Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon: The Call of the Popular from the Restoration to the New Criticism

Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon: The Call of the Popular from the Restoration to the New Criticism

Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon: The Call of the Popular from the Restoration to the New Criticism

Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon: The Call of the Popular from the Restoration to the New Criticism

Synopsis

The humble ballad, defined in 1728 as "a song commonly sung up and down the streets," was widely used in elite literature in the eighteenth century and beyond. Authors ranging from John Gay to William Blake to Felicia Hemans incorporated the seemingly incongruous genre of the ballad into their work. Ballads were central to the Scottish Enlightenment's theorization of culture and nationality, to Shakespeare's canonization in the eighteenth century, and to the New Criticism's most influential work, Understanding Poetry. Just how and why did the ballad appeal to so many authors from the Restoration period to the end of the Romantic era and into the twentieth century?

Exploring the widespread breach of the wall that separated "high" and "low," Steve Newman challenges our current understanding of lyric poetry. He shows how the lesser lyric of the ballad changed lyric poetry as a whole and, in so doing, helped to transform literature from polite writing in general into the body of imaginative writing that became known as the English literary canon.

For Newman, the ballad's early lack of prestige actually increased its value for elite authors after 1660. Easily circulated and understood, ballads moved literature away from the exclusive domain of the courtly, while keeping it rooted in English history and culture. Indeed, elite authors felt freer to rewrite and reshape the common speech of the ballad. Newman also shows how the ballad allowed authors to access the "common" speech of the public sphere, while avoiding what they perceived as the unpalatable qualities of that same public's increasingly avaricious commercial society.

Excerpt

Ballads run like a radioactive dye through elite literature in the eighteenth century and beyond, illuminating the structures and workings of high culture. Authors happen across ballads on the walls of country houses and city streets, hear them bawled out in London and Edinburgh, and track them to cottages in pursuit of minstrelsy. They turn to ballads to answer the agonized question posed by Coleridge in the second epigraph I have chosen, “Why do you make a book?” And, as the first two epigraphs reveal, Addison and Coleridge, despite their many differences, are both drawn to the much reprinted ballad of “The Children in the Wood.” While Addison’s reader will think he is “not serious” and although Coleridge patronizingly refers to it as a “little ballad,” they both hear this “Darling Song of the Common People” calling to them. So their enthusiasm overcomes their embarrassment in breaching the boundary between high and low, an ambivalent response to the ballad’s call that is representative of the phenomenon under study herethe incorporation of ballads into elite poetry and criticism from the English Restoration to the American New Criticism.

Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon analyzes how the lesser lyric of the ballad changed lyric poetry as a whole and, in so doing, helped to transform “literature” from polite writing in general into the body of imaginative writing that becomes known as the English literary canon. This transformation lays the ground for the scholars and textbook authors who alter the canon by bringing it into the school, where the ballad is valued as the Urtext leading philologists and students from the “non-bookish” to “the bookish.” These are the words Robert Penn Warren uses to describe how he and Cleanth Brooks came to write their epoch-making primer in close reading, Understanding Poetry (1938), which proved so influential in the ensuing decades.

There is a long and complex story of cultural change behind this phenomenon, uniting in their differences Mr. Spectator’s coy confession . . .

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