Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Ballad
Critical Introduction by Francis Barton Gummere (1855–1919)
(Popular or Communal)

THE POPULAR ballad, as it is understood for the purpose of these selections, is a narrative in lyric form, with no traces of individual authorship, and is preserved mainly by oral tradition. In its earliest stages it was meant to be sung by a crowd, and got its name from the dance to which it furnished the sole musical accompaniment. In these primitive communities the ballad was doubtless chanted by the entire folk, in festivals mainly of a religious character. Explorers still meet something of the sort in savage tribes: and children’s games preserve among us some relics of this protoplasmic form of verse-making, in which the single poet or artist was practically unknown, and spontaneous, improvised verses arose out of the occasion itself; in which the whole community took part; and in which the beat of foot—along with the gesture which expressed narrative elements of the song—was inseparable from the words and the melody. This native growth of song, in which the chorus or refrain, the dance of a festal multitude, and the spontaneous nature of the words, were vital conditions, gradually faded away before the advance of cultivated verse and the vigor of production in what one may call poetry of the schools. Very early in the history of the ballad, a demand for more art must have called out or at least emphasized the artist, the poet, who chanted new verses while the throng kept up the refrain or burden. Moreover, as interest was concentrated upon the words or story, people began to feel that both dance and melody were separable if not alien features; and thus they demanded the composed and recited ballad, to the harm and ultimate ruin of that spontaneous song for the festal, dancing crowd. Still, even when artistry had found a footing in ballad verse, it long remained mere agent and mouthpiece for the folk; the communal character of the ballad was maintained in form and matter. Events of interest were sung in almost contemporary and entirely improvised verse; and the resulting ballads, carried over the borders of their community and passed down from generation to generation, served as newspaper to their own times and as chronicle to posterity. It is the kind of song to which Tacitus bears witness as the sole form of history among the early Germans; and it is evident that such a stock of ballads must have furnished considerable raw material to the epic. Ballads, in whatever original shape, went to the making of the English ‘Béowulf,’ of the German ‘Nibelungenlied.’ Moreover, a study of dramatic poetry leads one back to similar communal origins. What is loosely called a “chorus,”—originally, as the name implies, a dance—out of which older forms of the drama were developed, could be traced back to identity with primitive forms of the ballad. The purely lyrical ballad, even, the chanson of the people, so rare in English but so abundant among other races, is evidently a growth from the same root.  1
  If, now, we assume for this root the name of communal poem, and if we bear in mind the dominant importance of the individual, the artist, in advancing stages of poetry, it is easy to understand why for civilized and lettered communities the ballad has ceased to have any vitality whatever. Under modern conditions the making of ballads is a closed account. For our times poetry means something written by a poet, and not something sung more or less spontaneously by a dancing throng. Indeed, paper and ink, the agents of preservation in the case of ordinary verse, are for ballads the agents of destruction. The broadside press of three centuries ago, while it rescued here and there a genuine ballad, poured out a mass of vulgar imitations which not only displaced and destroyed the ballad of oral tradition, but brought contempt upon good and bad alike. Poetry of the people, to which our ballad belongs, is a thing of the past. Even rude and distant communities, like those of Afghanistan, cannot give us the primitive conditions. The communal ballad is rescued, when rescued at all, by the fragile chances of a written copy or of oral tradition; and we are obliged to study it under terms of artistic poetry,—that is, we are forced to take through the eye and the judgment what was meant for the ear and immediate sensation. Poetry for the people, however, “popular poetry” in the modern phrase, is a very different affair. Street songs, vulgar rhymes, or even improvisations of the concert-halls, tawdry and sentimental stuff,—these things are sundered by the world’s width from poetry of the people, from the folk in verse, whether it echo in a great epos which chants the clash of empires or linger in a ballad of the countryside sung under the village linden. For this ballad is a part of the poetry which comes from the people as a whole, from a homogeneous folk, large or small; while the song of street or concert-hall is deliberately composed for a class, a section, of the community. It would therefore be better to use some other term than “popular” when we wish to specify the ballad of tradition, and so avoid all taint of vulgarity and the trivial. Nor must we go to the other extreme. Those high-born people who figure in traditional ballads—Childe Waters, Lady Maisry, and the rest—do not require us to assume composition in aristocratic circles; for the lower classes of the people in ballad days had no separate literature, and a ballad of the folk belonged to the community as a whole. The same habit of thought, the same standard of action, ruled alike the noble and his meanest retainer. Oral transmission, the test of the ballad, is of course nowhere possible save in such an unlettered community. Since all critics are at one in regard to this homogeneous character of the folk with whom and out of whom these songs had their birth, one is justified in removing all doubt from the phrase by speaking not of the popular ballad but of the communal ballad, the ballad of a community.  2
  With regard to the making of a ballad, one must repeat a caution, hinted already, and made doubly important by a vicious tendency in the study of all phases of culture. It is a vital mistake to explain primitive conditions by exact analogy with conditions of modern savagery and barbarism. Certain conclusions, always guarded and cautious to a degree, may indeed be drawn; but it is folly to insist that what now goes on among shunted races, belated detachments in the great march of culture, must have gone on among the dominant and mounting peoples who had reached the same external conditions of life. The homogeneous and unlettered state of the ballad-makers is not to be put on a level with the ignorance of barbarism, nor explained by the analogy of songs among modern savage tribes. Fortunately we have better material. The making of a ballad by a community can be illustrated from a case recorded by Pastor Lyngbye in his invaluable account of life on the Faroe Islands a century ago. Not only had the islanders used from most ancient times their traditional and narrative songs as music for the dance, but they had also maintained the old fashion of making a ballad. In the winter, says Lyngbye, dancing is their chief amusement and is an affair of the entire community. At such a dance, one or more persons begin to sing; then all who are present join in the ballad, or at least in the refrain. As they dance, they show by their gestures and expression that they follow with eagerness the course of the story which they are singing. More than this, the ballad is often a spontaneous product of the occasion. A fisherman, who has had some recent mishap with his boat, is pushed by stalwart comrades into the middle of the throng, while the dancers sing verses about him and his lack of skill,—verses improvised on the spot and with a catching and clamorous refrain. If these verses win favor, says Lyngbye, they are repeated from year to year, with slight additions or corrections, and become a permanent ballad. Bearing in mind the extraordinary readiness to improvise shown even in these days by peasants in every part of Europe, we thus gain some definite notion about the spontaneous and communal elements which went to the making of the best type of primitive verse; for these Faroe islanders were no savages, but simply a homeogeneous and isolated folk which still held to the old ways of communal song.  3
  Critics of the ballad, moreover, agree that it has little or no subjective traits,—an easy inference from the conditions just described. There is no individuality lurking behind the words of the ballad, and above all, no evidence of that individuality in the form of sentiment. Sentiment and individuality are the very essence of modern poetry, and the direct result of individualism in verse. Given a poet, sentiment—and it may be noble and precious enough—is sure to follow. But the ballad, an epic in little, forces one’s attention to the object, the scene, the story, and away from the maker.
  “The king sits in Dumferling town,”
begins one of the noblest of all ballads; while one of the greatest of modern poems opens with something personal and pathetic, keynote to all that follows:—
  “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense….”
Even when a great poet essays the ballad, either he puts sentiment into it, or else he keeps sentiment out of it by a tour de force. Admirable and noble as one must call the conclusion of an artistic ballad such as Tennyson’s ‘Revenge,’ it is altogether different from the conclusion of such a communal ballad as ‘Sir Patrick Spens.’ That subtle quality of the ballad which lies in solution with the story and which—as in ‘Child Maurice’ or ‘Babylon’ or ‘Edward’—compels in us sensations akin to those called out by the sentiment of the poet, is a wholly impersonal if strangely effective quality, far removed from the corresponding elements of the poem of art. At first sight, one might say that Browning’s dramatic lyrics had this impersonal quality. But compare the close of ‘Give a Rouse,’ chorus and all, with the close of ‘Child Maurice,’ that swift and relentless stroke of pure tragedy which called out the enthusiasm of so great a critic as Gray.
  The narrative of the communal ballad is full of leaps and omissions; the style is simple to a fault; the diction is spontaneous and free. Assonance frequently takes the place of rhyme, and a word often rhymes with itself. There is a lack of poetic adornment in the style quite as conspicuous as the lack of reflection and moralizing in the matter. Metaphor and simile are rare and when found are for the most part standing phrases common to all the ballads; there is never poetry for poetry’s sake. Iteration is the chief mark of ballad style; and the favorite form of this effective figure is what one may call incremental repetition. The question is repeated with the answer; each increment in a series of related facts has a stanza for itself, identical, save for the new fact, with the other stanzas. ‘Babylon’ furnishes good instances of this progressive iteration. Moreover, the ballad differs from earlier English epics in that it invariably has stanzas and rhyme; of the two forms of stanza, the two-line stanza with a refrain is probably older than the stanza with four or six lines.  5
  This necessary quality of the stanza points to the origin of the ballad in song; but longer ballads, such as those that make up the ‘Gest of Robin Hood,’ an epic in little, were not sung as lyrics or to aid the dance, but were either chanted in a monotonous fashion or else recited outright. Chappell, in his admirable work on old English music (‘Music of the Olden Time,’ ii. 790), names a third class of “characteristic airs of England,”—the “historical and very long ballads,… invariably of simple construction, usually plaintive…. They were rarely if ever used for dancing.” Most of the longer ballads, however, were doubtless given by one person in a sort of recitative; this is the case with modern ballads of Russia and Serbia, where the bystanders now and then join in a chorus. Precisely in the same way ballads were divorced from the dance, originally their vital condition; but in the refrain, which is attached to so many ballads, one finds an element which has survived from those earliest days of communal song.  6
  Of oldest communal poetry no actual ballad has come down to us. Hints and even fragments, however, are pointed out in ancient records, mainly as the material of chronicle or legend. In the Bible (Numbers xxi. 17), where “Israel sang this song,” we are not going too far when we regard the fragment as part of a communal ballad. “Spring up, O well: sing ye unto it: the princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves.” Deborah’s song has something of the communal note; and when Miriam dances and sings with her maidens, one is reminded of the many ballads made by dancing and singing bands of women in mediæval Europe,—for instance, the song made in the seventh century to the honor of St. Faro, and “sung by the women as they danced and clapped their hands.” The question of ancient Greek ballads, and their relation to the epic, is not to be discussed here; nor can we make more than an allusion to the theory of Niebuhr that the early part of Livy is founded on, old Roman ballads. A popular discussion of this matter may be found in Macaulay’s preface to his own ‘Lays of Ancient Rome.’ The ballads of modern Europe are a survival of older communal poetry, more or less influenced by artistic and individual conditions of authorship, but wholly impersonal, and with an appeal to our interest which seems to come from a throng and not from the solitary poet. Attention was early called to the ballads of Spain; printed at first as broadsides, they were gathered into a volume as early as 1550. On the other hand, ballads were neglected in France until very recent times; for specimens of the French ballad, and for an account of it, the reader should consult Professor Crane’s ‘Chansons Populaires de France,’ New York, 1891. It is with ballads of the Germanic race, however, that we are now concerned. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Faroe Islands; Scotland and England; the Netherlands and Germany: all of these countries offer us admirable specimens of the ballad. Particularly, the great collections of Grundtvig (‘Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser’) for Denmark, and of Child (‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’) for our own tongue, show how common descent or borrowing connects the individual ballads of these groups. “Almost every Norwegian, Swedish, or Icelandic ballad,” says Grundtvig, “is found in a Danish version of Scandinavian ballads; moreover, a larger number can be found in English and Scottish versions than in German or Dutch versions.” Again, we find certain national preferences in the character of the ballads which have come down to us. Scandinavia kept the old heroic lays (Kæmpeviser); Germany wove them into her epic, as witness the Nibelungen Lay; but England and Scotland have none of them in any shape. So, too, the mythic ballad, scantily represented in English, and practically unknown in Germany, abounds in Scandinavian collections. The Faroe Islands and Norway, as Grundtvig tells us, show the best record for ballads preserved by oral tradition; while noble ladies of Denmark, three or four centuries ago, did high service to ballad literature by making collections in manuscript of the songs current then in the castle as in the cottage.  7
  For England, one is compelled to begin the list of known ballads with the thirteenth century. ‘The Battle of Maldon,’ composed in the last decade of the tenth century, though spirited enough and full of communal vigor, has no stanzaic structure, follows in metre and style the rules of the Old English epic, and is only a ballad by courtesy; about the ballads used a century or two later by historians of England, we can do nothing but guess; and there is no firm ground under the critic’s foot until he comes to the Robin Hood ballads, which Professor Child assigns to the thirteenth century. ‘The Battle of Otterburn’ (1388) opens a series of ballads based on actual events and stretching into the eighteenth century. Barring the Robin Hood cycle,—an epic constructed from this attractive material lies before us in the famous ‘Gest of Robin Hood,’ printed as early as 1489,—the chief sources of the collector are the Percy Manuscript, “written just before 1650,”—on which, not without omissions and additions, the bishop based his ‘Reliques,’ first published in 1765,—and the oral traditions of Scotland, which Professor Child refers to “the last one hundred and thirty years.” Information about the individual ballads, their sources, history, literary connections, and above all, their varying texts, must be sought in the noble work of Professor F. J. Child. For present purposes, a word or two of general information must suffice. As to origins, there is a wide range. The church furnished its legend, as in ‘St. Stephen’; romance contributed the story of ‘Thomas Rymer’; and the light, even cynical fabliau is responsible for ‘The Boy and the Mantle.’ Ballads which occur in many tongues either may have a common origin or else may owe their manifold versions, as in the case of popular tales, to a love of borrowing; and here, of course, we get the hint of wider issues. For the most part, however, a ballad tells some moving story, preferably of fighting and of love. Tragedy is the dominant note; and English ballads of the best type deal with those elements of domestic disaster so familiar in the great dramas of literature, in the story of Orestes, or of Hamlet, or of the Cid. Such are ‘Edward,’ ‘Lord Randal,’ ‘The Two Brothers,’ ‘The Two Sisters,’ ‘Child Maurice,’ ‘Bewick and Graham,’ ‘Clerk Colven,’ ‘Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard,’ ‘Glasgerion,’ and many others. Another group of ballads, represented by the ‘Baron of Brackley’ and ‘Captain Car,’ give a faithful picture of the feuds and ceaseless warfare in Scotland and on the border. A few fine ballads—‘Sweet William’s Ghost,’ ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’—touch upon the supernatural. Of the romantic ballads, ‘Childe Waters’ shows us the higher, and ‘Young Beichan’ the lower, but still sound and communal type. Incipient dramatic tendencies mark ‘Edward’ and ‘Lord Randal’; while, on the other hand, a lyric note almost carries ‘Bonnie George Campbell’ out of balladry. Finally, it is to be noted that in the ‘Nut-Brown Maid,’ which many would unhesitatingly refer to this class of poetry, we have no ballad at all, but a dramatic lyric, probably written by a woman, and with a special plea in the background.  8

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