Ballads. The word "ballad" is derived from the O. Fr. baller, to dance, and originally meant a song sung to the rhythmic movement of a dancing chorus. Later, the word, in the form of ballade (q.v.), became the technical term for a particular form of old-fashioned French poetry, remarkable for its involved and recurring rhymes. "Laisse moi aux Jeux Floraux de Toulouse toutes ces vieux poésies Françoises comme ballades," says Joachim du Bellay in 1550; and Philaminte, the lady pedant of Molière's Femmes Savantes, observes -
"La ballade, à mon goût, est une chose fade,
Ce n'en est plus la mode, elle sent son vieux temps."
In England the term has usually been applied to any simple tale told in simple verse, though attempts have been made to confine it to the subject of this article, namely, the literary form of popular songs, the folk-tunes associated with them being treated in the article Song. By popular songs we understand what the Germans call Volkslieder, that is, songs with words composed by members of the people, for the people, handed down by oral tradition, and in style, taste and even incident, common to the people in all European countries. The beauty of these purely popular ballads, their directness and freshness, has made them admired even by the artificial critics of the most artificial periods in literature. Thus Sir Philip Sydney confesses that the ballad of Chevy Chase, when chanted by "a blind crowder," stirred his blood like the sound of trumpet. Addison devoted two articles in the Spectator to a critique of the same poem. Montaigne praised the naïveté of the village carols; and Malherbe preferred a rustic chansonnette to all the poems of Ronsard. These, however, are rare instances of the taste for popular poetry, and though the Danish ballads were collected and printed in the middle of the 16th century, and some Scottish collections date from the beginning of the 18th, it was not till the publication of Allan Ramsay's Evergreen and Tea Table Miscellany, and of Bishop Percy's Reliques (1765), that a serious effort was made to recover Scottish and English folk-songs from the recitation of the old people who still knew them by heart.
At the time when Percy was editing the Reliques, Madame de Chénier, the mother of the celebrated French poet of that name, composed an essay on the ballads of her native land, modern Greece; and later, Herder and Grimm and Goethe, in Germany, did for the songs of their country what Scott did for those of Liddesdale and the Forest. It was fortunate, perhaps, for poetry, though unlucky for the scientific study of the ballads, that they were mainly regarded from the literary point of view. The influence of their artless melody and straightforward diction may be felt in the lyrics of Goethe and of Coleridge, of Wordsworth, of Heine and of André Chénier. Chénier, in the most affected age even of French poetry, translated some of the Romaic ballads; one, as it chanced, being almost identical with that which Shakespeare borrowed from some English reciter, and put into the mouth of the mad Ophelia. The beauty of the ballads and the interest they excited led to numerous forgeries and modern interpolations, which it is seldom difficult to detect with certainty. Editors could not resist the temptation to interpolate, to restore, and to improve the fragments that came in their way.
The marquis de la Villemarqué, who first drew attention to the ballads of Brittany, is not wholly free from this fault. Thus a very general scepticism was awakened, and when questions came to be asked as to the date and authorship of the Scottish traditional ballads, it is scarcely to be wondered at that Dr Chambers attributed most of them to the accomplished Lady Wardlaw, who lived in the middle of the 18th century.
The vexed and dull controversy as to the origin of Scottish folk-songs was due to ignorance of the comparative method, and of the ballad literature of Europe in general. The result of the discussion was to leave a vague impression that the Scottish ballads were perhaps as old as the time of Dunbar, and were the production of a class of professional minstrels. These minstrels are a stumbling-block in the way of the student of the growth of ballads. The domestic annals of Scotland show that her kings used to keep court-bards, and also that strollers, jongleurs, as they were called, went about singing at the doors of farm-houses and in the streets of towns. Here were two sets of minstrels who had apparently left no poetry; and, on the other side, there was a number of ballads that claimed no author. It was the easiest and most satisfactory inference that the courtly minstrels made the verses, which the wandering crowders imitated or corrupted. But this theory fails to account, among other things, for the universal sameness of tone, of incident, of legend, of primitive poetical formulae, which the Scottish ballad possesses, in common with the ballads of Greece, of France, of Provence, of Portugal, of Denmark and of Italy. The object, therefore, of this article is to prove that what has long been acknowledged of nursery tales, of what the Germans call Märchen, namely, that they are the immemorial inheritance at least of all European peoples, is true also of some ballads.
Their present form, of course, is relatively recent: in centuries of oral recitation the language altered automatically, but the stock situations and ideas of many romantic ballads are of dateless age and world-wide diffusion. The main incidents and plots of the fairy tales of Celts and Germans and Slavonic and Indian peoples, their unknown antiquity and mysterious origin, are universally recognized. No one any longer attributes them to this or that author, or to this or that date. The attempt to find date or author for a genuine popular song is as futile as a similar search in the case of a Märchen. It is to be asked, then, whether what is confessedly true of folk-tales, - of such stories as the Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, - is true also of folk-songs. Are they, or have they been, as universally sung as the fairy tales have been narrated? Do they, too, bear traces of the survival of primitive creeds and primitive forms of consciousness and of imagination? Are they, like Märchen, for the most part, little influenced by the higher religions, Christian or polytheistic? Do they turn, as Märchen do, on the same incidents, repeat the same stories, employ the same machinery of talking birds and beasts? Lastly, are any specimens of ballad literature capable of being traced back to extreme antiquity? It appears that all these questions may be answered in the affirmative; that the great age and universal diffusion of the ballad may be proved; and that its birth, from the lips and heart of the people, may be contrasted with the origin of an artistic poetry in the demand of an aristocracy for a separate epic literature destined to be its own possession, and to be the first development of a poetry of personality, - a record of individual passions and emotions.