In this foreword I must deal cursorily with a great and fascinating subject, for "Lyra Celtica" has extended beyond its original limits, and Text and Notes have absorbed much of the space which had been allotted for a preliminary dissertation on the distinguishing qualities and characteristics of Celtic literature.
For most readers, the interest of an anthology is independent of any introductory remarks: the appeal is in the wares, not in the running commentary of the hawker. For those, however, who have looked for a detailed synthesis, as well as for the Celticists who may have expected an ample, or, at least, a more adequately representative selection from the older Celtic literatures, I have a brief word to say before passing on to the matter in hand.
In the first place, this volume is no more than an early, and, in a sense, merely arbitrary, gleaning from an abundant harvest. For "Lyra Celtica" is not so much the introduction to a much larger, more organic, and more adequately representative work, to be called "Anthologia Celtica," but is rather the outcome of the latter, itself culled from a vast mass of material, ancient, mediaeval, and modern. It is, moreover, intentionally given over mainly to modern poetry. "Anthologia Celtica " may not appear for a year or two hence, perhaps not for several years; for a systematic effort to compile a scholarly anthology, on chronological and comparative lines, of the ancient poetry of Irish and Scottish Gaeldom, of the Cymric, Armorican, and other Brythonic bards, is a task not to be lightly undertaken, or fulfilled in anything like satisfactory degree without that patience and care which only enthusiastic love of the subject can give, and for which the extrinsic reward is payable in rainbow-gold alone.
In the second place, all that was intended to be written here, will be given more fully and more systematically in a volume to be published later: "An Introduction to the Study of Celtic Literature." Therein an effort is made to illustrate the distinguishing imaginative qualities of the several Celtic races; to trace the origins, dispersion, interfusion, and concentration of the early Celtic, Picto-Celtic, and later Goidelic and Brythonic peoples, and to reflect Celtic mythopoeic and authentic history through Celtic poetry and legendary lore. Concurrently there is an endeavour to relate, in natural order, the development of the literature of contemporary Wales, Brittany, Ireland, and Celtic Scotland, from their ancient Cymric, Armorican, Erse, and Alban-Gaelic congeners.
It is not yet thirty years ago since Matthew Arnold published his memorable and beautiful essay on Celtic Literature, so superficial in its knowledge, it is true, but informed by so keen and fine an interpretative spirit; yet already, since 1868, the writings of Celtic specialists constitute quite a library.
Of recent years we have had many works of the greatest value in Celtic ethnology, philology, history, archeology, art, legendary ballads and romances, folk-lore, and literature. Of all the Celtic literatures, that which was least known, when Arnold wrote, was the Scoto-Gaelic; but now with books such as Skene's "Celtic Scotland," Campbell's " Popular Tales of the West Highlands," with its invaluable supplementary matter, Dr Cameron's "Reliquiae Celticae," and many others, there is no difficulty for the would-be student. Again, it is impossible to overrate the value of popular books at once so able, so trustworthy, and so readily attainable, as Professor Rhys's "Celtic Britain," or Dr Douglas Hyde's "Story of Early Gaelic Literature"; while Breton literature, ancient or modern, has found almost as many, and certainly as able and enthusiastic, exponents as that of Wales or that of Ireland. In Ireland there is, with Mr Standish Hayes O'Grady, Dr Douglas Hyde, Dr Sigerson, and many more, quite an army of workers in every branch of Celtic science and literature; in Scotland one less numerous perhaps, but not less ardent and justly enthusiastic; and in Wales the old Cymric spirit survives unabated, from the Butt of Anglesea to the marches of Hereford. In Brittany there was, till the other day, Hersart de la Villemarqué, and now there are M. de Jubainvilie, M. Loth, M. Anatole Le Braz, M. Auguste Brizeux, Charles Le Goffic, Louis Tiercelin, and many more philologists and other students, poets, romancists, and critics. Cornwall has not been neglected, nor has Man, and even the outlying fringe of Celtdom has found interpreters and expounders. In France the " Revue Celtique"; in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, Gaelic or Welsh or Anglo-Celtic periodicals and "Transactions," stimulate a wider and deeper interest, and do inestimable service. The writings of men such as Renan, De Jubainville, Valroger, and other French Ceiticists: of Windisch, Kuno Meyer, and other Germans: of English specialists such as Mr Whitley Stokes, Mr Alfred Nutt, and others: these, together, and in all their different ways of approach, are, along with the writings of native specialists in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, accomplishing a work greater than is now to be measured or even accurately apprehended.
To all who would know something authentic concerning the history of the Celtic race since its occupation of these Isles, and of a large section, and latterly of a corner, of Western Europe, I would recommend Professor Rhys's admirable little book, "Celtic Britain," a volume within the reach of all. In the Irish National Library, the volumes of which are sold at a trifling sum, may be had Dr. Douglas Hyde's lucid and excellent exposition of early Gaelic literature; and, among valuable popular contributions to Anglo-Celtic Literature, mention should be made of the Rev. Nigel MacNeill's 'Literature of the Highlanders." These three books alone, each priced at a moderate sum, will give a reader, hitherto ignorant of the subject, much trustworthy information on the history, ethnology, and literature of the Irish and Scottish Gael. I know of no "popular" book on early Welsh literature, and certainly none that, in trustworthiness, has superseded Stephens's "Literature of the Cymri." Mr Norris has introduced us to much ancient Cornish writing which it would have been a pity to let lapse uncollected : and of MM. Villemarqué, De Jubainville, Valroger, Le Braz, and other Breton specialists I have already spoken.
It would seem reserved for this coming century, says Dr Hyde, unless a vigorous, sustained, and national effort at once be made, to catch the last tones of that beautiful, unmixed Aryan language which, with the exception of that glorious Greek which has now renewed its youth like the eagle, has left the longest, most luminous, and most consecutive literary track behind it of any of the vernacular tongues of Europe." But, alas, a stronger law than that which man can make or unmake, or nations can resolve, is slowly disintegrating the subsoil wherefrom the roots of the Celtic speech draw the sole nurture which can give it the beauty and fragrance of life.
Some idea of the vastness of the mass of the as yet untranslated Celtic literature may be had from the notes in books by Dr Douglas Hyde, J. F. Campbell, Alfred Nutt, and other specialists. In the National Libraries in Great Britain alone it is estimated that, if all the inedited MSS. were printed, they would fill at least twelve hundred or fourteen hundred octavo volumes. Those who would realise more adequately the extent and importance of this early literature should, besides the authorities already mentioned, consult Eugene O'Curry's invaluable "Manners and Customs," and in particular the section of 130 pp. devoted to Education and Literature in Ancient Erinn, which deals with the most important Irish-Gaelic poets from the earliest times down to the eleventh century: the likewise invaluable " Myvyrian Archaiology," which sets forth an imposing list of Cymric poets, with much information concerning life in Ancient Wales: and books such as Campbell's "Leabhar na FEinne," and "Tales of the West Highlands," MacNeill's "Literature of the Highlanders," and (though for students rather than the general reader) the writings of Skene, Anderson, Whitley Stokes, Nutt, and many others.
Modern Irish-Celtic literature may be said to date from O'Donovan's superb redaction and amplification of "The Annals of the Four Masters," one of the monumental achievements in world-literature, on the side of scholarship; and from Keating's "History of Ireland," on the side of popular writing. Since O'Donovan and Keating, the literary activity of Ireland has again and again re-asserted itself, and is once more so much in evidence, in Celtic scholarship and in Anglo-Celtic romance and poetry, that the not over-ready attention of England is perforce drawn to it.
The contemporary Anglo-Celtic poetry of Ireland has a quality which no other English poetry possesses in like degree: the quality which Matthew Arnold defined as natural magic--"Celtic poetry drenched in the dew of natural magic." Obviously, the lover of poetry may at once object that Shakespere, Milton, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, are English, and Byron, Burns, and Scott are Scottish, and not distinctively Anglo-Celtic. Well, of Shakespere's ancestry we know little; and if Celtic enthusiasts maintain that he must have had a strong Celtic strain in his blood, they may be innocent blasphemers, but do not deserve crucifixion for their iniquity. Milton was of Welsh blood through his maternal descent; and Keats is a Celtic name. Keats' mother's name is Welsh of the Welsh, while his genius is as convincingly Celtic in its distinguishing qualities as though he were able to trace his descent from Oisin or Fergus Honey-Mouth of "the Fingalians." Keats, born a Cockney, is pre-eminently a Celtic poet, by virtue of the nationality of the brain if for no other authentic reason; while Moore, born in Ireland of Celtic ancestry, is the least Celtic of all modem poets of eminence. So far as we know, Coleridge and Shelley are of unmixed English blood, though who can say there was nothing atavistic in their genius, and that the wild lyricism of the one and the glamour and magic of the other were not in part the expression of some "ancestral voice"?
Of the three great modern Scots, it is still a debatable point if Burns was not more Celtic than "Lowland," that is, by paternal as well as by maternal descent; and it surely is almost unquestionable that, in the geography of the soul, Burns' natal spot must be sought in the Fortunate Isles of Celtdom. Byron, of course, though far more British than Scottish, and again more Scottish than Celtic had a strong Celtic strain in his blood; and Scott, as it happens, was of the ancient stock, and not "the typical Lowlander" he is so often designated.* The truth is, that just as in Scotland we may come upon a type which is unmistakably national without being either Anglo-Saxon or Celtic or Anglo-Celtic, but which, rightly or wrongly, we take to be Pictish (and possibly a survival of an older race still), so, throughout our whole country, and in Sussex and Hampshire, as well as in Connemara or Argyll, we may at any moment encounter the Celtic brain in the Anglo-Saxon flesh. In Scotland, in particular, it may be doubted if there are many families native to the soil who have not at least a Celtic strain. People are apt to forget that Celtic Scotland does not mean only the Western Isles and the Highlands, and that the whole country was at one time Celtic (Goidelic), and before that was again Celtic, when Brythonic or Cymric Scotland and the Dalriadic Scoto-Irish of Argyll, and the northern Picts, who were probably Gaels, or of kindred Celtic origin, held the land, and sowed the human seed whence arose much of the finest harvest of a later Scotland.
*Apropos, let me quote a word or two from Dr Douglas Hyde: "We all remember the inimitable felicity with which that great English-speaking Gael, Sir Walter Scott, has caught," &c. (with this note) "Both the Buccleugh Scots, and the other four branches of the name, were originally Gaelic-speaking Celts."
Here I may conveniently quote a significant passage from "Celtic Britain":--
"This means, from the Celtic point of view, that the Goidelic race of history is not wholly Celtic or Aryan, but inherits in part a claim to the soil of these islands, derived from possession at a time when, as yet, no Aryan waggoner had driven into Europe; and it is, perhaps, from their Kynesian ancestry that the Irish of the present day have inherited the lively humour and ready wit, which, among other characteristics, distinguish them from the Celts of the Brythonic branch, most of whom, especially the Kymry, are a people still more mixed, as they consist of the Goidelic element of the compound nature already suggested, with an ample mixture of Brythonic blood, introduced mostly by the Ordovices. And as to Welsh, it is, roughly speaking, the Brythonic language, as spoken by the Ordovices, and as learned by the Goidelic peoples they overshadowed in the Principality of Wales. To this its four chief dialects still correspond, being those, respectively, of Powys, Gwent or Siluria, Dyved or Demetia, and Venedot or Gwynedd.
"Skulls are harder than consonants, and races lurk when languages slink away. The lineal descendants of the neolithic aborigines are ever among us, possibly even those of a still earlier race. On the other hand, we can imagine the Kynesian impatiently hearing out the last echoes of Palaeolithic speech; we can guess dimly how the Goidel gradually silenced the Kynesian; we can detect the former coming slowly round to the keynote of the Brython; and, lastly, we know how the Englishman is engaged, linguistically speaking, in drowning the voice of both of them in our own day. Such, to take another metaphor, are some of the lines one would have to draw in the somewhat confused picture we have suggested of one wave of speech chasing another, and forcing it to dash itself into oblivion on the western confines of the Aryan world; and that we should fondly dream English likely to be the last, comes only from our being unable to see into a distant future pregnant with untold changes of no less grave a nature than have taken place in the dreary wastes of the past."
To return: among the great English and Scottish writers of to-day two may be taken as examples of this brain-kinship with a race physically alien. Much of the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne is distinctively Celtic, particularly in its lyric fire and wonderful glow and colour, as well as its epithetical luxuriance; but, indeed, this is hardly a good instance after all, for Mr Swinburne's north-country ancestry is not without definite Celtic admixture. "Tristram of Lyonesse " is, in its own way, as Celtic as " The Voyage of St Brendan," and with more of innate inevitableness than in those lovely Celtic reflections in the essentially English brain of Tennyson, "The Dream" and "The Voyage of Maelduin."
As for Robert Louis Stevenson, come of Lowland stock, and, as he said himself once, "made up o' Lallan dust, body and soul," there is not, so far as I know, any proof that a near paternal or maternal ancestor was of Celtic blood. But who, that has studied his genius, can question the Celtic strain in him, or who believe that, though "the Lallan dust" may have been unadulterate for generations, the brain which conceived and wrought "The Merry Men" and "Thrawn Janet" was not attuned to Celtic music? There is a poem of his which seems to me typically Celtic in its indescribable haunting charm, its air of I know not what rare music, its deep yearning emotion, and its cosmic note--
In the highlands, in the country places,
Where the old plain men have rosy faces,
And the young fair maidens
Where essential silence cheers and blesses
And forever in the hill-recesses
Her more lovely music
Broods and dies,
O to mount again where erst I haunted;
Where the old red hills are bird-enchanted,
And the low green meadows
Bright with sward;
And when even dies, the million tinted,
And the night has come, and planets glinted,
Lo, the valley hollow
O to dream, O to awake and wander
There, and with delight to take and render,
Through the trance of silence,
Lo! for there, among the flowers, and grasses,
Only the mightier movement sounds and passes;
Only winds and rivers,
Life and death."
Of course there is a certain poignant note common to all poetry, and he might be a zealous Celticist, but a poor worshipper of Apollo, who would try to limit this charm of exquisite regret and longing to Celtic poetry. It is an unfrontiered land, this pleasant country in the geography of the soul which we call Bohemia; and here all parochial and national, and even racial distinctions fall away, and Firdausi and Oisin, Omar the Tentmaker and Colum the Saint, and all and every "Honey-Mouth" of every land and time, move in equal fellowship. Even in one of the most haunting quatrains by any modern Anglo-Celtic poet--
O wind, O mighty melancholy wind,
Blow through me, blow!
Thou blowest forgotten things into my mind,
From long ago "--
we must not forget the elder music of one who is among the truest of the poets of Nature whom the world has seen : though neither in brain nor, so far as we know, in blood, had Wordsworth any kinship with the Celt--the music "Of old, unhappy, far-off things."
By a natural association, "Ossian" comes to mind. It is pleasant to think that a book like "Lyra Celtica" appears just at the centenary of James Macpherson. Macpherson died in 1796, but long before his death his reputed "Ossian" had become one of the most vital influences in literature. This is not the occasion to go into the "Ossian" dispute. It must suffice to say that the concensus of qualified opinion decides--(1) That Macpherson's "Ossian" is not a genuine rendering of ancient originals; (2) that he worked incoherently upon a genuine but unsystematised, unsifted, and fragmentary basis, without which, however, he could have achieved nothing; (3) that inherent evidence disproves Macpherson's sole or even main authorship as well as "Ossian's," and that he was at most no more than a skilful artificer; (4) that, if he were the sole author, he would be one of the few poetic creators of the first rank, and worthy of all possible honour; (5) that no single work in our literature has had so wide-reaching, so potent, and so enduring an influence.
Much of the tragic gloom, of which "Ossian" is a true mirror, colours even contemporary Scoto-Celtic poetry; and though in Gaelic there is much humorous verse, and much poetry of a blithe, bright, and even joyous nature, the dominant characteristic is that of gloom, the gloom of unavailing regret, of mournful longing, a lament for what cannot be again. True, in a Gaelic poem by Mary Mackellar, a contemporary Highland poet, we hear of
Spioraid aosmhoir tir nan Gàidheal,
Ciod an diugh a's fàth do 'n ghàirich
'Dhûisg thu comhdaichte le aighear,
As an uaigh 's an robh thu'd 'chadal ?
(Spirit of the Gaelic earth
Wherefore is this mirth unwonted
That hath waked thee from the tomb,
And to triumph turned thy gloom?)--
but, alas! that fine line, "Spiaraid aosmhoir tir nan Gàidheal" is not an invocation to the Gaelic muse to arouse herself to a new and blither music, but is simply part of some congratulatory lines of a "Welcome to the Marquis of Lome on his union with the Princess Louise"!*
*"Failte do Mharcus Lathama 's do 'Mhnaoi oig Rioghail."
The "Spirit of the Gaelic earth" does not make for mirth, as a rule, at least in the Highlands, save in verse of a frankly Bacchanalian or satiric kind.
In this, there is a marked contrast with the Irish-Gaelic, whose muse is laughter-loving though ever with "dewy dark eyes."
If, however, the blithe and delightful peasant poetry of Mr Alfred Percival Graves, and that so beautifully translated and paraphrased by Dr Douglas Hyde, be characteristically Irish, so also is such typically Celtic poetry as this lyric by the latest Irish singer, Miss Moira O'Neill--
The wrack was dark an' shiny where it floated in the sea,
There was no room in the brown boat but only him an' me;
Him to cut the sea wrack--me to mind the boat,
An' not a word between us the hours we were afloat.
The wet wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack was strong to cut.
We laid it on the grey rocks to wither in the sun
An' what should call my lad then to sail from Cushendun?
With a low moon, a full tide, a swell upon the deep,
Him to sail the old boat--me to fall asleep.
The dry wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack was dead so soon.
There's a fire low upon the rocks to burn the wrack to kelp;
There's a boat gone down upon the Moyle, an' sorra one to help.
Him beneath the salt sea--me upon the shore--
By sunlight or moonlight we'll lift the wrack no more.
The dark wrack,
The sea wrack,
The wrack may drift ashore.
When we come to examine the literature of the four great divisions of the Celtic race, a vast survey lies before us, with innumerable vistas. A lifetime might well be given to the study of any one of the ancient Erse, Alban-Gaelic, Cymric, and Armorican literatures: a lifetime that would yet have to leave much undiscovered, much unrelated. There is room for every student. In old Irish literature alone, though so many enthusiasts are now working towards its greater elucidation and the transference of the better part of it into Anglo-Celtic literature, there remain whole tracts, and even regions, of unexploited land. In a score of ways, pioneers have been clearing the ground for us: philologists like Windisch, Loth, Kuno Meyer, Whitley Stokes; literary scholars like S. Hayes O'Grady, Campbell of Islay, Cameron of Brodick, Dr Douglas Hyde; folklorists innumerable, in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland; romancists like Standish O'Grady, who write across the angle of the historic imagination, and romancists like W. B. Yeats, who write across the angle of the poetic imagination; and poets, an ever-growing band of sweet singers, who catch for us the fugitive airs, the exquisite fleeting cadences, the haunting, indefinable music of an earlier day. From Ireland the Neo-Celtic Renascence has extended through Gaeldom. The concurrent Welsh development may be independent of this Irish influence, and probably is: largely because the poetic imagination of the Cymri of to-day was stirred from within, by the stimulus to the national genius through the world-wide attention drawn by the publication of the "Mabinogion," as in turn the Gaelic imagination was stirred by the incalculable influence of "Ossian"--an influence so great, so deep, so wide-reaching, that, as already said, were Macpherson to be proved the sole author, were it convincingly demonstrable that he was, not a more or less confused and unscholarly interpreter, but himself a creator, himself "Ossian," he would deserve to rank with the three or four great ancients and modems who have dug, deep and wide, new channels for the surging flow of human thought. Possibly, at any rate, this may prove to be one good reason for the independence of the Welsh development from any Irish stimulus--an impulse from within always being more potent and enduring than one from without; but, fundamentally, this independence is due to an organic difference. In a word, the Celtic genius is broadly divisible, even at this day, into two great sections: the Goidelic and the Brythonic or Cymric--let us say, is represented by the Welsh Celt and the Gaelic Celt. Those readers or students who approach the literature of either, ancient or modern, but particularly the latter, and expect to find identity both of sentiment and in method of expression, will ultimately be as disappointed as one who should, with the same idea, approach Spanish and Portuguese, or Dutch and German, or ProvenCal and French. In every respect, save that of ancient kinship, the Welsh and the Gaels differ materially. There is, perhaps, more likeness between the Highlander and the Welshman than between the latter and the Irishman; but even here the distinctions are considerable, and the Gaelic islesman of Barra or Uist is as different a creature from the native of Glamorgan or Caermarthen as though no racial cousinship united them. But, in the instance of Welsh and Irish, the unlikeness is so marked that the best analogue is that of the Frenchman and the German. The Irish are the French of the Celtic races, the Welsh the Germans. The two people are distinct in their outer and inner life as well as in their literature; and for a Connaught man or a Hebridean to go through Wales would be as foreign an experience as for a Welshman to find himself among the Catholic islesmen of South Uist, or among the moorside villages of Connemara.
To-day the Gael and Cymri are foreigners. Strangely enough, the section of the Celtic race most akin to the Welsh is the Manx--a Goidelic people, and with a Gaelic dialect. The Gael himself, however, does not stand out distinctly. Although there is a far greater likeness between the Scoto-Ceit and the Irish-Celt than between either and the Welshman, there are traits which unmistakably distinguish them. In Ireland itself, the Celt of the south-east and South differs in more respects than mere dialect from his kinsman by the Connaught shore or of the hills of Connemara; as, in Scotland, there is a marked distinction between the 'Tuathach" (North Highlander) and the "Deasach" (the South and West Highlander). A Farquharson or a Gordon from Aberdeenshire has to shake hands across the arms of many a Mackenzie and Macgregor, many a Cameron and Macpherson, before he can link in brotherly grip with a MacNeill of Barra, a Macdonald of Skye, a Macleod of the Lewis. These distinctions, of course, are in their nature parochial rather than racial; but they are highly indicative of a fundamental weakness in the Celtic nature, and suggest a cogent reason for the failure of the race to cohere into one compact and indispersable nation, as the central Teutonic races merged into "Germany," as Gauls, Normans, and ProvenCals merged into " France," and as the Brythons, the Teutonic outlanders (Frisians, Angles, Jutes, &C.), Saxons, Danes, Normans, and Anglo-Celts merged into "England," and, later, into "Great Britain," into the "British Empire."
The most marked Celtic national homogeneity is to be found in Wales. Wales has ever persisted, and still persists in her moat and her drawbridge. In the preservation of her language is her safeguard. Without Welsh, Wales would be as English as Cumberland or Cornwall. In this way only, knit indissolubly to the flank of England as she is, and without any natural eastern frontier of mountain range or sea, can she isolate herself; and I am convinced that herein we have one main reason for the passionate attachment of the Cymri of to-day to their ancient language - an attachment as strong among the unlettered as among ardent scholars, and even among those who have no heed for the beauty of traditional literature or, indeed, heed of any kind other than for the narrow personal interests of domesticity.
But this very isolation of Wales, through her language, has, no doubt, interfered materially with the development of her Anglo-Celtic literature. Contrasted with that of Ireland or that of Scotland, how astonishingly meagre it is. All Ireland is aflame with song; Scotland is again becoming the land of old romance. Here and there are a few writers, a poet-romancist like Mr. Ernest Rhys, a poet like the late Emily Davis, a few novelists who are Welsh by the accident of birth rather than by the nationality of the brain. For, of course, Mr. George Meredith stands so far above all localisation of this kind that it would be out of place to rank him merely as the head of contemporary Wales. He is the foremost Anglo-Celtic voice of to-day; so emphatically foremost, by the distinguishing qualities of his genius, that if to-morrow he were proved to be come of a stock of long unmixed Saxon ancestry never dissociated from that southern country of which he is by birth a native, we should be justified in abiding by the far more significant and important lineage of the brain.
But this great exception apart, the difference alluded to is extraordinary. Wales is so animated by national enthusiasms, pride, and incalculable hereditary uplift, that her silence--in English, that is--can hardly be accounted for away from the supposition that, in closing her ears against English, she has also set her lips against utterance in that tongue.
The Scoto-Celtic writers of to-day, both in prose and poetry, have produced more Anglo-Celtic literature than Wales has done since the beginning of the century, and with a range, a vitality, a beauty, far beyond anything that has come forth from modem Cymru; and Ireland, again, in poetry at any rate, has given us even more than Scotland.
The Celtic Renascence, of which so much has been written of late--that is, the re-birth of the Celtic genius in the brain of Anglo-Celtic poets and the brotherhood of dreamers--is, fundamentally, the outcome of "Ossian," and, immediately, of the rising of the sap in the Irish nation.
Of the immense and never yet approximately defined Irish-Celtic influence in literature a fine and true word has been said by one of the ablest of the Irish fellowship; and I would strongly urge every reader to obtain Mr. Stopford Brooke's admirable and stimulating little essay, "On the Need and Use of getting Irish Literature into the English Tongue."* With its conclusion, every lover of English poetry and romance will agree.
"When we have got the old [Celtic] legendary tales rendered into fine prose and verse, I believe we shall open out English poetry to a new and exciting world, an immense range of subjects, entirely fresh and full of inspiration. Therefore, as I said, get them out into English, and then we may bring England and [Celtdom] into a union which never can suffer separation, and send another imaginative force on earth which may (like Arthur's tale) create Poetry for another thousand years."
*Published by Mr Fisher Unwin at a shilling. The reader will have to discount Mr Brooke's over-emphasis on the word Irish, which he frequently uses instead of Celtic, even when alluding to Scoto - Celtic literature and influence.
These are inspiring words, and should find an eager response.
More and more we may hope that the beautiful poetry of Ireland, ancient and modern, with its incommunicable charm and exquisite spontaneity; that the strange, elemental, sombre imagination of the West Highlander and of the Gael of the Isles; and that the vivid spell of the old Welsh bards, will, before long, become a still greater, a still more regenerating, and a lasting force and iafluence in our English literature.
In the Notes I have something to say concerning each of the many ancient and modern writers drawn upon for this representative anthology, so need not here enter into further detail of the kind.
Obviously, it would be impossible to make a work of this nature as welcome to the Celtic scholar as to the general reader. No one in the least degree acquainted with ancient Gaelic and Cymric literature could fail to note how merely superficial this section of "Lyra Celtica" is. Therefore, let me again aver that this anthology has been compiled, not for the specialist, but for the lover of poetry; and to serve, for the many who have no knowledge of "Anglo-Celtic" as distinct from "Anglo-Saxon" poetry, as a small Pisgah whence to gain a glimpse into a strange and beautiful land, a land wherein, as in a certain design by William Blake, the sun, the moon, and the morning star all shine together, and where the horizons are spanned by fugitive rainbows ever marvellously dissolving and more marvellously re-forming.
The effort of the Editor has been to give, not always the finest or most unquestionably authentic examples of early Celtic poetry, but the most characteristic. Thus only could some idea be conveyed of the physiognomy of this ancient literature.
In the first section, that representative of Early Gaelic, a long period of time is covered. A whole heroic age lies between that strange pantheistic utterance of Amergin, who is now accepted as the earliest Erse poet of whom we have authentic record, and the hymns of Columba: and the quaint "Shaving Hymn" of Murdoch the Monk, though it precedes the Ossianic fragments, relates to a much nearer period of history than they do. Of these Ossianic fragments, it is not needful to say more here than that, in their actual form, they are no more genuinely old than, for example, are many of the lovely fantasias on old themes by modern Irish poets. They are, at most, fundamentally ancient, and are given here on this plea, and not as the translations of Macpherson. The day is gone when the stupid outcry against Macpherson's "Ossian," as no more than a gigantic fraud, finds a response among lovers of literature. We all know, now, that Macpherson's "Ossian" is not a genuine translation of authentic Dana Oisin mhic Fhionn, but, for all its great and enduring beauty, a clumsily-constructed, self-contradictory, and sometimes grotesquely impossible rendering of disconnected, fugitive, and, for the most part, oral lore. Of the genuineness of this legendary lore there is no longer any doubt in the minds of those native and alien students, who alone are qualified to pronounce a definite verdict on this long disputed point. It would have been easy to select other Ossianic fragments; but as, in this anthology, the spirit and not the letter was everything, it was considered advisable to make as apt a compromise with Macpherson's "Ossian" as practicable. Ancient poetry of the nature of pieces such as "The Song of Fionn " (page 4) convey little to the ordinary reader, not only on account of their puzzling allusions to events and persons of whom the Englishman is not likely to have heard, or from the strangeness of their style, as because of the remoteness of the underlying sentiment and mental standpoint. And of this there can be no question: that the ancient poetry, the antique spirit, breathes throughout this eighteenth-century restoration, and gives it enduring life, charm, and all the spell of cosmic imagination. It may well be, indeed, that the literary historian has another signal discovery to make, and, in definitively dissociating Oisin of the F6inn and Ossian of Badenoch, prove convincingly that James Macpherson was not even the author (of the greater part at any rate) of the matter that has been interpolated into the original, inchoate, traditional bardic lore.
However much or little appeal "Ossian" may have for English readers of to-day, there can surely be no doubt that all who have the spirit of poetry must recognise the charm of the ancient Celtic imagination in compositions such as "Credhe's Lament" (page 5). This lovely haunting lament, from the "Book of Lismore," comes in its English form from that invaluable work of Mr. S. Hayes O'Grady, "Silva Gadelica." Of how much Celtic poetry, modern as well as ancient, is not this, though variously expressed, the refrain: "Melodious is the crane, and O melodious is the crane, in the marshlands of Druim-dà-thrën! 'tis she that may not save her brood alive!"
For the remarkable continuity of both expression and sentiment which characterises Celtic poetry, ancient and modern, let the student turn, for example, to the most famous Gaelic poem in Scotland to-day, Duncan Ban Macintyre's "Ben Dorain," and compare it with this "Lay of Arran" by Caeilte, the Ossianic bard--Arran, no longer Arran of the many stags, but still one of the loveliest of the Scottish isles, and touched on every headland and hill with the sunset glamour of the past.
CAEILTE--LAY OF ARRAN.*
Arran of the many stags--the sea impinges on her very shoulders! an island in which whole companies were fed--and with ridges among which blue spears were reddened! Skittish deer are on her pinnacles, soft blackberries upon her waving heather; cool water there is upon her rivers, and mast upon her russet oaks! Greyhounds there were in her, and beagles; blaeberries and sloes of the blackthorn; dwellings with their backs set close against her woods, and the deer fed scattered by her oaken thickets! A crimson crop grew on her rocks, in all her glades a faultless grass; over her crags affording friendly refuge, leaping went on and fawns were skipping! Smooth were her level spots--her wild swine they were fat; cheerful her fields (this is a tale that may be credited), her nuts hung on her forest hazel's boughs, and there was sailing of long galleys past her! Right pleasant their condition all when the fair weather sets in: under her rivers' brinks trouts lie; the sea-gulls wheeling round her grand cliff answer one the other-at every fitting time delectable is Arran!"
*"On the first day of the Trogan-month, we, to the number of Fianna's three battalions, practised to repair to Arran, and there to have our fill of hunting until such time as from the tree-tops the cuckoo would call in Ireland. More melodious than all birds whatsoever, it was to give ear to the voices of the birds as they rose from the billows, and from the island's coast line; thrice fifty separate flocks there are that encircled her, and they clad in all brilliance of all colours; as blue, and green, and azure, and yellow."
Again, most readers will be able to apprehend the delight of the barbaric outlook in compositions such as "Cuchullin in His Chariot," which has been excerpted from Hector MacLean's "Ultonian Hero Ballads"; or the fantastic beauty of "The March of the Faerie Host," as rendered by Prof. Kuno Meyer after the original in "The Book of Lismore"; or the lovely portrait of a beautiful woman, by a Highland poet of old, the "Aisling air Dhreach Mna; or, Vision of a Fair Woman." Possibly, too, even Celtic scholars may not be displeased to read here English metrical paraphrases, such as Sir Samuel Ferguson's "Lament of Deirdré for the Sons of Usnach,"* or Mr T. W. Rolleston's haunting "The Lament of Queen Maev"; or, again, in dubiously authentic fragments such as "Fingal and Ros-crana," to have an opportunity to trace the "inner self" of many a familiar ballad or legend.
*Readers should obtain Dr Hyde's "Three Sorrows of Story-Telling" (I/-), wherein the beautiful old tale of Deirdréis re-told by one who is at once a poet and a scholar.
The Breton section, also, is represented equally slightly, though perhaps not inadequately, all things considered. "The Dance of the Sword" is, probably, fundamentally one of the most ancient of Celtic bardic utterances. In the modem selection, it will be a surprise to many readers to encounter names so familiar to lovers of French poetry as Leconte de Lisle and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. There are many contemporary Breton poets of distinction, but it was feasible to select no more than one or two. Auguste Brizeux and Charles Le Goffic may be taken as typical exemplars of the historically re-creative and the individually impressionistic methods. Unfortunately neither is represented here. It was desirable to select at least one poet who still uses the old Armorican tongue; but in my translation from Leo-Kermorvan's "Taliesen" (as again in that of Tiercelin's "y Menec'hi Shore"), I have not attempted a rhymed version, as in the original, or in the French version published in the "Anthologie." There are very few translators who can be faithful both to the sound and sense, in the attempt concurrently to reproduce identity of form, music, and substance; and, as a rule, therefore, rhythmic prose, or an unrhymed metrical version, is likely to prove more interesting as well as more truly interpretative.
Out of the rich garth of ancient and mediæval Welsh poetry, the Editor has culled only a few blossoms. They contain, at least, something of that lyric love of Nature which is so distinctively Celtic, and is the chief charm of the poetic literature of Wales. It is earnestly to be hoped that some poet-scholar will give us before long, in English, an anthology of the best contemporary Welsh poetry.
Of living poets who write in Gaelic, there are more in Scotland than in Ireland. The Hebrides have been a nest of singers, since Mary Macleod down to the youngest of the Uist poets of to-day; and though there is not at present any Alexander Macdonald or Duncan Bàn Macintyre, there are many singers who have a sweet and fine note, and many writers whose poems have beauty, grace, and distinction. Perhaps the last fine product of the pseudo-antique school is the "Sean Dàna"* of Dr John Smith, late in the last century; but occasionally there occurs in our own day a noteworthy instance of the re-telling of the old tales in the old way. In "The Celtic Monthly," and other periodicals, much good Gaelic verse is to be found, and it is no exaggeration to say that at this moment there are more than a hundred Gaelic singers in Western Scotland whose poetry is as fresh and winsome, and, in point of form as well as substance, as beautiful, as any that is being produced throughout the rest of the realm. The Gaelic Muse has also found a home in Canada, and it is interesting to note that one of the longest of recent Gaelic poems was written by a Highlander in far-away Burmah.
Whence comes the "Prologue to Gaul," given at P. 187 of this book.
"The Highlander" (and in this and the following passage I quote the words of Professor Mackinnon, from his Inaugural Address on his succession to the Celtic Chair at Edinburgh University) "The Highlander may be truly described as the child of music and song. For many a long year his language is the language, for the most part, of the uneducated classes. And yet, amid surroundings which too often are but mean and wretched, without the advantages of education beyond what his native glen supplied, he has contrived to enliven his lot by the cultivation of such literature as the local bards, the traditions of the clan, and the popular tales of the district supplied. He has attempted, not unsuccessfully, to live not for the day and hour alone, but, in a true sense, to live the life of the spirit! He has produced a mass of lyric poetry which, in rhythmical flow, purity of sentiment, and beauty of expression, can compare favourably with the literature of more powerful and more highly-civilised communities.
"In the highest efforts of Gaelic literature, in the prose of Norman Macleod, in the masterpieces of the lyric poets, in the "Sean Dàna" of Dr Smith, and above all, in the poems of Ossian, whether composed by James Macpherson or the son of Fingal, the intellect of the Scottish Celt, in its various moods and qualities, finds its deepest and fullest expression. Here we have humour, pathos, passion, vehemence, a rush of feeling and emotion not always under restraint, and apt to run into exaggeration and hyperbole--characteristics which enter largely into the mental and spiritual Organisation of the people. But above and beneath all these, there is a touch of melancholy, a 'cry of the weary,' pervading the spirit of the Celt. Ossian gives expression to this sentiment in the touching line which Matthew Arnold, the most sympathetic and penetrating critic of the Celtic imagination, with the true instinct of genius, prefixes to his charming volume, 'On the Study of Celtic Literature' :
"'They went forth to the war, but they always fell."'
Professor Mackinnon goes on to adduce a familiar legend, which may again be quoted, for we are all now waiting for that longed-for blast which shall arouse the spell-bound trance wherein sleeps "Anima Celtica." The Fèinn, he says, were laid spell-bound in a cave which no man knew of. At the mouth of the cave hung a horn, which if ever any man should come and blow three times, the spell would be broken, and the Fèinn would arise, alive and well. A hunter, one day wandering in the mist, came on this cave, saw the horn, and knew what it meant. He looked in and saw the Fèinn lying asleep all round the cave. He lifted the horn and blew one blast. He looked in again, and saw that the Fèinn had wakened, but lay still with their eyes staring, like those of dead men. He took the horn again, blew another blast, and instantly the Fèinn all moved, each resting on his elbow. Terrified at their aspect, the hunter turned and fled homewards. He told what he had seen, and, accompanied by friends, went to search for the cave. They could not find it; it has never again been found; and so there still sit, each resting on his elbow, waiting for the final blast to rouse them into life, the spell-bound heroes of the old Celtic world.
Of the modern and larger section of "Lyra Celtica" I need say little here. To avoid confusion, the Editor has refrained from representing poets whose "Celtic strain" is more or less obviously disputable; hence the wise ignoring of the claims even of Scott and Burns. Byron was more Celtic in blood than in brain, and is represented really by virtue of this accidental kinship.
Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Man, Cornwall, and Brittany are all more or less adequately represented; and among the poets are some whose voices will be new to most readers. One or two writers, also, have been drawn upon as representatives of the distinctively AngloCeltic section of England. Finally, "greater Gaeldom "--the realm of the Irish and Scottish Gaels in the United States, Canada, and Australasia--is also represented; and one, at any rate, of these outlanders is a poet who has won distinction on both sides of the Atlantic.
If it be advisable to select one poet, still "with a future," as pre-eminently representative of the Celtic genius of to-day, I think there can be little doubt that W. B. Yeats' name is that which would occur first to most lovers of contemporary poetry. He has grace of touch and distinction of form beyond any of the younger poets of Great Britain, and there is throughout his work a haunting beauty, and a haunting sense of beauty everywhere perceived with joy and longing, that make its appeal irresistible for those who feel it at all. He is equally happy whether he deals with antique or with contemporary themes, and in almost every poem he has written there is that exquisite remoteness, that dreamlike music, and that transporting charm which Matthew Arnold held to be one of the primary tests of poetry, and, in particular, of Celtic poetry.
As an example of Mr Yeats' narrative method, with legendary themes, I may quote this from his beautiful "Wanderings of Oisin " (rather affectedly and quite needlessly altered to Usheen in the latest version)--
Fled foam underneath us, and round us a wandering and milky smoke,
High as the saddle-girth, covering away from our glances the tide;
And those that fled, and that followed, from the foam-pale distance broke;
The immortal desire of immortals we saw in their faces, and sighed.
I mused on the chase with the Fenians, and Bran, Sgeolan, Lomair,
And never a song sang Neave, and over my fingertips
Came now the sliding of tears and sweeping of mist-cold hair,
And now the warmth of sighs, and after the quiver of lips.
Were we days long or hours long in riding, when rolled in a grisly peace,
An isle lay level before us, with dripping hazel and oak?
And we stood on a sea's edge we saw not; for whiter than new washed fleece
Fled foam underneath us, and round us a wandering and milky smoke.
And we rode on the plains of the sea's edge-the sea's edge barren and gray,
Gray sands on the green of the grasses and over the dripping trees,
Dripping and doubling landward, as though they would hasten away
Like an army of old men longing for rest from the moan of the seas.
But the trees grew taller and closer, immense in their wrinkling bark;
Dropping-a murmurous dropping-old silence and that one sound;
For no live creatures lived there, no weasels moved in the dark--
Long sighs arose in our spirits, beneath us bubbled the ground.
And the ears of the horse went sinking away in the hollow night,
For, as drift from a sailor slow drowning the gleams of the world and the sun,
Ceased on our hands and our faces, on hazel and oak leaf, the light,
And the stars were blotted above us, and the whole of the world was one."
Often, too, there occur in his verse new and striking imagery, as in the superb epithetical value of the fourth line in the concluding stanza of "The Madness of King Goll," one of the most beautiful of his poems--
"And now I wander in the woods
When summer gluts the golden bees,
Or in autumnal solitudes
Arise the leopard-coloured trees;
Or when along the wintry strands
The cormorants shiver on their rocks;
I wander on, and wave my hands,
And sing, and shake my heavy locks.
The gray wolf knows me; by one ear
I lead along the woodland deer;
The hares ran by me growing bold.
They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter
Round me, the beech leaves old."
Indeed, through all his work, "They will not hush; the leaves a-flutter, the beech leaves old"--the mystic leaves of life, touched by the wind of old romance. We can imagine him hearing often that fairy lure which his "Stolen Child" listed and yielded to--
"Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a fairy, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than
you can understand."
For him always there is the Beauty of Beauty, the Passion of Passion: the "Rose of the World."
"Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?
For these red lips, with all their mournful pride,
Mounful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna's children died.
We and the labouring world are passing by:
Amid men's souls, that waver and give place,
Like the pale waters in their wintry race,
Under the passing stars, foam of the sky,
Lives on this lonely face."
It is the lonely face that haunts the dreams of poets of all races and ages: that "Lady Beauty" enthroned
"Under the arch of life, where love and death,
Terror and mystery, guard her shrine. . . . "
The vision of which we follow--
"How passionately, and irretrievably,
In what fond flight, how many ways and days!"
And of all races, none has so worshipped the "Rose of the World" as has the Celt.
"No other human tribe," says Renan, "has carried so much mystery into love. No other has conceived with more delicacy the ideal of woman, nor been more dominated by her. It is a kind of intoxication, a madness, a giddiness. Read the strange mabinogi of 'Pérédur,' or its French imitation, 'Parceval le Gallois'; these pages are dewy, so to say, with feminine sentiment. Woman appears there as a sort of vague vision intermediate between man and the supernatural world, There is no other literature which offers anything analogous to this. Compare Guinevere and Iseult to those Scandinavian furies Gudruna and Chrimhilde, and you will acknowledge that woman, as chivalry conceived her--that ideal of sweetness and beauty set up as the supreme object of life-is a creation neither classic, Christian, nor Germanic, but in reality Celtic."
And having quoted from Ernest Renan, himself one of the greatest of modern Celts, and a Celt in brain and genius as well as by blood, race, and birth, let me interpolate here a paraphrase of some words of his in that essay on "La Poesie de la Race Celtique," which was to intellectual France what Matthew Arnold's essay was to intellectual England.
If, he says, the eminence of races should be estimated according to the purity of their blood and inviolability of national character, there could be none able to dispute supremacy with the Celtic race. Never has human family lived more isolated from the world, nor less affected by foreign admixture.
Restricted by conquest to forgotten isles and peninsulas, the Celtic race has habitually striven to oppose an impassable barrier to all alien influences. It has ever trusted in itself, and in itself alone, and has drawn its mental and spiritual nurture from its own resources.
Hence that powerful individuality, that hatred of the stranger, which up to our day has formed the essential characteristic of the Celtic peoples. The civilisation of Rome hardly reached them, and left among them but few traces. The Germanic invasion flowed back on them, but it did not affect them at all. At the present hour they still resist an invasion, dangerous in quite another way, that of modern civilisation, so destructive of local varieties and national types. Ireland in particular (and there, perhaps, is the secret of her irremediable weakness) is the sole country of Europe where the native can produce authentic documents of his remote unbroken lineage, and designate with certainty, up to pre-historic ages, the race from which he sprang.
One does not enough reflect on how strange it is that an ancient race should continue down to our day, and almost under our eyes, in some islands and peninsulas of the West, its own life, more and more diverted from it, it is true, by the noise from without, but still faithful to its language, its memories, its ideals, and its genius. We are especially apt to forget that this small race, contracted now to the extreme confines of Europe, in the midst of those rocks and mountains where its enemies have driven it, is in possession of a literature, which in the Middle Ages exerted an immense influence, changed the current of European imagination, and imposed upon almost the whole of Christianity its poetical motifs. It is, however, only necessary to open authentic monuments of Celtic genius to convince oneself that the race which created these has had its own original method of thought and feeling; and that nowhere does the eternal illusion dress itself in more seductive colours. In the grand concert of the h uman species, no family equals this, for penetrating voices which go to the heart. Alas! if it, also, is condemned to disappear, this fading glory of the West! Arthur will not return to his enchanted isle, and Saint Patrick was right in saying to Ossian: "The heroes whom you mourn are dead; can they live again?"
A strange melancholy characterises the genius of the Celtic race. For all the blithe songs and happy abandon of so many Irish singers, the Irish themselves have given us the most poignant, the most hauntingly-sad lyric cries in all modern literature. Renan fully recognises this, and how, even in the heroic age, the melancholy of inappeasible regret, of insatiable longing, is as obvious as in our own day, when spiritual weariness is as an added crown of thorns. Whence comes this sadness, he asks? Take the songs of the sixth century bards ; they mourn more defeats than they sing victories. The history of the Celtic race itself is but a long complaint, the lament of exiles, the grief of despairing flights beyond the seas. If occasionally it seems to make merry, a tear ever lurks behind the smile; it rarely knows that singular forgetfulness of the human state and of its destinies which is called gaiety. But, if its songs of joy end in elegies, nothing equals the delicious sadness of these national melodies.
Nevertheless, concludes the most famous of modern Breton writers, we are still far from believing that the Celtic race has said its last word. After having exercised all the godly and worldly chivalries, sought with PErEdur the Holy Graal and the Beautiful, dreamed with Saint Brandan of mystical Atlantides, who knows what the Celtic genius would produce in the domain of the intelligence if it should embolden itself to make its entrance into the world, and if it subjected its rich and profound nature to the conditions of modern thought? Few races have had a poetical infancy as complete as the Celtic-mythology, lyricism, epic, romanesque imagination, religious enthusiasm, nothing have they lacked. Why should philosophic thought be lacking? Germany, which had begun by science and criticism, has finished with poetry; why should not the Celtic races, which began with poetry, not end with a new and vivid criticism of actual life as it now is? It is not so far from the one to the other as we are apt to suppose; the poetical races are the philosophical races, and philosophy is at bottom but a manner of poetry like any other. When one thinks that Germany fronted, less than a century ago, the revelation of its genius; that everywhere national idiosyncrasies, which seemed effaced, have suddenly risen again in our day more alive than ever, one is persuaded that it is rash to set a law for the discontinuances and awakenings of races. Modern civilisation, which seemed made to absorb them, may, perhaps, be but the forcing-house for a new and more superb efflorescence.
No, it is no "disastrous end": whether the Celtic peoples be slowly perishing or are spreading innumerable fibres of life towards a richer and fuller, if a less national and distinctive existence. From Renan, the high priest of the Breton faith, to the latest of his kindred of the Gael, there is a strange new uprising of hope. It is realised that the Dream is nigh dreamed: and then. . .
"Till the soil--bid cities rise--
Be strong, O Celt--be rich, be wise--
But still, with those divine grave eyes,
Respect the realm of Mysteries."
Let me conclude, then, in the words of the most recent of those many eager young Celtic writers whose songs and romances are charming the now intent mind of the Anglo-Saxon. "A doomed and passing race. Yes, but not wholly so. The Celt has at last reached his horizon. There is no shore beyond. He knows it. This has been the burden of his song since Malvina led the blind Oisin to his grave by the sea. 'Even the Children of Light must go down into darkness.' But this apparition of a passing race is no more than the fulfilment of a glorious resurrection before our very eyes. For the genius of the Celtic race stands out now with averted torch, and the light of it is a glory before the eyes, and the flame of it is blown into the hearts of the mightier conquering people. The Celt falls, but his spirit rises in the heart and the brain of the Anglo-Celtic peoples, with whom are the destinies of the generations to come."
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