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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVII. Ballads

§ 1. Definition of the Subject

THE SUBJECT of this chapter needs careful definition. Sundry shorter poems, lyrics, of whatever purpose, hymns, “flytins,” political satires, mawkish stories in verse, sensational journalism of Elizabethan days and even the translation of Solomon’s Song, have gone by the name of ballad. Ballad societies have published a vast amount of street-songs, broadsides and ditties such as Mme. de Sèvignè knew in Paris under the name of Pont-neuf; for many readers, unfortunately, there is no difference between these “ballads” and Chevy Chace or Sir Patrick Spens. The popular ballad, however, now in question, is a narrative poem without any known author or any marks of individual authorship such as sentiment and reflection, meant, in the first instance, for singing, and connected, as its name implies, with the communal dance, but submitted to a process of oral tradition among people free from literary influences and fairly homogeneous. Conditions favourable to the making of such poetry ceased to be general after the fifteenth century; and, while it was both composed and preserved in isolated rural communities long after that date, the instinct which producted it and the habit which handed it down by word of mouth were, alike, a heritage of the past. Seen in critical and historical perspective, balladry takes its distinguishing marks mainly from this process of oral tradition. Owing to this process, the ballad has lost its dramatic or mimetic and choral character and become distinctly epic; it has, in many cases, even forfeited its refrain, once indispensable; but it has kept its impersonal note, lacks, last as first, all trace of deliberate composition and appeals to the modern reader with a charm of simplicity quite its own. Nearly all critics are agreed that no verse of this sort is produced under VOL. 11–29 the conditions of modern life; and the three hundred and five individual ballads, represented by some thirteen hundred versions, printed in the great collection of Child, may be regarded, practically, as a closed account in English literature. Diligent gleaning of the field in the ten years following the completion of that work has brought little or nothing that is new; and little more can be expected. Here and there a forgotten manuscript may come to light; but, in all probability, it will contain only a version of some ballad already known. The sources of tradition have, apparently, at last run dry. Sir George Douglas notes that the Scottish border shepherds, at their annual dinners, no longer sing their old or their own ballads; what are known as “songs of the day,” mainly of music-hall origin, now rule without any rivals from the past. Remote and isolated districts in the United States keep a few traditional versions alive; such is The Hangman’s Tree, a version of The Maid Freed from the Gallows, still sung, with traces of Yorkshire dialect, after generations of purely oral tradition, as it was brought over to Virginia “before the revolution.” But these recovered versions have revealed little that is both good and new.