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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

§ 17. Sources and Aesthetic Values of Ballads as a Whole

A word remains to be said on the sources and the values of British ballads as a whole. Common “Aryan” origin, though it was still held in a modified form by Gaston Paris, can no longer be maintained so as to account for the community of theme in the ballads of Europe. What has been done by scholars like Child and Grundtvig, by Nigra, Bugge and others, is to have established certain groups, more or less definite, which, in different lands and times, tell the same general story or give the same particular motive or detail. To account for these groups is another task. A pretty little ballad from Shetland narrates in quite choral, dramatic form the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Bugge has traced the same story from a Danish ballad far back into medieval times; its ultimate source, to be sure, is the classical account. Another source, we have seen, is legend; still another is the direct historical event. Evidently, then, the matter of sources is something to be settled for the narrative part of each individual ballad; but, however great the interest of this investigation may be, however obvious its claims and satisfactory its results, it does not affect the specific ballad as a literary form. The structure of the ballad—what makes it a species, the elements of it—derives from choral and dramatic conditions; what gives it its peculiar art of narrative is the epic process working by oral tradition, and gradually leading to a new structure with choral and dramatic elements still surviving, though dwindling, in the guise of refrain and incremental repetition. The metrical form remains fairly constant throughout. With certain other formal characteristics, the commonplaces, the conventional phrases and motives, there is no space to deal here. So, too, with regard to imitations good and bad, we can only refer to Scott’s Kinmont Willie for one class, and, for the other, to that famous forgery the Hardycnute of Lady Wardlaw.

The aesthetic values of the ballad call for no long comment. They are the values which attach to rough, strong verse intent upon its object. Scope and figure are out of the question, and all feats of language as such. No verborum artifex works here. The appeal is straight. It is, indeed, ridiculous to call the ballads “primitive”; not only have they a developed art of their own, but they are crossed at every turn by literary influences, mainly working for coherence of narrative, which are indirect, indeed, yet sure. Nevertheless, the abiding value of the ballads is that they give a hint of primitive and unspoiled poetic sensation. They speak not only in the language of tradition, but also with the voice of the multitude; there is nothing subtle in their working, and they appeal to things as they are. From one vice of modern literature they are free: they have no “thinking about thinking,” no feeling about feeling. They can tell a good tale. They are fresh with the open air; wind and sunshine play through them; and the distinction, old as criticism itself, which assigns them to nature rather than to art, though it was overworked by the romantic school and will be always liable to abuse, is practical and sound.