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THE SLEEPERS OF THE FOREST.
The wanderer among those fine old woods that still linger in our beautiful land as mementoes of the primitive forest, will often meet with the immense trunks of trees that seem to have fallen centuries ago. Moss-covered and ivy-clad, they fill the soul of the contemplative observer with mingled emotions of pleasure and sadness, and the following lines are but feeble representatives of the varied feelings with which the author has often gazed upon these wrecks of a once noble and mighty forest.
THE OLD BALLADS.
We wish, reader, to turn your thought with us for a few moments to an often-forgotten fountain of song, and listen awhile to the music of its ceaseless play. Perhaps we shall only recall the charm of those old simple ballads. Such we hope may be the case, for we would not willingly suppose you ignorant of so pure a source of poetry. But if ye are, know that long ago there was a race of artless song-souled men, who wrote most sincere and guileless thoughts, and conceived most rare and beautiful imaginings. They were the old ballad writers or minstrels of history—a race of poets, who were peculiarly the expression of their age. Sprung from the very bosom of the people, they reflected its rudeness, as well as the depth and simplicity of its sentiment; around whom was gathered all the floating inspiration and song of the time. And now, we would have you treasure the early ballad, as you would a long-remembered portrait, on which you can trace each lineament that was once dear to the heart; for here you commune with those forgotten men anew, and read also a record of quaint and rural times. Those old ballad-writers and their ballads have indeed given place to the more refined productions of a higher civilization; but much as we may admire the elevation and beauty of more modern poetry, it charms us not like the sweet, rustic minstrelsy of a bygone age.
We will not perplex you, reader, with an attempt at any nicelydrawn criticism between the ballad-writer and the minstrel ; for a distinction of this nature will not effect the character of our present paper. Our task is but the humble one of endeavoring, by a simple portrayal of a sew of the characteristics of the early ballad and of the primitive, romantic spirit from which it sprung, to awaken an interest in a portion of literature, where we think
many a diamond thought, sparkling in its native rock of rough, unhewn verse.
The culminating period of this species of poetry, was during the close of the dark ages, and the first eras of modern civilization. The strong coloring of the middle ages was mellowing down ; yet there was many a trace of its wild, adventurous spirit. Society was rude, simple, yet romantic. Those proud and haughty barons still rivaled their sovereigns in magnificence and power. Their gloomy, fortressed castles, yet hung on the brow of every beetling crag; the centres from which they carried on those deadly feuds which desolated the nation.
The gay tourney still dazzled the imagination of the populace; and a lingering charm hung round the name of the brave, yet gentle knight, who sought throughout Christendom to do rare deeds of daring in honor of his fair one. Coarseness and simplicity reigned even in the halls of Kings. Thus every thing wore the hue of a romantic, chivalrous spirit. The nations in which the ballad especially flourished, were England, Scotland and Spain. The clannish warfare of the Scottish Lairds, and the fierce border contests of the two northen powers, seem to have been an unfailing fount of song for the minstrel, who drew inspiration from the eventful scenes of internal strife.
In Spain, this poetry took a peculiar character from a conflict which, nourished by the gloomy spirit of bigotry, was fast banishing the refined and intelligent Moor from the fair land, which he had adorned with his comparatively elegant literature.
Beneath these turbulant elements of society, especially in England, there lay the quiet and beautiful features of a rural life. It was the restless ambition of the arrogant noble, that agitated the surface of community. The lower class led a more picturesque life, devoted to the tranquil pleasures of agricultural pursuits.
The early ballad was the poetry of such a state of society. It faithfully mirrored all its rude, stormy elements. We are transported back to those times long past, and permitted to gaze on its every-day life. There is pictured before us the knightly tiltings, where were gathered sovereigns and gorgeous retinue of chivalry and beauty ; the formal, courtly love-making of brave cavaliers and fair, haughty dames; the brilliant festival, where noble vied with noble in arrogance and splendor.
Over all of which was thrown the barbaric taste for glitter and tinsel. Anon, we are borne away in the wild sports of the chase, or almost unconsciously placed upon the battle-field, where some sad cavalier, with melancholy countenance, does “ wondrous deeds,” and the noble fair practice the art of Hippocrates for their lovers. Thus the old ballad-writer was a true artist, in painting the manners and customs of lords and ladies. He seems at times fascinated with their lofty bearing, and endeavors to add new grace to that which so charms him. Those imperious dames become the rivals of the godesses, and choosing some brave knight, the poet sings most fervidly his deeds of devotion, ever surrounding him with the romantic and even mysterious hue of the age. If he was ever vanquished it must be by some one,
“ His actou it was all of blacke,
His hawberk and his sheelde,
Ne noe man knew where he did gone." The ballad made the mind of the time more conscious of its own feelings and prejudices. Thus it became an instrument of the most patriotic devotion. Catching the warlike spirit of the age, and bathing it in the poet's ardor and inspiration, it presented it again to the nation in verse, which fanned anew the flame of contest.
We turn from this feature of the old ballad, to another, that even brings us more intimately in connection with the feeling of the time, particularly in England. It is when we are made acquainted with the rude, artless life of the common people. The ballad of this class is less lofty and aspiring, but infinitely more graceful and captivating. Here it was that the poet seemed at home in his sympathies. He was well versed in the rustic, simple thought of the humble swain. He knew how to touch the strings of the harp of the soul, that lay concealed under so uncomely an exterior. Though he was himself in
spired by infinitely higher emotion, he could sympathize with the homely, untutored feeling of the peasant. Almost every hallad of this class interweavs the tender passion. Yet while depicting these scenes of love, the writer, with a skillful hand, throws into bold relief the occupation and mode of life. It is in these themes of rustic love and devotion, that the ballad-writer seems to have reached his sweetest, most poetic strains. The "bonnie lassie" laments in a most melting lay her too soon plighted love, and the “lusty lad" complains bitterly of the inconstancy of his mistress. His lovers do not woo and plight soft vows by the enchanting light of the moon, as do the more refined and cultivated ones of the present day ; but true to the primitive customs of the time, the “love-sick boye” wins his " fairie maide” out by the rippling stream, or on the powery bank, or under the cooling shade, wherever perchance she is caring for her flock. So truthfully and life-like does the ballad picture these rural scenes, that it seems as though we must see the light-hearted girl return at evening, radiant and fresh as a wood-nymph, with her gentle charge, or on the distant hill side, discover the rustic, reclined froin the noontide heat, piping to his love. In these exquisite songs of an uncultivated life, we are almost greeted by the wild fragrance of field and woodland flower. It is an artless simplicity that throws an indescribable charm over this class of the early ballads. Nothing can be more true to the simple, and, we may justly say, the child-like feeling of the time. The lover says,
“Fain would I have a pretie thing,
To give unto my ladie ;" which reminds us very much of the baby-tale of children.
Yet, it is this spirit that imparts to the old ballad a distinctive, delicate hue, which cannot be expressed better than by the word "sweet," which is ever in the mouth of those early poets. The passion which is displayed is not of the dark and fearful character. It is seldom very exalted, but it is that which exactly gives you the idea of sweetness and tenderness. The old ballad ever sings of individuals and events. It never makes the loveliness or sublimity of nature a distinct theme. Nor does it dwell in the wrapi visions of an ideal world, transporting mind alost into the highest and fairest creations of the imagination.
But no poetry ever wove the beauties of the external world more exquisitely into the woof of song. A single instance may give an impression of its delicacy :
“ Faire Christabelle, that ladye bright,
Was had fortle of the toure ;
Doth some faire lillye flowre." As we have said above, it was a characteristic of the old English ballads to portray the scenes of rural life. They did not possess the elegance and finish of the Spanish ballad or romance. They were
che uncared-for wild flowers, springing up in wood-land and on hillside, beautifying with their uncultivated loveliness the monotony of the
The Spanish, as truly as the English ballad, mirrored the spirit of the nation. In them the gloomy, romantic features of its life, are reflected as clearly as the peaks of their own Pyrenees are written against the sky. Without the charm of simplicity, that is ever thrown around the English ballad, or the artless grace of its homely, yet truthful touches of feeling, the romance is inwrought with a richer fancy, and a deeper, more absorbing passion. The Spanish ballad sprung from the more thrilling, daring scenes of Moorish warfare. Though this deadly contest had ever been the fount, that fed the faint flower of song, yet on the fall of the capital of "fair Granada,” it was as though a gush of melody went up from the whole land, whose blended notes of joy and sadness produced strange harmony.
The proud Spaniard prolonged the echo of Granada's departed glory; while the Moor dwelt in most melancholy lay upon the gorgeous visions of the past—when pomp and splendor adorned the seat of Moorish power—when the fair maiden and generous knight with the strange device, graced its halls. Thus with the higher nature of the people and more thrilling romantic scenes, the Spanish poetry seems to have taken the deeper, richer coloring of its southern forests and sky
We have already mentioned how life-like the early ballad painted the manners and customs of the age, how truthfully it portrayed the feeling and thought of the time; but we would wish to bring out this valuable feature more distinctly. We would have you peruse these songs of olden times, not merely to while away an hour by the witchery of their quaint and beautiful fancies, but to learn how those ancient men thought, loved, hated; what was the history of their internal life; how they lived the life of each day. We want not a mere record of a nation's victories, but the reflection of the higher, holier lise of the soul. What could better impart such knowledge, than the early ballad, which springs from the very bosom of the people, inwrought with all its passions and its prejudices. We might almost call the early ballad the national literature of the time. It was at least one of its most prominent features. For a national literature is the resultant of all the thousand, throbbing activities of the age. It is that which records not only the refined thought of the learned, but also the plain, homely conception
It exists not only in the writing of the philosopher, but also in the rude songs of the shepherd, which echo amid the cliffs and dells of his mountain-home. The old ballad may not be an accurate record of events, but it is an imperishable history of the spirit of a nation.
We should love, reader, had we not already occupied too much of your time with our imperfect effort, to trace with you a few thoughts upon a subject closely linked with that of which we have been treating. It is the old ballad-singer. We can only sug a theme, which in our mind is ever invested with the highest poetic interest. A kind of fascination attends the thought of those wandering men of song, who
of the mass.