1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Thomas Percy

Mary Russell Mitford, "Percy's Reliques" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 1-14.



I never take up these three heavily-bound volumes, the actual last edition, at which Dr. Johnson was wont to scoff, without feeling a pleasure quite apart from that excited by the charming book itself; although to that book, far more than to any modern school of minstrelsy, we owe the revival of the taste for romantic and lyrical poetry, which had lain dormant since the days of the Commonwealth.

This pleasure springs from a very simple cause. The association of these ballads with the happiest days of my happy childhood.

In common with many only children, especially where the mother is of a grave and home-loving nature, I learned to read at a very early age. Before I was three years old my father would perch me on the breakfast-table to exhibit my one accomplishment to some admiring guest, who admired all the more, because, a small, puny child, looking far younger than I really was, nicely dressed, as only children generally are, and gifted with an affluence of curls, I might have passed for the twin sister of my own great doll. On the table was I perched to read some Foxite newspaper, "Courier," or "Morning Chronicle," the Whiggish oracles of the day, and as my delight in the high-seasoned politics of sixty years ago was naturally less than that of my hearers, this display of precocious acquirement was commonly rewarded, not by cakes or sugar-plums, too plentiful in my case to be very greatly cared for, but by a sort of payment in kind. I read leading articles to please the company; and my dear mother recited the "Children in the Wood" to please me. This was my reward; and I looked for my favorite ballad after every performance, just as the piping bullfinch that hung in the window looked for his lump of sugar after going through "God save the King." The two cases were exactly parallel.

One day it happened that I was called upon to exhibit, during some temporary absence of the dear mamma, and cried out amain for the ditty that I loved. My father, who spoilt me, did not know a word of it, but he hunted over all the shelves till he had found the volumes, that he might read it to me himself; and then I grew unreasonable in my demand, and coaxed, and kissed, and begged that the book might be given to my maid Nancy, that she might read it to me, whenever I chose. And (have I not said that my father spoilt me?) I carried my point, and the three volumes were actually put in charge of my pretty, neat maid, Nancy (in those days nursery-governesses were not), and she, waxing weary of the "Children in the Wood," gradually took to reading to me some of the other ballads; and as from three years old I grew to four or five, I learned to read them myself, and the book became the delight of my childhood, as it is now the solace of my age. Ah, well-a-day! sixty years have passed, and I am an old woman, whose nut-brown hair has turned to white; but I never see that heavily-bound copy of "Percy's Reliques" without the home of my infancy springing up before my eyes.

A pleasant home, in truth, it was. A large house in a little town of the north of Hampshire, — a town, so small that but for an ancient market, very slenderly attended, nobody would have dreamt of calling it any thing but a village. The breakfast-room, where I first possessed myself of my beloved ballads, was a lofty and spacious apartment, literally lined with books, which, with its Turkey carpet, its glowing fire, its sofas and its easy chairs, seemed, what indeed it was, a very nest of English comfort. The windows opened on a large, old-fashioned garden, full of old-fashioned flowers-stocks, roses, honeysuckles, and pinks; and that again led into a grassy orchard, abounding with fruit-trees, a picturesque country church with its yews and lindens on one side, and beyond, a down as smooth as velvet, dotted with rich islands of coppice, hazel, woodbine, hawthorn, and holly reaching up into the young oaks, and overhanging flowery patches of primroses, wood-sorrel, wild hyacinths, and wild strawberries. On the side opposite the church, in a hollow fringed with alders and bulrushes, gleamed the bright clear lakelet, radiant with swans and water-lilies, which the simple townsfolk were content to call the Great Pond.

What a play-ground was that orchard! and what playfellows were mine! Nancy, with her trim prettiness, my own dear father, handsomest and cheerfulest of men, and the great Newfoundland dog Coe, who used to lie down at my feet, as if to invite me to mount him, and then to prance off with his burden, as if he enjoyed the fun as much as we did. Happy, happy days! It is good to have the memory of such a childhood! to be able to call up past delights by the mere sight and sound of Chevy Chase or the battle of Otterbourne.

And as time wore on, the fine ballad of "King Estmere," according to Bishop Percy, one of the most ancient in the collection, got to be among our prime favorites. Absorbed by the magic of the story, the old English never troubled us. I hope it will not trouble my readers. We, a little child, and a young country maiden, the daughter of a respectable Hampshire farmer, were no bad representatives in point of cultivation of the noble dames and their attendant damsels who had so often listened with delight to wandering minstrels in bower and hall. In one point, we had probably the advantage of them: we could read, and it is most likely that they could not. For the rest, every age has its own amusements; and these metrical romances, whether said or sung, may be regarded as equivalent in their day to the novels and operas of ours.

KYNG ESTMERE.
Hearken to me, gentlemen,
Come, and you shall heare;
I'll tell you of two of the boldest brethren,
That ever born y-were.

The tone of them was Adler yonge,
The tother was King Estmere;
They were as bolde men in their deedes,
As any were far and neare.

As they were drinking ale and wine,
Within Kyng Estmere's halle;
"When will ye marry a wyfe, brother;
A wyfe to gladd us alle?"

Then bespake him, Kynge Estmere,
And answered him hastilee:
"I knowe not that ladye in any lande,
That is able to marry with me."

"King Adland hath a daughter, brother,
Men call her bright and sheene;
If I were kyng here in your stead,
That ladye sholde be queen."

Sayes, "Reade me, reade me, deare brother,
Throughout merrie England;
Where we might find a messenger,
Betweene us two to send!"

Sayes, "You shal ryde yourself, brother,
I'll bear you companee;
Many through false messengers are deceived,
And I feare lest soe sholde we."

Thus they renisht them to ryde,
Of twoe good renisht steedes,
And when they come to Kyng Adland's halle,
Of red gold shone their weedes.

And when they come to Kynge Adland's halle,
Before the goodlye yate
There they found good Kyng Adland,
Rearing himself thereatt.

"Nowe Christe thee save, good Kyng Adland,
Nowe Christ thee save and see!"
Said, "You be welcome, Kyng Estmere,
Right heartily unto me."

"You have a daughter," said Adler yonge,
"Men call her bright and sheene,
My brother weld marry her to his wyfe,
Of England to be queene."

"Yesterday was at my deare daughter,
Syr Bremor the Kyng of Spayne:
And then she nicked him of naye,
I feare she'll do you the same."

"The Kyng of Spayn is a foule paynim,
And 'lieveth on Mahound;
And pitye it were that fayre ladye,
Shold marry a heathen hound."

"But grant to me," sayes Kyng Estmere,
"For my love I you praye,
That I may see your daughter deare,
Before I goe hence awaye."

"Although itt is seven yeare and more
Syth my daughter was in halle,
She shall come downe once for your sake,
To glad my guestes all."

Down then came that mayden fayre,
With ladyes laced in pall,
And half a hundred of bolde knightes,
To bring her from bowre to halle;
And eke as many gentle squieres,
To waite upon them all.

[Scott has almost literally copied the four last lines of this stanza in the first canto of the "Lay of the Last Minstrel." One of the many obligations that we owe to these old unknown poets, is the inspiration that Sir Walter drew from them, an inspiration to be traced almost as frequently in his prose, as in his verse.]

The talents of golde were on her head sette
Hunge lowe down to her knee;
And every rynge on her smalle finger
Shone of the chrystall free.

Sayes, "Christ you save, my deare madame;"
Sayes, "Christ you save and see!"
Sayes, "You be welcome, Kyng Estmere,
Right welcome unto me.

And iff you love me as you saye,
So well and heartilee;
All that ever you are comen about,
Soone sped now itt may bee."

Then bespake her father deare:
"My daughter, I say naye;
Remember well the Kyng of Spayn,
What he sayd yesterdaye.

"He wolde pull down my halles and castles,
And reeve me of my lyfe;
And ever I feare that paynim kyng,
If I reeve him of his wyfe."

"Your castles and your towres, father,
Are stronglye built aboute;
And therefore of that foul paynim,
Wee neede not stande in doubte.

"Plyghte me your troth nowe, Kyng Estmere,
By Heaven and your righte hande,
That you will marrye me to your wyfe,
And make me queen of your lande."

Then Kyng Estmere, he plight his troth,
By Heaven and his right hand,
That he would marrye her to his wyfe,
And make her queen of his lande.

And he tooke leave of that ladye fayre,
To go to his own contree;
To fetch him dukes, and lordes, and knightes,
That marryed they might be.

They had not ridden scant a myle,
A myle forthe of the towne,
But in did come the Kyng of Spayne,
With kempes many a one.

But in did come the Kyng of Spayne,
With many a grimm barone
Tone day to marrye Kyng Adland's daughter,
Tother day to carrye her home.

Then she sent after Kyng Estmere,
In all the spede might bee,
That he must either returne and fighte,
Or goe home and lose his ladye.

One whyle then the page he went,
Another whyle he ranne;
Till he had o'ertaken Kyng Estmere,
I wis he never blanne.

"Tydinges! tydinges! Kyng Estmere!"
"What tydinges nowe, my boye?"
"Oh, tydinges I can tell to you,
That will you sore annoye.

"You had not ridden scant a myle,
A myle out of the towne,
But in did come the Kyng of Spayne,
With kempes many a one.

"But in did come the Kyng of Spayne,
With many a bold barone
Tone day to marrye Kyng Adland's daughter,
Tother day to carry her home.

"That ladye faire she greetes you well,
And evermore well, by me:
You must either turne again and fighte,
Or goe home and lose your ladye."

Sayes, "Reade me, reade me, deare brother,
My reade shall ryde at thee,
Which waye we beat may turne and fighte,
To save this fayre ladye?"

"Now hearken to me," sayes Adler yonge,
"And your reade must rise at me,
I quicklye will devise a waye,
To sette thy ladye free.

"My mother was a western woman,
And learned in gramarye,
And when I learned at the schole,
Something she taught itt me.

"There groweth an hearbe within this fielde,
And iff it were but known,
His color which is whyte and redde,
It will make blacke and browne.

"His color which is browne and blacke,
It will make redde and whyte;
That sworde is not all Englande,
Upon his coate will byte.

"And you shall be a harper, brother,
Out of this north countree;
And I'll be your boye so faine of fighte,
To beare your harpe by your knee.

"And you shall be the best harper,
That ever took harp in hand,
And I will be the best singer,
That ever songe in the land.

"It shal be written in our forheads,
All and in gramarye,
That we twoe are the boldest men,
That are in all Christentye."

And thus they renisht them to ryde,
On twoe good renisht steedes,
And when they came to Kyng Adland's halle,
Of redd gold shone their weedes.

And when they came to Kyng Adland's halle,
Untill the fayre hall yate,
There they found a proud porter,
Rearing himselfe thereatt.

Sayes, "Christ thee save, thou proud porter,"
Sayes, "Christ thee save and see."
"Now you be welcome," sayd the porter,
Of what land soever ye be."

"We been harpers," sayd Adler yonge,
"Come out of the north countree;
We been come hither untill this place,
This proud wedding for to see."

Sayd, "An your color were whyte and redd,
As it is blacke and browne,
I'd say Kyng Estmere and his brother,
Were comen until this towne."

Then they pulled out a ryng of gold,
Layd it on the porter's arme,
"And ever we will thee proud porter,
Thou wilt say us no harme."

Sore he looked on Kyng Estmere,
And sore be handled the ryng,
Then opened to them the fayre hall yates,
He lett for no kind of thyng.

Kyng Estmere he light off his steede,
Up at the fayre hall board;
The frothe that came from his bridle bitte,
Light on Kyng Bremor's beard.

Sayes, "Stable thy steede, thou proud harper,
Goe stable him in the stalle;
It doth not become a proud harper,
To stable him in a kyng's halle."

"My ladde he is so lither," he sayd,
"He will do nought that's meete,
And aye that I could but find the man,
Were able him to beate."

"Thou speakest proud wordes," sayd the paynim king,
"Thou harper, here to me;
There is a man within this halle,
That will beate thy ladd and thee."

"O lett that man come down," he sayd,
"A sight of him wolde I see,
And when he hath beaten well my ladd,
Then he shall beate of mee."

Downe then came the kemperye man,
And looked him in the care,
For all the golde that was under heaven,
He durst not neigh him neare.

"And how nowe, kempe," sayd the Kyng of Spayn,
"And now what aileth thee?"
He sayes, "It is written in his forehead,
All, and in gramarye,
That for alle the golde that is under heaven,
I dare not neigh him nye."

Kyng Estmere then pulled forth his harpe,
And played thereon so sweete,
Upstarte the ladye from the kyng,
As he sate att the meate.

"Now stay thy harpe, thou proud harper,
Now staye thy harpe I saye;
For an thou playest as thou beginnest,
Thou'lt till my bride awaye."

He struck upon his harpe agayne,
And playde both fair and free;
The ladye was so pleased thereatt,
She laughed loud laughters three.

"Now sell me thy harpe," said the Kyng of Spayn,
"Thy harpe and stryngs eche one,
And as many gold nobles thou shalt have,
As there be stryngs thereon."

"And what wolde ye doe with my harpe?" he sayd,
"If I did sell it yee?"
"To playe my wyfe and I a fitt,
When we together be."

"Nowe sell me, Sir Kyng, thy bryde soe gay,
As she sits laced in pall,
And as many gold nobles I will give,
As there be ryngs in the hall."

"And what wolde ye doe with my bryde soe gay,
Iff I did sell her yee?"—
"More seemly it is for that fair ladye
To wed with me than thee."

He played agayne both loud and shrille,
And Adler be did syng;
"O ladye, this is thy owne true love,
No harper, but a kyng.

"O ladye, this is thy owne true love,
As playnlye thou mayst see;
And I'll rid thee of that foul paynim,
Who parts thy love and thee."

The ladye lookt and the ladye blusht,
And blusht and lookt agayne,
While Adler he hath drawn his brande,
And hath Sir Bremor slayne.

Up then rose the kemperye men,
And loud they gan to crye:
"Ah, traytors! yee have slayne our kyng,
And therefore ye shall dye."

Kyng Estmere threwe the harpe asyde,
And swith he drew his brand;
And Estmere he, and Adler yonge,
Right stiff in stour can stand.

And aye their swordes soe sore can byte,
Through help of gramarye,
That soon they have slayne the kemperye men,
Or forst them forth to flee.

Kyng Estmere took that fayre ladye,
And married her to his wyfe,
And brought her home to merry England,
With her to leade his lyfe.

I must not, however, attempt to quote more of those fine old ballads here; the feuds of the Percy and the Douglas would take up too much space; so would the loves of King Arthur's court, and the adventures of Robin Hood. Even the story of the Heir of Lynne must remain untold; and I must content myself with two of the shortest and least hackneyed poems in a book that for great and varied interest can hardly be surpassed. The "Lie," is said to have been written by Sir Walter Raleigh the night before his execution. That it was written at that exact time is pretty well disproved by the date of its publication in "Davison's Poems," before Sir Walter's death; it is even uncertain that Raleigh was the author; but that it is of that age is beyond all doubt; so is its extraordinary beauty — a beauty quite free from the conceits which deform too many of our finest old lyrics.

Go, Soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best,
The truth shall be thy warrant.
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.

Go tell the Court it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Go tell the Church it shows
Men's good, and doth no good:
If Church and Court reply,
Then give them both the lie.

Tell potentates they live
Acting by others' actions,
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by their factions
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.

Tell men of high condition
That rule affairs of state,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate:
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell them that brave it most
They beg for more by spending,
Who in their greatest cost
Seek nothing but commending:
And if they make reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

Tell zeal it lacks devotion;
Tell love it is but lust;
Tell time it is but motion;
Tell flesh it is but dust:
And wish them not reply,
For thou must give the lie.

Tell age it daily wasteth;
Tell honor how it alters,
Tell beauty how she blasteth;
Tell favor how she falters;
And as they shall reply,
Give each of them the lie.

Tell wit how much it wrangles
In fickle points of niceness;
Tell wisdom she entangles
Herself in over-wiseness:
And if they do reply,
Straight give them both the lie.

Tell physic of her boldness;
Tell skill it is pretension;
Tell charity of coldness;
Tell law it is contention.
And as they yield reply,
So give them still the lie.

Tell fortune of her blindness;
Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
Tell justice of delay:
And if they dare reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming:
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.

Tell faith it's fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell, manhood shakes off pity;
Tell, virtue least preferreth:
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

So when thou hast, as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing,
Although to give the lie
Deserve no less than stabbing,
Yet stab at thee who will,
No stab the soul can kill.

WINIFREDA.

About the authorship of this beautiful address to conjugal love, there is also much uncertainty. Bishop Percy calls it a "Translation from the Antient British," probably to vail the real writer. We find it included among Gilbert Cooper's poems, a diamond among pebbles; he never could have written it. It has been claimed for Steevens, who did the world good service as one of the earliest restorers of Shakspeare's text; but who is almost as famous for his bitter and cynical temper, as for his acuteness as a verbal critic. Could this charming love-song, true in its tenderness as the gushing notes of a bird to his sitting mate, have been poured forth by a man whom the whole world agreed in hating? After all, we have no need to meddle with this vexed question. Let us be content to accept thankfully one of the very few purely English ballads which contradict the reproach of our Scottish and Irish neighbors, when they tell us that our love-songs are of the head, not of the heart. This poem, at least, may vie with those of Gerald Griffin in the high and rare merit of conveying the noblest sentiments in the simplest language.

Away! let naught to love displeasing,
My Winifreda, move your care;
Let naught delay the heavenly blessing,
Nor squeamish pride, nor gloomy fear.

What though no grant of royal donors
With pompous titles grace our blood?
We'll shine in more substantial honors,
And to be noble we'll be good.

Our name, while virtue thus we tender,
Shall sweetly sound where'er 'tis spoke;
And all the great ones, they shall wonder
How they respect such little folk.

What though from fortune's lavish bounty
No mighty treasures we possess?
We'll find within our pittance plenty,
And he content without excess.

Still shall each kind returning season
Sufficient for our wishes give;
For we will live a life of reason,
And that's the only life to live.

Through youth to age in love excelling,
We'll hand in hand together tread;
Sweet-smiling Peace shall crown our dwelling,
And babes, sweet-smiling babes, our bed.

How should I love the pretty creatures,
While round my knees they fondly clung;
To see them look their mother's features,
To hear them lisp their mother's tongue.

And when with envy, time transported,
Shall think to rob us of our joys,
You'll in your girls again be courted,
And I'll go wooing in my boys.

Surely this is the sort of poetry that ought to be popular — to be sung in our concert-rooms, and set to such airs as should be played on barrel-organs through our streets, suggesting the words and the sentiments as soon as the first notes of the melody make themselves heard under the window.