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Celtic Literature - Chapter 2 Post by :JuvioSuccess Category :Nonfictions Author :Matthew Arnold Date :May 2012 Read :2890

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Celtic Literature - Chapter 2

Chapter II

I 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 well enough. Edward Davies, for instance, has quite clearly seen that the alleged remains of old Welsh literature are not to be taken for genuine just as they stand: 'Some petty and mendicant minstrel, who only chaunted it as an old song, has tacked on' (he says of a poem he is discussing) 'these lines, in a style and measure totally different from the preceding verses: "May the Trinity grant us mercy in the day of judgment: a liberal donation, good gentlemen!"' There, fifty years before Mr. Nash, is a clearance like one of Mr. Nash's. But the difficult feat in this matter is the feat of construction; to determine when one has cleared away all that is to be cleared away, what is the significance of that which is left; and here, I confess, I think Mr. Nash and his fellow-sceptics, who say that next to nothing is left, and that the significance of whatever is left is next to nothing, dissatisfy the genuine critic even more than Edward Davies and his brother enthusiasts, who have a sense that something primitive, august, and interesting is there, though they fail to extract it, dissatisfy him. There is a very edifying story told by O'Curry of the effect produced on Moore, the poet, who had undertaken to write the history of Ireland (a task for which he was quite unfit), by the contemplation of an old Irish manuscript. Moore had, without knowing anything about them, spoken slightingly of the value to the historian of Ireland of the materials afforded by such manuscripts; but, says O'Curry:-

'In the year 1839, during one of his last visits to the land of his birth, he, in company with his old and attached friend Dr. Petrie, favoured me with an unexpected visit at the Royal Irish Academy. I was at that period employed on the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and at the time of his visit happened to have before me on my desk the Books of Ballymote and Lecain, The Speckled Book, The Annals of the Four Masters, and many other ancient books, for historical research and reference. I had never before seen Moore, and after a brief introduction and explanation of the nature of my occupation by Dr. Petrie, and seeing the formidable array of so many dark and time-worn volumes by which I was surrounded, he looked a little disconcerted, but after a while plucked up courage to open the Book of Ballymote and ask what it was. Dr. Petrie and myself then entered into a short explanation of the history and character of the books then present as well as of ancient Gaedhelic documents in general. Moore listened with great attention, alternately scanning the books and myself, and then asked me, in a serious tone, if I understood them, and how I had learned to do so. Having satisfied him upon these points, he turned to Dr. Petrie and said:- "Petrie, these huge tomes could not have been written by fools or for any foolish purpose. I never knew anything about them before, and I had no right to have undertaken the History of Ireland."'

And from that day Moore, it is said, lost all heart for going on with his History of Ireland, and it was only the importunity of the publishers which induced him to bring out the remaining volume.

COULD NOT HAVE BEEN WRITTEN BY FOOLS OR FOR ANY FOOLISH PURPOSE. That is, I am convinced, a true presentiment to have in one's mind when one looks at Irish documents like the Book of Ballymote, or Welsh documents like the Red Book of Hergest. In some respects, at any rate, these documents are what they claim to be, they hold what they pretend to hold, they touch that primitive world of which they profess to be the voice. The true critic is he who can detect this precious and genuine part in them, and employ it for the elucidation of the Celt's genius and history, and for any other fruitful purposes to which it can be applied. Merely to point out the mixture of what is late and spurious in them, is to touch but the fringes of the matter. In reliance upon the discovery of this mixture of what is late and spurious in them, to pooh-pooh them altogether, to treat them as a heap of rubbish, a mass of middle-age forgeries, is to fall into the greatest possible error. Granted that all the manuscripts of Welsh poetry (to take that branch of Celtic literature which has had, in Mr. Nash, the ablest disparager), granted that all such manuscripts that we possess are, with the most insignificant exception, not older than the twelfth century; granted that the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a time of great poetical activity in Wales, a time when the mediaeval literature flourished there, as it flourished in England, France, and other countries; granted that a great deal of what Welsh enthusiasts have attributed to their great traditional poets of the sixth century belongs to this later epoch,--what then? Does that get rid of the great traditional poets,--the Cynveirdd or old bards, Aneurin, Taliesin, Llywarch Hen, and their compeers,--does that get rid of the great poetical tradition of the sixth century altogether, does it merge the whole literary antiquity of Wales in her mediaeval literary antiquity, or, at least, reduce all other than this to insignificance? Mr. Nash says it does; all his efforts are directed to show how much of the so called sixth-century pieces may be resolved into mediaeval, twelfth- century work; his grand thesis is that there is nothing primitive and pre-Christian in the extant Welsh literature, no traces of the Druidism and Paganism every one associates with Celtic antiquity; all this, he says, was extinguished by Paulinus in AD. 59, and never resuscitated. 'At the time the Mabinogion and the Taliesin ballads were composed, no tradition or popular recollection of the Druids or the Druidical mythology existed in Wales. The Welsh bards knew of no older mystery, nor of any mystic creed, unknown to the rest of the Christian world.' And Mr. Nash complains that 'the old opinion that the Welsh poems contain notices of Druid or Pagan superstitions of a remote origin' should still find promulgators; what we find in them is only, he says, what was circulating in Wales in the twelfth century, and one great mistake in these investigations has been the supposing that the Welsh of the twelfth, or even of the sixth century, were wiser as well as more Pagan than their neighbours.'

Why, what a wonderful thing is this! We have, in the first place, the most weighty and explicit testimony,--Strabo's, Caesar's, Lucan's,--that this race once possessed a special, profound, spiritual discipline, that they were, to use Mr. Nash's words, 'wiser than their neighbours.' Lucan's words are singularly clear and strong, and serve well to stand as a landmark in this controversy, in which one is sometimes embarrassed by hearing authorities quoted on this side or that, when one does not feel sure precisely what they say, how much or how little; Lucan, addressing those hitherto under the pressure of Rome, but now left by the Roman civil war to their own devices, says:-

'Ye too, ye bards, who by your praises perpetuate the memory of the fallen brave, without hindrance poured forth your strains. And ye, ye Druids, now that the sword was removed, began once more your barbaric rites and weird solemnities. To you only is given knowledge or ignorance (whichever it be) of the gods and the powers of heaven; your dwelling is in the lone heart of the forest. From you we learn, that the bourne of man's ghost is not the senseless grave, not the pale realm of the monarch below; in another world his spirit survives still;--death, if your lore be true, is but the passage to enduring life.'

There is the testimony of an educated Roman, fifty years after Christ, to the Celtic race being then 'wiser than their neighbours;' testimony all the more remarkable because civilised nations, though very prone to ascribe to barbarous people an ideal purity and simplicity of life and manners, are by no means naturally inclined to ascribe to them high attainment in intellectual and spiritual things. And now, along with this testimony of Lucan's, one has to carry in mind Caesar's remark, that the Druids, partly from a religious scruple, partly from a desire to discipline the memory of their pupils, committed nothing to writing. Well, then come the crushing defeat of the Celtic race in Britain and the Roman conquest; but the Celtic race subsisted here still, and any one can see that, while the race subsisted, the traditions of a discipline such as that of which Lucan has drawn the picture were not likely to be so very speedily 'extinguished.' The withdrawal of the Romans, the recovered independence of the native race here, the Saxon invasion, the struggle with the Saxons, were just the ground for one of those bursts of energetic national life and self-consciousness which find a voice in a burst of poets and poetry. Accordingly, to this time, to the sixth century, the universal Welsh tradition attaches the great group of British poets, Taliesin and his fellows. In the twelfth century there began for Wales, along with another burst of national life, another burst of poetry; and this burst LITERARY in the stricter sense of the word,--a burst which left, for the first time, written records. It wrote the records of its predecessors, as well as of itself, and therefore Mr. Nash wants to make it the real author of the whole poetry, one may say, of the sixth century, as well as its own. No doubt one cannot produce the texts of the poetry of the sixth century; no doubt we have this only as the twelfth and succeeding centuries wrote it down; no doubt they mixed and changed it a great deal in writing it down. But, since a continuous stream of testimony shows the enduring existence and influence among the kindred Celts of Wales and Brittany, from the sixth century to the twelfth, of an old national literature, it seems certain that much of this must be traceable in the documents of the twelfth century, and the interesting thing is to trace it. It cannot be denied that there is such a continuous stream of testimony; there is Gildas in the sixth century, Nennius in the eighth, the laws of Howel in the tenth; in the eleventh, twenty or thirty years before the new literary epoch began, we hear of Rhys ap Tudor having 'brought with him from Brittany the system of the Round Table, which at home had become quite forgotten, and he restored it as it is, with regard to minstrels and bards, as it had been at Caerleon-upon-Usk, under the Emperor Arthur, in the time of the sovereignty of the race of the Cymry over the island of Britain and its adjacent islands.' Mr. Nash's own comment on this is: 'We here see the introduction of the Arthurian romance from Brittany, preceding by nearly one generation the revival of music and poetry in North Wales;' and yet he does not seem to perceive what a testimony is here to the reality, fulness, and subsistence of that primitive literature about which he is so sceptical. Then in the twelfth century testimony to this primitive literature absolutely abounds; one can quote none better than that of Giraldus de Barri, or Giraldus Cambrensis, as he is usually called. Giraldus is an excellent authority, who knew well what he was writing about, and he speaks of the Welsh bards and rhapsodists of his time as having in their possession 'ancient and authentic books' in the Welsh language. The apparatus of technical terms of poetry, again, and the elaborate poetical organisation which we find, both in Wales and Ireland, existing from the very commencement of the mediaeval literary period in each, and to which no other mediaeval literature, so far as I know, shows at its first beginnings anything similar, indicates surely, in these Celtic peoples, the clear and persistent tradition of an older poetical period of great development, and almost irresistibly connects itself in one's mind with the elaborate Druidic discipline which Caesar mentions.

But perhaps the best way to get a full sense of the storied antiquity, forming as it were the background to those mediaeval documents which in Mr. Nash's eyes pretty much begin and end with themselves, is to take, almost at random, a passage from such a tale as Kilhwch and Olwen, in the Mabinogion,--that charming collection, for which we owe such a debt of gratitude to Lady Charlotte Guest (to call her still by the name she bore when she made her happy entry into the world of letters), and which she so unkindly suffers to remain out of print. Almost every page of this tale points to traditions and personages of the most remote antiquity, and is instinct with the very breath of the primitive world. Search is made for Mabon, the son of Modron, who was taken when three nights old from between his mother and the wall. The seekers go first to the Ousel of Cilgwri; the Ousel had lived long enough to peck a smith's anvil down to the size of a nut, but he had never heard of Mabon. 'But there is a race of animals who were formed before me, and I will be your guide to them.' So the Ousel guides them to the Stag of Redynvre. The Stag has seen an oak sapling, in the wood where he lived, grow up to be an oak with a hundred branches, and then slowly decay down to a withered stump, yet he had never heard of Mabon. 'But I will be your guide to the place where there is an animal which was formed before I was;' and he guides them to the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd. 'When first I came hither,' says the Owl, 'the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men came and rooted it up. And there grew a second wood; and this wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps?' Yet the Owl, in spite of his great age, had never heard of Mabon; but he offered to be guide 'to where is the oldest animal in the world, and the one that has travelled most, the Eagle of Gwern Abwy.' The Eagle was so old, that a rock, from the top of which he pecked at the stars every evening, was now not so much as a span high. He knew nothing of Mabon; but there was a monster Salmon, into whom he once struck his claws in Llyn Llyw, who might, perhaps, tell them something of him. And at last the Salmon of Llyn Llyw told them of Mabon. 'With every tide I go along the river upwards, until I come near to the walls of Gloucester, and there have I found such wrong as I never found elsewhere.' And the Salmon took Arthur's messengers on his shoulders up to the wall of the prison in Gloucester, and they delivered Mabon.

Nothing could better give that sense of primitive and pre-mediaeval antiquity which to the observer with any tact for these things is, I think, clearly perceptible in these remains, at whatever time they may have been written; or better serve to check too absolute an acceptance of Mr. Nash's doctrine,--in some respects very salutary,-- 'that the common assumption of such remains of the date of the sixth century, has been made upon very unsatisfactory grounds.' It is true, it has; it is true, too, that, as he goes on to say, 'writers who claim for productions actually existing only in manuscripts of the twelfth, an origin in the sixth century, are called upon to demonstrate the links of evidence, either internal or external, which bridge over this great intervening period of at least five hundred years.' Then Mr. Nash continues: 'This external evidence is altogether wanting.' Not altogether, as we have seen; that assertion is a little too strong. But I am content to let it pass, because it is true, that without internal evidence in this matter the external evidence would be of no moment. But when Mr. Nash continues further: 'And the internal evidence even of the so-called historic poems themselves, is, in some instances at least, opposed to their claims to an origin in the sixth century,' and leaves the matter there, and finishes his chapter, I say that is an unsatisfactory turn to give to the matter, and a lame and impotent conclusion to his chapter; because the one interesting, fruitful question here is, not in what instances the internal evidence opposes the claims of these poems to a sixth-century origin, but in what instances it supports them, and what these sixth-century remains, thus established, signify.

So again with the question as to the mythological import of these poems. Mr. Nash seems to me to have dealt with this, too, rather in the spirit of a sturdy enemy of the Celts and their pretensions,-- often enough chimerical,--than in the spirit of a disinterested man of science. 'We find in the oldest compositions in the Welsh language no traces,' he says, 'of the Druids, or of a pagan mythology.' He will not hear of there being, for instance, in these compositions, traces of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, attributed to the Druids in such clear words by Caesar. He is very severe upon a German scholar, long and favourably known in this country, who has already furnished several contributions to our knowledge of the Celtic race, and of whose labours the main fruit has, I believe, not yet been given us,--Mr. Meyer. He is very severe upon Mr. Meyer, for finding in one of the poems ascribed to Taliesin, 'a sacrificial hymn addressed to the god Pryd, in his character of god of the Sun.' It is not for me to pronounce for or against this notion of Mr. Meyer's. I have not the knowledge which is needed in order to make one's suffrage in these matters of any value; speaking merely as one of the unlearned public, I will confess that allegory seems to me to play, in Mr. Meyer's theories, a somewhat excessive part; Arthur and his Twelve (?) Knights of the Round Table signifying solely the year with its twelve months; Percival and the Miller signifying solely steel and the grindstone; Stonehenge and the Gododin put to purely calendarial purposes; the Nibelungen, the Mahabharata, and the Iliad, finally following the fate of the Gododin; all this appears to me, I will confess, a little prematurely grasped, a little unsubstantial. But that any one who knows the set of modern mythological science towards astronomical and solar myths, a set which has already justified itself in many respects so victoriously, and which is so irresistible that one can hardly now look up at the sun without having the sensations of a moth;--that any one who knows this, should find in the Welsh remains no traces of mythology, is quite astounding. Why, the heroes and heroines of the old Cymric world are all in the sky as well as in Welsh story; Arthur is the Great Bear, his harp is the constellation Lyra; Cassiopeia's chair is Llys Don, Don's Court; the daughter of Don was Arianrod, and the Northern Crown is Caer Arianrod; Gwydion was Don's son, and the Milky Way is Caer Gwydion. With Gwydion is Math, the son of Mathonwy, the 'man of illusion and phantasy;' and the moment one goes below the surface,--almost before one goes below the surface,--all is illusion and phantasy, double-meaning, and far-reaching mythological import, in the world which all these personages inhabit. What are the three hundred ravens of Owen, and the nine sorceresses of Peredur, and the dogs of Annwn the Welsh Hades, and the birds of Rhiannon, whose song was so sweet that warriors remained spell-bound for eighty years together listening to them? What is the Avanc, the water-monster, of whom every lake-side in Wales, and her proverbial speech, and her music, to this day preserve the tradition? What is Gwyn the son of Nudd, king of fairie, the ruler of the Tylwyth Teg, or family of beauty, who till the day of doom fights on every first day of May,--the great feast of the sun among the Celtic peoples,-- with Gwythyr, for the fair Cordelia, the daughter of Lear? What is the wonderful mare of Teirnyon, which on the night of every first of May foaled, and no one ever knew what became of the colt? Who is the mystic Arawn, the king of Annwn, who changed semblance for a year with Pwyll, prince of Dyved, and reigned in his place? These are no mediaeval personages; they belong to an older, pagan, mythological world. The very first thing that strikes one, in reading the Mabinogion, is how evidently the mediaeval story-teller is pillaging an antiquity of which he does not fully possess the secret; he is like a peasant building his hut on the site of Halicarnassus or Ephesus; he builds, but what he builds is full of materials of which he knows not the history, or knows by a glimmering tradition merely;- -stones 'not of this building,' but of an older architecture, greater, cunninger, more majestical. In the mediaeval stories of no Latin or Teutonic people does this strike one as in those of the Welsh. Kilhwch, in the story, already quoted, of Kilhwch and Olwen, asks help at the hand of Arthur's warriors; a list of these warriors is given, which fills I know not how many pages of Lady Charlotte Guest's book; this list is a perfect treasure-house of mysterious ruins:-

'Teithi Hen, the son of Gwynham--(his domains were swallowed up by the sea, and he himself hardly escaped, and he came to Arthur, and his knife had this peculiarity, that from the time that he came there no haft would ever remain upon it, and owing to this a sickness came over him, and he pined away during the remainder of his life, and of this he died).

'Drem, the son of Dremidyd--(when the gnat arose in the morning with the sun, Drem could see it from Gelli Wic in Cornwall, as far off as Pen Blathaon in North Britain).

'Kynyr Keinvarvawc--(when he was told he had a son born, he said to his wife: Damsel, if thy son be mine, his heart will be always cold, and there will be no warmth in his hands).'

How evident, again, is the slightness of the narrator's hold upon the Twrch-Trwyth and his strange story! How manifest the mixture of known and unknown, shadowy and clear, of different layers and orders of tradition jumbled together, in the story of Bran the Blessed, a story whose personages touch a comparatively late and historic time. Bran invades Ireland, to avenge one of 'the three unhappy blows of this island,' the daily striking of Branwen by her husband Matholwch, King of Ireland. Bran is mortally wounded by a poisoned dart, and only seven men of Britain, 'the Island of the Mighty,' escape, among them Taliesin:-

'And Bran commanded them that they should cut off his head. And take you my head, said he, and bear it even unto the White Mount in London, and bury it there with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body. And at Gwales in Penvro you will be fourscore years, and you may remain there, and the head with you uncorrupted, until you open the door that looks towards Aber Henvelen and towards Cornwall. And after you have opened that door, there you may no longer tarry; set forth then to London to bury the head, and go straight forward.

'So they cut off his head, and those seven went forward therewith. And Branwen was the eighth with them, and they came to land at Aber Alaw in Anglesey, and they sate down to rest. And Branwen looked towards Ireland and towards the Island of the Mighty, to see if she could descry them. "Alas," said she, "woe is me that I was ever born; two islands have been destroyed because of me." Then she uttered a loud groan, and there broke her heart. And they made her a four-sided grave, and buried her upon the banks of the Alaw.

'Then they went to Harlech, and sate down to feast and to drink there; and there came three birds and began singing, and all the songs they had ever heard were harsh compared thereto; and at this feast they continued seven years. Then they went to Gwales in Penvro, and there they found a fair and regal spot overlooking the ocean, and a spacious hall was therein. And they went into the hall, and two of its doors were open, but the third door was closed, that which looked towards Cornwall. "See yonder," said Manawyddan, "is the door that we may not open." And that night they regaled themselves and were joyful. And there they remained fourscore years, nor did they think they had ever spent a time more joyous and mirthful. And they were not more weary than when first they came, neither did they, any of them, know the time they had been there. And it was as pleasant to them having the head with them as if Bran had been with them himself.

'But one day said Heilyn, the son of Gwyn: "Evil betide me if I do not open the door to know if that is true which is said concerning it." So he opened the door and looked towards Cornwall and Aber Henvelen. And when they had looked, they were as conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost, and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot; and especially of the fate of their lord. And because of their perturbation they could not rest, but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount.'

Arthur afterwards, in his pride and self-confidence, disinterred the head, and this was one of 'the three unhappy disclosures of the island of Britain.'

There is evidently mixed here, with the newer legend, a detritus, as the geologists would say, of something far older; and the secret of Wales and its genius is not truly reached until this detritus, instead of being called recent because it is found in contact with what is recent, is disengaged, and is made to tell its own story.

But when we show him things of this kind in the Welsh remains, Mr. Nash has an answer for us. 'Oh,' he says, 'all this is merely a machinery of necromancers and magic, such as has probably been possessed by all people in all ages, more or less abundantly. How similar are the creations of the human mind in times and places the most remote! We see in this similarity only an evidence of the existence of a common stock of ideas, variously developed according to the formative pressure of external circumstances. The materials of these tales are not peculiar to the Welsh.' And then Mr. Nash points out, with much learning and ingenuity, how certain incidents of these tales have their counterparts in Irish, in Scandinavian, in Oriental romance. He says, fairly enough, that the assertions of Taliesin, in the famous Hanes Taliesin, or History of Taliesin, that he was present with Noah in the Ark, at the Tower of Babel, and with Alexander of Macedon, 'we may ascribe to the poetic fancy of the Christian priest of the thirteenth century, who brought this romance into its present form. We may compare these statements of the universal presence of the wonder-working magician with those of the gleeman who recites the Anglo-Saxon metrical tale called the Traveller's Song.' No doubt, lands the most distant can be shown to have a common property in many marvellous stories. This is one of the most interesting discoveries of modern science; but modern science is equally interested in knowing how the genius of each people has differentiated, so to speak, this common property of theirs; in tracking out, in each case, that special 'variety of development,' which, to use Mr. Nash's own words, 'the formative pressure of external circumstances' has occasioned; and not the formative pressure from without only, but also the formative pressure from within. It is this which he who deals with the Welsh remains in a philosophic spirit wants to know. Where is the force, for scientific purposes, of telling us that certain incidents by which Welsh poetry has been supposed to indicate a surviving tradition of the doctrine of transmigration, are found in Irish poetry also, when Irish poetry has, like Welsh, its roots in that Celtism which is said to have held this doctrine of transmigration so strongly? Where is even the great force, for scientific purposes, of proving, if it were possible to prove, that the extant remains of Welsh poetry contain not one plain declaration of Druidical, Pagan, pre-Christian doctrine, if one has in the extant remains of Breton poetry such texts as this from the prophecy of Gwenchlan: 'Three times must we all die, before we come to our final repose'? or as the cry of the eagles, in the same poem, of fierce thirst for Christian blood, a cry in which the poet evidently gives vent to his own hatred? since the solidarity, to use that convenient French word, of Breton and Welsh poetry is so complete, that the ideas of the one may be almost certainly assumed not to have been wanting to those of the other. The question is, when Taliesin says, in the Battle of the Trees: 'I have been in many shapes before I attained a congenial form. I have been a narrow blade of a sword, I have been a drop in the air, I have been a shining star, I have been a word in a book, I have been a book in the beginning, I have been a light in a lantern a year and a half, I have been a bridge for passing over three-score rivers; I have journeyed as an eagle, I have been a boat on the sea, I have been a director in battle, I have been a sword in the hand, I have been a shield in fight, I have been the string of a harp, I have been enchanted for a year in the foam of water. There is nothing in which I have not been,'--the question is, have these 'statements of the universal presence of the wonder-working magician' nothing which distinguishes them from 'similar creations of the human mind in times and places the most remote;' have they not an inwardness, a severity of form, a solemnity of tone, which indicates the still reverberating echo of a profound doctrine and discipline, such as was Druidism? Suppose we compare Taliesin, as Mr. Nash invites us, with the gleeman of the Anglo-Saxon Traveller's Song. Take the specimen of this song which Mr. Nash himself quotes: 'I have been with the Israelites and with the Essyringi, with the Hebrews and with the Indians and with the Egyptians; I have been with the Medes and with the Persians and with the Myrgings.' It is very well to parallel with this extract Taliesin's: 'I carried the banner before Alexander; I was in Canaan when Absalom was slain; I was on the horse's crupper of Elias and Enoch; I was on the high cross of the merciful son of God; I was the chief overseer at the building of the tower of Nimrod; I was with my King in the manger of the ass; I supported Moses through the waters of Jordan; I have been in the buttery in the land of the Trinity; it is not known what is the nature of its meat and its fish.' It is very well to say that these assertions 'we may fairly ascribe to the poetic fancy of a Christian priest of the thirteenth century.' Certainly we may; the last of Taliesin's assertions more especially; though one must remark at the same time that the Welshman shows much more fire and imagination than the Anglo-Saxon. But Taliesin adds, after his: 'I was in Canaan when Absalom was slain,' 'I WAS IN THE HALL OF DON BEFORE GWYDION WAS BORN;' he adds, after: 'I was chief overseer at the building of the tower of Nimrod,' 'I HAVE BEEN THREE TIMES RESIDENT IN THE CASTLE OF ARIANROD;' he adds, after: 'I was at the cross with Mary Magdalene,' 'I OBTAINED MY INSPIRATION FROM THE CAULDRON OF CERIDWEN.' And finally, after the mediaeval touch of the visit to the buttery in the land of the Trinity, he goes off at score: 'I have been instructed in the whole system of the universe; I shall be till the day of judgment on the face of the earth. I have been in an uneasy chair above Caer Sidin, and the whirling round without motion between three elements. Is it not the wonder of the world that cannot be discovered?' And so he ends the poem. But here is the Celtic, the essential part of the poem: it is here that the 'formative pressure' has been really in operation; and here surely is paganism and mythology enough, which the Christian priest of the thirteenth century can have had nothing to do with. It is unscientific, no doubt, to interpret this part as Edward Davies and Mr. Herbert do; but it is unscientific also to get rid of it as Mr. Nash does. Wales and the Welsh genius are not to be known without this part; and the true critic is he who can best disengage its real significance.

I say, then, what we want is to KNOW the Celt and his genius; not to exalt him or to abase him, but to know him. And for this a disinterested, positive, and constructive criticism is needed. Neither his friends nor his enemies have yet given us much of this. His friends have given us materials for criticism, and for these we ought to be grateful; his enemies have given us negative criticism, and for this, too, up to a certain point, we may be grateful; but the criticism we really want neither of them has yet given us.

Philology, however, that science which in our time has had so many successes, has not been abandoned by her good fortune in touching the Celt; philology has brought, almost for the first time in their lives, the Celt and sound criticism together. The Celtic grammar of Zeuss, whose death is so grievous a loss to science, offers a splendid specimen of that patient, disinterested way of treating objects of knowledge, which is the best and most attractive characteristic of Germany. Zeuss proceeds neither as a Celt-lover nor as a Celt-hater; not the slightest trace of a wish to glorify Teutonism or to abase Celtism, appears in his book. The only desire apparent there, is the desire to know his object, the language of the Celtic peoples, as it really is. In this he stands as a model to Celtic students; and it has been given to him, as a reward for his sound method, to establish certain points which are henceforth cardinal points, landmarks, in all the discussion of Celtic matters, and which no one had so established before. People talked at random of Celtic writings of this or that age; Zeuss has definitely fixed the age of what we actually have of these writings. To take the Cymric group of languages: our earliest Cornish document is a vocabulary of the thirteenth century; our earliest Breton document is a short description of an estate in a deed of the ninth century; our earliest Welsh documents are Welsh glosses of the eighth century to Eutychus, the grammarian, and Ovid's Art of Love, and the verses found by Edward Lhuyd in the Juvencus manuscript at Cambridge. The mention of this Juvencus fragment, by-the-by, suggests the difference there is between an interested and a disinterested critical habit. Mr. Nash deals with this fragment; but, in spite of all his great acuteness and learning, because he has a bias, because he does not bring to these matters the disinterested spirit they need, he is capable of getting rid, quite unwarrantably, of a particular word in the fragment which does not suit him; his dealing with the verses is an advocate's dealing, not a critic's. Of this sort of thing Zeuss is incapable.

The test which Zeuss used for establishing the age of these documents is a scientific test, the test of orthography and of declensional and syntactical forms. These matters are far out of my province, but what is clear, sound, and simple, has a natural attraction for us all, and one feels a pleasure in repeating it. It is the grand sign of age, Zeuss says, in Welsh and Irish words, when what the grammarians call the 'destitutio tenuium' has not yet taken place; when the sharp consonants have not yet been changed into flat, P or t into B or D; when, for instance, map, a son, has not yet become mab; coet a wood, coed; ocet, a harrow, oged. This is a clear, scientific test to apply, and a test of which the accuracy can be verified; I do not say that Zeuss was the first person who knew this test or applied it, but I say that he is the first person who in dealing with Celtic matters has invariably proceeded by means of this and similar scientific tests; the first person, therefore, the body of whose work has a scientific, stable character; and so he stands as a model to all Celtic inquirers.

His influence has already been most happy; and as I have enlarged on a certain failure in criticism of Eugene O'Curry's,--whose business, after all, was the description and classification of materials rather than criticism,--let me show, by another example from Eugene O'Curry, this good influence of Zeuss upon Celtic studies. Eugene O'Curry wants to establish that compositions of an older date than the twelfth century existed in Ireland in the twelfth century, and thus he proceeds. He takes one of the great extant Irish manuscripts, the Leabhar na h'Uidhre; or, Book of the Dun Cow. The compiler of this book was, he says, a certain Maelmuiri, a member of the religious house of Cluainmacnois. This he establishes from a passage in the manuscript itself: 'This is a trial of his pen here, by Maelmuiri, son of the son of Conn na m'Bocht.' The date of Maelmuiri he establishes from a passage in the Annals of the Four Masters, under the year 1106: 'Maelmuiri, son of the son of Conn na m'Bocht, was killed in the middle of the great stone church of Cluainmacnois, by a party of robbers.' Thus he gets the date of the Book of the Dun Cow. This book contains an elegy on the death of St. Columb. Now, even before 1106, the language of this elegy was so old as to require a gloss to make it intelligible, for it is accompanied by a gloss written between the lines. This gloss quotes, for the explanation of obsolete words, a number of more ancient compositions; and these compositions, therefore, must, at the beginning of the twelfth century, have been still in existence. Nothing can be sounder; every step is proved, and fairly proved, as one goes along. O'Curry thus affords a good specimen of the sane mode of proceeding so much wanted in Celtic researches, and so little practised by Edward Davies and his brethren; and to found this sane method, Zeuss, by the example he sets in his own department of philology, has mainly contributed.

Science's reconciling power, too, on which I have already touched, philology, in her Celtic researches, again and again illustrates. Races and languages have been absurdly joined, and unity has been often rashly assumed at stages where one was far, very far, from having yet really reached unity. Science has and will long have to be a divider and a separatist, breaking arbitrary and fanciful connections, and dissipating dreams of a premature and impossible unity. Still, science,--true science,--recognises in the bottom of her soul a law of ultimate fusion, of conciliation. To reach this, but to reach it legitimately, she tends. She draws, for instance, towards the same idea which fills her elder and diviner sister, poetry,--the idea of the substantial unity of man; though she draws towards it by roads of her own. But continually she is showing us affinity where we imagined there was isolation. What school-boy of us has not rummaged his Greek dictionary in vain for a satisfactory account of that old name for the Peloponnese, the Apian Land? and within the limits of Greek itself there is none. But the Scythian name for earth 'apia,' watery, water-issued, meaning first isle and then land--this name, which we find in 'avia,' ScandinAVIA, and in 'ey' for AldernEY, not only explains the Apian Land of Sophocles for us, but points the way to a whole world of relationships of which we knew nothing. The Scythians themselves again,--obscure, far- separated Mongolian people as they used to appear to us,--when we find that they are essentially Teutonic and Indo-European, their very name the same word as the common Latin word 'scutum,' the SHIELDED people, what a surprise they give us! And then, before we have recovered from this surprise we learn that the name of their father and god, Targitavus, carries us I know not how much further into familiar company. This divinity, Shining with the targe, the Greek Hercules, the Sun, contains in the second half of his name, tavus, 'shining,' a wonderful cement to hold times and nations together. Tavus, 'shining,' from 'tava'--in Sanscrit, as well as Scythian, 'to burn' or 'shine,'--is Divus, dies, Zeus, (Greek), Deva, and I know not how much more; and Taviti, the bright and burnt, fire, the place of fire, the hearth, the centre of the family, becomes the family itself, just as our word family, the Latin familia, is from thymele, the sacred centre of fire. The hearth comes to mean home. Then from home it comes to mean the group of homes, the tribe; from the tribe the entire nation; and in this sense of nation or people, the word appears in Gothic, Norse, Celtic, and Persian, as well as in Scythian; the Theuthisks, Deutschen, Tudesques, are the men of one theuth, nation, or people; and of this our name Germans itself is, perhaps, only the Roman translation, meaning the men of one germ or stock. The Celtic divinity, Teutates, has his name from the Celtic teuta, people; taviti, fire, appearing here in its secondary and derived sense of PEOPLE, just as it does in its own Scythian language in Targitavus's second name, Tavit-varus, Teutaros, the protector of the people. Another Celtic divinity, the Hesus of Lucan, finds his brother in the Gaisos, the sword, symbolising the god of battles of the Teutonic Scythians. {66} And after philology has thus related to each other the Celt and the Teuton, she takes another branch of the Indo-European family, the Sclaves, and shows us them as having the same name with the German Suevi, the SOLAR people; the common ground here, too, being that grand point of union, the sun, fire. So, also, we find Mr. Meyer, whose Celtic studies I just now mentioned, harping again and again on the connection even in Europe, if you go back far enough, between Celt and German. So, after all we have heard, and truly heard, of the diversity between all things Semitic and all things Indo-European, there is now an Italian philologist at work upon the relationship between Sanscrit and Hebrew.

Footnote {66} See Les Scythes, les Ancetres des Peuples Germaniques et Slaves, par F. G. Bergmann, professeur a la faculte des Lettres de Strasbourg: Colmar, 1858. But Professor Bergmann's etymologies are often, says Lord Strangford, 'false lights, held by an uncertain hand.' And Lord Strangford continues: --'The Apian land certainly meant the watery land, Meer-Umschlungon, among the pre-Hellenic Greeks, just as the same land is called Morea by the modern post- Hellenic or Romaic Greeks from more, the name for the sea in the Slavonic vernacular of its inhabitants during the heart of the middle ages. But it is only connected by a remote and secondary affinity, if connected at all, with the avia of Scandinavia, assuming that to be the true German word for water, which, if it had come down to us in Gothic, would have been avi, genitive aujos, and not a mere Latinised termination. Scythian is surely a negative rather than a positive term, much like our Indian, or the Turanian of modern ethnologists, used to comprehend nomads and barbarians of all sorts and races north and east of the Black and Caspian seas. It is unsafe to connect their name with anything as yet; it is quite as likely that it refers to the bow and arrow as to the shield, and is connected with our word to shoot, sceotan, skiutan, Lithuanian szau- ti. Some of the Scythian peoples may have been Anarian, Allophylic, Mongolian; some were demonstrably Aryan, and not only that, but Iranian as well, as is best shown in a memoir read before the Berlin Academy this last year; the evidence having been first indicated in the rough by Schaffarik the Slavonic antiquary. Coins, glosses, proper names, and inscriptions prove it. Targitaos (not -tavus) and the rest is guess-work or wrong. Herodotus's (Greek) for the goddess Vesta is not connected with the root div whence Devas, Deus, &c., but the root tap, in Latin tep (of tepere, tepefacere), Slavonic tepl, topl (for tep or top), in modern Persian tab. Thymele refers to the hearth as the place of smoke ((Greek), thus, fumus), but familia denotes household from famulus for fagmulus, the root fag being equated with the Sansk. bhaj, servira. Lucan's Hesus or Esus may fairly be compared with the Welsh Hu Gadarn by legitimate process, but no letter-change can justify his connection with Gaisos, the spear, not the sword, Virgil's gaesum, A. S. gar, our verb to gore, retained in its outer form in gar-fish. For Theuthisks lege Thiudisks, from thiuda, populus; in old high German Diutisk, Diotisk, popularis, vulgaris, the country vernacular as distinguished from the cultivated Latin; hence the word Dutch, Deutsch. With our ancestors theod stood for nation generally and getheode for any speech. Our diet in the political sense is the same word, but borrowed from our German cousins, not inherited from our fathers. The modern Celtic form is the Irish tuath, in ancient Celtic it must have been teuta, touta, of which we actually have the adjective toutius in the Gaulish inscription of Nismes. In Oscan we have it as turta, tuta, its adjective being handed down in Livy's meddix tuticus, the mayor or chief magistrate of the tuta. In the Umbrian inscriptions it is tota. In Lithuanian tauta, the country opposed to the town, and in old Prussian tauta, the country generally, en Prusiskan tautan, im Land zu Preussen.')

Both in small and great things, philology, dealing with Celtic matters, has exemplified this tending of science towards unity. Who has not been puzzled by the relation of the Scots with Ireland--that vetus et major Scotia, as Colgan calls it? Who does not feel what pleasure Zeuss brings us when he suggests that Gael, the name for the Irish Celt, and Scot, are at bottom the same word, both having their origin in a word meaning wind, and both signifying the violent stormy people? {68} Who does not feel his mind agreeably cleared about our friends the Fenians, when he learns that the root of their name, fen, 'white,' appears in the hero Fingal; in Gwynned, the Welsh name for North Wales in the Roman Venedotia; in Vannes in Brittany; in Venice? The very name of Ireland, some say, comes from the famous Sanscrit word Arya, the land of the Aryans, or noble men; although the weight of opinion seems to be in favour of connecting it rather with another Sanscrit word, avara, occidental, the western land or isle of the west. {69} But, at any rate, who that has been brought up to think the Celts utter aliens from us and our culture, can come without a start of sympathy upon such words as heol (sol), or buaist (fuisti)? or upon such a sentence as this, 'Peris Duw dui funnaun' ('God prepared two fountains')? Or when Mr. Whitley Stokes, one of the very ablest scholars formed in Zeuss's school, a born philologist,-- he now occupies, alas! a post under the Government of India, instead of a chair of philology at home, and makes one think mournfully of Montesquieu's saying, that had he been an Englishman he should never have produced his great work, but have caught the contagion of practical life, and devoted himself to what is called 'rising in the world,' when Mr. Whitley Stokes, in his edition of Cormac's Glossary, holds up the Irish word traith, the sea, and makes us remark that, though the names Triton, Amphitrite, and those of corresponding Indian and Zend divinities, point to the meaning sea, yet it is only Irish which actually supplies the vocable, how delightfully that brings Ireland into the Indo-European concert! What a wholesome buffet it gives to Lord Lyndhurst's alienation doctrines!

Footnote {68} Lord Strangford observes here: --'The
original forms of Gael should be mentioned--Gaedil,
Goidil: in modern Gaelic orthography Gaoidheal where
the dh is not realised in pronunciation. There is
nothing impossible in the connection of the root of
this with that of Scot, IF the s of the latter be
merely prosthetic. But the whole thing is in nubibus,
and given as a guess only.')

Footnote {69} 'The name of Erin,' says Lord Strangford,
'is treated at length in a masterly note by Whitley
Stokes in the 1st series of Max Muller's lectures
(4th ed.) p. 255, where its earliest TANGIBLE form
is shown to have been Iverio. Pictet's connection
with Arya is quite baseless.'

To go a little further. Of the two great Celtic divisions of language, the Gaelic and the Cymric, the Gaelic, say the philologists, is more related to the younger, more synthetic, group of languages, Sanscrit, Greek, Zend, Latin and Teutonic; the Cymric to the older, more analytic Turanian group. Of the more synthetic Aryan group, again, Zend and Teutonic are, in their turn, looser and more analytic than Sanscrit and Greek, more in sympathy with the Turanian group and with Celtic. What possibilities of affinity and influence are here hinted at; what lines of inquiry, worth exploring, at any rate, suggest themselves to one's mind. By the forms of its language a nation expresses its very self. Our language is the loosest, the most analytic, of all European languages. And we, then, what are we? what is England? I will not answer, A vast obscure Cymric basis with a vast visible Teutonic superstructure; but I will say that that answer sometimes suggests itself, at any rate,-- sometimes knocks at our mind's door for admission; and we begin to cast about and see whether it is to be let in.

But the forms of its language are not our only key to a people; what it says in its language, its literature, is the great key, and we must get back to literature. The literature of the Celtic peoples has not yet had its Zeuss, and greatly it wants him. We need a Zeuss to apply to Celtic literature, to all its vexed questions of dates, authenticity, and significance, the criticism, the sane method, the disinterested endeavour to get at the real facts, which Zeuss has shown in dealing with Celtic language. Science is good in itself, and therefore Celtic literature,--the Celt-haters having failed to prove it a bubble,--Celtic literature is interesting, merely as an object of knowledge. But it reinforces and redoubles our interest in Celtic literature if we find that here, too, science exercises the reconciling, the uniting influence of which I have said so much; if we find here, more than anywhere else, traces of kinship, and the most essential sort of kinship, spiritual kinship, between us and the Celt, of which we had never dreamed. I settle nothing, and can settle nothing; I have not the special knowledge needed for that. I have no pretension to do more than to try and awaken interest; to seize on hints, to point out indications, which, to any one with a feeling for literature, suggest themselves; to stimulate other inquirers. I must surely be without the bias which has so often rendered Welsh and Irish students extravagant; why, my very name expresses that peculiar Semitico-Saxon mixture which makes the typical Englishman; I can have no ends to serve in finding in Celtic literature more than is there. What IS there, is for me the only question.

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Celtic Literature - Chapter 3 Celtic Literature - Chapter 3

Celtic Literature - Chapter 3
Chapter IIIWe have seen how philology carries us towards ideas of affinity of race which are new to us. But it is evident that this affinity, even if proved, can be no very potent affair, unless it goes beyond the stage at which we have hitherto observed it. Affinity between races still, so to speak, in their mother's womb, counts for something, indeed, but cannot count for very much. So long as Celt and Teuton are in their embryo rudimentary state, or, at least, no such great while out of their cradle, still engaged in their wanderings, changes of place and

Celtic Literature - Chapter 1 Celtic Literature - Chapter 1

Celtic Literature - Chapter 1
Chapter ITo 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