THE reader is here presented with select remains of our ancient English Bards and Minstrels, an order of men who were once greatly respected by our ancestors, and contributed to soften the roughness of a martial and unlettered people by their songs and by their music.
The greater part of them are extracted from an ancient folio MS. in the Editor's possession, which contains near two hundred Poems, Songs, and Metrical Romances. This manuscript was written about the middle of the last century; but contains compositions of all times and dates, from the ages prior to Chaucer, to the conclusion of the reign of Charles I.[ 1]
This manuscript was shown to several learned and ingenious friends, who thought the contents too curious to be consigned to oblivion, and importuned the possessor to select some of them, and give them to the press. As most of them are of great simplicity, and seem to have been merely written for the people, he was long in doubt whether, in the present state of improved literature, they could be deemed worthy the attention of the public. At length the importunity of his friends prevailed, and he could refuse nothing to such judges as the author of The Rambler and the late Mr. Shenstone.
Accordingly, such specimens of ancient poetry have been selected as either show the gradation of our language, exhibit the progress of popular opinions, display the peculiar manners and customs of former ages, or throw light on our earlier classical poets.
They are here distributed into VOLUMES, each of which contains an independent SERIES of poems, arranged chiefly according to the order of time, and showing the gradual improvements of the English language and poetry from the earliest ages down to the present. Each VOLUME, or SERIES, is divided into three BOOKS, to afford so many pauses or resting-places to the reader, and to assist him in distinguishing between the productions of the earlier, the middle, and the latter times.
In a polished age like the present, I am sensible that many of these reliques of antiquity will require great allowances to be made for them. Yet have they, for the most part, a pleasing simplicity, and many artless graces, which, in the opinion of no mean critics,[ 2] have been thought to compensate for the want of higher beauties, and if they do not dazzle the imagination, are frequently found to interest the heart.
To atone for the rudeness of the more obsolete poems, each volume concludes with a few modern attempts in the same kind of writing; and to take off from the tediousness of the longer narratives, they are everywhere intermingled with little elegant pieces of the lyric kind. Select ballads in the old Scottish dialect, most of them of the first-rate merit, are also interspersed among those of our ancient English minstrels; and the artless productions of these old rhapsodists are occasionally confronted with specimens of the composition of contemporary poets of a higher class, -- of those who had all the advantages of learning in the times in which they lived, and who wrote for fame and for posterity. Yet perhaps the palm will be frequently due to the old strolling Minstrels, who composed their rhymes to be sung to their harps, and who looked no further than for present applause and present subsistence.
The reader will find this class of men occasionally described in the following volumes, and some particulars relating to their history in an Essay subjoined to this Preface.
It will be proper here to give a short account of the other Collections that were consulted, and to make my acknowledgments to those gentlemen who were so kind as to impart extracts from them; for while this Selection was making, a great number of ingenious friends took a share in the work, and explored many large repositories in its favour.
The first of these that deserved notice was the Pepysian Library at Magdalen College, Cambridge. Its founder, Samuel Pepys, Esq.[ 3] Secretary of the Admiralty in the reigns of Charles II. and James II., had made a large collection of ancient English ballads, near 2000 in number, which he has left pasted in five volumes in folio; besides garlands and other smaller miscellanies. This Collection, he tells us, was "begun by by Mr. Selden; improved by the addition of many pieces elder thereto in time; and the whole continued down to the year 1700; when the form peculiar till then thereto, viz. of the black-letter with pictures, seems (for cheapness' sake) wholly laid aside for that of the white-letter without pictures."
In the Ashmole Library at Oxford is a small collection of ballads made by Anthony Wood in the year 1676, containing somewhat more than 200. Many ancient popular poems are also preserved in the Bodleian Library.
The archives of the Antiquarian Society at London contain a multitude of curious political poems in large folio volumes, digested under the several reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, Elizabeth, James I., &c.
In the British Museum is preserved a large treasure of ancient English poems in MS., besides one folio volume of printed ballads.
From all these some of the best pieces were selected; and from many. private Collections, as well printed as manuscript, particularly from one large folio volume which was lent by a lady.
Amid such a fund of materials the Editor is afraid he has been sometimes led to make too great a parade of his authorities. The desire of being accurate has perhaps seduced him into too minute and trifling an exactness; and in pursuit of information he may have been drawn into many a petty and frivolous research. It was, however, necessary to give some account of the old copies; though often, for the sake of brevity, one or two of these only are mentioned, where yet assistance was received from several. The Editor has endeavoured to be as faithful as the imperfect state of his materials would admit. For these old popular rhymes being many of them copied only from illiterate transcripts, or the imperfect recitation of itinerant ballad-singers, have, as might be expected, been handed down to us with less care than any other writings in the world. And the old copies, whether MS. or printed, were often so defective or corrupted, that a scrupulous adherence to their wretched readings would only have exhibited unintelligible nonsense, or such poor meagre stuff as neither came from the bard nor was worthy the press; when, by a few slight corrections or additions, a most beautiful or interesting sense hath started forth, and this so naturally and easily, that the Editor could seldom prevail on himself to indulge the vanity of making a formal claim to the improvement; but must plead guilty to the charge of concealing his own share in the amendments under some such general title as a "Modern Copy," or the like. Yet it has been his design to give sufficient intimation where any considerable liberties[ 4] were taken with the old copies, and to have retained, either in the text or margin, any word or phrase which was antique, obsolete, unusual, or peculiar; so that these might be safely quoted as of genuine and undoubted antiquity. His object was to please both the judicious antiquary and the reader of taste; and he hath endeavoured to gratify both without offending either.
The plan of the work was settled in concert with the late elegant Mr. Shenstone, who was to have borne a joint share in it, had not death unhappily prevented him.[ 5] Most of the modern pieces were of his selection and arrangement, and the Editor hopes to be pardoned if he has retained some things out of partiality to the judgment of his friend. The old folio MS. above mentioned was a present from Humphrey Pitt, Esq., of Prior's-Lee, in Shropshire,[ 6] to whom this public acknowledgment is due for that and many other obliging favours. To Sir David Dalrymple, Bart., of Hales, near Edinburgh, the Editor is indebted for most of the beautiful Scottish poems with which this little miscellany is enriched, and for many curious and elegant remarks with which they are illustrated. Some obliging communications of the same kind were received from John MacGowan, Esq., of Edinburgh; and many curious explanations of Scottish words in the glossaries from John Davidson, Esq., of Edinburgh, and from the Rev. Mr. Hutchinson, of Kimbolton. Mr. Warton, who has twice done so much honour to the Poetry Professor's chair at Oxford, and Mr. Hest, of Worcester College, contributed some curious pieces from the Oxford libraries. Two ingenious and learned friends at Cambridge deserve the Editor's warmest acknowledgments: to Mr. Blakeway, late Fellow of Magdalen College, he owes all the assistance received from the Pepysian Library; and Mr. Farmer, Fellow of Emanuel, often exerted in favour of this little work that extensive knowledge of ancient English literature for which he is so distinguished.[ 7] Many extracts from ancient MSS. in the British Museum and other repositories were owing to the kind services of Thomas Astle, Esq., to whop the public is indebted for the curious Preface and Index annexed to the Harleian Catalogue.[ 8] The worthy librarian of the Society of Antiquaries, Mr. Norris, deserved acknowledgment for the obliging manner in which he gave the Editor access to the volumes under his care. In Mr. Garrick's curious collection of old Plays are many scarce pieces of ancient poetry, with the free use of which he indulged the Editor in the politest manner. To the Rev. Dr. Birch he is indebted for the use of several ancient and valuable tracts. To the friendship of Dr. Samuel Johnson he owes many valuable hints for the conduct of the work. And if the glossaries are more exact and curious than might be expected in so slight a publication, it is to be ascribed to the supervisal of a friend who stands at this time the first in the world for northern literature, and whose learning is better known and respected in foreign nations than in his own country. It is perhaps needless to name the Rev. Mr. Lye, editor of Junius's Etymologicum, and of the Gothic Gospels.
The names of so many men of learning and character the Editor hopes will serve as an amulet, to guard him from every unfavourable censure for having bestowed any attention on a parcel of Old Ballads. It was at the request of many of these gentlemen, and of others eminent for their genius and taste, that this little work was undertaken. To prepare it for the press has been the amusement of now and then a vacant hour amid the leisure and retirement of rural life, and hath only served as a relaxation from graver studies. It has been taken up at different times, and often thrown aside for many months, during an interval of four or five years. This has occasioned some inconsistencies and repetitions, which the candid reader will pardon. As great care has been taken to admit nothing immoral and indecent, the Editor hopes he need not be ashamed of having bestowed some of his idle hours on the ancient literature of our own country, or in rescuing from oblivion some pieces (though but the amusements of our ancestors) which tend to place in a striking light their taste, genius, sentiments, or manners.
*** Except in one paragraph, and in the notes subjoined, this preface is given with little variation from the first edition in MDCCLXV.
1. Chaucer quotes the old romance of "Libius Disconius" and also some others, which are Songs found in this MS. -- see the Essay in vol ii. below. It also contains several songs relating to the Civil War in the last century, but not one that alludes to the Restoration.
2. Mr. Addison, Mr. Dryden, and the witty Lord Dorset, Etc.-- see the Spectator, No. 70. To these might be added many eminent judges now alive. The learned Selden appears also to have been fond of collecting these old things.--See below.
3. A life of our curious collector, Mr. Pepys, may be seen in "The Continuation of Mr. Collier's Supplement to his great Dictionary, 1716, at the end of vol. iii. folio. Art. PEP."
4. Such liberties have been taken with all those pieces which have three asterisks subjoined, thus ***.
5. That the Editor hath not here underrated the assistance he received from his friend, will appear from Mr. Shenstone's own letter to the Rev. Mr. Graves, dated March 1st, 1761.-- See his Works, vol. iii. letter ciii. It is doubtless a great loss to this work that Mr. Shenstone never saw more than about a third of one of these volumes, as prepared for the press.
6. Who informed the Editor that this MS. had been purchased in a library of old books, which was thought to have belonged to Thomas Blount, author of the Jocular Tenures,1679, 4to, and of many other publications enumerated in Wood's Athena, ii. 73; the earliest of which is The Art of making Devises, 1646, 4to, wherein he is described to be "of the Inner Temple." If the collection was made by this lawyer (who also published the Law Dictionary, 1671, folio), it should seem, from the errors and defects with which the MS. abounds, that he had employed his clerk in writing the transcripts, who was often weary of his task.
7. To the same learned and ingenious friend, since Master of Emanuel College, the Editor is obliged for many corrections and improvements in his second and subsequent editions; as also to the Rev. Mr. Bowie, of Idmistone, near Salisbury, editor of the curious edition of Don Quixote, with Annotations, In Spanish, in 6 vols. 4to; to the Rev. Mr. Cole, formerly of Blecheley, near Fenny-Stratford, Bucks; to the Rev. Mr. Lambe, of Noreham, in Northumberland (author of a learned History of Chess, 1764, 8vo, and editor of a curious Poem on the Battle of Flodden Field, with learned notes 1774, 8vo); and to G. Paton, Esq., of Edinburgh. He is particularly indebted to two friends, to whom the public, as well as himself, are under the greatest obligations: to the Honourable Danes Barrington, for his very learned and curious Obervations on the Statutes, 4to; and to Thomas Tyrwhitt, Esq., whose most correct and elegant edition of Chancer's Canterbury Tales, 5 vols. 8vo, is a standard book, and shows how an ancient English classic should be published. The Editor was also favoured with many valuable remarks and corrections from the Rev. Geo. Ashby, late Fellow of St John's College, in Cambridge, which are not particularly pointed out, because they occur so often. He was no less obliged to Thomas Butler, Esq., F.A.S., agent to the Duke of Northumberland, and Clerk of the Peace for the county of Middlesex, whose extensive knowledge of ancient writings, records, and history has been of great use to the Editor in hie attempts to illustrate the literature or manners of our ancestors. Some valuable remarks were procured by Samuel Legge, Esq., author of that curious work the Curialia, 4to; but this impression was too far advanced to profit by them all; which hath also been the case with a series of learned and ingenious annotations inserted in the Gentleman's Magazine for August, 1793; April, June, July, and October, 1794; and which it is hoped will be continued.
8. Since keeper of the Records in the Tower.