Page images
PDF
EPUB

these nations began to turn to the past in general, and to that past especially to which they as separate nations were linked as the grown-up man to what he was when a child. But whatever may have been the source of this restored taste for the inartificial literature of earlier times, the taste spread rapidly over Europe, mingling itself, partly as cause, partly as effect, with the endeavour to attain the freer forms which distinguish the literature of our century from that of the eighteenth. For if the study of the old songs and ballads, in which our less cultured forefathers found pleasure, is one sense to be viewed as having been brought about by the general effort to produce a simpler and more natural literature, scarcely anything could contribute to the success of this effort so largely as the simplicity and naturalness of style with which men became acquainted in those old ballads and songs. What could teach men that genius must create a form for itself, but cannot be created by mere forms —what could emancipate them from the thraldom of misunderstood literary prescriptions, more completely than the discovery of a poetry distinguished only by an inner beauty which sought its readiest utterance with little regard to regularity of outward structure? It is not surprising, therefore, that as the literary culture of Europe grew to its nineteenth century type, the study of early Teutonic literature in every dialect advanced with increasing ardour; and while the old libraries of Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain were ransacked, the memories of the people were plied, in order to recover, as far as possible, the tales and the songs of former times. The ordinary histories of literature sketch the

progress of these researches, and their influence on the literary development of recent years; but there is one fact, which has probably never received the prominence it deserves in this section of literary history.

There is properly no period in which a natural literature was so completely extinct in Scotland, as it seems to have been in the other countries of Europe. The period which critics of the nineteenth century unite in deploring as inundated by the watery insipidities which Frenchified tastes dignified with the title of “classic,” was the era of richest efflorescence in the history of Scottish song. It is true, the Scottish authors of the period, who abandoned their native dialect, partook in a considerable degree of the tastes prevalent throughout Europe, though their contributions to philosophy and science represent an entirely original school; but it is always worthy of memory, that when we turn from the general literature of Europe produced under the reign of French criticism, to the lyrical poetry of Scotland, we find ourselves amid the productions of Ramsay and Fergusson and Burns, as well as of those obscurer contemporaries of theirs, authors of many capital songs which still live in the hearts and in the voices of the Scottish people.

Is it a wholly groundless hope which looks to the future of Scottish literature with some confidence that it may continue to draw a fuller health and life from the popular lyrics of Scotland, even if a distinctive dialect should be disused? Already several of those poets who have started from the most crowded ranks of the people, and in an earlier age would have sung in the popular

language, have adopted a dialect indistinguishable from that of the contemporary poets of England; but few of them fail to show, in their happiest characteristics, the influence of the popular poetry which they have learnt with their native tongue. These poets have not made the impression which they might have left on the mass of their countrymen, if they had used the language which is still alone familiar, and is spoken still with much of its living power, in the every-day life of the people. But they probably represent the direction which even the popular poetry of Scotland is to take; and they encourage the hope that, even if it take such a direction, it may continue to draw much of its inspiration from the old Scottish ballads and songs. It will be some time yet, indeed, before these lyrics can cease to be familiar and endeared to the people of Scotland at large; but it will be pleasant to know that, even if they are forgotten by the people, they continue to attract the poets of Scotland away from the hot-house processes of art to the wildings which grow up under the tending of nature alone, deep in the undisturbed glens and along the open mountain-sides of song. And to the historian of literature these lyrics carry an imperishable interest; for to her ballads, more than to any other literary influence, Scotland owes Sir Walter Scott; while without her songs, as Goethe correctly saw, she could never have produced her Burns.

[blocks in formation]
« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »