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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

III. Political and Ecclesiastical Satire

§ 10. Ballads

Otway, in his Complaint, mentions the kinds of poetry that “Libell” was proficient in, “Painter’s Advices, Letanies, Ballads.” The first of these represent the would-be literary work intended for reading. The other two species, which had been, earlier, employed in mockery of the ruling puritans, were the property of the ballad-monger, and were hawked about the country to be chanted at street-corners and in taverns. Their manner is, therefore, far more popular than that of the semi-literary satires. In scurrility, indeed, there is little to choose between them. If anything, the ballads have a poorer vocabulary, and hurl a few customary epithets from Billingsgate at their opponents with a smaller amount of detailed obscenity than opportunities of the heroic couplet allow. But their strokes of criticism are mainly more coarsely done and not so strongly bitten in: their humour is more rollicking and clownish; their occasional argumentation more rough and ready; and, in it, “the ruin of trade,” due, of course, to the wicked whigs or tories as the case might be, finds an additional prominence.

Since they were intended for popular recitation and for an immediate effect, it was necessary that they should be readily sung, and this end was attained by fitting them to tunes which were already well known and popular. This was not very difficult to achieve. A certain number of ballad-tunes were old favourites throughout the country; and the more successful operas or plays of Charles II’s reign frequently left behind them some air or other which caught the general fancy and was sung everywhere. Both these sources were put under contribution by ballad-makers, and it was only rarely that a new tune had to be expressly composed for a ballad, and, being composed, was admitted into the singer’s répertoire. The consequence was that a flavour of parody pervaded almost all the political ballads of the day. It was tempting to adopt words and phrases together with the tune; and there resulted, for instance, a whimsical contrast between “Hail to the knight of the post,” directed against Titus Oates, and “Hail to the myrtle shades” which began the original ballad.