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JANUARY 1, 1861.
ART. 1.--ANCIENT DANISH BALLADS.
Ancient Danish Ballads, translated from the Originals. By R.
C. Alexander Prior, M.D. 2 vols. Williams and Norgate.
A CENTURY, wanting five years, has now elapsed since the A Bishop of Dromore published his celebrated “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.” One hundred and seventy-four years previously to this first appearance of the “Percy Ballads” (A.D. 1765), an analogous collection of old Danish songs had been issued by Vedel (A.D. 1591). In forming this collection Vedel, we are told, had “no idea of the antiquarian interest attached to the songs of his country." He appears to have been actuated by no other motive than the desire to contribute to the innocent entertainment of his readers.
If to Vedel be assigned the honour of editorial priority in the recension of these poetic effusions of his ancestral compatriots, a kindred merit must be conceded to Sophia, the wife of Frederick II., King of Denmark, as the direct instrument of their publication. This queen, if we may credit the received tradition, once became the temporary guest of the great astronomer, Tycho Brahe. Designing but a brief visit to the illustrious philosopher, she was detained some days at his residence, at the observatory in Hveen, by the prevailing adverse weather. To fleet away the leaden moments the Pastor Anders Sörensön Vedel, who happened to be present, was requested to read before her Majesty some of the ballads which formed his collection. So delighted was the queen with these spirited productions, that she expressly commanded Vedel to complete and publish his projected
[Vol. LXXV. No. CXLVII.]-NEW SERIES, Vol. XIX. No. I.
work ; constantly renewing and enforcing the commission “both by oral and written messages," till its final execution in 1591, when this first instalment of the ballad literature of Denmark was printed, and we presume published at Ribe by the patriotic pastor.*
This collection, which consisted of one hundred ballads celebrating the feats or fortunes of kings and heroes, seems to have been primarily intended for the diversion of the peasantry. Hence the pervading fault of Vedel's edition ; a preference of the extravagant to the natural, exhibited in the adoption of the most preposterous readings which the ancient copies afford. Injudiciously, however, as Vedel may have executed his duties as editor, he is still entitled to grateful recognition as the preserver of many characteristic ancient ballads, as the discoverer of “a fountain of fine poetry” to Danish writers of succeeding generations,-in a word, as the Bishop Percy of the north of Europe.
A hundred and four years after the publication of Vedel's collection, Peter Syv reprinted the work, enhancing its value by the addition of a hundred hitherto unedited ballads. Since that time (1695) various other collections have been made ; the best of which are incorporated into the “ Danske Viser” (ancient ballads) of Nyerup, Abrahamson and Rahbek, published in 1812-13; "a work,” says Mr. Howitt, “ of singular value from the prominent fact that the great portion of these ballads are the common property of the whole of Scandinavia,” Sweden, Norway, the Faroe, the Shetland Isles, and Iceland, which alike possess a rich inheritance of legendary song, being all included in this geographical circumscription.
Of the total number of ballads thus published by the compilers of the “ Danske Viser,” amounting to two hundred and twenty-two, Dr. Prior, following the Danish originals as edited by them, has rendered into suitable English verse no fewer than one hundred and seventy-three, or about one-third of the entire ballad literature of Scandinavia. Distributing his poetical selection into four groups, namely,—the Heroic, Legendary, Historical, and Romantic, the translator prefixes to these popular lays a prefatory notice, containing significant elucidations, critical, traditionary, or historical. It is these annotations, the general introduction, and the ballads themselves, which supply or suggest the subject matter of this article.
The origin and authorship of these ballads constitute problems
* See Literature and Romance of Northern Europe, by William and Mary Howitt.
of difficult solution. Many of them are considered by the present translator to be popular representations of older tales, and he quotes with approval the remark of Sir Walter Scott, that “ The farther our researches are extended, the more we shall see ground to believe that the romantic ballads of later times are, for the most part, abridgments of ancient metrical romances, narrated in a smoother stanza and more modern language.” Thus the apparent originality of the Danish poems vanishes as our acquaintance with those of other countries increases, and we learn to see in the Northern ballads elements common “ to the beautiful romances of the South; those, namely, of Spain and Portugal, the Italian novels, and the lays and fabliaux of the French trouvères, which embody so much of the floating fiction of the Middle Ages.”
The ballad literature of mediæval Europe seems to have grown into general and simultaneous recognition during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At any rate the language in which they are composed affords, in Dr. Prior's opinion, a satisfactory evidence that it was not till the sixteenth and the preceding century that they assumed their present form. Decidedly rejecting the hypothesis of Robert Jamieson and the Swedish historian Geijer, of the derivation of English, Scotch, and Scandinavian ballads from a common historical centre, in “that remote period when we formed one nation together before the immigration of our ancestors to this island,” Dr. Prior unhesitatingly subscribes to the theory of Landstad of the international communication of these ancient songs by the northern races of the Baltic and German Ocean, whose kindred character of mind led them all to adopt and localize, in the centuries already indicated, the same ballad, which separately delighted each, as it travelled from the land of its birth to the successive countries of its adoption.
At this period Europe was distinguished by a general community of culture. Its religion, its chivalry, its architecture, and even its hand-writing, were identical. It possessed, in addition to any private or special funds of song, a floating capital of numerous lays and romances, “ the common property of all nations.” And not only the argument or fable, but “the same forms of expression, the same conventional phrases," the same metre and representation, re-appeared among all. In short, what Herder says in his “Volkslieder,” of the English and German ballads is, continues Dr. Prior, of universal application. “The whole tone of this poetry is so uniform, that one may often translate word for word, turn for turn, inversion for inversion. In all these countries of Europe the spirit of chivalry has only one vocabulary, and therefore one mode of relating things. Ballads and romances have everywhere the same nouns and ad