Reference > Anthologies > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library > Verse

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Fairy Host
Ossian and Ossianic Poetry
          Fianna, or Faerie Host, 1—as sure as old Celtic history can make them, or as tenuous as the myths of the elements personified by primitive man ere the Gael reached Britain, they leave one at last haunted by a music that is only to be found in Celtic poetry. For a last echo of its melody we must fall back on an unrhymed version, as affording a fairer point of departure into the long dithyrambic rhymeless Ossiana of Macpherson.

IN well-devised battle array,
Ahead of their fair chieftain
They march amidst blue spears,
White, curly-headed bands.
They scatter the forces of their foes,        5
They ravage every hostile land,
Splendidly they march, they march,—
Impetuous, avenging host!
No wonder if their strength be great:
Sons of kings and queens, each one!        10
On all their heads are
Beautiful golden-yellow manes;
With smooth, comely bodies,
With bright blue-starred eyes,
With pure crystal teeth,        15
With thin red lips:
Splendidly they march, they march:
Good they are at man-slaying.

  In these lines of the ‘Fairy Host’ we have a color, a life, that is indicative of old Celtic poetry, and that we miss in the Ossianic poetry of Macpherson. Broadly, the gloom which characterizes so much modern Celtic and Anglo-Celtic poetry is not to be found in the ancient ballads and narratives. True, a genuinely indicative sense of fatality, of the inevitableness of tragic doom, is often to be found there. To this day, ‘The Lay of Diarmud and Grainne,’ or the story of ‘The Children of Lir,’ whether accepted as they have come to us, or (as in the latter instance) disengaged from early monkish or mediæval embroidering, remain typical Celtic productions; as, on another side, may be said of the relatively little known but remarkable ‘Lay of the Amadan Mor,’ or ‘The Great Fool,’ a Gaelic type after the manner of a Sir Galahad crossed with Don Quixote. 2
  In Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’—much of which is mere rhetoric, much of which is arbitrary, and of the eighteenth rather than of the third century—the abiding charm is that of the lament of a perishing people; the abiding spell, that of the passing of an ancient and irrevocable order of things. We read it now, not as an authentic chronicle of the doings of Finn and his cycle, not even as an authentic patchwork of old ballads and narratives, but as an imaginary record based upon fragmentary and fugitive survivals, told not according to the letter but according to the spirit,—told too in the manner of the somber imagination of the Highland Gael, an individual distinct in many respects from his Irish congener. But we touch the bed-rock of Celtic emotion here too, again and again.
  But first let us see how the rhythmic prose of some of the ancient poets runs; for it is often ignorance that makes English critics speak of Macpherson’s prose as wholly arbitrary and unnatural to the Celtic genius. Here is a very ancient Ossianic production known as Credhe’s Lament.
Note 1. This is a common interpretation: but the real Fairy Host of tradition is the mythical Dedannan folk, the Tuatha dé Danann,—“the proudly secure, beautiful, song-loving, peaceful, hunting people” who inhabited Ireland before it was invaded by the Milesians; i.e., the Iberian-Celtic immigration from Spain under Mil (Mil, Miledh, or Miles). [back]
Note 2. It is interesting to note that he has an equivalent in the Peronik of Breton-Celtic legend, as well as in Cymric and Arthurian romance. [back]

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