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IF England has found few to collect her Songs, describe their characters, and enrich them with historical notices, the same cannot be said of Scotland. Her Poets and her Antiquaries have entered with an unparalleled enthusiasm into the subject of Song, collecting whatever was curious, and explaining what was obscure about the lyrics of their country. Little is left for me, but to copy the researches and echo the sentiments of others.
According to Leyden (though he does not state at what period these changes were made), the METRICAL ROMANCES chanted by the Ancient Minstrels, gradually gave way in popularity to the BALLAD, and the Ballad in its turn was succeeded by the SONG; that is, as civilization and literature advanced, the singing of the different ages was changed from the chanting of Tales or Romances, to shorter narratives or Ballads, and next to what we now call SONGS, or short lyrical pieces of sentiment and description.
The various kinds of Song then of our ancestors, have been designated by their descendants as— I. METRICAL ROMANCES; II. BALLADS; III. SONGS; and the latter only retained for their own singing b
and amusement. This distinction was probably first acknowledged, though not perhaps first made, in the early part of the seventeenth century. About this period, we find Hume of Godscroft, in his History of the House of Douglas,* alluding to a popular ballad on the murder of the Lord of Liddesdale, in 1353, which he speaks of as an Old Song ;' after quoting a verse, he continues, the song also declareth how she did write her love-letters to Liddesdale, to dissuade him from that hunting. It tells likewise the manner of the taking of his men, and his own killing at Galsewood, and how he was carried the first night to Linden Kirk, a mile from Selkirk, and was buried within the Abbacie of Melrose; but to have done with instancing the uses, which we would now style abuses of the old song; what stirred up the blood of the heroic Sir Philip Sidney, more than did the sound of a trumpet, was the ballad of Chevy Chace, called by him,' the old song of Percie and Douglas.'†
To pursue the stream of song through its numerous channels, would require a work of greater extent than these little volumes, and of greater pretensions: the subject, however inviting, is very barren of incident, and of what we now call Songs few fragments of any great antiquity can be found, and those for the most part evil-apparelled in the
Vol. I. p. 143.
+ Defence of Poesy.
dust and cobwebs of an uncivil æra. In Scotland, the distinction between Ballad and Song, never has attained that nicety of limit as it has done in England; English Songs being almost wholly of sentiment and description, the majority of Scottish Songs down to the present day, of story mingled with sentiment.*
To discriminate exactly the line between Song and Ballad in Scotland, would be a difficult, if not an impossible undertaking; the country girl, or the ploughman lad, would as soon sing you Chevy Chace or William and Margaret, as any of Burns' shorter lyrics; indeed, if there is equal beauty of story and sentiment contained throughout both, she would prefer the longer narrative, never for a moment wanting heart or dreading the power of her lungs to carry her on. In England this boundary line is very perceptible; the story of the ballad being easily distinguished from the epigrammatic force of their songs, which are generally better to read than to sing; for how few have the voice or the feeling suitable to increase the beauty of a lovely thought, compared to those that can give animation to a story? Narrative or dramatic lyrics will always be the favourites of the people, and constitute the popular poetry of the land.
* "Songs of sentiment, expression, or even description are properly termed songs in contradistinction to mere narrative compositions, which we now denominate ballads. A similar idea is adopted by the Spaniards." Essay on English Song..-RITSON.
What songs shall we find sung in the cottages of England; whoever heard Marlowe's Shepherd to his Love,' or any of Jonson's exquisite lyrics,
'Sung to the wheel and sung unto the pail '—
or Wither's admirable ballads, or any of the elegant and fanciful conceits of Mr. Moore. Gay and Dibdin are popular, and why are they popular? because incident and sentiment are blended in their songs; 'the Storm' and 'Savourna Delish,' are also of the same cast, and are equally popular. The good popular songs of England would fill a very few pages, and the majority of even the mediocre ones, are unworthy of being set up in a ballad type.
The pastoral lyrics of Lodge, Drayton, Davison and others, certainly considered by their authors as songs, and intended to be sung, have now left the rank of songs to be classed as ballads. Pastoral lyrics of the same kind in Scotland, are considered as songs, such as Tweedside and the Broom of Cowdenknowes: we may account for this difference by the English pastorals being written to no popular air, and the Scottish being wedded to the music of their own nation.
METRICAL ROMANCES.-The remarks made in the former Introduction on our old Metrical Romances, are equally applicable to Scotland. The most celebrated Romance the work of a Northern Minstrel, is Sir Tristrem; if,' says Scott, Thomas of Erceldoune did not translate from the French,
but composed an original poem, founded upon Celtic tradition, it will follow that the first classical English Romance was written in part of what is now called Scotland." '*
BALLAD AND SONG.-The most ancient ballad it is generally allowed, of which we are in possession, whether it relates to the Maid of Norway or not, is
Sir Patrick Spens'. It would be unfair to quote it as a specimen of the language of King Alexander III's reign; for in descending the stream of tradition, it has lost much of the hue of that period, and the old thoughts have become clothed in a modern language. In shewing the garb worn by our muses in former years, we must not quote sentiments of one period, and language of another, at a distance of centuries; for we owe the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens to the lips of spinsters and knitters in the sun who chanted it but a few years back.† To the old rhyming chronicler Andrew Wyntown, nevertheless, we are indebted for the preservation of
*Sir Tristrem, Ed. 1833, p. 48.
+ " Tradition, generally speaking, is a sort of perverted alchemy which converts gold into lead. All that is abstractedly poetical, all that is above the comprehension of the merest peasant, is apt to escape in frequent recitation; and the lacune thus created, are filled up either by lines from other ditties, or from the mother-wit of the reciter or singer. The injury, in either case, is obvious and irreparable." Quar. Rev. vol. i. 30.-SCOTT.
With all deference to the opinion of so great a man, is it not just as likely that these alterations are as often for the better as the worse. If through tradition we have not gained all the correctness both of thought and language of the old songs and ballads, we have certainly gained much of the sentiment and all the spirit.