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A Book Of Old English Ballads
George Wharton Edwards
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Pages (PDF): 113
Publication Date: 1896
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This collection of ballads contains some of the best known English folk lyrics. It should be noted that 'Old English' in this case doesn't mean 'Anglo-Saxon'; strictly speaking these are written in late Middle or early Modern English. This makes them accessible, even enjoyable, for a modern audience. Many of these are from the Scottish border, and deal with clashes between the English and Scots in historical times. Others are set in an idealized 'Old England', including three ballads of Robin Hood.
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Goethe, who saw so many things with such clearness of vision, brought out the charm of the popular ballad for readers of a later day in his remark that the value of these songs of the people is to be found in the fact that their motives are drawn directly from nature; and he added, that in the art of saying things compactly, uneducated men have greater skill than those who are educated. It is certainly true that no kind of verse is so completely out of the atmosphere of modern writing as the popular ballad. No other form of verse has, therefore, in so great a degree, the charm of freshness. In material, treatment, and spirit, these bat lads are set in sharp contrast with the poetry of the hour. They deal with historical events or incidents, with local traditions, with personal adventure or achievement. They are, almost without exception, entirely objective. Contemporary poetry is, on the other hand, very largely subjective; and even when it deals with events or incidents it invests them to such a degree with personal emotion and imagination, it so modifies and colours them with temperamental effects, that the resulting poem is much more a study of subjective conditions than a picture or drama of objective realities. This projection of the inward upon the outward world, in such a degree that the dividing line between the two is lost, is strikingly illustrated in Maeterlinck's plays. Nothing could be in sharper contrast, for instance, than the famous ballad of "The Hunting of the Cheviot" and Maeterlinck's "Princess Maleine." There is no atmosphere, in a strict use of the word, in the spirited and compact account of the famous contention between the Percies and the Douglases, of which Sir Philip Sidney said "that I found not my heart moved more than with a Trumpet." It is a breathless, rushing narrative of a swift succession of events, told with the most straight-forward simplicity. In the "Princess Maleine," on the other hand, the narrative is so charged with subjective feeling, the world in which the action takes place is so deeply tinged with lights that never rested on any actual landscape, that all sense of reality is lost. The play depends for its effect mainly upon atmosphere. Certain very definite impressions are produced with singular power, but there is no clear, clean stamping of occurrences on the mind. The imagination is skilfully awakened and made to do the work of observation.
The note of the popular ballad is its objectivity; it not only takes us out of doors, but it also takes us out of the individual consciousness. The manner is entirely subordinated to the matter; the poet, if there was a poet in the case, obliterates himself. What we get is a definite report of events which have taken place, not a study of a man's mind nor an account of a man's feelings. The true balladist is never introspective; he is concerned not with himself but with his story. There is no self-disclosure in his song. To the mood of Senancour and Amiel he was a stranger. Neither he nor the men to whom he recited or sang would have understood that mood. They were primarily and unreflectively absorbed in the world outside of themselves. They saw far more than they meditated; they recorded far more than they moralized. The popular ballads are, as a rule, entirely free from didacticism in any form; that is one of the main sources of their unfailing charm. They show not only a childlike curiosity about the doings of the day and the things that befall men, but a childlike indifference to moral inference and justification. The bloodier the fray the better for ballad purposes; no one feels the necessity of apology either for ruthless aggression or for useless blood-letting; the scene is reported as it was presented to the eye of the spectator, not to his moralizing faculty. He is expected to see and to sing, not to scrutinize and meditate. In those rare cases in which a moral inference is drawn, it is always so obvious and elementary that it gives the impression of having been fastened on at the end of the song, in deference to ecclesiastical rather than popular feeling.
The social and intellectual conditions which fostered self-unconsciousness,--interest in things, incidents, and adventures rather than in moods and inward experiences,--and the unmoral or non moralizing attitude towards events, fostered also that delightful naïveté which contributes greatly to the charm of many of the best ballads; a naïveté which often heightens the pathos, and, at times, softens it with touches of apparently unconscious humour; the naïveté of the child which has in it something of the freshness of a wildflower, and yet has also a wonderful instinct for making the heart of the matter plain. This quality has almost entirely disappeared from contemporary verse among cultivated races; one must go to the peasants of remote parts of the Continent to discover even a trace of its presence. It has a real, but short-lived charm, like the freshness which shines on meadow and garden in the brief dawn which hastens on today.
This frank, direct play of thought and feeling on an incident, or series of incidents, compensates for the absence of a more perfect art in the ballads; using the word "art" in its true sense as including complete, adequate, and beautiful handling of subject-matter, and masterly working out of its possibilities. These popular songs, so dear to the hearts of the generations on whose lips they were fashioned, and to all who care for the fresh note, the direct word, the unrestrained emotion, rarely touch the highest points of poetic achievement. Their charm lies, not in their perfection of form, but in their spontaneity, sincerity, and graphic power. They are not rivers of song, wide, deep, and swift; they are rather cool, clear springs among the hills. In the reactions against sophisticated poetry which set in from time to time, the popular ballad--the true folk-song--has often been exalted at the expense of other forms of verse. It is idle to attempt to arrange the various forms of poetry in an order of absolute values; it is enough that each has its own quality, and, therefore, its own value.
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