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THE RIGHT HONOURABLE
COUNTESS OF NORTHUMBERLAND:
IN HER OWN RIGHT
BARONESS PERCY, LUCY, POYNINGS, FITZ-PAYNE,
BRYAN, AND LATIMER.
MADAM, THOSE writers who solicit the protection of the noble and the great are often exprised to censure by the impropriety of their addresses : a remark that will perhaps be too readily applied to him who, having nothing better to offer than the rude Songs of ancient Minstrels, aspires to the patronage of the Countess of Northumberland, and hopes that the barbarous productions of unpolished ages can obtain the approbation or the notice of her, who adorns courts by her presence, and diffuses elegance by her example.
But this impropriety, it is presumed, will disappear, when it is declared that these poems are presented to your Ladyship, not as labours of art, but as effusions of nature, showing the first efforts of ancient genius, and exhibiting the customs and opinions of remote ages,—of ages that had been almost lost to memory, had not the gallant deeds of your illustrious , Ancestors preserved them from oblivion.
No active or comprehensive mind can forbear some attention to the reliques of antiquity: it is prompted by natural curiosity to survey the progress of life and manners, and to inquire by what gradations barbarity was civilized, grossness refined, and ignorance instructed; but this curiosity, Madam, must be stronger in those who, like your Ladyship, can remark in every period the influence of some great Progenitor, and who still feel in their effects the transactions and events of distant centuries.
By such Bards, Madam, as I am now introducing to your presence, was the infancy of genius nurtured and advanced ; by such were the minds of unlettered warriors softened and enlarged; by such was the memory of illustrious actions preserved and propagated ; by such were the heroic deeds of the Earls of NORTHUMBERLAND sung at festivals in the hall of ALNWICK : and those Songs which the bounty of your ancestors rewarded, now return to your Ladyship by a kind of hereditary right; and, I flatter myself, will find such reception as is usually shown to poets and historians by those whose consciousness of merit makes it their interest to be long remembered.
I am, Madam,
ADVERTISEMENT TO THE EDITION OF 1876.
As early as the year 1794, when only the fourth edition of the Reliques had appeared, the Rev. Thomas Percy, acting as assistant-editor to his uncle, the Bishop of Dromore, hinted at the difficulty attendant upon such a composition as a collection of poems from a mutilated and incorrect manuscript. At that date Bishop Percy, his nephew, and a few friends were alone enabled to pass this judgment. To-day, however, the concealed manuscript is the property of the British Museum, its masterly edition 1 by Messrs. Hales and Furnivall rests in the hands of the public, and our knowledge of the original poems enables us to appreciate the extraordinary ingenuity displayed by the Bishop in his manipulation of the forty-five numbers extracted from his Folio Manuscript; nor is our admiration for his poetic genius other than redoubled by the discovery.
The Folio Manuscript itself, which has been too closely connected in the general mind with the Reliques, considering that the latter contains only about one-sixth of the contents of the former, is a narrow book, about fifteen and a half inches long by five and a half wide, which has been torn and cut, and is deficient in many parts.
It consists of a mass of some two hundred Sonnets, Ballads, Historical Songs, and Metrical Romances, transcribed, we are
Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript. Ballads and Romances. Edited by C. W. Hales, M.A., and F. J. Furnivall, M.A. 4 vols. (Trübner & Co. 1868.)
assured, “ from defective copies, or the imperfect recitation of illiterate singers ; so that a considerable portion of the song or narrative is sometimes omitted, and miserable trash or nonsense not unfrequently introduced into pieces of considerable merit.” 2
Mr. Furnivall fixes the date of the handwriting to the year 1650, or thereabouts, and observes, “ The dialect of the copies of the MS. seems to have been Lancashire." 3 Who this copier may have been still remains a mystery. Percy's suggestion that it was Thomas Blount has been dismissed as incredible.
Concerning the treatment of the text in Percy's selections, we have Mr. Furnivall’s word that the Reverend Editor “looked upon it as a young woman from the country with unkempt locks, whom he had to fit for fashionable society.” 4
Be that as it may, the Reliques have admirably served their purpose; they have passed through at least thirty editions in various parts of the world; they rank among those works which have supported popularity for more than a century, and they may make their vaunt of having aroused the “ Wizard of the North” to exclaim, “ The first time I could scrape a few shillings together,—which were not common occurrences with me, I bought unto myself a copy of the beloved volumes ; nor do I believe I ever read a book half so frequently, or with half the enthusiasm.” 5
The endeavour of the present Editor has been in no way critical, nor has his end in view been the satisfaction of the “judicious antiquary” so much as the desire to effect a correct reproduction of the Reliques as put forth during Percy's life.
Consequently, the four earliest editions have been carefully
2 Advertisement to the fourth edition of the Reliques, 1794. 3 Percy's Folio MS. i., xiii. 4 Percy's Folio MS. i., xvi. 5 Lockhart's Life of Scott, chap. i.