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of the heathen councillors a lesson, recorded by an old historian, and preserved in modern verse:
“Man's life is like a sparrow, mighty king,
Important as must have been the influence of the metrical services of the church, considered simply as a means of civilization, the rude ages needed poetry for other uses than devotion. They craved the minstrel's power to touch the stories of daring adventure, of wild justice and revenge, and the tragic incidents of the field and fireside. The earliest of the martial ballads commemorate the exploits of a body of bold outlaws, in whose lives there was the last struggle against Norman tyranny. The strong hand of the conqueror had seized large tracts of land for royal hunting-grounds, the ancient owners outcast; and well may the oppressed people have applauded the exploits of the hardy archers who claimed their own again within the forbidden limits, and thus Robin Hood became indeed “the English ballad-singers' joy,” asserting, as he did, what, under a complicated tyranny of authority, seemed
* Wordsworth's Works, p. 290. The legend is in Fuller's Church History of Britain, vol. i. p. 109.
“ The good old rule, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can.” The old songs have kept his name, but no bistorians, like Niebuhr with the Roman legends, has unwoven the tangled threads of fact and fiction. It would be a study of much interest to compare
the early British ballad poetry, with the other ballad poetry most famous in European literature. I mean that of Spain. Mr. Lockhart's fine version of the Spanish ballads, and our countryman Mr. Ticknor's recent classic work on Spanish Literature would give facilities for the comparison.* The higher civilization in Spain, both Moorish and Christian, and the struggle for centuries between the two races, as the Saracen was driven slowly from his last foothold in the West of Europe, wars which had the dignity of the highest sentiments of religion and loyalty, the greater refinement of society-all these things would be found in strong contrast with the rudeness of a poetry, picturing the feuds of petty chieftains, and the mingled ferocity and frolic of the border warfare.
* To my friend, (for such he has been for many years,) Mr. Ticknor, is in some measure due the publication of these Lectures, for on his saying to me, in accidental conversation since my brother's death, that his literary, and especially his poetical, judgments, were concurrent with his own, I felt the assurance that I might, with no further authority, give them to the reading world. I felt, too, that in publishing these lectures, I might do something to raise Philadelphia lettors a little nearer to the high level to which such men as Prescott, and Ticknor, and Longfellow, and Hillard, have elevated the literature of a sister city. W. B. R.
Our early minstrelsy, with all its comparative rudeness, was not without its gentle elements; and we can conceive how it helped to civilize the people, when we observe how much of pathos is woven into it, how it tells of the tenderness and pity that are congenial with courage and with the love of fierce adventure, springing often out of the sternest heart: the pathos is social, too, so free from sentimentalism, and told so simply. When Edom of Gordon, in his fierce assault on the castle, adding the terrors of fire to those of the sword, not staying his spear's point from the little girl who is lowered over the wall: as his victim lies before him, the blood dripping over her yellow hair, remorse is in the words he said:
“You are the first that ere
To have been some man's delight.”
« Til dooms I do guess;
As it lies on the grass." This transition of feeling is sometimes given in these rude strains with deep effect: observe it, for instance, in the contrast between the opening and the close, in these few detached stanzas :
“Beardslee rose up on a May morning,
Called for water to wash his hands;
* Edom of Gordon, Percy's Reliques, vol. i. p. 240. Johnie of Beårdslee, Motherwell's Ancient and Modern Minstrelsy, vol. i. p. 169.
The outlaw's mother, with a presentiment of his fate, entreats him to give over what was to prove a woful hunting, but in vain; and in spite of her forebodings and the terrors of the forest-laws, he goes
forth. The rude and animated strain continues :
“Beardslee shot, and the dun deer leap'd,
And he wounded her in the side;
His hounds, they laid her pride.
And Beardslee has bryttled the deer so well,
That he's had out her liver and lungs;
As if they had been Earl's sons."
The hunter and his dogs fall asleep, and are surprised by the foresters, who overpower him, and, after a desperate conflict, leave him dying in the lonely wood. The outlaw's breath passes away in a very gentle strain :
“O! is there no a bonny bird
Can sing as I can say,
And tell to fetch Beardslee away.
There's no a bird in a' this forest
Will do as mickle for me,
And streak it on my e'e breo."
Another characteristic of this poetry is the remarkable dramatic power that pervades it, the vividness of the dialogue. This is shown in that, the finest specimen of all, which Coleridge called “ the grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.”* a
It is a poem with a certain air of historical
* Coleridge's Poems, Dejection, an Ode, p. 282.
interest, heightened by the mysterious uncertainty of its incidents, and remarkable both for the power of description and its depth of passion. It has come down from a remote antiquity, and has manifestly escaped the tampering of modern hands. Let me mention, respecting it, that after I had quoted it in a lecture of a former
I told by one of my very kind friends that I had carried him back to the days of his childhood in the old country, when he had heard this very ballad chaunted by the old Scotch people, who must have been familiar with it only by tradition, and not by books. I mention this incident, because it brought home to my mind most distinctly the manner in which the minstrel literature has been prepetuated.*
When the earliest poetry of Greece, the mighty songs of Homer, was a tradition from age to age, on the shores and the islands of the Ægean, with no surer abiding-place than the memories and the tongues of the Rhapsodists, the wisest of Athenian lawgivers, and one of the most politic of Athenian statesmen, made it a part of their wisdom and their policy to gather the scattered poetry into safer keeping for the good of all after generations. No British Solon, no British Pisistratus, took like heed for Britain's early popular poetry. Doubtless, much of it has perished, and the names of the minstrels, like the names
* “The very kind friend,” to whom my brother refers, was the Reverend Doctor Wylie, for many years Vice Provost and Professor of Ancient Languages in the University of Pennsylvania, a man of great learning and eminent purity of character and feeling. He died in 1852. He was a native of the North of Ireland, and for many years pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in this city. He was a man beloved by all who knew him. W. B. R.