From the foreword:
These poems are the very essence of the British spirit. They are, to
literature, what the bloom of the heather is to the Scot, and the
smell of the sea to the Englishman. All that is beautiful in the old
word “patriotism” … a word which, of late, has been twisted to such
ignoble purposes … is latent in these gay and full-blooded measures.
But it is not only for these reasons that they are so valuable to the
modern spirit. It is rather for their tonic qualities that they should
be prescribed in 1934. The post-war vintage of poetry is the thinnest
and the most watery that England has ever produced. But here, in these
ballads, are great draughts of poetry which have lost none of their
sparkle and none of their bouquet.
It is worth while asking ourselves why this should be–why these poems
should “keep”, apparently for ever, when the average modern poem turns
sour overnight. And though all generalizations are dangerous I believe
there is one which explains our problem, a very simple one…. namely,
that the eyes of the old ballad-singers were turned outwards, while the
eyes of the modern lyric-writer are turned inwards.
The authors of the old ballads wrote when the world was young, and
infinitely exciting, when nobody knew what mystery might not lie on the
other side of the hill, when the moon was a golden lamp, lit by a
personal God, when giants and monsters stalked, without the slightest
doubt, in the valleys over the river. In such a world, what could a man
do but stare about him, with bright eyes, searching the horizon, while
his heart beat fast in the rhythm of a song?
But now–the mysteries have gone. We know, all too well, what lies on
the other side of the hill. The scientists have long ago puffed out,
scornfully, the golden lamp of the night … leaving us in the uttermost
darkness. The giants and the monsters have either skulked away or have
been tamed, and are engaged in writing their memoirs for the popular
press. And so, in a world where everything is known (and nothing
understood), the modern lyric-writer wearily averts his eyes, and stares
into his own heart.
That way madness lies. All madmen are ferocious egotists, and so are all
modern lyric-writers. That is the first and most vital difference
between these ballads and their modern counterparts. The old
ballad-singers hardly ever used the first person singular. The modern
lyric-writer hardly ever uses anything else.
This is really such an important point that it is worth labouring.
Why is ballad-making a lost art? That it is a lost art there can
be no question. Nobody who is painfully acquainted with the rambling,
egotistical pieces of dreary versification, passing for modern
“ballads”, will deny it.
Ballad-making is a lost art for a very simple reason. Which is, that we
are all, nowadays, too sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought to
receive emotions directly, without self-consciousness. If we are
wounded, we are no longer able to sing a song about a clean sword, and a
great cause, and a black enemy, and a waving flag. No–we must needs go
into long descriptions of our pain, and abstruse calculations about its
effect upon our souls.
It is not “we” who have changed. It is life that has changed. “We” are
still men, with the same legs, arms and eyes as our ancestors. But life
has so twisted things that there are no longer any clean swords nor
great causes, nor black enemies. And the flags do not know which way to
flutter, so contrary are the winds of the modern world. All is doubt.
And doubt’s colour is grey.
Grey is no colour for a ballad. Ballads are woven from stuff of
primitive hue … the red blood gushing, the gold sun shining, the green
grass growing, the white snow falling. Never will you find grey in a
ballad. You will find the black of the night and the raven’s wing,
and the silver of a thousand stars. You will find the blue of many
summer skies. But you will not find grey.
That is why ballad-making is a lost art. Or almost a lost art. For even
in this odd and musty world of phantoms which we call the twentieth
century, there are times when a man finds himself in a certain place at
a certain hour and something happens to him which takes him out of
himself. And a song is born, simply and sweetly, a song which other
men can sing, for all time, and forget themselves.
The Frolicksome Duke
The Knight and Shepherd’s Daughter
King John and the Abbot of Canterbury
Barbara Allen’s Cruelty
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne
The Boy and the Mantle
The Heir of Linne
King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid
Sir Andrew Barton
The Blind Beggar’s Daughter of Bednall Green
Thomas the Rhymer
Brave Lord Willoughbey
The Spanish Lady’s Love
The Friar of Orders Gray
Edom O’ Gordon
Sir Lancelot Du Lake
The Child of Elle
King Edward Iv and the Tanner of Tamworth
Sir Patrick Spens
The Earl of Mar’s Daughter
King Leir and His Three Daughters
John Brown’s Body
The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington
The Three Ravens
The Gaberlunzie Man
The Wife of Usher’s Well
The Ballad of Reading Gaol