The humble ballad, defined in 1728 as "a song commonly sung up
and down the streets," was widely used in elite literature in the
eighteenth century and beyond. Authors ranging from John Gay to
William Blake to Felicia Hemans incorporated the seemingly
incongruous genre of the ballad into their work. Ballads were
central to the Scottish Enlightenment's theorization of culture and
nationality, to Shakespeare's canonization in the eighteenth
century, and to the New Criticism's most influential work,
Understanding Poetry. Just how and why did the ballad
appeal to so many authors from the Restoration period to the end of
the Romantic era and into the twentieth century?
Exploring the widespread breach of the wall that separated "high"
and "low," Steve Newman challenges our current understanding of
lyric poetry. He shows 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 became known as the English literary
For Newman, the ballad's early lack of prestige actually increased
its value for elite authors after 1660. Easily circulated and
understood, ballads moved literature away from the exclusive domain
of the courtly, while keeping it rooted in English history and
culture. Indeed, elite authors felt freer to rewrite and reshape
the common speech of the ballad. Newman also shows how the ballad
allowed authors to access the "common" speech of the public sphere,
while avoiding what they perceived as the unpalatable qualities of
that same public's increasingly avaricious commercial society.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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