Page images

preservation principally to oral tradition. With the exception of a very few pieces, which, more through accident than design, appear to have found their way into old MSS., or early printed volumes, the ancient Ballad Poetry of Scotland must literally be gathered from the lips of

“ The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,

Who use to chant it." But fragile and capricious as the tenure may seem by which it has held its existence for centuries, it is worthy of remark how excellently well tradition serves as a substitute for more efficient and less mutable channels of communicating the things of past ages to posterity. In proof of this, it is only necessary to instance the well-known ballad of Edom o' Gordon, which is traditionally preserved in Scotland, and of which there is fortunately extant a copy in an English MS., apparently coeval with the date of the subject of the ballad. The title of this copy is Captain Care. We owe its publication to the late Mr Ritson, in whose “ Ancient Songs” it will be found, printed from a MS. in the Cottonian Library.* Between the text of the traditionary version and that of the MS., a slight inspection will satisfy us that the variations are neither very numerous nor very important. This is taking the MS. as the standard of the original text, although it can scarcely be considered as such, seeing it has been transcribed by an English clerk, who perhaps took it down from the imperfect recitation of some wandering Scottish minstrel, and thereafter altered it to suit

* Ancient Songs, London, 1790, p. 137.-Dr Percy mentions that a fragment of it also occurs in his folio MS.

his own ideas of poetical beauty.* Could, however, there be MS. copies of other of our ancient ballads recovered, it certainly would be a most desirable and valuable acquisition. If any such exist, and shall at any time hereafter be communicated to the world, it is confidently anticipated that they will establish the fact of tradition being, in all matters relative to popular poetry, a safe and almost unerring guide.

Language, which, in the written literature of a country, is ever varying, suffers no material changes nor corruptions among the lower and uneducated classes of society, by whom it is spoken as their mother tongue. With them, primitive forms of speech, peculiar idiomatic expressions, and antique phrases, are still in use, which we would look for in vain in the literature of the present day, or in its word-books, which are not professedly dedicated to the “restitution of decayed intelligence." It is not therefore with the unlettered and the rude that oral song suffers vital and irremediable wrong. What they have received from their forefathers, they transmit in the same shape to their children; for, as the Pardonere in “The Canterbury Tales” has justly remarked,

“Lewd peple loven tales olde; Swiche things can they wel report and holde.” * Ritson styles it “the undoubted original of the Scottish ballad, and one of the few specimens now extant of the proper old English ballad, as composed, not by a Grub Street author for

the stalls of London, but to be chanted up and down the kingdom,

by the wandering minstrels of • the North Countrie.'” But here the critic has gratuitously assumed that the name which appears at the end of it as the copyist is also that of the author.-W. M.

Localities and persons may, it is true, be occasionally shifted to answer the meridian of the reciter, and obsolete terms and epithets be laid aside for others more generally in use; but what may be called the facts of these compositions are never disturbed, nor are their individual or characteristic features ever lost. The tear and wear of three centuries will do less mischief to the text of an old ballad among the vulgar, than one short hour will effect, if in the possession of some sprightly and accomplished editor of the present day, who may choose to impose on himself the thankless and uncalled-for labour of piecing and patching up its imperfections, polishing its asperities, correcting its mistakes, embellishing its naked details, purging it of impurities, and of trimming it from top to toe with tailor-like fastidiousness and nicety, so as to be made fit for the press. For thus remodelling ancient song, such complacent wights claim as their reward the merest trifle—that of saddling antiquity with the sin of begetting, and the shame of maintaining, a few of the singularly beautiful and delicate growths of their own over-productive fancy. These pernicious and disingenuous practices breed a sickly loathing in the mind of every conscientious antiquary, and would, if not checked and exposed, in a short while lay the broad axe to the root of everything like authenticity in oral song.

The almost total absence of written monuments to support the claims of Scotland to an inheritance of Ancient National Minstrelsy, enforces the stern necessity of not wantonly tampering with the fleeting and precarious memorials tradition has bequeathed to these latter times. Hence it


has become of the first importance to collect these songs with scrupulous and unshrinking fidelity. If they are at all worth preserving, and no one who has an unsophisticated and manly taste can deny that they are so, it assuredly must be in the very garb in which they are remembered and known, and can be proved to exist amongst us. It will not do to indulge in idle speculations as to what they once may have been, and to recast them in what we may fancy were their original moulds. We may regret that attention was not earlier bestowed on this neglected though interesting portion of national literature, but the only step

we are warranted in taking to remedy what Sir Thomas Browne has denominated “the supinity of elder times," is that of preventing its future dilapidation, by now carefully and accurately gathering what of its wreck we can yet find floating around us. The time may come when even these fragments will also be irretrievably borne beyond our reach.

Collections of these ballads, printed as they orally exist, will to those who succeed us prove a source of peculiar gratification-a record of the most instructive and interesting kind. They convey to posterity, that description of song which is peculiarly national and characteristic; that body of poetry which has inwoven itself with the feelings and passions of the people, and which shadows forth, as it were, an actual embodiment of their universal mind, and of its intellectual and moral tendencies. They communicate, too, another favour, which we would be glad had been conferred on us by any authority a century old ; that is, the means of ascertaining what in our day were deemed ancient compositions, and what of more recent or of contemporaneous date with ourselves.

Evident, however, as the importance is of thus collecting our traditionary poetry purely as it is to be found, it unfortunately happens that this has been too often slightingly and slovenly executed. With many of these ballads, liberties of the most exceptionable and flagrant description have occasionally been taken by their respective editors,-liberties as uncalled for as they are unpardonable in the eye of every rigid and honest critic. Some of these offences against truth and correct taste are of a very deep, others of a lighter shade of criminality ; but be they what they may in magnitude, all are alike deserving of unmitigated condemnation.

It is perhaps unnecessary to mention, that of every old traditionary ballad known, there exists what may

be called different versions. In other words, the same tale is told after a different fashion in one district of the country, from what it is remembered in another. It therefore not unfrequently occurs, that no two copies obtained in parts of the country distant from each other, will be found completely to tally in their texts ; perhaps they may not have a single stanza which is mutual property, except certain commonplaces which seem an integrant portion of the original mechanism of all our ancient ballads, and the presence of which forms one of their most pecu- . liar and distinctive characteristics, as contrasted with the modern ballad. Both of these copies, however, narrate the same story. In that particular, their identity with each other cannot be

« PreviousContinue »