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IT T has often been asserted that England possessed neither national songs nor a national music ; but this, like
other assertions which have long held their ground in the opinions of those who, without thinking for themselves, are content to take their guidance from others, has no foundation in fact. That England possesses a music of her own, no one, who has studied the subject and remembers the compositions of Bull, Lawes, Arne, Purcell, and Shield, as well as the older melodies that float on the popular breath, and the newer compositions of the last and the present age, can doubt. That England possesses a multitude of
which are national in the best sense of the word, every one who has read the Sea Songs of the two Dibdins, of Thomas Campbell, and of many other inferior writers, will strenuously maintain. The Sea Songs of Thomas Campbell are among the finest lyrical compositions in the English or any other language, and those of Charles Dibdin-although written in a less elevated tone-came fresh from, and appealed as freshly to the popular heart. If there be any excess of nationality among Englishmen, it leans towards the naval supremacy and glory of their country; and from the time when Henry the Eighth sent his great fleet to Boulogne harbour till the day when Nelson fell at Trafalgar, the sea and its heroes have been sung amid the constant and hearty applause of the English multitude. Although very excellent sea songs were written before the time of Charles Dibdin, that writer
- living in a time when this country was engaged in a struggle, amid which the national safety from invasion depended almost entirely upon her “wooden walls” and her hardy marinersexcelled all his predecessors, and made for himself so wide and enduring a reputation as to be entitled above any other man to the designation of the greatest of English song-writers.
Dibdin's Sea Songs are intensely and entirely English; they are English in their sound feeling; in their contempt of danger; in their rude gaiety and in their true-heartedness; they are quite as English even in their prejudices, and would not suit the sailors of any other people. Every reader or hearer knows, though he may never have been at sea, though he may not have mixed with sailors, and though he may have received only the old traditionary or stage notions of their character, that the pictures are true, that the feelings are real, and such as no stranger could have invented; jast, as sometimes in a portrait we know it to be likeness, from those little peculiar traits which carry conviction, though at the same time we may never have seen the individual represented. Who can mistake the character of Dibdin's “ Poor Jack?” Who does not feel that he is a genuine Englishman, and a true sailor? and that there is no sailor like him on the face of the ocean, either for his peculiar virtues or his peculiar failings?
Almost eqnal to “ Poor Jack,” though of a different strain, are the songs “ Nothing like Grog,” and “ The Sailor's Sheet Anchor," in which the philosophy of drinking is laid down with a quaintness of humour, and a truthfulness of character, which, however objectionable in a moral point of view, are so real and life-like, that we can almost smell tar and tobacco, and the fumes of rum-and-water, as we read.
Of a similar character, but more original and varied in its illustrations, is the song entitled, “ Grieving 's a Folly;" in which
a sailor, after depicting the good and generous qualities of the many messmates with whom he had sailed, and describing the accidents that carried them from the world, winds up each doleful case by a reflection on the uselessness of sorrow, and a call to his listeners to be happy while they may. “Jack at the Windlass" is still better, and is just such homespun satire as the world would expect from a sailor with a keen eye for the ludicrous—with a discrimination enabling him to detect cant and hypocrisy—and with the easy good-nature that would rather laugh at follies, than grieve at them. Dibdin's hero loves his messmates all the more from not being such paragons of virtue as to be a thousand fold better than himself—a touch of nature which every one will recognise. “ Lovely Nan,” and “The Sailor's Journal,” are specimens of another kind,—the genuine affection of a simple heart, expressed in language that looks more truthful and sincere because tinctured with the idioms of his profession, and interlarded with sea similes. But every page of Charles Dibdin's excellent songs supplies a new variety; and though every song seems the genuine expression of the sentiment of a British sailor that lived and moved and had his being among us, and not a stage-sailor, made up for show, there is but little repetition of sentiment or imagery. The poet had the greatest of all poetic arts in high perfection—that of thoroughly placing himself in the position of the characters he represented, and losing sight entirely of his own individuality in the portraiture of theirs. Charles Dibdin, though inferior in those lighter graces which charm the drawing-room, is, as a popular song-writer, by far the best our literature has produced. He has succeeded in pleasing the strong point in the national character, and though it is to be hoped for the sake of Great Britain, and of the world, and of the mighty interests of civilization involved in the continuance of peace between all nations, that these stirring songs may never more be needed to incite the courage of our mariners, it is certain that in the peaceful days which we have long enjoyed and which we still hope to enjoy, such sea songs as those of Dibdin will exercise a beneficial influence upon the character of the maritime population. If they now and then speak more warmly in praise of the sensual pleasures of the bottle than is desirable, it must be remembered, in the author's defence, that intemperance at the time at which he wrote was a national vice-in which the noble and the educated indulged to as great an extent as the ignoble and the ignorant—that if common sailors drank, admirals did so likewise, and that both sailors and admirals were no worse than the general society_high and low—of their country. Dibdin, notwithstanding this fault of his age, has the most brilliant merits of his own. His songs invariably instil the sentiments of humanity, generosity, mercy, hospitality, truth, and kindliness of heart, a chivalrous though rough admiration for female virtue and loveliness, and a manly sincerity and independence of character. As Dibdin said of them himself, with honest pride, “ His songs have been considered an object of national consequence; they have been the solace of sailors in long voyages, in storms, and in battle; and have been quoted in mutinies to the restoration of order and discipline.” A few songs, appealing as strongly and as virtuously to the feelings of other classes of the people, would be a national benefit.
Lustily, lustily, lustily let us sail forth,
To furnish our ship that rideth hereby;
Lustily, lustily, &c. Her flags be new trimmed, set flaunting aloft,
Our ship for swift swimming, oh! she doth excel ; We fear no enemies, we have 'scaped them oft, Of all ships that swimmeth she beareth the bell.
Lustily, lustily, &c. And here is a master excelleth in skill,
And our master's mate he is not to seek; And here is a boatswain will do his good will, And here is a ship, boy, we never had leak.
Lustily, lustily, &c.