusiasm of the ignorance and errors of the reciters or transcribers, composition, the advantage came unsought for, and by whom they have been transmitted to us. The perhaps unnoticed, either by the minstrel or the au- more popular the composition of an ancient poet, or dience.
Maker, became, the greater chance there was of its Another cause contributed to the tenuity of thought being corrupted; for a poem transmitted through a and poverty of expression, by which old ballads are number of reciters, like a book reprinted in a multitoo often distinguished. The apparent simplicity of tude of editions, incurs the risk of impertinent interthe ballad stanza carried with it a strong temptation polations from the conceit of one rehearser, unintellito loose and trivial composition. The collection of gible blunders from the stupidity of another, and rhymes, accumulated by the earliest of the craft ap- omissions equally to be regretted, from the want of pear to have been considered as forming a joint stock memory in a third. This sort of injury is felt very for the common use of the profession; and not mere early, and the reader will find a curious instance in rhymes only, but verses and stanzas, have been used the Introduction to the Romance of Sir Tristrem. as common property, so as to give an appearance of Robert de Brunne there complains, that though the sameness and crudity to the whole series of popular Romance of Sir Tristrem was the best which had poetry. Such, for instance, is the salutation so often ever been made, if it could be recited as composed by repeated,
the author, Thomas of Erceldoune, yet that it was
written in such an ornate style of language, and such * Now Heaven thee save, thou brave young knight, Now Heaven thee save and see."
a difficult strain of versification, as to lose all value
in the mouths of ordinary minstrels, who could And such the usual expression for taking counsel
scarcely repeat one stanza without omitting some with. • Rede me, rede me, brother dear,
part of it, and marring, consequently, both the sense My rede shall rise at thee."
and the rhythm of the passage. This deterioration
· See The Spectator, No. 70 and 74.
I never heard the old song of Percie and Douglas, that I found not my heart moved more than with the sound of a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crowder, with no rougher voice than rude style."-SIDNEY.
3 “That thou may hear in Sir Trístrem:
Over gestes it has the steem,
could not be limited to one author alone; others must of this degrading species of alchymy, by which the ore have suffered from the same cause, in the same or a of antiquity is deteriorated and adulterated. While greater degree. Nay, we are authorised to conclude, Addison, in an age which had never attended to poputhat in proportion to the care bestowed by the author lar poetry, wrote his classical criticism on that ballad, upon any poem, to attain what his age might suppose he naturally took for his text the ordinary stall-copy, to be the highest graces of poetry, the greater was although he might, and ought to have suspected, that the damage which it sustained by the inaccuracy of a ditty couched in the language nearly of his own reciters, or their desire to humble both the sense and time, could not be the same with that which Sir Phidiction of the poem to their powers of recollection, lip Sidney, more than one hundred years before, had and the comprehension of a vulgar audience. It can- spoken of, as being “evil apparelled in the dust and not be expected that compositions subjected in this cobwebs of an uncivilized age.” The venerable Bishop way to mutilation and corruption, should continue to Percy was the first to correct this mistake, by produpresent their original sense or diction; and the accu- cing a copy of the song, as old at least as the reign of racy of our editions of popular poetry, unless in the Henry VII., bearing the pame of the author or tranrare event of recovering original or early copies, is scriber, Richard Sheale. But even the Rev. Editor lessened in proportion.
himself fell under the mistake of supposing the modern But the chance of these corruptions is incalculably Chevy Chase to be a new copy of the original ballad, increased, when we consider that the ballads have expressly modernized by some one later bard. On been, not in one, but innumerable instances of the contrary, the current version is now universally transmission, liable to similar alterations, through a allowed to have been produced by the gradual alteralong course of centuries, during which they have tions of numerous reciters, during two centuries, in been handed from one ignorant reciter to another, the course of which the ballad has been gradually each discarding whatever original words or phrases moulded into a composition bearing only a general time or fashion had, in his opinion, rendered obsolete, resemblance to the original-expressing the same and substituting anachronisms by expressions taken events and sentiments in much smoother language, from the customs of his own day. And here it may and more flowing and easy versification ; but losing be remarked, that the desire of the reciter to be in- in poetical fire and energy, and in the vigour and telligible, however natural and laudable, has been pithiness of the expression, a great deal more than it one of the greatest causes of the deterioration of an- has gained in suavity of diction. Thus :cient poetry. The minstrel who endeavoured to recite with fidelity the words of the author, might indeed
“ The Percy owt of Northumberland,
And a vowe to God mayd he, fall into errors of sound and sense, and substitute cor
That he wolde hunte in the mountayns ruptions for words he did not understand. But the
Off Cheviot within dayes thre, ingenuity of a skilful critic could often, in that case,
In the mauger of doughty Dougles, revive and restore the original meaning ; while the
And all that ever with him be," corrupted words became, in such cases, a warrant for
Becomes the authenticity of the whole poem." In general, however, the later reciters appear to
“ The stout Earl of Northumberland have been far less desirous to speak the author's words,
A vow to God did make, than to introduce amendments and new readings of
His pleasure in the Scottish woods
Three summer days to take," &c. their own, which have always produced the effect of modernizing, and usually that of degrading and vul- From this, and other examples of the same kind, garizing, the rugged sense and spirit of the antique of which many might be quoted, we must often exminstrel. Thus, undergoing from age to age a gradual pect to find the remains of Minstrel poetry, composed process of alteration and recomposition, our popular originally for the courts of princes and halls of nobles, and oral minstrelsy has lost, in a great measure, its disguised in the more modern and vulgar dialect in original appearance ; and the strong touches by which which they have been of late sung to the frequenters it had been formerly characterised, have been generally of the rustic ale-bench. It is unnecessary to mention smoothed down and destroyed by a process similar to more than one other remarkable and humbling inthat by which a coin, passing from hand to hand, loses stance, printed in the curious collection entitled, a in circulation all the finer marks of the impress. Ballad-Book, where we find, in the words of the in
The very fine ballad of Chevy Chase is an example genious Editor, a stupid ballad, printed as it was sung
1 An instance occurs in the valuable old ballad, called Auld for casting darts or stones ; the restoration of which reading Maitland. The reciter repeated a verse, descriptive of the gives a precise and clear sense to the lines. defence of a castle, thus:
2 Sce Percy's Reliques, vol. i. p. 2. “ With spring-wall, stanes, and goads of airn
3 Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Esq. The Ballad-Book was Among them fast he threw."
printed in 1823, and inscribed to Sir Walter Scott; the im Spring-wall, is a corruption of springali, a military engine pression consisting of only thirty copies.