Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and Other Pieces of our Earlier Poets,” published in three volumes in 1765. I t made a less immediate and exciting impression upon contemporary Europe than MacPherson’s “ Poems of Ossian,” but it was more fruitful in enduring results. The Germans make a convenient classification of poetry into Kunstpoesie and Volkspoesie, terms which may be imperfectly translated as literary poetry and popular poetry. The English Kunstpoesie of the Middle Ages lay buried under many superincumbent layers of literary fashion. Oblivion had overtaken Gower and Occleve, and Lydgate and Stephen Hawes, and Skelton, and Henrysonand James I. of Scotland, and well-nigh Chaucer himself-all the mediaeval poetry of the schools, in short. But it was known to the curious that there was still extant a large body of popular poetry in the shape of narrative ballads, which had been handed down chiefly by oral transmission, and still lived in the memories and upon the lips of the common people. Many of these went back in their original shapes to the Middle Ages, or to an even remoter antiquity, and belonged to that great store of folk-lore which was the common inheritance of the Aryan race. Analogues and variants of favorite English and Scottish ballads have been traced through almost all the tongues of modern Europe. Danish literature is especially rich in ballads and affords valuable illustrations of our native ministrelsy.* It was, perhaps, due in part to the Danish settlements in Northumbria and to the large Scandinavian admixture in the Northumbrian blood and dialect, that “ the
north countrie ” became par excellence the ballad land: Lowland Scotland-particularly the Lothians-and the English bordering counties, Northumberland, Westmoreland, and Cumberland; with Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, in which were Barndale and Sherwood Forests, Robin Hood’s haunts. It is not possible to assign exact dates to these songs. They were seldom reduced to writing till many years after they were composed. In the Middle A ges they were sung to the harp by wandering minstrels. In later times they were chanted or recited by ballad-singers at fairs, markets, ale-houses, street-corners, sometimes to the accompaniment of a fiddle or crowd. They were learned by ancient dames, who repeated them in chimney corners to children and grandchildren. In this way some of them were preserved in an unwritten state, even to the present day, in the tenacious memory of the people, always at bottom conservative and, under a hundred changes of fashion in the literary poetry which passes over their heads, clinging obstinately to old songs and beliefs learned in childhood, and handing them on to posterity. W alter Scott got much of the material for his “ Ministrelsy of the Border” from the oral recitation of pipers, shepherds, and old women in Ettrick Forest. Professor Child’s-the latest and fullest ballad collection-contains pieces never before given in print or manuscript, some of them obtained in America! *
Leading this subterranean existence, and generally thought unworthy the notice of educated people, they
naturally underwent repeated changes; so that we have numerous versions of the same story, and incidents, descriptions, and entire stanzas are borrowed and lent freely among the different ballads. The circumstance, e. g ., of the birk and the briar springing from the graves of true lovers and intertwisting their branches occurs in the ballads of “ Fair Margaret and Sweet William,” “ Lord Thomas and Fair Annet,” “ Lord Lovel,” “ Fair Janet,” and many others. The knight who was carried to fairyland through an entrance in a green hillside, and abode seven years with the queen of fairy, recurs in “ Tam Lin,” “ Thomas Rym er,” * etc. Like all folk-songs, these ballads are anonymous and may be regarded not as the composition of any one poet, but as the property, and in a sense the work, of the people as a whole. Coming out of an uncertain past, based on some dark legend of heart-break or blood-shed, they bear no author’s name, but are fe ra natures and have the flavor of wild game. They were common stock, like the national speech; everyone could contribute toward them : generations of nameless poets, minstrels, ballad-singers modernized their language to suit new times, altered their dialect to suit new places, accommodated their details to different audiences, English or Scotch, and in every way that they thought fit added, re trenched, corrupted, improved, and passed them on.