Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 48.djvu/335

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

the plot of Samuel Ireland [q. v.] to foist on the public forged manuscripts which, it was alleged, were by Shakespeare.

In a somewhat less acrid vein he prepared a long series of anthologies of popular poetry, a field of literature on which he won his least disputable triumphs. Of local verse he was one of the earliest collectors. His ‘Gammer Gurton's Garland, or the Nursery Parnassus,’ an anthology of nursery rhymes, was issued at Stockton in 1783; his ‘Bishopric Garland, or Durham Minstrel,’ at the same place in 1784; his ‘Yorkshire Garland’ at York in 1788; ‘The North Country Chorister’ at Durham in 1792; ‘The Northumbrian Garland, or Newcastle Nightingale,’ at Newcastle in 1793. The last four tracts were in 1810 reissued in one volume, by R. Triphook, as ‘Northern Garlands.’ In none of these is any of Ritson's characteristic bitterness discernible. His larger designs in the same field were not equally void of offence. His ‘Select Collection of English Songs’ appeared in three volumes in 1783. There were a few vignettes by Stothard, and the third volume supplied music to the songs. A second edition, revised by Thomas Park, appeared in 1813. The preface on the origin and progress of national song, which was creditable to Ritson's erudition, was disfigured by an attack on Bishop Percy. While allowing the bishop's ‘Reliques’ many merits, he charged Percy with having introduced forged or garbled versions of many ballads. He issued anonymously in 1791 ‘Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry from Authentic Manuscripts and old printed Copies adorned with [fifteen] Cuts’ by Thomas and John Bewick. In 1792 he published another work of value on a like topic, ‘Ancient Songs from the time of King Henry the Third to the Revolution’ (2 vols.; new edits. 1829 and 1877). This had been at press since 1787; it contained vignettes by Stothard. In the prefatory essays on ‘The Ancient English Minstrels’ and on ‘The Songs, Musick, and Instrumental Performances of the Ancient English,’ Ritson pursued the war with Percy by throwing unjustifiable doubt on the existence of the manuscript whence Percy claimed to have derived his ballads. Ritson's ‘English Anthology’ of modern poetry from Surrey onwards (1793–1794, 3 vols.), which Stothard again illustrated, met with little attention, but Ritson sustained his reputation by his edition of ‘Poems … by Laurence Minot’ (1795) and by his exhaustive work on ‘Robin Hood, a Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads now extant relating to that celebrated English Outlaw’ (1795, 2 vols.). The last volume, wrote Sir Walter Scott, is a notable illustration of the excellences and defects of Ritson's system. Every extant allusion to Robin Hood is printed and explained, but Ritson's ‘superstitious scrupulosity’ led him to publish many valueless versions of the same ballad, and to print indiscriminately all ‘the spurious trash’ that had accumulated about his hero's name. The work was embellished by Bewick's woodcuts (later editions are dated 1832, with ‘The Tale of Robin Hood and the Monk,’ and 1885, with additional illustrations by modern artists).

Meanwhile Ritson had engaged in a new controversy. In 1784 he demonstrated in a letter signed ‘Anti-Scot,’ in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ that John Pinkerton's ‘Select Scotish Ballads’ (1783) was largely composed of modern forgeries by the alleged collector (cf. Notes and Queries, 4th ser. xi. 256). Although Pinkerton frankly admitted the deceit, Ritson's wrath did not abate, and he resolved to teach Pinkerton how his work ought to be done. In 1785 he printed ‘The Caledonian Muse: a Chronological Selection of Scottish Poetry from the earliest times,’ but a fire in the printing office destroyed the whole impression and the manuscript of the introductory essay. The text alone, with vignettes engraved by Heath after the designs of Thomas Bewick, was published in 1821. In the winter of 1786–7 Ritson made a walking tour through the north of Scotland, and in 1794 he issued a somewhat meagre collection of ‘Scottish Song with the genuine Music’ (2 vols.), with a few charming illustrations and a glossary. Pinkerton not unnaturally castigated the work in the ‘Scots Magazine.’ But this was not the last blow Ritson aimed at Pinkerton. To refute the latter's ‘Origin of the Scythians or Goths,’ he compiled his ‘Annals of the Caledonians,’ which appeared after his death. Ritson contended against Pinkerton for the Celtic origin of the Scottish people, and charitably ascribed to madness Pinkerton's difference of opinion.

In 1791 Ritson visited Paris. He was in full sympathy with the leaders of the French Revolution, and on returning home avowed an extravagant admiration for the republican form of government. In 1793 he adopted the new republican calendar, and lost no opportunity of displaying his democratic sentiments. He accepted also the religious views of his French heroes, and he declared himself an atheist. He sought the acquaintance of Godwin, Holcroft, and Thelwall, but a closer scrutiny of ‘these modern prophets and philosophers’ somewhat abated his enthusiasm for their propaganda.

Ritson had already shown symptoms of nervous derangement. In 1796 his health