Verse > Anthologies > Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. > The Oxford Book of Ballads
Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. (1863–1944).  The Oxford Book of Ballads.  1910.
AS in The Oxford Book of English Verse I tried to range over the whole field of the English Lyric, and to choose the best, so in this volume I have sought to bring together the best Ballads out of the whole of our national stock. But the method, order, balance of the two books are different perforce, as the fates of the Lyric and the Ballad have been diverse. While the Lyric in general, still making for variety, is to-day more prolific than ever and (all cant apart) promises fruit to equal the best, that particular offshoot which we call the Ballad has been dead, or as good as dead, for two hundred years. It would seem to have discovered, almost at the start, a very precise Platonic pattern of what its best should be; and having exhausted itself in reproducing that, it declined (through a crab-apple stage of Broadsides) into sterility. Therefore this anthology cannot be brought down to the present day, and therefore the first half of it contains far finer poetry than the second.  1
  But it may be objected that among Ballads no such thing as chronological order is possible; and that, if it were, I have not attempted it. ‘Why then did I not boldly mix up all my flowers in a heap and afterwards sit down to re-arrange them, disregarding history, studious only that one flower should set off another and the whole wreath be a well-balanced circle?’ I will try to answer this, premising only that tact is nine-tenths of the anthologist’s business. It is very true that the Ballads have no chronology: that no one can say when Hynd Horn was composed, or assert with proof that Clerk Saunders is younger than Childe Maurice or Tam Lin older than Sir Patrick Spens, though that all five are older than The Children in the Wood no one with an ounce of literary sense would deny. Even of our few certainties we have to remember that, where almost everything depends on oral tradition, it may easily happen—in fact happens not seldom—that a really old ballad ‘of the best period’ has reached us late and in a corrupted form, its original gold overlaid with silver and bronze. It is true, moreover, that these pages, declining an impossible order, decline also the pretence to it. I have arranged the ballads in seven books: of which the first deals with Magic, the ‘Seely Court’, and the supernatural; the second (and on the whole the most beautiful) with stories of absolute romance such as Childe Waters, Lord Ingram, Young Andrew; the third with romance shading off into real history, as in Sir Patrick Spens, Hugh of Lincoln, The Queen’s Marie; the fourth with Early Carols and ballads of Holy Writ. This closes Part I. The fifth book is all of the Greenwood and Robin Hood; the sixth follows history down from Chevy Chase and the Homeric deeds of Douglas and Percy to less renowned if not less spirited Border feuds; while the seventh and last book presents the Ballad in various aspects of false beginning and decline—The Old Cloak, which deserved a long line of children but in fact has had few; Barbara Allen, late but exquisite; Lord Lovel, which is silly sooth; and The Suffolk Tragedy, wherein a magnificent ballad-theme is ambled to market like so much butter. My hope is that this arrangement, while it avoids mixing up things that differ and keeps consorted those (the Robin Hood Ballads for example) which naturally go together, does ‘in round numbers’ give a view of the Ballad in its perfection and decline, and that so my book may be useful to the student as well as to the disinterested lover of poetry for whom it is chiefly intended.  2
  This brings me to the matter of text. To make a ‘scientific’ anthology of the Ballads was out of the question. In so far as scientific treatment could be brought to them the work had been done, for many generations to come, if not finally, by the late Professor Child 1 in his monumental edition, to which at every turn I have been indebted for guidance back to the originals. Child’s method was to get hold of every ballad in every extant version, good, bad, or indifferent, and to print these versions side by side, with a foreword on the ballad’s history, packed with every illustration that could be contributed out of his immense knowledge of the folk-poetry of every race and country. His work, as I say, left no room for follower or imitator; but fortunately it lies almost as wide of my purpose as of my learning. My reader did not require Sir Patrick Spens or May Colvin in a dozen or twenty versions: he wanted one ballad, one Sir Patrick Spens, one May Colvin, and that the best. How could I give him the best in my power?  3
  There is only one way. It was Scott’s way, and the way of William Allingham, who has been at pains to define it in the preface to his Ballad Book (Macmillan):—  4
  The various oral versions of a popular ballad obtainable throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, are perhaps, even at this late day, 2 practically innumerable—one as ‘authentic’ as another. What then to do?… The right course has appeared to be this, to make oneself acquainted with all attainable versions of a ballad. Then (granting a ‘turn’ for such things, to begin; without which all were labour in vain) the editor may be supposed to get as much insight as may be into the origin and character of the ballad in question; he sees or surmises more or less as to the earliest version or versions, as to blunders, corruptions, alterations of every sort (national, local, personal) on the part of the reciters; he then comes to investigate the doings of former editors, adopting thankfully what he finds good, correcting at points whereupon he has attained better information, rejecting (when for the worse) acknowledged or obvious interpolations or changes. He has to give it in one form—the best according to his judgement and feeling—in firm black and white, for critics, and for readers cultivated and simple.  5
  This fairly describes Scott’s method as well as Allingham’s own. But while I must claim along with them ‘a “turn” for such things’ (the claim is implicit in my attempt), these two men were poets, and could dare more boldly than I to rewrite a faulty stanza or to supply a missing one. Of this ticklish license I have been extremely chary, and have used it with the double precaution (1) of employing, so far as might be, words and phrases found elsewhere in the text of the ballad, and (2) of printing these experiments in square brackets, 3 that the reader may not be misled. Maybe I should have resisted the temptation altogether but for the necessity—in a work intended for all sorts of readers, young and old—of removing or reducing here and there in these eight hundred and sixty-five pages a coarse or a brutal phrase. To those who deny the necessity I will only answer that while no literature in the world exercises a stronger or on the whole a saner fascination upon imaginative youth than do these ballads, it seems to me wiser to omit a stanza from Glasgerion, for example, or to modify a line in Young Hunting, than to withhold these beautiful things altogether from boy or maid.  6
  Before leaving this subject of texts and their handling, I must express my thanks for the permission given me to make free use of the text of the Percy Folio MS., edited by Professors Hales and Furnivall some forty years ago. This was of course indispensable. In the history of our ballad-literature the Reliques themselves are, if something more of a landmark, much less of a trophy than the three famous volumes so romantically achieved by Professor Child and their two editors, whose labour has been scarcely more honourable than their liberality which has ever laid its results open to men’s benefit. Mr. Child died in 1896; Mr. Furnivall a few months ago. To Mr. Hales, survivor of the famous three, I owe the permission given with a courtesy which set a fresh value on what was already beyond value. I must also thank the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould for leave to include The Brown Girl and other ballads from his Songs of the West and A Garland of Country Song (Methuen). It were idle to quote all the scholars—Ritson, Herd, Scott, Jamieson and the rest—to whose labours every ballad-editor must be indebted: but among younger men I wish to thank Mr. F. Sidgwick, whose method in his two volumes of Ballads (Bullen) I can admire the more unreservedly because it differs from mine.  7
  I hope, at any rate, that in presenting each ballad as one, and reconstructing it sometimes from many versions, I have kept pretty constantly to the idea, of which Professor Ker 4 says—‘The truth is that the Ballad is an Idea, a Poetical Form, which can take up any matter, and does not leave that matter as it was before.’ If the reader interrogate me concerning this Idea of the Ballad, as Mr. Pecksniff demanded of Mrs. Todgers her Notion of a Wooden Leg, Professor Ker has my answer prepared:—
        In spite of Socrates and his logic we may venture to say, in answer to the question ‘What is a ballad?’—‘A Ballad is The Milldams of Binnorie and Sir Patrick Spens and The Douglas Tragedy and Lord Randal and Childe Maurice, and things of that sort.’
  There the reader has it, without need of the definition or of the historical account which this Preface must not attempt. Its author, no doubt, is destined to consign, some day, and ‘come to dust’ with more learned editors: but meanwhile, if one ask ‘What is a Ballad?’—I answer, It is these things; and it is
        About the dead hour o’ the night
  She heard the bridles ring.
(Tam Lin)
        But this ladye is gone to her chamber,
  Her maydens following bright.
(Sir Cawline)
It is
        ‘O we were sisters, sisters seven;
We were the fairest under heaven.’
        ‘I see no harm by you, Margaret,
  Nor you see none by me.’
(Fair Margaret and Sweet William)
        In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
  And leves be large and long.
(Robin Hood and the Monk)
        O there was horsing, horsing in haste,
  And cracking of whips out owre the lee.
(Archie of Cawfield)
It is even
        And there did he see brave Captain Ogilvie
  A-training of his men on the green.
(The Duke of Gordon’s Daughter)
Like the Clown in Twelfth Night, it can sing both high and low: but the note is unmistakable whether it sing high:
        O cocks are crowing on merry middle-earth;
  I wot the wild fowls are boding day.
(Clerk Saunders)
        Half-owre, half-owre to Aberdour,
  ’Tis fifty fathoms deep;
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
  Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet!
(Sir Patrick Spens)
        ‘O Earl Bran’, I see your heart’s bloud!’—
  Ay lally, o lilly lally
‘It’s na but the glent o’ my scarlet hood’
  All i’ the night sae early.
(Earl Brand)
or low
        Then up bespake the bride’s mother—
  She never was heard to speak so free:
‘Ye’ll not forsake my only daughter,
  Though Susie Pye has cross’d the sea.’
(Young Beichan)
        ‘An’ thu sall marry a proud gunner,
  An’ a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be.’
(The Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie)
        Rise up, rise up, brother Dives,
  And go with us to see
A dismal place, prepared in hell,
  To sit on a serpent’s knee.
(Dives and Lazarus)
or, merely flat and pedestrian:
        There was slayne upon the English part
  For sooth as I you say,
Of ninè thousand English men
  Five hundred came away.
But it is always unmistakable and like no other thing in poetry; in proof of which let me offer one simple, practical test. If any man ever steeped himself in balladry, that man was Scott, and once or twice, as in Proud Maisie and Brignall Banks, he came near to distil the essence. If any man, taking the Ballad for his model, has ever sublimated its feeling and language in a poem
        seraphically free
  From taint of personality,
that man was Coleridge and that poem his Ancient Mariner. If any poet now alive can be called a ballad-writer of genius, it is the author of Danny Deever and East and West. But let the reader suppose a fascicule of such poems bound up with the present collection, and he will perceive that I could have gone no straighter way to destroy the singularity of the book.
  In claiming this singularity for the Ballad I do not seek to exalt it above any other lyrical form. Rather I am ready to admit, out of some experience in anthologizing, that when a ballad is set in a collection alongside the best of Herrick, Gray, Landor, Browning—to name four poets opposite as the poles and to say nothing of such masterwork as Spenser’s Epithalamion or Milton’s Lycidas—it is the ballad that not only suffers by the apposition but suffers to a surprising degree; so that I have sometimes been forced to reconsider my affection, and ask ‘Are these ballads really beautiful as they have always appeared to me?’ In truth (as I take it) the contrast is unfair to them, much as any contrast between children and grown folk would be unfair. They appealed to something young in the national mind, and the young still ramp through Percy’s Reliques—as I hope they will through this book—‘trailing clouds of glory,’ following the note in Elmond’s wood—
        May Margaret sits in her bower door
  Sewing her silken seam;
She heard a note in Elmond’s wood,
  And wish’d she there had been.
She loot the seam fa’ frae her side,
  The needle to her tae,
And she is on to Elmond’s wood
  As fast as she could gae.

A. Q. C.
Note 1. A smaller edition of ‘Child’, excellently planned, by Helen Child Sargent and George Lyman Kittredge, is published in England by Mr. Nutt. [back]
Note 2. 1864. [back]
Note 3. This does not hold of small transpositions, elisions of superfluous words, or corrections of spelling. In these matters I have allowed myself a free hand. [back]
Note 4. On the History of the Ballads, 1100–1500, by W. P. Ker, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. iv. [back]


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