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Ballad: A Definition

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Bal´lad, a term loosely applied to various poetic forms of the song type, but in its most definite sense a poem in which a short narrative is subjected to simple lyrical treatment. It was, as indicated by its name, which is related to the Low Latin ballare and O. French baller, to dance, originally a song accompanied by a dance. The ballad, like the nursery tales and the Märchen, is probably one of the earliest forms of rhythmic poetic expression, constituting a species of epic in miniature, out of which by fusion and remoulding larger epics were sometimes shaped. Their present form is, of course, relatively recent. As in the folk-tales, so in the ballads of different nations, the resemblances are sufficiently numerous and close to point to the conclusion that they have often had their first origin in the same primitive folk-lore or popular tales. But in any case, excepting a few modern literary ballads of a subtler kind, they have been the popular expression of the broad human emotions clustering about some strongly-outlined incidents of war, love, crime, superstition, or death. It is probable that in the Homeric poems fragments of older ballads are embedded; but the earliest ballads, properly so called, of which we have record were the ballistea or dancing-songs of the Romans, of the kind sung in honour of the deeds of Aurelian in the Sarmatic war by a chorus of dancing boys. In their less specialized sense of lyric narratives, their early popularity among the Teutonic race is evidenced by the testimony of Tacitus, of the Gothic historian Jornandes, and the Lombard historian Paulus Diaconus; and many appear to have been written down by order of Charlemagne and used as a means of education. Of the ballads of this period, however, only a general conception can be formed from their traces in conglomerates like the Niebelungenlied; the more artificial productions of the Minnesingers and Meistersingers overlying the more popular ballad until the fifteenth century, when it sprang once more into vigorous life. A third German ballad period was initiated by Bürger, under the inspiration of the revived interest in the subject shown in Great Britain and the publication of the PercyReliques; and the movement was sustained by Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Heine, Uhland, and others. The earlier German work is, however, of inferior value to that of Scandinavia, where, though comparatively few manuscripts have survived, and those not more than three or four centuries old, a more perfect oral tradition has rendered it possible to trace the original stock of the twelfth century.

Of the English and Scottish ballads anterior to the thirteenth century there are few traces beyond the indication that they were abundant, if indeed anything can be definitely asserted of them earlier than the fourteenth century. Among the oldest may be placed The Little Gest of Robin HoodHugh of LincolnSir Patrick Spens, and the Battle of Otterbourn. In the fifteenth century specimens multiply rapidly: ballad-making became in the reign of Henry VIII a fashionable amusement, the king himself setting the example; and though in the reign of Elizabeth ballads came into literary disrepute and ballad singers were brought under the law, yet there was no apparent check upon the rate of their production. Except perhaps in the north of England and south of Scotland, there was, however, a marked and increasing tendency to vulgarization as distinct from the preservation of popular qualities. The value of the better ballads was lost sight of in the flood of dull, rhythmless, and frequently scurrilous verse. The modern revival in Britain dates from the publication of Allan Ramsay'sEvergreen and Tea-table Miscellany (1724-7) and of the selection Reliques made by Bishop Percy from his seventeenth-century MSS. (1765), a revival not more important for its historic interest than for the influence which it has exercised upon all subsequent poetry.

The threefold wave discernible in German, if not in British, ballad history, is equally to be traced in Spain, which alone among the Latinized countries of Europe has songs of equal age and merit with the British historic ballads. The principal difference between them is, that for the most part the Spanish romance is in trochaic, the British ballad in iambic metre. The ballads of the Cid date from about the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century; and then followed an interval of more elaborate production, a revival of ballad interest in the sixteenth century, a new declension, and finally a modern and still-persisting enthusiasm.

The French poetry of this kind never reached any high degree of perfection, the romance, farce, and lyric flourishing at the expense of the ballad proper. Of Italy much the same may be said, though Sicily has supplied a great store of ballads; and nearly all the Portuguese poetry of this kind is to be traced to a Spanish origin. The Russians have lyrico-epic poems, of which some, in old Russian, are excellent, and the Serbians are still in the ballad-producing stage of civilization. Modern Greece has also its store of ballads, published in several collections. In Greece, Russia, and elsewhere the old habit of improvising song as an accompaniment to dance still exists.—Bibliography: Professor Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads; Professor Gummere, The Beginnings of Poetry; Sir W. Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (edited by T. F. Henderson); T. F. Henderson, The Ballad in Literature.


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