Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ancient Spanish Ballads

Ancient Spanish Ballads, Historical and Romantic. Translated, By J. G. LOCKHART. New York: Wiley & Putnam.

Ancient Spanish ballads, known as "romances" in Spanish, are a form of lyrical poetry that emerged in the Iberian Peninsula during the late Middle Ages, around the 14th and 15th centuries. These ballads are significant for several reasons, reflecting Spain's cultural, historical, and literary heritage and the broader Spanish-speaking world. They are characterized by their narrative style, often telling stories of chivalry, romance, historical events, and folklore, and are marked by their simplicity, directness, and lyrical quality.

Cultural and Historical Significance

  1. Reflection of Medieval Spanish Society: The ballads offer insights into medieval Spain's social, political, and cultural conditions. They reflect the diverse influences that shaped Spain, including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions, showcasing the coexistence and conflicts among these cultures.
  2. Preservation of Oral Tradition: Originally, these ballads were part of an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation before being written down. As such, they are a valuable record of medieval Spain's linguistic, poetic, and musical heritage, preserving the voices and stories of people from various social classes and backgrounds.
  3. Literary Influence: The ancient Spanish ballads have profoundly influenced the development of Spanish literature and poetry. They are considered precursors to later literary movements and have inspired poets and writers within Spain and beyond, including the Romantic poets of the 19th century, who admired their emotional depth and simplicity.

Literary Characteristics

  1. Narrative and Thematic Variety: The ballads cover many themes, from historical battles and noble deeds to love stories and tragedies. This thematic diversity makes them a rich source of stories and characters, reflecting the complexities of human experience.
  2. Stylistic Simplicity and Emotional Depth: Despite their often simple structure, the ballads can convey deep emotional resonance and moral complexities. Their use of repetition, refrain, and direct narrative voice contributes to their powerful impact on listeners and readers.
  3. Adaptability and Evolution: Over time, the ballads have been adapted and reinterpreted in various forms, including music, theatre, and literature. Their ability to evolve while maintaining their core themes and appeal speaks to their universal relevance and enduring popularity.


The ancient Spanish ballads are more than just historical artifacts; they are living expressions of the human spirit, encapsulating their time's joys, sorrows, struggles, and triumphs. Their significance lies in their ability to bridge the past and present, offering a window into the medieval world while continuing to inspire and resonate with contemporary audiences. As cultural treasures, they continue to be studied, performed, and celebrated for contributing to the rich tapestry of world literature and music.

The enterprising publishers, Messrs. Wiley & Putnam, who have reprinted, in a plain but very neat form, Mr. Lockhart's gorgeously illustrated work, have judiciously prefixed to it, by way of introduction, a critique on the book from the Edinburgh Review, and have added at the end of the volume an analytical account, with specimens of the Romance of the Cid, from the Penny Magazine. This is done with the greatest propriety, for the Cid seems to be the proper centre of Spanish legendary poetry. The Iliad, the Nibelungen, the Cid, the Robin Hood Ballads, Frithiof's Saga, (for the last also depends for its merit on its fidelity to the legend,) are five admirable collections of early popular poetry of so many nations; and with whatever difference of form, they possess strong mutual resemblances, chiefly apparent in the spirit which they communicate to the reader, of health, vigor, cheerfulness, and good hope. In this day of reprinting and of restoration, we hope that Southey's Chronicle of the Cid, which is a kind of "Harmony of the Gospels" of the Spanish Romance, may be republished in a volume of convenient size. That is a strong book, and makes lovers and admirers of "My Cid, the Perfect one, who was born in a fortunate hour." Its traits of heroism and bursts of simple emotion, once read, can never be forgotten; "I am not a man to be besieged;" and "God! What a glad man was the Cid on that day," and many the like words still ring in our ears. The Cortes at Toledo, where judgment was given between the Cid and his sons-in-law, is one of the strongest dramatic scenes in literature. Several of the best ballads in Mr. Lockhart's collection recite incidents of the Cid's history. The best ballad in the book is the "Count Alarcos and the Infanta Solisa," which is a meet companion for Chaucer's Griselda. The "Count Garci Perez de Vargas" is one of our favorites; and there is one called the "Bridal of Andalla," which we have long lost all power to read as a poem, since we have heard it sung by a voice so rich, and sweet, and penetrating, as to make the ballad the inalienable property of the singer.

This image reflects the dramatic and untouched beauty of medieval Spain, inviting you into the world of heroes, battles, and romance described in the ballads. This image reflects the dramatic and untouched beauty of medieval Spain, inviting you into the world of heroes, battles, and romance described in the ballads.

The above is our "mind's eye" of medieval Spain's dramatic and untouched beauty, inviting you into the world of heroes, battles, and romance described in the Ancient Spanish Ballads.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's appreciation and coverage of ancient Spanish ballads highlight their unique qualities in several dimensions, reflecting his broader interests in culture, poetry, and the nature of human experiences. The ancient Spanish ballads, or "romances" as they were initially known, are a collection of lyrical poems that date back to the late Middle Ages, capturing the essence of Spain's rich history, culture, and diverse influences over the centuries.

  1. Cultural and Historical Value: Emerson valued the ballads for their deep cultural and historical significance. These ballads served as a window into the medieval Spanish world, reflecting its people's struggles, victories, and daily lives. They encapsulate a period rich in conflict and coexistence between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, offering insights into the social and political dynamics of the time. 
  2. Lyrical and Poetic Quality: Emerson, a poet himself, was naturally drawn to these ballads' artistic and lyrical quality. Their poetic form, vivid imagery, metaphor, and narrative structure appealed to Emerson's literary sensibilities. He admired how these poems used language to evoke powerful emotions and capture the human experience in a raw and authentic manner. 
  3. Universal Themes: Emerson was deeply interested in the universal themes and moral questions explored in these ballads, such as honor, love, heroism, and tragedy. These themes resonated with Emerson's philosophical views on the nature of human experience and the interconnectedness of all things. He saw in these ballads a reflection of the universal human spirit and its enduring values. 
  4. Influence on Romanticism: The ancient Spanish ballads were part of the Romantic movement's fascination with medieval and exotic literature, which sought to break free from the classical constraints and explore the depths of human emotion and the sublime. Emerson, associated with the Transcendentalist movement in America, found common ground with the Romantic movement's values, and the Spanish ballads exemplified many of these ideals.

Emerson's interest in ancient Spanish ballads underscores his broader intellectual curiosity and belief in the power of literature to transcend cultural and temporal boundaries. By covering these ballads, Emerson helped introduce them to a wider audience, emphasizing the importance of preserving and studying these poetic works not just as historical artifacts but as living expressions of the human spirit.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Self Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry to pursue a career in writing and public speaking. Emerson became one of America's best known and best-loved 19th-century figures.
More About Emerson

Emerson Quotes

"Every man has his own courage, and is betrayed because he seeks in himself the courage of other persons."
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” 
– Ralph Waldo Emerson