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- Songs of the Ridings - 2/11 -
though it is only now beginning to be realised. "A literature which leaves large areas of the national activity and aspiration unexpressed is in danger of becoming narrow, esoteric, unhealthy. Areas of activity and aspiration unlit by the cleansing sun of art, untended by the loving consideration of the poet, will be dungeons for the national spirit, mildewed cellars in which rats fight, misers hoard their gold, and Guy Fawkes lays his train to blow the superstructure sky-high."(3)
There was a time when poetry meant much more to the working men of England. In the later Middle Ages, above all in that fifteenth century which literary historians are fond of describing as the darkest period in English literature, the working man had won for himself what seemed a secure place in poetry. Narrative, lyric and dramatic poetry had all opened their portals to him, and made his life and aims their theme. Side by side with the courtly verse romances, which were read in the bowers of highborn ladies, were the terse and popular ballads, which were chanted by minstrels, wandering from town to town and from village to village. Among the heroes of these ballads we find that "wight yeoman," Robin Hood, who wages war against mediaeval capitalism, as embodied in the persons of the abbot-landholders, and against the class legislation of Norman game laws which is enforced by the King's sheriff. The lyric poetry of the century is not the courtly Troubadour song or the Petrarchian sonnet, but the folk-song that sings from the heart to the heart of the beauty of Alysoun, "seemliest of all things," or, in more convivial mood, accounts good ale of more worth than a table set with many dishes:
Bring us in no capon's flesh, for that is often dear, Nor bring us in no duck's flesh, for they slobber in the mere, But bring us in good ale! Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale; For our blessed Lady sake bring us in good ale.
Most remarkable of all is the history of the drama in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The drama was clerical and not popular in its origin, and when, in course of time, it passed out of the hands of the clergy it is natural to suppose that it would find a new home at the King's court or the baron's castle. It did nothing of the kind. It passed from the Church to the people, and it was the artisan craftsmen of the English towns, organised in their trade-guilds, to whom we owe the great cycles of our miracle plays. The authors of these plays were restricted to Bible story for their themes, but the popular character of their work is everywhere apparent in the manner in which the material is handled and the characters conceived. The Noah of the Deluge plays is an English master joiner with a shrewish wife, and three sons who are his apprentices. When the divine command to build an ark comes to him, he sets to work with an energy that drives away "the weariness of five hundred winters" and, "ligging on his line," measures his planks, "clenches them with noble new nails", and takes a craftsman's delight in the finished work:
This work I warant both good and true.(4)
In like manner, the Shepherds of the Nativity plays are conceived and fashioned by men who, fortunate in that they knew nothing of the seductions of Arcadian pastoralism, have studied at first hand the habits and thoughts of English fifteenth-century shepherds, and paint these to the life.
Thus, at the close of the Middle Ages, narrative, lyric and dramatic poetry seemed firmly established among the people. Not unmindful of romance, it was grounded in realism and sought to interpret the life of the peasant and the artisan of fifteenth-century England. The Renaissance follows, and a profound change comes over poetry. The popular note grows fainter and fainter, till at last it becomes inaudible. Poetry leaves the farmyard and the craftsman's bench for the court. The folk-song, fashioned in to a thing of wondrous beauty by the creator of Amiens, Feste and Autolycus, is driven from the stage by Ben Jonson, and its place is taken by a lyric of classic extraction. The popular drama, ennobled and made shapely through contact with Latin drama, passes from the provincial market-place to Bankside, and the rude mechanicals of the trade-guilds yield place to the Lord Chamberlain's players. In the dramas of Shakespeare the popular note is still audible, but only as an undertone, furnishing comic relief to the romantic amours of courtly lovers or the tragic fall of Princes; with Beaumont and Fletcher, and still more with Dryden and the Restoration dramatists, the popular element in the drama passes away, and the triumph of the court is complete. The Elizabethan court could find no use for the popular ballad, but, like other forms of literature, it was attracted from the country-side to the city. Forgetful of the greenwood, it now battened on the garbage of Newgate, and 'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisburn' yields place to 'The Wofull Lamentation of William Purchas, who for murthering his Mother at Thaxted, was executed at Chelmsford'.
We are justly proud of the Renaissance and of the glories of our Elizabethan literature, but let us frankly own that in the annals of poetry there was loss as well as gain. The gain was for the courtier and the scholar, and for all those who, in the centuries that followed the Renaissance, have been able, by means of education, to enter into the courtier's and scholar's inheritance. The loss has been for the people. The opposition between courtly taste and popular taste is hard to analyse, but we have only to turn our eyes from England to Scotland, which lost its royal court in 1603, in order to appreciate the reality of the opposition. In Scotland the courtly poetry of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries soon disappeared when James I exchanged Holyrood for Whitehall, but popular poetry continued to live and grow. The folk-song gathered power and sweetness all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, till it culminated at last in the lyric of Burns. Popular drama, never firmly rooted in Scotland, was stamped out by the Reformation, but the popular ballad outlived the mediaeval minstrel, was kept alive in the homes of Lowland farmers and shepherds, and called into being the great ballad revival of the nineteenth century.
It is idle to speculate what would have been the progress of poetry in England if the Renaissance had not come and the Elizabethan courtier had not enriched himself at the expense of the people. What we have to bear in mind is that all through the centuries that followed the Renaissance the working men and women of England looked almost in vain to their poets for a faithful interpretation of their life and aims. The wonder is that the instinct for poetry did not perish in their hearts for lack of sustenance.
There are at the present time clear signs of a revival of popular poetry and popular drama. The verse tales of Masefield and Gibson, the lyrics of Patrick MacGill, the peasant or artisan plays which have been produced at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, may well be the beginning of a great democratic literary movement. Democracy, in its striving after a richer and fuller life for the people of England, is at last turning its attention to literature and art. It is slowly realising two great truths. The first is that literature may be used as a mighty weapon in the furtherance of political justice and social reform, and that the pied pipers of folk-song have the power to rouse the nation and charm the ears of even the Mother of Parliaments. The second is that the working man needs something more to sustain him than bread and the franchise and a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. Democracy, having obtained for the working man a place in the government of the nation, is now asserting his claim to a place in the temples of poetry. The Arthurian knight, the Renaissance courtier, the scholar and the wit must admit the twentieth-century artisan to their circle. Piers the ploughman must once more become the hero of song, and Saul Kane, the poacher, must find a place, alongside of Tiresias and Merlin, among the seers and mystics. Let democracy look to William Morris, poet, artist and social democrat, for inspiration and guidance, and take to heart the message of prophecy which he has left us: "If art, which is now sick, is to live and not die, it must in the future be of the people, for the people, by the people."
In the creation of this poetry "of the people, by the people" dialect may well be called upon to play a part. Dialect is of the people, though in a varying degree in the different parts of the wide areas of the globe where the English language is spoken; it possesses, moreover, qualities, and is fraught with associations, which are of the utmost value to the poet and to which the standard speech can lay no claim. It may be that for some of the more elaborate kinds of poetry, such as the formal epic, dialect is useless; let it be reserved, therefore, for those kinds which appeal most directly to the hearts of the people. The poetry of the people includes the ballad and the verse tale, lyric in all its forms, and some kinds of satire; and for all these dialect is a fitting instrument. It possesses in the highest degree directness of utterance and racy vigour. How much of their force would the "Biglow Papers" of J. R. Lowell lose if they were transcribed from the Yankee dialect into standard English!
But the highest quality of dialect speech, and that which renders it pre-eminently fitted for poetic use, is its intimate association with all that lies nearest to the heart of the working man. It is the language of his hearth and home; many of the most cherished memories of his life are bound up with it; it is for him the language of freedom, whereas standard English is that of constraint. In other words, dialect is the working man's poetic diction--a poetic diction as full of savour as that of the eighteenth-century poets was flat and insipid.
It is sometimes said that the use of dialect makes the appeal of poetry provincial instead of national or universal. This is only true when the dialect poet is a pedant and obscures his meaning by fantastic spellings. The Lowland Scots element in 'Auld Lang Syne' has not prevented it from becoming the song of friendship of the Anglo-Saxon race all the world over. Moreover, the provincial note in poetry or prose is far from being a bad thing. In the 'Idylls' of Theocritus it gave new life to Greek poetry in the third century before Christ, and it may render the same high service to English poetry to-day or to-morow. The rise of Provincial schools of literature, interpreting local life in local idiom, in all parts of the British Isles and in the Britain beyond the seas, is a goal worth striving for; such a literature, so far from impeding the progress of the literature in the standard tongue, would serve only to enrich it in spirit, substance and form.
1. 'Yorkshire Dialect Poems', 1673-1915 (Sedgwick and Jackson 1916)
3. J. Dover Wilson, Writing in the 'Athenaeum' under the pseudonym "Muezzin," February, 1917. The quotation is from one of four articles, entitled "Prospects in English Literature," to which the ideas set forth in this Preface owe much.
4. "York Plays": The Building of the Ark.
A Dalesman's Litany
>From Hull, Halifax, and Hell, good Lord deliver us. A Yorkshire Proverb.
It's hard when fowks can't finnd their wark Wheer they've bin bred an' born; When I were young I awlus thowt I'd bide 'mong t' roots an' corn.
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