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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

§ 8. The Maid Freed from the Gallows; The Making of Ballads; General Outlines of Ballad Progress

A ballad known in English as The Maid Freed from the Gallows still has an astonishing vogue throughout Europe; in Finland, alone, there are fifty versions of it. Now and then, a narrative has been prefixed to explain the situation; but, usually, the situation stands for itself and is, beyond all doubt, original. The setting, of course, varies; now the girl is to be drowned, or carried off by pirates, now, as in the English version, she faces death on the gallows. Who will save her? She appeals to a series of relations, all of whom refuse to interfere, until a climax is reached, say with the true-love, who is ready to part with all he has and is, so as to save her life. For each of the relatives there is the same stanza of request, the same stanza of refusal, the increments being mere change from father to mother, to brother, to sister and so on, till, with the truelove, refusal turns to triumphant consent. The cardinal facts in this ballad are, first, the ease with which it can be sung to any length, so long as names of relatives hold out, with no artistic effort of composition, after the initial stanzas have once been given, and, second, and most significant fact, the actual use of it for dance and mimetic game in one of the English versions, in a Faroe version and in sundered groups like the Danish and the Magyar. Not only is the connection of dance and ballad firmly established, but, as Kittredge points out, the making of ballads in a throng becomes a perfectly intelligible and even necessary process. Of course, few ballads can remain in this initial stage. They are submitted to oral tradition, and are sung as stories rather than presented as action. More than this, a whole narrative, often a definite occurrence, historical or legendary, or even, it may be, a late form of some old classical tale, will find its way into the ballad structure and so be handed down in the traditional way. The epic process changes this ballad structure, however, only so far as the narrative demands; there is a succession, rather than a juxtaposition, of events, smoother progress, disuse of the refrain, pruning of repetition, and, above all, a desire for better aesthetic values. Otherwise the narrative complies with the rules of its form. The ballad remains anonymous, objective, simple. From the mass of stories drifting along the same traditionary stream, other details may join the old situation or the borrowed tale, and make a narrative out of it which has counterparts in popular ballads all over the world. A new event, as in Scottish ballads like Captain Car, falls easily into the traditional form, and finds half of its phrases, even some of its stanzas, made to hand. The versions, again, may vary with place and time, but not in any premeditated way. The stamp of popular simplicity remains; the old formulas, commonplaces, epithets, traditional in balladry, occur without fear of restraint by the poet or of exchange for “heightened” speech; the ballad may resemble literary poems in its matter, but never in its structure and style. Short or long, old or new, it shuns metaphor and all striving for figurative effect. It is simple in the sense that there is no play of fancy in epithet, phrase or word, or in the arrangement of words and phrases. It is not simple in all senses, because it has its own easily recognised style—that ballad “slang” oftener mentioned than known. It adheres, when it can, to dialogue; it is free from sentiment; and its modifications are due to a tendency working on purely traditional lines. The change can often be seen in a single ballad, where the main situation, choral and dramatic, has been furnished with opening and concluding verses of a purely narrative type. A possible explanation which reverses this process, which assumes the detachable epic details to be original and the choral verses to be an addition, and a redaction to fit the story for dance or game, is not to be considered for a moment. A mass of evidence, partly derived from the study of European ballads at large, partly drawn from the stores of ethnological material, puts such a plea out of court.

We may thus state with confidence the general outlines of ballad progress. What gave the ballad its existence as a poetic species was a choral, dramatic presentation. Refrain of the throng, and improvisation by various singers, leant heavily, as all primitive poetry teaches us, on repetition. To advance the action, this repetition became incremental, a peculiarity of ballads which is radically different from the repetition by variation in Old English verse and from the “thought-rime,” or parallelismus membrorum, established by Lowth for Hebrew poetry. The rhythmic form into which the ballad verse naturally ran is that four-accent couplet known all over the world and in every age, as Usener has pointed out, in popular song. With the refrain, this couplet formed a quatrain; in later and longer ballads, as also in some of the short “situation” ballads, the refrain is replaced by a second and fourth line, constituents of the regular stanza, which may be an actual substitution for the refrain, or else are simply the three-accent portion of the old septenarius, a conclusion which merely sets us hunting for the popular sources of the septenar. However this may be, the question is not vital. Given the structure, the form, of choral and dramatic balladry, one now reckons with its predominant epic contents, due to a process common in the poetry of all races. It is at this point that a regrettable confusion occurs: the sources of actual, recorded ballads, their narrative origins, whether historic, legendary, romantic or mythical, are confounded with the sources of the ballad itself, of the poetic species as a whole. The narrative element in our ballads is, of course, the most obvious mark for grouping them and comparing them with the popular verse of other lands; but to account for English balladry as a whole, we have to rely on the foregoing analysis of its constituent parts. Analysis of theme is misleading for the larger question. For example, there is nothing in Celtic tradition which exactly corresponds to the English popular ballad; such cases as the Lord Randal versions in Irish and Welsh must be due, as E. G. Cox points out, to importation. But there are hundreds of points in narrative, situation, motive and what not, where English ballads may touch Celtic tale or song. How far these points of contact concern the origin of a given ballad is to be determined in the individual case. On a different plane entirely stands the ballad itself as a poetic species—a form of wonderful definiteness and stability, flourishing at one time with great vigour in the Germanic and other continental races, and showing such vitality in survival as to retain its hold upon English and Scottish tradition for at least five hundred years.