Ballad collecting and editing are areas of Romantic poetic practice not widely examined, yet it was in the Romantic period that ballad collection underwent serious changes. While previous collections largely relied upon previously published material, the Romantic period saw the rise of fieldwork, in which antiquarians and other ballad collectors went out and transcribed ballads from oral performance or recitation by people who had memorized large repertories of traditional songs. The paratextual apparatus of collections produced by Thomas Percy, Joseph Ritson, Walter Scott, Robert Jamison, and others indicate both a wide variety of editorial strategies, and a growing respect for transcription from oral circulation as a marker of authenticity. Yet despite this trend, some ballad collectors continued to “improve” the ballads they collected and transcribed.
When Scott published Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, he included a variant of “The Two Sisters” entitled “The Cruel Sister.” (If you are unfamiliar with “The Twa Sisters,” check out its variants here:http://www.contemplator.com/child/variant10.htm). Child describes Scott’s ballad as a compound of a variant from Mrs. Brown and another variant transcribed from a recitation by Miss Charlotte Brooke. “compounded from one ‘in Mrs Brown’s MS.’ and a fragment of fourteen stanzas which had been transcribed from a recitation by Miss Charlotte Brooke, adopting a burden found in neither” (163). Child’s language implies that Scott’s melange of ballad variants is an instance of irresponsible editing. In his headnote to the ballad Scott acknowledges the compound nature of the text he presents, describing the ballad as “compiled from a copy in Mrs. Brown’s Mss., intermixed with a beautiful fragment, of fourteen verses” (III.352), but his acknowledgement is crafted to convey a justification for, as well as an explanation of, his editorial practices. Scott’s headnote positively accents the creativity of his composite editorial strategy.
The refrain Scott gives his ballad object is not found in either Mrs. Brown’s manuscript or the “beautiful fragment” he favors. Scott argues that the fragment refrain, “Hey ho, my Nanny, O / While the swan swims bonny, O,” should not be used because it “seems to be corrupted from the common burden” of another song (III.352). Scott’s argument that the refrain included in the fragment, which was transcribed “from the memory of an old woman” (III.352), was a mistaken transference from another ballad suggests that Scott might be interested in capturing a complete and uncorrupted ballad from oral tradition, but Scott gives no reason for discarding the refrain from Mrs. Brown’s manuscript beyond noting that he has done so. Scott claims that the “chorus, retained in this edition, is the most common and popular,” but offers no evidence in support of this claim, nor any reason for his editorial choice (III.352).
An explanation for Scott’s flagrant unconcern with maintaining the integrity of specific ballad variants may be found in the importance he accords individual talent and genius. In his “Introductory Remarks on Popular Poetry” (1830) Scott claims that the creation of great poetry is most dependent upon “the rise of some highly-gifted individual, possessing in a pre-eminent and uncommon degree the powers demanded, whose talents influence the taste of a whole nation, and entail on their posterity and language a character almost indelibly sacred” (I.5). This argument, written years after not only multiple publications of Minstrelsy but also after Scott’s own success as both poet and novelist had been established, suggests that by 1830 Scott considers himself just such an individual “whose talents influence the taste of a whole nation.” In 1802, Scott’s belief in the importance of individual genuis is probably sufficiently developed for him to believe that his own additions and alterations possess as much validity as the composition of the “original poet” he posits, and his disdain for oral tradition as a form of transmission indicates that he values his own alterations above any creative alterations made by oral performers.
Although Scott conceived of an oral ballad tradition and sought to collect ballads from living performers, like his predecessors Percy and Ritson, Scott had more confidence in print and manuscript sources as custodians of accurate transmission. In his “Introductory Remarks on Popular Poetry” he argues, “The more popular the composition of an ancient poet, or Maker, became, the greater chance there was of its being corrupted; for a poem transmitted through a number of reciters, like a book reprinted in a multitude of editions, incurs the risk of impertinent interpolations from the conceit of one rehearser, unintelligible blunders from the stupidity of another, and omissions equally to be regretted, from the want of memory in a third” (I.9). Interestingly, while Scott considers the creative input of a reciter to be “impertinent interpolation” resulting from “conceit,” he regularly makes his own contributions to the ballads he collected. Presumably, since he considers himself as much a “highly-gifted individual” (I.5) as his hypothesized ballad-Maker, his own interpolations are neither impertinent nor conceited.
Scott’s emphasis on individual poetic talent allows him to incorporate a section entitled “Imitations of the ancient ballad” into his collection when other ballad editors more concerned with maintaining at least the illusion of their ideal of authenticity (like Percy) would not include modern imitations. Since Scott values aesthetic merit over age, completeness, or oral transmission, modern compositions in a similar style are ranked with older ballads circulated through print or oral transmission. Though Scott admits that the amalgamated ballad he has produced, “The Cruel Sister,” is not a ballad that actually circulates in oral tradition, he implies that between the aesthetic value of the fragment and the merits of his own inspired editing, his final production is not only acceptable, but exceptional.
Scott’s belief in the creative power of a single great poet, and his self-identification as such a poet, encourage him to alter the ballads to achieve what he considers the greatest aesthetic merit, creating a renovated romantic ballad in the place of the tragic ballad circulating orally. While Jamieson also makes his own additions to flesh out the ballad plot, he is more scrupulous about acknowledging his interpolations. While I myself value Jamieson’s efforts to document the variation and circulation of traditional ballads, there’s something about Scott’s sheer moxie in “improving” the ballad.