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Ancient Poems, Ballads, and Songs of the Peasantry of England   By:

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In 1846, the Percy Society issued to its members a volume entitled Ancient Poems, Ballads, and Songs of the Peasantry of England, edited by Mr. James Henry Dixon. The sources drawn upon by Mr. Dixon are intimated in the following extract from his preface:

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 desideratum, 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,

'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 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... Continue reading book >>

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