The Romantic poets were influenced by Rousseau’s ideas and began to look at their society in different ways. Wordsworth along with other “Romantic writers searched for ways of reconnecting with humanity’s authentic nature. This is why they were interested in ‘uncivilised people’, in the ‘natural innocence’ of childhood, and in the ‘wild’s’ of nature”.(Furniss and Bath,142).
This led to an interest into the oral culture of the common people and, in particular, in ballads which several of the Romantic poets adopted and adapted to form some of their own poetry.
These stories about different folk had up until this time, only been passed orally from person to person and had not been documented.
The ballad of Mary Hamilton conforms to the conventional form of the popular ballad, and is therefore set out in four line stanzas with every second and fourth line rhyming (xaxa). It follows a regular pattern of alternating lines of roughly Iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, with the exception of the first stanza which begins with two iambic trimeters changing to two iambic tetrameters.
Wordsworth’s poem ‘Simon Lee the old huntsman’ adapts the ballad form but unlike the popular ballad form, Simon Lee consists of eight line stanzas, which mainly consist of three lines of iambic tetrameter changing to an alternating pattern of iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter ending on a iambic trimeter. With the exception of stanza nine which follows a flowing iambic tetrameter to iambic trimeter pattern which I feel is the turning point in the ballad.
It also follows a rhyming scheme of (ababxdxd), although stanza’s two, five, seven and twelve differ slightly to (ababcdcd); rhyming lines 5 and 7.
Both ballads do have alternating iambic tetrameter, iambic trimeter and occasional lines which consist of seven syllables rather than eight to make the regular four foot. In the case of the Mary Hamilton ballad, such lines as “He’s courted her in the ha”,(L6) seven syllables “This metrical roughness may be the result of adaptations over the years, or may have been allowable simply because these poems were designed to be sung, and music often allows an extra syllable to be incorporated without detriment”.(Pearson,Lecture 7,4).
This made ballads a very flexible form that allowed the poet freedom to vary line lengths slightly from stanza to stanza, also making them fairly simple for people to compose because there were no rigid rules that needed to be conformed to. It also made them attractive to the Romantic Age which was rebelling against rule-bound attitudes of the 18th century. Indeed, the fact that Wordsworth wrote a ballad about a peasant was incredibly unconventional in the late 18th Century.
The language of Mary Hamilton differs considerably to that of Wordsworth’s. Firstly, it is composed in dialect with “wae bairn”,(L3) and “You’ll nee r get mair o’ me.”(L12). “Since Wordsworth claims that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (p235, Reading Poetry) his figurative language seems to rise out of the poem and is not brought in from an external source but even so this is very little. Indeed, ‘cheeks like a cherry'(L16) in Simon Lee compared to the simple use of colour in the Mary Hamilton ballad of black, white, brown and gold is more figurative.
The story of Mary Hamilton is simply a tragic tale involving the Queen and her husband, ‘the highest steward of all’, who seduces Mary Hamilton, wherefore she conceives a child, murders it, and is punished for this misdemeanour. This ballad contains a simplistic story-line with one line of emotion.
With Mary Hamilton the bald facts are all that seem to matter, whereas Wordsworth wants us to really see the characters.
“I’ve heard he once was tall
Of years he has upon his back
No doubt a burthen weighty”; (L4,5,6).
The first stanza begins describing Simon Lee as being small, bent over with all the hard work he has carried over a life time. Then In L15 and L16 he uses a functional description to say that although poor Simon Lee has lost an eye “his cheek is like a cherry”(L16, Simon Lee) because although he is disfigured he does not look ugly with it.
In Stanzas 4 and 5 the speaker describes Simon Lee as the weakest and oldest in the village and therefore the poorest. The narrative stance carries on freshly describing Simon Lee from different angles. In stanza 6 “his heart rejoices”(L54) to “the chiming hounds”(L55), in this instance the speaker is saying although he is old and poor his heart still carries love. Also the narrator tells the speaker of Simon Lee’s past, his past skills and employment, the strength he once carried. Metaphorically pointing out that this strength maybe why he suffers today as he has outlived his master who could have helped him in his old age, he has outlived all except his wife, “and then, what limbs those feats have left”(L27).
On the simplest level, Wordsworth gives a pleasant in depth description of an old peasant otherwise looked upon as beastly and shows the reader the more favourable sides of his character. Wordsworth is showing a social situation within his society and making people look at it, probably for the first time.
The turning point of stanza nine changes the ballad of description into a short tale of the speaker helping the old man, “”Your overtasked, good Simon Lee, Give me your tool” to him I said;”(L41&L42). Furthermore, I feel the manipulation of Wordsworth part in the narration, such as repeating ‘gentle reader’ is asking for kindness from the reader, to care like Wordsworth does of Simon Lee and maybe others in similar situations. Unlike Mary Hamilton where there is no narrative thought.
Lastly, the speaker shows great emotion in helping the old man,
“Alas! the gratitude of men
Has oftner left me mourning.” (L55&L56)
Does the narrator when mourning for Simon Lee, in retrospect mourn for the human condition? This intensity of the old man’s gratitude has a powerful effect on the narrator. We see how the poem develops, this poor old man who was once strong and healthy, could out run a horse even, is now reduced to helplessness. He is left to labour the land, unable to cut through a root that takes the narrator just one blow to sever. Is the narrator therefore feeling guilty at the lack of help that Simon Lee gets from society. The whole poem concentrates on the character, and is therefore much more complex, even the tale is more descriptive of the character unlike Mary Hamilton which is very basic in comparison.