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From The Nineteenth Century. I collected by Mr. William Chappell, and ENGLISH SONGS: ANCIENT AND MODERN. | shown to be equal to any in Europe, there
THE poetical literature of England is the richest and noblest of modern time superior in some respects to that of the Greeks and Romans, as all will confess who have studied it, and who remember Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron, and all the glorious galaxy of the poets from the age of Chaucer to the present day. But many who acknowledge the claims of English literature to the highest poetical pre-eminence deny that in one great department of poetry, popular song, it can rank on an equality with other nations. The late Thomas Davis - one of the young Irishmen who conferred honor upon the literature of his country-declared that the songs of England were the worst in the world. “How can a nation have good songs," said he, "when it has no music?"
is no excuse for an ignorance of which patriotism ought to be ashamed. “What a beautiful melody," said Rossini to an Englishman (who agreed with him), “is 'The girl I left behind me '! It does honor to Ireland." But Rossini was wrong. That beautiful melody is pure English - pub. lished in England long before it was first played in Ireland by the soldiers of William the Third. "How sweet," said an English lady, "is the air of My lodging is on the cold ground'! England has no tunes so tender and so touching." In this case also, the fair critic was as much at fault as Napoleon and Rossini. The tune is old English; and Ireland has no other claim to it than the assertion of Thomas Moore, unsupported by a tittle of evidence.
As songs are compositions that may be "English music is execrable," said the sung, it is necessary to show that a people great Napoleon, when he discoursed to have good melodies before it can be adhis faithful Las Casas, in the mournful mitted that they have good songs. So days of his exile, on all imaginable sub. far from being an unmusical, the English jects of war, policy, philosophy, and lit- are pre-eminently a musical nation. Long erature. "The English have no music; before the invention of printing, long be or, at all events, no national music. They fore the age of Chaucer, England, from have, in fact, but one good tune." And her love of singing and music, was called to show his qualifications for the office of " Merry England; " and to hear the minmusical critic, he declared that tune to be strels sing, and to join in their choruses, "Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon". was the favorite amusement both of the an excellent tune certainly, only it hap-nobles and the people. Chaucer, in his pens to be one that the Scotch have bor- "Canterbury Tales," makes frequent allurowed from the French. The emperor did sions to the love of the English of that not stand alone in his ignorance. Even period for music and song. At and before now we hear of English ladies and gentle- Chaucer's time the education of an Enmen who not only know nothing of the glish gentleman was held to be incomplete beautiful melodies of their native land, if he could not read music at sight; and but who actually deny that such melodies in the public schools it was compulsory have any existence. Not content with on every boy, and a necessary portion of shutting their ears against the sweet his studies, to learn part-singing. sounds, they affirm that there is no such thing as music in British, or at all events in English nature. In days when the popular melodies of England had not been collected, as those of Ireland had been by Sir John Stevenson and Thomas Moore, or as those of Scotland had been by George Thomson and Robert Burns, there was some excuse for Englishmen who did not know their own wealth in this respect. But now, when their melodies have been
The English glees, catches, rounds, canons, and madrigals are thoroughly national, and are admired by musicians of every country for their graceful complications both of melody and harmony. The English dance music is equally spirited, and her country jigs and sailors' hornpipes are known all over the world. Some of the most ancient popular melodies of the English are fortunately preserved in a little manuscript of the age of Queen Eliz
abeth, called "Queen Elizabeth's Virginal | bards were either hymns or chants of de
votion-like the Psalms of David — or celebrated the great deeds of the heroes, who were first in and last out of the battle. They aroused the patriotic enthusiasm of the living by glowing recitals of the
having been committed to writing, their ballads and songs, or epic poems, if they produced any, have either perished alto
Book," containing airs that are still popular among the peasantry - such as "The Carman's Whistle," or "The Jolly Miller," and Shakespeare's favorite melody, of which he makes honorable mention, "Sing it to the air of Light o' Love.'" Those achievements of the dead. But never exquisitely pathetic tunes sung by Ophelia in Hamlet are admired by all musicians, and are far older than history can trace. So famous were the English for their pro-gether, or only exist in fragments, such as ficiency in singing, that before the Refor- James Macpherson discovered among the mation the Churches of Belgium, Holland, peasantry in remote districts of the Highand France sent to England for choris- lands of Scotland, and gave to the world ters: and one of the most valuable collec- as the poems of Ossian, the greatest bard tions of popular English music that exists of the Celtic nations. The Danish skalds was published in Amsterdam at the com- and Saxon gleemen, who succeeded to the mencement of the seventeenth century. British bards, drew from their predeces sors many materials for popular song. The adventures of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, the loves of Guenever and Sir Lancelot du Lake, the pranks of the boy with that wonderful mantle described in Percy's "Reliques," the merriment of King Cole, and the enchantments of Merlin - all traditions of the Celtic period were embalmed in Celtic and afterwards in Saxon song, and found as much favor among the newer people who took possession of the British Isles as the legends of the Mohicans, the Cherokees, or the Creek Indians, when enshrined in the classic pages of Cooper or Longfellow, find among the English and Americans of the present day. King Arthur, his court, his queen, his Round Table, and his knights were for a thousand years the great themes of the minstrels in England and Wales, and have not yet lost their hold over the imagination of the people. King Arthur and King Cole are cited in nursery rhymes, and the earliest songs of children; though Mr. Chappell, in his excellent work on English music, is heterodox enough to suggest that the King Cole of song is not the King Cole of history, but a mere public-house king or good fellow of the seventeenth century. Of the same period as King Arthur, though a generation or two later, were King Lud and King Lear, mere names and shadows of names except for poetry, that has made them immortal. The King Arthur of history is less than a dream. The King
Such noble tunes as "The King shall enjoy his own again," "Crop-eared Roundheads," "The girl I left behind me," "Farewell, Manchester!" "Balance a Straw," "Packington's Pound," "The British Grenadiers," "Drink to me only with thine eyes," "Down among the dead men,' ," "The Vicar of Bray," "The man who will not merry be," "The Miller of Dee," Begone, dull care!" "'Tis my delight, on a shiny night," and others, may be cited as fair specimens of English popular and traditional music. Its general characteristics are strength and martial energy. It has a dashing, impulsive, leaping, frolicsome spirit, occasionally overshadowed by a touch of sadness. It has not the tender melancholy of the music of Ireland, nor the light, airy grace, delicate beauty, and heart-wrung pathos of the songs of Scotland, but it has a lilt and style of its own. In one word, the music of England may be described as "merry;" and her national songs partake of the same character, and and are jovial, lusty, exultant, and full of life and daring. There are no authentic records of the earliest song writers of England. It is known that among the ancient Britons, the bard was next in rank to the Druid, and that his character and functions were invested with a high degree of veneration, if not of sanctity. He was held to be a seer and a prophet, as well as a bard, as indeed true poets are in all ages. The compositions of the British and Celtic
Arthur of song is a living reality. The Lear that reigned in Britain has left no record on which the historian can build; but the Lear of the poet, the foolish, fond old man, sightless, and not in his perfect mind, stands out in Shakespeare's history, hallowed in the light of poetry, a man whom we know more intimately than we do many persons whom we met yesterday and talked to in the streets.
During the Saxon and early Norman period the minstrels played an important part in social life. They were the wel come guests of all ranks and classes from the monarch's palace and the baron's hall to the tavern of the town and the cottage of the peasant.
'Twas merry in the hall
When beards wagged all;
when the minstrels set the beard in motion by singing their last new ballads of romance or adventure. The minstrels united in their persons not only the functions of the song-maker and musician, but those of the newspaper editor and reporter of the present day. Although they sang songs of the olden time, they did not confine themselves to the past, but detailed the freshest news from the court or the camp, or put into verse the circumstances of the last horrible murder or desperate love-tragedy.
Of these minstrels, as of the bards who preceded them, few genuine remains have come down to us; although the tunes and modernized versions of many of the ballads which they sang have been preserved, such as the famous "Ballad of Chevy Chase," the mournful story of "Fair Rosamond," the adventures of the mythical "Robin Hood," who was not one but many, the doleful ballad of "The Babes in the Wood," a legend of unknown antiq. uity, of which it may be said that it has made the robin redbreast a sacred bird in England, and touched with compassion the heart of the roughest clodhopper. The English boy will rob the nest of any bird that sings, or that cannot sing; but to disturb the nest of the robin, "the bold beggar with the glittering eye and scarlet bosom," is held not only to be cruel and ungenerous, but unlucky. If the robin
redbreasts could but know how many of their lives have been spared for the sake of "an old song," and the pity which it has inspired, they would hover around the graves of poets as they did over the unburied bodies of the "children in the wood," and strew them with leaves in grateful remembrance of the power and tenderness of poetry.
In the days prior to the invention of printing, when the wealthy classes thought it no shame to be unable to read and write, the ballad-maker was a power in the State. Richard the First, the great Coeur-de-Lion (whose name is still invoked to frighten unruly children in Syria and Palestine), was unable to sign his name, but he was familiar with the poetry of the troubadours. He knew nothing of the songs of Celtic or Saxon Englishmen, but had committed to memory the choicest effusions of the Norman muse. And, indeed, if kings and other high personages, to say nothing of the gentry and trading classes, would not derive all their knowledge of the affairs of this world from the priests, who possessed the keys of learning, or from actual observation with their own eyes, which was always difficult, and sometimes impossible, they were glad to gather information, combined with amusement, from the minstrels, who travelled all over the country, mixed with all classes, heard all the news, and learned all the opinion that was current. But the invention of printing gradually operated a change. The minstrels, who by this time had lost their original and honorable appellation, and were called "crowders" or "fiddlers," were thrown out of bread. They ceased, by degrees, to be the favorites of the wealthy, and found their only refuge among the poor and illiterate, and became of scarcely more repute than the mountebanks and merry-andrews of country fairs. An act of Parliament of the thirty-ninth year of Queen Elizabeth classed them as "rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy vagrants," a legal definition which still applies in England to strolling actors and singers, and which might, with a little stretching, be applied to a prima donna on a provin cial tour.. King Henry the Eighth, notwithstanding the cares of State, his love
making, his wife-killing, and his quarrels | heart's delight," "Full merrily sings the
with the pope, Cardinal Wolsey, and his great nobles, found time to write songs, one of which was entitled "Pastime with Good Company." In a MS. still in existence, and known to be of his reign, are two songs, in pure though quaint English, which may be quoted as among the earliest songs remaining in the language:
Ah my sweet sweeting
Full steadfast, stable, and demure,
As my sweet sweeting.
cuckoo upon the beechen tree," "The frog came to the mill-door" (since modernized into "The frog he would a-wooing go"), "I'll ne'er get drunk again," and the mariners' glee, "We be three mariners — probably the oldest sea song that England can boast. The only two names of note that have reached the present age in connection with this early song-literature are William Tarleton and Martin Parker both somewhat later than the time of Shakespeare. Martin Parker deserves especial notice as the man who wrote the well-known song, "Ye gentlemen of England". - a song not only ex,,cellent in itself, but entitled to double gratitude for having served Thomas Campbell as the model on which he built "Ye mariners of England," one of the noblest songs ever written in any language. Martin Parker's song sets itself to music:
The other, entitled "The Loyal Lover," is equally smooth and vocal:
As I lie sleeping
Ever my sweeting
She is so goodly
Such one can find.
There seems to be little or no authority for the statement that King Henry the Eighth himself wrote these songs; or, if he did, whether they were in celebration of the charms of the "sweetings" whose heads he cut off, or of those whose heads he spared. But, whoever was the author of them, these and similar songs were like the first faint radiance that precedes the dawn. The dawn and the daylight were yet to come. Among the singing birds of the twilight, the most melodious were Sir Thomas Wyatt, whose son was beheaded on Tower Hill, and the unfortunate Earl of Surrey, who himself suffered on the block for alleged complicity in the treasons of an age when it was difficult to know what was treason and what was not. At length, as political affairs became somewhat more settled, the full daylight of poetry burst forth. The Elizabethan dramatists, with Shakespeare at their head, and Edmund Spenser, chief of the non-dramatic poets, inaugurated the new era. It was then that English poetry and song entered into the golden age. In the blaze of that sudden glory the inferior compositions of the ballad-mongers were left entirely to the lower rank of the people; many of them are still in existence, and still sung, such as some of the famous ballads to be found in Percy's "Reliques" the poacher's song, "'Tis my delight, on a shiny night," "Women are best when they are at rest," "Sweet Nelly, my
Ye gentleman of England
Who live at home at ease,
When the stormy winds do blow.
It used to be the fashion of the English peasantry to paste these songs in cupboards, on the lids of trunks, or on the backs of doors- - a custom which has been one great cause why so many of them have been lost without hope of recovery. Could they have been preserved, they might have thrown the light of contemporary poetry on the history of manners and afforded us glimpses into the every day life of our forefathers at a period particularly interesting, when the art of printing was bringing forth its first flowers and fruits, operating important changes in the national character, and preparing the way for the final triumphs of the Reformation. Similar songs are still printed for the use of the rural districts, and sold - humiliating thought to the pride of song writers! - at a halfpenny or a penny a yard.
The song-writers of the age of Shakespeare were many and excellent. Among his contemporaries, or those who preceded and followed him, were two or three who wrote songs almost as well as he did none who wrote better. The associated dramatists Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Herrick, George Wither, Thomas Carew, Sir Walter Raleigh, John
Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Lovelace, and George Herbert are but a few out of a long list of poets of whose works any fair criticism would occupy a volume, so full are they of heartiness and beauty. Some of Ben Jonson's songs are exquisite in their delicacy and grace. Every one has read (or heard sung) the delicious song better than anything attributed to Anacreon, or any Greek or Roman writer whatsoever Drink to me only with thine eyes," a paraphrase from the Low Latin of a nameless poet in the Middle Ages, and a great improvement on its originala song sufficient for fame if its author had written nothing else. Most people have read or heard the song of Sir Henry Wotton, worth a whole library of inferior compositions:
You meaner beauties of the night,
Who does not know the songs of George Wither? The chorus of one of them has passed into the select family of familiar quotations : —
Shall I, wasting in despair,
Robert Herrick wrote many songs of the highest merit, and particularly distinguished above those of all his contemporaries by the fluency of their melody, and the luxuriant charm of their phraseology. But Shakespeare was the prince of all the song-writers of his age. It may be said of him that, had he not been the greatest of epic poets, the greatest of law yers, the greatest of anything great to which it pleased him to direct the energies of his great mind, he would most certainly have been a great song-writer, for the songs which he has scattered through his plays are all of them models either of wit, or grace, or tenderness, or of a name less beauty comprising all these. Every one, at some time or other of his life, must have rejoiced over the frolicsome little song redolent of the green fields and flowers of England:
Under the greenwood tree,
Come hither! come hither! come hither!
But winter and rough weather.
Every one who reads knows the two charming pictures of spring and winter sung in "Love's Labor Lost," both of them full of humor and of accurate painting from nature, and both of them adapted to such excellent music by Dr. Arnewho lived a century afterwards — as to make every listener regret that Shakespeare himself never had the felicity of hearing the manner in which great com. posers can render the meaning of great poets. One other song of Shakespeare has been the favorite of successive generations of musicians, from the age of Milton to our own, who have striven with each other to do it justice:
Take, oh! take those lips away
Lights that do mislead the morn.
The golden age of English lyrical poetry did not die with Shakespeare. Its lustre was not dimmed even by the troubles of the Revolution, although the number of poets who arose from the accession of Charles the First to the restoration of Charles the Second was small compared with the number who adorned the age of Elizabeth and James. The age immediately succeeding that of Shakespeare produced Milton, Cowley, Lovelace, Waller, and Dryden, and a host of inferior men.
These, like all the greatest poets whom England has known, attempted song-writing. Milton was a musician, and understood all the fine shades and niceties of language which songs require, if they are meant to be sung. He also, had he chosen to devote himself to lyrical instead of epic poetry, might have enriched literature with many matchless compositions. Perhaps if he had done so he might have been dearer and more familiar to his countrymen. As he is, he is too great and too mighty for their love. His poetical character inspires awe and reverence rather than affection. He sits blind and solitary on the cold summits of Parnassus, wrapped in a blaze of glory, inaccessible to the plaudits of the crowd who behold him from afar. Yet when we think of him as the author of "Il Penseroso" and "L'Allegro," of "Lycidas," and of "Comus," we take him to our hearts, and lose some portion of our reverence in the new love we feel for him. In all his songs and lyrical poems there is an Italian