The Ballads of Scotland

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The Ballads of Scotland.

Edited by William Edmonstoune Aytoun.
(Blackwood & Sons.)


"PEOPLE talk of nature," said Dr. Johnson in speaking of Scottish ballads, "but mere obvious nature may be exhibited with very little powers of mind."  Quite trite.  And yet this "mere obvious nature," sometimes shown by writers of the old ballads, is often as subtle and as powerful in its home touch as is ever gained by the glorious imagination of a Shakspeare in its deepest reaches.  Simple, unconscious Nature and conscious Art when it grows cunning as Nature, are two very different things; and yet they frequently do the same thing and arrive at one result.  What is the secret of this?   How is it that an uncultured ballad minstrel shall interpret some bit of living truth from the heart of a people to the ear of a world as successfully as Shakspeare with the amplest powers of his mighty mind?   What can it be but implicit trust in truth and reliance on reality?  and because some truths are so precious to the human heart that the simplest statement is the utmost that can be done for them, and because, after all, the greatest difficulty, as well as the crowning victory, of poet and artist is to reach reality.  Was it not this that enabled the writer of the Ballad on the "Death of Sir John Moore" to do for his subject all that could have been done for it by the greatest poet that ever wrote?   There is so much vitality in a bit of noble and exalting truth, so intensely felt as to be expressed in music, that for the time being it places the ballad minstrel on a level with the foremost dramatist, and makes us overlook the limits of his altogether lesser realm.  This illustrates the position of the old ballad-writers.  Their success lies in their entire reliance on reality in all matters concerning the human heart.  They lay to and grapple with their subject at once.  They have a purpose, and they do not dally with it or dandle it on their knees.  Their song smites as the Percy and Douglas did at Otterburn when they

Swakkit swords, and they twa swat,
Till the blude ran doun like rain.

With them it is always an open question of personal prowess stripped to the naked nature, and not of Art in ambush.  Their sinewy strength strikes blows as with the terrible old seaxe of the Saxons, and their pathos is often that of strong men weeping, or rather dashing down a few large thunder-drops, the sharp pathos of a fierce pain.  Nothing in all literature can be more wonderful in its weirdness, more touching in its tenderness, than 'The Wife of Usher's Well,' whose three sons went to sea and were lost.  One night, when nights were long and mirk, their three spirits came home, and the poor old mother thinks her sons have returned.  She made their bed, happed them in her mantle, and sat down by their bedside to let her proud heart overflow.  When the cock crows, they must be going, as is the wont of ghosts.  The elder brother says, it is time they were away, and the youngest—the mother's darling—(what a touch!) pleads:—

Lie still, lie still but a little wee while,
    Lie still but if we may;
Gin my mother should miss us when she wakes,
    She'll go mad ere it be day.

—He thinks she will be able to bear it better in daylight than in darkness.  And you know they stayed till the last minute by the farewell so mournfully given as they float out from the old home over the dank glade, in the dewy dawn, while the first flickering of the firelight gleams from the windows.—

Fare-ye-weel, my Mother dear!
    Fare-weel to barn and byre!
And fare-ye-weel, the bonny lass
    That kindles my Mother's fire.

—One great help to reality for the old ballad writers was found in the conditions under which they wrote.  They composed for recitation and not for reading.  This would necessitate directness, and cut up all dilettantism.  They knew that if a ballad was to live in memory and spring up when required with easy spontaneity, it must be evolved clearly and with lyrical aptitude,—must not be overlaid with words, nor carry too heavy weight of thought.  Then they recited or sang the ballads in person, face shining to face, and heart beating to heart.  Here the difference is vast between meeting your audience, speaking to them in living speech, and writing at them in a periodical,—It being all in favour of those gifts which nature supplies to the born singer and orator.  It leaves no scope for elegant periphrasis, no time to hunt shadows till you become a shadow yourself, or polish the surface till you have whittled away all the substance.  It would be a good thing if our present writers of verse could be placed under similar conditions.  We have often thought how very fortunate it was that Shakspeare had his theatre into which he could pour his daily mind, as into a mould, and see nightly how it was filled and fitted, or overflowed with the affluence of his fancy.  It supplied him with such curbing conditions as shaped his work without wanderings of mind from the line of a true aim, or waste of time in reaching the result.  How different a literary legacy he would have left had he gone on writing poems and sonnets filled with beautiful conceits for private patrons, instead of making wide Humanity his public, and writing for the great Globe Theatre of a world!

    The old ballads sprang straight out of the heart of the people, where they have their abiding roots, and whence they have blossomed anew in spite of all the changes that have swept over them, and they go straight to the heart of the people.  Their elements of success are few and delightfully simple.  The groups that listened to the minstrels on a winter's night, when the fires roared within and the winds roared without, and the lights flared and laved in the vaulty gloom, must have had large wonder, as the phrenologists would say. They never questioned the story's probability in minor matters, so long as the hands of the warriors were involuntarily carried to their sword-hilts,—the high-tide of feeling ran strong, and the pretty eyes of the, maidens were arched in wonder, peeping timidly and sparkling tearfully. Minstrels might draw the long bow and throw the battle-axe to any distance,—in truth, they could scarcely pitch it too strong, feats of strength were so greatly admired in those days.  They had not read La Place on probabilities, and they entertained no fear of coming Niebuhrs or Sir G. C. Lewises.  People must also have then had little or no organ of Individuality, for the slightest disguise seems to have been sufficient to blot out the dearest friends from each other's memory.  And such black-browed, black-blooded, persecuting mothers-in-law, and such patient Grissels as there were!   And what a habit the children had of coming into the world clandestinely, without any ceremony!   The course of true love never did run smooth, and everything appears to have happened exactly in a "twelvemonth and a day."  The witches, old and young, in those times must have had their meetings and played up rarely—

When bells were rung, and Mass was sung,
    And a' men boun' to bed.

—Whatever strange story the minstrels might unfold, perhaps the boldest deed had been matched by some of those stalwart listeners, and the darkest tale of woman's cruelty had its fellow in a secret that was biting like a serpent in the heart of some white wench, who tried to choke it there and keep it from screaming out.

    When we come to speak of the nationality of these ballads, we find that in many instances a most difficult thing to determine.  Scotch and English editors still carry on the old Border warfare in a different shape, and make their rieving raids for ballads instead of beasts.  Buyers have the greatest cause of complaint, for they often find that the book they purchase to-day is much about the same as the one they purchased yesterday, the main difference being that the one is Scotch and English, and the other English and Scotch.  The editors of the respective nations generally make their choice according to poetical superiority.  You buy a book of early ballads, or ballads of the peasantry, as English, and find at least half of them to be unmistakeably Scotch; and in any book of Scottish ballads we shall find some as unmistakeably English.  The Scottish thistle sheds winged seed, and some of it would be borne southward on the breath of men, and spring up again in flower on English soil.  On the other hand, the Scottish minstrels took many a slip from the English rose as it grew wild by the wayside -without an owner.  So that when we meet with them, it is often impossible to tell where grew the original root.  The mere phraseology of these ballads is in many instances of no guidance.  As they were transcribed from memory to memory, and handed down from generation to generation, the language would be changed inevitably, to the obliteration of those marks which are the sign-manual of their age.  This, we think, has tended to the enrichment of Scottish ballad literature at the expense of the English.  We agree with Mr. Aytoun in thinking that the ballad of 'Hynde Horn' comes from the old metrical romance of 'King Horn,' or 'Horne Childe and Maiden Rymenild,' written probably in the twelfth century, and with every appearance of a genuine English growth.  King Horn is the son of Olaf—the Olaf of the early Danish and Swedish minstrelsy.  This romance is a visible connecting link between the bards of Britain and the Danish scalds.  In it we can see the footprints of the vanished Saxon gleemen, and judge how Alfred entertained his Danish foes in minstrel guise.  Much besides in the Scottish ballads may be traced to this source, or sources more directly Scandinavian. For example, the beginning of 'Sir Patrick Spells' is the same as that of several early Danish ballads.  The subjects of 'Fine flowers in the valley,' and 'Binnorie,' may be matched with English ballads that have, as we think, one common Danish origin, and the style of refrain is identical also.  From these we get the "silken sails and masts of gold," the same little May runs in kirtle red, the same little foot-page leads forth the palfrey with saddle of silver and bridle of gold, the maidens sit up in the tall tower and look from their high bower door, and they now and then learn the same dextrous use of "a little penknife."  Kings sit at the board and drink the "blood-red wine," Knights fight with the sword or finger the "red gold fine."  After this we call trace the influence of that bursting spring of song which filled the sweet South in the thirteenth century, and the song birds of chivalry shook their feathers and sang in the shower of gracious influences that were rained on them from the eyes of their ladye loves.  The influence of external Nature was then brought to bear on the human heart, and make it tender for love's sake, more than ever it had been used in all previous poetry.

    In treasuring up and handing on the ballad elements from Dane and Norman, English minstrels would undoubtedly give the earliest versions of many subjects now claimed by both countries.  English monks and the scholars in religious houses would also write out themes for the minstrels, often from the romances that were stored up in the monastic libraries; but once these had drifted into Scotland, they would be cherished and kept alive there, even when they came to die out and get degraded in England, because the feudal system and institutions of chivalry nourished ballad minstrelsy there after it was neglected in this country.  Thus, the Scottish minstrels would be left in possession not only of what did belong to them, but also of much that did not, and this could only be proven by such fragments as floated after hundreds of years had passed away.  The English minstrels in return helped themselves from their brethren over the Border, and we have popular poetry in England from Scottish sources.

    The nationality of a ballad, if determined at all, must be identified by collating, so to speak, the national sentiment. 'Robin Hood,' for instance, is in England a national sentiment.   Not so in Scotland.  The Scotch may have taken an interest in him, and assert that David the First and Malcolm the Fourth, kings of Scotland, were in Robin Hood's pedigree, but that does not make him a national sentiment.  So that, although they might rhyme about Robin Hood, the ballads of "that ilk" are essentially English.  Pat to the purpose comes an old English proverb, "Many a one talks of Robin Hood that never shot with his bow."  And it is curious to note that this manner of speaking of the merry outlaw which characterizes the Robin Hood ballads—for example, "There's some will talk of Robin Hood, and some of barons bold," &c, is adopted in the 'Birth of Robin Hood,' which was taken down by Mr. Jamison from recitation, and is included in this collection of ballads.—

And mony ane sings o' grass, o' grass,
    And mony ane singe o' corn;
And mony ane sings o' Robin Hood
    Kens little where he was born.

    Again, 'Allan-a-Maut' may be the original of the popular ballads on bold Sir John Barleycorn, although we doubt whether as much inspiration could be got from it as might have been derived from John himself.  But even should it be so, we should claim the ballad of 'Sir Jolm Barleycorn' as English.  Can there be any mistake about beer being an English sentiment?   And as ballad poetry is the flowering of national sentiment, it is as certain in our mind that an Englishman wrote 'Sit John Barleycorn' as that Shakspeare created Falstaff, although we are not so certain that the one had not something to do with the other.  Burns tried a fresh version of this ballad, but spoiled it.  No, beer is not a national sentiment in Scotland: whiskey is,—and every nation to its taste.

    Mr. Aytoun is inclined to give England credit for 'Hugh of Lincoln,' or the Jew's Daughter.  And so should we.  And yet we have heard a version of it recited by the straw plaiters in Hertfordshire, which commences thus:—

It rains, it rains, in merry Scotland,
    It rains both great and small,
And all the children in merry Scotland
    Are playing at their school ball.

    We might think that the English minstrel had been too patriotic to credit his country with such a deed as that murder, and had ascribed it to the Scots, thinking them perhaps, in his limited knowledge, little better than cannibals—having been told that they were canny something—like the poor Wesleyan who said he prayed not only for himself, but he prayed for the Irish and all ugly kinds of men,—but his statement respecting the children forbids such a supposition; it is very precise, and shows us that he was well acquainted with the educational condition of the country.

    'Lord Beichan' we decidedly take to be 'English.  The hero of it is most probably Gilbert Becket, the father of the famous Thomas à Becket.  He was a flourishing citizen of London town, and in his youth had been a soldier in the Crusades.  The story runs that he was once taken prisoner by a Saracen prince, that he and the prince's daughter fell in love; after his departure she followed him to London,  and found him with her one English word, "Gilbert."  What saith the ballad?—

Young Beichan was in London born,
    He was a man of high degree;
He passed thro' monie kingdoms great
    Untill he came to grand Turkie.

—And it tells a similar story.  Mr. Aytoun stumbles at the name of "Susie Pye," and cannot think what Saracenic name that comes from.  He forgets what a genius the English people have for mispronouncing hard names, as the sailors of the "Billy rough 'un" might show.  After corrupting "God encompasses us" into the "Goat and Compasses," we hold anything possible in that way.

    He claims 'The Heir of Linne' as a Scottish ballad, but gives no evidence and makes out no case, without which we should not feel inclined to give it up.  On the other hand, he gives up 'The Border Widow,' and thinks it a skilful adaptation of the old English ballad called 'The Lady turned Serving Man.'  We  cannot help believing that the inspiration here lies with the author of these stanzas:—

I sewed his sheet, making my maen,
I watched the corpse, myself alane;
I watched his body night and day;
No living creature came that way.
I took his body on my back,
And whiles I gaed, and whiles I sate;
I digged a grave, and laid him in,
And happed him with the sod sae green.

But think na ye my heart was sair,
When I laid the mool on his yellow hair!
O think na ye my heart was wae,
When I turned about, away to gae!

That does not look like the work of an adapter.  The ballad is filled and flooded with the fierce old Border spirit, and its oneness is fused with a fiery feeling too intense for tears.  We look upon it as a Scotch thistle bristling with spears and blooming from Scottish blood.  The mere fact that it contains a line or two from 'Helen of Kirkconnel' and the 'Twa Corbies' is of little weight, as 'The Border Widow' may be the original.

    We have been much interested with some of Mr. Aytoun's collations, they are simply and well done.  But surely his 'Thomas of Ercildoune' was not only transcribed by an English man!  We do not regard it as the original of 'True Thomas,' but it does read like a new version of the subject by an English scholar.  What does this refer to?—

And soothly, as the story says,
He met her at the eildon tree.

 —The opening of the poem is English, and so is the exclamation of the lady,

Do way!  that were follie!

—And the phrase "In Huntly banks" is enough to make a Scottish Rights man call the writer a cockney.  The measure also has a solemn, stately movement, that of 'True Thomas' being more leaping and lyrical.  Here are a few scholarly touches.  On seeing the Fairy ,Queen,—

He said, "yon is Mary most of might,
That bare the child that died for me."
Then said that ladye, mild of thought,
Thomas, let such wordes be,
Queen of Heaven am I not,
For I took never so high degree.
        *        *        *        *
How art thou faded thus in the face
And shone before as the sun so bright.
         *        *        *        *
And middle earth thou shalt not see.

—The poem is altogether immeasurably superior to the 'True Thomas,' and the conclusion of it tells us how Thomas became a minstrel, which the other does not.

    In one or two instances we prefer other readings to those which Mr. Aytoun gives.  In 'Sir Patrick Spens' we read "the tear came to his e'e," instead of the "tear blinded his e'e," and—

Be't wind or weet, be't snaw or sleet,

in place of the far more vigorous

Be it wind, be it weet, be it snaw, be it sleet,

in which the rider seems to give Pegasus four inspiring fillip's!   Again, in the last two lines of 'Waly Waly' we have,

And I mysel were dead and gane,
For a maid again I'll never be,

the last line of which is also the last line of the 'Marchioness of Douglas.'  We hold by the other rendering,

And the green grass growing over me.

The sad heart sighs so mournfully in the rustling of that grass.   The line,

I leant my back into an aik,

should read,

I leant my back unto an aik

as "aik," a tree, is intended, not "ache," a pain.  In 'Barbara Allan,' the line,

When ye was in the tavern drinking

has neither rhyme nor rhythm.  Both are supplied in the other version,

When the red wine ye were fillin'.

Let us hope that Sir John did not fuddle in a pot-house.  "The dead-bell ringing" should be "knellin'" as a rhyme to "Allan," and for Scotch singing, "every toll that the dead-bell gied" is not nearly so good as "every jow" which becomes rhythmic with the next line,

It cried woe to Barbara Allan.

Mr. Aytoun might have included that unctuous old poem 'The Keach i' the Creel,' the exceedingly interesting 'Ring of the Roy Robert,' a very beautiful and affectingly tender ballad called the 'Murning Maidin,' or 'Under the levis grene,' which is a bit of the antique perfection, and the 'Gaberlunzie Man,' ascribed to James the Fifth, king of Scotland.  But these shortcomings can be remedied in a new edition of these Ballads, which are, on the whole, the best edited—Mr. Whitelaw's will probably remain the most popular—of any "Scottish ballads."  They are, in most respects, well got up; and the lover of minstrel literature will be sure to give them a hearty welcome.

 



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