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The Ballad

by Robert Cortes Holliday


I BEGIN the consideration of the forms of versification with the ballad, for two reasons. In the first place, this is historically the correct procedure. The earliest English poetry that has come down to us is in this form; it is the ballad that, recited in the great hall of the castle on a Winter evening by some wandering bard, delighted the simple hearts of our remote forefathers, strong, rude men, few of whom ever tasted the dainties that are bred in a book. The ballad gave pleasure not only to the lord and his lady, as they reclined in their great oaken chairs, but also the chaplain and the men-at-arms and the serving folk clustered together toward the foot of the table. For the ballad is universal in its appeal, it is the most democratic kind of poetry. Perhaps it is not the most primitive sort; the songs of worship or praise or love which grew out of the earliest dance rituals may have been more closely akin to the lyric. But these songs must soon have developed into a recital of the deeds of the god or hero celebrated; they must have taken on that narrative style which is the essential of the ballad. We may choose to call Chaucer's "Canterbury Pilgrims" an epic, if we will, but even so we cannot avoid the feeling that it is a sequence of ballads. And after all an epic is nothing but a ballad de luxe.

The second reason for considering the ballad first among the forms of English verse is the ease with which it may be written. It is the simplest form of poetical composition, and the novice in the craft of versification will not find it difficult to attain in it, after a few attempts, a fair measure of success.

What is the ballad? Let me begin by saying what it is not. It is not a brief song, although of late years the word has been generally used to designate almost any rimed composition set to music. People who speak of some of the popular songs of the day as "sentimental ballads" are using the term incorrectly. They mean, as a rule, "sentimental lyrics." In bygone years the ballad was sung, or at any rate recited, to the accompaniment of a harp or other stringed instrument. But in modern times the lyric is almost the only sort of poetry to receive a musical setting.

Furthermore, the ballad is not the ballade. The ballade is a highly artificial form of verse, French in origin, consisting, as a rule, of three eight-line stanzas and a four-line envoi, with only three rhymes in all twenty-eight lines. People with a taste for untra-modern spelling sometimes label these productions "ballads" instead of "ballades," and other people sometimes try to give their ballads an archaic flavor by labeling them "ballades." Both practices are utterly unjustifiable. A ballade is no more a ballad than a sonnet is a quatrain.

What, then, is a ballad? In "On the History of the Ballads, 1100-1500" (Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume IV), Professor W. P. Ker writes: "The truth is that the ballad is an ideal, a poetical form, which can take up any matter, and does not leave that matter as it was before." But this, of course, is no definition. It would apply equally well to all forms of poetry. Professor Ker continues: "In spite of Socrates and his logic we may venture to say, in answer to the question 'What is a ballad?'—'A Ballad is "The Milldams of Binnorie" and "Sir Patrick Spens" and "The Douglas Tragedy" and "Lord Randal" and "Childe Maurice," and things of that sort.'"

That greatest of anthologists, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, quotes these remarks of Professor Ker in the preface to his volume "The Oxford Book of Ballads," a book which every lover of poetry and especially every member of the craft of verse-making should possess. He goes on to supplement Professor Ker's definition, or rather description, by quoting lines from a number of famous ballads of ancient days, and saying that the ballad is these things also and in proof of the statement that ballads are diverse in manner and theme he mentions as latter-day ballad-makers poets having so little in common as Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge and Rudyard Kipling. Thus do Professor Ker and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch evade the task of definition-making. But they are critics of poetry and therefore entitled to the use of escapes and evasions denied to the author of a text-book. Let me therefore say with no thought of originality in the saying, that a ballad is a story told in verse. Usually it is told in a sequence of quatrains, with one rhyme to a stanza, and usually the line is the iambic heptameter—or rather the stanza consists of two iambic tetrameters and two iambic trimeters. But this form is not inevitable; the only thing inevitable about a ballad is that it shall be a story.

Of the ancient ballads there are many collections, of which the most famous are those of Bishop Percy and of Professor Child. But Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's book, already mentioned, is sufficiently comprehensive for the needs of the ordinary student of the subject.

In the preface to this book, Sir Arthur says a rather surprising thing. He says: "While the lyric in general, still making for variety, is to-day more prolific than ever and (all cant apart) promises fruit to equal the best, that particular offshoot which we call the ballad has been dead, or as good as dead, for two hundred years."

It is hard to understand why Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch made this statement. In his "The Oxford Book of English Verse" and "The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse" he had included so many true ballads—Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel," and Dobell's "Keith of Ravelston"—which is as authentic a ballad as "Thomas the Rhymer" or "Sir Patrick Spens." Also Kipling was making genuine ballads of land and water, and Henry Newbolt was writing his glorious ballads of the British Navy. The ballad was far from dead; it was no longer the only popular form of poetry, but it had not ceased to thrive. And the Great War seems to have given English and American poets new enthusiasm for this form so suited to the chronicling of deeds of valor.

I have said that the true ballad was a story told in verse. Let me add that, according to the strictest interpretation of the term, the story must be told throughout in the third person—the narrator must be merely a narrator, he cannot figure in the tale. This is true of most of the old ballads. There are exceptions to the rule, however, notably "Archie of Cawfield" and the immortal "Helen of Kirconnel." Nor is it necessary that the modern ballad-maker should take pains to eliminate his own personality from his work, the modern tendency seems to be toward subjectivity in poetry and the verse-maker who seeks popular approval will be guided by popular tastes.

It is true that the very greatest of the ballads are those which were written in the days when the ballad had not to compete with other forms. But in accordance with the principle underlying this work—that of exhibiting the work of successful modern poetic craftsmen, I will not quote "Sir Patrick Spens" or "Hugh of Lincoln" or "Cospatrick" or "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" or any other classic. Instead, I will call the reader's attention to the work of some of the poets who, in our own time, have been proving the falsity of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's statement.

Book: Shattered Sighs