ENGLISH NATIONAL BALLADS.
IT is universally admitted that owing to the exigencies of "a spirited foreign policy," perhaps even from the impulse of a reinvigorated national ambition, we may find ourselves sooner or later involved in a great European war,—has it ever struck the many who look forward to such a war as inevitable, or the not few who secretly desire it, on the ground that we need a patriotic tonic of this sort, that we are absolutely without one of the most important weapons of war, a good patriotic song ? We may have implicit faith in Mr. Hardy, his mobilisation scheme and his vehe- ment assertion that our recruits are up to the proper mark in the matter of physique ; we may—mentally, at all events—attempt to
brush past Mr. Hunt, and count as nothing our secret misgivings that our ironclads have the imperfections of the Thunderer,' or are destined to meet death by the blow of a friend, like the Vanguard ;' but supposing the Augean stables of the spending Departments swept and garnished, supposing every officer to have the business-like energy and intelligence of Sir Garnet Wolseley, supposing the superiority of our rifled ordnance and Martini-Henry over the Krupp gun and the Chassepot established, we should still require something to act as a perpetual stimulant to the private soldier and the common sea- man. No nation has ever carried on war on such scientific principles and in apparently so cold-blooded a manner as Germany. Yet Germany was flooded with patriotic poetry before it swarmed
with big battalions ; in Schiller will be found poems better fitted to become British war-songs than anything out of Campbell, and if the Franco-German war was not absolutely a conflict between the "Marseillaise" and the " Wacht am Rhein,"—M. Esquiros has called the battle of Waterloo a fight between beer and wine—
the Chian private sang his " %Yacht am Rhein" at night as faith- fully as his superior the lieutenant pored over his " Murray " and his maps of France. Nor will it suffice to say that we have our old songs to fall back upon. Few if any of these are suited to the iron age of warfare in which we live. "Rule, Britannia," is likely to exist for ever, on account of the John-Bullish patriotism of its chorus, but it would manifestly be an anachronism to attempt in days of ironclacls to charm with "The Brave Old Oak" or "Ye Mariners of England." For the absolute perfection of that stern patriotism which is as certain of success as was a regiment of Cromwell's Ironsides, there is nothing in literature to compare with Burns's "Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled ;" but it is only suited for a war of independence, which, it may safely be pre- dicted, will not be our next war in the future. Mr. Tennyson, too, has more than once risen to the height of a patriotic occa- sion. There is considerable fire in "Form, form, Riflemen, form," with its,—
" Better a rotten borough or so, Than a rotten fleet or a city in flame' ;" —and still more in the not yet acknowledged "Hands all Round r
"0 rise, our strong Atlantic sons,
When war against our freedom springs ;
0 speak to Europe through your guns— They can be understood by Kings.'
But Mr. Tennyson's patriotism is essentially anti-Napoleonic, and there is no reason to believe that in the future our fight will be
with a Third Empire. Were it conceivable that we could enter into the spirit of Lord Northbrook, or even of the somewhat "Rhodian rhetoric" of Sir William Harcourt—" I wish to God we were done with the Turks !"—and strike a blow for the beaten Servians and decimated Bulgarians simply because they are Christians, we could not do better than get Mr. Tennyson to adapt, and our best composer to set to music, Milton's sonnet, unapproachable in its spirit of honest and all-powerful indignation, beginning, "Avenge, 0 Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones !" But such a war is not in our way, if not out of the question ; and we have, therefore, to fall back upon and note—because we cannot do anything else—the somewhat melancholy fact that we, who never go to war except when under the influence of emotion, have no Song to express and sustain that emotion, in language suited to England in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
But the question we have raised has a wider interest and a worse side. The fact is we, as a nation, have no good National Songs of any kind—songs, that is to say, expressive of national or natural feeling, or even depicting every-day life ; and this, it is obvious, is an evil not to be cured by the founding of ballad associations or choral societies. We need no evidence that we live and move, love and hate, as our grandfathers did, and indeed our pulses throb much more rapidly than theirs, and yet where is there a song appealing to the popular heart in the way that Mr. Bright, when at his best and most poetical, can appeal in prose? The upper and higher middle-classes have fallen back upon classical music, and the lower middle upon the inanities and the linked sweetness intolerably long drawn out which 'composers of the Claribel class provide by the square yard as the drawing-room "Music of the future." Music is nothing unless it expresses real feeling in the right place, and what can be more absurd than to hear,—
" Stay with me, my darling, stay,
And like a dream thy life shall pass away l" from the lips of a crieketing athlete, with the muscles of a Grace and the healthy morality of a Kingsley, who has no more inten-
tion of dawdling away his life at the feet of a mis tress than of taking to Parisian absinthe to drown imaginary sorrows, and who is marked out pre-eminently for a life of activity—except, indeed,
it be to have such false sentiment accompanied on the piano- forte, and presumably appreciated in the heart, by a young girl as fall of life and good impulse as himself, and who would scorn and spurn a lover who should spend his days and nights in sigh- ing like a furnace and writing sonnets to her eyebrow ? When
we go lower than the middle-class, we find no better musical pabulum than that supplied by the Music Halls "for the million ;" the music of "the residuum" seems to deal only with cheating, drinking, and idiotic " jolly-doggism," which occasionally degenerates into obscenity. We are favoured with the history of "Gin-and-water Bill," whose business it is to "drink till myself I fill ;" of "Champagne Charlie," who
is "up to any game at night ;" of "Carrie, the belle of the Ballet, the girl with the ginger hair ;" of "Tommy," who
"makes room for his Uncle ;" of swindlers, "who go up in a balloon." The majority of them are saturated with bad tobacco, bad liquor, bad jokes, bad grammar, and dubious morality. Even when an attempt is made at something higher, a number of pre- sumably sane Englishmen, to ingratiate themselves with "the people" have to blacken their faces with burnt cork, and sing "Excelsior" with the negro accompaniments of "bones" and "banjo ;" and if any morality is taught at all, it is nothing better than,—
" Never sit down with a tear or a frown, But paddle your own canoe."
When one compares such rubbish, of which it is a shame almost to speak, with the popular songs of a former period,—with the almost idyllic beauty of "Sally in our Alley," with the arch and little worse than childlike cunning of "Gossip Joan "—who "could not cure her cough without a gill of brandy "—with the refined unscrupulousness of the "Vicar of Bray," with the heroic (in the Johnsonian sense) alcoholisation of the "squires of old," of whom,—
" Each took a smack At the cold black-jack, Till the fire burned in his brain.'
—one is almost tempted to relapse into that Conservatism which means admiration of the good old times." Even Scot- land, the country that has given us Burns and Tannahill and the Baroness Nairn—" Auld Robin Gray," "John Anderson, my Jo," and the "Laird o' Cockpen "—is silent, except when in such delineations of parental fondness as "Wee Jonkydaidles," she shows that the steam-ship and the railway and the thoughts that shake mankind have not altogether destroyed the peculiarities of her home life. Whoever in either country has not succumbed to the "great Vance" or the Christy Minstrels, or has not abandoned in despair the national ballads for Opera and Oratorio, Mozart and Beethoven, lives or tries to live on the "treasured past,"—he is frantic about Barns or Dibdin. Much in Burns's songs, no doubt, is immortal, because conveying universal and not local sentiment. Dibdin is unapproached, perhaps unapproachable, and yet much in both must die, owing to the change in the times, and the change in ourselves with them. There is, for example, nothing finer in its way. than the "Bay of Biscay," and yet the music of it and not the sentiment survives, for the sufficient reason that, "She lay all that day, In the Bay of Biscay,"
is in the time of screw-steamers virtually out of the question.
Music that charms only for itself, and not also for the sentiment it conveys, does not deserve to live, and will not live, for ever.
The musical situation is bad enough, and not the least of the evils in connection with it is that we can only point out the disease, not suggest a cure, and that we can only hope for the men, "like some of the simple great ones gone," who are born to strike the chords of emergencies, not manufactured to order. But one or two things can be said in explanation and in pallia- tion of the existing state of things. For one thing, very few people remember or appreciate the revolution which has been accomplished by the agencies which science has imported into the conduct of modern life. We at present see only the practical side of the change made by a network of railways and an army of engine-drivers, postmen, and telegraph-clerks. But when the fitful fever of the present transition-state is over, there seems no
reason why we should not sing of the loves and labours of depart- mental officials as well as of Ayrshire peasants, and find a "John Anderson" in a stoker, whose life is almost literally in his hand., Then again, great songs, especially great national songs, are prompted by great occasions, and of these we have had none sufficiently great since Ebenezer Elliott's "Corn-Law Rhymes" stirred the popular heart almost like" Luther's Hymn." You may make a policy of sewage, but hardly a poetry out of it, and the female unmarried or widowed householder may have a practical grievance, but it is hardly possible to turn it into melodious verse. Moreover, coarse and brutal as much of the popular music of the day is, the coarseness and brutality lie not so much in the music as in the words wedded to it. Many of the popular airs have a singularly happy, if not rich rhythm and a-1, catch- ing " jingle. Who is there, blessed—or it may be, cursed—with an ear for music that can help being haunted by and humming the "Madame Angot " airs, or even "Tommy, make room for your Uncle "?—and it is only charitable to believe that the multitudes who nightly encore these admire, not the words, but the airs, and would welcome words expressing emotion of a loftier kind. In the circumstances of modern life, there are limitless possibilities of sublime poetry, and "words that burn" in national and domestic song ; and some day, let us hope soon, a Poet of the People may appear in this country also.