« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »
equal at times to the finest efforts of a cultivated historical imagination.
A curious and interesting illustration of the thorough objectivity of the ballads is to be found in the childlike credulity with which they narrate legendary marvels. -a credulity which continued to be manifested by ballad-singers as long as the ballads continued to be traditionally preserved. "It is well known," says Motherwell, "by all who have personally undergone the pleasant drudgery of gathering our traditionary song, that the old people who recite these legends attach to them the most unqualified and implicit belief. To this circumstance may be ascribed the feeling and pathos with which they are occasionally chanted,— the audible sorrow, that comes of deep and honest sympathy with the fates and fortunes of our fellow kind. In the spirit, too, with which such communications are made, in the same spirit must they be received and listened to. The audacious sceptic, who, in the plenitude of his worldly wisdom, dared to question their being matter of incontrovertible fact, I may state for the information of those who may hereafter choose to amuse themselves in the quest of olden song, would eventually find the lips of every venerable sibyl in the land most effectually sealed to his future inquiries." And he adds in a foot-note: "From no discourteous motive, but from sheer ignorance of this important article of belief, I have, unfortunately for myself, once or twice notably affronted certain aged virgins, by impertinent dubitations touching the veracity of their songs, an offence which bitter experience will teach
me to avoid repeating, as it has, long ere this, made me rue the day of its commission." 1
The natural style of the popular lyrics is observable still further in a skilfulness of structure which is evidently the result of an instinct rather than of art. While there has been noticed an occasional tameness arising from the introduction of superfluous incident, the ballads also exhibit that power of arresting interest which is attained by dashing at once "in medias res and hurrying on "ad eventum." "ad eventum." This has been already pointed out in the commencement of The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, and it is also characteristic of the frequent opening—
"It fell about the Martinmas," &c.,
"It fell about the Lammas tide," &c.
None of the ballads, in fact, ever falls into the blunder of carrying the narrative back to antecedent circumstances which have no essential connection with the main interest of the plot. It is a distinctive merit of them all that they advance straight to their story. In like manner, in the body of the ballads there is often the same vigorous brevity of narrative, a complete picture being at times brought out distinctly as if by a single stroke of a master. This power of the ballad-makers has struck me specially in their descriptions of battles: the confused mingling of arms seems to be more truthfully represented by a vague, but apposite phrase, than by a more elaborate narration. Take, for example, the
1 "Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern," vol. i. pp. 36, 37 (Amer. ed.)
account of the combat between Percy and Douglas in The Battle of Otterbourne:
"When Percy wi' the Douglas met,
I wat he was fu' fain!
They swakked their swords, till sair they swat,
The passionate ardour of the combatants, the din, the bloodshed of a mortal duel could not well be put into a more powerful picture. In like manner, the contest of the hero with his nine assassins in The Dowie Dens of Yarrow is disposed of briefly in a single verse :
"Four has he hurt, and five has slain,
On the bloody braes of Yarrow,
Till that stubborn knight came him behind,
I question whether brief descriptions like the above are not truer to reality than the detailed narrative of the combat between Fitz-James and Roderick Dhu.
The preceding remarks, which have had the ballads chiefly in view, may be applied also in general to the songs of Scotland, except that the latter class of lyrics are marked by fewer of the defects which have been noticed as belonging to the former. The songs also owe their most prominent excellences to their freedom from
1 Compare the later verse on the combat of Percy and Montgomery :
"The Percy and Montgomery met,
That either of other were fain;
They swapped swords, and they twa swat,
the restraint of those artificial rules which too often check the spontaneous expression of natural feeling. The poet, who summed up in himself all that was most admirable in the previous song-writers of his country, understood this, when, in the preface to his first publication, he wrote of himself: "Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing poet by rule, he sings the sentiments and manners, he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language."1 And one of those numerous song-writers, whose poetical nature was nurtured chiefly by Burns and old Scottish song and those national influences under which the lyrical muse of Scotland grew up, has but expressed the same feeling in the preface to his first volume of songs: "I composed them by no rules excepting those which my own observation and feelings formed: I knew no other. As I thought and felt, so have I written."2
§ 2. Extent of the Popularity of the Ballads and Songs.
The previous section has sketched the character of the poetry whose general influence on the Scottish mind. we are now considering. To determine this influence, we must inquire into the extent of its popularity.
Without entering into disputed questions, it is sufficient to say, with reference to the minstrels, that there
Preface to the Kilmarnock edition of Burns' Poems.
2 Alexander Hume, quoted in "The Scottish Minstrel," by Dr. C. Rogers (Edin. 1870), p. 287.
is abundant evidence of the part which they played in the old times, and of the power which they wielded, by the charm of music and song, at festivals and social gatherings. The ballads themselves occasionally give us glimpses of this. The old tragic ballad of Glenkindie,1 for example, turns on the skill of a minstrel and the influence which he won by its means :
"Glenkindie was ance a harper gude,
And Glenkindie was ance the best harper
"He'd harpit a fish out o' saut water,
Or milk out o' a maiden's breast,
Instances have already been given in the preceding pages of the more stately romances being broken down into ballads for the common people. It now remains to go more minutely into the evidences of the extensive popularity enjoyed by these ballads.
References have already been collected in a previous chapter to show that there existed at one time a number of historical lyrics called forth by events connected with the War of Independence. The ballads which relate to the feuds of the Border tribes have also been seen to be numerous; and the testimony of Lesley the historian,2 in
1 This ballad, which seems to be of the same origin with the English ballad of Glasgerion, first appeared in Jamieson's "Popular Ballads and Songs," vol. i. p. 91. Compare the ballads Young Hastings the Groom and The Water o' Wearie's Well.
2 Quoted by Sir W. Scott in the "Border Minstrelsy," vol. i. p. 213.