Ballads in Blue China

Author: Andrew Lang


Thirty years have passed, like a watch in the night, since the earlier of the two sets of verses here reprinted, Ballades in Blue
China, was published. At first there were but twenty-two Ballades;
ten more were added later. They appeared in a little white vellum wrapper, with a little blue Chinese singer copied from a porcelain jar; and the frontispiece was a little design by an etcher now famous.

Thirty years ago blue china was a kind of fetish in some circles,
aesthetic circles, of which the balladist was not a member.

The ballade was an old French form of verse, in France revived by
Theodore de Banville, and restored to an England which had long forgotten the Middle Ages, by my friends Mr. Austin Dobson and Mr.
Edmund Gosse. They, so far as I can trust my memory, were the first to reintroduce these pleasant old French nugae, while an anonymous author let loose upon the town a whole winged flock of ballades of amazing dexterity. This unknown balladist was Mr. Henley; perhaps he was the first Englishman who ever burst into a double ballade,
and his translations of two of Villon’s ballades into modern thieves’ slang were marvels of dexterity. Mr. Swinburne wrote a serious ballade, but the form, I venture to think, is not ’wholly serious,’ of its nature, in modern days; and he did not persevere.
Nor did the taste for these trifles long endure. A good ballade is almost as rare as a good sonnet, but a middling ballade is almost as easily written as the majority of sonnets. Either form readily becomes mechanical, cheap and facile. I have heard Mr. George
Meredith improvise a sonnet, a Petrarchian sonnet, obedient to the rules, without pen and paper. He spoke ’and the numbers came’; he sonneted as easily as a living poet, in his Eton days, improvised
Latin elegiacs and Greek hexameters.

The sonnet endures. Mr. Horace Hutchinson wrote somewhere: "When you have read a sonnet, you feel that though there does not seem to be much of it, you have done a good deal, as when you have eaten a cold hard-boiled egg." Still people keep on writing sonnets,
because the sonnet is wholly serious. In an English sonnet you cannot easily be flippant of pen. A few great poets have written immortal sonnets—among them are Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats.
Thus the sonnet is a thing which every poet thinks it worth while to try at; like Felix Arvers, he may be made immortal by a single sonnet. Even I have written one too many! Every anthologist wants to anthologise it (The Odyssey); it never was a favourite of my own,
though it had the honour to be kindly spoken of by Mr. Matthew

On the other hand, no man since Francois Villon has been immortalised by a single ballade—Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

To speak in any detail about these poor ballades would be to indite a part of an autobiography. Looking back at the little book, ’what memories it stirs’ in one to whom

’Fate has done this wrong,
That I should write too much and live too long.’

The Ballade of the Tweed, and the Rhymes a la Mode, were dedicated to the dearest of kinsmen, a cricketer and angler. The Ballade of
Roulette was inscribed to R. R., a gallant veteran of the Indian
Mutiny, a leader of Light Horse, whose father was a friend of Sir
Walter Scott. He was himself a Borderer, in whose defeats on the green field of Roulette I often shared, long, long ago.

So many have gone ’into the world of light’ that it is a happiness to think of him to whom The Ballade of Golf was dedicated, and to remember that he is still capable of scoring his double century at cricket, and of lifting the ball high over the trees beyond the boundaries of a great cricket-field. Perhaps Mr. Leslie Balfour-
Melville will pardon me for mentioning his name, linked as it is with so many common memories. ’One is taken and another left.’

A different sort of memory attaches itself to A Ballade of Dead
Cities. It was written in a Theocritean amoebean way, in competition with Mr. Edmund Gosse; he need not be ashamed of the circumstance, for another shepherd, who was umpire, awarded the prize (two kids just severed from their dams) to his victorious muse.

The Ballade of the Midnight Forest, the Ballade of the Huntress
Artemis, was translated from Theodore de Banville, whose beautiful poem came so near the Greek, that when the late Provost of Oriel translated a part of its English shadow into Greek hexameters, you might suppose, as you read, that they were part of a lost Homeric

I never wrote a double ballade, and stanzas four and five of the
Double Ballade of Primitive Man were contributed by the learned doyen of Anthropology, Mr. E. B. Tylor, author of Primitive Culture.

A tout seigneur tout honneur!

In Ballade of his Choice of a Sepulchre, the Windburg is a hill in
Teviotdale. A Portrait of 1783 was written on a French engraving after Morland, and Benedetta Ramus was addressed to a mezzotint (an artist’s proof, ’very rare’). It is after Romney and is ’My
Beauty,’ as Charles Lamb said (once, unluckily, to a Scot) of an engraving, after Lionardo, of some fair dead lady.

The sonnet, Natural Theology, is the germ of what the author has since written, in The Making of Religion, on the long neglected fact that many of the lowest savages known share the belief in a benevolent All Father and Judge of men.

Concerning verses in Rhymes a la Mode, visitors to St. Andrews may be warned not to visit St. Leonard’s Chapel, described in the second stanza of Almae Matres. In the writer’s youth, and even in middle age,

He loitered idly where the tall
Fresh-budded mountain-ashes blow
Within its desecrated wall.

The once beautiful ruins carpeted with grass and wild flowers have been doubly desecrated by persons, academic persons, having authority and a plentiful lack of taste. The slim mountain-ashes,
fair as the young palm-tree that Odysseus saw beside the shrine of
Apollo in Delos, have been cut down by the academic persons to whom power is given. The grass and flowers have been rooted up. Hideous little wooden fences enclose the grave slabs: a roof of a massive kind has been dumped down on the old walls, and the windows, once so graceful in their airy lines, have been glazed in a horrible manner,
while the ugly iron gate precludes entrance to a shrine which is now a black and dismal dungeon.

"Oh, be that roof as lead to lead
Above the dull Restorer’s head,
A Minstrel’s malison is said!"

Notes explanatory are added to the Rhymes, and their information,
however valuable, need not here be repeated.


Friend, when you bear a care-dulled eye,
And brow perplexed with things of weight,
And fain would bid some charm untie
The bonds that hold you all too strait,
Behold a solace to your fate,
Wrapped in this cover’s china blue;
These ballades fresh and delicate,
This dainty troop of Thirty-two!

The mind, unwearied, longs to fly
And commune with the wise and great;
But that same ether, rare and high,
Which glorifies its worthy mate,
To breath forspent is disparate:
Laughing and light and airy-new
These come to tickle the dull pate,
This dainty troop of Thirty-two.

Most welcome then, when you and I,
Forestalling days for mirth too late,
To quips and cranks and fantasy
Some choice half-hour dedicate,
They weave their dance with measured rate
Of rhymes enlinked in order due,
Till frowns relax and cares abate,
This dainty troop of Thirty-two.


Princes, of toys that please your state
Quainter are surely none to view
Than these which pass with tripping gait,
This dainty troop of Thirty-two.

F. P.

Un Livre est un ami qui change—quelquefois.


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Chicago: Andrew Lang, "Introduction," Ballads in Blue China, ed. Sutherland, Alexander, 1853-1902 and trans. Seaton, R. C. in Ballads in Blue China (New York: George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892), Original Sources, accessed November 25, 2020,

MLA: Lang, Andrew. "Introduction." Ballads in Blue China, edited by Sutherland, Alexander, 1853-1902, and translated by Seaton, R. C., in Ballads in Blue China, New York, George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, Original Sources. 25 Nov. 2020.

Harvard: Lang, A, 'Introduction' in Ballads in Blue China, ed. and trans. . cited in ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, Ballads in Blue China, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 November 2020, from