Nostalgia for “Inherent Perfection”: The Incorporation of Balladry into Poetry Itself1

Sally O’Driscoll
Fairfield University

The recent resurgence of scholarly interest in the ballad has produced a multifaceted set of new investigations. Since Penny Fielding’s Writing and Orality (1996) and Adam Fox’s Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500–1700 (2000) revitalized the study of the relationship between orality and print culture and showed the complexity of the connections between the two, new scholarship has raised further questions about the intermingling of oral and literate performances (see, for example, the 2006 special issue of Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation edited by Ruth Perry, as well as work by Dugaw, Paula McDowell, and Steve Newman).2 Maureen N. McLane’s book Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry (Cambridge, 2008) is part of this efflorescence of sophisticated studies of ballads—or more precisely, of their place and function in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary culture. McLane’s overarching argument is that what we know as ballads came to exist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through a complex reconstruction process that she calls balladeering: it involved the recognition and prizing of a fast disappearing oral culture, its reclamation through the equivalent of ethnographic expeditions and gathering from native informants, the invention of an editorial apparatus to legitimize the ballad texts, and finally the ballad genre’s reinstatement into nationalist literary traditions. Having detailed this process, McLane pushes further to the second part of her thesis, in which she considers the importance of a continuing strain of orality (and of nostalgia for orality) in poiesis itself—that is, orality’s function as a crucial element in the production of poetry (particularly for William Wordsworth and the Romantics). Thus her argument moves far beyond the specifics of ballad production and into the nature of poetry itself, which as she suggests has to be re-thought in every age.

This book is a beautifully written, highly suggestive, and well-argued explication of an activity that has until now been looked at in somewhat narrower dimensions: the collection and study of ballads by antiquarians in the late eighteenth century and the relationship of this one particular poetic form to poetry more broadly. What this book does particularly well is explain the various activities involved in that work—and, more importantly, their larger significance, in the sections that historicize ballads. The second part of her argument is a bold extension that moves away from ballads themselves, yet reminds us paradoxically that the essential elements of balladry remained as catalysts on the work of Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott—most particularly in Wordsworth’s self-reflexive explorations of the function of poetry. Identifying the shaping force of ballads in Wordsworth’s work leads McLane to some rich interpretations of individual poems. Her final leap is to examine the continuing force of orality and balladry in contemporary poetry. As her term balladeering suggests, McLane’s book constantly reminds us of the text as an ongoing process: a cultural object produced through multiple forces and constantly reshaped by context. This insistence on process is one of the book’s greatest strengths—an inherent resistance to the static forces of nostalgia that seek to fix and deaden poetic function.

In her first chapter, “Dating Orality, Thinking Balladry,” McLane begins to outline her definition of balladeering: it is a set of practices produced in a particular cultural context, and it produces an object—a ballad—that is forced to be aware of its own historical place in the culture. She uses James Beattie’s “The Minstrel” (1771) as a test case to discuss the nature and continuing importance of orality, which is subsumed (or remediated, as she puts it) in this poem as an already historical artifact. Thus one thread of McLane’s argument is her examination of the continuing power of nostalgia: the pull that orality has for literate poets, continuing into the present. As she puts it: “The romance of fled music: that is what orality offered literate poets. The prospect of thick, deep, yet notionally audible pasts: this is what orality offered antiquarians and conjectural historians interested in ‘the early period of society.’ The primitive within: this is what orality offered cultural history” (41). Not content simply to acknowledge this nostalgia, she carefully and exhaustively considers the power it represents: this book is an extended, insightful meditation on orality’s deep-seated significance for literate consumers.

McLane’s chapter titles reflect her insistence on the effect of the editorial shaping process on the textual artifact: for example, the second chapter, “How to Do Things with Ballads,” is a succinct and compelling description of balladeering as a process that made oral ballads legible to contemporary readers. The balladeers did this in the same way that any other discipline produces a corpus of material that can be understood and commented on: it developed a methodology, found a set of informants, set up a way to cross-check information between various types of sources, and articulated a language (to be found in the editorial apparatus of printed ballad collections) that conveyed this authenticating system to its readers. In the process of making ballads legible, balladeers wrote their own elegy, because balladeering itself confirmed their demise, and the demise of the particular oral culture that had produced them; they made ballads into a tradition, situating them firmly in the past, as an artifact that was finished and could now be studied.

McLane focuses on Scott as anthologizer and creator of the editorial apparatus that served to legitimize balladry, rather than on early collector-editors such as Bishop Thomas Percy and Joseph Ritson. This is where she discusses the authentication process, in which Scott exhaustively tries to trace the provenance of a ballad, locates through fieldwork the native informants who passed it on, and compares multiple versions. Scott invents an editorial apparatus that could both use the existence of oral transmitters and at the same time sublimate their authority to that of the editor in a process that produced the appearance of authenticity; through this process, tradition became legitimate, and the oral (when mediated by an editor) could be privileged. At the same time, this editorial process produced a cadre of editors, a small society of antiquarians who referred to each other’s work and saw themselves as a discipline—a development as important to the history of literary criticism as the editing of ballads itself.

Another of the threads McLane follows is the concept of mediality: as she says at one point, “we might best describe balladeering as a complex, multiply mediated feedback loop” (77). She traces this concept throughout the entire book, gradually expanding and forming the basis for the turn the argument takes when she moves from Wordsworth to contemporary poetry.

A thread that McLane introduces in passing but does not fully develop is the connection between balladeering and modernity: as she puts it, “balladeering was like the developing sciences that were going on around it” (75). And, she adds, “the ‘invention of tradition’ may be one definition of modernity itself” (77). This is an intriguing formulation that is provocative but not fleshed out, yet it offers a possibility for rethinking the forms of poetry through the lens of modernity.

In chapter 3, “Tuning the Multi-Media Nation,” having set out the basics of the process of balladeering, with its multiple activities, McLane then turns to the function of music—for without music, a ballad is not really a ballad. Yet it was expensive and difficult to print music alongside the ballad text, and many of the editors left out this integral aspect of the song. The limitations of the print culture marketplace distorted the object they were producing, eliminating a crucial element of its heard nature.

In chapter 4, “How to Do Things with Minstrels,” she reminds us again that the figure of the ballad-singer is as much a process under construction as the ballad itself was. The minstrel figure, she argues, allowed eighteenth-century antiquarians to historicize balladry. Once again, she focuses on Scott to show how he used the minstrel in his ballad collections before incorporating him into his own poetry and into his historical novels. One might say that the minstrel—in the hands of the Romantics, at least—is the conduit through which poetry and historical discourse can blend. Percy, in the introduction to his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), famously used the minstrel as a focal point for inventing a nationalist narrative of literary history: later editors continued to build on this tradition.

McLane argues that minstrelsy is a function rather than an actual figure: “Minstrelsy is an endlessly adaptable system of signification, a flexible instrument, so to speak, which lent itself equally to narratives of historical formation and cultural nationalism—e.g. in Scott’s Lay—and to cheerfully mongrelizing entertainment” (136). Poems about minstrels, minstrels as transmitters of a national poetic heritage, minstrels as narrators—all provide the opportunity for ballad material to be passed on in a new medium, to a literate audience.

In chapter 5, “Minstrelsy, or, Romantic Poetry,” McLane bridges the two major parts of her argument by providing a connection between the construction of ballads/minstrelsy with poetry itself as practiced in the age of disappearing orality. She argues that minstrelsy is an “intra-poetic phenomenon,” a discourse of and through poetry. As she says, “I want to explore minstrelsy as another name for poiesis in this period” (141). Apparently, the minstrel forms a bridge that re-energizes literate poetry by enabling the flow of popular traditionary song to be channeled through the minstrel, who passes it on. The minstrel is also is similar enough to the figure of the poet to allow the poet to see him or herself in the same position. The figure of the minstrel enabled the Romantic poets to reposition themselves and actually to become poets.

All of this is predicated on the actual shift from orality to literacy, which was very localized and involved a flow back and forth across various media. A traditionary ballad could be oral, then collected and put into print, circulated through broadside or book collection, then learned by a new audience and once more circulated orally. This complex process deserves perhaps more attention than it receives here. Nonetheless, McLane’s formulation produces some enlightening readings of, in particular, Wordsworth.

In this chapter, she offers a list of fifteen elements of how minstrelsy was understood by the Romantics. Take, for example, number 11: “Minstrelsy offers both a history of artifactualization and the promise of perpetual oralization. To represent minstrelsy is to oscillate between two poles: reification and dispersal. These poles are also, intriguingly, the poles of romantic poetry and theory” (152). Such lists allow McLane to summarize the earlier discussion and neatly apply her propositions to poems by Scott, Wordsworth, and John Clare: this produces very tight, insightful readings about how each poet saw the function of poetry. She concludes: “As I hope the foregoing discussion makes plain, Romantic minstrelsy—and Romanticism-as-minstrelsy—repeatedly poses a profound question: how should poets formalize—that is, how should they render into poetic form—their relation to culture?” (168).

Chapter 6, “Seven Types of Poetic Authority Circa 1800,” considers how the Romantics incorporated poetic authority through an appeal to multiple levels of tradition, including the oral, but also relying heavily on written literate tradition. Legitimizing elements of the poetic function required strenuous intervention, amounting to the construction of a concept of authentic subjectivity—and here McLane argues that such subjectivity should not be seen as separate from editorial objectivity. She suggests re-envisioning Romantic poiesis as a double movement of internalization and externalization, what she calls a “reciprocity of lyric subjectivity and editorial exteriority” (199); a recognition of this double and related movement more fully illuminates the work of poets who have sometimes been assumed to pursue only one of the two.

Once the authority of poiesis was in place, as suggested in chapter 7, “British Romantic Mediality and Beyond,” Wordsworth in particular made it possible for poetry to escape a trap and to move forward as a culturally significant form. McLane argues that the inherent problem of poetry at the end of the eighteenth century is that it was cut off from orality: that it was unmoored from that huge tradition—that insight explains why the Romantics felt they had to remake poetry and why Wordsworth in particular focused on the connection between poetry in general and orality. After Wordsworth, poetry could again compete against the novel as a genre rooted in mainstream experience.

This is McLane’s final step in the argument about mediality, in which she extends her argument further through Lord Byron and Wordsworth into the late twentieth century, discussing the necessity of poetry’s embrace of new media in order to remain vital. Her discussion of how Wordsworth circulated his own work demonstrates how oral, manuscript, and print elements—different media streams—converged in Wordsworth’s work. Her detailed readings of Wordsworth enable her to see his work though the lens of self-reflexivity: “Wordsworth’s poems are often not so much poems about poetry as poems about the complex encounters between oral and literary poiesis” (234).

Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry is an impressive work: it is imaginative and challenging and asks its readers to consider the historical activity of ballad collection and to resituate it within a broader cultural context of the actual effect of media on textuality. McLane pushes us to see the uses balladry and oral culture were put to as part of a complex negotiation of new literary forms; the successful proponents were able to make the clash of orality and literacy the very subject matter of their work. The full consideration of orality thus necessarily underpins any discussion of what poetry could be, especially for the Romantics. McLane’s achievement in this work is to consider every aspect of how orality was actively used by editors, anthologizers, and poets; she shows us that there is no simple divide between an oral cultural object and a literate one, but rather that oral poetry is constructed by those literate poets and editors who shape it through their manipulations as they pass it on, and who incorporate its concerns as fundamental elements of the very making of poetry. By focusing on the complexity of this process, she shows us how attending to it can produce insightful close readings and a deeper understanding of the cultural processes through which poetry is written and recognized.


1.  My title alludes to Spectator No. 70 (May 21, 1711), in which Joseph Addison writes:

I know nothing which more shews the essential and inherent Perfection of Simplicity of Thought, above that which I call the Gothick Manner in Writing, than this, that the first pleases all Kinds of Palates, and the latter only such as have formed to themselves a wrong artificial Taste upon little fanciful Authors and Writers of Epigram. Homer, Virgil, or Milton, so far as the Language of their Poems is understood, will please a Reader of plain common Sense, who would neither relish nor comprehend an Epigram of Martial, or a Poem of Cowley: So, on the contrary, an ordinary Song or Ballad that is the Delight of the common People, cannot fail to please all such Readers as are not unqualified for the Entertainment by their Affectation or Ignorance; and the Reason is plain, because the same Paintings of Nature which recommend it to the most ordinary Reader, will appear Beautiful to the most refined.

2.  Penny Fielding, Writing and Orality (Oxford, 1996). Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500–1700 (Oxford, 2000).  “Ballads and Songs in the Eighteenth Century,” a special issue of The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 47, nos. 2–3 (Summer/Fall 2006). Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650–1850 (Cambridge, 1989). Paula McDowell, “Towards a Genealogy of ‘Print Culture’ and ‘Oral Tradition,’” This is Enlightenment, ed. Clifford Siskin and William Warner(University of Chicago Press, 2010), 229–46; “‘The Art of Printing Was Fatal’: Print Commerce and the Idea of Oral Tradition in Eighteenth-Century Ballad Discourse,” Ballads and Broadsides 1500–1800, ed. Patricia Fumerton and Anita Guerrini(Ashgate, 2010), 35–56; “‘The Manufacture and Lingua-facture of Ballad-Making’: Broadside Ballads in Long Eighteenth-Century Ballad Discourse,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 47, nos. 2–3 (Summer/Fall 2006): 151–78. Steve Newman, Ballad Collection, Lyric, and the Canon: The Call of the Popular from the Restoration to the New Criticism (Philadelphia, 2007).