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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

§ 15. The Historical Ballad

With this ballad we come to history, mainly perverted, but true as tradition. Lord Delamere, debased in broadsides, Hugh Spencer’s Feats in France and the vastly popular John Dory; naval ballads like the poor Sweet Trinity and the excellent Sir Andrew Barton; Scottish King James and Brown, and that sterling ballad Mary Hamilton which Andrew Lang has successfully called back from Russia to its place at queen Mary’s own court, with twenty-eight versions still extant to attest its vogue—all these are typical in their kind. But the historical ballad, recited rather than sung, epic in all its purposes and details, and far removed from the choral ballad of dramatic situation, is best studied in those pieces which have become traditional along the Scottish border. Not all, however, are of the chronicle type. In 1593, a certain freebooter was hanged, and his nephew took good vengeance for him, calling out a ballad; whatever its original shape, one finds it still fresh with the impression of actual deeds; and, in its nervous couplets, its lack of narrative breadth, the lilt and swing of it, one is inclined to call The Lads of Wamphray a case of ipsi confingunt—a phrase of which Leslie was making use, not far from this date, as to the Borderers and their songs. The dialogue is immediate, and has the old incremental repetition:

  • O Simmy, Simmy, now let me gang,
  • And I vow I’ll ne’er do a Crichton wrang.
  • O Simmy, Simmy, now let me be,
  • And a peck o’s goud I’ll gie to thee.
  • O Simmy, Simmy, let me gang,
  • And my wife shall heap it wi’s her hand.
  • This was not made at long range. Epic, on the other hand, and reminiscent, is Dick o’s the Cow—cited by Tom Nashe—a good story told in high spirits; long as it is, it has a burden, and was meant to be sung. Archie o’s Cawfield, Hobie Noble, Jock o’s the Side and others of the same sort are narratives in the best traditional style; Scott’s imitation of these is Kinmont Willie—at least it is so much his own work as to deserve to bear his name. Still another class is the short battle-piece, of which Harlaw, Bothwell Bridge and even Flodden Field, preserved by Delmey, may serve as examples. Durham Field, in sixty-six stanzas, was made by a minstrel. Refusing classification, there stand out those two great ballads, probably on the same fight, Cheviot and Otterburn. The version of the former known as Chevy Chace, “written over for the broadside press,” as Child remarks, was the object of Addison’s well-known praise; what Sidney heard as “trumpet sound” is not certain, but one would prefer to think it was the old Cheviot. One would like, too, the liberty of bringing Shakespeare into the audience, and of regarding that ancient ballad as contributing to his conception of Hotspur. These are no spinsters’s songs, but rather, in the first instance at least, the making and the tradition of men-at-arms. A curiously interlaced stanza arrangement, here and there to be noted in both the old Cheviot and Otterburn, as well as Richard Sheale’s signature to the former as part of his minstrel stock, imply considerable changes in the structure of the original ballad. Sheale, of course, had simply copied a favourite song; but the fact is suggestive.