The 'Songs of the Ridings' text was donated by Dave Fawthrop,
and can also be seen together with other Yorkshire works on his
Songs of the Ridings
F. W. Moorman
I am making a much treasured copy of Songs of the Ridings, F. W. Moorman, Elkin Mathews, Cork Street, London 1918. into etext so that it may enjoy a wider readership. It is out of Copyright. This Preface, and all minor changes made by me, Dave Fawthrop, are hereby placed in the Public Domain. Enjoy!
The book is a slim volume (70 pages) of 25 Yorkshire Dialect poems. One of these "A Dalesman's Litany", with slightly different wording, is much quoted in Yorkshire and regularly sung in English folk clubs. It is wrongly considered as "Traditional" in the folk scene.
The book is rare in paper copies, and of great interest to Yorkshire people with a bent towards the Yorkshire Dialect. As one who was born in Hull and lives in Halifax :-), I am proud to be a Yorshireman
In reading this one must remember that these poems were written about 1900. Moorman is describing a world which is long forgotten and totally alien to a modern reader. His peasants no longer exist. Modern farmers would consider the word an insult. I can think of no acquaintance who would consider him/her self an artisan. In the hundred years which have passed since then the Yorkshire dialect has changed quite dramatically. Even the English language has changed so much that I had to look up several footnotes in the dictionary. It has been noted, rightly, by several people from uk.local.yorkshire that many words and pronunciations used are now only found in the Geordie, Cumbrian, or Lowland Scots dialects. Prof Moorman clearly used the dialect as he heard it in about 1900, These must have been lost in Yorkshire over the last one hundred years.
THIS VOLUME TO THE
YORKSHIRE MEMBERS OF THE
Preface (F. W. Moorman)
Abut two years ago I published a collection of Yorkshire dialect poems, chosen from many authors and extending over a period of two hundred and fifty years(1). The volume was well received, and there are abundant signs that the interest in dialect literature is steadily growing in all parts of the county and beyond its borders. What is most encouraging is to find that the book has found an entrance into the homes of Yorkshire peasants and artisans where the works of our great national poets are unknown. I now essay the more venturesome task of publishing dialect verses of my own. Most of the poems contained in this little volume have appeared, anonymously, in the Yorkshire press, and I have now decided to reissue them in book form and with my name on the title-page.
A generation ago the minor poet was, in the eyes of most Englishmen, an object of ridicule. Dickens and Thackeray had done their worst with him: we knew him - or her - as Augustus Snodgrass or Blanche Amory - an amiable fool or an unamiable minx. The twentieth century has already, in its short course, done much to remove this prejudice, and the minor poet is no longer expected to be apologetic; his circle of readers, though small, is sympathetic, and the outside public is learning to tolerate him and to recognise that it is as natural and wholesome for him to write and publish his verses as it is for the minor painter to depict and exhibit in public his interpretation of the beauty and power which he sees in human life and in nature. All this is clear gain, and the time may not be far distant when England will again become what it was in Elizabethan days - a nest of
singing birds, where te minor poets will be able to take their share in the chorus of song, leaving the chief parts in the oratorio to the Shakespeares and Spensers of tomorrow.
The twenty-five poems of which this volume consists are meant to serve a double purpose. Most of them are character-sketches or dramatic studies, and my wish is to bring before the notice of my readers the habits of mind of certain Yorkshire men and women whose acquaintance I have made. For ten years I have gone up hill and down dale in the three Ridings, intent on the study of the sounds, words and idioms of the local folk-speech. At first my object was purely philological, but soon I came to realise that men and women were more interesting than words and phrases, and my attention was attracted from dialect speech to dialect speakers. Among Yorkshire farmers, farm labourers, fishermen, miners and mill workers I discovered a vitality and an outlook upon life of which I, a bourgeois professor, had no previous knowledge. Not, only had I never met such men before, but I had not read about them in literature, or seen their portraits painted on canvas. The wish to give a literary interpretation of the world into which I had been privileged to enter grew every day more insistent, and this volume is the fulfilment of that wish.
Of all forms of literature, whether in Verse or prose, the dramatic monologue seemed to me the aptest for the exposition of character and habits of mind. It is the creation - or recreation - of Robert Browning, the most illuminating interpreter of the workings of the human mind that England has produced since Shakespeare died. My first endeavour was therefore
The Master work, and catch
Hints of the proper craft, tricks of the tool's true play.
I have been, I fear, a clumsy botcher in applying the lessons that Browning was able to teach, but the dramatic monologues of which this volume is largely composed owe whatever art they may possess to his example. My dramatic studies are drawn from life. For example, the local preacher who expresses his views on the rival merits of Church and Chapel is a Wharfedale acquaintance, and the farmer in 'Cambodunum' who declares that "eddication's nowt but muckment" actually expressed this view to a Chief Inspector of Schools, a member of the West Riding Education Committee, and myself, when we visited him on his farm. I do not claim that I have furnished literal transcripts of what I heard in my conversations with my heroes and heroines, but my purpose throughout has been to hold a mirror up to Nature, to give a faithful interpretation of thought and character, and to show my readers some of the ply of mind and habits of life that still prevail among Yorkshiremen whose individuality has not been blunted by convention and who have the courage to express their reasoned or instinctive views of life and society.
But the interpretation of the minds of Yorkshire peasants and artisans for the benefit of the so-called general reader is only the secondary object which I have in view. My primary appeal is not to those who have the full chorus of English song, from Chaucer to Masefield, at their beck and call, but to a still larger class of men and women who are not general readers of literature at all, and for whom most English poetry is a closed book. In my dialect wanderings through Yorkshire I discovered that while there was a hunger for poetry in the hearts of the people, the great masterpieces of our national song made little or no appeal to them. They were bidden to a feast of rarest quality and profusion, but it consisted of food that they could not assimilate. Spenser, Milton, Pope, Keats, Tennyson, all spoke to them in a language which they could not understand, and presented to them a world of thought and life in which they had no inheritance. But the Yorkshire dialect verse which circulated through the
dales in chap-book or Christmas almanac was welcomed everywhere. Two memories come before my mind as I write. One is that of a North Riding farm labourer who knew by heart many of the dialect poems of the Eskdale poet, John Castillo, and was in the habit of reciting them to himself as he followed the plough. The other is that of a blind girl in a West Riding village who had committed to memory scores of the poems of John Hartley, and, gathering her neighbours round her kitchen fire of a winter evening, regaled them with 'Bite Bigger', 'Nelly 'o Bob's' and other verses of the Halifax poet. My object is to add something to this chorus of local song. It was the aim of Addison in his 'Spectator' essays to bring "philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffeehouses"; and, in like manner, it should be the aim of the writer of dialect verse to bring poetry out of the coteries of the people of leisure and to make it dwell in artisans' tenements and in cottagers' kitchens. "Poetry," declared Shelley, "is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds," and it is time that the working men and women of England were made partakers in this inheritance of wealth and joy.
It maybe argued that it should be the aim of our schools and universities to educate the working classes to appreciate what is best in standard English poetry. I do not deny that much maybe done in this way, but let
us not forget that something more will be needed than a course of instruction in poetic diction and metrical rhythm. Our great poets depict a world which is only to a very small extent that of the working man. It is a world of courts and drawingrooms and General Headquarters, a world of clubs and academies. The working man or woman finds a place in this charmed world only if his occupation is that of a shepherd, and even then he must be a shepherd of the Golden Age and answer to the name of Corydon. Poets, we are solemnly assured by Pope, must not describe shepherds as they really are, "but as they may be conceived to have been when the best of men followed the employment of shepherd." Class-consciousness - a word often on the lips of our democratic leaders of today - has held far too much sway over the minds of poets from the Elizabethan age onwards. Spenser writes his 'Faerie Queene' "to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline," and Milton's audience, fit but few, is composed of scholars whose ears have been attuned to the harmonies of epic verse from their first lisping of Virgilian hexameters, or of latter-day Puritans, like John Bright, who overhear in 'Paradise Lost' the echoes of a faith that once was stalwart.
But what, it may be asked, of Crabbe, and what of Wordsworth? confession, paints
As truth will paint it and as bards will not;
but as we listen to his verse tales we can never forget that it is the Rev. George Crabbe who is instructing us, or that his pedestal is the topmost story of his three-decker pulpit at Aldborough. Wordsworth's sympathy with the lives of the Cumberland peasantry is profound, and the time is surely not distant when such a poem as 'Michael' will win a place in the hearts of working men; but it is to be feared that in his own generation "Mr Wudsworth" served rather - as a warning than an encouragement to his peasant neighbours. "Many's the time," an old
Cumberland innkeeper told Canon Rawnsley, "I've seed him a-takin' his family out in a string, and niver geein' the deariest bit of notice to 'em; standin' by hissel' an' stoppin' behind a-gapin', wi' his jaws workin' the whoal time; but niver no crackin' wi' 'em, nor no pleasure in 'em - a desolate-minded man, ye kna... It was potry as did it."(2)
Our English non-dramatic poetry from the Renaissance onwards is second to none in richness of thought and beauty of diction, but it lacks the highest quality of all - universality of interest and appeal. Our poets have turned a cold shoulder to the activities and aims of the working man, and the working man has, in consequence, turned a cold shoulder to the great English classic poets. The loss on either side has been great, though it is only now beginning to be realised. "A literature which leaves large areas of the national activity and aspiration unexpressed is in danger of becoming narrow, esoteric, unhealthy. Areas of activity and aspiration unlit by the cleansing sun of art, untended by the loving consideration of the poet, will be dungeons for the national spirit, mildewed cellars in which rats fight, misers hoard their gold, and Guy Fawkes lays his train to blow the superstructure sky-high."(3)
There was a time when poetry meant much more to the working men of England. In the later Middle Ages, above all in that fifteenth century which literary historians are fond of describing as the darkest period in English literature, the working man had won for himself what seemed a secure place in poetry. Narrative, lyric and dramatic poetry had all opened their portals to him, and made his life and aims their theme. Side by side with the courtly verse romances, which were read in the bowers of highborn ladies, were the terse and popular ballads, which were chanted by minstrels, wandering from town to town and from village to village. Among the heroes of these ballads we find that "wight yeoman," Robin Hood, who wages war against mediaeval capitalism, as embodied in the persons of the abbot-landholders, and against the class legislation of Norman game laws which is enforced by the King's sheriff. The lyric poetry of the century is not the courtly Troubadour song or the Petrarchian sonnet, but the folk-song that sings from the heart to the heart of the beauty of Alysoun, "seemliest of all things," or, in more convivial mood, accounts good ale of more worth than a table set with many dishes:
Bring us in no capon's flesh, for that is often dear,
Nor bring us in no duck's flesh, for they slobber in the mere,
But bring us in good ale!
Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale;
For our blessed Lady sake bring us in good ale.
Most remarkable of all is the history of the drama in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The drama was clerical and not popular in its origin, and when, in course of time, it passed out of the hands of the clergy it is natural to suppose that it would find a new home at the King's court or the baron's castle. It did nothing of the kind. It passed from the Church to the people, and it was the artisan craftsmen of the English towns, organised in their trade-guilds, to whom we owe the great cycles of our miracle plays. The authors of these plays were restricted to Bible story for their themes, but the popular character of their work is everywhere apparent in the manner in which the material is handled and the characters conceived. The Noah of the Deluge plays is an English master joiner with a shrewish wife, and three sons who are his apprentices. When the divine command to build an ark comes to him, he sets to work with an energy that drives away "the weariness of five hundred winters" and, "ligging on his line," measures his planks, "clenches them with noble new nails", and takes a craftsman's delight in the finished work:
This work I warant both good and true.(4)
In like manner, the Shepherds of the Nativity plays are conceived and fashioned by men who, fortunate in that they knew nothing of the seductions of Arcadian pastoralism, have studied at first hand the habits and thoughts of English fifteenth-century shepherds, and paint these to the life.
Thus, at the close of the Middle Ages, narrative, lyric and dramatic poetry seemed firmly established among the people. Not unmindful of romance, it was grounded in realism and sought to interpret the life of the peasant and the artisan of fifteenth-century England. The Renaissance follows, and a profound change comes over poetry. The popular note grows fainter and fainter, till at last it becomes inaudible. Poetry leaves the farmyard and the craftsman's bench for the court. The folk-song, fashioned in to a thing of wondrous beauty by the creator of Amiens, Feste and Autolycus, is driven from the stage by Ben Jonson, and its place is taken by a lyric of classic extraction. The popular drama, ennobled and made shapely through contact with Latin drama, passes from the provincial market-place to Bankside, and the rude mechanicals of the trade-guilds yield place to the Lord Chamberlain's players. In the dramas of Shakespeare the popular note is still audible, but only as an undertone, furnishing comic relief to the romantic amours of courtly lovers or the tragic fall of Princes; with Beaumont and Fletcher, and still more with Dryden and the Restoration dramatists, the popular element in the drama passes away, and the triumph of the court is complete. The Elizabethan court could find no use for the popular ballad, but, like other forms of literature, it was attracted from the country-side to the city. Forgetful of the greenwood, it now battened on the garbage of Newgate, and 'Robin Hood and Guy of Gisburn' yields place to 'The Wofull Lamentation of William Purchas, who for murthering his Mother at Thaxted, was executed at Chelmsford'.
We are justly proud of the Renaissance and of the glories of our Elizabethan literature, but let us frankly own that in the annals of poetry there was loss as well as gain. The gain was for the courtier and the scholar, and for all those who, in the centuries that followed the Renaissance, have been able, by means of education, to enter into the
courtier's and scholar's inheritance. The loss has been for the people. The opposition between courtly taste and popular taste is hard to analyse, but we have only to turn our eyes from England to Scotland, which lost its
royal court in 1603, in order to appreciate the reality of the opposition. In Scotland the courtly poetry of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries soon disappeared when James I exchanged Holyrood for Whitehall, but popular poetry continued to live and grow. The folk-song gathered power and sweetness all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, till it culminated at last in the lyric of Burns. Popular drama, never firmly rooted in Scotland, was stamped out by the Reformation, but the popular ballad outlived the mediaeval minstrel, was kept alive in the
homes of Lowland farmers and shepherds, and called into being the great ballad revival of the nineteenth century.
It is idle to speculate what would have been the progress of poetry in England if the Renaissance had not come and the Elizabethan courtier had not enriched himself at the expense of the people. What we have to bear in mind is that all through the centuries that followed the Renaissance the working men and women of England looked almost in vain to their poets for a faithful interpretation of their life and aims. The wonder is that the instinct for poetry did not perish in their hearts for lack of sustenance.
There are at the present time clear signs of a revival of popular poetry and popular drama. The verse tales of Masefield and Gibson, the lyrics of Patrick MacGill, the peasant or artisan plays which have been produced at
the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, may well be the beginning of a great democratic literary movement. Democracy, in its striving after a richer and fuller life for the people of England, is at last turning its attention to literature and art. It is slowly realising two great truths. The first is that literature may be used as a mighty weapon in the furtherance of political justice and social reform, and that the pied pipers of folk-song have the power to rouse the nation and charm the ears of even the Mother of Parliaments. The second is that the working man needs something more to sustain him than bread and the franchise and a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. Democracy, having obtained for the working man a place in the government of the nation, is now asserting his claim to a place in the temples of poetry. The Arthurian knight, the Renaissance courtier, the scholar and the wit must admit the twentieth-century artisan to their circle. Piers the ploughman must once more become the hero of song, and Saul Kane, the poacher, must find a place, alongside of Tiresias and Merlin, among the seers and mystics. Let democracy look to William Morris, poet, artist and social democrat, for inspiration and guidance, and take to heart the message of prophecy which he has left us: "If art, which is now sick, is to live and not die, it must in the future be of the people, for the people, by the people."
In the creation of this poetry "of the people, by the people" dialect may well be called upon to play a part. Dialect is of the people, though in a varying degree in the different parts of the wide areas of the globe where
the English language is spoken; it possesses, moreover, qualities, and is fraught with associations, which are of the utmost value to the poet and to which the standard speech can lay no claim. It may be that for some of the more elaborate kinds of poetry, such as the formal epic, dialect is useless; let it be reserved, therefore, for those kinds which appeal most directly to the hearts of the people. The poetry of the people includes the ballad and the verse tale, lyric in all its forms, and some kinds of satire; and for all these dialect is a fitting instrument. It possesses
in the highest degree directness of utterance and racy vigour. How much of their force would the "Biglow Papers" of J. R. Lowell lose if they were transcribed from the Yankee dialect into standard English!
But the highest quality of dialect speech, and that which renders it pre-eminently fitted for poetic use, is its intimate association with all that lies nearest to the heart of the working man. It is the language of his hearth and home; many of the most cherished memories of his life are bound up with it; it is for him the language of freedom, whereas standard English is that of constraint. In other words, dialect is the working man's poetic diction - a poetic diction as full of savour as that of the eighteenth-century poets was flat and insipid.
It is sometimes said that the use of dialect makes the appeal of poetry provincial instead of national or universal. This is only true when the dialect poet is a pedant and obscures his meaning by fantastic spellings. The Lowland Scots element in 'Auld Lang Syne' has not prevented it from becoming the song of friendship of the Anglo-Saxon race all the world over. Moreover, the provincial note in poetry or prose is far from being a bad thing. In the 'Idylls' of Theocritus it gave new life to Greek poetry in the third century before Christ, and it may render the same high service to English poetry to-day or to-morow. The rise of Provincial schools of literature, interpreting local life in local idiom, in all parts of the British Isles and in the Britain beyond the seas, is a goal worth striving for; such a literature, so far from impeding the progress of the literature in the standard tongue, would serve only to enrich it in spirit, substance and form.
1. 'Yorkshire Dialect Poems', 1673-1915 (Sedgwick and Jackson 1916)
3. J. Dover Wilson, Writing in the 'Athenaeum' under the pseudonym "Muezzin," February, 1917. The quotation is from one of four articles, entitled "Prospects in English Literature," to which the ideas set forth in this Preface owe much.
4. "York Plays": The Building of the Ark.