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H. E. Marshall

About Some Song Stories

B ESIDES the metrical romances, we may date another kind of story from this time. I mean the ballads.

Ballad was an old French word spelt balade. It really means a dance-song. For ballads were at first written to be sung to dances—slow, shuffling, balancing dances such as one may still see in out-of-the-way places in Brittany.

These ballads often had a chorus or refrain in which every one joined. But by degrees the refrain was dropped and the dancing too. Now we think of a ballad as a simple story told in verse. Sometimes it is merry, but more often it is sad.

The ballads were not made for grand folk. They were not made to be sung in courts and halls. They were made for the common people, and sometimes at least they were made by them. They were meant to be sung, and sung out of doors. For in those days the houses of all but the great were very comfortless. They were small and dark and full of smoke. It was little wonder, then, that people lived out of doors as much as they could, and that all their amusements were out of doors. And so it comes about that many of the ballads have an out-of-door feeling about them.

A ballad is much shorter than a romance, and therefore much more easily learned and remembered. So many people learned and repeated the ballads, and for three hundred years they were the chief literature of the people. In those days men sang far more and read and thought far less than nowadays. Now, if we read poetry, some of us like to be quietly by ourselves. Then all poetry was made to be read or sung aloud, and that in company.

I do not mean you to think that we have any ballads remaining to us as old as the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century, which was the time in which Havelok  was written. But what I want you to understand is that the ballad-making days went on for hundreds of years. The people for whom the ballads were made could not read and could not write; so it was of little use to write them down, and for a long time they were not written down. "They were made for singing, an' no for reading," said an old lady to Sir Walter Scott, who in his day made a collection of ballads. "They were made for singing an' no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never be sung mair."

And so true is this, that ballads which have never been written down, but which are heard only in out-of-the-way places, sung or said by people who have never learned to read, have really more of the old-time feeling about them than many of those which we find in books.

We cannot say who made the ballads. Nowadays a poet makes a poem, and it is printed with his name upon the title-page. The poem belongs to him, and is known by his name. We say, for instance, Gray's Elegy,  or Shakespeare's Sonnets.  But many people helped to make the ballads. I do not mean that twenty or thirty people sat down together and said, "Let us make a ballad." That would not have been possible. But, perhaps, one man heard a story and put it into verse. Another then heard it and added something to it. Still another and another heard, repeated, added to, or altered it in one way or another. Sometimes the story was made better by the process, sometimes it was spoiled. But who those men were who made and altered the ballads, we do not know. They were simply "the people."

One whole group of ballads tells of the wonderful deeds of Robin Hood. Who Robin Hood was we do not certainly know, nor does it matter much. Legend has made him a man of gentle birth who had lost his lands and money, and who had fled to the woods as an outlaw. Stories gradually gathered round his name as they had gathered round the name of Arthur, and he came to be looked upon as the champion of the people against the Norman tyrants.

Robin was a robber, but a robber as courtly as any knight. His enemies were the rich and great, his friends were the poor and oppressed.

"For I never yet hurt any man

That honest is and true;

But those that give their minds to live

Upon other men's due.

I never hurt the husbandmen

That used to till the ground;

Nor spill their blood that range the wood

To follow hawk or hound.

My chiefest spite to clergy is

Who in those days bear a great sway;

With friars and monks with their fine sprunks

I make my chiefest prey."

The last time we heard of monks and priests they were the friends of the people, doing their best to teach them and make them happy. Now we find that they are looked upon as enemies. And the monasteries, which at the beginning had been like lamps of light set in a dark country, had themselves become centers of darkness and idleness.

But although Robin fought against the clergy, the friars and monks who did wrong, he did not fight against religion.

"A good manner then had Robin;

In land where that he were,

Every day ere he would dine,

Three masses would he hear.

The one in worship of the Father,

And another of the Holy Ghost,

The third of Our Dear Lady,

That he loved all the most.

Robin loved Our Dear Lady,

For doubt of deadly sin,

Would he never do company harm

That any woman was in."

And Robin himself tells his followers:—

"But look ye do not husbandman harm

That tilleth with his plough.

No more ye shall no good yeoman

That walketh by green wood shaw,

Nor no knight nor no squire

That will be good fellow.

These bishops and these archbishops,

Ye shall them beat and bind,

The high sheriff of Nottingham,

Him hold ye in your mind."

The great idea of the Robin Hood ballads is the victory of the poor and oppressed over the rich and powerful, the triumph of the lawless over the law-givers. Because of this, and because we like Robin much better than the Sheriff of Nottingham, his chief enemy, we are not to think that the poor were always right and the rulers always wrong. There were many good men among the despised monks and friars, bishops and archbishops. But there were, too, many evils in the land, and some of the laws pressed sorely on the people. Yet they were never without a voice.

The Robin Hood ballads are full of humor; they are full, too, of English outdoor life, of hunting and fighting.

Of quite another style is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. That takes us away from the green, leafy woods and dells of England to the wild, rocky coast of Scotland. It takes us from the singing of birds to the roar of the waves. The story goes that the King wanted a good sailor to sail across the sea. Then an old knight says to him that the best sailor that ever sailed the sea is Sir Patrick Spens.

So the King writes a letter bidding Sir Patrick make ready. At first he is pleased to get a letter from the King, but when he has read what is in it his face grows sad and angry too.

"Who has done me this evil deed?" he cries, "to send me out to sea in such weather?"

Sir Patrick is very unwilling to go. But the King has commanded, so he and his men set forth. A great storm comes upon them and the ship is wrecked. All the men are drowned, and the ladies who sit at home waiting their husbands' return wait in vain.

There are many versions of this ballad, but I give you here one of the shortest and perhaps the most beautiful.

"The king sits in Dumferling toune

Drinking the blude reid wine:

'O whar will I get a guid sailor,

To sail this schip of mine?'

Up and spak an eldern knicht,

Sat at the king's richt kne:

'Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor

That sails upon the se.'

The king has written a braid letter,

And signed it wi his hand,

And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,

Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick red,

A loud lauch lauched he;

The next line that Sir Patrick red,

The teir blinded his ee.

'O wha is this has done this deed,

This ill deed don to me,

To send me out this time o' the yeir,

To sail upon the se?

'Mak hast, mak hast, my merry men all,

Our guid schip sails the morne.'

'Oh, say na sae, my master deir,

For I feir a deadlie storme.

'Late, late yestreen I saw the new moone,

Wi the auld moone in her arme,

And I feir, I feir, my deir master,

That we will cum to harme.'

O, our Scots nobles wer richt laith

To weet their cork-heild schoone;

Bot lang owre a' the play wer played

Thair hats they swam aboone.

O lang, lang, may their ladies sit,

Wi their fans into their hand,

Or eir they see Sir Patrick Spence

Cum sailing to the land.

O lang, lang, may the ladies stand,

Wi their gold kaims in their hair,

Waiting for their ain deir lords,

For they'll see them na mair.

Haf ower, haf ower to Aberdour,

It's fiftie fadom deip,

And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence.

Wi the Scots lords at his feit."

And now, just to end this chapter, let me give you one more poem. It is the earliest English song that is known. It is a spring song, and it is so full of the sunny green of fresh young leaves, and of all the sights and sounds of early summer, that I think you will like it.

"Summer is a-coming in,

Loud sing cuckoo;

Groweth seed and bloweth mead,

And springeth the wood new,

Sing cuckoo!

Ewe bleateth after lamb,

Loweth after calf the cow;

Bullock starteth, buck verteth,

Merry sing cuckoo.

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well singeth thou cuckoo,

Thou art never silent now.

Sing cuckoo, now, sing cuckoo,

Sing cuckoo, sing cuckoo, now!"

Is that not pretty? Can you not hear the cuckoo call, even though the lamps may be lit and the winter wind be shrill without?

But I think it is prettier still in its thirteenth-century English. Perhaps you may be able to read it in that, so here it is:—

"Sumer is ycumen in,

Lhude sing cuccu;

Groweth sed, and bloweth med,

And springth the wde nu,

Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,

Lhouth after calve cu;

Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,

Murie sing cuccu.

Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu cuccu,

Ne swike thu naver nu.

Sing cuccu, nu, sing cuccu,

Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!"

Books To Read

Stories of Robin Hood, by H. E. Marshall.

Stories from the Ballads, by Mary Macgregor.

A Book of Ballads,  by C. L. Thomson.

Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry  (Everyman's Library).