Ballad (derived from the old French bailer, to dance) is the name applied over all European countries to any simple, direct story told in simple verse. It was first of all a song sung to the rhythmic movement of a dancing chorus. The ballad belongs to the class of productions in verse known by the name of Volks-lieder. It sprang from the bosom of the people. It was composed by one of the people for the pleasure of the people. Perhaps that which now remains of this class of literature once had a particular shape that is now lost. In any case, the incidents of many of the ballad stories, the poetic images, and even the dramatic manner are frequently common to different countries. Of the classes of ballad thus generally diffused there are five main classes: -
(1) Ballads of the supernatural, including those of a ghostly character and those based on a belief in fairies and fairyland.
(2) Romantic ballads, dealing with the familiar events of life - of love, tragic death, etc.
(3) Ballads of adventure. Under this class come several of the Border ballads and those relating to Robin Hood.
(4) Humorous ballads, usually the rendering into verse of some pointed popular jest.
(5) Nursery ballads, including lullabies.
The ballad, even in later times, appears to have been occasionally sung as well as said. Some pieces are made up of prose in addition to verse; the dialogue and the purely lyrical parts are in metre, while the narrative is mainly given in prose. Examples of this are found both in France and Scotland. There is no precise date as to the age of extant ballad literature. Shakespeare speaks of such verse as a familiar thing in his day; but even remote antiquity is pointed to in this matter from the fact that an old folk-song used by Goethe is known to the Bechuanas in South Africa. English and Scottish ballads, however, which can be traced to the fourteenth century, are probably the earliest of surviving forms of note.
In regard to the universality of various characteristics of the ballad there are not a few decided instances. The plot, which is perhaps the most notable, we find repeated again and again. This occurs in at least four different stories. The dead mother returning to her children, the fickle bridegroom won from a second affection by his first love, the beautiful maiden wooed by a false lover who has slain seven women and seeks to slay her, the bride pretending to be dead that she may escape from a hated to an admired lover - all find effective treatment in distinct nationalities. In illustration of the last of these examples we have the story of Fair Isambourg in France and The Gay Gosshawk in Scotland.
Of the second class, which is a favourite with the Border minstrels, there is an almost exact version in Danish; and of the third there are valiants in almost every European country. Other interesting points of resemblance also occur. One of the most prominent of these is the introduction of talking-birds. Nothing comes more naturally to the ballad-writer than the report of the conversation of some hawk or parrot. In Border minstrelsy, Servian song, the Romaic ballads, and French folksong, it is the same. Besides this we have also the parallel appearance in ballad pieces of different countries of the following features: - (a) The representation of the commonest objects of everyday life as being made of gold and silver; (b) the constant use of certain numbers, such as 3 and 7; (c) textual repetition of the speeches; (d) the use of assonance instead of rhyme; and (c) brusqueness of recital. Despite these likenesses, however, a well-marked distinctiveness in literary quality appears. For dramatic vigour and picturesqueness the ballads of the Scottish Border, with Denmark, Sweden, and Germany are pre-eminent; those of France are usually bright and graceful; those of Greece excel in literary finish. The purely English ballads, though not lacking in spirit and humour, are often commonplace in style. Mr. Andrew Lang (Ward's English Poets, i. 207) has put forward as an explanation of this that the English ballads as we have them have lost their original character as Volks-lieder. The transcriber, he maintains, has cut down the material to his hand, till the dulness of prose only was left. It is probably the case, however, that they are there in almost their first shape, though why they should fall so markedly below those of the North in merit it is somewhat difficult to argue. It has been ascribed to climatic influences. English scenery, it is alleged, is comparatively uninspiring; and hence, English popular verse lacks the imagination, the fire, and speed that distinguish the like productions in the North. Still there are exceptions, it must be said, to this in England; there are a few early English ballads of undoubted literary value.
One remarkable feature of the old ballad consists in its half curious, half familiar treatment of the supernatural. There is exhibited a peculiar mysticism, sometimes weird, sometimes playful. In the Wife of Usher's Well there is this mysticism of terrible weirdness: -
"It fell about the Martinmas, When nights are lang and mirk, The carline wife's three sons came hame And their hats were o' the birk.
It neither grew in syke (stream) nor ditch Nor yet in ony sheugh (hollow); But at the gates o' Paradise That birk grew fair enough."
In Clerk Saunders, Sir Roland, and in some of the German and Danish ballads we have the same striking presentation of the unseen. Nothing again can be more delightful than the pictures of Fairyland that meet us every now and then in ballad poetry. In Tamlane, and in the stories of Thomas the Rhymer and. their Scandinavian variants this is charmingly limned. We see its elfin beauty in the brightness of the queen of Faery, in the "bonny road that winds about the fernie brae," and in various other picturesque touches. These ballads no doubt truly reflect in their solemnity and gaiety of sentiment the imaginative beliefs of the people in that idyllic world in which the minstrel lived and moved. The ballads of a romantic caste are mostly concerned with strange and touching incidents of love and war. Pathos and joy naturally divide their claims in the subject matter. At one time, as in Love Gregor, the bride is sacrificed to the hate of a mother. Again, as in the Gay Gosshawk, the wit of the lovers overcomes every obstacle. Family feuds are frequently the occasion of a telling episode, as in Barthram's Dirge, the Three Ravens, and other pieces equally grave and impressive. The most prominent examples of ballads of adventure are the riding ballads of the Scottish border, and those that deal with Robin Hood. Of the former collection there are brilliant instances in Jamie Telfer and Kinmont Willie, passages in both of which have been authoritatively characterised as Homeric in dramatic vividness. Mr. Lang describes the ballads about Robin Hood as "exceedingly English, long and dull." This, however, must be accepted with a considerable qualification. The humorous ballads in various countries are often marked by clever and free play of fancy. Perhaps the best belong to Germany and Scotland.
The time that produced the ballad was wholly before the diffusion of books: with the printing press the office of the minstrel disappeared. This poetical form nevertheless has been cultivated with success in later times, especially in England and Germany. The disuse of the older dialect in Scotland has greatly hindered further accomplishment in the art in that country, though Scott and Allan Cunningham composed ballads of distinct merit in somewhat close imitation of the early examples. In England last century a like attempt was made, only, however, to incur ridicule, as in Johnson's famous parody. But in recent times ballads of a distinctively powerful kind have been written by Coleridge, Rossetti, and Tennyson. In Germany the art of the minnesinger has been splendidly maintained by Burger, Schiller, Goethe, and Uhland.
The history of ballad-collecting is a matter of some interest. Such pieces, at least in England, were first printed on broadsheets and sold by pedlars. About the time of the Restoration these broadsheets were gathered by collectors as curios; Lord Dorset, Dryden, and Pepys were among such antiquarians. Reprints of any note were first undertaken in the south by Tom Durfey, in the north by Allan Ramsay. Bishop Percy, however, made the great step in this direction by the publication of his Reliques, which was based on old copies of ballads in a folio MS. that had come into his hands. In Scotland Herd published what had been called the first useful collection from oral tradition in 1769. Scott, in his Border Minstrelsy, continued to a considerable extent the work of Herd. Motherwell's collection (1827) is marked by critical care. A recent important addition to the series of ballad texts is that of Messrs. Furnivall and Hales (London, 1867-8, 3 vols.). This is taken from the folio MS. of Percy. Critics agree in placing first among recent collections in interest and scholarship that of Professor Child (English and Scottish Ballads, Boston, U.S., 1864). Other valuable books on the subject are those of Ritson, Kinloch, Jamieson, Sharpe, Aytoun, and Allingham. The old ballads are a very valuable part of poetical literature. Though composed in a rude era, they were the work of men of true artistic genius; the themes, moreover, touch on almost all the chords of human experience. They contain, and vividly set forth in their own way, the elements of the deepest tragedy or gayest comedy. The period of their production would also seem to be in their favour as compositions to be enjoyed by later ages. The spring-time of history that gave them light has lent them a delightful brightness of delineation both in regard to nature and man. Round them, as round the work of Chaucer, we have a poetic atmosphere full of charm, a sweetness that belongs also to the dawn and May. This will always attract; but the material and style of the ballads in themselves must still secure genuine appreciation.