Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon
The Call of the Popular from the Restoration to the New Criticism
2007 | 304 pages | Cloth $65.00
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Why There's No Poetic Justice in The Beggar's Opera: Ballad, Lyric, and the Semiautonomy of Culture
Chapter 2. Scots Songs in The Scottish Enlightenment: Progress, and the Lyric Split in Allan Ramsay, John Home, and Robert Burns
Chapter 3. Addressing the problem of a Lyric History: Collecting Shakespeare's Songs/Shakespeare as Song Collector
Chapter 4. Ballads and the Problem of Lyric Violence in Blake and Wordsworth
Chapter 5. Reading as Remembering and the Subject of Lyric: Child Ballads, Children's Ballads, and the New Criticism
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Ballads run like a radioactive dye through elite literature in the eighteenth century and beyond, illuminating the structures and workings of high culture. Authors happen across ballads on the walls of country houses and city streets, hear them bawled out in London and Edinburgh, and track them to cottages in pursuit of minstrelsy. They turn to ballads to answer the agonized question posed by Coleridge in the second epigraph I have chosen, "Why do you make a book?" And, as the first two epigraphs reveal, Addison and Coleridge, despite their many differences, are both drawn to the much reprinted ballad of "Children in the Wood." While Addison's reader will think he is "not serious" and although Coleridge patronizingly refers to it as a "little ballad," they both hear this "Darling Song of the Common People" calling to them. So their enthusiasm overcomes their embarrassment in breaching the boundary between high and low, an ambivalent response to the ballad's call that is representative of the phenomenon under study here—the incorporation of the ballad into elite poetry and criticism from the English Restoration to the American New Criticism.
Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon analyzes how the lesser lyric of the ballad changed lyric poetry as a whole and, in so doing, helped to transform "literature" from polite writing in general into the body of imaginative writing that becomes known as the English literary canon. This transformation lays the ground for the scholars and textbook authors who alter the canon by bringing it into the school, where the ballad is valued as the Urtext leading philologists and students from the "non-bookish" to "the bookish." These are the words Robert Penn Warren uses to describe how he and Cleanth Brooks came to write their epoch-making primer in close reading, Understanding Poetry (1938), which proved so influential in the ensuing decades.
There is a long and complex story of cultural change behind this phenomenon, uniting in their differences Mr. Spectator's coy confession, Coleridge's altitude, and Warren's reminiscence, and we can begin to tell that tale by way of a definition of the ballad from 1728 as a "song commonly sung up and down the streets." For those attracted to the ballad, "commonly" signifies in two ways. The first is "common" as undistinguished or as nonelite; the second is "common" as universal. Under the sign of the first "common," the ballad lacks the prestige of high genres, carrying with it the nose-wrinkling savor of Grub Street. But this very lowness makes the ballad attractive to elite authors. Because ballads are merely "common," elite authors are not intimidated by them; they feel freer to rewrite ballads, to show their poetic license to slum with a lower genre, and to make them object lessons in appreciating popular texts. Why they should be appreciated brings us to common-as-universal. Easily circulated and understood, the ballad avoids the bad exclusions of more courtly genres while retaining some of their valued characteristics. After 1660, the court gradually loses its centrality to a more diffuse network of print, and the court's rigid social hierarchy and aristocratic refinements come to seem increasingly unviable as a source of legitimate artistic practice. So authors begin to turn to the more horizontal and fluid discourse that many critics of our era call the public sphere. But in doing so they worry that the public sphere's conjoined and misshapen twin—consumer society—has made things too fluid. They are anxious that value has become a function solely of economic exchange, dissolving social ties and national traditions into self-interest and an uncritical celebration of the modern. And here, again, the ballad's common-ness makes it attractive, for it remains rooted in the history of Great Britain.
Prior to the Restoration, the ballad had attracted a few passing favorable comments by Sir Philip Sidney and others, but these were far outnumbered by scornful dismissals. So during this era the ballad was elevated to a greater degree than Shakespeare and other elite authors, and their eighteenth-century reappraisal was also key in establishing the canon. (In fact, as we will see, Shakespeare's rising reputation had something to do with the ballad.) Yet, unlike the novel, another genre that "rises" in the eighteenth century, the ballad is credited with stronger ties to English tradition—for instance, when it is used as a native counterweight against the fripperies of Italian opera.
The ballad also differs from the novel because it has stronger ties to an elite form—lyric. Although we tend to associate the ballad with the objectivity attributed to folk narrative rather than the subjectivity attributed to lyric, those in Coleridge's day were quicker to remember the origins of lyric in the public music of the lyre, like the contemporary reviewer of Lyrical Ballads who rhetorically asked: "[W]hat Ballads are not Lyrical?" More specifically, the ballad is classed as a lesser lyric, a designation that speaks to both ways in which it is "common." As a lesser lyric, the ballad does not burden the elite author as does the higher lyric of the ode or hymn with weighty matters of public ritual. As a lesser lyric, the ballad speaks to the roots of the genre, however individuated its speaker, in communal song. The ballad thereby embodies what I call the doubleness of lyric, its unusual blending of individual and communal language. The music of the ballad broadens its reach and intensifies its grasp on an audience, its refrain frequently drawing in those who hear it to participate in the singing, whether or not they already know the tune or the words. The power of the ballad to produce social solidarity is clearly marked by the authors in this study who devote significant energy to setting verse to music, like John Gay and Robert Burns. But even those who do not write songs for musical performance, like John Home and William Wordsworth, draw on the communal orientation intimated by the ballad's ontology as song. They see in it a basis for community that may be as enduring as poetry itself or as fugitive as the crowd that gathers for a moment around a ballad-monger in a city street, as broadly pitched as "all you who either hear or read" or as exclusive as those agitators privileged to know a Jacobite or Jacobin tune when they hear one.
So, called by the ballad's communal voice, elite authors engage in the phenomenon scholars have named the Ballad Revival, though, as many have pointed out, it is elite literature and not the traditional ballad itself that is "revived." Authors collect ballads not only into anthologies like Allan Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany (1723-25) and Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) but also into their poems, plays, and essays. Collection is their way of accessing the ballad's collectivity, a way to take advantage of the ballad's circulation as a cheap commodity while framing it so that it remains tied to a common nationality. Constituting the ballad this way, authors begin to stage moments in which an elite mind is called through an encounter with popular song to know itself and its place in the nation. For instance, midcentury authors imagine Shakespeare himself as perfectly attuned to the call of the popular, capable of bringing the high into touch with the low without debasing the high or losing the rough energy of the low. A few decades later, we have lyrics like Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," in which a tourist happens upon a singer of popular song and is arrested by its power, modeling a response for solitary readers in the marketplace and, later, in elementary schools and graduate seminars.
By the time we reach the New Criticism, the ballad, though often explicitly contrasted with lyric, is also enshrined as the genre that initiates readers into lyric. Its terseness foregrounds poetic structure and stimulates "close reading"; its social character moves the student to consider the dynamic between the one and the many; its simplicity makes it a point of reference for more "developed" verse. This is the culmination of a dual narrative of personal and national development emergent in the Long Eighteenth Century in which the ballad gains definition as the favored text of childhood and the nation's early days. Set next to the value increasingly placed on individual innovation, the ballad's sturdy conventionality can be cast either as a reassuring permanence or as a sign of an imaginative poverty that echoes the material scarcity of the culture in which old songs are found. But however damned or praised or damned with faint praise, the ballad becomes a productively liminal genre, its strong meter and dramatic situation a baseline for the structure of the poem as integral artifact, its accessibility a model for the poem as social text. Having been cast as the first poem of childhood, learned from nurse or mother, and/or as a relic of the national past, it can then be recognized as an object of elite consciousness. If this stimulates a nostalgia often informed by a complacent scheme of personal and national development, it also enrolls ballads in a debate that continues to this day, over who has and has not been included in a supposed progression toward a more democratic society, an ideal so sorely unrealized in practice that many have naturally wondered whether "progress" is itself a suspect notion.
My argument is both built on and designed to challenge many strains in recent criticism, including work on lyric, on genre, on the relationship of elite to popular culture, on the relationship between orality and print, and on the Ballad Revival itself. So a methodological preamble is in order.
Putting Lyric in Its Place: Genre and History
It might be said that recent critics have been committed to putting lyric in its place, undercutting its claims for transcendence by grounding it in history. Supposedly seeking to escape the determinacies of the past and present through individual expression, lyric turns out to be very much tied to context. Some critics trace the ideology of lyric transcendence as far back as Plato's metaphysics, with lyric serving as a monologue of the subject's wishful presence that invites poststructuralist exposés of its aporias in language and being. The rise of lyric has also been located in the Early Modern period, in the "pretty rooms" of sonnets built by the humanist or Protestant subject or the feints and faintings of the impassioned courtier. But lyric as we have come to know it has been most frequently situated in the Romantic era. The poems of William Wordsworth and other canonical authors institute what Jerome McGann has labeled "the Romantic ideology," which reveals that the "greater Romantic lyric" celebrated by M. H. Abrams is built upon sacrificing history and collective life on the altar of individual Imagination. That lyric is so closely identified with the literary as such is no accident, since it intensifies the mystifications of Literature as a timeless repository of individual genius and national spirit. Despite studies that have questioned this New Historicist position, it remains a touchstone of Romantic and post-Romantic criticism. If lyric is overheard rather than heard, as John Stuart Mill famously defines it, it has been overheard recently by those skeptical of its Romantic soliloquy.
But this solitary speaking is not intrinsic to lyric. As Theodor Adorno claims in "Lyric and Society," "All individual lyric poetry is indeed grounded in a collective substratum." For authentic "generality," according to Adorno, we must paradoxically turn to poets like Stefan George who "scorn every borrowing from the communal language" (163). George's dogged resistance to "the lonely process of reification" that taints the conventions of bourgeois lyric puts his poetry under such pressure that its "cult of elevation" is fissured by the authentically general forces that Adorno does acknowledge, "language's deepest being" and "the thought of a free humanity" (168-70). But if Adorno gives us a way to detect the utopian character of high lyric, he does so at the cost of reading "the regard which romanticism had for folksong" as a "phantasmagoria," as "cheap decorative imitations" that provide merely a "technical illusion of generality" on behalf of the bourgeois individual (169). Adopting a position ironically close to Jakob Grimm's famous (later notorious) pronouncement, das Volk dichtet (the folk makes the poem), Adorno holds that the automatic spirit of the collective ventriloquizes high lyric only in reaction to a strong commitment to an impossible aristocratic individuality. So the relationship he posits between "lyric" and "society" rules out the consciously critical view by poets and critics as the emergence of civil society and the civil subject becomes an object of analysis during the Long Eighteenth Century.
Lyric's role in reflecting on civil society, past and present, has recently attracted some healthy attention. Clifford Siskin argues that identifying "lyric with personal, subjective feeling" misses "the point. . . . The very act of writing in that form represented one's participation in a larger discursive project—Wordsworth's 'experiment'—in which lyrics effectively functioned as data in hypothetical narratives of knowledge linking past to present." For Siskin, then, it is correct to see lyric emerging to become the essence of Literature, "encircling" other forms; the mistake lies in reducing lyric to subjective affect, which, like Adorno's approach, overlooks the genre's work in constructing histories of civilization that begin with primitive lyric utterance and culminate in Romantic lyrics that measure the gap between past and present. Anne Janowitz, in another important contribution to criticism on Romantic lyric, would add that Romantic lyric was not only an act of knowledge that traced the history of civilization. It was also part of a political debate, one in which many plebeian poets participated: "The liberal self and the lyric self were twin births from and accompanying voices to a revolutionary idea of a democratic voice in the age of revolution. But out of this same matrix arose as well the notion of a collectivised popular sovereignty, which drew upon customary culture and its popular poetic forms, which were then marked and modified by the languages of interiority." So the lyric individual and the citizen of the liberal nation-state were not in a simply antagonistic relationship to "collectivised popular sovereignty" but rather emerged out of a shared "idea of a democratic voice." At the same time, "popular poetic forms" were inflected "by the languages of interiority."
But to understand the role of lyric in Siskin's historiographical lyric and Janowitz's dialogue between "the liberal self" and "popular sovereignty," we need to start even earlier than Siskin's beginning point of 1700. Admittedly, this claim runs counter to the received wisdom on Restoration and eighteenth-century lyric. Many have seen it as a lyrical dry gulch. Those who have called attention to its ample lyric resources have emphasized what John Sitter has memorably called its "literary loneliness," positing a "lyric solitude," a privately oriented "feminization," or a "lyric negativity" that stands "in contradistinction to the subjects of public conversation." Thus, despite the disfavor that "pre-Romanticism" has recently suffered, scholars nonetheless tend to position eighteenth-century lyric as a precursor to the solitude of Romantic lyric. As I argue in Chapters 2 and 3, a tendency to retreat into the self does exist within the lyric of this era, and a split within lyric emerges in the mid-eighteenth century, in which the individual speakers in poems like William Collins' "Ode on the Poetical Character" feel themselves isolated from both the great voices of the past and the community of the present. But this is only part of lyric's story. As Thomas Hurd argues in "A Dissertation on the Idea of Universal Poetry" (1766), although lyric has now become "the labor of the closet," it maintains "a secret reference to the sense of hearing and to that acceptation which melodious sounds meet with in the recital of expressive words." For Hurd, no man of the people, lyric retains a public orientation bound up in its musical qualities even if it has retreated to the "closet," and many authors both before and after him do not accept the premise of lyric privacy, aiming instead to make its "reference" to the public more than "secret."
It is in pursuit of the lyric dialogue between "I" and "we" that I have focused on a set of authors that some may find unusual. While I do treat some of the poets on most current lists of eighteenth-century and Romantic lyric (Blake, Burns, Clare, Collins, Gray, Hemans, Wordsworth), many others are absent—Anne Finch, Charlotte Smith, and John Keats, to name a few. In their stead are relatively obscure poets like Thomas D'Urfey and Allan Ramsay, the latter more familiar to those who specialize in Scottish poetry than English. Then there are others, both well and little known, who are not primarily poets, like David Garrick, John Home, and Thomas Percy, as well as the various critics, scholars, textbook writers, and teachers discussed in the final chapter. Some of these choices can be attributed to the exigency of space; this does not pretend to be an exhaustive study of the relationship between ballad and lyric, let alone lyric as a whole. With world enough and time, I would have been happy to say something about John Dryden's or Aphra Behn's or Thomas Moore's use of popular song or to have carried my study forward to consider how W. B. Yeats or Gwendolyn Brooks or Langston Hughes or Paul Muldoon uses popular song to continue altering lyric, not to mention the likenesses between the English Ballad Revival and the incorporation of rap into current African American poetry. But my expertise does not extend that far, and neither does the indulgence of most readers (or publishers). So I have restricted myself to a particular series of cases in the British Long Eighteenth Century and to an analysis of the integration of ballads into the American school from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century that are representative of a still broader story of the how and the why of elite lyric's transformative encounter with popular song.
My approach is informed by a few fundamental claims about genre. The first is that genres cannot be properly understood in isolation; lyric is not only internally complicated by the ballad but is also comprehensible only within an overlapping array that includes pastoral and also nonpoetic genres like the essay. But it is in these overlaps and internal divisions that we also see the limits of genre understood in terms of taxonomy. While taxonomy may allow us to name ballad as a subgenre of lyric, it tends to underplay the way that forms change, are changed by authors and change them in the writing, are altered by readers and alter them in the reading, are formed by history and form history in turn. My desire to capture the dynamism of form explains my defining the ballad as a "song commonly sung up and down the streets." There is value in listing the myriad subgenres of ballads in terms of their themes (ballads of tragic love, news ballads, religious ballads) or their specific rhetorical characteristics (dialogue, reported speech, narrative). However, since I am primarily interested in showing how ballads are used by elite authors, I define the ballad broadly in terms of its performative situation (it is verse designed to be sung) and its common-ness, for these are the elements that make it most attractive for writers trying to figure out how to adapt to fundamental changes in the structure of elite literary production, circulation, and consumption.
So I am in partial agreement with Fredric Jameson's assertion that history does not "cause" genre in any simple way but rather "shut[s] down a certain number of formal possibilities available before, and open[s] up determinate new ones, which may or may not ever be realized in artistic practice." This is to say that, in contrast to a trend within historicism to oppose the fluid force of history and the hypostasizing force of genre, history is always already inscribed within genre, limiting and enlarging its artistic possibilities. This will be made clear in the "lyric split" discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, in which an anxiety among English and Scottish elites over modernity's effect on the status hierarchy moves them away from the demotic chorus of the ballad and toward restricting lyric to an evocative individual speech. But if historical change splits lyric, lyric also transforms the very preconditions for knowing history, and this is why my agreement with Jameson is only partial, since he tends to stress only the history-to-genre vector. We will see this feedback loop between form and history (though loop is perhaps too restrictive a figure) in the way that the ballad alters Enlightenment historiography, especially through its idea of pastoral (Chapter 2). Or in the way Percy and Joseph Ritson use the ballad to construct competing versions of what I call a "lyric history" (Chapter 3) that exploits gaps in the record to produce accounts of change and continuity. Or how Blake and Wordsworth react against what they feel is the "lyric violence" (Chapter 4) of prior modes of collection in order to envision a future that will preserve the interests of their readers. Or, finally, how ballads build a "lyric subject" (Chapter 5), a self, made by form, whose life-narrative is correlated with the narrative of the nation and of the species as a whole. For reasons of stylistic felicity, I have used lyric as an adjective in each of these phrases, but my overriding aim is to show that "form" is a verb as well as a noun and a transitive verb at that.
The Rise of Literature and the Problem of Poetic Justice
In making these claims about form's relationship to history, I am mindful of the danger of formal allegory—in this case, of uncritically reading the lyric's recourse to the collective voice of the ballad as a homology for political vision, in which the "we" of the People stands against the atomizing forces of Capitalism, Individualism, or some other abstraction. Instead of seeing things in terms of these calcified and simplified conflicts, I aim to understand how genre is transformed by history and politics is mediated by genre. In doing so, I also aim to revise recent critiques of the rise of Literature in the eighteenth century, particularly as it bears on the relationship of elite to popular culture. According to these accounts, belles lettres separates itself from the sullying world of popular culture and the literary marketplace and clears a necessary space for the polite man (gender and status exclusive) whose calling card is aesthetic disinterest and who combines the taste of the aristocrat with the social mobility of the middle class.
The separations between low and high on which this revisionist criticism is based would seem to be complicated by the frequency with which elite eighteenth-century authors borrow from popular genres, ballads among them. But many critics have made a strong case that borrowing "from below" is done only on the borrowers' terms. For instance, John Guillory, in an incisive analysis of canon formation, reads Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads as examples of "covert pastoral." Feeling marginalized by a middle-class Public coming into its own, Gray and Wordsworth simplify the social field into the binary of aristocrat and peasant and present themselves as aristocrats in peasant garb.
A similar skepticism toward elite appropriation of the popular has also marked recent studies of the Ballad Revival. Dave Harker's Fakesong reads all of the ballad collectors up to and including Thomas Percy as driven by a desire for patronage from the reactionary powers that be, a desire that "predisposed them to patronize or even to expropriate the products of workers' culture." Susan Stewart offers a subtler account in which the "scandals of the ballad" are motivated by a reaction against the "conditions of authorship in the literary culture of the late eighteenth century." In its stead, minstrelsy seeks to put in place an organic and oral national culture that tries to paper over the aporias in language brought to light by print. In Katie Trumpener's magisterial and nuanced analysis, "bardic nationalism" pits those who seek to establish Anglocentric hegemony against those who fight for the cultural (and sometimes political) independence of the Gaelic periphery. But while this debate continues well into the nineteenth century, with those more critical of empire prefiguring the postcolonial critique of the twentieth, the nostalgia exemplified by Walter Scott's historical novels gains the cultural upper hand and so the ballad becomes primarily a tool of imperialism.
It is true that elite authors who shake hands with the ballad tend to keep it at arm's length, and so it would be dangerous to idealize their engagement with it, to forget the Bourdieuvian drive toward distinction in the field of cultural production. It would likewise be blind not to see that gender profoundly shapes the literature of the time. My hope is that I can add something to feminist understandings of patriarchy's role in forming and maintaining the canon by considering the importance of gender in the Scottish Enlightenment's imagination of song, William Wordsworth's struggles with the abject role of women in ballads, and the lack of respect accorded to Felicia Hemans's experiments with popular song. I hope, too, that my readings of Burns and Blake aid the project to clarify how plebeian authors dealt with prohibitions and constricting stereotypes in their attempt to publish their work. The systole of inclusion by way of the ballad cannot be divorced from the diastole of exclusion.
But although I am indebted to these studies of the Ballad Revival, and of gender and class in the literature of the era, I have found that they ultimately cannot explain many elements of the phenomenon under study here. For many of those involved in the Ballad Revival, things are not as simple as a choice between base desires and the cool disinterest of aesthetic pleasure. Rather, they present the ballad as the catalyst of a profound interest, a strong call to feel its communal power, a passion mediated but not dissipated by a reflexive knowledge of self and history.
Within this broader commonality are profound differences that can be seen only if we look earlier and more broadly than the midcentury cult of bard and minstrel that has been the typical starting point for work on the Ballad Revival. Consider Thomas D'Urfey and William Blake. D'Urfey, the foremost songwriter of the Restoration, employs the ballad in the wake of the English Civil War to imagine a nation in which the Stuart monarch reigns over a happy populace bound together by the customs of Merrie England in contrast to the grim leveling of the Whigs. A century later, Blake employs street songs to imagine an Albion of Dissenting prophets that would make D'Urfey shudder. Differences are equally sharp among writers of the same era—for instance, Joseph Ritson's fierce attack on the elitism of Thomas Percy's Reliques is driven by his republican sympathies. There are also other, subtler differences. For some, the ballad acts as a way to manage historical change, as in Walter Scott's accommodation of nostalgia for traditional Scotland to the imperative to embrace modern Britain. But in the hands of Burns, Scots song becomes a hammer to smash the assumption of historical progress. Even in more conservative accounts we see the stress marks of conflict, especially in the sharp debates over gender roles and sexuality in the nation. For the literati of the Scottish Enlightenment, the martial heroism that limns the ballad becomes a way to answer the anxiety that modern politeness also risks a slip into effeminacy.
It would be a mistake, though, simply to read off the differing politics of these authors from their adaptation of the ballad, naming this one as reactionary, that one as progressive. For one of the most important things that The Ballad Revival adds to our understanding of elite culture is the way politics gets mediated by elite culture, complicating recent positions on literature and the aesthetic. One way of illustrating this claim is to consider the role of print in our epigraphs from both Addison and Coleridge. To quote The Winter's Tale, a text I will be returning to repeatedly, they "love a ballad-in-print"—not because they "are true," as Shakespeare's shepherds believe, but because they circulate widely. It is true that the raft of broadsides printed every year are not favored by antiquarians like Thomas Percy who prefer manuscript or black-letter, or philologists like Francis James Child who prize the supposedly "pure" oral ballads that record the evidence of a dwindling "folk." However the traditional ballad has been theorized, critics to this day routinely oppose it to the degradations associated with the broadside or stall ballad, described by Nick Groom in his groundbreaking study of Percy as "perpetually recycled patterns of bloody or salacious plots, treacly sentimental trash," tainted with the pretensions and commercial motives of literary print culture. Earlier scholars reacted to the fact that many traditional ballads doubtlessly originated as broadsides or at least passed through that state at one point by attempting to excavate the traces of orality in the broadsides that survive (for instance, "incremental repetition") and rank them accordingly. This pursuit of pure orality has, in turn, become the object of critique of more recent studies, which uncover its lack of empirical evidence or its logocentric fantasies.
But the dichotomy between orality and print does not obtain for Addison, Coleridge, and many other elite authors interested in the ballad (let alone for ballads themselves, which often pass in dizzying fashion back and forth between print and orality). Neither do all elite authors turn to the ballad in retreat from the public sphere of print culture as it emerges in the eighteenth century into a minstrel or bardic past. When Coleridge favorably compares the "Agency" of the "little ballad" to that of Alexander the Great, he imagines a public bound together by something other than the sword of the absolutist state that precedes it or of the Napoleonic and paranoid British states currently on the prowl (or the oral stylings of the bard), a public that might even be actuated by "radical impulses." As defined by the ballad, that public can also take good advantage of the system of print, exploiting print's opportunities for contact and mitigating its impermanence and commodification. Against print's ephemerality, the ballad offers the possibility of permanence to Mr. Spectator, himself a creature of print. It binds together public and private, moving from street to cottage and then, thanks to Mr. Spectator's refined taste, moving back out to the more discriminating public that reads his essays.
For his part, Coleridge turns to "Children" as an answer to his pained question as to why he publishes at all, drawing on Jean Paul's excuse for making a book—that it allows the author to exceed the "narrow circle of love" circumscribed by his physical body, which allows him to "grasp so few good hands." Never one to leave a figure alone, Coleridge adds to this friendly reading community the specter of self-interest's grasping hands—"because my poverty keeps those Hands empty when my Heart aches to empty them"—as economic need has just forced him to sign with Longman to "make a book" of poems for a mere twenty pounds. (Typically, he never fulfilled his part of the contract.) Poverty forces him to write for money, whatever his desire may be to "empty" the product of his hands and mind out of love for the public.
These epigraphs reveal more than the limits of the print/oral dichotomy. Coleridge's revision of Paul and Mr. Spectator's more reticent gesture at the materiality of print show why it is important to understand the field of cultural production and the aesthetic mode of apprehension adjunct to it as semiautonomous, neither divorced from nor reducible to the state, church, or market. Coleridge acknowledges that he needs to make money but wants to do something more than that, to increase his agency and reach his readers' hearts. (We might also wonder if there isn't a conqueror's fantasy mixed in with Coleridge's wish.) If we do not see that elite culture is irreducible to the church, state, or market, we are bound to misunderstand Gay's attempt to find "poetic justice" beyond the cruelty of the gallows and the moral stupidity of opera in The Beggar's Opera (Chapter 1), Allan Ramsay's carving out a sphere for the Scottish literati outside of an Anglocentric state and the Scottish Presbyterian Church (Chapter 2), and David Garrick's replacement of the royal pageant with a singing parade of Shakespearean characters as representatives of the nation (Chapter 3).
The need to preserve this semiautonomy is particularly important when discussing Romantic lyric (Chapter 4). By this point, ballad collection has a well-constituted history and itself becomes the object of reflection, and Wordsworth and Blake worry over its potential to evaporate the space between culture and politics. For within the electrified field of post-Revolutionary discourse, authors come under pressure to turn the community of song into an unthinking chorus of unanimity, whether radical or reactionary. While some Romantic authors do use popular songs for directly political purposes (see Percy Shelley's "The Devil's Walk"), others turn them to different ends. When Wordsworth and Blake collect popular songs into their work, they guard against erasing the particulars of the culture from which those songs come, Blake against the making of Street Cries merely picturesque, Wordsworth against the sensational ballads of Gottfried August Bürger, James Macpherson, and Walter Scott. This ethnographic care toward the object is matched by a concern not to coerce the reader into an unreflective nationalism. Without falling into a naïve account of subjective freedom or ignoring the nostalgia and elitism also bound up in the Romantic collection of the ballad, the following study seeks to present this care for local culture and readerly agency as a legacy bequeathed by the Ballad Revival to literary study as we now practice it.
To track the fate of that Romantic legacy, my account concludes with an analysis of how the Ballad Revival shaped literary scholarship and pedagogy in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the rise of the New Criticism. Having been masculinized as a vocation by Scott, ballad collection becomes a proper endeavor for American philologists like Francis James Child and Francis Barton Gummere and for the teachers and textbook writers who incorporate and popularize their scholarship, including Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, who are typically thought of as antagonistic to philology. For all of these authors, ballads become part of "the protoplasm of literature," the favored texts for the student on the cusp of "the bookish." Initiating the student into literary self-consciousness, they also bring him into touch with the roots of the nation, what Gummere calls many decades before Benedict Anderson "the imagined community," and what Warren, appropriating a Native American vision of resistance to genocide, calls "the Ghost Dance."
My goal has been to write a history of lyric and Literature that properly weighs the specificities of genre along with changes in sociopolitical structure and that does not assume too quickly the significance of the elite encounter with popular song. But the Ballad Revival also repeatedly raises an ethical problem that exceeds any history—the vexed relationship of poetry to justice. This is the issue I take up in the coda. From the start of the Ballad Revival, the ballad acts as an invaluable resource for dreaming of poetic justice in a democratic key, its communal strain saving elite lyric and elite theory from the solipsism recent accounts have laid at its doorstep. But as Gay points out as early as 1728, there is a persistent danger in mistaking the politics of the imaginary for an actually existing democracy. Popular song is not intrinsically progressive; it has no built-in politics. And while it is important not to dismiss poetic justice as "just poetry," it is equally important not to forget the mediations that are inseparable from Literature as long as the cultural field remains structured by divisions between "high," "middlebrow," and "low" or the lecture hall and the street or "restricted" and "general" economies of production. To erase those mediations courts a facile notion of the relationship between culture and politics. Though we must dream the Ghost Dance if we wish one day to dance it, there is no short cut to it, however much we may want one.