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constitution of a world at immeasurable distance in space; but what agent of decomposition can unfold with certainty the character of a nation, or even of an individual? A remarkable instance of the difficulty involved in estimating even one's own character is furnished by the fact, that Goethe attached more importance to his scientific insight than to his poetical power; and, in summing up the results of his life, declared that as it had been the mission of Luther to dispel the darkness of the Papacy, so it had been his to overturn the Newtonian theory of colours! 1
The other inquiry-that, namely, into the agencies by which a nation's character is developed, or into the precise influence which any particular agency may have exerted on its development-is even more difficult than the preceding. Here all the machinery of philosophical induction breaks down under the difficulty of making sufficiently accurate and sufficiently extensive observations, and the collateral difficulty of arranging the data which observation yields with a view to legitimate inference.
Now, if we had to serve merely the purposes of popular declamation, it would be easy enough, concealing the difficulty of all such inquiries, to assert a number of questionable platitudes on the Scottish character and on the influences by which it has been formed. The aim in the following essay has been to avoid all asser
1 Eckermann's "Conversations of Goethe," yol. i., p. 162. Compare Lewes' "Life of Goethe," vol. ii., p. 124.
tions with reference to national character and the causes at work in its development, except in so far as such assertions are implied in the solution of the main problem with which we have to deal.
This problem is in reality twofold. It involves two questions: (1), whether any influence at all has been exerted on the character of the Scottish people by their ballads and songs; and (2), if so, what that influence has been. The preliminary inquiry, which forms the first of these two questions, may be disposed of easily in a general way. The character of a nation, as well as of an individual, is moulded by all the influences in the midst of which the nation or the individual lives. It is generally, indeed, impossible to determine with certainty the comparative importance of the influences at work; and often the most insignificant in appearance are the most powerful in reality. In the early years of the Roman Empire, for example, no man could have thought of seeking, among the villages of Galilee, the events from which were to issue the most valuable forces of subsequent history; and biographical records, especially of the religious life, have made us familiar with the fact, that the most efficient cause in shaping an individual's character has often been an incident which was externally of the most trivial nature. But however slight in appearance or in reality, every influence, working upon the people of a country in general, will contribute something to the national character, though some influences may be so slight as
to be incapable of being traced. The only question, therefore, which really remains for answer, is whether we can discover, in the Scottish character, any trace of an influence exerted by the Scottish ballads and songs.
Before proceeding to the detailed examination of the ballads and songs with a view to the solution of this question, it may be well to remark, that it is exceedingly difficult to pitch on any feature of the Scottish character, and say, without hesitation, that is due to the influence of the ballads and songs alone. For it is not enough to prove that the ballads and songs are capable of producing such an effect: numerous instances will occur to anyone, in which the perplexity of a problem is precisely to discover, among several phenomena all capable of producing a certain effect, which has actually been the cause. Moreover, the agencies at work in human nature, as well as in external nature, are often thwarted, counteracted, in fact completely neutralized, by others; and this circumstance creates one of the main difficulties of all scientific inquiry. In addition to this, there is a peculiar difficulty attaching to inquiries concerning the agencies which go to form social character; for every such agency is alternately cause and effect. A certain type of character in a people cannot be due, for example, to the agency of the people's songs alone; for the people's songs are, in the first instance, due to its character. Every manifestation of character is thus at once evidence of the existence of a certain
tendency, and a contribution to the force of the tendency from which it has sprung.
The presence, therefore, of a certain agency is not sufficient to prove that it has produced a certain effect which it is capable of producing, till it has been shown that the effect has not been produced by some other coexisting cause. How, then, must we proceed in our endeavour to trace in the Scottish character some features which are due to the Scottish ballads and songs? The method adopted in the following essay is the only method allowed by the nature of the inquiry, and the only method of arriving at reliable results. The object has been, after arranging the ballads and songs into groups, to elicit some of the features by which each group is distinguished, to point out the effects which such features are calculated to produce, and to trace these effects in Scottish life. The proof in each detail, taken by itself, is not expected to be convincing; but when the line of argument is comprehended as a whole, it must be evident that the people of Scotland cannot have continued, from generation to generation, singing certain kinds of lyrics, without the distinctive features of these lyrics being stamped, more or less clearly, on the character of that people.
Following, then, the method thus indicated, we must start with some classification of the ballads and songs. In doing so, a sentence or two may not be out place, to define the precise sense in which the terms ballad and song are severally employed.
1. Without going into a history of the various uses of the former term, it may be defined as denoting a lyrical narrative, unguided by conscious art, of any event, real or imaginary, which is calculated to excite emotion. It need only be added, that, by this definition, our review is limited to the genuine ballad, and that therefore its modern imitations are excluded. In a critical investigation there may be doubt as to the genuineness of particular ballads; but for our purposes the question of genuineness may be left out of view altogether.
2. A song is a lyrical utterance of an emotion. It is not always possible, therefore, to distinguish precisely between a ballad and a song; for songs are often, perhaps commonly, founded on an event, imaginary if not real. But when the narrative of the event predominates over the mere utterance of the emotion which the event calls forth, the lyric becomes in propriety a ballad; and vice versa. Still, some lyrics may, without impropriety, be classed either among ballads or among songs, and are consequently found in collections of both. Barbara Allan, commonly met with in song-books, partakes more of the nature of a ballad; while Helen of Kirconnell and The Lament of the Border Widow, as well as some other lyrics generally included in our books of ballads, are more correctly regarded as songs. The Song of Moses1 is a splendid specimen of lyrical narrative, borne on by such an impetuous tide of emotion, 1 Exodus, chap. xv.