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ART. V. - The Pictorial Book of Ballads, Traditional and
Romantic: with Introductory Notices, Glossary, and
London. 1847–8. 2 vols. 8vo. pp. Vi and 424, vi and 428.
The origin of Ballads and Ballad-singers we shall for the present leave to the philosophical antiquaries, and for ourselves confess that we know not whether they claim their descent from Shem, Ham, or Japhet. Neither will we undertake to observe the nice distinctions that have been made between Ballads, Romances, and Legends; and the many other distinctions which have not yet been made, but might easily be if any one would show a difference sufficient to afford a basis for such a distinction - or even without that difference. We take a ballad to be a lyrical narration of some human event real or pretended. It may be a ballad of love, or a ballad of war; it may set forth the feelings of the author, and so far be mainly subjective in its character, -or only the feelings of the persons described in the poem, and so be mainly objective in its character. It may be long or short, good or bad, old or new. To us in either case it may be a ballad. We say all this, lest it should be supposed from what follows that we are not aware of the distinctions above hinted at, and which have been made by critics and criticasters, who, if not very wise, were at least very nice. On the contrary, we are painfully aware of such distinctions, and respectfully would notice such differences, - but at present we bid farewell to both, and address us to the ballads themselves — understanding the word in the wide sense we have given to it. However, let us narrow the signification a little, so as not to include all the narrative poetry in the world, ecclesiastical and secular. As a general rule, the ballad is simple in the structure both of the plot and the language, which has but a slight rhythmical movement; and in this particular, as well as others, it is distinguished specifically from odes, songs, and yet other kinds of lyric poetry. Nobody doubts that the poem called Chevy-Chase is a ballad, and we give the same name to those beautiful lyrical productions which Mr. Macaulay has wrought out of the Roman materials. Indeed, he found the materials in Livy almost in the form of ballads, though certainly rude in form and moving with prosaic foot.
We find ballads, in one form or another, in almost every nation which has attained any considerable degree of social development. They differ widely in form, and not less widely in spirit. Taken as a whole they are valuable indications of the spirit of the nations amongst whom they have been produced. Some ballads have been made by regular artists, and are pieces of literary sculpture ; others have grown up amongst the people, and are not so much the statues as they are children of the people. The latter are of course the most valuable of all as indications of national thought and feeling, even though they have but inferior poetic merit. They are the field-flowers of poetry, - not so rare and exquisitely beautiful as the briefer songs, of love, of religion, which spring up in a poetic people as the water-lily and the fringed gentian, and by no means so nicely framed and finished off as the artistic crea tions of well-bred poets, the choice garden-flowers and exotics of the greenhouse, -- but yet, like the violets, the dandelions, and the wild rosus, breaking the monotony of the landscape, and lending a certain charm to the common places of the world.
A collection of all the popular poems which are in the mouth of the people would pretty truly represent the character of that people ; at least, at the time when they were collected. The old Greek spirit of the heroic age is reflected in the ballads of the Homeric cycle of poets, as sharp and clear as the mountains and their clouds in the Lake of Geneva, of a still summer day. In the sombre ballads of Spain we find the superstitions, the gloom, and the fire of that nation. Their love, their patriotism, and their jealous sense of personal honor obtain here, perhaps, the fullest expression they have anywhere found in the national literature. The ballads of the Teutonic race express not less fully the peculiar character of the Danes, the Germans, and the English. Had we space, we would gladly pause awhile over the popular poetry - the Volkslieder- of the continental portion of the race, and give some specimens thereof, from Volker Babbulus in the tenth century down to “ The Song of the Three Kings of Cologne” in the seventeenth, not neglecting the artistic ballads of Bürger, Uhland, Schiller, and Goethe.
The ballads of the English partake of the characteristic homeliness of the nation; of their manly good sense, their humanity not without a certain admiration of rough strength, of coarse pastimes, of gross eating and drinking. There appears likewise that strong tendency to individual freedom NO. II.
which marks all the movements of the Anglo-Saxon people. Their ballads delight in representing the man of nature as superior to the man of circumstances. All distinction of rauk is occasionally broken through, sometimes in the most absurd and impossible manner. This characteristic
This characteristic appears eminently in “The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green," in “ King Cophetua and the Beggar-maid," which under the title of “ A Song of a Beggar and a King” was old in Shakspeare's time, for Moth, in the play, says, “ the world was very guilty of such a ballad some three ages ago.” Then there is a strong moral sense running through the English ballads, as indeed it appears in most songs of the people everywhere. The popular minstrel loves to show how cunning is baffled by simple wisdom, and innocence proves too strong for crime ; thus “the unnatural father” in the well-known ballad, falls into trouble, and is delivered by the son whom formerly he had spurned. Poetical justice must be done on the unworthy guardian of “the Children in the Wood :"
“And now the heavy wrath of God
Upon their uncle fell;
His conscience felt an hell:
“Ilis barnes were fired, his goods consumed,
His landes were barren made,
And nothing with him stayed."
If a man is unjustly treated by the powerful, and especially by the government, the bard of the English people loves to tell how the innocent was rescued by force or stealth. The Story of Robin Hood “rescuing the squires three" is of this character.
“ Bold Robin Hood ranging the forest all round,
The forest all round ranged he ;
She came weeping along the highway.
“Why weep you, why weep you?' bold Robin he said.”
She answers that she weeps for her three sons, for “ they are all condemned to die,” — who, it seems, have not committed the most ordinary offences.
66 • What have they done then ?' said jolly Robin,
• Come tell me most speedily.' O! it is for killing the king's fallow deer,
That they are all condemned to die.' “Get you home, get you home,' said jolly Robin,
• Get you home most speedily, And I will unto fair Nottingham go,
For the sake of the 'squires all three.'
For Nottingham town goes he,
He came creeping along the highway.
What news, come tell unto me.'
For the death of the 'squires all three.' “ This beggar-man had a coat on his back,
'Twas neither green, yellow, nor red; Bold Robin Hood thought 't was no disgrace
To be in the beggar-man's stead.
And thou shalt put on mine;
Besides brandy, good beer, ale, and wine.'
Unto Nottingham town came he;
And likewise the 'squires all three.
• One boon I beg on my knee; That, as for the death of these three 'squires,
Their hangman I may be.
“Soon granted, soon granted,' says master sheriff,
'Soon granted unto thee; And thou shalt have all their gay cloathing,
Aye, and all their white money.'
Nor none of their white money,
That their souls to heaven may flee.'
“ Then Robin Hood mounted the gallows so high,
Where he blew loud and shrill,
Came marching down the green hill.
• Whose men are they ?' tell unto me.
And are come for the 'squires all three.'
• O take them along with thee;
Can do the like of thee.'”
Sometimes, indeed, this moral feeling, which is cosmopolitan, sinks down into patriotism and is limited to the country of the bard; sometimes it is bounded by men of his own humble rank in life. But this seldom happens in such poetry, except when war or oppression has made wise men mad, bringing out passions which are narrow and hateful. Notwithstanding the English ballads so commonly scorn the authority of circumstances, they yet betray the purely empirical character of the English nation. With the exception of these overleapings of the conventions of life, they contain scarce any thing which has not its parallel in actual experience. We look in vain for the signs of that more elevated spirituality so noticeable in the popular poetry of some other nations.
The Americans have produced but little poetry in the simple form of ballads ; little which circulates among the people, and that little is destined to a speedy and unlamented burial, as we think. Hitherto circumstances have not favored the production of original literature. With the perpetual exception of speeches and sermons, — which grow out of the daily wants of state and church, — they from their nature must ever be ephemeral. New England has always been the most literary part of America ; but the fathers of New England had a form of religion or rather of theology - perhaps the most unpoetic that was
ever developed on a scale so extensive. Calvin was no poet: he dwelt years long on the Lake of Geneva, preaching within sight of Jura and Mont Blanc, with the most beautiful scenery in the world spread out before him, and yet, so far as we remember, there is not in sermon or letter a single allusion to that wondrous beauty wasted on his cold eye, - not a single