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A CRITIQUE ON THE SONG OF “BILLY TAYLOR."
“ Et tragicus plerumque dolet sermone pedestri :
Hor. Ars Poet.
I HOPE that I shall not appear to degrade the office of criticism, by making a ballad the subject of it, especially since that now before me is of so excellent a nature. If it is objected to, I must shelter myself under the authority of Addison, who has written a critique on Chevy Chace, to which, I venture to affirm, this ballad is infinitely superior. That I may not appear too presumptuous in my assertion, let us proceed to the examination of this justly celebrated poem. I call it a poem-I had almost called it an epic, seeing it has a beginning, middle, and end; the action is one, namely the death of the hero Taylor; it is replete with character, and full of sentiment; not delivered with the laboured declamation of Lucan, but suggested by incidents the most interesting and touching. Let us first examine it verse by verse. The author has no tedious prelude, not even an invocation; but, like Homer, immediately enters into the middle of his subject, and in a few words gives us the name, character, and amour of his hero. Observe the gaiety of the opening :
“Billy Taylor was a brisk young feller,
Full on mirth and full on glee." How admirably, how judiciously is this jocund beginning contrasted with the melancholy sequel ! how affecting to the reader's feelings when he reflects how soon Billy's joy will be damped ! Unhappy Taylor!-Let us proceed to the next lines:
“And his mind he did diskiver
To a lady fair and free.” Taylor was a bold youth; he feared not to tell his mind to the lady; he did not stand shilly-shally, like a whimpering lover. But we are here presented with a new character, a lady fair and free. Some commentators have thought that she was a lady of easy virtue, from the epithet free; and indeed the violence of her love and jealousy seems to favour
the suspicion : but let us not be too severe ; free may signify no more than that she was of a cheerful disposition, and thus of the same temper with her lover: concordes animæ ! Thus far all is pleasant and delightful; but the scene is now changed,and sorrow succeeds to joy :
“ Four and twenty brisk young fellers,
Drest they vas in rich array,
Press’d he vas, and sent to sea.' Taylor, the brisk, the mirthful Taylor, is pressed and sent to sea ! I cannot help observing here the art of the poet in letting us into the condition of Taylor. We may guess from his being pressed, that he was not free of the city, and was, most likely, a journeyman cobler, coblers being famous for their glee. I will not positively say he was a cobler : Scaliger thinks he was a lamp-lighter: “ adhuc sub judice lis est.” But to proceed— Taylor is on board-ship; but what does his true love?
" His true-love she followed arter,
Under the name of Richard Car;
With the nasty pitch and tar.” Many ladies would have comforted themselves with other lovers; not so Billy's mistress; she follows him ; she enters the ship under the name of Richard Car. She condescends to daub her lily-white hands with the pitch and tar. What excessive love, and how ill rewarded! I have two things to remark here. 1. Her disregard of herself in daubing her hands. When I consider a lady in Juvenal who did the same, .I am led to think she was Billy's mistress. But then Billy disregards her; this makes me think again she was his wife. Yet: perhaps not; Billy had now got another mistress. 2. The second observation is upon the name she assumes, Richard Car. Commentators are much divided upon this head; why she chose that name in preference to any other. I must confess they talk rather sillily on this topic; I conjecture the name was given here because it was a good rhyme to tar; this is no mean or inconsiderable reason, as the poets will all testify. But let the reader decide this at his leisure ; let us now proceed;
“ An engagement came on the very next morning;
Bold she fit among the rest :
Here was a trial for the lady ; but she sustained it; she fought boldly, fought like a man. But mark the sequel ; the wind blows aside her jacket; her lily-white breast is exposed to the lawless gaze of the sailors ! Here was a sight! no doubt it inspired them with double valour and gained them -a victory ; for they certainly were victorious, though the poet judiciously passes over this inferior topic, and hastens to his main subject.
The captain gains intelligence of her heroism, or, in the musical simplicity of the original, “ kims for to know it';" with honest bluntness he exclaims, “Vat vind' has blown you to me?" The character of the sea captain is well supported ; he does not say, “ how came you here ?" but in the characteristic language of his profession, “vat vind has blown you to me?" The classical reader will be pleased also with the similarity this expression bears to a passage in the Æneid; it is in the speech of Andromache to Æneas on a like occasion of surprize ;
“ Sed tibi qui cursum venti, quæ fata dedere?
Aut quisquam ignarum nostris Deus appulit oris ?” It must be confessed that the Latin is more pompous, perhaps more elegant; but what it gains in refinement, it loses in simplicity. The chief thing however to be remarked is, that the same language always suggests itself upon the same occasions. But let us attend to the lady's answer :
“Kind sir, I be kim for to seek my true love,
Vhom you press'd and sent to sea.” The pathos of this speech is inimitable. Observe with what art, or rather with what nature, it is worked up, so as to interest the feelings of the captain. First let us take a view of the speaker ; a woman, and her breast diskivered ; she begins with, “Kind sir,” which shews the gentleness of her disposition, and that she forgave the captain, though he had pressed her true-love; she proceeds, “ I be kim for to seek my true-love;" who could resist this affecting narration ? A lady braving the dangers of the sea and an engagement, to seek her true-love! The last line has suggested to the commentators that the captain had headed the press-gang himself. This is a matter of too much consequence for me to decide. But what effect has the speech on the rugged nerves of the captain? All that could be expected and desired. He breaks out-observe the art of the poet !--no frigid preface of she said, ": " he exclaimed,” but like Homér, he gives us the speech at once :
• " If you be kim for to seek your true-lové,
He from the ship is gone avay;
Valking vith his lady gay.” The captain's feelings are taken by storm; he makes a full discovery of the retreat of the youth, and the company in which he is to be found. Some have thought it very odd that the captain should be so well, informed of Billy's retreat and company; and are of opinion that he connived at it; but the captain might, from his knowledge of human nature, and especially of sailors' nature, guess where and in what company Billy would be. Let not, then the honest tar be condemned. As the poet has put down none, we may suppose the lady to be too much oppressed to make any answer to a speech so cutting and afflicting. Overwhelmed with anger, jealousy, and desire of revenge, she could not speak. Admirable poet, who so well knew nature ! - parvæ curæ loquuntur, ingentes silent;" and is not this silence more eloquent, more expressive, nay more awful, than all the angry words that could have been uttered ? It is the silence before the tempest ; the awful stillness of revenge and death.
“She rose up early in the morning,
Long before the break of day.” Mark the impatience of revenge! she will not even wait till day-break; she gets, (as we may suppose, though it is not declared) leave of absence, and goes on shore,
“And she found false Billy Taylor,
Valking vith his lady gay." Infamous Billy Taylor ! while your mistress was braving for you the dangers of the ocean, you were revelling in the arms of another! But your hour is come !The character of Billy is inimitably well supported throughout, or, as Horace says,
“Qualis ab incepto processerit, et sibi constat.” 'Tis true, he deserts his mistress ; but 'tis for a lady of similar disposition; it is a lady gay with whom he walks; thus, though he is false, he shews himself full of mirth, he is still Billy Taylor. Mark the artifice of the poet! Like Virgil, who drops the epithet “pious” on a similar occasion, the
poet here calls Billy by the appropriate epithet “ false." There is an elegance and simplicity perfectly Homeric in the repetition of the line, “ valking vith his lady gay.”
“Straight she calld for swords and pistols,
Brought they vas at her command.” Let not the sceptical reader sneer, and ask where she got, or who brought the swords and pistols. Some kind deity, willing to assist the purposes of her just revenge, interposed, and brought her arms. Surely Horace would allow that this was “ dignus vindice nodus.”-But to proceed ;
“She fell on shooting Billy Taylor,
Vith his lady in his hand.” Here is an interesting incident! here a melancholy subject ! what a scene for a picture! On one side, a lady, impelled by jealousy, with a discharged pistol in her hand, and a face expressive of the triumph of revenge; on the other, Billy Taylor, stretched on the cold ground, with his hand in that of his lady, now we may suppose no longer gay, and perhaps weeping! (Observe, Billy died in the situation in which Tibullus wished to die; he held his mistress, “ deficiente manu.") 'O! come here all ye young men! ye Billy Taylors, for the world is full of you! ye deserters of true lovers, ye walkers with ladies gay, come here and contemplate! Taylor, who a few days before was gay like you, is now, alas! “ dead, gone dead," or, to use the pathetic and expressive language of Falstaff, --who, by the bye, was like Billy, a gay deceiver-is now no better than a “ shotten herring !"
“When the captain he kim for to know it,
He very much applauded her for what she had done." From this passage, some have taken occasion to accuse the captain of a connivance with Billy's escape and connexion with a lady gay, that he might enjoy Billy's first mistress. But surely this is unfounded; the captain saw this mistress of Billy's by chance alone; and could not therefore be supposed to have a longing for a lady whom he had never seen till Billy had left the ship. Some have also accused the captain of cruelty, for applauding the lady for killing her lover: but these are unfounded and calumnious charges; it was a love of justice which induced the captain to applaud her ; not that I positively say, that he might not also be swayed by the lady's beauty. The vehemence of the captain's ap