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Celtic Literature - Chapter 1 Post by :Truman Category :Nonfictions Author :Matthew Arnold Date :May 2012 Read :3236

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Celtic Literature - Chapter 1

Chapter I

To know the Celtic case thoroughly, one must know the Celtic people; and to know them, one must know that by which a people best express themselves,--their literature. Few of us have any notion what a mass of Celtic literature is really yet extant and accessible. One constantly finds even very accomplished people, who fancy that the remains of Welsh and Irish literature are as inconsiderable by their volume, as, in their opinion, they are by their intrinsic merit; that these remains consist of a few prose stories, in great part borrowed from the literature of nations more civilised than the Welsh or Irish nation, and of some unintelligible poetry. As to Welsh literature, they have heard, perhaps, of the Black Book of Caermarthen, or of the Red Book of Hergest, and they imagine that one or two famous manuscript books like these contain the whole matter. They have no notion that, in real truth, to quote the words of one who is no friend to the high pretensions of Welsh literature, but their most formidable impugner, Mr. Nash:- 'The Myvyrian manuscripts alone, now deposited in the British Museum, amount to 47 volumes of poetry, of various sizes, containing about 4,700 pieces of poetry, in 16,000 pages, besides about 2,000 englynion or epigrammatic stanzas. There are also, in the same collection, 53 volumes of prose, in about 15,300 pages, containing great many curious documents on various subjects. Besides these, which were purchased of the widow of the celebrated Owen Jones, the editor of the Myvyrian Archaeology, there are a vast number of collections of Welsh manuscripts in London, and in the libraries of the gentry of the principality.' The Myvyrian Archaeology, here spoken of by Mr. Nash, I have already mentioned; he calls its editor, Owen Jones, celebrated; he is not so celebrated but that he claims a word, in passing, from a professor of poetry. He was a Denbighshire STATESMAN, as we say in the north, born before the middle of last century, in that vale of Myvyr, which has given its name to his archaeology. From his childhood he had that passion for the old treasures of his Country's literature, which to this day, as I have said, in the common people of Wales is so remarkable; these treasures were unprinted, scattered, difficult of access, jealously guarded. 'More than once,' says Edward Lhuyd, who in his Archaeologia Britannica, brought out by him in 1707, would gladly have given them to the world, 'more than once I had a promise from the owner, and the promise was afterwards retracted at the instigation of certain persons, pseudo-politicians, as I think, rather than men of letters.' So Owen Jones went up, a young man of nineteen, to London, and got employment in a furrier's shop in Thames Street; for forty years, with a single object in view, he worked at his business; and at the end of that time his object was won. He had risen in his employment till the business had become his own, and he was now a man of considerable means; but those means had been sought by him for one purpose only, the purpose of his life, the dream of his youth,--the giving permanence and publicity to the treasures of his national literature. Gradually he got manuscript after manuscript transcribed, and at last, in 1801, he jointly with two friends brought out in three large volumes, printed in double columns, his Myvyrian Archaeology of Wales. The book is full of imperfections, it presented itself to a public which could not judge of its importance, and it brought upon its author, in his lifetime, more attack than honour. He died not long afterwards, and now he lies buried in Allhallows Church, in London, with his tomb turned towards the east, away from the green vale of Clwyd and the mountains of his native Wales; but his book is the great repertory of the literature of his nation, the comparative study of languages and literatures gains every day more followers, and no one of these followers, at home or abroad, touches Welsh literature without paying homage to the Denbighshire peasant's name; if the bard's glory and his own are still matter of moment to him,--si quid mentem mortalia tangunt,--he may be satisfied.

Even the printed stock of early Welsh literature is, therefore, considerable, and the manuscript stock of it is very great indeed. Of Irish literature, the stock, printed and manuscript, is truly vast; the work of cataloguing and describing this has been admirably performed by another remarkable man, who died only the other day, Mr. Eugene O'Curry. Obscure Scaliger of a despised literature, he deserves some weightier voice to praise him than the voice of an unlearned bellettristic trifler like me; he belongs to the race of the giants in literary research and industry,--a race now almost extinct. Without a literary education, and impeded too, it appears, by much trouble of mind and infirmity of body, he has accomplished such a thorough work of classification and description for the chaotic mass of Irish literature, that the student has now half his labour saved, and needs only to use his materials as Eugene O'Curry hands them to him. It was as a professor in the Catholic University in Dublin that O'Curry gave the lectures in which he has done the student this service; it is touching to find that these lectures, a splendid tribute of devotion to the Celtic cause, had no hearer more attentive, more sympathising, than a man, himself, too, the champion of a cause more interesting than prosperous,--one of those causes which please noble spirits, but do not please destiny, which have Cato's adherence, but not Heaven's,--Dr. Newman. Eugene O'Curry, in these lectures of his, taking as his standard the quarto page of Dr. O'Donovan's edition of the Annals of the Four Masters (and this printed monument of one branch of Irish literature occupies by itself, let me say in passing, seven large quarto volumes, containing 4,215 pages of closely printed matter), Eugene O'Curry says, that the great vellum manuscript books belonging to Trinity College, Dublin, and to the Royal Irish Academy,--books with fascinating titles, the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, the Book of Ballymote, the Speckled Book, the Book of Lecain, the Yellow Book of Lecain,--have, between them, matter enough to fill 11,400 of these pages; the other vellum manuscripts in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, have matter enough to fill 8,200 pages more; and the paper manuscripts of Trinity College, and the Royal Irish Academy together, would fill, he says, 30,000 such pages more. The ancient laws of Ireland, the so- called Brehon laws, which a commission is now publishing, were not as yet completely transcribed when O'Curry wrote; but what had even then been transcribed was sufficient, he says, to fill nearly 8,000 of Dr. O'Donovan's pages. Here are, at any rate, materials enough with a vengeance. These materials fall, of course, into several divisions. The most literary of these divisions, the Tales, consisting of Historic Tales and Imaginative Tales, distributes the contents of its Historic Tales as follows:- Battles, voyages, sieges, tragedies, cow- spoils, courtships, adventures, land-expeditions, sea-expeditions, banquets, elopements, loves, lake-irruptions, colonisations, visions. Of what a treasure-house of resources for the history of Celtic life and the Celtic genius does that bare list, even by itself, call up the image! The Annals of the Four Masters give 'the years of foundations and destructions of churches and castles, the obituaries of remarkable persons, the inaugurations of kings, the battles of chiefs, the contests of clans, the ages of bards, abbots, bishops, &c.' {25} Through other divisions of this mass of materials,--the books of pedigrees and genealogies, the martyrologies and festologies, such as the Felire of Angus the Culdee, the topographical tracts, such as the Dinnsenchas,--we touch 'the most ancient traditions of the Irish, traditions which were committed to writing at a period when the ancient customs of the people were unbroken.' We touch 'the early history of Ireland, civil and ecclesiastical.' We get 'the origin and history of the countless monuments of Ireland, of the ruined church and tower, the sculptured cross, the holy well, and the commemorative name of almost every townland and parish in the whole island.' We get, in short, 'the most detailed information upon almost every part of ancient Gaelic life, a vast quantity of valuable details of life and manners.' {26}

Footnote {25} Dr. O'Conor in his Catalogue of the Stowe MSS. (quoted by O'Curry).

Footnote {26} O'Curry.

And then, besides, to our knowledge of the Celtic genius, Mr. Norris has brought us from Cornwall, M. de la Villemarque from Brittany, contributions, insignificant indeed in quantity, if one compares them with the mass of the Irish materials extant, but far from insignificant in value.

We want to know what all this mass of documents really tells us about the Celt. But the mode of dealing with these documents, and with the whole question of Celtic antiquity, has hitherto been most unsatisfactory. Those who have dealt with them, have gone to work, in general, either as warm Celt-lovers or as warm Celt-haters, and not as disinterested students of an important matter of science. One party seems to set out with the determination to find everything in Celtism and its remains; the other, with the determination to find nothing in them. A simple seeker for truth has a hard time between the two. An illustration or so will make clear what I mean. First let us take the Celt-lovers, who, though they engage one's sympathies more than the Celt-haters, yet, inasmuch as assertion is more dangerous than denial, show their weaknesses in a more signal way. A very learned man, the Rev. Edward Davies, published in the early part of this century two important books on Celtic antiquity. The second of these books, The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids, contains, with much other interesting matter, the charming story of Taliesin. Bryant's book on mythology was then in vogue, and Bryant, in the fantastical manner so common in those days, found in Greek mythology what he called an arkite idolatry, pointing to Noah's deluge and the ark. Davies, wishing to give dignity to his Celtic mythology, determines to find the arkite idolatry there too, and the style in which he proceeds to do this affords a good specimen of the extravagance which has caused Celtic antiquity to be looked upon with so much suspicion. The story of Taliesin begins thus:-

'In former times there was a man of noble descent in Penllyn. His name was Tegid Voel, and his paternal estate was in the middle of the Lake of Tegid, and his wife was called Ceridwen.'

Nothing could well be simpler; but what Davies finds in this simple opening of Taliesin's story is prodigious:-

'Let us take a brief view of the proprietor of this estate. Tegid Voel--BALD SERENITY--presents itself at once to our fancy. The painter would find no embarrassment in sketching the portrait of this sedate venerable personage, whose crown is partly stripped of its hoary honours. But of all the gods of antiquity, none could with propriety sit for this picture excepting Saturn, the acknowledged representative of Noah, and the husband of Rhea, which was but another name for Ceres, the genius of the ark.'

And Ceres, the genius of the ark, is of course found in Ceridwen, 'the British Ceres, the arkite goddess who initiates us into the deepest mysteries of the arkite superstition.'

Now the story of Taliesin, as it proceeds, exhibits Ceridwen as a sorceress; and a sorceress, like a goddess, belongs to the world of the supernatural; but, beyond this, the story itself does not suggest one particle of relationship between Ceridwen and Ceres. All the rest comes out of Davies's fancy, and is established by reasoning of the force of that about 'bald serenity.'

It is not difficult for the other side, the Celt-haters, to get a triumph over such adversaries as these. Perhaps I ought to ask pardon of Mr. Nash, whose Taliesin it is impossible to read without profit and instruction, for classing him among the Celt-haters; his determined scepticism about Welsh antiquity seems to me, however, to betray a preconceived hostility, a bias taken beforehand, as unmistakable as Mr. Davies's prepossessions. But Mr. Nash is often very happy in demolishing, for really the Celt-lovers seem often to try to lay themselves open, and to invite demolition. Full of his notions about an arkite idolatry and a Helio-daemonic worship, Edward Davies gives this translation of an old Welsh poem, entitled The Panegyric of Lludd the Great:-

'A song of dark import was composed by the distinguished Ogdoad, who assembled on the day of the moon, and went in open procession. On the day of Mars they allotted wrath to their adversaries; and on the day of Mercury they enjoyed their full pomp; on the day of Jove they were delivered from the detested usurpers; on the day of Venus, the day of the great influx, they swam in the blood of men; {29} on the day of the Sun there truly assemble five ships and five hundred of those who make supplication: O Brithi, O Brithoi! O son of the compacted wood, the shock overtakes me; we all attend on Adonai, on the area of Pwmpai.'

(Footnote {29} Here, where Saturday should come,
something is wanting in the manuscript.)

That looks Helio-daemonic enough, undoubtedly; especially when Davies prints O Brithi, O Brithoi! in Hebrew characters, as being 'vestiges of sacred hymns in the Phoenician language.' But then comes Mr. Nash, and says that the poem is a middle-age composition, with nothing Helio-daemonic about it; that it is meant to ridicule the monks; and that O Brithi, O Brithoi! is a mere piece of unintelligible jargon in mockery of the chants used by the monks at prayers; and he gives this counter-translation of the poem:-

'They make harsh songs; they note eight numbers. On Monday they will be prying about. On Tuesday they separate, angry with their adversaries. On Wednesday they drink, enjoying themselves ostentatiously. On Thursday they are in the choir; their poverty is disagreeable. Friday is a day of abundance, the men are swimming in pleasures. On Sunday, certainly, five legions and five hundreds of them, they pray, they make exclamations: O Brithi, O Brithoi! Like wood-cuckoos in noise they will be, every one of the idiots banging on the ground.'

As one reads Mr. Nash's explanation and translation after Edward Davies's, one feels that a flood of the broad daylight of common- sense has been suddenly shed over the Panegyric on Lludd the Great, and one is very grateful to Mr. Nash.

Or, again, when another Celt-lover, Mr. Herbert, has bewildered us with his fancies, as uncritical as Edward Davies's; with his neo- Druidism, his Mithriac heresy, his Crist-celi, or man-god of the mysteries; and above all, his ape of the sanctuary, 'signifying the mercurial principle, that strange and unexplained disgrace of paganism,' Mr. Nash comes to our assistance, and is most refreshingly rational. To confine ourselves to the ape of the sanctuary only. Mr. Herbert constructs his monster,--to whom, he says, 'great sanctity, together with foul crime, deception, and treachery,' is ascribed,--out of four lines of old Welsh poetry, of which he adopts the following translation:-

'Without the ape, without the stall of the cow, without the mundane rampart, the world will become desolate, not requiring the cuckoos to convene the appointed dance over the green.'

One is not very clear what all this means, but it has, at any rate, a solemn air about it, which prepares one for the development of its first-named personage, the ape, into the mystical ape of the sanctuary. The cow, too,--says another famous Celt-lover, Dr. Owen, the learned author of the Welsh Dictionary,--the cow (henfon) is the cow of transmigration; and this also sounds natural enough. But Mr. Nash, who has a keen eye for the piecing which frequently happens in these old fragments, has observed that just here, where the ape of the sanctuary and the cow of transmigration make their appearance, there seems to come a cluster of adages, popular sayings; and he at once remembers an adage preserved with the word henfon in it, where, as he justly says, 'the cow of transmigration cannot very well have place.' This adage, rendered literally in English, is: 'Whoso owns the old cow, let him go at her tail;' and the meaning of it, as a popular saying, is clear and simple enough. With this clue, Mr. Nash examines the whole passage, suggests that heb eppa, 'without the ape,' with which Mr. Herbert begins, in truth belongs to something going before and is to be translated somewhat differently; and, in short, that what we really have here is simply these three adages one after another: 'The first share is the full one. Politeness is natural, says the ape. Without the cow-stall there would be no dung- heap.' And one can hardly doubt that Mr. Nash is quite right.

Even friends of the Celt, who are perfectly incapable of extravagances of this sort, fall too often into a loose mode of criticism concerning him and the documents of his history, which is unsatisfactory in itself, and also gives an advantage to his many enemies. One of the best and most delightful friends he has ever had,--M. de la Villemarque,--has seen clearly enough that often the alleged antiquity of his documents cannot be proved, that it can be even disproved, and that he must rely on other supports than this to establish what he wants; yet one finds him saying: 'I open the collection of Welsh bards from the sixth to the tenth century. Taliesin, one of the oldest of them,' . . . and so on. But his adversaries deny that we have really any such thing as a 'collection of Welsh bards from the sixth to the tenth century,' or that a 'Taliesin, one of the oldest of them,' exists to be quoted in defence of any thesis. Sharon Turner, again, whose Vindication of the Ancient British Poems was prompted, it seems to me, by a critical instinct at bottom sound, is weak and uncritical in details like this: 'The strange poem of Taliesin, called the Spoils of Annwn, implies the existence (in the sixth century, he means) of mythological tales about Arthur; and the frequent allusion of the old Welsh bards to the persons and incidents which we find in the Mabinogion, are further proofs that there must have been such stories in circulation amongst the Welsh.' But the critic has to show, against his adversaries, that the Spoils of Annwn is a real poem of the sixth century, with a real sixth-century poet called Taliesin for its author, before he can use it to prove what Sharon Turner there wishes to prove; and, in like manner, the high antiquity of persons and incidents that are found in the manuscripts of the Mabinogion,-- manuscripts written, like the famous Red Book of Hergest, in the library of Jesus College at Oxford, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,--is not proved by allusions of the old Welsh bards, until (which is just the question at issue) the pieces containing these allusions are proved themselves to possess a very high antiquity. In the present state of the question as to the early Welsh literature, this sort of reasoning is inconclusive and bewildering, and merely carries us round in a circle. Again, it is worse than inconclusive reasoning, it shows so uncritical a spirit that it begets grave mistrust, when Mr. Williams ab Ithel, employed by the Master of the Rolls to edit the Brut y Tywysogion, the 'Chronicle of the Princes,' says in his introduction, in many respects so useful and interesting: 'We may add, on the authority of a scrupulously faithful antiquary, and one that was deeply versed in the traditions of his order--the late Iolo Morganwg--that King Arthur in his Institutes of the Round Table introduced the age of the world for events which occurred before Christ, and the year of Christ's nativity for all subsequent events.' Now, putting out of the question Iolo Morganwg's character as an antiquary, it is obvious that no one, not Grimm himself, can stand in that way as 'authority' for King Arthur's having thus regulated chronology by his Institutes of the Round Table, or even for there ever having been any such institutes at all. And finally, greatly as I respect and admire Mr. Eugene O'Curry, unquestionable as is the sagacity, the moderation, which he in general unites with his immense learning, I must say that he, too, like his brother Celt- lovers, sometimes lays himself dangerously open. For instance, the Royal Irish Academy possesses in its Museum a relic of the greatest value, the Domhnach Airgid, a Latin manuscript of the four gospels. The outer box containing this manuscript is of the fourteenth century, but the manuscript itself, says O'Curry (and no man is better able to judge) is certainly of the sixth. This is all very well. 'But,' O'Curry then goes on, 'I believe no reasonable doubt can exist that the Domhnach Airgid was actually sanctified by the hand of our great Apostle.' One has a thrill of excitement at receiving this assurance from such a man as Eugene O'Curry; one believes that he is really going to make it clear that St. Patrick did actually sanctify the Domhnach Airgid with his own hands; and one reads on:-

'As St. Patrick, says an ancient life of St. Mac Carthainn preserved by Colgan in his Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, was on his way from the north, and coming to the place now called Clogher, he was carried over a stream by his strong man, Bishop Mac Carthainn, who, while bearing the Saint, groaned aloud, exclaiming: "Ugh! Ugh!"

'"Upon my good word," said the Saint, "it was not usual with you to make that noise."

'"I am now old and infirm," said Bishop Mac Carthainn, "and all my early companions in mission-work you have settled down in their respective churches, while I am still on my travels."

'"Found a church then," said the Saint, "that shall not be too near us" (that is to his own Church of Armagh) "for familiarity, nor too far from us for intercourse."

'And the Saint then left Bishop Mac Carthainn there, at Clogher, and bestowed the Domhnach Airgid upon him, which had been given to Patrick from heaven, when he was on the sea, coming to Erin.'

The legend is full of poetry, full of humour; and one can quite appreciate, after reading it, the tact which gave St. Patrick such a prodigious success in organising the primitive church in Ireland; the new bishop, 'not too near us for familiarity, nor too far from us for intercourse,' is a masterpiece. But how can Eugene O'Curry have imagined that it takes no more than a legend like that, to prove that the particular manuscript now in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy was once in St. Patrick's pocket?

I insist upon extravagances like these, not in order to throw ridicule upon the Celt-lovers,--on the contrary, I feel a great deal of sympathy with them,--but rather, to make it clear what an immense advantage the Celt-haters, the negative side, have in the controversy about Celtic antiquity; how much a clear-headed sceptic, like Mr. Nash, may utterly demolish, and, in demolishing, give himself the appearance of having won an entire victory. But an entire victory he has, as I will next proceed to show, by no means won.

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Celtic Literature - Chapter 2 Celtic Literature - Chapter 2

Celtic Literature - Chapter 2
Chapter III said that a sceptic like Mr. Nash, by demolishing the rubbish of the Celtic antiquaries, might often give himself the appearance of having won a complete victory, but that a complete victory he had, in truth, by no means won. He has cleared much rubbish away, but this is no such very difficult feat, and requires mainly common-sense; to be sure, Welsh archaeologists are apt to lose their common-sense, but at moments when they are in possession of it they can do the indispensable, negative part of criticism, not, indeed, so briskly or cleverly as Mr. Nash, but still

Celtic Literature - The Study Of Celtic Literature Celtic Literature - The Study Of Celtic Literature

Celtic Literature - The Study Of Celtic Literature
'They went forth to the war, but they always fell.' OSSIANSome time ago I spent some weeks at Llandudno, on the Welsh coast. The best lodging-houses at Llandudno look eastward, towards Liverpool; and from that Saxon hive swarms are incessantly issuing, crossing the bay, and taking possession of the beach and the lodging- houses. Guarded by the Great and Little Orme's Head, and alive with the Saxon invaders from Liverpool, the eastern bay is an attractive point of interest, and many visitors to Llandudno never contemplate anything else. But, putting aside the charm of the Liverpool steamboats, perhaps the view, on