Journal of Anglo-Hispanic Romanticism

Eloquent Silence: the Transformation of Spain in British Balladry between the Peninsular War and the Carlist Wars

J. Rubén Valdés Miyares

Universidad de Oviedo

Abstract

In this essay I examine a small corpus of Peninsular War ballads in the Bodleian library, which interestingly turns out to contain two ballads from a different Spanish war, the First Carlist War (1833-1839). A comparison between the former, which are based on the 1807-1814 war, and the latter reveals the change of attitude towards intervention in Spanish wars that took place after 1815 — from an internationalist fight for political freedom to an adventure for individual glory — followed by a complete waning of interest in writing ballads about British interventionism in Spain. In order to explain the sort of approach to events in the ballads I discuss the characteristics of broadside balladry as an expression of popular sentiment, and also as a traditional form of poetry that calls for comparison between ballads about different wars and political causes, such as the Jacobite and the Carlist ones. The essay concludes by establishing an analogy between Lord Alfred Tennyson's silence after his own brief Spanish intervention, and the absence of English ballad making during Spanish king Ferdinand VII's reign, pointing, beyond that, to future English writing about the Spanish Civil War. Thus it outlines a brief survey of British interventionism in modern Spanish wars.

Article

1

In this essay I examine a small corpus of Peninsular War ballads in the Bodleian library, which interestingly turns out to contain two ballads from a different Spanish war, the First Carlist War (1833-1839). A comparison between the former, which are based on the 1807-1814 war, and the latter reveals the change of attitude towards intervention in Spanish wars that took place after 1815 — from an internationalist fight for political freedom to an adventure for individual glory — followed by a complete waning of interest in writing ballads about British interventionism in Spain. In order to explain the sort of approach to events in the ballads I discuss the characteristics of broadside balladry as an expression of popular sentiment, and also as a traditional form of poetry that calls for comparison between ballads about different wars and political causes, such as the Jacobite and the Carlist ones. The essay concludes by establishing an analogy between Lord Alfred Tennyson's silence after his own brief Spanish intervention, and the absence of English ballad making during Spanish king Ferdinand VII's reign, pointing, beyond that, to future English writing about the Spanish Civil War. Thus it outlines a brief survey of British interventionism in modern Spanish wars.

2

Street ballads are a curious blend of journalism and poetry. Often called "broadsides" because of the broadsheets on which they were printed, they were a popular form of passing opinions and expressing public feelings since the later Middle Ages, and particularly after the advent of the printing press and before the popularization of newspapers, when a growing audience purchased them. Among the ten items labelled "Peninsular War ballads" in the website Broadside Ballads Online of the Bodleian Libraries, two clearly date from a later war, and show a different mood. In one of these, "Henry's Departure to the Spanish War," the narrator overhears Henry's love "pretty Nancy" begging him "Pray do not throw yourself away my love you may get slain, / And your sweet life is dear to you beyond the queen of spain." Henry, therefore, departs to fight for the queen of Spain, who must be Isabella II, supposedly against the Carlists. In the other, "My Master's Gun," the feisty "prentice boy" boasts that "General Evans came up to me, / Said he, 'Bob, show no quarter: / You're a valiant youth, I plainly see, / And you shall marry my daughter.'" Bob, therefore, joins Sir George de Lacy Evans's volunteers in the Siege of San Sebastian of 1836, which the website wrongly dates in 1813, mistaking it for the Siege of Sebastian that took place in the latter year during the Peninsular War. For Evans was not in the siege of 1813, but in that of 1836, during the First Carlist War, supporting Queen Isabella. Thus although all the ballads in the small corpus refer to the war in Spain, not all of them are about the same war.

3

The relevance of ballads of the Peninsular War and the First Carlist War to the period in between them is relative to the question of chronology in popular balladry. Ballads, even topical ones about recognizable moments in history, can be considered witnesses to contemporary historical events only to a limited extent. They are an echo of the event, rather than a record of it. Though five of the ballads in the corpus refer to the Napoleonic period, their extant printed versions are dated at later dates: "Corunna's lang shore" in 1849-80, "What d'ye think of the new Spanish war" c. 1822, "What d'ye think of the new Spanish war" between 1801 and 1831, "Arise, arise, brave sons of Spain, arise" between 1812 and 1821, "The old woman and the Spanish war" is not assigned any date, and "The Big Bomb in the Park", between 1802 and 1819, despite the fact that the Cadiz Memorial it depicts could not be earlier than 1812. Such chronological uncertainties should not be put down to carelessness on the part of the Bodleian website. It is inherent to the nature of this sort of popular poetry. Even if their allusion to topical issues may be very specific in some of these printed songs, their appeal to emotional response aspired to success and lasting memory, as with other sorts of literature, beyond the particular context wherein they originated. The dates suggest that the Peninsular War ballads remained popular in the 1814-1823 period. However, they were bound to that origin only until the public perception of Spanish issues evolved, and rendered the earlier emotions obsolete.

4

Broadside ballads (whose complete distinction from traditional popular ballads is now widely questioned)1 are a peculiar kind of poetry. The Poet's Box, the printers' shop which produced the first of our items, "Corunna's Lang Shore," illustrates their context of production. An old newspaper article defines the purpose of this important but now largely forgotten literary institution in ways that cast light on the character of this sort of literature. The Glasgow Herald on March 17, 1926 reports that

Mr Harry Lumsden, LL.B. read a paper entitled 'The Poet's Box' at a meeting of the Bibliographical Society of Glasgow .... The lecturer said that all over Scotland, from fifty to a hundred years ago, publications in single sheets known as Broadsides or Broadsheets were hawked about the streets at a charge of a halfpenny or a penny. They consisted of short poems or songs, stories and anecdotes, recitations in prose and verse and topical verses, national and local, on political, sectarian, and social questions.

Before the days of the cheaper newspaper many men and women made a fair livelihood in this way.... Versifiers resorted to establishments like the Poet's Box for publication of their effusions, which were readily purchased on the streets.

The Poet's Box of Glasgow was only one of many similar establishments which published such leaflets. ("Poet's Box" 12)

5

Thus, the Glasgow Herald reporter, situating the decline of the broadside "towards the end of the nineteenth century," describes a past cultural context that in 1926 was still within living memory. Broadside ballads were the true precedent of the popular press. As such, their aim was as much to inform as to stir feelings and emotional reactions to current events. However, unlike the prosaic tabloid, the broadside was poetry, it used a poetic language purposefully, and it had an audience that could enjoy them as literature, not just as pieces of news. The best of them exhibit "the typical virtues of the tradition: good-natured humour, shrewd criticism of society, sturdy realism and powerful rhythm" (Pinto 14).

6

Reception theory, as it has been applied to the English traditional ballads,2 helps explain the "implied audience" (and the reader's "consistency-building"), the "gaps of indeterminacy" of ballad texts (the "unwritten" parts of texts), the constraints in the possible range of meaning as a result of the interpretive framework embodied in the concept of traditional referentiality (the "horizon of expectations"), and the generation of meaning by metonymy from formulaic phrases and traditional themes or motifs. For example, "Henry's Departure to the Spanish War" contains a great deal of traditional motifs, beginning with the narrator's conventional introduction à la chanson d'aventure, who overhears an amorous dialogue or lover's complaint. The dramatic dialogue of the departing soldier is also traditional, and so is the young man's boast that he will either lose his life or win gold and reputation for his lover's "friends" (or her family) to find him more acceptable. The fact that he is going to fight for the queen of Spain only adds romantic flavour. Something similar happens in "My Master's Gun," where emphasis is laid on the traditional young man's desire to escape a boring apprenticeship and win fame "in songs and magazines too." Proving a thematic continuity between the Napoleonic war and the Carlist one, and a comic contempt for political logic, he dreams of becoming "the British Bonapartey" for the Spaniards. The active creation of meaning on the part of the audience implies that Peninsular War ballads were not just about the Peninsular War of the Napoleonic period, but potentially about almost any Spanish war in the popular imagination: any foreign war where brave Brits volunteered to fight for a great cause, for glory, or simply to win their fortune.

7

Many British readers heard about such war adventures for the first time in the nineteenth century milieu through the Peninsular War ballads. The Spanish fight for Liberty continued later, though not against the "Tyrant" from France, but against the tyrannical King Ferdinand, whose name, however, is never mentioned in any of the ballads. The general public in Britain, at least the popular audience of street ballads, would not know or particularly care who the king of Spain was, since there were no regular English armies fighting there after 1814. Yet the call of the Spanish adventure remained for longer in the broadsides that continued to be re-printed.

8

A possible antecedent for the Spanish war ballad was the eighteenth-century Jacobite ballad, which remained very popular in the nineteenth century. The last stanza of "Corunna's Lang Shore" ("And when we were parted it was with great pain / But we still having small hopes for to meet each again; / Our hopes are all over, and I'll ne'er see you more, / So I leave you, my Peggy, on Corunna's lang shore") is reminiscent of the chorus of a particular Jacobite ballad, "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond" in its melancholy farewell to the loved one and its nostalgic evocation of place ("O ye'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road, / An' I'll be in Scotland afore ye; / But me and my true love will never meet again / On the bonnie, bonnie banks O' Loch Lomond"). It is a tragic farewell letter from a dying soldier to his sweetheart, "Pretty Peggy." The only reference to time and place is in the title itself, "Corunna's Lang Shore," repeated in the first and last line, and to a battle that was fought there (line 3). It may be based on Sir John Moore's death at the Battle of Corunna (1809), amidst the Peninsular War. "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond" is an anonymous song first published in 1841,3 but there is also a broadside of it from Dundee, probably produced in the Poet's Box, of unknown date. The "Loch Lomond" song is traditionally attributed to a Jacobite prisoner after the 1745 Rising, writing it in the prison of Carlile where he languished awaiting his fate, nearly a century before the ballad was ever found in print. The legendary origin of the piece, another illustration of the problems of chronology I discussed above, bespeaks the traditional nature of balladry, its transmission beyond the event on which it was based initially, and its somewhat conventional or formulaic nature. Ballads about different wars could influence and resemble each other, which what makes their differences most significant.

9

The Jacobite song (as defined by William Donaldson) tends towards the sentimental, it longs for a king that is defeated and will never return, in sharp contrast to the Peninsular War political struggle for the return of a "desired" king who, however, would prove a tyrant on his return. Disenchantment is a worse source of inspiration than nostalgia for spirited ballads. The Carlist wars, quite similar to the Jacobite campaigns in several ways (they also fought by people from the traditionalist culture of the "highlands" of the Basque Country defending an absolutist monarchy), might have proved more inspiring, but the initial romantic flame was fading. The Carlists, like the Jacobites, fought for an ancien régime that matched the ideology of King Ferdinand as opposed to the Liberalism that inspired the Peninsular War ballads. As "What d'ye think of the New Spanish War" said: "And what to d'ye think of the bold Spaniards then / I think for their liberty they'll all fight like men." If anything, Carlism sounded like a doomed, anachronistic, Quixotic enterprise, like Jacobitism in Walter Scott's novels, only even more so, over a century later, and in a foreign country.

10

The mood of Peninsular War ballads, catering for a different public, contrasts with that of English novels of the Peninsular War, generally "based either on direct observation or on careful historical research," some of them written by British army officers who served during the campaigns, which "offer a realistic, at times caustic view of their experiences, very different from the 'Romantic' approach of many foreigners to nineteenth-century Spain" (Dendle 64; 50). The ballads are in the latter "Romantic" mood. Meanwhile realistic Peninsular War novels continued to be published and read by more "educated" readers: it is partly similar to the difference between the readership of "quality papers" and "popular tabloids," which would emerge in the twentieth century.

11

The lack of ballads about the 1814-1823 period is indeed an eloquent silence. A silence suggesting that Spain had ceased to be an inspiration for great political causes. Iris Zavala referred to the censorship established during the period as "the semiology of silence." The internal silence of censorship found a correlation in the silence about Spain in the English popular ballads. It was the silence of a Spain that turned inside herself, as if meditating on her own contradictions and tensions. Those contradictions would implode in the following century, making this country, once more, the subject of Spanish Civil War poets and writers like W.H. Auden and George Orwell. Once again the crucible of political principles, human rights, and ideas of Europe.

Biographical Notice

Dr. Rubén Valdés Miyares is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Oviedo (Spain), where he teaches courses on British and Irish cultural studies, film adaptation and discourse analysis. He has published various articles on these subjects and also on medieval literature (a Spanish edition of Robin Hood ballads, 2009) and has co-edited a Sourcebook of British Civilization (1996) and a collection of cultural studies on the narrativization of history, Culture and Power: The Plots of History in Performance (2008).

End Notes

1. See Atkinson 19-31.

2. See Atkinson 8-13.

3. Dun, Finlay, and John Thomson, eds. The Vocal Melodies of Scotland. Vol. 4. Edinburgh: Paterson & Roy, 1841.

Bibliography

Atkinson, David. The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, Method, Practice. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.

Dendle, Brian J. "The Romance of War, or, The Highlanders in Spain: The Peninsular War and the British Novel." Anales de Literatura Española 7 (1991): 49-64.

Donaldson, William. The Jacobite Song: Political Myth and National Identity. Aberdeen: Aberdeen UP, 1988.

Greene, Graham. "Alfred Tennyson Intervenes." Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War. Ed. Valentine Cunnigham. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986. 67-69.

"Peninsular War, 1807-1814." Broadside Ballads Online. The Bodleian Libraries. Web. 22 June 2015. <http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/search/theme/Peninsular%20war,%201807-1814>

Sola Pinto, Vivian de, and Allan Edwin Rodway, eds. The Common Muse. An Anthology of Popular British Ballad Poetry XVth-XXth Century. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.

"The Poet's Box. A Glasgow Collection of Broadsides." The Glasgow Herald 17 March 1926: 12. <https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=19260317&id=m5hAAAAAIBAJ&sjid=QKUMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5104,2270903&hl=es>

Zavala, Iris. "La censura en la semiología del silencio: siglos XVIII y XIX." Censura y literaturas peninsulares. Ed. Manuel L. Abellán. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 147-157.