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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

§ 13. Ballads of Domestic Tragedy; Child Waters

Complications of kin make up ballads of domestic tragedy, a most important group; and even the inroads of a doggerel poet upon the old material, even the cheap “literature” of the stalls, cannot hide that ancient dignity. The motive of Bewick and Graham, outwardly a story of two drunken squires near Carlisle, their quarrel, and the sacrifice of two fine lads to this quarrel in the conflict of filial duty with ties of friendship—told, by the way, in verse that often touches the lowest levels—redeems the ballad from its degraded form and gives it the pathos of a Cid. The cry of the dying victor—

  • Father, could ye not drunk your wine at home,
  • And letten me and my brother be?
  • is not impressive, perhaps, as a quotation; but in its context and climax it stands with the great things of the great poems. Andrew Lammie, enormously popular in the north of Scotland, represents another class of homely ballads, more or less vulgarised by their form, their overdone sentiment and their efforts at literary grace, but not without appeal and a certain force of tradition. Tradition at its purest, and an appeal to which few readers fail in responding, characterise the great ballads of domestic tragedy. Edward, for example, is so inevitable, so concentrated, that sundry critics, including the latest editor of Scott’s Ministrelsy, would refer it to art; but tradition can bring about these qualities in its own way. Lord Randal, with its bewildering number of versions; Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, a favourite in Shakespeare’s day and often quoted; Glasgerion (who may be the “Glascurion” mentioned in Chaucer’s House of Fame and may represent the Welsh Glas Keraint), a simple but profoundly affecting ballad on a theme which no poet could now handle without either constraint or offence; Child Maurice; The Cruel Brother; The Twa Brothers—with a particularly effective climax—offer tragedy of the false mistress, the false wife, the false servant, and tragedy of more complicated matter. Wives false and wives true are pictured in two sterling Scottish ballads, The Baron o’s Brackley and Captain Car, both founded on fact. The Braes o’s Jarrow knew another faithful wife. Darker shadows of incest, mainly avoided by modern literature, fall in possibility on Babylon, quoted above, and in real horror upon Sheath and Knife and Lizie Wan. The treacherous nurse, again, with that bloody and revengeful Lamkin—a satiric name—long frightened Scottish children; and a case of treachery in higher station, involving trial by combat and giving many hints of medieval ways, is preserved in the old story of Sir Aldingar, familiar to William of Malmesbury. Finally, there is the true-love. The adjective is beautifully justified in The Three Ravens, unfortunately less known than its cynical counterpart, The Twa Corbies. True-love is false in Young Hunting; and fickle lovers come to grief in Lord Lovel, Fair Margaret and Sweet William, and Lord Thomas and Fair Annet. Fate, not fickleness, however, brings on the tragedy in Fair Janet, Lady Maisey, Clerk Saunders; while fickleness is condoned and triumphant in ballads which Child calls “pernicious”: The Broom o’s Cowden knowes and The Wylie Wife of the Hie Toun Hie. Better is the suggestion of The Wife of Bath’s Tale in the popular Knight and Shepherd’s Daughter. Child Waters, which both Child and Grundtvig praise as the pearl of English ballads, belongs to the well-known group of poems celebrating woman’s constancy under direst provocation; neither Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale nor that dramatic poem of the Nut Brown Maid pleads the cause of woman with more eloquence. Ellen in the stable, with her newborn child, appeals to any heart:
  • Lullabye, my oune deere child!
  • Lullabye, deere child, deere!
  • I wold thy father were a king,
  • Thy mother layd on a beere!
  • While this ballad has wandered far from the dramatic and choral type, the survival in its structure is marked enough; and its incremental repetition, in several sequences, is most effective.