« PreviousContinue »
on the north of the Tweed; but in the Scottish ballads there never occurs any mention of “harpers of the North Countrie,” which silence, taken in conjunction with the admission of the English ballads, may be twisted into something like a proof that Scotland was looked on as the accredited source of minstrel song. We know her poets did not scruple to acknowledge their obligations to Chaucer as “flour of rethoris al," and even “Dan Lydgate” came in for a share of their approbation, along with "moral Gower;" and had her minstrels owed anything to their brethren of the south, that debt, no doubt, would have been as gratefully remembered.
But one of the most striking, and we may add, never-varying features of these compositions, is their ever agreeing in describing certain actions in one uniform way—their identity of language, epithet, and expression, in numerous where the least resemblance of incident occurs. Instances of this fact are familiar to the student of old ballads as household words; but, as it is not every one who pays attention to these curious relics of early poetry, it may be excusable to dwell a little on this singularity of their composition. It would seem that these commonplaces are so many ingenious devices, no doubt suggested by the wisdom and experience of many ages, whereby oral poetry is more firmly imprinted on the memory, more readily recalled to it, when partially obliterated, and, in the absence of letters, the only efficacious means of preserving and transmitting it to after-times. Besides, it is in them that we not unfrequently recognise those epithets and allusions which carry the compositions to which they appertain to a remote ageepithets and allusions to which the reciter of modern times does not and cannot well attach any distinct meaning, but which he nevertheless repeats as he got them; because he finds they occur in all such songs as uniformly as its burden perhaps.of "derry down, down, hey derry down." În no modern, or comparatively modern, ballad do they ever present themselves, except in a few which
be considered as framed on the ancient models, or in those which immediately succeeded to the ancient ones, whose features in part they must have retained, in order to win their way
to vulgar favour. For a sudden departure from those forms which use had rendered familiar, and age venerable, would not be tolerated by the body of the people; but a silent and imperceptible change might be gradually introduced without exciting disgust, or openly warring with the overwhelming power of ancient prepossessions and long-cherished associations. The snake does not cast off its slough at once, but slowly, and part by part, it peals off and wears away; nor did the ballad part all at once with the livery grave antiquity had clothed it in. Thus to very recent times, indeed, we can distinctly follow out the traces of the ancient ballad style of writing; and it is remarkable enough that the compositions which so retain the characteristics of an earlier body of song, though never so faintly apparent, are those which have become most extensively diffused over the country, and have been most perfectly committed to memory.
Shakspeare has sung that the course of true love never did run smooth," and many of our
ancient ballads confirm the sad tale. In those ballads whose interest is derived from this fruitful source of human misery, we find a perfect uniformity of expression in all cases where the death of the lovers is described. hour of this mournful event is pointed out with a painful precision, that would defy the utmost chronological accuracy of the minutest obituarist; and when they are interred, as always happens, the one in the chancel, and the other in the quire, the miracle of the rose-bush, springing from the one grave, and growing and entwining itself with the briar, which shoots up with a fond eagerness from the other, till they reached the roof, where they shape themselves into a true-love knot, follows as a matter of course. This beautiful and pleasing fiction casts a soft and tender light over the moral history of that people whose popular poetry cherishes such amiable creations; and who in their hearts believe this emblematic triumph of imperishable constancy and true passion over death itself. The lovers in these compositions are ever found in “their lives lovely, and in their death undivided.”
In cases where a message is to be run, a letter or token to be delivered, the same identity of expression, or but slightly varied, according to circumstances, obtains. The message itself is delivered word for word as it was communicated, and, if a letter happens to be the medium of intelligence, we find it uniformly has the effect of exciting very opposite emotions in the individual to whom it is addressed. Like the fatal mandate delivered to Sir Patrick Spens, the first line provokes a "loud lauch," but at the second, "the saut tear blinds his ee;" and those ballads which go the length of describing the further effects produced, generally mention that of the third line, a word he could not see.”
Gentle dames, who choose to undergo a voluntary penance, as a mark of their sorrow for the loss of their paramours, cannot content themselves with a less period than seven years for enduring privations which would shock any sensitive lady of the present day. These privations consist in denying themselves the use of coal and candle—neglect to comb their hair—to glove their hand-or put a shoe on their foot, or a smock on their back. After enduring these hardships they not unfrequently have the satisfaction, on some chill moonshiny night, of meeting their lover's spirit, with whom they enjoy an edifying conversation, and to whom they then render back his plighted troth, in order that he may sleep at peace in his cold and narrow home. Indeed, there is not an action, nor an occurrence of any sort, but what has its appropriate phraseology, and to enumerate all these would, in effect, be to give the principal portion of all our ancient ballads. For in all cases where there is an identity of incident, of circumstance, of action, each ballad varies not from the established mode of clothing these in language. This simplicity of narrative and undeviating recurrence of identical expressions in analogous cases, is one never-failing mark of the antiquity of these songs, and their absence the best argument to the contrary. When a lover comes to his true-love's bower, he uniformly makes use of but one argument to gain admittance :
“O rise, O rise, Lady Margerie,
O rise and let me in,
And the dew draps on my chin." And, much to the credit of the tender hearts that then held the world in gentle thrall, we seldom find that the shivering gallant was long excluded, for, as the minstrel has it,
"With her feet as white as sleet,
She strode her bower within,
She loot sweet Willie in." A combat, though never so toughly and tediously maintained, is very briefly handled by the poet. There is a sort of brachigraphy, or shorthand, used in the description, quite startling to the prosing of a modern versifier. The “nutbrown sword,” which, at this moment, “hung low down by the gair” of the one duellist, is, in the next, sheathed “betwixt the short rib and the lang” of the other.
When swords were at every one's thigh, it was of use to know how to wield them effectively. And it may be remarked, that the expressions of wiping on the sleeve, drying on the grass, and slaiting owre the strae, always occur in such ballads as indicate a dubious and protracted and somewhat equal combat; and I take it these expressions were meant to convey that idea to the mind, as opposed to cases in which an individual has been overpowered by superior numbers, or assassinated unawares.
This uniformity of phraseology in describing incidents of a similar nature, which pervades all our ancient ballads, might appear to argue a poverty both of expression and invention in these