1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ballads

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BALLADS. The word “ballad” is derived from the O. Fr. baller, to dance, and originally meant a song sung to the rhythmic movement of a dancing chorus. Later, the word, in the form of ballade (q.v.), became the technical term for a particular form of old-fashioned French poetry, remarkable for its involved and recurring rhymes. “Laisse moi aux Jeux Floraux de Toulouse toutes ces vieux poésies Françoises comme ballades,” says Joachim du Bellay in 1550; and Philaminte, the lady pedant of Molière's Femmes Savantes, observes—

“La ballade, à mon goût, est une chose fade,
Ce n'en est plus la mode, elle sent son vieux temps.”

In England the term has usually been applied to any simple tale told in simple verse, though attempts have been made to confine it to the subject of this article, namely, the literary form of popular songs, the folk-tunes associated with them being treated in the article Song. By popular songs we understand what the Germans call Volkslieder, that is, songs with words composed by members of the people, for the people, handed down by oral tradition, and in style, taste and even incident, common to the people in all European countries. The beauty of these purely popular ballads, their directness and freshness, has made them admired even by the artificial critics of the most artificial periods in literature. Thus Sir Philip Sydney confesses that the ballad of Chevy Chase, when chanted by “a blind crowder,” stirred his blood like the sound of trumpet. Addison devoted two articles in the Spectator to a critique of the same poem. Montaigne praised the naïveté of the village carols; and Malherbe preferred a rustic chansonnette to all the poems of Ronsard. These, however, are rare instances of the taste for popular poetry, and though the Danish ballads were collected and printed in the middle of the 16th century, and some Scottish collections date from the beginning of the 18th, it was not till the publication of Allan Ramsay's Evergreen and Tea Table Miscellany, and of Bishop Percy's Reliques (1765), that a serious effort was made to recover Scottish and English folk-songs from the recitation of the old people who still knew them by heart. At the time when Percy was editing the Reliques, Madame de Chénier, the mother of the celebrated French poet of that name, composed an essay on the ballads of her native land, modern Greece; and later, Herder and Grimm and Goethe, in Germany, did for the songs of their country what Scott did for those of Liddesdale and the Forest. It was fortunate, perhaps, for poetry, though unlucky for the scientific study of the ballads, that they were mainly regarded from the literary point of view. The influence of their artless melody and straightforward diction may be felt in the lyrics of Goethe and of Coleridge, of Wordsworth, of Heine and of André Chénier. Chénier, in the most affected age even of French poetry, translated some of the Romaic ballads; one, as it chanced, being almost identical with that which Shakespeare borrowed from some English reciter, and put into the mouth of the mad Ophelia. The beauty of the ballads and the interest they excited led to numerous forgeries and modern interpolations, which it is seldom difficult to detect with certainty. Editors could not resist the temptation to interpolate, to restore, and to improve the fragments that came in their way. The marquis de la Villemarqué, who first drew attention to the ballads of Brittany, is not wholly free from this fault. Thus a very general scepticism was awakened, and when questions came to be asked as to the date and authorship of the Scottish traditional ballads, it is scarcely to be wondered at that Dr Chambers attributed most of them to the accomplished Lady Wardlaw, who lived in the middle of the 18th century.

The vexed and dull controversy as to the origin of Scottish folk-songs was due to ignorance of the comparative method, and of the ballad literature of Europe in general. The result of the discussion was to leave a vague impression that the Scottish ballads were perhaps as old as the time of Dunbar, and were the production of a class of professional minstrels. These minstrels are a stumbling-block in the way of the student of the growth of ballads. The domestic annals of Scotland show that her kings used to keep court-bards, and also that strollers, jongleurs, as they were called, went about singing at the doors of farm-houses and in the streets of towns. Here were two sets of minstrels who had apparently left no poetry; and, on the other side, there was a number of ballads that claimed no author. It was the easiest and most satisfactory inference that the courtly minstrels made the verses, which the wandering crowders imitated or corrupted. But this theory fails to account, among other things, for the universal sameness of tone, of incident, of legend, of primitive poetical formulae, which the Scottish ballad possesses, in common with the ballads of Greece, of France, of Provence, of Portugal, of Denmark and of Italy. The object, therefore, of this article is to prove that what has long been acknowledged of nursery tales, of what the Germans call Märchen, namely, that they are the immemorial inheritance at least of all European peoples, is true also of some ballads. Their present form, of course, is relatively recent: in centuries of oral recitation the language altered automatically, but the stock situations and ideas of many romantic ballads are of dateless age and world-wide diffusion. The main incidents and plots of the fairy tales of Celts and Germans and Slavonic and Indian peoples, their unknown antiquity and mysterious origin, are universally recognized. No one any longer attributes them to this or that author, or to this or that date. The attempt to find date or author for a genuine popular song is as futile as a similar search in the case of a Märchen. It is to be asked, then, whether what is confessedly true of folk-tales,—of such stories as the Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella,—is true also of folk-songs. Are they, or have they been, as universally sung as the fairy tales have been narrated? Do they, too, bear traces of the survival of primitive creeds and primitive forms of consciousness and of imagination? Are they, like Märchen, for the most part, little influenced by the higher religions, Christian or polytheistic? Do they turn, as Märchen do, on the same incidents, repeat the same stories, employ the same machinery of talking birds and beasts? Lastly, are any specimens of ballad literature capable of being traced back to extreme antiquity? It appears that all these questions may be answered in the affirmative; that the great age and universal diffusion of the ballad may be proved; and that its birth, from the lips and heart of the people, may be contrasted with the origin of an artistic poetry in the demand of an aristocracy for a separate epic literature destined to be its own possession, and to be the first development of a poetry of personality,—a record of individual passions and emotions. After bringing forward examples of the identity of features in European ballad poetry, we shall proceed to show that the earlier genre of ballads with refrain sprang from the same primitive custom of dance, accompanied by improvised song, which still exists in Greece and Russia, and even in valleys of the Pyrenees.

There can scarcely be a better guide in the examination of the notes or marks of popular poetry than the instructions which M. Ampère gave to the committee appointed in 1852-1853 to search for the remains of ballads in France. M. Ampère bade the collectors look for the following characteristics:—“The use of assonance in place of rhyme, the brusque character of the recital, the textual repetition, as in Homer, of the speeches of the persons, the constant use of certain numbers,—as three and seven,—and the representation of the commonest objects of every-day life as being made of gold and silver.” M. Ampère might have added that French ballads would probably employ a “bird chorus,” the use of talking-birds as messengers; that they would repeat the plots current in other countries, and display the same non-Christian idea of death and of the future world (see “The Lyke-wake Dirge”), the same ghostly superstitions and stories of metamorphosis, and the same belief in elves and fairies, as are found in the ballads of Greece, of Provence, of Brittany, Denmark and Scotland. We shall now examine these supposed common notes of all genuine popular song, supplying a few out of the many instances of curious identity. As to brusqueness of recital, and the use of assonance instead of rhyme, as well as the aid to memory given by reproducing speeches verbally, these are almost unavoidable in all simple poetry preserved by oral tradition. In the matter of recurring numbers, we have the eternal—

“Trois belles filles
L'y en a'z une plus belle que le jour,”

who appear in old French ballads, as well as the “Three Sailors,” whose adventures are related in the Lithuanian and Provençal originals of Thackeray's Little Billee. Then there is “the league, the league, the league, but barely three,” of Scottish ballads; and the τριὰ πουλακιά, three golden birds, which sing the prelude to Greek folk-songs, and so on. A more curious note of primitive poetry is the lavish and reckless use of gold and silver. H. F. Tozer, in his account of ballads in the Highlands of Turkey, remarks on this fact, and attributes it to Eastern influences. But the horses' shoes of silver, the knives of fine gold, the talking “birds with gold on their wings,” as in Aristophanes, are common to all folk-song. Everything almost is gold in the Kalewala (q.v.), a so-called epic formed by putting into juxtaposition all the popular songs of Finland. Gold is used as freely in the ballads, real or spurious, which M. Verkovitch has had collected in the wilds of Mount Rhodope. The Captain in the French song is as lavish in his treatment of his runaway bride,—

“Son amant l'habille,
Tout en or et argent”;

and the rustic in a song from Poitou talks of his faucille d'or, just as a variant of Hugh of Lincoln introduces gold chairs and tables. Again, when the lover, in a ballad common to France and to Scotland, cuts the winding-sheet from about his living bride—“il tira ses ciseaux d'or fin.” If the horses of the Klephts in Romaic ballads are gold shod, the steed in Willie's Lady is no less splendidly accoutred,—

“Silver shod before,
And gowden shod behind.”

Readers of Homer, and of the Chanson de Roland, must have observed the same primitive luxury of gold in these early epics, in Homer reflecting perhaps the radiance of the actual “golden Mycenae.”

Next as to talking-birds. These are not so common as in Märchen, but still are very general, and cause no surprise to their human listeners. The omniscient popinjay, who “up and spoke” in the Border minstrelsy, is of the same family of birds as those that, according to Talvj, pervade Servian song; as the τριὰ πουλακιά which introduce the story in the Romaic ballads; as the wise birds whose speech is still understood by exceptionally gifted Zulus; as the wicked dove that whispers temptation in the sweet French folk-song; as the “bird that came out of a bush, on water for to dine,” in the Water o' Wearies Well.

In the matter of identity of plot and incident in the ballads of various lands, it is to be regretted that no such comparative tables exist as Von Hahn tried, not very exhaustively, to make of the “story-roots” of Märchen. Such tables might be compiled from the learned notes and introductions of Prof. Child to his English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1898). A common plot is the story of the faithful leman, whose lord brings home “a braw new bride,” and who recovers his affection at the eleventh hour. In Scotland this is the ballad of Lord Thomas and Fair Annie; in Danish it is Skiaen Anna. It occurs twice in M. Fauriel's collection of Romaic songs. Again, there is the familiar ballad about a girl who pretends to be dead, that she may be borne on a bier to meet her lover. This occurs not only in Scotland, but in the popular songs of Provence (collected by Damase Arbaud) and in those of Metz (Puymaigre), and in both countries an incongruous sequel tells how the lover tried to murder his bride, and how she was too cunning, and drowned him. Another familiar feature is the bush and briar, or the two rose trees, which meet and plait over the graves of unhappy lovers, so that all passers-by see them, and say in the Provençal,—

“Diou ague l'amo
Des paures amourous.”

Another example of a very widespread theme brings us to the ideas of the state of the dead revealed in folk-songs. The Night Journey, in M. Fauriel's Romaic collection, tells how a dead brother, wakened from his sleep of death by the longing of love, bore his living sister on his saddle-bow, in one night, from Bagdad to Constantinople. In Scotland this is the story of Proud Lady Margaret; in Germany it is the song which Bürger converted into Lenore; in Denmark it is Aagé und Elsé; in Brittany the dead foster-brother carries his sister to the apple close of the Celtic paradise (Barzaz Breiz). Only in Brittany do the sad-hearted people think of the land of death as an island of Avalon, with the eternal sunset lingering behind the flowering apple trees, and gleaming on the fountain of forgetfulness. In Scotland the channering worm doth chide even the souls that come from where, “beside the gate of Paradise, the birk grows fair enough.” The Romaic idea of the place of the dead, the garden of Charon, whence "neither in spring or summer, nor when grapes are gleaned in autumn, can warrior or maiden escape," is likewise pre-Christian. In Provençal and Danish folk-song, the cries of children ill-treated by a cruel step-mother awaken the departed mother,—

“'Twas cold at night and the bairnies grat,
The mother below the mouls heard that.”

She reappears in her old home, and henceforth, “when dogs howl in the night, the step-mother trembles, and is kind to the children.” To this identity of superstition we may add the less tangible fact of identity of tone. The ballads of Klephtic exploits in Greece match the Border songs of Dick of the Cow and Kinmont Willie. The same simple delight of living animates the short Greek Scolia and their counterparts in France. Everywhere in these happier climes, as in southern Italy, there are snatches of popular verse that make but one song of rose trees, and apple blossom, and the nightingale that sings for maidens loverless,—

“Il ne chante pas pour moi,
J'en ai un, Dieu merci,”

says the gay French refrain.

It would not be difficult to multiply instances of resemblance between the different folk-songs of Europe; but enough has, perhaps, been said to support the position that some of them are popular and primitive in the same sense as Märchen. They are composed by peoples of an early stage who find, in a natural improvisation, a natural utterance of modulated and rhythmic speech, the appropriate relief of their emotions, in moments of high-wrought feeling or on solemn occasions. “Poesie” (as Puttenham well says in his Art of English Poesie, 1589) “is more ancient than the artificiall of the Greeks and Latines, and used of the savage and uncivill, who were before all science and civilitie. This is proved by certificate of merchants and travellers, who by late navigations have surveyed the whole world, and discovered large countries, and wild people strange and savage, affirming that the American, the Perusine, and the very Canniball do sing and also say their highest and holiest matters in certain riming versicles.” In the same way Aristotle, discoursing of the origin of poetry, says (Poet. c. iv.), ἐγέννησαν τὴν ποίησιν ἐκ τῶν αὐτοσχεδιασμάτων M. de la Villemarqué in Brittany, M. Pitré in Italy, Herr Ulrich in Greece, have described the process of improvisation, how it grows out of the custom of dancing in large bands and accompanying the figure of the dance with song. “If the people,” says M. Pitré, “find out who is the composer of a canzone, they will not sing it.” Now in those lands where a blithe peasant life still exists with its dances, like the kolos of Russia, we find ballads identical in many respects with those which have died out of oral tradition in these islands. It is natural to conclude that originally some of the British ballads too were first improvised, and circulated in rustic dances. We learn from M. Bujeaud and M. de Puymaigre in France, that all ballads there have their air or tune, and that every dance has its own words, for if a new dance comes in, perhaps a fashionable one from Paris, words are fitted to it. Is there any trace of such an operatic, lyrical, dancing peasantry in austere Scotland? We find it in Gawin Douglas's account of—

“Sic as we clepe wenches and damosels,
In gersy greens, wandering by spring wells,
Of bloomed branches, and flowers white and red,
Plettand their lusty chaplets for their head,
Some sang ring-sangs, dances, ledes, and rounds.”

Now, ring-sangs are ballads, dancing songs; and Young Tamlane, for instance, was doubtless once danced to, as we know it possessed an appropriate air. Again, Fabyan, the chronicler (quoted by Ritson) says that the song of triumph over Edward II., “was after many days sung in dances, to the carols of the maidens and minstrels of Scotland.” We might quote the Complaynt of Scotland to the same effect. “The shepherds, and their wyvis sang mony other melodi sangs, ... than efter this sueit celestial harmony, tha began to dance in ane ring.” It is natural to conjecture that, if we find identical ballads in Scotland, and in Greece and Italy, and traces of identical customs—customs crushed by the Reformation, by Puritanism, by modern so-called civilization,—the ballads sprang out of the institution of dances, as they still do in warmer and pleasanter climates. It may be supposed that legends on which the ballads are composed, being found as they are from the White Sea to Cape Matapan, are part of the stock of primitive folk-lore. Thus we have an immemorial antiquity for the legends, and for the lyrical choruses in which their musical rendering was improvised. We are still at a loss to discover the possibly mythological germs of the legends; but, at all events, some ballads may be claimed as distinctly popular, and, so to speak, impersonal in matter and in origin. It would be easy to show that survivals out of this stage of inartistic lyric poetry linger in the early epic poetry of Homer and in the French épopées, and that the Greek drama sprang from the sacred choruses of village vintagers. In the great early epics, as in popular ballads, there is the same directness and simplicity, the same use of recurring epithets, the “green grass,” the “salt sea,” the “shadowy hills,” the same repetition of speeches and something of the same barbaric profusion in the use of gold and silver. But these resemblances must not lead us into the mistake of supposing Homer to be a collection of ballads, or that he can be properly translated into ballad metre. The Iliad and the Odyssey are the highest form of an artistic epic, not composed by piecing together ballads, but developed by a long series of noble ἀοιδοί, for the benefit of the great houses which entertain them, out of the method and materials of popular song.

We have here spoken mainly of romantic ballads, which retain in the refrain a vestige of the custom of singing and dancing; of a period when “dance, song and poetry itself began with a communal consent” (Gummere, The Beginnings of Poetry, p. 93, 1901). The custom by which a singer in a dancing-circle chants a few words, the dancers chiming in with the refrain, is found by M. Junod among the tribes of Delagoa Bay (Junod, Chantes et contes des Ba Ronga, 1897). Other instances are the Australian song-dances (Siebert, in Howitt's Native Tribes of South-East Australia, Appendix 1904; and Dennett, Folk-Lore of the Fiort). We must not infer that even among the aborigines of Australia song is entirely “communal.” Known men, inspired, they say, in dreams, or by the All Father, devise new forms of song with dance, which are carried all over the country; and Mr Howitt gives a few examples of individual lyric. The history of the much exaggerated opinion that a whole people, as a people, composed its own ballads is traced by Prof. Gummere in The Beginnings of Poetry, pp. 116-163. Some British ballads retain traces of the early dance-song, and most are so far “communal” in that, as they stand, they have been modified and interpolated by many reciters in various ages, and finally (in The Border Minstrelsy) by Sir Walter Scott, and by hands much weaker than his (see The Young Tamlane). There are cases in which the matter of a ballad has been derived by a popular singer from medieval literary romance (as in the Arthurian ballads), while the author of the romance again usually borrowed, like Homer in the Odyssey, from popular Märchen of dateless antiquity. It would be an error to suppose that most romantic folk-songs are vulgarizations of literary romance—a view to which Mr Courthope, in his History of English Poetry, and Mr Henderson in The Border Minstrelsy (1902), incline—and the opposite error would be to hold that this process of borrowing from and vulgarization of literary medieval romance never occurred. A good illustration of the true state of the case will be found in Child's introduction to the ballad of Young Beichan.

Gaston Paris, a great authority, holds that early popular poetry is “improvised and contemporary with its facts” (Histoire poétique de Charlemagne). If this dictum be applied to such ballads as “The Bonny Earl o' Murray,” “Kinmont Willie,” “Jamie Telfer” and “Jock o' the Side,” it must appear that the contemporary poets often knew little of the events and knew that little wrong. We gather the true facts from contemporary letters and despatches. In the ballads the facts are confused and distorted to such a degree that we must suppose them to have been composed in a later generation on the basis of erroneous oral tradition; or, as in the case of The Queen's Marie, to have been later defaced by the fantastic interpolations of reciters. To prove this it is only necessary to compare the historical Border ballads (especially those of 1595-1600) with Bain's Border Papers (1894-1896). Even down to 1750, the ballads on Rob Roy's sons are more or less mythopoeic. It seems probable that the existing form of most of our border ballads is not earlier than the generation of 1603-1633, after the union of the crowns. Even when the ballads have been taken from recitation, the reciter has sometimes been inspired by a “stall copy,” or printed broadsheet.

Authorities.—The indispensable book for the student of ballads is Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in 1897-1898 (Boston, U.S.A.). Professor Child unfortunately died without summing up his ideas in a separate essay, and they must be sought in his introductions, which have never been analysed. He did not give much attention to such materials for the study of ancient poetry as exist copiously in anthropological treatises. In knowledge of the ballads of all European peoples he was unrivalled, and his bibliography of collections of ballads contains some four hundred titles, (Child, vol. v., pp. 455-468). The most copious ballad makers have been the Scots and English, the German, Slavic, Danish, French and Italian peoples; for the Gaelic there is but one entry, Campbell of Islay's Lea har na Feinne (London, 1872). The general bibliography occupies over sixty pages, and to this the reader must be referred, while Prof. Gummere's book, The Beginnings of Poetry, is an adequate introduction to the literature, mainly continental, of the ballad question, which has received but scanty attention in England. For the relation of ballad to epic there is no better guide than Comparetti's The Kalewala, of which there is an English translation. For purely literary purposes the best collection of ballads is Scott's Border Minstrelsy in any complete edition. The best critical modern edition is that of Mr T. F. Henderson; his theory of ballad origins is not that which may be gathered from Professor Child's introductions. (A. L.)