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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Celtic Literature
III. Welsh
Critical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905) and Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
 
THE LAWS governing the life of languages are as elusive as those that decide the fate of races and empires. Why is the Welsh tongue still alive and vigorous, and the Irish (pace Dr. Douglas Hyde) moribund? It is a difficult question, but some light on it may be had by traversing the early history of Welsh literature.  1
  The like difficulty meets us in both Welsh and Irish: that of deciding how far the mediæval scribes and scholars doctored the older material which fell into their hands. But in Welsh, the separation of the primitive from the mediæval element is often even a more difficult task than in Irish.  2
  In sketching the early course of Welsh literature, we cannot do better than turn to the striking instance afforded by the name and fame of Merlin. In legendary Welsh history, Merlin appears under almost as many guises as he does in the pages of Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur.’ Merddin Emrys (Ambrosius), Merddin Sylvester (Merlin the Wild), Merddin ab Morvryn (or Merlin Caledonius),—his name and fame vary according to the chronicler. Of these, Merlin the son of Morvryn, the most tangible in the list, was also known as Caledonius, because the Kymry of the sixth century lived in that greater Wales which ranged as far north as the Caledonian Forest. After the terrible battle of Arderydd, Merlin, having seen his kindred all but obliterated, was seized, tradition tells us, with a frenzy, and thereafter his bardic utterances assumed a more and more mystical and oracular form. This, added to his mysterious and magnetic personality and wildly impressive personal presence, may well have led on in process of time, by gradual legendary accretions, to the final conception of a Merlin miraculous, supernatural, dæmonic! However this may be, nothing can be more instructive than to compare the late Merlin with the early Merlin, and to trace his phases in Welsh folk-tale, and define his poetry finally in the pages of the ‘Black Book of Carmarthen.’  3
  The ‘Black Book of Carmarthen,’ in its strikingly decorative black and red manuscript, makes a wonderful testament of old Welsh poetry. If we could solve all its problems and read all that is written between its lines, we should be very near the great secret of the Druidic religion and of Celtic mythology, as well as the secret of Merlin’s actual and imaginary effect in Welsh literature.  4
  The battle of Arderydd has been cited above as a determining event in Merlin’s history. The opening poem in the ‘Black Book of Carmarthen’ is a remarkable rhymed dialogue between Merlin and Taliesin, some of whose lines are extremely imaginative and touching in their archaic simplicity. Merlin begins:—
  “How sad is Merlin now! how sad!
Keduyf and Kadvan—are they dead?
The furious slaughter filled the field,
And pierced was the Tryrwyd shield!”
Taliesin replies:—
  “His house-folk did not falter in the fight!”
So it goes on, telling of the battle and its consequences, until one reaches at the end that mysterious verse which haunts the imagination and the ear of the reader. Merlin again speaks:—
  “Sevenscore chieftains
Were turned into spirits;
In the wood of Celyddon
  Were they transformed.
  5
  The wood of Celyddon is the Caledonian Forest. So far as these excerpts go, they might seem to be the writing of the real Merlin. There is internal evidence however that this poem, the much disputed poem of the ‘Apple-trees,’ and others that follow it in the ‘Black Book,’ were written not earlier than the twelfth century. Stephens, usually an acute critic, imputes in his ‘Literature of the Kymry’ these poems to Gwalchmai and other bards of later date. But even so, these poets evidently founded their poems upon earlier ones, traditionally handed on as Merlin’s.  6
  From such later sources as the ‘Myvyrian Archæology,’ or Skene’s ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales,’ or the admirable Oxford texts edited by Professor Rhys and Mr. Gwenogfvyn Evans, one can rehabilitate at will the Merlin of the ‘Black Book of Carmarthen,’ much as Villemarqué has done after a fashion quite his own. Enough will so be certainly discovered to outline a primitive Merlin, an original sixth-century Merlin, under the impressive mediæval robes of the Latin-Welsh romantic chroniclers and poets. Enough too will be made clear to show a basis of myth and prehistoric legend behind the remotest recorded name, time, or place that can be counted historical.  7
  The same is true of Taliesin, who appears, by the poetical remains attributed to him,—some of them clearly mediæval, others just as clearly primitive,—even more interesting as a poet than Merlin. Just as there are several Merlins, however, there are two Taliesins: there is the fifth-century Taliesin, and there is the pseudo-Taliesin of the twelfth. Both are wonderful in their way, and one knows not which to admire most—him who wrote the ‘Battle of Gwenystrad,’ which is undoubtedly a primitive war song, or the mediæval poet who chose to take the disguise of Taliesin, and taking too, probably, some of the traditional fragments of his early poetry, worked them up afresh with curious mediæval art and mystic imagination. For comparison let us take an early and a late poem, commonly gathered, as in the ‘Myvyrian Archæology,’ under one head.  8
  Take first one of the later poems, the mystical ‘Song to the Wind,’ which even in its English dress won Emerson’s admiration, and which, if we allow for all differences between mediæval and modern imagination, is as wonderful a poem of its kind as any literature is likely to afford. As it is given among our selections, it need not be quoted here. In point of time it is usual to assign it, as Stephens does, to the twelfth or thirteenth century. But it seems to me to bear traces again of being an older, more primitive poem, retouched certainly, and probably reshaped, by a twelfth-century poet. And now for a genuine Taliesin, or what at any rate many critics think to be genuine. This you may have in the famous ‘Gwaith Gwenystrad’ (Battle of Gwenystrad), one of the most spirited war poems in existence, copied and recopied by a long succession of Kymric scribes, and which the writer came upon first in the MS. collection of William Morris o Gaergybi yn Mon, who flourished about 1758. Here are four lines of Morris’s copy literatim, which will give a better idea than any criticism of mine of the mingled realism and imagination of the poem:—
  “Yn nrws rhyd gwelais i wyr lledruddion,
Eirf ddillwng y rhag blawr gofedon,
Unynt tanc gan aethant golludion,
Llaw ynghroes gryd ygro granwynion.”
And here is a rough, vigorous translation of these lines from the same volume:—
          “In the pass of the fort have I seen men, dyed with red, who hurtled their arms…. They fell to the ground together when the day was lost, their hands on the crucifix. And horror was in the pale face of the dead warriors.”
A succeeding line,
  “A gwyar a uaglei ar ddillad,”
(And the blood was tangled in their clothing),
adds the last touch of dreadful sincerity to the account. And in other primitive poems that we may ascribe to Taliesin are effects as convincing and vivid.
  9
  But we must leave Taliesin and his difficulties, to sketch briefly the course of poetry between his actual date in early time and his poetic resurrection in the Middle Ages. Not so interesting poetically but more important historically is the next of the Welsh bards, Aneurin, who wrote the ‘Gododin.’ This curious and interesting war poem tells of a foray made by the Ottadini, an early Kymric tribe, living in the greater Wales of their time, on the Northumbrian coast. Mr. Stephens imagines Cattraeth, which figures as a central scene of the action of the poem, to be Catterick in Yorkshire; and this we may provisionally accept.
  “The Welshmen went to Cattraeth; and merry marched the host,
But thro’ drinking the gray mead, the day—the day was lost.”
The expedition was one of those which show the gradual cession of greater Wales by the Welsh, and their retreat to the lesser Wales that is still theirs.
  10
  We may pause here to remark that the bardic order was early constituted among the Welsh, as among the Irish. In the Laws of Howel Dda (Howel the Good), who flourished in the tenth century, we find very explicit provision made for the bard:—
  “In case of fighting, the Bard shall play the ‘Monarchy of Britain’ before the battle!
“His land shall be free; he shall have a horse from the King!
“He shall have a harp from the King, and a gold ring from the Queen, when he is appointed. The harp he shall never part with.”
  11
  Unless, which is highly probable, we have lost some of the records of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, we have to conclude that Welsh poetry made small headway. The remarkable laws of Howel Dda are the monument of the tenth century. In the eleventh we come upon the first signs of a revival in Meilir, who is historically interesting, and in his last poems shows himself a true poet. In the twelfth we have to mark a distinct further step in Gwalchmai, who is the first conscious poet of nature, and who may thus claim to be the founder of one of the finest traditions in all Welsh poetry. Following Gwalchmai comes the princely poet Howel the Tall, son of Owain Gwynedd by an Irish lady, and who himself wore the crown of Gwynedd for a brief two years. He died in 1171 at twenty-seven, after a life of stormiest adventure; but in the intervals of battle he found time to write some of the loveliest love poems that all Welsh literature can boast. His death was lamented by Periv ab Kedwoi in a much less conventional and more moving tone than the official bards generally troubled to use for such elegies. A century or so later, and we find Llywarch ab Llywelyn (known as “Prydydd y Moch,” the Poet of the Pigs) writing a still finer and more ample lament on the last native prince of Wales, Llywelyn ab Gruffydd, “Llywelyn ewi Llyw Olaf,” as he is still fondly called. These two laments may be taken as typical of a wide section of Welsh poetry, dealing with the deaths of heroes and princes, and ranging in date from the fifth or sixth century to the nineteenth. Llywelyn the Last died in 1282, and thereafter began what has been well termed “The Great Oppression” (y Gorthrwm Mawr), by which Norman and Saxon combined to crush the language and expropriate the people of the country, with the result of calling up at last Owen Glendower’s hot spirit to fight for the national cause.  12
  But it is remarkable that in this disastrous period arose some of the finest interpreters of her genius that the country was ever to find. Within its term were, without a doubt, carried to an approximate perfection those more native romances that we term ‘Mabinogion,’—the most exquisite and exquisitely turned tales, in point of art, that the Celtic races have produced. The late Lady Charlotte Guest’s edition of the ‘Mabinogion’ serves very well to convey, in a translation of extreme felicity, to non-Celtic readers the art and spirit of these tales. But it must be kept in mind that all she gives are not strictly ‘Mabinogion’; several of them are more properly to be called romances, as showing strong traces of Norman and French influence. The ‘Mabinogi’ originally was a tale to be recited by a mabinog, i.e., a ’prentice to the bardic craft who had not yet obtained his full degree, and with it the right of composing and reciting poetry. The idea which some critics have, that the ‘Mabinogion’ were boys’ tales, or still worse, nursery tales, is quite wrong. Let us remember that such tales were the delight of most of the princely halls and winter hearths of mediæval Wales, where they were recited after the great banquets and on feast nights to the most critical audience that could be afforded. ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy,’ ‘Kilhwch and Olwen,’ and ‘Math, Son of Mathonwy,’ may be mentioned as among the tales in Lady Guest’s volume which are most natively original; and we have chosen the portrait of Olwen from the second of these for our selections, to show the art and charm of the Welsh romancers in the Middle Ages.  13
  If the ‘Mabinogion’ are fine as prose, we have an equally fine expression of this time in poetry, in the poems of Rhys Goch ab Rhicert (Rhys the Red, son of Rhicert) and the ever delightful Dafydd ab Gwilym, who will be found treated separately. After Dafydd, Welsh poetry was to enter upon a new phase, not fortunate even in its immediate effects, disastrous in its ultimate ones. It was in the fourteenth century that Welsh prosody, always intricate, finally waxed proud, so to speak, of its complexity, and formed for itself a hide-bound code which was to become the bugbear of Welsh poetry in the following centuries. To give any adequate account of its complexities of technique and the whole letter of its syntax would require a long and tedious treatise in itself. Enough to say that the underlying principle was that of what is termed in Welsh “Eynghanedd,” or “consonancy”; by which rhymes within rhymes and echoes within echoes of certain dominant syllables were insisted upon arbitrarily, until almost every word in every line was subject to a rigid and invincible rule. Art for art, insisted upon in this way, could only end in conventionalizing the very thing it was meant to assist.  14
  Poetry, too carefully nursed and housed, thus fell into a bad way; but luckily meanwhile a new literature was to begin for Wales, along quite other lines, with the Reformation. The translation of the Bible into Welsh by Bishop Morgan in the sixteenth century marks an epoch in the life of the Welsh people and their literature. Therewith the history of the princes and the great lords ends, and the history of the people—and a people mainly peasant, let us remark—begins. Its profound moral force apart, and judged purely as a literary force, the Bible, admirably and idiomatically translated, had an incalculable effect. It set a fine and high and yet simple standard of prose, much as the English Bible does; and taught the possibilities of his tongue to the poorest Welsh peasant. One finds its influence strong in almost every prose work of any note published in the last three centuries, and in a great proportion of the poetry. It did more than anything of later time to save the language; and here is the simple explanation of the extraordinary difference between the fortunes of the Welsh and the Irish tongue. Wales—the Wales of the people—became profoundly impressed by the religious sentiment and the heroic and profound poetry of the Hebrews, and gained from them a new stimulus to express itself and its needs and aspirations in its own native way and in its own tongue.  15
  A characteristic expression of the homelier moral humor of the Welsh is to be had in the ‘Canwyll y Cymry’ (Candle of Wales), by Rhys Pritchard, the famous Elizabethan vicar of Llandovery, which for two centuries was the most popular book in Wales after the Bible. Its simple rhymed didactics do not often rise into poetry; but they are full of human feeling, expressed in a terse and proverbial way, with distinct individuality. The book easily leads one on to the very remarkable band of hymn writers, from Anne Griffiths to Williams Pantycelyn, who have flourished in Welsh. These, and some score beside, really rank by their imaginative fervor and inspiration as true poets. In quite another vein, but probably a very ancient and traditional one in Welsh, we have the homely interludes of Twm O’r Nant, who was born about 1750, of whose life George Borrow gives a very vigorous account in ‘Wild Wales.’ A greater than Twm O’r Nant, and born a generation earlier, Gronney Owen, a man of the finest poetic genius, ought to have a special interest for American readers because he was practically exiled from his beloved Anglesea by the ungrateful church he served; and died, poor and broken-hearted, in New Brunswick about the year 1780. His ‘Cywydd y Faru’ (Ode to the Day of Judgment), his touching lines to his little daughter Elin, or his Hogarthian lines upon the London garret in which he lived for a time, may be cited as showing the various sides of his poetry, of which unluckily there are no adequate translations yet forthcoming.  16
  In prose we must not omit to mention the ‘Bardd Cwsg’ (The Sleeping Bard) of Elis Wynne,—a very imaginative and idiomatic prose epic-in-little, describing the bard’s vision of a curiously Welsh Inferno. Wynne’s prose style is remarkably fine and pure, modeled on the best Biblical standard of a Welsh without English admixture. Welsh prose has been admirably handled too by some of the divines who have flourished within the past two centuries, and who have not confined their eloquence to the pulpit. Even when the State church had no sympathy with the Welsh people and their language, many of its individual members did much to keep the spirit of literature alive; while the nonconformist ministers of Wales have always been vigorously and eminently devoted to the same cause.  17
  Under happier conditions to-day, the latest expression of this vital persistence of the Welsh in the quest of spiritual ideals is the movement that has carried the new national university to completion, and rallied the younger generation under the banner of “Cymru Fydd” (Young Wales). The songs of Ceiriog Hughes, the poems of Islwyn, the works of scholars like Professor John Rhys, Canon Silvain Evans, and Mr. Gwenogfvyn Evans; the ardent writing and editing of Mr. Owen M. Edwards in his innumerable magazines and other adventures; and the novels of Daniel Owen,—these may be named as among the influences that count most to the Wales of the nineteenth century’s end.  18
 
  NOTE.—For citations from Welsh literature see articles on Aneurin, Mabinogion, and Taliesin. The Breton branch of Celtic literature will be treated under the heading ‘Villemarqué,’ the celebrated collector of ‘Barzaz-Breiz.’  19
 
 
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