Eighteenth century popular ballads

In this week’s blog we will discuss eighteenth century popular ballads. When someone says ‘ballad’, we automatically think of love songs, such as the classical “Everything I do, I do it for you,”. In the twenty-first century we conceptualise ballads as prototypical romantic, often involving and accompanied by glorified romantic scenery. Yet, if we look at ballads in the 18th century, this is not very much so.


The ballad, which has its origins in the late Middle Ages, ‘is a song that tells a story in popular style, which traditionally, relied on oral tradition for transmission. In the middle ages, ballads were generally composed to accompany a dance’. (Broadview Anthology of British Literature, 610) Mostly they were sung by minstrels, who moved from town to castle to sing. The function of the ballad could have been on the one hand pure amusement, singing and dancing, with the stress on the musical. On the other hand, its function could have been narrative, with the focus on the storytelling. Though the ballad became highly formulaic later on, the early ballads were very loose in terms of meter, theme and song.  Love as the most important theme in ballads is only a recent development, which dates from the twentieth century. Literary ballads developed at the end of the eighteenth century (think of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge). Under the influence of Romanticism, ballads became an international phenomenon.

In the eighteenth century ballads, especially broadsheet ballads, were very popular. Often these broadsheets were used as wallpapers and decoration. As a part of a musical piece, they were mostly sung while sold. In general, these ballads deal with a whole range of topics within the romantic and the traditional. The function of the ballad was to recollect pieces of a decaying past; authors trying to conserve a social heritage. These fading popular traditions of a forlorn past were captured within these ballads. The revival of these traditions in everyday life was very popular in 18th century Scotland and consequently popular broadsheet ballads (which were quite cheap) were sold like hotcakes. Nonetheless, a great number of ballads do have social and political implications. These ballads are of course the ones that matter up to today, and consequently the ones we will discuss. In this blog, we will henceforth try to describe the difference in the reception of these ballads.

Jacobite Uprisings in ballad: Lady Nairne

Eighteenth-century writers engaged political issues in their ballads and songs. Many writers of the 18th century aimed at conveying sympathy and support for a political cause through their ballads. In other words, their songs and ballads stirred up feelings of shared pride by commemorating and lamenting, for instance, acts of bravery during a past upheaval. As mentioned in class, many of these ballads were part of ‘fan writing.’ Furthermore, it seems that, over time, these political ballads served different functions. In what follows, we compare how the Jacobite Uprisings are commemorated in two different ballads. The first ballad, “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland” retells the 1719 Uprising whereas the second song, “The 100 Pipers” retells part of the history of the 1745 Uprising. You can take a look at the website of the BBC for a brief history of the Jacobite Uprisings:


In 1719, the Uprising was a very serious issue. As a result, the ballads written immediately after this riot differ in tone compared to ballads which recount parts of the history a century later. One of the Broadside ballads written in this period is “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland,” which recounts the Jacobite Uprising at Glen Shiel. Take a look at the transcription of this ballad:


This song is the English reaction to the Glenn Shiel battle and mocks the Scottish and Spanish Jacobite army who claimed that all of the men escape from the hands of the government alive. The ballad contrasts this claim by describing the violence during this battle that lasted for hours:

Because none of their men were slew / And, which our reason most has shaken / Not one poor single Rebel taken: / Three hours beaten and none die / Yet no man knows the reason why / Tis very strange tween you and I

Even though the ballad is quite similar to “The 100 Pipers” in its laudatory aspects, the mocking tone and the vivid description of the battle differentiates it from the latter. “The Hundred Pipers” is probably one of the best known ballads of the 18th century that depicts part of the history of the last big Uprising of 1745. The song was written by the Scottish Lady Nairne, about 50 years after the ’45 Rebellion.

Lady Nairne Lady Nairne (1799 – 1845)

It retells how, in the early days of the Uprising, Bonnie Prince Charlie entered the defeated city of Carlisle with a hundred pipers leading the way. You can listen to the recording here:


By the time Lady Nairne wrote “The hundred Pipers,” the riots were not as big of an issue anymore. Therefore, the undertone of this ballad is much more nostalgic than “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland.” In the lines ‘the Esk was swollen sae red and sae deep / But shouther to shouther the brave lads keep[…],’ it is clear that the song praises the bravery of the Scottish soldiers, yet in contrast to “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland,” the song remains very subtle about the blood-shedding that preceded this victorious moment. Thus, we see that, even though these ballads narrate parts of the same history, they differ in perspective and function: “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland” gives an English perspective of the facts and, following the immediate events, it is more mocking in its tone than “The hundred Pipers” which is a nostalgic recounting of Scottish bravery.

Scottish for literary purpose: Allan Ramsay

In 1603, after the death of Elizabeth I of England, the Crowns of Scotland, England and Ireland were united under the reign of King James VI of Scotland, who from that point onwards is referred to as King James I of England. Scotland did not just lose its crown and separate parliament, but the unification also had a negative impact on Scottish culture as a whole. Cultural life became more and more centralized and Scots a as literary language was sidelined in favour of English. Although Scots was their native tongue, Scottish writers were now obliged to write in English in order to acquire some literary significance. Scots obtained a dialectal status and became a less valued form of language for literary purposes.

In the 18th century, in response to this situation, several Scottish writers, including Allan Ramsay, made use of the literary ballad form to discuss their concerns regarding the loss of their native tongue as a literary language. From a regional/nationalistic perspective they proved that it was still possible to write (elevated) poetry in the Scottish vernacular. By drawing upon a sense of national culture, they excavate old traditions and reshape them. Their ballads picture a bygone time, used by the poet to collect the country’s cultural heritage.


Allan Ramsay’s (1686-1758) poetry is closely linked to the oral tradition. The inferior status of the Scots language in the 18th century made it quite difficult to write in Scots, in particular because the language had been neglected for almost a century and predominantly possessed an oral status.  In Give Me a Lass With a Lump of Grass, Ramsay constantly switches back and forth between Scots and Standard English. One may think that Ramsay in a way adheres to the dominant tradition of writing Standard English, but seemingly “normal” lines or phrases are can be made Scots by vocalizing them in a Scots pronunciation. In this way, Ramsay revives old Lowland Scots and makes reference to the heyday of Scottish literature in bygone times, before the unification with England. He wants his readers to have a look at Scottish literary heritage as a source of inspiration. Ramsay turns very local interests into elevated poetry, simply because he believed that these local interests were important enough to be expressed. Ramsay’s Up in the Air for example represents a drinking song, written for his contemporaries to use during their regular everyday actions. Other poetry like Give Me a Lass With a Lump of Grass and Polwart on the Green are written to celebrate specific social events (e.g. a wedding), producing a very practical kind of culture that perfectly reflects the poet’s intentions: re-establish Scots as a literary language (for poetical expression).

Scots nationalism: Robert Burns

As this week’s blog deals with popular romantic poetry of the 18th century, in particular ballads, one cannot omit the very famous Robert Burns, who has only recently been nominated as The Greatest Scot of all time according to STV:

‘The Greatest Scot of all time is Robert Burns. STV viewers and online users around the world voted in their thousands for the Ayrshire Ploughman who narrowly outscored William Wallace, the great independence campaigner. The winner was announced on STV on St Andrew’s night’. (http://scotland.stv.tv/greatest-scot/)

The reason why Robert Burns has been elected, is immediately linked to our view on popular ballads in the 18th century. The Heaven-taught Ploughman did not always write prototypical ballads, instead most of his poetry dwells within Scots nationalism. His poetry is marked by a return to earlier oral traditions of the folklore and the traditional Scots poetry, written in the Scots dialect of England. His poetry and his ballads are therefore not old fashioned and traditional without social and political significance. No, he was inspired by the democratic and ‘an outspoken admirer of the republic revolutions in America and France.’ (Norton Anthology 130). His nationalism and patriotism are exemplified by his literary activities in his last years. Burns was the editor of various collections of Scottish folks, and he devoted ‘all his free time to collecting, editing, restoring, and imitating traditions songs’ (130).


In his time, Robert Burns was hailed as a natural genius. His poetry and ballads sought to evoke traditions of a bygone past. These traditions are linked with the Scots nationalism. Through the conservation of old traditions, the Scots clung to their own past, to something they could call theirs. In that time, the Scottish nation itself lost its crown, but tried to hold on to their traditions to maintain a sense of difference with the English. In that sense, these ballads have a national and political significance.

Up until this day, Burn is still seen as a ‘container’ of Scots nationalism. The reason he has been nominated as The Great Scot is exemplary. The way in which Burns has entered Scottish culture nowadays is exemplary as well for the modern reception of Burns and his ballads. Even now the Scottish try to maintain a sense of self by looking at old traditions and putting them back into practice: Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, Burns night on 25th of January.


Black, F., et.al. (2006). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Volume 3. P. 610, 855, 872, 873, 893. United Kingdom: Broadview Press.

Greenblatt, S., et.al. (2006). The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2: The Romantic Period through the Twentieth Century. P 129-131. New York: ww Norton & Company.


Song and Poetry: On Poets and Nightingales

Welcome to the third student post on 18th Century Literature and media. After last week’s dramatic reproduction of an 18th century theatre experience, we shall now descend into the realm of Song and Poetry.

Ode to a Nightingale – John Keats

The nightingale’s song served as an inspiration for many poets

The romantic poet John Keats wrote his Ode to a Nightingale  in 1819 after enjoying a nightingale’s song in his garden. This event lead him to compose this ode in the spirit of the romantic era. In order to fully understand the poem, one needs to know two things. Firstly, as Keats had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, he resorted to opiates as a method to alleviate his pain. This biographical fact echoes in the poem, where his numbness caused by opium and alcohol is reflected in the initial stanzas. Secondly, the nightingale is not “just” a bird. Keats, as well as the other poets that will be discussed here, allude to Greek mythology in which Philomela – a princess of Athens – transforms into a nightingale to escape the anger of Tereus.

( In book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philomela’s tragic story is outlined. King Tereus, who was married to Philomela’s sister Procne, showed too much interest in his sister-in-law. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts her tongue out and hides her in a shed on top of a mountain. One year later, Philomela’s sister Procne, presuming Philomela has been dead all this time, receives a fabric that confirms Philomela is still alive and also contains a representation of all the harm that has been done to her sister. Procne releases her sister without Tereus knowing, both determined to punish Tereus. They kill the son Procne had with Tereus and fed his corps to the king.  When Tereus founds out the deceit, he tries to pursue the two sisters, unable to catch either one of them given that, while they are running from him, they transform into a nightingale and a swallow. Ovid mentions at the end that both birds will be forever marked with the murder they committed by having their breast covered with bloodstained feathers.)

In Ode to a Nightingale he links the story of Philomela with the bird by describing the nightingale as a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. Later on in the poem, the reader will see the resemblance between Philomela’s tragic story and Keats’ perpetual pains. Further on in the first stanza, Keats compares his personal drug abuse with the effect of poetry in general. His poetic hallucinations initially rhyme with his personal drug experiences. The flush that drugs or drinking provides level with Keats’ empirical understanding of what a poem should accomplish.

John Keats (1795-1821)

With admiration for the extensive happiness and freedom of the nightingale in the opening stanza of the poem, the mind of the poet slips into a kind of identical happy state. At first sight he appears to reach this mental state by means of alcohol, only he does not. Verse 19 clearly stipulates “that I might drink, and leave the world unseen.” The state he is in is comparable to the effect of drinking too much or taking drugs for that matter, which he alludes to in verse 2 and 3: “as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains”. Notwithstanding the fact that he clearly knows what these drugs can do, for Keats, his poetry is an alternative way to “leave the world unseen”, and therefore a means to forget his personal issues.

The third stanza indicates his desire to escape reality for a while by embarking on an imaginary journey with the nightingale. He wishes to forget the disadvantages of the human condition in this world, like disease, fading beauty and death.

In the next stanza, he directly points out that he has completed his journey by means of poesy instead of reaching for sedatives. Keats makes this clear by rejecting the image of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, whose chariot is drawn by leopards. Turning away from drugs and alcohol, poetry becomes his only beacon in the darkness of human suffering.

The fifth stanza shows us a glimpse of Keats’ imaginative power to create new worlds through words. These impressions of nature seem so truthful that we can imagine that specific portrait of nature, but being ill and not being able to go outdoors, this description is purely imaginary. Keats could only “guess”(verse 43) at the empirical experience of being physically in nature itself.

Returning in the following stanza to the scene of Keats listening to the nightingale singing its song in its natural habitat, he expresses his desires to die while enjoying the nightingale’s song; he is ready to leave this world in this moment of perfect happiness.

The penultimate stanza is the classical example of an ode. The poet praises the universal and immortal character of the nightingale’s song , which can be interpreted as a metaphor for poetry . However, poesy does not carry the same meaning to everyone. Rather, it is open to multiple interpretations, while retaining its beauty.  According to Keats, poetry creates new and better worlds.

The fantastic journey he started by giving himself over to the imaginative power of the nightingale’s song in the third stanza, ends abruptly at the beginning of the last stanza. Keats is torn away from the nightingale’s song by stumbling over his own expression of thoughts. By ending the previous stanza with the word forlorn, his thoughts are pulled back to his current writing activity. In the process of this event, the nightingale flies away and will inspire someone else with its song.

Finch and Cowper

Anne Finch (1661-1720)

Apart from Keats, there have been other poets who have been inspired by the nightingale’s song. One of these is Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, who was a maid of honour at the court of king James II when she first developed an interest in poetry. Finch’s view on the nightingale differs greatly from Keats’, which has been discussed above. Firstly, the bird needs its freedom in order to sing, just as poets cannot be hampered by formal restrictions. Secondly, both poets and nightingales produce their best song when burdened by some form of pain. This belief originates in the myth of Philomela (explained above), whose plumage at her breast is as red as blood. The myth does not say anything about the bird pressing its breast against a thorn while singing its song, but this tragic image of the nightingale hurting itself enforces the idea that Philomela will have to live with the harm that was done to her. The nightingale relives Philomela’s pain by paining itself to be able to sing her pain. In his work The Semiotics of Rape in Renaissance English Literature, Lee A. Ritscher tells us that:

[W]hen Sidney describes the narrator’s pain of unrequited love in “The Nightingale,”(c. 157-1581) he contemplates the rape of Philomela and her post-rape fate. Sidney’s narrator tells of the return of nightingales to the English countryside and focuses attention upon the myth that the nightingale presses her breast against a thorn as a reminder of Philomela’s pain.”

In the same way, Finch underlines that a poet needs some form of pain in order to be able to write to his fullest potential. An interesting note here is that, according to Ritscher, the pressing of the breast against a thorn was not included in Ovid’s version of the myth, but was added at a later date and serves as a way to remind Philomela that the pain of being raped was not so bad after all. As a group of aspiring literature students, we seem to disagree with Ritscher’s interpretation. Rather than reprimanding herself and showing herself the true meaning of pain as opposed to the pain of being raped, we believe that Philomela uses the thorn as a way to voice her pain, much like a romantic poet, or as Wordsworth put it, through “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility”.

In Finch’s poem, there is an interesting interaction between song and poetry. First of all, Finch tries to merge the two concepts. She is asking the Muse for help in order to produce poetry that is fitting to the nightingale’s song. However, she soon realizes that she cannot achieve perfect harmony. She tries to solve this problem by turning to division, which is a musical technique of dividing each note of a melody into shorter, fast-moving notes. Coincidentally, the nightingale is the master of this technique, often using it in its song, and Finch is once again outstripped. This results in a jealous outburst and even a self-reflective moment of doubt on the part of the poet. The lines “Cease then, prithee, cease thy Tune; / Trifler, wilt thou sing till June?” can be interpreted in different ways. Finch is either asking the nightingale to stop singing because she can never achieve such perfection with her poetry, or she is referring to herself and doubting her own qualities as a poet. If we take this into account, we can conclude that the nightingale does not have the same soothing effect on Finch as it has on Keats.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

In Cowper’s poem, the nightingale again undertakes the role of a soothing measure, but on a different level than in Keats’s poem. Since William Cowper was a fervent evangelical Christian, the nightingale becomes a messenger from a divine being, maybe even God himself. It brings the promise of better days during a time of hardship. If we apply this on the poet, this could mean that the nightingale’s song brings inspiration to a poet who may be stuck in a writer’s block. The divine being in question could then become one of the muses.

The nighingale’s song has inspired many a poet. Its tradition in myth associates the song with unutterable pain yet at the same time, provides comfort in the promise of better days.

Anne Bradstreet: a true pioneer

Hello everyone,

We, four female bloggers, have the distinct pleasure of presenting to you this week’s blog post. You might not realize it just yet but the fact that we women are permitted to write this is quite extraordinary. The number of female writers during the eighteenth century was fairly low considering the fact that society was mainly dominated by men. Consequently, men (of the upper classes) were also the ones who had access to education. However, Anne Bradstreet can be considered as one of the few females that transgress our general conception of eighteenth century society. Contrary to popular opinion about women writers of that era, Mrs Bradstreet could count on the support of her father, husband and brother-in-law in her literary career. Firstly, she enjoyed the encouragement of her father. He was the steward of the Earl of Lincoln and therefore both Anne and her father had access to the Earl’s extensive library. Accordingly, Anne had thorough knowledge of both classical and contemporary works. Moreover, given the fact that her father was a poet as well, his oeuvre might have stimulated Bradstreet’s own writing. Secondly, one can argue that her work must have had the support of her husband, since her poems circulated freely among family and friends. Thirdly, her brother-in-law was responsible for the publication of her work in Britain. In brief, Bradstreet was able to aspire a literary career with the approval of her family and friends, contrarily to other eighteenth century women.

Possibly as a result of her free access to the Earl’s library, she developed an admiration for Queen Elizabeth I, which she demonstrates in her poem “Elegy on Queen Elizabeth”. Elizabeth I was known for surrounding herself with wise men and good counsel. Interestingly, Bradstreet herself also had an inner circle of strong men to guide her (see above). Even though Elizabeth I proved herself amongst her contemporaries as a capable female monarch, male opinion in Bradstreet’s era seems to have forgotten that she was a woman, as exemplified in the following excerpt:

Nay Masculines, you have thus tax’d us long,
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason
Know ’tis a slander now, but once was treason.

The “masculines” in the citation are reminded by Bradstreet that it was once treason to consider a woman “void of reason”. She accuses her male contemporaries of treating females as a laughing-stock, while this would have been seen as high treason during Elizabeth’s reign. Consequently, one could argue that Bradstreet did not appreciate this male disdain during her lifetime.

Bradstreet seems determined to prove her worthiness (and the worthiness of all women by extension). On the one hand, as mentioned above, she uses Elizabeth as a role model. On the other hand, seeing that the genre of this poem is the epic, we can reason that Bradstreet inscribes herself in the male tradition of writing epics among great names as Milton and Spenser thus proving that women can also write epic and that they are not inferior to men.

Nevertheless, Bradstreet not only excelled at writing epic but demonstrated her competence in local and personal poetry as well. One of her poems we especially like is “To my Dear and Loving Husband”, which we have included here for your enjoyment.

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye woman, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the east doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor aught but love from thee, give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay,
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so perservere
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

In this poem, Bradstreet expresses her personal feelings of love for her husband while including a significant aspect of the Puritan religion as well; the afterlife. In the poem she hopes her husband will be rewarded for his love in heaven. Even though the Puritan religion states that its followers will be rewarded in heaven for the adversities they had to suffer on earth, Bradstreet herself does not experience this life as an adversity. According to Puritan belief our existence is a transitional period until we can join Jesus in heaven. However, Bradstreet struggles with the need to balance these ideas and her own happy domestic life. As we can see in this poem, she is happy in her life and genuinely loves her husband. Therefore she wants to “persevere” in her love, she wants to enjoy the here and the now together. And, when death then finally comes, she wants it to be an extension of her earthly happiness.

This need to balance Puritan beliefs and her own personal life is also present in our next poem, “The Author to Her Book”, where another dimension is added to her inner conflict, namely how to balance her writing with the social expectations of her age.

Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos’d to public view,

Bradstreet became a published author, which went against the ruling conventions of her age. The excerpt above demonstrates that she was writing her poems to be circulated among her circle of friends, and when her brother-in-law “snatcht” her work in order to have it published in Britain, she did not consider it a wise choice initially.

She was suddenly a famous author, but the printed work differed from what she envisioned. She was disappointed with the sloppiness of the printed publication: sometimes the meter was off, which Bradstreet laments in the following excerpt:

I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet .

As a result, Bradstreet did not seem impressed with the printed version, but given the fact that it was already printed, no alteration could be made. Possibly Bradstreet herself was not opposed to publication itself, but she would have preferred her work to be published on her own terms. As you have probably already deduced from this poem, Bradstreet was concerned about being a public author. On the other hand, one can also note a preoccupation with the local and personal in the previous poem (“To my Dear and Loving Husband”). This juxtaposition between her private life and her ‘work’ is one we can also find nowadays. Women of the 21st century consider it ordinary to combine a fulfilling career with a satisfying domestic life. However, it is important to realize that this was not always the case and women like Mrs Bradstreet built the foundations of a healthy combination between managing your household and pursuing a profession. Reading her poems for this course has reminded us of the importance of pioneers like her in history.

(All quotes are derived from: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/bradstreet/bradstreet.html)