The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 9. The Movement in favour of Ballads and Border Songs
In Hickes’s Thesaurus may be found many curious specimens of what is now called Middle English: he quotes Poema Morale, and he gives in full The Land of Cockayne. He discusses versification, and notes in Old English verse a greater regard for quantity than in modern English (giving examples from Cowley of short syllables lengthened and long shortened); while, in discussing alliteration, he quotes from modern poets, Donne, Waller, Dryden. It might be said that the promise of the History of English Poetry is there; Hickes certainly does much in the ground later occupied by Warton. Gibson’s little book may be mentioned again as part of the same work; and it had an effect more immediate than Hickes’s semi-Saxon” quotations. There was an audience ready for Christis Kirk on the Grene, and E. G. ought to be honoured in Scotland as a founder of modern Scottish poetry and one of the ancestors of Burns. Allan Ramsay took up the poem, and, thus, E. G.’s new-year diversion (intended, as he says, for the Saturnalia) is related to the whole movement of that age in favour of ballads and popular songs, as well as specially to the new Scottish poetry of Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns.
If Percy’s Reliques be taken as the chief result of this movement, then we may judge that there were in it two main interests—one, antiquarian; one, simply a liking for poetry, wherever found, with an inclination to find it in the “silly sooth” of popular rimes. Thus, the search for ballads is only partially and accidentally medieval. But it has a likeness to all “romantic” schools, in so far as it turns away from fashionable and conventional literature, and it was natural that lovers of ballads should also be fond of old English poetry in general—a combination of tastes well exhibited in the famous folio MS. which was used by Percy and now bears his name.
Addison’s essays on Chevy Chace and The Children in the Wood show how ballads were appreciated; and, in the last of these, he notes particularly how the late Lord Dorset “had a numerous collection of old English ballads and took a particular pleasure in reading them.” Addison proceeds: “I can affirm the same of Mr. Dryden, and know several of the most refined writers of our present age who are of the same humour.” And then he speaks of Molière’s thoughts on the subject, as he has expressed them in Le Misanthrope. Ballads, it is plain, had an audience ready for them, and they were provided in fair quantity long before Percy. The imitation of them began very early; Lady Wardlaw’s Hardyknute was published in 1719 as an ancient poem; and again in Ramsay’s Evergreen (1724).
Between ballads and Scottish songs, which seem to have been welcome everywhere, and ancient “runic” pieces, which were praised occasionally by amateurs, it would seem as if old English poems, earlier than Chaucer, were neglected. But we know from Pope’s scheme of a history of English poetry that they were not forgotten, though it was left for Warton to study them more minutely. Pope’s liberality of judgment may be surprising to those who take their opinions ready made. He was not specially interested in the Middle Ages, but neither was he intolerant, whatever he might say about monks and “the long Gothic night.” He never repudiated his debt to Spenser; and, in his praise of Shakespeare, he makes amends to the Middle Ages for anything he had said against them: Shakespeare, he says, is “an ancient and majestick piece of Gothick architecture compared with a neat modern building.” But, before the medieval poetry of England could be explored in accordance with the suggestions of Pope’s historical scheme, there came the triumph of Ossian, which utterly overwhelmed the poor scrupulous experiments of “runic” translators, and carried off the greatest men—Goethe, Bonaparte—in a common enthusiasm.