Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 July 2019
IF THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN the so-called traditional ballad and the more literary ballad, which (perish the thought) might even have an identifiable author, was already blurred, then the appearance of the full-blown ‘literary ballad’ at the end of the eighteenth century appears as less of a special moment in literary history. There is no need to claim that ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ or ‘The Eve of St John’ or ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’ are the same thing even as ‘William and Margaret’, but if ballads were coming into print and entering the repertoire throughout the century, then the idea of ‘imitations of old ballads’, characterized by the presence of a selfconscious author, loses some of its force. The idea of literary influence, and its accompanying anxieties, is pretty firmly established by now – though it does, of course, clash with the fundamental idea of the author as individual genius, which was emerging at the period in question and which the Plain Dealer had already identified with the author of ‘William and Margaret’ many years before. David Mallet made more of a splash than did Michael Bruce, ‘the Gentle Poet of Lochleven’ (1746–67), who wrote one of the Scottish ballads of ‘Sir James the Rose’, but even so, the mere fact of Bruce's authorship misled Child into an aesthetic judgement that, with the benefit of hindsight, turns out to have quite misrepresented the cultural traction of ‘Sir James the Rose’.
‘Sir James the Rose’, popular print, and ballad medievalism
In the posthumously published autobiography of the shoemaker and writer John Younger (1785–1860), of St Boswells in the Scottish Borders, there are a couple of passages that testify to the importance for working-class culture of the chapbook literature around the end of the eighteenth century, both prose tales and verse ballads.