Chevy Chase – from the Spectator
'Interdum vulgus rectum videt.'
When I travelled, I took a particular Delight in hearing the Songs and Fables that are come from Father to Son, and are most in Vogue among the common People of the Countries through which I passed; for it is impossible that any thing should be universally tasted and approved by a Multitude, tho' they are only the Rabble of a Nation, which hath not in it some peculiar Aptness to please and gratify the Mind of Man. Human Nature is the same in all reasonable Creatures; and whatever falls in with it, will meet with Admirers amongst Readers of all Qualities and Conditions. Moliere , as we are told by Monsieur Boileau , used to read all his Comedies to an old Woman [who ] was his Housekeeper, as she sat with him at her Work by the Chimney-Corner; and could foretel the Success of his Play in the Theatre, from the Reception it met at his Fire-side: For he tells us the Audience always followed the old Woman, and never failed to laugh in the same Place.
I know nothing which more shews the essential and inherent Perfection of Simplicity of Thought, above that which I call the Gothick Manner in Writing, than this, that the first pleases all Kinds of Palates, and the latter only such as have formed to themselves a wrong artificial Taste upon little fanciful Authors and Writers of Epigram. Homer , Virgil , or Milton , so far as the Language of their Poems is understood, will please a Reader of plain common Sense, who would neither relish nor comprehend an Epigram of Martial , or a Poem of Cowley : So, on the contrary, an ordinary Song or Ballad that is the Delight of the common People, cannot fail to please all such Readers as are not unqualified for the Entertainment by their Affectation or Ignorance; and the Reason is plain, because the same Paintings of Nature which recommend it to the most ordinary Reader, will appear Beautiful to the most refined.
The old Song of Chevey Chase is the favourite Ballad of the common People of England ; and Ben Johnson used to say he had rather have been the Author of it than of all his Works. Sir Philip Sidney in his 'Discourse of Poetry' speaks of it in the following Words;
I never heard the old Song of Piercy and Douglas, that I found not my Heart more moved than with a Trumpet; and yet it is sung by some blind Crowder with no rougher Voice than rude Stile; which being so evil apparelled in the Dust and Cobweb of that uncivil Age, what would it work trimmed in the gorgeous Eloquence of Pindar?
For my own part I am so professed an Admirer of this antiquated Song, that I shall give my Reader a Critick upon it, without any further Apology for so doing.
The greatest Modern Criticks have laid it down as a Rule, that an Heroick Poem should be founded upon some important Precept of Morality, adapted to the Constitution of the Country in which the Poet writes. Homer and Virgil have formed their Plans in this View. As Greece was a Collection of many Governments, who suffered very much among themselves, and gave the Persian Emperor, who was their common Enemy, many Advantages over them by their mutual Jealousies and Animosities, Homer , in order to establish among them an Union, which was so necessary for their Safety, grounds his Poem upon the Discords of the several Grecian Princes who were engaged in a Confederacy against an Asiatick Prince, and the several Advantages which the Enemy gained by such their Discords. At the Time the Poem we are now treating of was written, the Dissentions of the Barons, who were then so many petty Princes, ran very high, whether they quarrelled among themselves, or with their Neighbours, and produced unspeakable Calamities to the Country:  The Poet, to deter Men from such unnatural Contentions, describes a bloody Battle and dreadful Scene of Death, occasioned by the mutual Feuds which reigned in the Families of an English and Scotch Nobleman: That he designed this for the Instruction of his Poem, we may learn from his four last Lines, in which, after the Example of the modern Tragedians, he draws from it a Precept for the Benefit of his Readers.
God save the King, and bless the
In Plenty, Joy, and Peace;
And grant henceforth that foul Debate
'Twixt Noblemen may cease.
The next Point observed by the greatest Heroic Poets, hath been to celebrate Persons and Actions which do Honour to their Country: Thus Virgil's Hero was the Founder of Rome , Homer's a Prince of Greece ; and for this Reason Valerius Flaccus and Statius , who were both Romans , might be justly derided for having chosen the Expedition of the Golden Fleece , and the Wars of Thebes for the Subjects of their Epic Writings.
The Poet before us has not only found out an Hero in his own Country, but raises the Reputation of it by several beautiful Incidents. The English are the first who take the Field, and the last who quit it. The English bring only Fifteen hundred to the Battle, the Scotch Two thousand. The English keep the Field with Fifty three: The Scotch retire with Fifty five: All the rest on each side being slain in Battle. But the most remarkable Circumstance of this kind, is the different Manner in which the Scotch and English Kings receive the News of this Fight, and of the great Men's Deaths who commanded in it.
This News was brought to Edinburgh,
Where Scotland's King did reign,
That brave Earl Douglas suddenly
Was with an Arrow slain.
O heavy News, King James did say,
Scotland can Witness be,
I have not any Captain more
Of such Account as he.
Like Tydings to King Henry came
Within as short a Space,
That Piercy of Northumberland
Was slain in Chevy-Chase.
Now God be with him, said our
Sith 'twill no better be,
I trust I have within my Realm
Five hundred as good as he.
Yet shall not Scot nor Scotland say
But I will Vengeance take,
And be revenged on them all
For brave Lord Piercy's Sake.
This Vow full well the King
After on Humble-down,
In one Day fifty Knights were slain,
With Lords of great Renown.
And of the rest of small Account
Did many Thousands dye, &c.
At the same time that our Poet shews a laudable Partiality to his Countrymen, he represents the Scots after a Manner not unbecoming so bold and brave a People.
Earl Douglas on a milk-white
Most like a Baron bold,
Rode foremost of the Company
Whose Armour shone like Gold .
His Sentiments and Actions are every Way suitable to an Hero. One of us two, says he, must dye: I am an Earl as well as your self, so that you can have no Pretence for refusing the Combat: However, says he, 'tis Pity, and indeed would be a Sin, that so many innocent Men should perish for our sakes, rather let you and I end our Quarrel in single Fight.
Ere thus I will out-braved be,
One of us two shall dye;
I know thee well, an Earl thou art,
Lord Piercy, so am I.
But trust me , Piercy, Pity it
And great Offence, to kill
Any of these our harmless Men,
For they have done no Ill.
Let thou and I the Battle try,
And set our Men aside;
Accurst be he, Lord Piercy said,
By whom this is deny'd .
When these brave Men had distinguished themselves in the Battle and a single Combat with each other, in the Midst of a generous Parly, full of heroic Sentiments, the Scotch Earl falls; and with his dying Words encourages his Men to revenge his Death, representing to them, as the most bitter Circumstance of it, that his Rival saw him fall.
With that there came an Arrow keen
Out of an English Bow,
Which struck Earl Douglas to the Heart
A deep and deadly Blow.
Who never spoke more Words than
Fight on, my merry Men all,
For why, my Life is at an End,
Lord Piercy sees my Fall.
Merry Men , in the Language of those Times, is no more than a cheerful Word for Companions and Fellow-Soldiers. A Passage in the Eleventh Book of Virgil's AEneid is very much to be admired, where Camilla in her last Agonies instead of weeping over the Wound she had received, as one might have expected from a Warrior of her Sex, considers only (like the Hero of whom we are now speaking) how the Battle should be continued after her Death.
Tum sic exspirans , &c.
A gathering Mist overclouds her
And from her Cheeks the rosie Colour flies.
Then turns to her, whom, of her Female Train,
She trusted most, and thus she speaks with Pain.
Acca, 'tis past! He swims before my Sight,
Inexorable Death; and claims his Right.
Bear my last Words to Turnus, fly with Speed,
And bid him timely to my Charge succeed;
Repel the Trojans, and the Town relieve: Farewel ...
Turnus did not die in so heroic a Manner; tho' our Poet seems to have had his Eye upon Turnus's Speech in the last Verse,
Lord Piercy sees my Fall. ... Vicisti, et victum tendere palmas Ausonii videre ...
Earl Piercy's Lamentation over his Enemy is generous, beautiful, and passionate; I must only caution the Reader not to let the Simplicity of the Stile, which one may well pardon in so old a Poet, prejudice him against the Greatness of the Thought.
Then leaving Life, Earl Piercy
The dead Man by the Hand, And said,
Earl Douglas, for thy Life
Would I had lost my Land.
O Christ! my very heart doth bleed
With Sorrow for thy Sake;
For sure a more renowned
Knight Mischance did never take .
That beautiful Line, Taking the dead Man by the Hand , will put the Reader in mind of AEneas's Behaviour towards Lausus , whom he himself had slain as he came to the Rescue of his aged Father.
At vero ut vultum vidit morientis,
Ora modis Anchisiades, pallentia miris;
Ingemuit, miserans graviter, dextramque tetendit, &c.
The pious Prince beheld young Lausus dead; He grieved, he wept; then grasped his Hand, and said, Poor hapless Youth! What Praises can be paid To worth so great ...
I shall take another Opportunity to consider the other Part of this old Song.
In my last Monday's Paper I gave some general Instances of those beautiful Strokes which please the Reader in the old Song of Chevey-Chase ; I shall here, according to my Promise, be more particular, and shew that the Sentiments in that Ballad are extremely natural and poetical, and full of the majestick Simplicity which we admire in the greatest of the ancient Poets: For which Reason I shall quote several Passages of it, in which the Thought is altogether the same with what we meet in several Passages of the Ćneid ; not that I would infer from thence, that the Poet (whoever he was) proposed to himself any Imitation of those Passages, but that he was directed to them in general by the same Kind of Poetical Genius, and by the same Copyings after Nature.
Had this old Song been filled with Epigrammatical Turns and Points of Wit, it might perhaps have pleased the wrong Taste of some Readers; but it would never have become the Delight of the common People, nor have warmed the Heart of Sir Philip Sidney like the Sound of a Trumpet; it is only Nature that can have this Effect, and please those Tastes which are the most unprejudiced or the most refined. I must however beg leave to dissent from so great an Authority as that of Sir Philip Sidney , in the Judgment which he has passed as to the rude Stile and evil Apparel of this antiquated Song; for there are several Parts in it where not only the Thought but the Language is majestick, and the Numbers sonorous; at least, the Apparel is much more gorgeous than many of the Poets made use of in Queen Elizabeth's Time, as the Reader will see in several of the following Quotations.
What can be greater than either the Thought or the Expression in that Stanza,
To drive the Deer with Hound and Horn Earl Piercy took his Way; The Child may rue that was unborn The Hunting of that Day!
This way of considering the Misfortunes which this Battle would bring upon Posterity, not only on those who were born immediately after the Battle and lost their Fathers in it, but on those also who perished in future Battles which took their rise from this Quarrel of the two Earls, is wonderfully beautiful, and conformable to the Way of Thinking among the ancient Poets.
'Audiet pugnas vilio parentum
What can be more sounding and poetical, resemble more the majestic Simplicity of the Ancients, than the following Stanzas?
The stout Earl of Northumberlan
A Vow to God did make,
His Pleasure in the Scotish Woods
Three Summers Days to take.
With fifteen hundred Bowmen bold,
All chosen Men of Might,
Who knew full well, in time of Need,
To aim their Shafts aright.
The Hounds ran swiftly thro' the Woods
The nimble Deer to take, And with their Cries the Hills and Dales An Eccho shrill did make .
... Vocat ingenti Clamore
Taygetique canes, domitrixque
Et vox assensu nemorum ingeminata remugit.
Lo, yonder doth Earl Dowglas come,
His Men in Armour bright;
Full twenty Hundred Scottish Spears,
All marching in our Sight .
All Men of pleasant Tividale,
Fast by the River Tweed, etc .
The Country of the Scotch Warriors, described in these two last Verses, has a fine romantick Situation, and affords a couple of smooth Words for Verse. If the Reader compares the forgoing six Lines of the Song with the following Latin Verses, he will see how much they are written in the Spirit of Virgil .
Adversi campo apparent, hastasque
Protendunt longe dextris; et spicula vibrant;
Quique altum Preneste viri, quique arva
Gabinć Junonis, gelidumque Anienem, et roscida rivis
Hernica saxa colunt: ... qui rosea rura Velini,
Qui Terticć horrentes rupes, montemque Severum,
Casperiamque colunt, Forulosque et flumen
Himellć: Qui Tiberim Fabarimque bibunt ...
But to proceed.
Earl Dowglas on a milk-white
Most like a Baron bold,
Rode foremost of the Company,
Whose Armour shone like Gold.
Turnus ut antevolans tardum
precesserat agmen, &c.
Vidisti, quo Turnus equo, quibus ibat in armis Aureus ...
Our English Archers bent their
Their Hearts were good and true;
At the first Flight of Arrows sent,
Full threescore Scots they slew.
They clos'd full fast on ev'ry
No Slackness there was found.
And many a gallant Gentleman
Lay gasping on the Ground.
With that there came an Arrow keen
Out of an English Bow,
Which struck Earl Dowglas to the Heart
A deep and deadly Blow.
Ćneas was wounded after the same Manner by an unknown Hand in the midst of a Parly.
Has inter voces, media inter talia
Ecce viro stridens alis allapsa sagitta est,
Incertum quâ pulsa manu ...
But of all the descriptive Parts of this Song, there are none more beautiful than the four following Stanzas which have a great Force and Spirit in them, and are filled with very natural Circumstances. The Thought in the third Stanza was never touched by any other Poet, and is such an one as would have shined in Homer or in Virgil .
So thus did both those Nobles die,
Whose Courage none could stain:
An English Archer then perceived
The noble Earl was slain.
He had a Bow bent in his Hand,
Made of a trusty Tree,
An Arrow of a Cloth-yard long
Unto the Head drew he.
Against Sir Hugh Montgomery
So right his Shaft he set,
The Gray-goose Wing that was thereon
In his Heart-Blood was wet.
This Fight did last from Break of
Till setting of the Sun;
For when they rung the Evening Bell
The Battle scarce was done.
One may observe likewise, that in the Catalogue of the Slain the Author has followed the Example of the greatest ancient Poets, not only in giving a long List of the Dead, but by diversifying it with little Characters of particular Persons.
And with Earl Dowglas there was
Sir Hugh Montgomery,
Sir Charles Carrel , that from the Field
One Foot would never fly:
Sir Charles Murrel of Ratcliff
His Sister's Son was he;
Sir David Lamb , so well esteem'd,
Yet saved could not be.
The familiar Sound in these Names destroys the Majesty of the Description; for this Reason I do not mention this Part of the Poem but to shew the natural Cast of Thought which appears in it, as the two last Verses look almost like a Translation of Virgil .
... Cadit et Ripheus justissimus
Qui fuit in Teucris et servantissimus ćqui,
Diis aliter visum est ...
In the Catalogue of the English who fell, Witherington's Behaviour is in the same manner particularized very artfully, as the Reader is prepared for it by that Account which is given of him in the Beginning of the Battle; though I am satisfied your little Buffoon Readers (who have seen that Passage ridiculed in Hudibras ) will not be able to take the Beauty of it: For which Reason I dare not so much as quote it.
Then stept a gallant Squire forth,
Witherington was his Name,
Who said, I would not have it told
To Henry our King for Shame,
That e'er my Captain fought on
And I stood looking on.
We meet with the same Heroic Sentiments in Virgil .
Non pudet, O Rutuli, cunctis pro
Objectare animam? numerone an viribus ćqui
Non sumus ... ?
What can be more natural or more moving than the Circumstances in which he describes the Behaviour of those Women who had lost their Husbands on this fatal Day?
Next Day did many Widows come
Their Husbands to bewail;
They washed their Wounds in brinish Tears,
But all would not prevail.
Their Bodies bath'd in purple
They bore with them away;
They kiss'd them dead a thousand Times,
When they were clad in Clay.
Thus we see how the Thoughts of this Poem, which naturally arise from the Subject, are always simple, and sometimes exquisitely noble; that the Language is often very sounding, and that the whole is written with a true poetical Spirit.
If this Song had been written in the Gothic Manner, which is the Delight of all our little Wits, whether Writers or Readers, it would not have hit the Taste of so many Ages, and have pleased the Readers of all Ranks and Conditions. I shall only beg Pardon for such a Profusion of Latin Quotations; which I should not have made use of, but that I feared my own Judgment would have looked too singular on such a Subject, had not I supported it by the Practice and Authority of Virgil .