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7. The Stedfast Shepherd. By George Wither
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 their ignorance; and the reason is plain, because the same paintings of Nature which recommend it to the most ordinary reader, will appear beautiful to the most refined.
ADDISON, in SPECTATOR, No. 70.
Poems on King Arthur, etc. The third volume being chiefly devoted to romantic subjects, may not be improperly introduced with a few slight strictures on the old Metrical Romances: a subject the more worthy attention, as it seems not to have been known to such as have written on the nature and origin of books of chivalry, that the first compositions of this kind were in
and usually sung to the harp.
ON THE ANCIENT METRICAL ROMANCES, ETC. I. The first attempts at composition among all barbarous nations, are ever found to be poetry and song. The praises of their gods, and the achievements of their heroes, are usually chanted at their festival meetings. These are the first rudiments of history. It is in this manner that the savages of North America preserve the memory of past events 1: and the same method is known to have prevailed
1 Vide Lasiteau, Mours de Sauvages, t. 2. Dr. Browne's Hist. of the Rise and Progress of Poetry. Percy. III.
among our Saxon ancestors, before they quitted their German forests. The ancient Britons had their Bards, and the Gothic nations their Scalds or popular poets3, whose business it was to record the victories of their warriors, and the genealogies of their princes, in a kind of narrative songs, which were committed to memory, and delivered down from one reciter to another. So lopg, aş poetry continued a distinct profession, and while the Bard; or Scald, was a regular and stated officer in the printe's court, these men are thought to have performed the functions of the historian pretty faithfully.; for though their narrations would be apt to receive a
good deat of embellishment, they are supposed to have had :ạt te bottom so much of truth, as to serve for the basis of ·more regular annals. At least, succeeding historians have taken up with the relations of these rude men, and, for want of more authentic records, have agreed to allow them the credit of true history 4.
After letters began to prevail, and history assumed a more stable form, by being committed to plain simple prose, these songs of the Scalds or Bards began to be more amusing than useful. And in proportion as it became their business chiefly to entertain and delight, they gave more and more in to embellishment, and set off their recitals with such marvellous fictions as were calculated to captivate gross and ignorant minds. Thus began stories of adventures with giants and dragons, and witches and enchanters, and all the monstrous extravagances of wild imagination, unguided by judgment, and uncorrected by art5.
This seems to be the true origin of that species of romance which so long celebrated feats of chivalry, and
2 Germani celebrant carminibus antiquis (quod unum apud illos memoriæ et annalium genus est) Tuistonem, &c. Tacit. Germ. c. 2.
3 Barth. Antiq. Dan. lib. i. cap. 10. - Wormii Literatura Runica, ad finem.
4 See “Northern Antiquities, or a Description of the Manners, Customs, &c. of the ancient Danes and other Northern Nations, translated from the French of M. Mallet," 1770, 2 vols. 8vo. (vol. i. p. 49, &c.)
5 Vide infra, pp. 4, 5, &c.