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ROMAIC AND RHINE BALLADS.
"I never could trust that man nor woman either, nor ever will, that can be insensible to the simple ballads and songs of rude times; there is always something wrong in them at the core."
SINCE Such is the opinion of a contemporary, we hope that his friends, at least, will rejoice in having their attention directed to collections as fine, in different ways, as those of the old English or Border ballads, which have fallen into our hands just when they were most needed, refreshing episodes in such a life as is led here.
First in order, though not first in favor, comes Rheinsagen aus dem Munde des volks und Deutscher Dichter, Traditions of the Rhine from the mouths of the people and German poets. By Karl Simrock.
A happy man is this Simrock, a "Dr." too, Doctor of Romance, for at the end of this volume are printed advertisements of the Nibelungen lied, translated by K. S. —, twenty lays of the Nibelungen restored according to the intimations of Lachmann, by K. S., Wieland, the Smith, German heroic Saga, together with ballads and romances by K. S.
A happy man, a pleasant life! to dwell in this fair country, to bathe and grow from childish years in the atmosphere of its traditions, its architecture, and the aspect of nature by which these were fostered; then, as a grown man, to love, to understand them, and find himself in them, so that he became their fit interpreter. Such are the only
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interpreters, children of the era of which they speak, yet far enough remote to see it in memory. This tender fidelity, this veneration for the ancient institutions of the fatherland is not only remote from, but inconsistent with anything tame, servile, or bigotted in character; for to fulfil the offices of this natural priesthood supposes great life in the priest, intellectual life to comprehend the past, life of the affections to reanimate it, life of faith to feel that this beauty is not dead but sleepeth, while its spirit is reborn into new and dissimilar forms. This gentleness, this clearness of perception, combined with ardent sympathy, this wide view are shown in the manner of preparing this garland with which
May crown his rocky cup of wine."
It is good for us in this bustling, ambitious, superficial country, where every body is trying to do something new, where all the thought is for the future, and it is supposed the divine spirit has but just waked up, and that the blunders, committed on the earth during this long slumber, are now at once to be corrected by the combined efforts of men still crude and shallow-hearted, or the scheme of some puny intellect; it is good for us to look abroad. and learn to know the weakness which waits upon our strength by seeing the benefits of that state, where men believe that God rules the past as well as the future, that love and loyalty have bloomed and will bloom like the rose, the common ornament of each of his years, and that hate and falsehood have been, as they will be, permitted conditions of man's willing choice of virtue. It is good to hear, sometimes the silver trumpet, sometimes the rude fish-horn blow by breath that stifles in the utterance, calling to Repent, for the acceptable year of the Lord is come; but it is also pleasant to see men watering flowers upon a grave, gazing up with reverence to the ivied ruin and placing their gifts on the ancient shrine, pleasant to see them singing the songs and copying the pictures of genius now past from us, and translated elsewhere; for He the Lord hath spoken, then as now, hath spoken the word that cannot grow old, and whose life to-day alike interprets and recreates its life of that other day.
Every genius is a reformer, but if he is a radical reformer, it may be to loosen the earth and let in sun and rain to the root, rather than to pull it up. This piety of the Germans has its two excesses, making them sometimes Phantasts, sometimes Pedants, but the soaring temper is always subject to the one danger, the severe and devout to the other. They are good people, and like the knights, and priests, and cathedral-loving monarchs of whom these Sagas sing, except in a less martial glance or grasp of the hand, for now the vocation is changed, and their eyes are bleared over the chronicles of men who lived in warmer blood a hastier life, and the hand has lost all cunning save that of the pen, but could the old time come again, it would find the same stuff of which to make the same men. It would find its religion in the form of skepticism, and its love hid under a stranger mask, but still doing as of old the appointed work, and with that vigilance and loyalty which mark the clime.
Rivers, like men, have their destiny, and that of the Rhine, one would think, must have been worked out. Not a step does the stream advance, unmarked by some event of obvious beauty and meaning. The castle and cathedral, with their stories and their vows, have grown along its banks as freely as the vine, and borne as rich a harvest. All things have conspired to make the course of the river a continuous poem, and it flows through this book almost as sweet and grand, as beneath its proper sky.
The book commences with the ballad called Staveren. It is written in the old woman's negligent, chronicle measure, and forms an admirable prologue to the book. It is the famous story of a city swollen by prosperity to that pitch of pride and wickedness that make its destruction inevitable. The devotees to money need not go to the desolate plains of Syria for their admonition, they may find it in a common voyage, if they will pause upon the waters of the Zuyder Sea.
It is a fine thing for a ballad to suggest so naturally and completely its pictures, as this does. Its burden is, "look down into the waters, and see the towers and spires of Staveren," and then look landward and you have before you the sudden rush of the sea which, in a manner so simple, wrought this doom.
Sodom must perish, but the intercession of Abram, whose pious mind is expressed in his strivings for the wicked city, casts a gleam of light into the pit of sin. A gentle warning given by a good man sheds a similar soft hue upon this story of Staveren. A maiden, the richest heiress of the city, summons her sailing master, and says, "take twelve moons' time for your voyage, and bring me back as cargo the noblest that earth can produce." He replies, "At once I obey and weigh the anchor, but tell more nearly what you want; there are so many noble productions of the earth. Is it corn or wine? Is it amber or silk, gold or spices? Is it pearls or emeralds? It costs thee but a word, and it shall be my cargo, were it the world's most precious treasure."
But she bids him guess, and will give him no help. He sails away in doubt, but after much thought makes up his mind, as becomes a substantial wise German,
What can be more precious than the golden grain?
So he loads his vessel with wheat from Dantzic, and is back at the end of the half year. He finds in the banquet hall his lady, who receives him with looks of scornful surprise.
Art thou here, my captain, in such haste?
The poor captain well sees he has failed of his errand, and answers reluctantly,
The best wheat I bring, potent lady, to thee!
No better can be found far as the land meets the sea.
At the news she expresses the greatest scorn and anger. Did I not bid thee, she cries, bring me the noblest, the best that the earth holds, and didst thou dare to bring me "miserable wheat of which these loaves are made?"
Then answered the old man, Despise not that by which we're fed,
God bids us daily pray him for our daily bread.
How highly I esteem it, she cries, thou soon shalt see,
On the right, he replies. Very well, she says, then throw it all into the sea from the left. Prepare to do this immediately, and I will come myself to see that you obey.
He went, but not to do the bidding at which his soul revolts. He calls together the hungry poor, and assembles them on the landing, thinking her hard heart will be touched at the sight, and she will not dare to offend God by this wanton waste of his gifts.
But the crowd of famished wretches implored in vain a little of the wheat to give them just one day, free from suffering. She persisted in her whim of pride, and all was thrown into the sea. The poor people looked on, wringing their hands, but the ship-master can no longer contain himself. He curses her, and predicts that she will yet be compelled to pick up the wheat, grain by grain, from the mud of the streets. She jeers at him. However, within the year the curse falls on her, losses are announced from every quarter, all is gone, and she begs from door to door the bread everywhere denied her, and at last sobs away her miserable life alone on a bed of straw.
This example does not warn her countrymen. They persist in their course of luxury, selfishness, and arrogance, when lo! a miracle comes to punish them, by stopping up the source of their ill-used wealth. Where the wheat had been thrown into the sea rose up a sand-bar, known by the name of Frauen sand. On this grows a plant unlike any known before, it is like corn, only there is no grain in the ear. This mysterious obstacle barred up their haven, spoiled their trade, their city sunk into poverty; - one morning they drew up fish when they went to the wells, and, in a few hours, the sea made good its triumph over Staveren.
Though written into prose, the thread of this story must show its texture. The legend is put into its present form by Simrock, and as well as most of those by his helpers, is graceful, vigorous, and of an expression whose simplicity and depth does not suffer by comparison with the volks lieder, even when they are on the same subject. The manner is different, but the same spirit dictates both, each in the manner of its own time.