"The Purest English": Ballads and the English Literary Dialect

By Groom, Nick | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

"The Purest English": Ballads and the English Literary Dialect


Groom, Nick, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Sir, a ballad-singer is a higher man, for he does two things; he repeats and he sings: there is both recitation and musick in his performance....

--Samuel Johnson (1)

Despite often being described as "sister arts" in the eighteenth century, the intimate relationship between poetry and music has been neglected by recent criticism in favor of text-based theories of interpretation. This paper investigates how noise defined the aesthetics of Englishness at the end of the eighteenth century and for the Romantic period, suggesting that it is possible to trace sound patterns in literature and in prints, and thereby to reconstruct certain soundscapes. Although the following account is itself profoundly text-based, it does attempt to consider how sounds, whether musical settings or background noise, can be articulated in literature, and how this noise may echo changing social conditions.

My interpretation is underpinned by the "neo-pragmatist" poetics of Richard Shusterman, as elaborated for literary criticism by Ralph Pordzik. Pordzik's approach calls for an examination of the "situational embedment" of a text: how literature "functions as experience." (2) This is not merely investigating how literature "affects our emotions," but is "a method of recapturing a dimension of the written text that appeals to our sense of a more fully realized, sensual experience instead of our intellectual or analytical abilities." (3) Neopragmatist reading is not paraphrasing; "it should be seen as a literary practice that tries to be more adequate, more true, to the text's sensual import, one that brings us closer to achieving an internally more integrative experience of reading as 'collaboration' with the text." (4) For the purposes of the present paper, neo-pragmatist reading stresses the harmonic expectations of eighteenth-century readers confronted with a ballad or song text, and argues that acoustic references in verse should not simply be considered as metaphorical, but as the traces of a lost (and irrecoverable) physical reality. (5) Literature is, in other words, a secret history of noise. Lines may allude to the voice and music, the natural sounds of birdsong, wind, and rain, the insistent hubbub of the city, and so forth. All of these sorts of sounds can be emphasized with acoustic effects such as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, but there is also in writing a secondary noise, like a background ambience, which carries sounds more covertly or implicitly. This is almost inaudible to readers today, but would have been more noticeable to contemporaries. Popular folk melodies such as "Packington's Pound" or "Derry Down," street cries, and even the unearthly strains of the Aeolian harp may no longer be familiar sounds today, but they were part of the phonic world of the eighteenth century. (6) They were not metaphorical sounds but actual experiences, and hence they whisper through the poetry of the period.

I shall confine my discussion to one work: Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (popularly known as "Percy's Reliques," first published in 1765). My argument proposes that in eighteenth-century collections of "old ballads," and in particular in Percy's Reliques, textual sound effects are deployed in order to exemplify an emerging English identity, and that this subsequently influenced the antiquarian editing of later ballad collections and the composition of verse. These activities also attempted to distance the English tradition from political balladeering and the rude sounds of rioting.

The Reliques is a collection of ballads, songs, romances, and historical poetry, liberally seasoned with Percy's literary-antiquarian annotation: there are traditional ballads, songs from Shakespeare, translations from the Moorish, Scottish songs, as well as popular and political verses from British history. Many of the pieces purportedly derived from Percy's "folio MS," the seventeenth-century commonplace book he had famously rescued from being used as a firelighter, but he also drew on many printed sources, including Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719-20) and the 1723 Collection of Old Ballads, as well as archives such as the Pepys Library and his own collection of contemporary broadsides. …

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