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The solitary Minstrel came An honour'd guest, while the grim evening sky Hung lowering, and around the social flame Tun’d his bold harp to tales of chivalry.
No European nations have surpassed Great Britain and Ireland in the production of Legendary and Romantic fiction. The fondness of our ancestors for Ballads, Historical Songs, and Metrical Romances, is well known to the poetic antiquary.
The great hall of the Baron's castle, the usual place of hilarity on public occasions, was the stage on which our ancient Minstrels displayed their fancy and traditionary lore. These were either attached to the family as a necessary and perpetual source of entertainment, or were welcomed as they wandered
through the country in search of scenes, where revelry and hospitality stood ever ready to receive them.
Independent of this Minstrelsy by profession, it was the custom of most families, at a period when few other amusements existed, to sit around the fire on a winter's evening, and relate the wonders of chivalry and enchantment, the tales of hapless love, or the humourous festivities of rustic life.
Warton, in his Dissertation on the Gesta Romanorum, mentioning the adventures of an English knight, naimed Albert, in a sub. terraneous passage, within the bishopric of Ely, observes “ this story is said to have been told in the winter after supper, in a castle, cum familia divitis ad focum, ut Potentibus moris est, REČENSENDIS ANTIQUIS GESTIS operam daret, , when the family of a rich man, as is the custom with the great, was sitting round the fire, and telling Anticnt Gests. Here is a trait,” he conti
of the private life of our ancestors, who wanted the diversions and engagements of modern times, to relieve a tedious evening. Hence we learn, that when a company was assembled, if a juggler or a minstrel were not present, it was their custom to entertain themselves by relating or hearing a series of adventures. Thus the general plan of the Canterbury Tales, which, at first sight, seems to be merely an ingenious invention of the poet to serve a particular occasion, is, in great measure, founded on a fashion of ancient life; and Chaucer, in supposing each of the Pilgrims to tell a tale as they are travelling to Becket's shrine, only makes them adopt à mode of amusement, which was common to the conversations of his age.
“ So habitual was this amusement in the dark ages, that the graver sort thought it unsafe for ecclesiastics, if the subjects admitted any degree of levity. The following curious injunction was deemed necessary,
in a code of statutes assigned to a college at Oxford, in the year 1292. I give it in English. " Ch. xx.-The Fellowes shall all live honestly, as becomes Clerks.-They shall not rehearse, sing, nor willingly hear, Ballads or Tales of Lovers, which tend to lasciviousness and idleness." Yet the libra. ries of our monasteries, as I have before ob. served, were filled with romances. In that of Croyland-abbey we find even archbishop Turpin's romance, placed on the same shelf with Robert Tumbeley on the Canticles, Roger Dymock against Wickliffe, and Thomas Waleys on the Psalter. But their apo- • logy must be, that they thought this a true history; at least, that an archbishop could write nothing but truth.""*
The style and poetry of these ancient ballads, must necessarily, as they were the product of a rude age, be, in general, extremely unequal ; and though the simplicity, the strokes of character and description, which are frequently discoverable in these pieces, be truly interesting, they are, for the most part, so strangely intermixed with indecencies and vulgarities of every kind, as greatly to injure their effect. To remedy this inconvenience, to preserve the touching simplicity, the dramatic cast and manner of these antique compositions, at the same time avoid
Warton's History of English Poetry, Vol, iii. Dis. sertation, page 64, 65.
ing their occasinal grossness of diction and sentiment, has been the aim of many modern poets. These imitations, many of which display beauties of the most fascinating quality, may, with propriety, be divided into two departments, PASTORAL and LEGENDARY ; the former employed in delineating the pleasures and events of rural life, the latter in immortalizing the deeds of chivalry and romance, or embellishing the wild and terrific paintings of gothic credulity,
Beattie, in his Minstrel, has thus beautifully described these provinces of our ballad poetry
Various and strange was the long-winded tale; And halls, and knights, and feats of arms, display'd; Or merry swains, who quaff the nut-brown ale, And sing, enamour'd of the nut-brown maid;
The moon-light revel of the fairy glade; · Or hags, that suckle an infernal brood,
And ply in caves th' unutterable trade,
be worthy of remark, that whilst in the modern pastoral ballad the English and