Story type: Essay
Friday, May 25, 1711.
‘… Pendent opera interrupta …’
In my last Monday’s Paper I gave some general Instances of those beautiful Strokes which please the Reader in the old Song of Chevey-Chase; I shall here, according to my Promise, be more particular, and shew that the Sentiments in that Ballad are extremely natural and poetical, and full of [the ] majestick Simplicity which we admire in the greatest of the ancient Poets: For which Reason I shall quote several Passages of it, in which the Thought is altogether the same with what we meet in several Passages of the AEneid; not that I would infer from thence, that the Poet (whoever he was) proposed to himself any Imitation of those Passages, but that he was directed to them in general by the same Kind of Poetical Genius, and by the same Copyings after Nature.
Had this old Song been filled with Epigrammatical Turns and Points of Wit, it might perhaps have pleased the wrong Taste of some Readers; but it would never have become the Delight of the common People, nor have warmed the Heart of Sir Philip Sidney like the Sound of a Trumpet; it is only Nature that can have this Effect, and please those Tastes which are the most unprejudiced or the most refined. I must however beg leave to dissent from so great an Authority as that of Sir Philip Sidney, in the Judgment which he has passed as to the rude Stile and evil Apparel of this antiquated Song; for there are several Parts in it where not only the Thought but the Language is majestick, and the Numbers [sonorous; ] at least, the Apparel is much more gorgeous than many of the Poets made use of in Queen Elizabeth’s Time, as the Reader will see in several of the following Quotations.
What can be greater than either the Thought or the Expression in that Stanza,
To drive the Deer with Hound and Horn
Earl Piercy took his Way;
The Child may rue that was unborn
The Hunting of that Day!
This way of considering the Misfortunes which this Battle would bring upon Posterity, not only on those who were born immediately after the Battle and lost their Fathers in it, but on those also who [perished ] in future Battles which [took their rise ] from this Quarrel of the two Earls, is wonderfully beautiful, and conformable to the Way of Thinking among the ancient Poets.
‘Audiet pugnas vilio parentum
What can be more sounding and poetical, resemble more the majestic Simplicity of the Ancients, than the following Stanzas?
The stout Earl of Northumberland
A Vow to God did make,
His Pleasure in the Scotish Woods
Three Summers Days to take.
With fifteen hundred Bowmen bold,
All chosen Men of Might,
Who knew full well, in time of Need,
To aim their Shafts aright.
The Hounds ran swiftly thro’ the Woods
The nimble Deer to take,
And with their Cries the Hills and Dales
An Eccho shrill did make.
… Vocat ingenti Clamore Cithseron
Taygetique canes, domitrixque Epidaurus equorum:
Et vox assensu nemorum ingeminata remugit.
Lo, yonder doth Earl Dowglas come,
His Men in Armour bright;
Full twenty Hundred Scottish Spears,
All marching in our Sight.
All Men of pleasant Tividale,
Fast by the River Tweed, etc.
The Country of the Scotch Warriors, described in these two last Verses, has a fine romantick Situation, and affords a couple of smooth Words for Verse. If the Reader compares the forgoing six Lines of the Song with the following Latin Verses, he will see how much they are written in the Spirit of Virgil.
Adversi campo apparent, hastasque reductis
Protendunt longe dextris; et spicula vibrant;
Quique altum Preneste viri, quique arva Gabinae
Junonis, gelidumque Anienem, et roscida rivis
Hernica saxa colunt: … qui rosea rura Velini,
Qui Terticae horrentes rupes, montemque Severum,
Casperiamque colunt, Forulosque et flumen Himellae:
Qui Tiberim Fabarimque bibunt…
But to proceed.
Earl Dowglas on a milk-white Steed,
Most like a Baron bold,
Rode foremost of the Company,
Whose Armour shone like Gold.
Turnus ut antevolans tardum precesserat agmen, etc. Vidisti, quo Turnus equo, quibus ibat in armis Aureus …
Our English Archers bent their Bows
Their Hearts were good and true;
At the first Flight of Arrows sent,
Full threescore Scots they slew.
They clos’d full fast on ev’ry side,
No Slackness there was found.
And many a gallant Gentleman
Lay gasping on the Ground.
With that there came an Arrow keen
Out of an English Bow,
Which struck Earl Dowglas to the Heart
A deep and deadly Blow.
AEneas was wounded after the same Manner by an unknown Hand in the midst of a Parly.
Has inter voces, media inter talia verba,
Ecce viro stridens alis allapsa sagitta est,
Incertum qua pulsa manu …
But of all the descriptive Parts of this Song, there are none more beautiful than the four following Stanzas which have a great Force and Spirit in them, and are filled with very natural Circumstances. The Thought in the third Stanza was never touched by any other Poet, and is such an one as would have shined in Homer or in Virgil.
So thus did both those Nobles die,
Whose Courage none could stain:
An English Archer then perceived
The noble Earl was slain.
He had a Bow bent in his Hand,
Made of a trusty Tree,
An Arrow of a Cloth-yard long
Unto the Head drew he.
Against Sir Hugh Montgomery
So right his Shaft he set,
The Gray-goose Wing that was thereon
In his Heart-Blood was wet.
This Fight did last from Break of Day
Till setting of the Sun;
For when they rung the Evening Bell
The Battle scarce was done.
One may observe likewise, that in the Catalogue of the Slain the Author has followed the Example of the greatest ancient Poets, not only in giving a long List of the Dead, but by diversifying it with little Characters of particular Persons.
And with Earl Dowglas there was slain
Sir Hugh Montgomery,
Sir Charles Carrel, that from the Field
One Foot would never fly:
Sir Charles Murrel of Ratcliff too,
His Sister’s Son was he;
Sir David Lamb, so well esteem’d,
Yet saved could not be.
The familiar Sound in these Names destroys the Majesty of the Description; for this Reason I do not mention this Part of the Poem but to shew the natural Cast of Thought which appears in it, as the two last Verses look almost like a Translation of Virgil.
… Cadit et Ripheus justissimus unus
Qui fuit in Teucris et servantissimus aequi,
Diis aliter visum est …
In the Catalogue of the English [who ] fell, Witherington’s Behaviour is in the same manner particularized very artfully, as the Reader is prepared for it by that Account which is given of him in the Beginning of the Battle [; though I am satisfied your little Buffoon Readers (who have seen that Passage ridiculed in Hudibras) will not be able to take the Beauty of it: For which Reason I dare not so much as quote it].
Then stept a gallant Squire forth,
Witherington was his Name,
Who said, I would not have it told
To Henry our King for Shame,
That e’er my Captain fought on Foot,
And I stood looking on.
We meet with the same Heroic Sentiments in Virgil.
Non pudet, O Rutuli, cunctis pro talibus unam
Objectare animam? numerone an viribus aequi
Non sumus … ?
What can be more natural or more moving than the Circumstances in which he describes the Behaviour of those Women who had lost their Husbands on this fatal Day?
Next Day did many Widows come
Their Husbands to bewail;
They washed their Wounds in brinish Tears,
But all would not prevail.
Their Bodies bath’d in purple Blood,
They bore with them away;
They kiss’d them dead a thousand Times,
When they were clad in Clay.
Thus we see how the Thoughts of this Poem, which naturally arise from the Subject, are always simple, and sometimes exquisitely noble; that the Language is often very sounding, and that the whole is written with a true poetical Spirit.
If this Song had been written in the Gothic Manner, which is the Delight of all our little Wits, whether Writers or Readers, it would not have hit the Taste of so many Ages, and have pleased the Readers of all Ranks and Conditions. I shall only beg Pardon for such a Profusion of Latin Quotations; which I should not have made use of, but that I feared my own Judgment would have looked too singular on such a Subject, had not I supported it by the Practice and Authority of Virgil.
[Footnote 1: that]
[Footnote 2: very sonorous;]
[Footnote 3: should perish]
[Footnote 4: should arise]
[Footnote 5: that]
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