"'Twas cold at night and the bairnies grat,
The mother below the mouls heard that."
She reappears in her old home, and henceforth, "when dogs howl in the night, the step-mother trembles, and is kind to the children." To this identity of superstition we may add the less tangible fact of identity of tone. The ballads of Klephtic exploits in Greece match the Border songs of Dick of the Cow and Kinmont Willie. The same simple delight of living animates the short Greek Scolia and their counterparts in France. Everywhere in these happier climes, as in southern Italy, there are snatches of popular verse that make but one song of rose trees, and apple blossom, and the nightingale that sings for maidens loverless, -
"Il ne chante pas pour moi,
J'en ai un, Dieu merci,"
says the gay French refrain.
It would not be difficult to multiply instances of resemblance between the different folk-songs of Europe; but enough has, perhaps, been said to support the position that some of them are popular and primitive in the same sense as Märchen. They are composed by peoples of an early stage who find, in a natural improvisation, a natural utterance of modulated and rhythmic speech, the appropriate relief of their emotions, in moments of high-wrought feeling or on solemn occasions. "Poesie" (as Puttenham well says in his Art of English Poesie, 1589) "is more ancient than the artificiall of the Greeks and Latines, and used of the savage and uncivill, who were before all science and civilitie. This is proved by certificate of merchants and travellers, who by late navigations have surveyed the whole world, and discovered large countries, and wild people strange and savage, affirming that the American, the Perusine, and the very Canniball do sing and also say their highest and holiest matters in certain riming versicles." In the same way Aristotle, discoursing of the origin of poetry, says (Poet. c. iv.), ἐγέννησαν τὴν ποίησιν ἐκ τῶν αὐτοσχεδιασμάτων M. de la Villemarqué in Brittany, M. Pitré in Italy, Herr Ulrich in Greece, have described the process of improvisation, how it grows out of the custom of dancing in large bands and accompanying the figure of the dance with song. "If the people," says M. Pitré, "find out who is the composer of a canzone, they will not sing it." Now in those lands where a blithe peasant life still exists with its dances, like the kolos of Russia, we find ballads identical in many respects with those which have died out of oral tradition in these islands.
It is natural to conclude that originally some of the British ballads too were first improvised, and circulated in rustic dances. We learn from M. Bujeaud and M. de Puymaigre in France, that all ballads there have their air or tune, and that every dance has its own words, for if a new dance comes in, perhaps a fashionable one from Paris, words are fitted to it. Is there any trace of such an operatic, lyrical, dancing peasantry in austere Scotland? We find it in Gawin Douglas's account of -
"Sic as we clepe wenches and damosels,
In gersy greens, wandering by spring wells,
Of bloomed branches, and flowers white and red,
Plettand their lusty chaplets for their head,
Some sang ring-sangs, dances, ledes, and rounds."
Now, ring-sangs are ballads, dancing songs; and Young Tamlane, for instance, was doubtless once danced to, as we know it possessed an appropriate air. Again, Fabyan, the chronicler (quoted by Ritson) says that the song of triumph over Edward II., "was after many days sung in dances, to the carols of the maidens and minstrels of Scotland." We might quote the Complaynt of Scotland to the same effect. "The shepherds, and their wyvis sang mony other melodi sangs, ... than efter this sueit celestial harmony, tha began to dance in ane ring." It is natural to conjecture that, if we find identical ballads in Scotland, and in Greece and Italy, and traces of identical customs - customs crushed by the Reformation, by Puritanism, by modern so-called civilization, - the ballads sprang out of the institution of dances, as they still do in warmer and pleasanter climates. It may be supposed that legends on which the ballads are composed, being found as they are from the White Sea to Cape Matapan, are part of the stock of primitive folk-lore. Thus we have an immemorial antiquity for the legends, and for the lyrical choruses in which their musical rendering was improvised.
We are still at a loss to discover the possibly mythological germs of the legends; but, at all events, some ballads may be claimed as distinctly popular, and, so to speak, impersonal in matter and in origin. It would be easy to show that survivals out of this stage of inartistic lyric poetry linger in the early epic poetry of Homer and in the French épopées, and that the Greek drama sprang from the sacred choruses of village vintagers. In the great early epics, as in popular ballads, there is the same directness and simplicity, the same use of recurring epithets, the "green grass," the "salt sea," the "shadowy hills," the same repetition of speeches and something of the same barbaric profusion in the use of gold and silver. But these resemblances must not lead us into the mistake of supposing Homer to be a collection of ballads, or that he can be properly translated into ballad metre. The Iliad and the Odyssey are the highest form of an artistic epic, not composed by piecing together ballads, but developed by a long series of noble ἀοιδοί, for the benefit of the great houses which entertain them, out of the method and materials of popular song.
We have here spoken mainly of romantic ballads, which retain in the refrain a vestige of the custom of singing and dancing; of a period when "dance, song and poetry itself began with a communal consent" (Gummere, The Beginnings of Poetry, p. 93, 1901). The custom by which a singer in a dancing-circle chants a few words, the dancers chiming in with the refrain, is found by M. Junod among the tribes of Delagoa Bay (Junod, Chantes et contes des Ba Ronga, 1897). Other instances are the Australian song-dances (Siebert, in Howitt's Native Tribes of South-East Australia, Appendix 1904; and Dennett, Folk-Lore of the Fiort). We must not infer that even among the aborigines of Australia song is entirely "communal." Known men, inspired, they say, in dreams, or by the All Father, devise new forms of song with dance, which are carried all over the country; and Mr Howitt gives a few examples of individual lyric. The history of the much exaggerated opinion that a whole people, as a people, composed its own ballads is traced by Prof. Gummere in The Beginnings of Poetry, pp. 116-163. Some British ballads retain traces of the early dance-song, and most are so far "communal" in that, as they stand, they have been modified and interpolated by many reciters in various ages, and finally (in The Border Minstrelsy) by Sir Walter Scott, and by hands much weaker than his (see The Young Tamlane). There are cases in which the matter of a ballad has been derived by a popular singer from medieval literary romance (as in the Arthurian ballads), while the author of the romance again usually borrowed, like Homer in the Odyssey, from popular Märchen of dateless antiquity.