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Uncollected Essays
Old English Songs.
  by Sarah Orne Jewett.

Review of Old Songs, compiled and illustrated by Edwin A. Abbey and Alfred Parsons.
The Book Buyer 5.11 (Dec 1, 1888): 466-468.

    When the spring flowers bloom again year after year, with what unfailing delight everybody sees them first.  The primroses and daisies, the daffodils and dandelions; how grown people and little children alike greet and gather them.  The ingenuity of gardeners is sure to tempt our eyes and purses with varied blossoms, for the flower-shows and florist catalogues there are new orchids and now hybrid roses, but we keep a safe place in our hearts for the sweet old flowers of spring. 


    Here is a new book* of Old Songs like a handful of these very flowers of May.  There are other books of verse this year with new and cheerful thoughts, and well-rhymed metaphysics, and scholarly workmanship, but this is our familiar posy from the English springtime of love-making and love-breaking and out-of-door life, the gayety of simple-hearted people let out for holiday after a winter's housing.  The very pomps and ceremonies of these old days had something that was honest and merry and delightful.  They could wear fine array and fairly bedizen themselves with no forebodings of the amusement of posterity.  They could sit late at their feasts; they could cry in public when they were sorry and laugh as long as they liked and as loud; they could sing the night through as if it were worth their while.  "There we staid talking and singing and drinking great draughts of claret and eating botargo and bread and butter till twelve at night, it being moonshine," says Mr. Pepys.  The world behaved as if it were still young.  The Old Songs are like cuckoos' songs; they belong to spring; they are as new this year as they were last year, as they will  be new when we are old and after we are forgotten.
    They are beautifully printed and bound in this new edition.  As for the pictures, it seems as if Mr. Abbey and Mr. Parsons must have lived once before, in that boisterous, gay, sentimental age when the old ballads were written.  They had sketchbooks too, and have found them again in secret cupboards of the old London houses.  Else how could they draw these maids and men to the life?  It would be hard enough to find the rustic harvesters and the taverns, but when it comes to Sally in Our Alley and her young man, our Mr. Abbey saw them himself once, stepping bravely forth that Sunday morning, and could never forget, nor can we, the pleasing sight.  Here are the maids and men whom the old songsters themselves saw, whom they courted and sang; here are the very flowers that bloomed for breast-knots, and Mr. Parsons has drawn them so that they will be fresh and alive for us the year round.

    The evidence of a simpler, pleasanter life than ours -- a life unfettered by conventionalities of the modern sort; simple, even blundering love-making, loitering under elder-bushes and on tavern-porch benches, life in which a sprig of marjoram and lavender and gay marigolds, and sweethearts and harvesting seem to fill the place of stock-exchanges and Redfern fashions -- such a book is restful and delightful.  We need it in our hurried day much more than they needed it in Wither's or Sir John Suckling's time.  We turn a page, and here is faithless Barbara Allen and Sweet Nelly, my Heart's Delight, done to the very life; we catch the twinkle in somebody's eye and the trick of the song, lock arms and go along in the ballad-folks' good company.  To read the songs or to hear them has been good enough, but now to see the pictures of them, the ballad-folks, before our eyes!  Come, let us walk abroad with Sally all unsuspected by her jealous 'prentice lad -- let us follow on with Jockey to the Fair!
    And since spring comes every year, and true lovers and heartless maidens and hay-making and late suppers and good company still exist, for the Old Songs' sakes and for their new pictures' sakes let everybody turn at least one page of such an enchanting book.

*Old Songs.  Illustrated by Edwin A. Abbey and Alfred Parsons. 410 leather, $7.50. Harper & Brothers, New York.

Editor's Notes

Botargo: "a Mediterranean delicacy of salted, cured fish roe, typically from grey mullet, tuna, or swordfish."  (Wikipedia)

Samuel Pepys: "(23 February 1633 26 May 1703) was an English naval administrator and Member of Parliament who is now most famous for the diary he kept for a decade while still a relatively young man."  (Wikipedia)

Redfern & Sons: "(later Redfern Ltd), was a British couture house, (open c.1850 to 1932; 193640) founded in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. By the 1890s it had branches in London, Paris, Edinburgh, and New York."  (Wikipedia)

George Wither: "(11 June 1588 O.S. 2 May 1667 O.S.) was an English poet, pamphleteer, and satirist. He was a prolific writer who adopted a deliberate plainness of style."  (Wikipedia)

Sir John Suckling: "(10 February 1609 1 June 1642) was an English poet and one prominent figure among those renowned for careless gaiety, wit, and all the accomplishments of a Cavalier poet; and also the inventor of the card game cribbage. He is best known for his poem 'Ballad Upon a Wedding.'"  (Wikipedia)

Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College

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