Henry G. Hewlett



Modern Ballads





WHAT is the right attitude which modern art should occupy in relation to ancient art that of imitation and reproduction, or that of eclecticism and adaptation? If this question has been less frequently debated in the province of literature than in the provinces of architecture, painting, and sculpture, it is no nearer to a settlement; and, while human nature remains unchanged, the tendency of some minds to recede, and the tendency of others to advance, must inevitably bring about a recurrence of the controversy. The arguments which, to the advocate of progress, seem fatal to the retrograde doctrine, may thus be summed up. The art of a given age must be considered as its spontaneous, healthy outcome, the genuine expression of its imagination, thought, and culture, its emotions, beliefs, and aspirations, and appropriate to it as the fruit is to the tree. If this be admitted, it will be evident that the art of an age cannot be dissevered from it without violence, or appropriated to another without artifice. Its spontaneity and genuineness are lost in the literal reproduction of its forms by an age which differs from that which produced it in the essential conditions of social and intellectual life. The right course is prescribed by the analogy of Nature, which continually advances by developing new varieties from antecedent types. To accord with its practice, Art must not stagnate by attempting a direct imitation of past forms, but accept them only as outlines of structure, of which such features as are [959] serviceable to existing requirements should be retained, and upon the framework of which such modifications should be made as are demanded by changes in the state of society, or the successive acquisitions of knowledge and refinement. If the truth of this principle were generally recognized, the art of each new epoch, while preserving the traditions of all preceding epochs, would genuinely represent the spirit of its own; and attempts to revert from the healthy art-life of the present to the modes of a past age, representing obsolete habits of thought and a less perfect culture, would be denounced as barbarous and insincere. Such attempts can only be pardonable in periods when Art is in a state of decadence, and there may seem no hope of its recovery butin recalling the memories of its vigorous youth. Even then the expedient is dangerous; a rash interference with the process of nature, which is likely to entail the penalty of abiding sterility. In most cases it is difficult to imagine that the attempts have even this semblance of justification, or to credit their authors with any worthier ambition than that of escaping, at all risks, from the beaten track, an ambition which, so far from being healthy, is itself a symptom of the decadence against which it affects to rebel.

An application of this principle may be made in one of the minor fields of poetic art. The conditions under which our ancient ballad-poetry arose are tolerably well understood. It belongs to a primitive state of society, in which the knowledge of letters was restricted to a select class, and tradition was the sole vehicle of history to the mass of the people; when manners were ruder, law less reverenced, the passions more unbridled, the utterance of emotion franker and less conventional than now. Though the writers cannot always be supposed contemporary with the events they record, they uniformly address a sympathetic audience, whose standard of morality or sentiment, and level of culture, little, if at all, differ from those prevailing at the period to which their traditions refer. The Border-minstrelsy, for example, was obviously written for the children or grandchildren of the moss-troopers whose exploits it glorifies, a generation to whom appeals to a higher code or a purer taste than their ancestors accepted would have been wholly unintelligible. The general characteristics of the best specimens that remain to us, whether of the narrative and legendary ballad or of the lyrical and emotional ballad, are an unconscious simplicity of thought and language, a coarse but vivid realization of the scenes and delineation of the personages presented. They show few marks of artistic construction or ornament, beyond a rudimentary sense of pictorial expression, and the occasional introduction of abrupt snatches of wild fancy. In those cases where a burden is added, it serves either to mark the [960] leading motive of the theme, to suggest the musical accompaniment to which the piece was set, * or that "rhythm of the feet" from which the composition first took its name.

The impossibility of restoring the conditions under which this description of poetry arose does not oppose any obstacle to its successful cultivation in our own day, if the principle laid down be duly observed. To surrender the type would be a gratuitous waste of means, for of all narrative and lyrical forms, it is the simplest and the most direct in its effects. The testimony home to its potency by Sir Philip Sidney, by Addison, and the authority for whom Fletcher of Saltoun stood sponsor, would be unanimously endorsed to-day. The varnish of our social conventionalism is, after all, extremely thin, and the most cultivated audience cannot listen to a plain story of heroism or of pathos without flushing cheeks and brimming eyes. For enshrining the memory of any grandly heroic achievement, for giving utterance to any pure emotion, the ballad still remains the most appropriate vehicle. When a modern ballad-writer is dealing with a theme of his own time, or of a period but little anterior to it, the standards of morality, sentiment, and culture to which he appeals will, as a matter of course, be such as are currently accepted. When he is dealing with a theme of a remote past, on the other hand, he has a divided duty. While restricted to a general observance of the structural outlines and traditionary usages of the form he is employing, and bound by the laws of dramatic propriety to intrude no ideas into the minds of the characters whom he assumes to represent, that would have been foreign to the spirit of the age selected, he is equally bound to remember that the audience whom he addresses is not composed of their contemporaries but of his own, that it has advanced from the intellectual and social level which that age attained. The same rule which forbids him to ignore the exigencies of the past, forbids him to ignore the acquisitions of the present. The taste that was satisfied with rude exhibitions of mental and physical power, and bare suggestions of natural scenery, has developed an appreciation of the finer traits of character and subtler combinations of landscape; the ear which asked for nothing better than a rough metrical lilt, and a coarse, vigorous style, has become accustomed to stricter harmony and a polished [961] diction. In endeavouring to reconcile these conflicting requirements, he will find himself impelled to avoid anything like a literal reproduction of his models, and to introduce such modifications as will strictly differentiate the work of the nineteenth from the work of the fifteenth or the sixteenth century.



[Fußnoten, S. 960]

*  Charles Kingsley's surmise that what he calls "these meaningless refrains," are imitated from the notes of birds ("Prose Idylls," p. 10), is too fanciful to bear examination. Of the examples which he cites – "Binnorie! O Binnorie!" repeats the musical name of the place where the crime recorded occurred: "With a hey lillelu, and a how lo lan," is not a bad attempt to translate into words the sound of the national bagpipe; while the undertones of "Fine flowers in the valley," and "The green leaves they grow rarely," were surely intended, in Mr. Allingham's words ("Ballad Book," notes), at once to "deepen and soften the tragedy" with which they contrast.   zurück

†  Ballad from ballare (Ital.) to dance; whence ball and ballet are also derived.   zurück





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The Contemporary Review.
Bd. 26, 1875, November, S. 958-980.

Unser Auszug: S. 958-961.

Gezeichnet: HENRY G. HEWLETT.

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