Abbildungen der Seite

and spiritual songs of the Church which accompanied Christianity, as it made its spiritual inroads on the fierce idolatries of the races of the North. For, although the sacred services chaunted by the early Christians and those grand hymns of the Middle Ages were in the Latin language, still they accustomed the popular ear to metrical sounds, and opened the hearts of the people to the uses of poetry. While the ancient classical poetry was sleeping its long sleep, to waken in later ages, the sacred songs of the early Christians were never silenced, even in years

of persecution; and it is to them, that the poetry of Christendom owes its first impulse.

At a remote age of Britain's history, religious houses were built there, and as the holy men who dwelt in them, amid aboriginal ferocities and the turmoil of successive invasions—the Saxon and the Dane-uttered their songs of adoration, those harmonies went forth over river and plain, soothing the fierce elements they touched, and charming the evil spirit of war which vexed the hearts of barbaric kings. The music of a good man's chaunted devotions could not float on the air, turbid and tumultuous though it be with wicked passions, without awakening some pure and gentle emotions. A single stanza of ancient Saxon song survives as a memorial of such influence. When that remarkable personage, the Danish King Canute, had overhrown the Saxon dynasty in England, and was making a progress through his newly-conquered realm, as with his queen and knights he approached by water the Abbey of Ely, there arose upon the air the voices of the monks, chaunting their stated services; and when the music fell upon the conqueror's ear with such a sweet solemnity, chiming both with the river's flow and his own placid

[ocr errors]

emotions, the sword of his bloody conquest sheathed, the active sympathy of his imagination found utterance in a simple strain of Saxon song, of which but one stanza has been spared by time:

“Sweetly sang the monks in Ely
As Canute the king was rowing by :
Knights, to the land draw near,

That the monks' song we may hear.' “This accordant rhyme” was the response of one of the mightiest of those Scandinavian monarchs, the “Sea-kings," who struck terror into central Europe; he, before whom the ancient Saxon dynasty quailed, and whose barbarian flatterers told him that his word had power to stay the surges of the Atlantic; but, in a happy moment of tranquillity, the saintly music passed through the turbulent passions of pride and power into the depths of his human heart.

The same influences doubtless touched the nation's heart, and like that rude royal strain, the popular song echoed the music of hallowed verse.

An earlier instance of the power of the imagination to impart truth, may be remembered in that beautiful image of the mystery of human life which led to the conversion of King Edwin. A. Christian entered the hall of the unconverted Saxon, but the tidings he brought were strange to the pagan heart, and the king summons his chiefs and priests ; at that moment a bird flitted through the council-hall, to call from the wise imagination of one of the heathen councillors a lesson, recorded by an old historian, and preserved in modern verse:

* Lectures on the History of England: by a Lady; p. 439. Wordsworth's Sonnet. Works, p. 295.

“Man's life is like a sparrow, mighty king,
That while at banquet with your chiefs you sit,
Housed near a blazing tire, is seen to flit,
Safe from the wintry tempest. Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither goes. Even such, that transient thing,
The human soul, not utterly unknown,
While in the body lodged, the warm abode ;
But from what world she came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown.
This mystery, if the stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed.”*,

Important as must have been the influence of the metrical services of the church, considered simply as a means of civilization, the rude ages needed poetry for other uses than devotion. They craved the minstrel's power to touch the stories of daring adventure, of wild justice and revenge, and the tragic incidents of the field and fireside. The earliest of the martial ballads commemorate the exploits of a body of bold outlaws, in whose lives there was the last struggle against Norman tyranny. The strong hand of the conqueror had seized large tracts of land for royal hunting-grounds, the ancient owners outcast; and well may the oppressed people have applauded the exploits of the hardy archers who claimed their own again within the forbidden limits, and thus Robin Hood became indeed" the English ballad-singers' joy,” asserting, as he did, what, under a complicated tyranny of authürity, seemed

* Wordsworth's Works, p. 290. The legend is in Fuller's Church History of Britain, vol. i. p. 109.

“ The good old rule, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,

And they should keep who can." The old songs bave kept his name, but no historian, like Niebuhr with the Roman legends, has unwoven the tangled threads of fact and fiction.

It would be a study of much interest to compare the early British ballad poetry with the other ballad poetry most famous in European literature. I mean that of Spain. Mr. Lockhart's fine version of the Spanish ballads, and our countryman Mr. Ticknor's recent classic work on Spanish Literature would give facilities for the comparison.* The higher civilization in Spain, both Moorish and Christian, and the struggle for centuries between the two races, as the Saracen was driven slowly from his last foothold in the West of Europe, wars which had the dignity of the highest sentiments of religion and loyalty, the greater refinement of society—all these things would be found in strong contrast with the rudeness of a poetry, picturing the feuds of petty chieftains, and the mingled ferocity and frolic of the border warfare.

* To my friend, (for such he has been for many years,) Mr. Ticknor, is in some measure due the publication of these Lectures, for on his saying to me, in accidental conversation since my brother's death that his literary, and especially his poetical, judgments, were concur. rent with his own, I felt the assurance that I might, with no further authority, give them to the reading world. I felt, too, that in pub. lishing these lectures, I might do something to raise Philadelphia letters a little nearer to the high level to which such men as Prescott, and Ticknor, and Longfellow, and Hillard, have elevated the literature of a sister city. W. B. R.

Our early minstrelsy, with all its comparative rudeness, was not without its gentle elements; and we can conceive how it helped to civilize the people, when we observe how much of pathos is woven into it, how it tells of the tenderness and pity that are congenial with courage and with the love of fierce adventure, springing often out of the sternest heart: the pathos is social, too, so free from sentimentalism, and told so simply. When Edom of Gordon, in his fierce assault on the castle, adding the terrors of fire to those of the sword, not staying his spear's point from the little girl who is lowered over the wall : as his victim lies before him, the blood dripping over her yellow hair, remorse is in the words he said:

“You are the first that ere

I wish't alive again.

I might have spared that bonny face,

To have been some man's delight.”
He calls his men away from his fierce victory

« Til dooms I do guess;
I cannot look on that bonny face,

As it lies on the grass."

This transition of feeling is sometimes given in these rude strains with deep effect: observe it, for instance, in the contrast between the opening and the close, in these few detached stanzas :

“ Beardslee rose up on a May morning,

Called for water to wash his hands; "Gar loose to me the good gray dogs,

That are bound wi' iron bands.'»*

* Edom of Gordon, Percy's Reliques, vol. i. p. 240. Johnle of Beardslee, Motherwell's Ancient and Modern Minstrelsy, vol. i. p. 169.

« ZurückWeiter »