| English Literature for Boys and Girls|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|Delightful introduction to the writers of English literature whose works hold the greatest appeal for the youthful reader. The life and personality of each author is given in outline, with enough material quoted from his works to give an idea of what he wrote. For most authors suggestions for further reading are included. The outline of historical background enables the young reader to grasp the connection between the literature and the life of the time. Excellent as a companion to a chronological study of English literature. Ages 12-15 |
ABOUT SOME SONG STORIES
 BESIDES the metrical romances, we may date another kind of story
from this time. I mean the ballads.
Ballad was an old French word spelt balade. It really means a
dance-song. For ballads were at first written to be sung to
dances—slow, shuffling, balancing dances such as one may still
see in out-of-the-way places in Brittany.
These ballads often had a chorus or refrain in which every one
joined. But by degrees the refrain was dropped and the dancing
too. Now we think of a ballad as a simple story told in verse.
Sometimes it is merry, but more often it is sad.
The ballads were not made for grand folk. They were not made to
be sung in courts and halls. They were made for the common
people, and sometimes at least they were made by them. They were
meant to be sung, and sung out of doors. For in those days the
houses of all but the great were very comfortless. They were
small and dark and full of smoke. It was little wonder, then,
that people lived out of doors as much as they could, and that
all their amusements were out of doors. And so it comes about
that many of the ballads have an out-of-door feeling about them.
A ballad is much shorter than a romance, and therefore much more
easily learned and remembered. So many people learned and
repeated the ballads, and for three
 hundred years they were the
chief literature of the people. In those days men sang far more
and read and thought far less than nowadays. Now, if we read
poetry, some of us like to be quietly by ourselves. Then all
poetry was made to be read or sung aloud, and that in company.
I do not mean you to think that we have any ballads remaining to
us as old as the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth
century, which was the time in which Havelok was written. But
what I want you to understand is that the ballad-making days went
on for hundreds of years. The people for whom the ballads were
made could not read and could not write; so it was of little use
to write them down, and for a long time they were not written
down. "They were made for singing, an' no for reading," said an
old lady to Sir Walter Scott, who in his day made a collection of
ballads. "They were made for singing an' no for reading; but ye
hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never be sung mair."
And so true is this, that ballads which have never been written
down, but which are heard only in out-of-the-way places, sung or
said by people who have never learned to read, have really more
of the old-time feeling about them than many of those which we
find in books.
We cannot say who made the ballads. Nowadays a poet makes a
poem, and it is printed with his name upon the title-page. The
poem belongs to him, and is known by his name. We say, for
instance, Gray's Elegy, or Shakespeare's Sonnets. But many
people helped to make the ballads. I do not mean that twenty or
thirty people sat down together and said, "Let us make a ballad."
That would not have been possible. But, perhaps, one man heard a
story and put it into verse. Another then heard it and added
something to it. Still another and another heard, repeated,
added to, or altered it in one way or another. Sometimes the
story was made better by the
 process, sometimes it was spoiled.
But who those men were who made and altered the ballads, we do
not know. They were simply "the people."
One whole group of ballads tells of the wonderful deeds of Robin
Hood. Who Robin Hood was we do not certainly know, nor does it
matter much. Legend has made him a man of gentle birth who had
lost his lands and money, and who had fled to the woods as an
outlaw. Stories gradually gathered round his name as they had
gathered round the name of Arthur, and he came to be looked upon
as the champion of the people against the Norman tyrants.
Robin was a robber, but a robber as courtly as any knight. His
enemies were the rich and great, his friends were the poor and
"For I never yet hurt any man
That honest is and true;
But those that give their minds to live
Upon other men's due.
I never hurt the husbandmen
That used to till the ground;
Nor spill their blood that range the wood
To follow hawk or hound.
My chiefest spite to clergy is
Who in those days bear a great sway;
With friars and monks with their fine sprunks
I make my chiefest prey."
The last time we heard of monks and priests they were the friends
of the people, doing their best to teach them and make them
happy. Now we find that they are looked upon as enemies. And
the monasteries, which at the beginning had been like lamps of
light set in a dark country, had themselves become centers of
darkness and idleness.
 But although Robin fought against the clergy, the friars and
monks who did wrong, he did not fight against religion.
"A good manner then had Robin;
In land where that he were,
Every day ere he would dine,
Three masses would he hear.
The one in worship of the Father,
And another of the Holy Ghost,
The third of Our Dear Lady,
That he loved all the most.
Robin loved Our Dear Lady,
For doubt of deadly sin,
Would he never do company harm
That any woman was in."
And Robin himself tells his followers:—
"But look ye do not husbandman harm
That tilleth with his plough.
No more ye shall no good yeoman
That walketh by green wood shaw,
Nor no knight nor no squire
That will be good fellow.
These bishops and these archbishops,
Ye shall them beat and bind,
The high sheriff of Nottingham,
Him hold ye in your mind."
The great idea of the Robin Hood ballads is the victory of the
poor and oppressed over the rich and powerful, the triumph of the
lawless over the law-givers. Because of this, and because we
like Robin much better than the Sheriff of Nottingham, his chief
enemy, we are not to think that the poor were always right and
the rulers always wrong. There were many good men among the
despised monks and friars, bishops and archbishops.
 But there
were, too, many evils in the land, and some of the laws pressed
sorely on the people. Yet they were never without a voice.
The Robin Hood ballads are full of humor; they are full, too, of
English outdoor life, of hunting and fighting.
Of quite another style is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. That
takes us away from the green, leafy woods and dells of England to
the wild, rocky coast of Scotland. It takes us from the singing
of birds to the roar of the waves. The story goes that the King
wanted a good sailor to sail across the sea. Then an old knight
says to him that the best sailor that ever sailed the sea is Sir
So the King writes a letter bidding Sir Patrick make ready. At
first he is pleased to get a letter from the King, but when he
has read what is in it his face grows sad and angry too.
"Who has done me this evil deed?" he cries, "to send me out to
sea in such weather?"
Sir Patrick is very unwilling to go. But the King has commanded,
so he and his men set forth. A great storm comes upon them and
the ship is wrecked. All the men are drowned, and the ladies who
sit at home waiting their husbands' return wait in vain.
There are many versions of this ballad, but I give you here one
of the shortest and perhaps the most beautiful.
"The king sits in Dumferling toune
Drinking the blude reid wine:
'O whar will I get a guid sailor,
To sail this schip of mine?'
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king's richt kne:
'Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor
That sails upon the se.'
The king has written a braid letter,
And signed it wi his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
Was walking on the sand.
The first line that Sir Patrick red,
A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick red,
The teir blinded his ee.
'O wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed don to me,
To send me out this time o' the yeir,
To sail upon the se?
'Mak hast, mak hast, my merry men all,
Our guid schip sails the morne.'
'Oh, say na sae, my master deir,
For I feir a deadlie storme.
'Late, late yestreen I saw the new moone,
Wi the auld moone in her arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will cum to harme.'
O, our Scots nobles wer richt laith
To weet their cork-heild schoone;
Bot lang owre a' the play wer played
Thair hats they swam aboone.
O lang, lang, may their ladies sit,
Wi their fans into their hand,
Or eir they see Sir Patrick Spence
Cum sailing to the land.
O lang, lang, may the ladies stand,
Wi their gold kaims in their hair,
Waiting for their ain deir lords,
For they'll see them na mair.
Haf ower, haf ower to Aberdour,
It's fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence.
Wi the Scots lords at his feit."
 And now, just to end this chapter, let me give you one more poem.
It is the earliest English song that is known. It is a spring
song, and it is so full of the sunny green of fresh young leaves,
and of all the sights and sounds of early summer, that I think
you will like it.
"Summer is a-coming in,
Loud sing cuckoo;
Groweth seed and bloweth mead,
And springeth the wood new,
Ewe bleateth after lamb,
Loweth after calf the cow;
Bullock starteth, buck verteth,
Merry sing cuckoo.
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well singeth thou cuckoo,
Thou art never silent now.
Sing cuckoo, now, sing cuckoo,
Sing cuckoo, sing cuckoo, now!"
Is that not pretty? Can you not hear the cuckoo call, even
though the lamps may be lit and the winter wind be shrill
But I think it is prettier still in its thirteenth-century
English. Perhaps you may be able to read it in that, so here it
"Sumer is ycumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu;
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springth the wde nu,
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu cuccu,
Ne swike thu naver nu.
Sing cuccu, nu, sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!"
BOOKS TO READ
Stories of Robin Hood, by H. E. Marshall.
Stories of the Ballads, by Mary Macgregor.
A Book of Ballads, by C. L. Thomson.
Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (Everyman's Library).
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics