Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Brother Trouble: Incest Ballads of the British Isles

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Brother Trouble: Incest Ballads of the British Isles

Article excerpt

Ballads are a great unsung body of texts that hover on the margins of eighteenth-century literary history without quite being acknowledged by modern scholars of the period. But ballads were a crucial cultural phenomenon in eighteenth-century society, a common experience of rich and poor, so embedded in the soundscape as not to be remarked, any more than the air people breathed. Joseph Addison famously wrote about ballads in three Spectator papers of 1711 (nos. 70, 74, 85), praising the beauties of "The Ballad of Chevy Chase" and "Babes in the Wood." He said: "an ordinary Song or Ballad that is the Delight of the common People, cannot fail to please all such Readers as are not unqualified for the Entertainment by their Affectation or Ignorance" (no. 70). Addison cautioned his audience not to let the ballad's simplicity of style prejudice them against its "true poetical Spirit" or its passionate and beautiful sentiments. He cites the example of the "late Lord Dorset," a man with "the greatest Wit tempered with the greatest Candour ... one of the finest Criticks as well as the best Poets of his Age" who "had a numerous Collection of old English Ballads, and took a particular Pleasure in Reading of them" (no. 74).

Ballads were many people's first literary experience in eighteenth-century England and Scotland, whether simple broadsides from which they learned to read or the earliest sung stories that moved them to tears or ignited their imaginations. Oliver Goldsmith loved ballads, and several find their way into The Vicar of Wakefleld (1766). He wrote in his essay "Happiness" (1759), "The music of Mattei" (the Neopolitan singer La Colonna1) "is dissonance to what I felt when our old dairymaid sung me into tears with 'Johnny Armstrong's Last Good Night/ or the cruelty of 'Barbara Alien.'"2

When Clara Reeve wrote her radical history of the novel, The Progress of Romance (1785), tracing the novel's sources and influences, she insists that the romances-the closest proximate prior prose narrative form-came from ear lier ballads. Her intellectual heroine, Euphrasia, quotes Thomas Percy's essay "On the Ancient Metrical Romances/' prefixed to the third volume of his Reliques of Ancient Poetry (1765), to the effect that romances "may be derived in a lineal descent from the ancient Historical songs of the Gothic bards and scalds" (33).3 Percy's Reliques was the first literary collection of ballads in England and deeply influenced a generation of poets, including Coleridge and Wordsworth, who, significantly, named their first collection Lyrical Ballads, Thus the rediscovery of ballads as a powerful literary form can be said to have changed the course of literary history.

Ballads were more present in eighteenth-century England than literary critics and historians tend to remember. We are so used to making our way in the world with our eyes that we forget what Walter Ong calls the "lifeworld of the oral/aural past"4-an environment, in the city at least, of street cries and rhymes, bells ringing and chants, work songs and lullabies-an environment in which rags were sought and strawberries sold to the accompaniment of words and musical phrases so familiar that the hearer did not have to understand the words to recognize which peddler was abroad exercising his or her lungs. Ballads were sung in taverns and camps, in dimly lit laborers' cottages, as well as in the blazing halls of the wealthy; they were memorized and transmitted orally by ordinary people as well as by professional singers and actors. They were printed on broadsides and in chapbooks and garlands, and often circulated from print to oral transmission and back again. A ballad might be learned by ear and then written down to save or to remember; or it might be learned from a broadside, remembered, and then passed along orally.

From the earliest dawn of printing, broadsides were the comic books and the poster art of the poor: single sheets decorated with woodcuts on which were printed the texts of ballads with the title of the familiar tune to which those words could be sung. …

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