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The Ballad
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Thomas Percy published Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765, near the end of the heyday of the heroic couplet in English poetry. Percy's three small volumes included old ballads and romances from England and Scotland. Percy edited some of the ballads, which sometimes meant toning down their violent and sexual content, and he or his friends added poems of their own in imitation of the old ones. Percy's work and that of other antiquarian scholars sparked a "ballad revival" in Britain. In 1815, fifty years after the publication of the Reliques, William Wordsworth attested to the importance of Percy's work to British Romanticism, saying that the poetry of his country "has been absolutely redeemed by it. I do not think that there is an able Writer in verse of the present day who would not be proud to acknowledge his obligations to the Reliques; I know that it is so with my friends; and, for myself, I am happy in this occasion to make a public avowal of my own."

What made Percy's ballads so attractive to Romantic-era poets? I would cite at least three factors. First, they offered a way for poets to think of themselves as participating in a long history of British writing. It might seem odd for us to think that a tradition of British writing would not have been self-evident, given our modern preoccupation with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the like, but the standard narratives of British literature (as something separate from a Classical tradition) were just emerging in the eighteenth century. Second, Romantic-era writers saw the ballads as expressing intense emotion in a language pure of later poetry's bells and whistles. Third, the ballads portrayed sensational subject matter--sex, murder, adultery, infanticide, ghost stories, you name it--in a way that helped writers use that sensational material but still maintain some separation from it. Wordsworth, for instance, used gothic and otherwise sensational subject matter throughout his career while also complaining about the sensational subject matter of other writers. The ballads provided a way to be respectably sensational.

If you want to see a whole ballad from Percy's collection, check out The Marriage of Sir Gawaine from The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.

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