« PreviousContinue »
Over a century ago, in Scotland - the land where “every field has its battle and every rivulet its song” - lived a boy who loved nothing so much as to listen to tales of olden times. Especially he loved those told him in verse. What he heard he remembered ; retold to his playmates when they would listen; or, lacking that audience, would shout out to the empty air for the sheer joy of their sound. His enthusiasm was no respecter of persons; bursting into his mother's parlor one day, roaring forth the lines of the ballad Hardyknute, he put to rout the parish clergyman, who ended his call abruptly, exclaiming, “One may as well speak in the mouth of a cannon as where that child is !” A year or so later the same boy came upon a copy of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. All day he pored over the precious ballads, under the shade of a huge plane tree, forgetful even of dinner until he was sent for. In young manhood“ that child” was binding together for himself six volumes of ballads and folk-songs of his own collecting. Over moss and moor, into shepherd's hut or minister's manse,” he had ridden on his quest—an indefatigable ballad-hunter. No distance was too great, no path too rough, that would lead him to those who possessed a ballad he had never heard. And in old age, death staring him in the face, he steadied himself by repeating from the noble Otterburn:
My wound is deep, I fain wad sleep,
Nae inair I'll figliting see;
Gae lay me in the bracken bush
That grows on yonder lee. All these ballads which Scott so loved, and which he had gathered together with the aid of friends as enthusiastic as himself - Leyden, Shortreed, Heber, - he shared with the world in the Border Minstrelsy. Among the congratulations that poured in upon him as soon as it was published there was one dissenting voice. An bonest old woman of the North Countrie,2 who had sung many of the songs for Scott for the first time, moaned, “ They were made for singing, and no for reading; but ye ha’e broken the charm now, an' they 'll never be sung mair.” To find just why she believed so despairingly that to print them was to kill them we must go to the ballads themselves.
Origin and Development of Ballads Let us read aloud since we have fallen upon the evil days that know them not by heart — any three or
1 “In this labor,” says Scott, “he [Leyden] was equally interested by friendship for the editor, and by his own patriotic zeal for the honor of the Scottish borders; and both may be judged from the following circumstance. An interesting fragment had been obtained of an ancient historical ballad ; but the remainder, to the great disturbance of the editor and his coadjutor, was not to be recovered. Two days afterwards, while the editor was sitting with some company after dinner, a sound was heard at a distance like that of the whistling of a tempest through the torn rigging of the vessel which scuds before it. The sounds increased as they approached more near; and Leyden (to the great astonishment of such of the guests as did not know him) burst into the room, chanting the desiderated ballad with the most enthusiastic gestures, and all the energy of what he used to call the saw tones of his voice. It turned out that he had walked between forty and fifty miles and back again, for the sole purpose of visiting an old person who possessed this precious remnant of an. tiquity.” Lockhart's Scott, i, 303.
2 The mother of James Hogg, the “ Ettrick Shepherd.”
four, say Sir Patrick Spence, Kemp Owyne, The Twa Sisters, The Bonny Earl of Murray. At once the rise and fall of the easy iambic metre starts in our
“ Come to Craigy's sea and kiss with me “ Binnorie, O Binnorie," echo like musical refrains. And there's a haunting tune in
He was a braw gallant,
And he rid at the ring ;
Oh he might have been a king !
He was a braw gallant,
And he played at the ba’;
them a'. The blunt critic was right, then, the ballads were indeed made for singing. Were they as truly “no for reading”? They are surely different from other reading. Close the book, and their words, all plain and unassuming as they are, abide with us; so do their homely epithets, —“milk-white hand,” « cherry cheeks”; their inevitable rhymes, - wine ... mine, me ... sea ; their simple iterations, — "late, late yestreen,” “O lang, lang may their ladies sit”; and their oft-repeated lines. Not so cling the verses of the conscious poets, Shakespeare, or Wordsworth, or Browning. They are to be read and re-read from the printed page, and could never have trusted for life to our memories. And this was exactly the old woman's distinction. Not having been committed, for generations, to type, — as if told once for all and done with,
ballads were free to change, to alter a phrase, add a new episode, vary a refrain, or adapt themselves to new localities and events. In short, ballads lived a genuine life, sus.
ceptible to growth and development, like any other organism. From this point of view, to print them was sure death ; but, fortunately for us, a death that meant immortality. We may be forgiven, however, for wishing an impossible thing — that our collections of ballads to-day could, like the books of merry Lincoln, open themselves and be 6 read without man's tongue,” that so we might catch a nearer glimpse of what they meant to those who heard them chanted in old ballad days, and have a clearer comprehension of the grief of Sir Walter's friend.
“ Made for singing, and no for reading,” brings us directly to the vexed question of ballad origins. It is reasonable to believe that what clings to our memories without great conscious effort may, perhaps must, have had its being in the memories, rather than in the conscious efforts of those, whoever they may be, to whom we owe these unsigned poems; and that what sings itself in our ears must have had its birth in song. We may venture, then, a proposition to be proved as we go on, that a ballad is a tale telling itself in song.1 A tale, meaning that in all ballads the narrative element persists from beginning to end ; telling itself, in the sense that there is no revelation of an individual author in the lines; in song, in that the singing quality of the verse impresses us at once as its life and soul. The first and third terms of our proposition are self-evident from the reading of even four ballads ; it is the second term that demands dis cussion.
A tale telling itself is too shadowy a conception to
? See Kittredge. Introduction to English and Scottish Popular Ba! lads, Cambridge Ed., p. xi.