Imatges de pÓgina

Art. IV. The Select Melodies of Scotland, interspersed with

those of Ireland and Wales, &c. By George Thomson, F. A. S. Edinburgh. 5 vols. royal 8vo. 1822.


THOUGH we may seem to have too great a predilection for

questions of government and legislation, to care much about any thing else, we can assure our readers that we are very frequently glad enough to escape from these thorny and contentious topics, into the soothing and enchanted regions of Poetry, Music, and Romance. It was in such a mood that we happened lately to take up the work before us-and, after dwelling on it longer than we now care to mention, feel that we have acquired a right to recommend it as "an oblivious antidote' to weary and ruffled spirits, and minds harassed with fatigues or cares of a

cares of a public or private kind. Our Songs and Ballads, besides, form so considerable, so beautiful, and so peculiarly national a part of our literature, that we feel them to be deserving of a much more ample discussion than we can now afford to bestow on them. We shall, however, throw together a few of the remarks which have been suggested by the perusal of Mr Thomson's work; and shall probably take another opportunity of going more deeply into the subject.

The Songs of every nation must always be the most familiar and truly popular part of its poetry. They are uniformly the first fruits of the fancy and feeling of rude societies; and, even in the most civilized times, are the only poetry of the great body of the people. Their influence, therefore, upon the character of a country, has been universally felt and acknowledged. Among rude tribes, it is evident that their songs must, at first, take their tone from the prevailing character of the people. But, even among them, it is to be observed, that, though generally expressive of the fiercest passions, they yet represent them with some tincture of generosity and good feeling, and may be regarded as the first lessons and memorials of savage virtue. An Indian warrior, at the stake of torture, exults, in wild num, bers, over the enemies who have fallen by his tomahawk, and rejoices in the anticipated vengeance of his tribe: But it is chiefly by giving expression to the loftiest sentiments of invincible courage and fortitude, that he seeks to support himself in the midst of his torment3. • I am brave and intrepid !’ he exclaims,- I do not fear death, nor any kind of torture! He r who fears them is a coward-he is less than a woman. ! Death is nothing to him who has courage !

As it is thus the very best parts of their actual character that are

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dwelt upon even in the barbarous songs of savages, these songs must contribute essentially to the progress of refinement, by fostering and cherishing every germ of good feeling that is successively developed during the advancement of society. When selfishness begins to give way to generosity, --when mere animal courage is in some degree ennobled by feelings of patriotic self-devotion,-and, above all, when sensual appetite begins to be purified into love,ếit is then that the popular songs, by acquiring a higher character themselves, come to produce a still more powerful reaction upon the character of the people. These songs, produced by the most highly gifted of the tribe, -by those who feel most strongly, and express their feelings most happily,---convey ideas of greater elevation and refinement than are as yet familiar, but not so far removed from the ordinary habits of thinking as to be unintelligible. The hero, who devotes himself to death for the safety of his country, with a firmness as yet almost without example in the actual history of the race, and the lover, who follows his mistress through every danger, and perhaps dies for her sake,--become objects on which every one delights to dwell, and models which the braver and nobler spirits are thus incited to emulate. The songs of rude nations, accordingly, and those in which they take most pleasure, are filled with the most romantic instances of courage, fidelity, and generosity; and it cannot be supposed, that such delightful and elevating pictures of human nature can be constantly before the eyes of any people, without producing a great effect on their character.

The same considerations are applicable to the effects of popular ballads upon the most numerous classes of society, even in civilized nations. They, like the inhabitants of rude countries, have little but their songs to carry their fancy or their feelings beyond the dull realities of life; and these strains thus occupy much of their attention, and have a proportionate effect upon

their minds. They constitute, therefore, a powerful engine either for good or ill. We can still remember their effect, at the beginning of the French Revolution, in working up the passions of the populace to phrenzy and madness. While indulging in the most horrible excesses, they rent the air with the . Ca ira,' or the . Carmagnole; '-and there cannot be a doubt,

a that the bloody and ferocious strain of the songs that were put into their mouths, had no inconsiderable share in the most strange and sudden transformation in the character of a whole nation, that ever was heard of in the history of the world. A very opposite instance of the effect of song-writing is to be found in the works of Dibdin, whose inimitable sea-songs have

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become,' as it were, naturalized in the British Navy. By seizing, with exquisite skill, the finest parts of what we may call the national character of our sailors,-their courage, generosity, and simplicity of heart,--and embodying these in songs, wonderfully adapted, both to their tastes and those of more refined auditors, he succeeded in impressing on their minds such an admirable beau idéal of a British seaman, that it became, in no small degree, their endeavour to attain a resemblance to it. Dibdin was the Tyrtæus of modern times, and, like the Grecian Bard, well deserved the gratitude of his country.

The popular songs of Scotland have long maintained a very high rank among national poetry, and have contributed greatly to produce some peculiar features in the character of the people. On this subject we gladly avail ourselves of the acute and elegant observations of Dr Currie. • The impression which

the Scottish Music has made on the people, is deepened by its • union with the national songs. These songs, like those of • other nations, are many of them humorous, but they chiefly • treat of love, war, and drinking. Love is the subject of the • greater proportion. Without displaying the higher powers of

ihe imagination, they exhibit a perfect knowledge of the hu• man heart, and breathe a spirit of affection, and sometimes a

delicate and romantic tenderness, not to be surpassed in mo« dern poetry, and which the more polished strains of anti

quity have seldom possessed. The origin of this amatory cha-. • racter in the rustic Muse of Scotland, as of the greater num

ber of these love-songs themselves, it would be difficult to • trace. Their present influence on the character of the nation • is, however, great and striking. To them we must attribute, in a great measure, the romantic character which so often dis

tinguishes the attachments of the humblest of the people of • Scotland, to a degree that, if we mistake not, is seldom found - in the same rank of society in other countries. The pictures • of love and happiness exhibited in their rural songs, are early

impressed on the mind of the peasant, and are rendered more attractive from the music with which they are united. They

associate themselves with his own youthful emotions; they s elevate the object, as well as the nature of the attachment;

and give to the impressions of sense the beautiful colours of imagination. Hence, in the course of his passion, a Scottish

peasant often exerts a spirit of adventure of which a Spanish • cavalier need not be ashamed. After the labours of the day

are over, he sets out for the habitation of his mistress, per




Burns's Works, Vol. I., Prefatory Remarks,


man, in


haps at many miles distance, regardless of the length or the « dreariness of the way. He approaches her in secrecy, under • the disguise of night. A signal at the door or window, per• haps agreed on, and understood by none but her, gives in<formation of his arrival, and sometimes it is repeated again • and again, before the capricious fair-one will obey the sum

But if she favour his addresses, she escapes unob'served, and receives the vows of her lover under the gloom

of twilight, or the deeper shades of night. Interviews of this • kind are the subjects of many of the Scottish songs, sonte of • the most beautiful of which Burns has imitated or improved. • In the art which they celebrate he was perfectly skilled: he • knew and had practised all its mysteries. Intercourse of this • kind is, indeed, universal, even in the humblest condition of

every region of the earth. But it is not unnatural o to suppose, that it may exist in a greater degree, and in a * more romantic form, among a peasantry who are supposed to • be more than commonly instructed, who find in their raral

songs expression for their youthful emotions, and in whom • the embers of passion are continually fanned, by the breath• ings of a music full of tenderness and sensibility.

The effects of this, or indeed of any other kind of poetry, upon the character and manners of the higher classes of society, must necessarily be less considerable. Independently of the effect of a more regular education, and a more careful cultivation of the moral and intellectual faculties, it may be remarked, that songs are only one of many kinds of fictitious composition from which the higher classes derive amusement. But, on the other hand, of all those means of amusement, songs probably exercise the strongest influence on the minds of the greatest number. We go occasionally to see a play, and we sit

, down occasionally to read a poem. But the pleasures of music and song form a habitual part of our gayest and happiest hours, , when our hearts are most open to receive impressions, and at a time of life when the nature of these impressions is most important to us. The very act of singing a song ourselves, or the circumstance of hearing it from the lips of one whom we love and value, gives an additional power to the sentiments which it conveys, by making them, as it were, our own. It is of no small importance, therefore, that our fashionable, as well as our popular songs, should be free from any tendency to mischief. A great deal of the lyric poetry of the present day, we fear, is doing an injury which its authors will never be able to atone for. It is not gross or indecent, indeed, but something worse-loose, voluptuous, and seductive,-covered with a slen



der veil of sentiment and refinement, just sufficient to procure its admission into polished society, but certainly far from sufficient to take away its power of corruption. To see a young and innocent girl, in the midst of an applauding drawing-room, singing with unconscious simplicity certain sweet and pathetic verses, the true meaning of which, if plainly spoken out, must drive her in confusion from the room, is a spectacle now nearly as common as it is lamentable. That the fair singer can long continue to read these eloquent lessons of a licentious morality, without in any degree understanding them, or ultimately suffering from their contagion, is hardly to be expected. The present taste is not for poetry, like the song by a person of quality.' Sound without sense, will no longer do, even to be warbled. To please a modern audience, a song must be full of meaning; and it is because the songs to which we have alluded are full of meaning, and generally of more meanings than one, that they are so popular. The songs of Burns, in this respect, possess a

. very different character. They are often full of ardent and overwhelming passion; but they never tend to unsettle the principles of the young, by throwing down the barriers between vice and virtue. They may be sung by the purest without a blush, and listened to by the most innocent without danger.

It is well known, that it was on the suggestion of the Editor of the work before us, that Burns engaged in the composition of those exquisite lyrics, which now constitute the noblest monument to his memory. When Mr Thomson undertook the great national work, of which the subject of this article appears to be a condensed republication, he fortunately obtained the cooperation of Burns, when in the zenith of his short but glorious career; and, during the few remaining years of the poet's life, he continued, with unwearied zeal, to enrich Mr Thomson's work with the most beautiful productions of his Muse. This invaluable assistance, as is well known, was given gratuitously. Burns was induced at first to undertake the task, and afterwards steadily to perform it, by the strong enthusiasm awakened in his ardent mind, by the idea of contributing to raise so noble a monument to the music and song try: And this feeling led him to reject, positively, and even indignantly, Mr Thomson's repeated offers of pecuniary recompense. One cannot but admire that loftiness of spirit which prompted the poet, even when in poverty and distress, to refuse the well-earned reward of his labours; but in this, as in some ather respects, he appears to have entertained mistaken notions of independence. Every man is entitled to turn to his fair advantage the talents with which he is gifted; and he who enlightens the

of his coun

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