Taken down from oral recitation and transcribed from private
manuscripts, rare broadsides and scarce publications.
He who, in travelling through the rural districts of England, has made the road-side inn his resting-place, who has visited the lowly dwellings of the villagers and yeomanry, and been present at their feasts and festivals, must have observed that there are certain old poems, ballads, and songs, which are favourites with the masses, and have been said and sung from generation to generation.This traditional, and, for the most part, unprinted literature, - cherished in remote villages, resisting everywhere the invasion of modern namby-pamby verse and jaunty melody, and possessing, in an historical point of view, especial value as a faithful record of the feeling, usages, and modes of life of the rural population, - had been almost wholly passed over amongst the antiquarian revivals which constitute one of the distinguishing features of the present age. While attention was successfully drawn to other forms of our early poetry, this peasant minstrelsy was scarcely touched, and might be considered unexplored ground. There was great difficulty in collecting materials which lay scattered so widely, and which could be procured in their genuine simplicity only from the people amongst whom they originated, and with whom they are as 'familiar as household words.' It was even still more difficult to find an editor who combined genial literary taste with the local knowledge of character, customs, and dialect, indispensable to the collation of such reliques; and thus, although their national interest was universally recognised, they were silently permitted to fall into comparative oblivion. To supply this manifest disideratum, Mr. Dixon compiled his volume for the Percy Society; and its pages, embracing only a selection from the rich stores he had gathered, abundantly exemplified that gentleman's remarkable qualifications for the labour he had undertaken. After stating in his preface that contributions from various quarters had accumulated so largely on his hands as to compel him to omit many pieces he was desirous of preserving, he thus describes generally the contents of the work:-
In what we have retained will be found every variety,The novelty of the matter, and the copious resources disclosed by the editor, acquired for the volume a popularity extending far beyond the limited circle to which it was addressed; and although the edition was necessarily restricted to the members of the Percy Society, the book was quoted not only by English writers, but by some of the most distinguished archaeologists on the continent. It had always been my intention to form a collection of local songs, illustrative of popular festivals, customs, manners, and dialects. As the merit of having anticipated, and, in a great measure, accomplished this project belongs exclusively to Mr. Dixon, so to that gentleman I have now the pleasure of tendering my acknowledgments for the means of enriching the Annotated Edition of the English Poets with a volume which, in some respects, is the most curious and interesting of the series. Subsequently to the publication of his collection by the Percy Society, Mr. Dixon had amassed additional materials of great value; and, conscious that the work admitted of considerable improvement, both in the way of omission and augmentation, he resolved upon the preparation of a new edition. His reasons for rejecting certain portions of the former volume are stated in the following extract from a communication with which he has obliged me, and which may be considered as his own introduction to the ensuing pages.'From grave to gay, from lively to severe,'from the moral poem and the religious dialogue, -'The scrolls that teach us to live and to die,' -to the legendary, the historical, or the domestic ballad; from the strains that enliven the harvest-home and festival, to the love- ditties which the country lass warbles, or the comic song with which the rustic sets the village hostel in a roar. In our collection are several pieces exceedingly scarce, and hitherto to be met with only in broadsides and chap-books of the utmost rarity; in addition to which we have given several others never before in print, and obtained by the editor and his friends, either from the oral recitation of the peasantry, or from manuscripts in the possession of private individuals.
The editor had passed his earliest years in a romantic mountain- district in the North of England, where old customs and manners, and old songs and ballads still linger. Under the influence of these associations, he imbibed a passionate love for peasant rhymes; having little notion at that time that the simple minstrelsy which afforded him so much delight could yield hardly less pleasure to those who cultivated more artificial modes of poetry, and who knew little of the life of the peasantry. His collection was not issued without diffidence; but the result dissipated all apprehension as to the estimate in which these essentially popular productions are held. The reception of the book, indeed, far exceeded its merits; for he is bound in candour to say that it was neither so complete nor so judiciously selected as it might have been. Like almost all books issued by societies, it was got up in haste, and hurried through the press. It contained some things which were out of place in such a work, but which were inserted upon solicitations that could not have been very easily refused; and even where the matter was unexceptionable, it sometimes happened that it was printed from comparatively modern broadsides, for want of time to consult earlier editions. In the interval which has since elapsed, all these defects and short- comings have been remedied. Several pieces, which had no legitimate claims to the places they occupied, have been removed; others have been collated with more ancient copies than the editor had had access to previously; and the whole work has been considerably enlarged. In its present form it is strictly what its title-page implies - a collection of poems, ballads, and songs preserved by tradition, and in actual circulation, amongst the peasantry.The present volume differs in many important particulars from the former, of the deficiencies of which Mr. Dixon makes so frank an avowal. It has not only undergone a careful revision, but has received additions to an extent which renders it almost a new work. Many of there accessions are taken from extremely rare originals, and others are here printed for the first time, including amongst the latter the ballad of Earl Brand, a traditional lyric of great antiquity, long familiar to the dales of the North of England; and the Death of Queen Jane, a relic of more than ordinary interest. Nearly forty songs, noted down from recitation, or gathered from sources not generally accessible, have been added to the former collection, illustrative, for the most part, of historical events, country pastimes, and local customs. Not the least suggestive feature in this department are the political songs it contains, which have long outlived the occasions that gave them birth, and which still retain their popularity, although their allusions are no longer understood. Amongst this class of songs may be specially indicated Jack and Tom, Joan's Ale Was New, George Ridler's Oven, and The Carrion Crow. The songs of a strictly rural character, having reference to the occupations and intercourse of the people, possess an interest which cannot be adequately measured by their poetical pretensions. The very defects of art with which they are chargeable, constitute their highest claim to consideration as authentic specimens of country lore. The songs in praise of the dairy, or the plough; or in celebration of the harvest-home, or the churn-supper; or descriptive of the pleasures of the milk-maid, or the courtship in the farm-house; or those that give us glimpses of the ways of life of the waggoner, the poacher, the horse-dealer, and the boon companion of the road-side hostelrie, are no less curious for their idiomatic and primitive forms of expression, than for their pictures of rustic modes and manners. Of special interest, too, are the songs which relate to festival and customs; such as the Sword Dancer's Song and Interlude, the Swearing-In Song, or Rhyme, at Highgate, the Cornish Midsummer Bonfire Song, and the Fairlop Fair Song.
In the arrangement of so multifarious an anthology, gathered from nearly all parts of the kingdom, the observance of chronological order, for obvious reasons, has not been attempted; but pieces which possess any kind of affinity to each other have been kept together as nearly as other considerations would permit.
The value of this volume consists in the genuineness of its contents, and the healthiness of its tone. While fashionable life was masquerading in imaginary Arcadias, and deluging theatres and concert rooms with shams, the English peasant remained true to the realities of his own experience, and produced and sang songs which faithfully reflected the actual life around him. Whatever these songs describe is true to that life. There are no fictitious raptures in them. Love here never dresses its emotions in artificial images, nor disguises itself in the mask of a Strephon or a Daphne. It is in this particular aspect that the poetry of the country possesses a permanent and moral interest.