No. 070 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 70
Monday, May 21, 1711.

‘Interdum vulgus rectum videt.’

Hor.

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 [1]] old Woman [who [2]] 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. [3]

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.

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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’ [4] 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: [5] 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.

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God save the King, and bless the Land
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 [6]] take the Field, and the last [who [7]] 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 [8]] 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 King,
Sith ’twill no better be,
I trust I have within my Realm
Five hundred as good as he.

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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 performed
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, etc.

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 Steed,
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. [9]]

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 were,
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.

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Who never spoke more Words than these,
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, etc.

A gathering Mist overclouds her chearful Eyes;
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 took
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.

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At vero ut vultum vidit morientis, et ora,
Ora modis Anchisiades, pallentia miris;
Ingemuit, miserans graviter, dextramque tetendit, etc.

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.

[Footnote 1: a little]

[Footnote 2: that]

[Footnote 3: Besides the old woman, Moliere is said to have relied on the children of the Comedians, read his pieces to them, and corrected passages at which they did not show themselves to be amused.]

[Footnote 4: ‘Defence of Poesy’.]

[Footnote 5: The author of Chevy Chase was not contemporary with the dissensions of the Barons, even if the ballad of the ‘Hunting of the Cheviot’ was a celebration of the Battle of Otterbourne, fought in 1388, some 30 miles from Newcastle. The battle of Chevy Chase, between the Percy and the Douglas, was fought in Teviotdale, and the ballad which moved Philip Sidney’s heart was written in the fifteenth century. It may have referred to a Battle of Pepperden, fought near the Cheviot Hills, between the Earl of Northumberland and Earl William Douglas of Angus, in 1436. The ballad quoted by Addison is not that of which Sidney spoke, but a version of it, written after Sidney’s death, and after the best plays of Shakespeare had been written.]

[Footnote 6: that]

[Footnote 7: that]

[Footnote 8: received]

[Footnote 9: by a single Combat.]

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