Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Taking Back the Ballad: Swinburne in the 1860s

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Taking Back the Ballad: Swinburne in the 1860s

Article excerpt

Despite its title, Algernon Charles Swinburne's inaugural 1866 collection, Poems and Ballads, contains very few ballads. Some poems entitled "ballad" arc in fact versions of continental lyric forms like the canzone ("A Ballad of Life") or the ballade ("A Ballad of Burdens"). Indeed, the 1866 Poems and Ballads includes an astonishing number of different lyric forms: not only ballads, ballades, and canzoni, but songs, rondeaux, a carol, a lamentation, a litany, a hymn, and poems in sapphics and hendecasyllabics (after Sappho and Catullus, respectively). In his first collection, Swinburne was exploring a broad range of the forms that lyric poetry might take. In demonstrating through creative imitation his mastery of so many different lyric forms, Swinburne was doing something very much like Tennyson in his first major collection of 1830, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. Some of Swinburne's and Tennyson's best-known short, narrative, ballad-like poems in their respective early volumes, though they differ markedly in their engagements with earlier ballad materials, both direct readers to continental models, even though both poets were intimately familiar with the old ballads collected, edited, and published in Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802).

In the early 1860s, however, Swinburne edited a number of older ballad texts from Scotland and the north of England and composed some startlingly similar poems of his own. They included not only story-ballads but other songs arising from situations those stories suggested: a Northumbrian widow's lament, a condemned Jacobite's farewell, a song for a wake, and the last words or "neck-verse" for a border thief betrayed by his lover and about to be hanged. His verse caught with remarkable acuity the sound and the sense of older popular ballads from Northumbria and the border counties of Scotland that, if we believe Swinburne's semi-autobiographical novel (also dating from the early 1860s), he had first encountered as a boy visiting his grandfather Swinburne's Northumbrian estate, Capheaton. (1) Swinburne's balladry in these years, I argue, sets itself against the lyricizing and balladizing practices of both editors and popular poets in the ballad revival of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, insisting instead on returning poetry to the harsh landscapes of feeling and forceful rhythms he found in the old songs of England's North. In this, one might say, he was closer to creative poet-editors and emulators like James Macpherson, Thomas Chatterton, or John Clare. (2)

Swinburne's imitations depended not only on what he may have heard, but also on his more recent study of ballad and song texts in the British Museum. The projected ballad edition on which he was working in 1861 was intended, he wrote, "to contain all the best northern poems." (3) For each edited ballad, Swinburne seems to have studied multiple different versions earlier published by ballad scholars from Bishop Thomas Percy (1765) to Scott and his successors in the nineteenth century, especially William Jamieson (1806), William Motherwell (1827), George R. Kinlock (1827), Peter Buchan (1828), and, most recently, the American scholar of early English literature Frances James Child, the second edition of whose initial collection of English and Scottish ballads, in eight small volumes, had just been published in London. (4) Unlike his larger and better-known later collection of 1882-1898, Child's initial publication was part of a series intended to cover the whole history of English poetry; by including ballads and songs he extended that history from literary to popular traditions. Like many but not all of his predecessors (and like Swinburne), in this first effort Child, who did not at first confine himself strictly to narrative ballads, focused on words, not music, and relied primarily on printed sources. (5) Swinburne used the 1861 London edition of Child, but he did not follow all of Child's scholarly practices, still less his aesthetic and political preferences. …

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