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There can be little doubt but that the poetry of all nations originated in the love cherished by the one sex towards the other ; feelings broke out into verse, and spoke the language of the heart-probably bursting forth at last into such rapturous exclamations, as
“By heaven and earth I love thee.”
Idle ingenuity has sometimes changed the compliment into a conceit, and the song into a strain of artificial politeness. Our isle has produced poets who sat down resolutely to sing of Chloe or Amynta, not remembering a brother has said, that,
“ Joys unfelt are never sang."
To come nearer our own day, and to illustrate our opinion, we are told by Burns himself, that he never had the least inclination of turning poet till he got heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were the spontaneous language of his heart : a heart that glowed, with what he describes as “ honest warm simplicity."* At all times nature exhibits a sufficient number of images to the eye and fancy of a poet—the cool of spring, the heat of summer, the yellow leaf of autumn, and the frosts of winter. Every field produces beauties of its own to awaken fresh sentiment, from the gay flowers of May to the bright stars and spotless snows of December. The
* See his works by Cunningham, vol. vi. p. 29.
shepherd hearing of, and seeing only a pastoral life, drew his images from the fields around him, the person of his love was neither adorned nor concealed by the adulteries of art, and he sung of her as he found her:
“All was sweet, and all was sound.”
To win the favour of one so fair, was the utmost of his ambition ; he told in wood-notes wild, in untutored verse, the sweetness of her mind and the graces of her person ; he was the shepherd that
1 Spenser and Pope sung of:
“A shepherd boy, he seeks no better name."
It is to the pastoral life of England and Scotland, to the rosy faces of our Dowsabells, Rosalinds, Peggys and Jeanies, we must look for the origin of our song; from the field and the sheep-hook to the court and the town, is a single step, but it is a long one. Our search into song, Mr. Cunningham has already happily illustrated, by the image of the boy chasing the rainbow from hill to hill, the nearer he imagined he was, the farther he was away from it.*
" he runs
We may safely suppose the manners and customs of the ancient British, differed little from the early manners of other nations. The South Americans were found by the Spaniards to be passionately fond of music, they were constantly in the custom of assembling together to dance, an amusement in which the softer sex were never allowed to participate. Their songs were chiefly of a martial kind, for women were considered as mere slaves, and treated with something like contempt. In an old writer quoted by Ritson, we find that the natives of Hispaniola, had “ certayne rymes or balletes they call Areitos. And as our Mynstrelles are accustomed to syng to the harp or lute, so do they in lyke maner syng these songes, and daunce to the same, playing on timbrels made of shells of certayne fishes. They have also songes and ballettes of loue, and other of lamentations and mournyng, some also to encourage them to the warres, with euery of them theyr tunes agreeable to the matter.' The inhabitants of America were not ignorant, we are told by Dr. Robertson,t of strong liquors, in which they rioted to excess, till scenes of bloodshed closed these unnatural festivals ; whether 'when the wine cup shined in light,' those rude people chaunted songs in praise of what they much loved, we must leave to the imagination to settle.
* Introduction to the Songs of Scotland, 4 vol. 1826.
In the early history of Britain, we find a class of
* Hist. Essay on National Song, p. 3. † See his History of America.
sacred poets existing, denominated Bards, who are represented as singing verses to the harp, recording the deeds of heroes and heroines. The persons of these Bards were held sacred, and their skill was reckoned divine; but as civilization and literature advanced, and poetry no longer remained a separate science, this office with its numerous religious ceremonies, gave place to a new rank of poets called Gleemen or Harpers, of whom the English Minstrels are reckoned as the genuine successors.*
THE MINSTRELS were an order of men who flourished during the middle ages in the courts of our princes and the halls of our nobility, subsisting by the art of poetry and music, and singing to the harp verses composed by themselves or others, at the same time adorning their recitations with mimicry and action.t Before the invention of printing, our ancestors, who according to Sir Walter Scott, had little conversational powers, encouraged the two most delightful arts, to drown care and afford amusement. The ancient Bards or Scalds, merely sang in praise of heroes, but the Minstrels on the introduction of Metrical Romance-writing into Europe, whether from Arabia or Scandinavia, related the marvellous
* See Percy, Warton, Ellis, Ritson, Scott, to whose valuable Essays on Ancient Minstrelsy, these pages are much indebted.
† Such is the definition Percy at last gave,“ which,” Sir W. Scott says, no unprejudiced reader can have any hesitation in adopting.” Intr. to Min. of Scot. Border. Ritson argued that Minstrel meant no more than Musician, which Scott justly laughs at.
deeds of some wondrous champion who undertook and accomplished the destruction of a fiery dragon, that had infested forest or field for years without number, in order to attain the hand of a beauteous Blancheflour. Many of those old romances, which the Minstrels chanted, and which Chaucer alludes to, still exist, shewing a vein of fancy and an elegance of description, for the period in which they were composed truly wonderful,-have re-appeared within these few years delighting, and even enchanting another course of readers and listeners. Whether our Minstrels * were indebted to their own imagination for the birth of such wild effusions, or borrowed from the neighbouring countries, has been a point on which our antiquaries have expended much learning and ingenuity. It seems probable, that Sir Tristrem, Hyndhorn, and Havelok the Dane, are productions of the British soil, but even of these there exist copies in French and German, with the story a little varied, apparently about the same age; indeed, there are few or none of our romances but exist in other languages with variations. To settle, then, to the fancy and ingenuity, of what nation we owe these “
sedgeying tales,” will ever be a matter of doubt and dispute ; it appears at least, likely, that
* Ritson with his characteristic arrogance asserts that, “there is not one single metrical romance in English, known to exist, which appears to have been written by a Minstrel." (Intr. to Met. Roman. p. cvii.) That sagacious Editor attributes them to the monks.