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“I knew a very wise man that believed that if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”—FLETCHER OF SALTOUN, in a Letter to the Marquis of Montrose, etc.
It is desirable that the reader of the following essay should notice the precise subject to which it is limited. The essay is simply an investigation of the influence which the ballads and songs of Scotland may be shown to have exerted on the character of the Scottish people. It makes no pretension, therefore, to be a satisfactory treatment of these lyrical productions in any other aspect. It is impossible, indeed, to discuss the effect of these or of any other productions of the Scottish mind on the development of Scottish character, without indicating more or less definitely the character of the productions themselves; and, consequently, this essay contains a large number of historical and critical observations on the ballads and songs of Scotland. The extent to which such observations were required to elucidate the main question of the essay, will be differently determined by different persons; and possibly a rigid criticism would exclude as irrelevant a considerable amount of what is contained in the following pages. But the reader must meet with disappointment, who opens these pages with the expectation of finding in them an exhaustive treatment of the Scottish ballads and songs in general, or in any particular aspect other than that to which the essay is definitely limited by its title.
Even the special inquiry, however, to which we are thus confined, raises certain preliminary questions which cannot be accurately answered with ease. It involves, to some extent, an inquiry into the national character of the Scottish people, and into the agencies by which that character has been produced and modified. Both of these inquiries may be ranked among the most perplexing of those intricate problems which the science of human nature encounters at every step of its progress.
The former of these—the inquiry into national character—will, if answered at all by those who apprehend it clearly, be answered only with diffidence and by an indefinite outline; for the phenomena, on which an answer must be founded, are so subtle as often to elude the keenest observation, so intricate as to baffle the most searching analysis, so manifold as to exceed the grasp of the most comprehensive understanding. By means of the spectrum we now analyse the
constitution of a world at immeasurable distance in space; but what agent of decomposition can unfold with certainty the character of a nation, or even of an individual ? A remarkable instance of the difficulty involved in estimating even one's own character is furnished by the fact, that Goethe attached more importance to his scientific insight than to his poetical power; and, in summing up the results of his life, declared that as it had been the mission of Luther to dispel the darkness of the Papacy, so it hadi been his to overturn the Newtonian theory of colours !1
The other inquiry—that, namely, into the agencies by which a nation's character is developed, or into the precise influence which any particular agency may have exerted on its development is even more difficult than the preceding. Here all the machinery of philosophical induction breaks down under the difficulty of making sufficiently accurate and sufficiently extensive observations, and the collateral difficulty of arranging the data which observation yields with a view to legitimate inference.
Now, if we had to serve merely the purposes of popular declamation, it would be easy enough, concealing the difficulty of afl such inquiries, to assert a number of questionable platitudes on the Scottish character and on the influences by which it has been formed. The aim in the following essay has been to avoid all assertions with reference to national character and the causes at work in its development, except in so far as such assertions are implied in the solution of the main problem with which we have to deal.
1 Eckermann's “ Conversations of Goethe," vol. i., p. 162. Compare Lewes' “ Life of Goethe,” vol. ii., p. 124.
This problem is in reality twofold. It involves two questions: (1), whether any influence at all has been exerted on the character of the Scottish people by their ballads and songs; and (2), if so, what that influence has been. The preliminary inquiry, which forms the first of these two questions, may be disposed of easily in a general way. The character of a nation, as well as of an individual, is moulded by all the influences in the midst of which the nation or the individual lives. It is generally, indeed, impossible to determine with certainty the comparative importance of the influences at work; and often the most insignificant in appearance are the most powerful in reality. In the early years of the Roman Empire, for example, no man could have thought of seeking, among the villages of Galilee, the events from which were to issue the most valuable forces of subsequent history; and biographical records, especially of the religious life, have made us familiar with the fact, that the most efficient cause in shaping an individual's character has often been an incident which was externally of the most trivial nature. But however slight in appearance or in reality, every influence, working upon the people of a country in general, will contribute something to the national character, though some influences may be so slight as
to be incapable of being traced. The only question, therefore, which really remains for answer, is whether we can discover, in the Scottish character, any trace
influence exerted by the Scottish ballads
Before proceeding to the detailed examination of the ballads and songs with a view to the solution of this question, it may be well to remark, that it is exceedingly difficult to pitch on any feature of the Scottish character, and say, without hesitation, that is due to the influence of the ballads and songs alone. For it is not enough to prove that the ballads and songs are capable of producing such an effect : numerous instances will occur to anyone, in which the perplexity of a problem is precisely to discover, among several phenomena all capable of producing a certain effect, which has actually been the cause.
Moreover, the agencies at work in human nature, as well as in external nature, are often thwarted, counteracted, in fact completely neutralized, by others; and this circumstance creates one of the main difficulties of all scientific inquiry. In addition to this, there is a peculiar difficulty attaching to inquiries concerning the agencies which go to form social character; for every such agency is alternately cause and effect. A certain type of character in a people cannot be due, for example, to the agency of the people's songs alone; for the people's songs are, in the first instance, due to its character. Every manifestation of character is thus at once evidence of the existence of a certain