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
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
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
We cannot say who made the ballads. Nowadays a poet makes a
poem, and it is printed with his name upon the
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.
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.
And Robin himself tells his
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
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.
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.
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
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).