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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

§ 14. Funeral ballads

Ballads of the funeral, echoes of the old coronach, vocero, whatever the form of communal grief, are scantily preserved in English; Bonnie James Campbell and The Bonny Earl of Murray may serve as types; but the noblest outcome of popular lament, however crossed and disguised by elements of other verse it may seem in its present shape, is Sir Patrick Spens, which should be read in the shorter version printed by Percy in the Reliques, and should not be teased into history. The incremental repetition and climax of its concluding stanzas are beyond praise. Less affecting is the “good night”—unless we let Johnny Armstrong, beloved of Goldsmith, pass as strict representative of this type. Lord Maxwell’s Last Good Night, it is known, suggested to Byron the phrase and the mood of Childe Harold’s song. To be a ballad, however, these “good nights” must tell the hero’s story, not simply echo his emotion.

Superstition, the other world, ghost-lore, find limited scope in English balladry. Two ballads of the sea, Bonnie Annie and Brown Robyn’s Confession, make sailors cast lots to find the “fey folk” in the ship, and so to sacrifice the victim. Commerce with the other world occurs in Thomas Rymer, derived from a romance, and in Tam Lin, said by Henderson to be largely the work of Burns. Clerk Colvill suffers from his alliance with a mermaid. The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a mournful little ballad from Shetland, tells of him who is “a man upo’s the lan’,” but a seal, “a silkie in the sea.” Other transformation ballads are Kemp Owyne, Allison Gross and The Laily Worm. In Sweet William’s Ghost, however, a great favourite of old, and in the best of all “supernatural” ballads, The Wife of Usher’s Well, dignified, pathetic, reticent, English balladry competes in kind, though by no means in amount, with the riches of Scandinavian tradition.

Epic material of every sort was run into the ballad mould. King Orfeo finds Eurydice in Shetland; the ballad is of very old structural type. Sacred legends like that of Sir Hugh, and secular legends such as Hind Horn, occur; while Sir Cawline and King Estmere are matter of romance. Possibly, the romances of Europe sprang in their own turn from ballads; and Sir Lionel, in the Percy folio, with its ancient type of structure, may even reproduce the kind of ballads which formed a basis for Sir Cawline itself. Minstrels, of course, could take a good romance and make it over into indifferent ballads; three of these are so described by Child—The Boy and the Mantle, King Arthur and King Cornwall and The Marriage of Sir Gawaine. With the cynical Crow and Pie we reach the verge of indecency, also under minstrel patronage, though it is redeemed for balladry by a faint waft of tradition. This piece, along with The Baffled Knight and The Broomfield Hill, is close to the rout from which Tom D’Urfey selected his Pills to Purge Melancholy. Thoroughly debased is The Keach in the Creel; but The Jolly Beggar, especially in the “old lady’” manuscript, is half-redeemed by the dash and swing of the lines. Old ladies, as one knows from a famous anecdote of Scott, formerly liked this sort of thing, without losing castle, and saw no difference between it and the harmless fun of Get Up and Bar the Door, or the old story, which Hardy seems to record as still a favourite in Dorsetshire, of Queen Eleanor’s Confession.