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COPYRIGHT, 1883, BY
The history of balladry, if it could be accurately traced, would supply a missing chapter in the history of English Verse. But it cannot be so traced, for its origin was vocal and not literary, and when it became literary it had ceased to be balladry. To tell us that the word ballad is derived from the Old French baller, to dance, and that it meant a song sung to the rhythmic movement of a dancing chorus, is merely to define its etymology, and indicate a particular form of Old French Verse which the young poets of to-day are trying to revive in England. When we speak of balladry we have in mind such compositions as Sir Patrick Spens and Chevy Chace, the inspiration of which, whatever it may have been, was not the inspiration required for the composition of dancing songs. It was of simpler and older parentage, going back to that unknown period of antiquity when man discovered in himself the strange gift of metrical expression, and devoted it to the service of the gods which he worshipped, and the memory of great men who lived before him. The first poetic births of the primitive races were hymns and ballads : children of their hymns were the Bibles of
these races, and children of their ballads were their epics-Iliads, Nibelungenlieds, Cids, and the long train of metrical romances that followed them. Autochthones in every land, like the fairy tales which the Germans call Märchen, they wandered up and down the world like gypsies, homeless but happy in the lanes and byways long after their epical descendants had built for themselves palaces. Wherever they have been found, in France, or Portugal, or Italy, or Greece, in Denmark, or England, or Scotland, the stamp of their common parentage is upon them.
Whether the makers of these vernaculous old productions were the minstrels who sang them to the people, or the people themselves of whom these minstrels were the wandering voices, cannot now be determined. They existed like the song of birds and the music of running waters. The first thing that strikes our notice in them (as Motherwell has pointed out) is the almost uniform dramatic character of their structure. “ The action of the piece commences at once. It does not, like the metrical romance, proceed, after craving the attention of lord and lady, and invoking the aid of the Virgin Mary, etc., to give a sketch of the parentage, education, and promising qualities of the doughty knight or gentle squire who is to figure in it. There is no pompous announcement of the exquisite enjoyment to be derived from the carping of such noble gestes. If such particulars are at all alluded to, they are noticed merely incidentally, and dashed off perhaps in a single line. The characters and the destinies of those who form the subject of such tales are learned from their actions, not by the descriptions of the poet. They generally open
with some striking and natural picture, pregnant with life and motion. The story runs on in an arrowlike stream, with all the straightforwardness of unfeigned and earnest passion. There is no turning back to mend what has been said amiss, to render more clear that which may have been dimly expressed or slightly hinted; and there is no pause made to gather on the way beautiful images or appropriate illustrations. If these come naturally and unavoidably, as it were, good and well ; but there is no loitering and winding about and about, as if unwilling to move on till these should suggest themselves. The charm of the composition lies in the story which it evolves. Strained and artificial feeling has no place in it, and rhetorical embellishments are equally unknown. Descriptions of natural scenery are never attempted, and sentiment is almost unheard of. Much is always left for imagination to fancy, and for the feelings of the auditors to supply, roused as they cannot fail to be by the scenic picture rapidly and distinctly traced before the mind's eye. In his narrative, the poet always appears to be acting in good faith with his audience. He does not sing to another what he discredits himself, nor does he appeal to other testimony in support of his statements. There is no reference to 'as the boke tells,' or 'as in Romans I rede,' for a corroboration of what he affirms. He always speaks as if the subject which he handles were one quite familiar to those whom he addresses, and touching which nothing but a perfectly honest and circumstantial statement of facts could be relished. If fifteen stalwart foresters are slain by one stout knight, single-handed, he never steps out of his way to prove