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  • The Ballad and Its Pasts: Literary Histories and the Play of Memory by David Atkinson
  • Joanna B. Spanos
The Ballad and Its Pasts: Literary Histories and the Play of Memory. By David Atkinson. ( Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2018. Pp. ix + 226, preface, acknowledgments, notes, work cited, index.)

Continuing David Atkinson's extensive academic study of English-language ballads—traditional, historical, and otherwise—The Ballad and Its Pasts explores what the author calls the "shifting literary histories, the changing contexts and conditions, of ballad production and reception" (p. 16). With six chapters, containing six extended examples, Atkinson challenges the idea that the ballad as a form conveys a continuous development of a literary genre. Instead, he believes that ballads, when read alongside other literary forms with similar themes, demonstrate great discontinuity in theme, but that this discontinuity makes the genre more appropriate for studying in order to find these points of development. Atkinson's text includes detailed descriptions and copious footnotes, citing both canonical ballad sources and references from newer forms of dissemination.

With only a small introduction and context embedded in the preface, Atkinson delves right into his subject matter in the first chapter, de-scribing [End Page 365] how scholars have used ballads to reinterpret a past for a particular agenda. As Atkinson says, the way that ballads are studied implies "that there is an inherent continuity to the genre, which continuity in turn equates to 'tradition'" (p. 1). He calls this assumption into question, using the remainder of the book to argue that scholarly constructions of ballad historicity are inherently flawed. He discusses the origins and development of ballads that, on the surface, have little in common but are about the same events and, potentially, developed from the same source material. Through this analysis, Atkinson critically examines existing scholarship and re-evaluates how its object deserves new analysis.

The second chapter discusses the historical origins—perceived or real—of the ballad form, providing a quick overview of canonical ballads, traditionally thought to have medieval origins. Atkinson uses ballad history as a starting point on which to base his argument that not every ballad with a seemingly historical origin reflects the ideas that the ballad was originally intended to convey. He uses the terms "antiquarianism" and "medievalism" to demonstrate how ballads and other similar texts with oral and written antecedents have been interpreted to promote specific framings of the past. He questions earlier scholars' rankings of certain collections as "superior" to others—determined not by the quality of the collections themselves, but on whether a collection fit into the scholar's personal criteria for superiority based on his or her own calculations of the ballads' forms, origins, and ages. Atkinson's analysis is not limited to those texts that fit into the traditional definition of a ballad. Instead, he brings in published verse as a contrast to texts conveyed primarily via oral tradition. In this way, he better traces the developing themes in the ballads and also contextualizes some of the texts' characteristics that link better to medievalism as a literary genre, instead of conveying origins that can verifiably be traced to the medieval period.

In the third chapter, "Gothic Beginnings," Atkinson provides an extended study of themes related to the chapter's subtitle: "Dead Lovers Return." Atkinson addresses the revenant as ballad character in some of his other work (The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, Method, and Practice, Ashgate, 2002). In this chapter, he delves into one particular thematic group of ballads about the ghosts of spurned women who return to visit their sweetheart, now married to another woman. Much of the chapter discusses different variants of "Fair Margaret and Sweet William"—a series of ballads that feature spurned lovers, ghosts, and deception. While Francis James Child dismissed the ballads as too literary to fit into his research, Atkinson argues that all texts with this theme should be read together. He notes that some linguistic choices are consistent among versions, even when that is the only documentable similarity. Some variants are well-represented within the canonical ballads; others introduce the reader to texts that are not as well-known. Atkinson specifically addresses the following question: How similar...


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pp. 365-367
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