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HISTORICAL BALLADS AND SONGS.
" There are in ancient story
Wonders many told,
Of courage strong and bold,
Of weeping and of woe,
Niebelungenlied, translated by CARLYLE.
The ballads and songs which refer to known historical transactions do not present the same difficulty, which was met in the case of the romantic ballads, of being referred to different groups. The history of Scotland, like that of all progressive countries, may be divided into certain more or less definitely marked periods, each of which has become an epos-a theme for song. We may therefore briefly notice the lyrical poetry of each epos, pointing out the effect which it may be shown to have produced on the national life of Scotland.
For this purpose we may distinguish four epochs in the history of Scotland, to one or other of which its historical ballads and songs may be referred, viz. the War of Independence; the Border Feuds; the Reformation; and the Jacobite Struggle.
§ 1.—The War of Independence. The history of the Scots, as one distinct people, begins properly with this war; and in the enthusiasm which the common resistance to Anglo-Norman oppression created, may be recognized the force which welded together the different tribes that peopled Scotland." In such an enthusiasm will also be found a fruitful source of national song; and, consequently, the period of this struggle is, perhaps more than all others, worthy of being dignified with the title of an epos, while it has given birth to two poems—Blind Harry's Wallace and Barbour's Bruce—which have some claim to be called epic. But the period does not seem to have created a minor poetry of sufficient value to be traditionally preserved ; or the two greater poems have absorbed the popular favour so entirely, that the contemporary ballads and songs have been allowed to sink into oblivion. The latter supposition is indeed the more probable, as there are not a few indications of a lyrical poetry, belonging to the period, which has been lost. This is not the place to sketch the history of Scottish song, but it may be worth while to collect here the references which have been discovered to those early national lyrics.
A proof that,"even before this time, songs on national themes were not unknown in Scotland, is furnished by the well-known song on the death of Alexander III., preserved by Wyntoun :
1 Before this time the royal notifications to all classes of the people addressed them as Franks and Angles, Scots and Galwegians. See Burton's “ History of Scotland,” vol. ii. p. 127.
“When Alysandyr our Kyng was dede,
That Scotlande led in luve and le,
Of wyne and wax, of gamyn and gle.
Cryst born into virgynyte,
That stad is in perplexyte.”
This, which is probably the earliest extant specimen of Scottish verse, is of peculiar interest as revealing the bitterness with which the people remembered the good old times of plenty preceding the War of Independence, and enabling us to understand the intensity of national feeling which the war called forth, and which found utterance in the popular songs of the period. A fragment which, in various forms, has been preserved from one of the oldest of these songs, refers to the siege of Berwick by Edward I., and hits at the prominent feature of his person, which gave him the nickname of Longshanks.
“What wende the Kyng Edward
For his langge shanks,
Go pike it him,
Go dike it him."1
In connection with the battle of Bannockburn another fragment has been preserved in Fabyan's Cronycle, with
1 Burton's “History of Scotland,” vol. ii. p. 266, note. Irving's “ History of Scottish Poetry,” p. 79.
the interesting information that it continued long afterwards to be sung by the maidens and minstrels of Scotland:
Maydens of Englande, sore may ye mourne
With a heue a lowe.
With rumbylowe.” In relating a victory which a small body of Scots gained over a larger body of English in Eskdale, Barbour dispenses with a detailed narrative on the ground that
Young wemen, quhen thai will play,
Sing it amang thaim ilk day.” Another satirical song, hitting at “the deformyte of clothyng that at those days was used by Englyshmenne,” is said by Fabyan to have been composed on the occasion of the marriage of the infant David Bruce to the Princess Jane of England— Fane Makepiece, as she was popularly nicknamed :
“Long beardes heartles,
Paynted hoodes witles,
Besides these songs on particular events, Wintoun gives us the general information about poems having been written on Sir William Wallace :
"Of his gud Dedis and Manhad
On the exploits of Wallace in France, it is said by Fordun, that songs were written in France itself, as well as in Scotland.
With all this evidence it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that there must have been at one time a considerable amount of popular lyrical poetry, created by the national enthusiasm which gathered around the events and the heroes of the great War of Independence in Scotland. But, in addition to the unimportant fragments cited above, we have a couple of ballads which deserve notice at least. The ballad of Auld Maitland, though maintained by Aytoun and Child to be a modern production, is regarded by Leyden, Scott, and Hogg as being of very ancient date ; while we have the testimony of the last to its popularity in the district of the Ettrick forest. Whatever may be the decision of criticism on this question, we cannot be far wrong, with
, the opinion of Scott and Leyden, in taking Auld Maitland as a fair representative of the ballads of the time.
The ballad Gude Wallace, a defective version of which first appeared in Johnson's “Museum," and the ballad of Sir William Wallace, first published in The Thistle of Scotland,' refer to one of the well-known adventures in the legendary life of the popular hero. Though their original date is wholly uncertain, and they are evidently to a great extent modernised, they appear to me to retain unmistakable traces of old origin. At least they,
1 Fordun's “Scotichronicon,” II, 176 (edit. Goodall). 2 Scott's “ Border Minstrelsy,” vol. i. pp. 314, 315.
3 Both of these ballads will be found in Child's “English and Scottish Ballads,” vol. vi. pp. 232–242.