Ancient Danish Ballads/Edinburgh Papers/the Romantic Scottish Ballads, and the Lady Wardlaw Heresy

1. Translated from the Originals, by R. C. ALEXANDER PRIOR, M. D. London: Williams & Norgate. Leipzig: R. Hartmann. 1860. 3 vols. pp. lx., 400, 468, 500.
2. By ROBERT CHAMBERS, F. R. S. E., etc., etc. The Romantic Scottish Ballads, their Epoch and Authorship. W. & R. Chambers : London and Edinburgh. 1859. pp. 46.
3. By NORVAL CLYNE. Aberdeen: A. Brown & Co. 1859. pp. 49.
THE expectations raised by the title of Dr. Prior’s volumes are in a great measure disappointed by their contents. The book is of value only because it gives for the first time, in English, the substance of a large number of Danish ballads, and points out the relations between them and similar productions in other languages. Of the spirit and life of these remarkable poems a person hitherto unfamiliar with them would find but scanty indication in Dr. Prior’s versions. He has merely done them into English in a somewhat mechanical way, and one scarcely gets a better notion of the more imaginative ones in his bald reproductions than of the “ Iliad ” from the analysis of that poem in the “Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum.” It seems to require almost as peculiar powers to translate an old ballad as to write a new one.
Dr. Prior complains of Jamieson, that his versions from the Danish are done in a broad Scotch dialect, almost as unintelligible to ordinary readers as the language of which they profess to give the meaning. But if any one compare Jamieson’s rendering of “ The Buried Mother ” with Dr. Prior’s, (Prior, vol. i. p. 368,) he will, we think, see cause to regret that Jamieson did not do what Dr. Prior has attempted, and that he has not left us a greater number of translations equally good. Jamieson’s fault was not so much his broad Scotch as his over-fondness for archaisms, sometimes of mere spelling, which give rise to a needless obscurity. We think that he was theoretically right; But he should not have pushed his theory to the extent of puzzling the reader, where his aim was to give only that air of strangeness which allures the fancy. As respects ballads dealing with the supernatural, Jamieson’s notion of the duty of a translator was certainly the true one. There is something almost ludicrous in a ghost talking the ordinary conversational language of every-day life, which might, to be sure, serve very well for some of Jung Stilling’s spirits in bottle-green huntingcoats with brass buttons, but hardly for the majesty of buried Denmar.k Dr. Prior may claim that his renderings are more literal ; But it is the vice of literal translation, that the phrases of one language, if exactly reproduced in another, while they may have the same sense, convey a wholly different impression to the imagination. It is to such cases that the Italian proverb, Trad ut tore traditore, applies. Dry den, citing approvingly Denham’s verses toFanshawe,
“ They but preserve his ashes, thou his flame,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame,”
says, with his usual pithiness, “ Too faithfully is indeed pedantically.”

In Dr. Prior’s version of the " The Buried Mother” we find a case precisely in point. The Stepmother says to the poor Orphans, —

“ In blind-house shall ye lie all night.”

Jamieson gives it, —

" Says, ' Ye sall ligg i’ the mirk all night.’ ”
Now, the object in all translations of ballad-poetry being to reproduce simple and downright phrases with equal simplicity and force, to give us the same effects and not the same words, we vastly prefer Jamieson’s verse to Dr. Prior’s, in spite of the affectation of ligg for lie. If blind-house be the equivalent for dark in the original, Dr. Prior should have told us so in a note, giving ns the stronger (because simpler] English word in the text. He might as well write hand-shoe for glove, in a translation from the German. Elsewhere Jamieson errs in preferring groff to great, and the more that groff means more properly coarse than large.
The following couplet is also from Dr. Prior’s translation of this ballad : —
“ They cried one evening till the sound
Their mother heard beneath the ground.”
Jamieson has it, —
“ ’Twas lang i’ the night, and the bairnies grat [ cried ],
Their mither she under the mods [mould] heard that.”
Again, Dr. Prior gives us, —
“ Her eldest daughter then she sped To fetch Child Dyring out of bed ”;
instead of Jamieson’s —
“ Till her eldest dochter syne [then] said she,
‘ Ye bid Child Dyring come here tome.' ”
And, still worse, —
“ Out from their chest she stretch'd her bones And rent her way through earth and stones
where Jamieson is not only more literal, but more forcible, —
“ Wi’ her banes sae stark a bowt she gae Hath riven both: wall and marble gray.”
The original is better than either, —
” She upward heaved her mighty bones And rived both wall and gray marble-stones.”
Jamieson had the true instinct of a translator, though his own verses defy the stanchest reader; and, reasoning by analogy, Dr. Prior’s translations are so bad that he ought to be capable of very good original poetry.
However, with all its defects, Dr. Prior’s book is of value for the information it gives. Under the dead ribs of his translations the reader familiar with old ballads can create a life for himself, and can form some conception of the spirit and strength of the originals.
Mr. Chambers’s pamphlet is one that we should hardly have expected from the editor of the best collection of ballads in the language before that of Professor Child. Directly in the teeth of all probability, he attributes the bulk of the romantic Scottish ballads to Lady Wardlaw, who wrote “ Hardyknute.” This is one of those theories (like that of Lord Bacon being the author of Shakspeare’s plays) which cannot be argued, but which every one familiar with the subject challenges peremptorily. Without going very deeply into the matter, Mr. Norval Clyne has put in a clever plea in arrest of judgment. The truth is, that, in the present state of our knowledge, “ Hardy knute ” could not pass muster as an antique better than " Vortigern,” or the poems of “ Master Rowley ” ; and the notion that Lady Wardlaw could have written “ Sir Patrick Spens ” will not hold water better than a sieve, when we consider how hopelessly inferior are the imitations of old ballads written by Scott, with fifty times her familiarity with the originals, and a man of genius besides.