Page images
PDF
EPUB
[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

frabricated by Dr. Johnson with the malign intent of casting ridicule on the simplicity of ballad poetry, are calculated rather, I apprehend, to set forth its excellence. Puerile they are, I admit, to some extent, but nevertheless picturesque. Embellished with an appropriate woodcut they might serve as a very handsome addition, in the way of a first reading lesson, to the Child's New England Primer. They are not poetic, to be sure, on account of the persons described being devoid of passion or striking incident; but that surely is not to be laid to the charge of the Saxon. The blame, if any, must rest wholly on the imagination of the composer. The language itself is perfectly pellucid and shews the picture in its true colors. The fault lies in the figures themselves, being too prosaic in their attitudes.

The Johnsonese, on the other hand, resembleth stained glass. By the grandeur of the diction itself our vision is too apt to be arrested; and at first sight we are not just fully able to discern whether beneath it is concealed any thing very important or not.

Against the Scottish dialect, which is well adapted for ballad poetry, it seems to me that English poets and critics have always been possessessed, more or less, with an unwarrantable prejudice. The native genius of the Scottish bards they are apt enough to acknowledge, but they generally find fault with their phraseology. Thus Blair in his Lectures pronounces, as he ought, Allan Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd equal to any pastoral in any language, but he regrets its being written in the old rustic dialect of Scotland, which, he says, in a short time will probably be entirely obsolete and not intelligible. Again, Cowper, on the first publication of Burns' Poems, in a letter to Samuel Rose, Esq., admits at once the high merits of the poet, but thinks it a pity if he should not thereafier divest himself of barbarism and content himself with writing pure English, in which to him he appears perfectly qualified to excel. Campbell too, what is still more surprising, in whose time the idiom of the Scottish language, on account of the worih of the bards who used it, had become more studied and better understood in England, as it still continues to be, in his Specimens of the British Poets, while he eulogizes Burns in the highest terms, yet affirms, at the same time, that the fire of his wit and passion was enabled to glow through an obscure dialect only by its confinement to short and concentrated bursts. Now the truth is, the genius of Burns could not have found its full expression through any other mode of speech. Instead of repressing his inspired emotions the Scottish dialect served rather, like the wings of his own Pegasus, to carry him more joyfully and freely through the fields of nature. In every language a broad dialect is natural to rural life and manners, degenerating into rudeness sometimes, it is true; but that of Scotland, on account of the wild and romantic scenery of the country, which impresses the people, has acquired and still retains a charming simplicity and mellowed pathos. In some counties of England the rude speech of her common-people is a perversion, and in some sections of our own country the cant phrases, which it is often attempted to introduce into our literaiure, should be kept out and frowned upon as innovations, calculated, if admitted, to unnerve our speech; but in Scotland the dialect is no upstart nor provinciality. It has grown up gradually with the history of the country, and its beauties are inseperably blended with her national literature. In its vocabulary are contained many old Saxon words of sterling worth that have unluckily fallen out from the English. Thus the language of the Scotch remains more vigorous and complete. Besides ils copiousness too, by the custom of lopping off many of the final consonants of words, and the changing and softening down of the vowels into soundings more like those of Italian than of English, the shackles of rhyme are rendered less constraining to the poet

. Not like a strait-jacket, the language confines his thoughts, but like an easy costume, bracing them up sufficiently and falling around them in becoming folds. Though debarred, as the dialect ought to be, from the higher departments of verse, it is admirably adapted for ballad poetry, pastorals and, to some extent, lyrical pieces; in which respect it very much resembles the Doric of the Greeks, which was also used, not in their ballads, to be sure, for of these they had none, but in their Bucolics and, to some extent, in their odes and choral songs.

Lyric and ballad poetry are often confounded and by some considered the same; but, though the style of the one may occasionally merge into that of the other, their characteristics are certainly marked and distinct. The lyric is more animated and varied, depending, in a great measure, on its accompanying music for its full execution; and on that account it may be said to address itself rather to the imagination of the ear. The bal lad, on the other hand, is more composed, relying more on its graphic pictures for its moving effect than on any accompanying melody of its own; and on this account it may be said to address itself rather to the imagination of the eye. The lyric delights often to clothe itself in words of Norman hue or in those of later importation; the ballad, as said before, prefers the Saxon. The one, in impassioned strains, gives full expression to its

. feelings, and thus excites, if it can, the audience at once and carries them along with it. The other calmly depicts the incidents of the scene, vividly and pathetically, to be sure, but with all utterance of those high emotions, which the case might seem to demand, suppressed; on which account, by a sort of revulsion of feeling, the listener often becomes more affected than even the narrator or person he represents in the ballad appears to be himself. Thus, in Auld Robin Gray, Jenny expresses herself in subdued sorrow, to be sure, throughout, but without any high excitement. Against her old gudeman she never utters a word of disrespect. She always speaks of him kindly. Yet when Lady Ana Lindsay, who composed the piece, as she tells us, to try its merits, read it, before publication, to a country laird or farmer, I forget which, on listening to the lines :

" He had na been away a week, but only twa,
When my

mither she fell sick, and our cow was stoun awa;
My father brake his arm, and my Jamie at the sea,
And Auld Robin Gray came a courtin me.”'.

“ The villain !” he exclaimed indignantly," I ken wha stole the coo! It was Auld Robin Gray himsel'.” In Scotland, however, the ballad, perhaps partly owing to her wilder natural scenery, which affects the manners, is more apt to rise into something of a lyrical strain than in England. William Motherwell, the Scottish poet, in the ballad style of writing is surpassed by few ; his compositions of this kind are pervaded throughout by a genuine simplicity and touching pathos; yet even in these we meet occasionally with a trait or two more properly belonging to the ode. Take an extract from his Jeanie Morrison :

My head rins round and round about,
My heart flows like a sea,
As ane by ane the thochts rush back
O' scule-time and othee.
Oh, mornin' life! oh, mornin' luve,
Oh, lechtsome days and lang,
When hinnied hopes around our hearts
Like simmer blossoms sprang.

[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

In the long syllabled English words, of Latin or Greek derivations, occurring above among the native Doric, is shewn, we think, a lurking disposition to rise into the lyric. This we mention not as a defect but as a peculiarity of modern Scottish ballad-mongers. The inclination, in the present case, was perhaps partly acquired by the poet from his admiration and study of Burns, whose impasssioned genius, however, sought and found its proper expression, not through the unaffected ballad, but through the more spirited ode or song, In the last stanza, at any rate, the appropriate figure employed was certainly suggested by this passage from the apostrophe of the earlier bard to his Mary in Heaven:

“ Still o'er these scenes my mem'ry wakes,

And fondly broods with miser care !
Time but the impression deeper makes,

As streams their channels deeper wear."

Lyrics are generally considered of n superior order to ballads; and no doubt, my reputation for good taste is risqued in the announcement, but I must say that I am disposed to think the reverse should be the case. My disposition in this respect, I admit, may be partly attributed to my latent, natural, musical abilities not having been sufficiently cultivated in my youth, but still I flatter myself I have something of nature on my side when I assert that I am often more moved by an unpretending ballad than by the highest lyrical rhapsodies; when I own that I am frequently more affected, for instance, by some such simple monody as this from a warm hearted son of Erin than by your wildest dirges or most passionate laments :

" I'm sitting on the stile, Mary,

Where we sat side by side,
On a bright May morning long ago,

When first you were my bride ;
The corn was springing fresh and green,

And the lark sang loud and high,
And the red was on thy lip, Mary,

And the love-light in your eye.
" The place is little changed, Mary,

The day is bright as then;
The lark's loud song is on my ear,

And the corn is green again!
But I miss the soft clasp of your hand,

And your breath, warm on my cheek,

« PreviousContinue »