23 JUNE 1866, Page 21


Fr is singular that we should have before us the first republication since 1794 of such an interesting and well edited collection of Scotch Songs and Ballads as that of Joseph Ritson, while a steady popularity has been enjoyed by Percy's Religues of Ancient English Poetry, a work of which the text is less authentic and the contents comparatively ill assorted. But it seems Posthumous Reputation is a more irritable and thin-skinned goddess than is commonly imagined, and that she can resent a long while the petty mis- demeanours and improprieties of an acute critic, if not of a brilliant poet ; so perhaps the restorer of the prte-Burnsian minstrels is still suffering under her displeasure for a few pedantical caprices and polemical asperities which ought now at last to be readily over- looked, even by admirers of Macpherson's Ossian and the other literary forgeries against which he lifted his testimony so loudly. We must be thankful, then, that he has reappeared anyhow, though we regret to say it is in an undignified shape for an erudite antiquarian, a very small, insignificant duode- cimo shape, adapted for people who are too young to read long prefaces or to relish sober colours, and lightened, too, not only of the notes for singing, but of the valuable historical essay by which Ritson introduced the subject of his labours. On the other hand, the publishers have scrupulously retained the author's glossary and annotations (except in phrases meant exclusively for his own contemporaries, like "He was the father of the present Earl "), though the absence of the essay makes these explanations in some points much less edifying. They have, moreover, re- tained his scrupulously authentic spelling, both in the older pieces and those that are not quite modern—a plan which has many re- commendations; for it is better to explain the anomalies of our actual usage by the etymology and pronunciation of the ancient langdage, than to corrupt and mismetae the latter in order to give it a more familiar aspect on first perusal. It is true they have not ventured to print in the title-page " Scotish" songs (with one t), as Ritson thought proper to do for reasons which we shall here- after mention. That heading might have affected our rising genera- tion almost as the word " Tetrachordon" did that of Milton's time. Well, we cannot deny that these omissions will probably make the book more saleable, or that it will even thus be well worth reading, and having, and revisiting ; and yet there might have been some policy (we believe, or at least we hope it) in reprinting all the very original introductory matter. It might have incited and helped reviewers to notice the publication

more copiously, and even to fill whole columns in some news- papers with an epitome of the history of lyrical versification in

Scotland. But at present it would not be so easy, especially for a

provincial critic, to get at the original edition, and carry away these matters from it ; and perhaps we have no fair excuse for

inflicting them on our readers, whatever we could do. We con- fess, however, that some peculiar difficulties beset our references in this department. They are happily explained by the very first page of the original introduction to Scotish Songs, in which we find :— "The word Scottish is an improper orthography of Scotish. Scotch is still more corrupt, and Scots, as an adjective, is a national barbarism, which is observed here once for all."

Unluckily this courageous observation has been given to the world too late to be efficacious ; and neither Ritson nor his poets can well be arrived at (say in the "Beata Maria" catalogues) without bewildering cross references among these four adjectives, not to mention "Scotian," and "Caledonian," and " Attacotian " corners. We know not whether this perplexity may not call for some violent remedial measure, like "decimal coinage, weights and measures." Yet we should be loth to reject the word "Scotch," despite of etymology, as peremptorily as Ritson would have done. The other day Professor Owen recommended the use of those technical words which lend themselves most easily to inflexions and the formation of derivatives. Thus "notochord," he inti- mated, was better than "chord of the back," because you can get from it the adjective "notochordal." How much better, then, must " Scotch" be than " Scottish " or " Scotish," since the former begets the received appellative " Scotchman," whereas no mortal would acknowledge himself a Scottishman. Yet we fear to insist upon this view, for what would become of the fashionable predilec- tion for Saxon English, as opposed to Greco-Latin English, if the plasticity of the elements were universally accepted as the cri- terion?

• Scottish Songs and Ballads. Collected and allied by Joseph Riteon. London: William Tegg . 1816.

Spring-Tinis with the Poets. Poetry selected and arranged by Frances Martin. London : Walton and /Soberly. 1136e.

We will quote but one more sentence of Ritson's, a quaint comment on his method of arrangement, which was in itself a judicious or convenient one :—

" This collection is divided into four classes, of which the first will be found to consist of love-songs, according to the different effects of that pleasing, powerful, capricious, and fatal passion, as courtship, marriage, importunity, complaint, despair, infidelity, absence, constancy. death, and dishonour ; the second, of comic songs or songs of humour ; the third, of historical, political, and martial songs ; the fourth, of romantic and legendary songs, or what are properly and usually de- nominated ballads"

With such words as these it would really want no little courage in a publisher to introduce even good love-songs to the youth of the present day. The sentence is a remarkable specimen of that peculiarly frigid humour of the critics and philosophers of the eighteenth century, which Horace is supposed to have fore- shadowed in the line,—

" Desinit in piscem =flier formosa superne."

And we must add that a certain frigidity and fishiness of nature seems to attend Ritson even in the selection of his love-songs, which are by no means generally so brilliant as those he has brought together in the other three classes. He quoted Burns very spar- ingly, and depreciated the latter's talents as a song-writer even

while speaking warmly of his poetry in other branches. Non omnia possumus he remarked coolly. He drew too largely on Allan

Ramsay, whose Muse occasionally behaves herself far too much like a cold-blooded and web-fingered mermaid, being more apt to swim out into distant Latin waters and snap up a simile between her teeth, than to pluck neatly one that grows on the native soil and at the very feet of the bard who craves her succour. How else would she have allowed him to set to work on a pretty homely burden like,—

" The yellow-haied laddie sat down on yon brae, Cries, 'Milk the ewes, lassie !' "

and enrich it with the mythological motley,

"The Silvans and Fairies unseen danc'd around?"

There is much more sustained warmth and spirit in R1tson's minstrels of the third class, especially in those imbued with a spirit of Jacobinism,—that providential combustion through which the intellects of our island began to recover their pristine elasti- city, when Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and Whiggery had been sitting so long and so heavily upon them.

But if there is one point in which we could object to the gene- ral arrangement of the pieces, it is in the broad distinction esta- blished between the love-songs and the comic songs. Were it not that this method required us to separate some closely allied topics, we should say a prominent characteristic of Scotch amatory poetry, and one highly indicative of the march of intellect and popular institutions since the Troubadour times, was the keenness and acute- ness with which the great Income question was debated in it. Now Mr. Ritaou has not counted living on crusts or living "on tick" among the effects of that "pleasing, powerful, capricious passion." He stops at the sublimer alternatives of "death and dishonour," with the natural affectation of a Cockney who has thrust his nose—that remarkable snub nose of Ritson's—into the exalted precincts of feudal and chivalrous legend. He presumptuously treats as mere sallies of humour those ditties which shrewdly and poetically draw a line between the natural and artificial wants of a young couple. Witness the stanza where "Jo Jenny" says to the "cock laird" (1) :—

" If I gae slang wi' ye, Ye maunna fail To feast me wi' caddies (2) And good hacket kail.'

"'The deal's in your nicety, Jenny,' qnoth he, 'Mayne, bannoeks of bear (3) meal Be as good for thee?'"

Or witness a lay suggesting proper economic limits to the presents

that may be exchanged between thrifty and "mensefu' " betrothed folks :—

" 'Sweet sir, for your courtesie, When ye come by the Bass then, For the love ye bear to me, Buy me a keeking (4) glass then.'

" Reek into the draw-well, Janet, Janet!

There you'll see your bonny sell, My p Janet.' . . . .

"'Good sir, for your courtesie, Coming through Aberdeen then, For the love ye bear to me, Buy me a pair of sheen then.'

11) Petty laird or 3ooman. (2) Castles. (3) Barley meal. (4) Looking.

"Clout the anld, the now are dear, Janet, Janet!

Ae pair may gain ye haff a year, My jo Janet.'"

But we must return to the song of the "Cook Laird" for finan- cial notions already worthy of that century, in the fiction of which the Micawbers and the Falcon family have flourished :—

" The borrowstoun merchants (1)

Will sell ye on tick ; For we mann hae brew things, A'beit they send break, When broken, free care The fools are set free.' 'When we make them lairds In the Abbey' (2), quoth she."

Altogether this Scotch anthology has a great deal of spirit and character, though it is blemished, as might have been expected, not only by some coarse expressions which any decent living editor (if the publisher had had one) might have hesitated to admit, but by one really profligate song, which Bishop Percy mentioned as too licentious for his own collection. We must own that the piece is historically valuable, for its author was one of the first "royal- authors in Europe." And in a historical aspect there are few collections of songs that can rival Ritson's.

Meantime young people must read poetry independently of his- torical or logical sequence, just as they gather daisies or-wild flowers without inquiring their place in the botanic scale or in the whole triple realm of nature. How soon some kind of plan should be introduced into the study it is difficult to say. Miss Martin has thought fit to follow up her charming selection of poedis for children, by one not professedly adapted for men and women of mature minds so much as for an "intermediate age" (between twelve and seventeen), when many girls and boys will already be reading foreign or classical, if not English poetry, by some more strict and ratiocinative method. But if more desultoriness must be allowed in pieces to be learnt by heart or recited, and if the influences of a regular literary course need to be corrected by one in which a refined taste and genuine moral sentiments con- stitute the only prominent controlling principles, we do not know any selection that we could recommend more heartily than we do Spring-Time with the Poets.