Ballads and Their Makers

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]

Francis James Child

One of the most interesting spots in all London to me is Bunhill Fields cemetery, for herein are the graves of many whose memory I revere.  I had heard that Joseph Ritson was buried here, and while my sister, Miss Susan, lingered at the grave of her favorite poet, I took occasion to spy around among the tombstones in the hope of discovering the last resting-place of the curious old antiquary whose labors in the field of balladry have placed me under so great a debt of gratitude to him.

But after I had searched in vain for somewhat more than an hour one of the keepers of the place told me that in compliance with Ritson’s earnest desire while living, that antiquary’s grave was immediately after the interment of the body leveled down and left to  the care of nature, with no stone to designate its location.  So at the present time no one knows just where old Ritson’s grave is, only that within that vast enclosure where so many thousand souls sleep their last sleep the dust of the famous ballad-lover lies fast asleep in the bosom of mother earth.

I have never been able to awaken in Miss Susan any enthusiasm for balladry.  My worthy sister is of a serious turn of mind, and I have heard her say a thousand times that convivial songs (which is her name for balladry) are inspirations, if not actually compositions, of the devil.  In her younger days Miss Susan performed upon the melodeon with much discretion, and at one time I indulged the delusive hope that eventually she would not disdain to join me in the vocal performance of the best ditties of D’Urfey and his ilk.

If I do say it myself, I had a very pretty voice thirty or forty years ago, and even at the present time I can deliver the ballad of King Cophetua and the beggar maid with amazing spirit when I have my friend Judge Methuen at my side and a bowl of steaming punch between us.  But my education of Miss Susan ended without being finished.  We two learned to perform the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens very acceptably, but Miss Susan abandoned the co-partnership when I insisted that we proceed to the sprightly ditty beginning,

Life’s short hours too fast are hasting—
Sweet amours cannot be lasting.

My physician, Dr. O’Rell, has often told me that he who has a well-assorted ballad library should never be lonely, for the limitations of balladry are so broad that within them are to be found performances adapted to every mood to which humanity is liable.  And, indeed, my experience confirms the truth of my physician’s theory.  It were hard for me to tell what delight I have had upon a hot and gusty day in a perusal of the history of Robin Hood, for there is such actuality in those simple rhymes as to dispel the troublesome environments of the present and transport me to better times and pleasanter scenes.

Aha! how many times have I walked with  brave Robin in Sherwood forest!  How many times have Little John and I couched under the greenwood tree and shared with Friar Tuck the haunch of juicy venison and the bottle of brown October brew!  And Will Scarlet and I have been famous friends these many a year, and if Allen-a-Dale were here he would tell you that I have trolled full many a ballad with him in praise of Maid Marian’s peerless beauty.

Who says that Sherwood is no more and that Robin and his merry men are gone forever!  Why, only yesternight I walked with them in that gracious forest and laughed defiance at the doughty sheriff and his craven menials.  The moonlight twinkled and sifted through the boscage, and the wind was fresh and cool.  Right merrily we sang, and I doubt not we should have sung the whole night through had not my sister, Miss Susan, come tapping at my door, saying that I had waked her parrot and would do well to cease my uproar and go to sleep.

Judge Methuen has a copy of Bishop Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” that he prizes highly.  It is the first edition of this noble work, and was originally presented by Percy to Dr.  Birch of the British Museum.  The Judge found these three volumes exposed for sale in a London book stall, and he comprehended them without delay—a great bargain, you will admit, when I tell you that they cost the Judge but three shillings!  How came these precious volumes into that book stall I shall not presume to say.

Strange indeed are the vicissitudes which befall books, stranger even than the happenings in human life.  All men are not as considerate of books as I am; I wish they were.  Many times I have felt the deepest compassion for noble volumes in the possession of persons wholly incapable of appreciating them.  The helpless books seemed to appeal to me to rescue them, and too many times I have been tempted to snatch them from their inhospitable shelves, and march them away to a pleasant refuge beneath my own comfortable roof tree.

Too few people seem to realize that books have feelings.  But if I know one thing better than another I know this, that my books know me and love me.  When of a morning I awaken I cast my eyes about my room to see how fare my beloved treasures, and as I cry cheerily to them, “Good-day to you, sweet friends!” how lovingly they beam upon me, and how glad they are that my repose has been unbroken.  When I take them from their places, how tenderly do they respond to the caresses of my hands, and with what exultation do they respond unto my call for sympathy!

Laughter for my gayer moods, distraction for my cares, solace for my griefs, gossip for my idler moments, tears for my sorrows, counsel for my doubts, and assurance against my fears—these things my books give me with a promptness and a certainty and a cheerfulness which are more than human; so that I were less than human did I not love these comforters and bear eternal gratitude to them.

Judge Methuen read me once a little poem which I fancy mightily; it is entitled “Winfreda,” and you will find it in your Percy, if you have one.  The last stanza, as I recall it, runs in this wise:

And when by envy time transported
Shall seek to rob us of our joys,
You’ll in our girls again be courted
And I’ll go wooing in our boys.

“Now who was the author of those lines?” asked the Judge.

“Undoubtedly Oliver Wendell Holmes,” said I.  “They have the flavor peculiar to our Autocrat; none but he could have done up so much sweetness in such a quaint little bundle.”

“You are wrong,” said the Judge, “but the mistake is a natural one.  The whole poem is such a one as Holmes might have written, but it saw the light long before our dear doctor’s day: what a pity that its authorship is not known!”

“Yet why a pity?” quoth I.  “Is it not true that words are the only things that live forever?  Are we not mortal, and are not books immortal?  Homer’s harp is broken and Horace’s lyre is unstrung, and the voices of the great singers are hushed; but their songs—their songs are imperishable.  O friend! what moots it to them or to us who gave this epic or that lyric to immortality?  The  singer belongs to a year, his song to all time.  I know it is the custom now to credit the author with his work, for this is a utilitarian age, and all things are by the pound or the piece, and for so much money.

“So when a song is printed it is printed in small type, and the name of him who wrote it is appended thereunto in big type.  If the song be meritorious it goes to the corners of the earth through the medium of the art preservative of arts, but the longer and the farther it travels the bigger does the type of the song become and the smaller becomes the type wherein the author’s name is set.

“Then, finally, some inconsiderate hand, wielding the pen or shears, blots out or snips off the poet’s name, and henceforth the song is anonymous.  A great iconoclast—a royal old iconoclast—is Time: but he hath no terrors for those precious things which are embalmed in words, and the only fellow that shall surely escape him till the crack of doom is he whom men know by the name of Anonymous!”

“Doubtless you speak truly,” said the  Judge; “yet it would be different if I but had the ordering of things.  I would let the poets live forever and I would kill off most of their poetry.”

I do not wonder that Ritson and Percy quarreled.  It was his misfortune that Ritson quarreled with everybody.  Yet Ritson was a scrupulously honest man; he was so vulgarly sturdy in his honesty that he would make all folk tell the truth even though the truth were of such a character as to bring the blush of shame to the devil’s hardened cheek.

On the other hand, Percy believed that there were certain true things which should not be opened out in the broad light of day; it was this deep-seated conviction which kept him from publishing the manuscript folio, a priceless treasure, which Ritson never saw and which, had it fallen in Ritson’s way instead of Percy’s, would have been clapped at once into the hands of the printer.

How fortunate it is for us that we have in our time so great a scholar as Francis James Child, so enamored of balladry and so learned in it, to complete and finish the work of his predecessors.  I count myself happy that I  have heard from the lips of this enthusiast several of the rarest and noblest of the old British and old Scottish ballads; and I recall with pride that he complimented me upon my spirited vocal rendering of “Burd Isabel and Sir Patrick,” “Lang Johnny More,” “The Duke o’ Gordon’s Daughter,” and two or three other famous songs which I had learned while sojourning among the humbler classes in the North of England.

After paying our compliments to the Robin Hood garlands, to Scott, to Kirkpatrick Sharpe, to Ritson, to Buchan, to Motherwell, to Laing, to Christie, to Jamieson, and to the other famous lovers and compilers of balladry, we fell to discoursing of French song and of the service that Francis Mahony performed for English-speaking humanity when he exploited in his inimitable style those lyrics of the French and the Italian people which are now ours as much as they are anybody else’s.

Dear old Beranger! what wonder that Prout loved him, and what wonder that we all love him?  I have thirty odd editions of his works, and I would walk farther to  pick up a volume of his lyrics than I would walk to secure any other book, excepting of course a Horace.  Beranger and I are old cronies.  I have for the great master a particularly tender feeling, and all on account of Fanchonette.

But there—you know nothing of Fanchonette, because I have not told you of her.  She, too, should have been a book instead of the dainty, coquettish Gallic maiden that she was.






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