Essay Upon The Second Ballad Revival

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A poet sat in his antique room
His lamp the valley king’d
‘Neath dry crusts of dead tongues he found
Truth, fresh & golden-winged

Alexander Smith


All poetical revivals begin with a spark, from which a fire storm blows through the cobwebs of an age. For the Second Ballad Revival it begins with the island of Arran & of course an arrival of a literary-minded man – that man being me. Any writer worth his or her salt who comes to Arran for any sustain’d length of time, feel they should write a book about this glorious new island they have discovered. Its that inspirational a place. The thing is, everything that needs to be said about Arran has already been said by scores of times by some very excellent authors. What I needed was an angle.

It came at me like a pair of crab-like pincers, manifesting as a Great War Memorial & an old book. The former is in Brodick, the capital of Arran, while the latter concerns some of the names upon that memorial – Brodick-Arran & The Great War by James Inglis (1919). One day in idle mode I decided to match some of the names on the memorial to those in the book. I spent a few moments looking up at the monument, then down at the page, then back up again until & I was struck saddened & also excited as a Bardic storyteller to discover that three Black Watch soldiers who worked together at Brodick Castle, enlisted in the Black Watch on the same day, & died together on the same day at the Battle of Loos, September 25th 1914.

This materielle transcended even Shakespeare, a spark fit enough to begin a poetical revival, but in what form? A friend of mine was visiting Arran with a vernal interest in the art of poetry, so I ask’d him to read the Rime of the Ancient Mariner entire. A wonderful experience to listen to, my psyche began to overbrim with poesis & within a day or two THE BALLAD OF BLACK WATCH BRODICK was straining for existence like an animal slouching ‘towards Bethlehem to be born.’ At this point I had my matter & my mould, & being an epic poet by trade, & the matter so elongated, I knew that only a grand ballad cycle would be sufficient to answer this particular call of the muse.

It can be fairly said that in this third decade of the third Millennium (AD), poets no longer write for Humanity, as has been their ancient wont, but compose only to please themselves & other poets. A clique has surrounded the art, upheld quasi-religiously by its proponents, encasing poetry in a dull concrete, from which parapets they observe uncommenting the decline of poetical appreciation among the general population. There can only be one possible remedy for this puritan assault on the art, & that is the reintroduction of the ballad form – the poetry of the people. Within its simple tuneful strains & anthrosociological narratives a poet may place the moral foundations of a people. “I knew a very wise man” reports Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1655-1716), “who believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”

There is a beautiful truth in balladry which taps into the human pond of past lives & conduct. These simple looking structures resonate a complex record of the actions of humanity, detailing in narrative form events relating to society through individuality. Ballads are also those songs & rhymes which awaken the earliest poetical appreciations in all of us. As the poet thunders through four-line stanzas of distich & rhyme, the reader or hearer will instantly feel that they are in the presence of poetry, proper poetry, the same poetry which pentrated their psyches in their infant malleability, & nurtured through childhood. In utterance lyrical, sharp & decisive, they are the truest test of a poet, because ultimate raison d’etre is to please. To teach comes a close second, & thus a ballad done well can transcend even the most elite of educatory lecture halls in a language accessible to all.

Send in the artists, mystics and clowns. Their fertile imagination pours the new wine of the gospel into fresh wineskins. With fresh language, poetic vision and striking symbols they express God’s inexpressible word in artistic forms that are charged with the power of God, engaging our minds and stirring our hearts as they flare and flame.

Brennan Manning: Ruthless Trust

Thus, with BLACK WATCH BRODICK I would like to announce the arrival of the Second Ballad Revival. The ‘first’ took place during the Romantic Age, beginning with Thomas Percy’s ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ (1765), evolving moderistically with the songs of William Blake & Rabbie Burns, a process that continued with the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth & Coleridge, La Belle Dame Sans Merci of Keats, & concluded with the assembling of the Scottish & Border ballads by Sir Walter Scott, publish’d & revised between 1802 & 1830. Scott was an immense & dedicated balladeer, & his Essay On The Imitations Of The Ancient Ballad (1830) contains interesting reflections on the form which contain the mantras of the First Ballad Revival. This short extract tells the story of the Ballad Form up until the dawn of the Romantic Age.


The invention of printing necessarily occasioned the downfall of the Order of Minstrels, already reduced to contempt by their own bad habits, by the disrepute attached to their profession, and by the laws calculated to repress their licence. When the Metrical Romances were very many of them in the hands of every one, the occupation of those who made their living by reciting them was in some degree abolished, and the minstrels either disappeared altogether, or sunk into mere musicians, whose utmost acquaintance with poetry was being able to sing a ballad.

The taste for popular poetry did not decay with the class of men by whom it had been for some generations practised and preserved. Not only did the simple old ballads retain their ground, though circulated by the new art of printing, instead of being preserved by recitation; but in the Garlands, and similar collections for general sale, the authors aimed at a more ornamental and regular style of poetry than had been attempted by the old minstrels, whose composition, if not extemporaneous, was seldom committed to writing,

In England, accordingly, the popular ballad fell into contempt during the seventeenth century; and although in remote counties its inspiration was occasionally the source of a few verses, it seems to have become almost entirely obsolete in the capital. Even the Civil Wars, which gave so much occasion for poetry, produced rather song and satire, than the ballad or popular epic.

In Scotland, on the contrary, the old minstrel ballad long continued to preserve its popularity. Even the last contests of Jacobitism were recited with great vigour in ballads of the time, the authors of some of which are known and remembered.

On the whole, however, the ancient Heroic ballad, as it was called, seemed to be fast declining among the more enlightened and literary part of both countries; and if retained by the lower classes in Scotland, it had in England ceased to exist, or degenerated into doggerel of the last degree of vileness.


The same can really be said about the ballad from in the 21st century. No performance poet would chaunt in the old style, no poetic publisher would stoop so low as a broadsheet, but I am feel in my very bones that society of the my day is ripe for a balladic renaissance. Perhaps there is something about living in Scotland that is inspiring me on a metaphysical level. As Scott says, while the ballad was dying in England, it still thriv’d in the Scottish hinterlands. In my 17 years domicile in Scotland, I have understood that the keeping of tradition has been woven with steel & deeply ingrain’d into the native fabric. Robert Burns records the animus & his personal connection with the Scottish balladeers.


There is a noble sublimity, a heart-melting tenderness, in some of our ancient ballads, which show them to be the work of a masterly hand: and it has often given me many a heart-ache to reflect that such glorious old bards—bards who very probably owed all their talents to native genius, yet have described the exploits of heroes, the pangs of disappointment, and the meltings of love, with such fine strokes of nature—that their very names (O how mortifying to a bard’s vanity!) are now “buried among the wreck of things which were.”

O ye illustrious names unknown! who could feel so strongly and describe so well: the last, the meanest of the muses’ train—one who, though far inferior to your flights, yet eyes your path, and with trembling wing would sometimes soar after you—a poor rustic bard unknown, pays this sympathetic pang to your memory! Some of you tell us, with all the charms of verse, that you have been unfortunate in the world—unfortunate in love: he, too, has felt the loss of his little fortune, the loss of friends, and, worse than all, the loss of the woman he adored. Like you, all his consolation was his muse: she taught him in rustic measures to complain. Happy could he have done it with your strength of imagination and flow of verse! May the turf lie lightly on your bones! and may you now enjoy that solace and rest which this world rarely gives to the heart tuned to all the feelings of poesy and love!


I shall finish my personal manifesto to a Second Balladic Revival with the essay of Scott previoulsy examined. Within its corpus there has been etch’d a wonderful passage which perfectly reflects the painted corner in which poetry has found itself in this our own age; ‘The realms of Parnassus, like many a kingdom at the period, seemed to lie open to the first bold invader, whether he should be a daring usurper, or could show a legitimate title of sovereignty.‘ It is daring to be a balladeer in the 21st century; it is sovereign to be an epic poet; & the realms of Parnassus have become pixels on an instagram post. It is time to bring poetry back to the masses, an enteprise worth composing for. For that I will need orators, rhapsodic singers if you will, in the tradition of the Homeric reciters of Pisistratan Athens. For them I leave the L’Amfiparnasso of my new poem.


TO MY RHAPSODES

To all ye glorious storytellers
Who sing in the Saxon tongue
Bring the wine up from the cellars
Pass the clinking glass among

When claret good oerbrims the cups
& company comes keen
Mount up the Hippogriff that sups
From blissful Hippocrene

Then with a clear & poignant voice
Go sing my ballad cycle
Leaving your company no choice
But to finish the recital

There’s twenty-seven cantos worth
Of twenty-seven stanzas
Awaiting dutiful rebirth
In ring’d extravaganzas

All born in mine hybrid accent
A maze of burrs & measures
But structure in each consonant
& in the vowels treasures

There’s Edinburgh, there’s Bournemouth Beach
There’s Burnley & there’s Venice
There’s mood & meaning in my speech
There’s beauty & there’s menace

There’s murder, bloody murder, too,
There’s loving & there’s grieving
There’s scenes that set the eyes adew
When gentle goes thy weaving

For thou art Rhapsode, & thine art
Will stich auld songs together –
So choose which cantos to impart
Goose quilt or just a feather

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