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Outlines of English and American Literature
Popular Ballads
by Long, William J.


If it be asked, "What is a ballad?" any positive answer will lead to disputation. Originally the ballad was probably a chant to accompany a dance, and so it represents the earliest form of poetry. In theory, as various definitions indicate, it is a short poem telling a story of some exploit, usually of a valorous kind. In common practice, from Chaucer to Tennyson, the ballad is almost any kind of short poem treating of any event, grave or gay, in any descriptive or dramatic way that appeals to the poet.

For the origin of the ballad one must search far back among the social customs of primitive times. That the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with it appears from the record of Tacitus, who speaks of their carmina or narrative songs; but, with the exception of "The Fight at Finnsburgh" and a few other fragments, all these have disappeared.

During the Middle Ages ballads were constantly appearing among the common people, [Footnote: Thus, when Sidney says, "I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglass that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet," and when Shakespeare shows Autolycus at a country fair offering "songs for men and women of all sizes," both poets are referring to popular ballads. Even later, as late as the American Revolution, history was first written for the people in the form of ballads.] but they were seldom written, and found no standing in polite literature. In the eighteenth century, however, certain men who had grown weary of the formal poetry of Pope and his school turned for relief to the old vigorous ballads of the people, and rescued them from oblivion. The one book to which, more than any other, we owe the revival of interest in balladry is Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765).

The Marks of a Ballad

The best of our ballads date in their present form from the fifteenth or sixteenth century; but the originals were much older, and had been transmitted orally for years before they were recorded on manuscript. As we study them we note, as their first characteristic, that they spring from the unlettered common people, that they are by unknown authors, and that they appear in different versions because they were changed by each minstrel to suit his own taste or that of his audience.

A second characteristic is the objective quality of the ballad, which deals not with a poet's thought or feeling (such subjective emotions give rise to the lyric) but with a man or a deed. See in the ballad of "Sir Patrick Spence" (or Spens) how the unknown author goes straight to his story:

  The king sits in Dumferling towne,
    Drinking the blude-red wine:
  "O whar will I get guid sailor
    To sail this schip of mine?"

  Up and spak an eldern knicht,
    Sat at the king's richt kne:
  "Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor
    That sails upon the se."


There is a brief pause to tell us of Sir Patrick's dismay when word comes that the king expects him to take out a ship at a time when she should be riding to anchor, then on goes the narrative:

  "Mak hast, mak haste, my mirry men all,
    Our guid schip sails the morne."
  "O say na sae, my master deir,
    For I feir a deadlie storme:

  "Late, late yestreen I saw the new moone
    Wi the auld moone in hir arme,
  And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
    That we will cum to harme."


At the end there is no wailing, no moral, no display of the poet's feeling, but just a picture:

  O lang, lang may the ladies stand,
    Wi thair gold kems in their hair,
  Waiting for thair ain deir lords,
    For they'll se thame na mair.

  Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
    It's fiftie fadom deip,
  And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
    Wi the Scots lords at his feit.


Directness, vigor, dramatic action, an ending that appeals to the imagination,--most of the good qualities of story-telling are found in this old Scottish ballad. If we compare it with Longfellow's "Wreck of the Hesperus," we may discover that the two poets, though far apart in time and space, have followed almost identical methods.

Other good ballads, which take us out under the open sky among vigorous men, are certain parts of "The Gest of Robin Hood," "Mary Hamilton," "The Wife of Usher's Well," "The Wee Wee Man," "Fair Helen," "Hind Horn," "Bonnie George Campbell," "Johnnie O'Cockley's Well," "Catharine Jaffray" (from which Scott borrowed his "Lochinvar"), and especially "The Nutbrown Mayde," sweetest and most artistic of all the ballads, which gives a popular and happy version of the tale that Chaucer told in his "Patient Griselda."

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