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1 NEVER take
up these three heavily-bound volumes, the actual last edition, at which Dr. Johnson was wont to scoff, without feeling a pleasure quite apart from that excited by the charming book itself; although to that book, far more than to any modern school of minstrelsy, we owe the revival of the taste for romantic and lyrical poetry, which had lain dormant since the days of the Commonwealth.
This pleasure springs from a very simple cause. The association of these ballads with the happiest days of my happy childhood.
In common with many only children, especially where the mother is of a grave and home-loving nature, I learned to read at a very early age. Before I was three years old my father would perch me on the breakfast-table to exhibit my one accomplishment to some admiring guest, who admired all the more, because, a small, puny child, looking far younger than I really was, nicely dressed, as only children generally are, and gifted with an affluence of curls, I might have passed for the twin sister of my own great doll. On the table was I perched to read some Foxite newspaper, "Courier," or Morning Chronicle," the
Whiggish oracles of the day, and as my delight in the high-seasoned politics of sixty years ago was naturally less than that of my hearers, this display of precocious acquirement was commonly rewarded, not by cakes or sugar-plums, too plentiful in my case to be very greatly cared for, but by a sort of payment in kind. I read leading articles to please the company; and my dear mother recited the “ Children in the Wood!” to please me.
This was my reward ; and I looked for my favorite ballad after every performance, just as the piping bullfinch that hung in the window looked for his lump of sugar after going through “God save the King.” The two cases were exactly parallel.
One day it happened that I was called upon to exhibit, during some temporary absence of the dear mamma, and cried out amain for the ditty that I loved. My father, who spoilt me, did not know a word of it, but he hunted over all the shelves till he had found the volumes, that he might read it to me himself; and then I grew unreasonable in my demand, and coaxed, and kissed, and begged that the book might be given to my maid Nancy, that she might read it to me, whenever I chose. And (have I not said that my father spoilt me ?) I carried my point, and the three volumes were actually put in charge of my pretty, neat maid, Nancy (in those days nursery-governesses were not), and she, waxing weary of the “ Children in the Wood,” gradually took to reading to me some of the other ballads; and as from three years old I grew to four or five, I learned to read them myself, and the book became the delight of my childhood, as it is now the solace of my age. Ah, well-a-day! sixty years have passed, and I am an old woman, whose nut-brown hair has turned to white; but I never see that heavily-bound copy of “Percy's Reliques" without the home of my infancy springing up before my eyes.
A pleasant home, in truth, it was. A large house in a little town of the north of Hampshire,- ,-a town, so small that but for an ancient market, very slenderly attended, nobody would have dreamt of calling it any thing but a village. The breakfast-room, where I first possessed myself of my beloved ballads, was a lofty and spacious apartment, literally lined with books, which, with its Turkey carpet, its glowing fire, its sofas and its easy chairs, seemed, what indeed it was, a very nest of English comfort. The windows opened on a large, old-fashioned garden, full of oldfashioned flowers-stocks, roses, honeysuckles, and pinks; and that again led into a grassy orchard, abounding with fruit-trees, a picturesque country church with its yews and lindens on one side, and beyond, a down as smooth as velvet, dotted with rich islands of coppice, hazel, woodbine, hawthorn, and holly reaching up into the young oaks, and overhanging flowery patches of primroses, wood-sorrel, wild hyacinths, and wild strawberries. On the side opposite the church, in a hollow fringed with alders and bulrushes, gleamed the bright clear lakelet, radiant with swans and water-lilies, which the simple townsfolk were content to call the Great Pond.
What a play-ground was that orchard ! and what playfellows were mine! Nancy, with her trim prettiness, my own dear father, handsomest and cheerfulest of men, and the great Newfoundland dog Coe, who used to lie down at my feet, as if to invite me to mount him, and then to prance off with his burden, as if he enjoyed the fun as much as we did. Happy, happy days! It is good to have the mernory of such a childhood ! to be able to call up past delights by the mere sight and sound of Chevy Chase or the battle of Otterbourne.
And as time wore on, the fine ballad of “ King Estmere,” according to Bishop Percy, one of the most ancient in the collection, got to be among our prime favorites. Absorbed by the magic of the story, the old English never troubled us. I hope it will not trouble my readers. We, a little child, and a young country maiden, the daughter of a respectable Hampshire farmer, were no bad representatives in point of cultivation of the noble dames and their attendant damsels who had so often listened with delight to wandering minstrels in bower and hall. In one point, we had probably the advantage of them : we could read, and it is most likely that they could not. For the rest, every age has its own amusements; and these metrical romances, whether said or sung, may be regarded as equivalent in their day to the novels and operas of ours.
Hearken to me, gentlemen,
Come, and you shall beare;
That ever born y-were.