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Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1844, by PARK BENJAMIN, in the Clerk's office
of the District Court of the Southern District of the State of New York.
Douglas, PRINTER, 68 ANN STREET.
“ Ballad," a word introduced into our language shortly after the conquest of England by the Normans, is derived from the Italian ballàta, which signifies literally a dance. Dr. Johnson gives the French balade, a song, as the original. The light and easy movement of the verse, framed for singing, suggested the application of the Italian word. Of old, it was applied indifferently to poetry of a gay and of a serious character. The Song of Solomon, Dr. Watts assures us, was once called a Ballad—the name being given to what was sacred and solemn, as well as to what was trivial and profane. On this head we may accept the statement of the learned divine ; but we cannot agree with him in the opinion that the term "is now applied to nothing but trifling verse.” Such an epithet may not with truth be proposed to poems so beautiful, pathetic, and oftentimes sublime, as many in the present volume.
The ballad may be considered as the native poetry of Great Britain. It very closely resembles the metrical productions of primitive days, being the rude, uncultivated verse, in which the popular tale of the times was recorded. As our AngloSaxon ancestors partook of the fierce and warlike character of the Northern nations, the subjects of their poetry would naturally consist of the martial exploits of their heroes, and the military events of national history, deeply tinctured with that passion for the marvellous, and that superstitious credulity, which always attend a state of ignorance and barbarism. To the antiquarian lore and indefatigable research of Dr. Percy; to the love of song, and wonderful attainments of Sir Walter Scott, we owe the preservation of many ancient ballads, in which the character of their nations display themselves in striking colours. The boastful history of her victories, the prowess of her favorite kings and captains, and the wonderful adventures of the legendary saint and knight-errant, are the topics of the rough rhyme and unadorned narration, which was ever the delight of the vulgar, and is now an object of curiosity to the man of taste.
When language became refined, and poetical taste elevated by an acquaintance with the Greek and Latin authors, the subjects of the Epic muse were no longer dressed in the homely garb of the popular ballad, but assumed the borrowed ornament and stately air of heroic poetry, and every poetical attempt in the sublime and beautiful was an imitation of the classic models. The native verse of the country was used only for the humorous and the burlesque ; and the term ballad was, by custom, brought to signify a comic story, told in low, familiar language, and wedded to a droll, popular melody. It was much in vogue among the wits of the time as a vehicle for laughable ridicule and mirthful satire; and a.great variety of the most pleasing specimens of this kind of writing is to be found in the ballads of that witty epoch of English genius, comprehended between the beginning of Charles the Second's reign and the times of Swift and Prior. Subsequent to that period, the genius of the English nation has chiefly been characterised by the correct, elegant and tender; and a real or affected taste for beautiful simplicity has almost universally prevailed. This has produced several serious imitations of the old ballad, diverted, however, in its general subject, from the story of martial adventure to tales of love and tenderness. That is a just taste, founded upon a real observation of nature, which enjoins simplicity of expression in every attempt to enlist the sympathetic emotions; ornament and glitter are out of place, and the artificial prettinesses of language interrupt, if they do not altogether destroy, the effect of a story told in verse. Shakspeare, speaking of a popular ballad in Twelfth Night, gives perhaps a better description of what this species of poetry ought to be than could be given in an elaborate essay:
“ Mark it, Cesario; it is old and plain ;
Most of the ballads in this collection are imitations. Indeed, not one of them can be said to be given in its original state; for the uncouth expressions would render them almost unintelligible. The ancient spelling is retained for the purpose, as I presume, of imparting quaintness, but in each story there are improvements and additions which would be sufficiently evident, even if the honesty of the various modern editors had not made us aware of the fact. Most of them are singular specimens of pure English. They contain not many French words, and what there are, are completely broken into the harness of the metre, and subdued to