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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

§ 5. Tradition

Tradition is something more than a confusion of texts; a choral throng, with improvising singers, is not the chance refuge, but, rather, the certain origin, of the ballad as a poetic from; and, while one is not to regard the corpus of English and Scottish ballads as directly due to such singing and improvisation, it is thither that one turns for origins, and it is to tradition that one turns for the growth and spread of the versions themselves. Once choral, dramatic, with insistent refrain and constant improvisation, the ballad came to be a convenient form for narrative of every sort which drifted into the ways of tradition. This traditional process has been mainly epic, although oral traditional alone would not and does not force the ballad out of its choral structure, its dramatic and lyric purpose. What slowly reduces the importance and, therefore, the function of these old elements is the tendency of ballads towards the chronicle, the story, the romance. Literary influences worked upon it for these ends.

A close study of the material demands that we distinguish two general classes. One, demonstrably the older in structure, tends in form to the couplet with alternating refrain or burden, and in matter to the rendering of a single situation. These ballads, often closely allied to Scandinavian versions, are printed by Child in the forepart of his collection as a tribute to their undoubted age. A dominating feature here, often recorded and always to be assumed, is repetition; it takes a form peculiar to balladry, is found in all these old pieces and has even left its mark on the majority of the other versions in Child’s four volumes. As, however, epic purposes prevailed, this typically oldest ballad was lengthened in plot, scope, details, and was shorn entirely of its refrain. Hence a second class, the long ballad, recited or chanted to a monotonous tune by a singer who now feels it to be his property, a kind of enclosed common. Instead of the short singing piece, steeped in repetition, almost borne down by its refrain, plunging abruptly into a situation, describing no characters and often not naming them, telling no long story and giving no details, here is a deliberate narrative, long and easy of pace, free of repetitions, bare of refrain, abounding in details and covering considerable stretches of time. By a happy chance, indeed, this epic process can be followed into its final stage.