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 Wine of the Gauls and the Dance of the Sword
By Hersart de la Villemarqué (1815–1895)
Dialect of Léon

Translation of William Sharp

  ONE is not ignorant that in the sixth century the Bretons often made excursions into the territory of their neighbors, subject to the domination of the Franks, whom they called by the general name of Gauls. These expeditions, undertaken oftenest under the necessity of defending their independence, were also sometimes ventured through the desire of providing themselves in the enemy’s country with what they lacked in Brittany, principally with wine. As soon as autumn came, says Gregory of Tours, they departed, followed by chariots, and supplied with instruments of war and of agriculture; armed for the vintage. Were the grapes still hanging, they plucked them themselves; was the wine made, they carried it away. If they were too hurried, or surprised by the Franks, they drank it on the spot; then leading the vintagers captive, they joyously regained their woods and their marshes. The piece here following was composed, according to the illustrious author of the ‘Merovingian Accounts,’ on the return from one of these expeditions. Some tavern habitués of the parish of Coray intone it glass in hand, more for the melody than for the words; the primitive spirit of which, thanks be to God, they have ceased to seize.

BETTER is white wine of grapes than of mulberries; better is white grape wine.
            —O fire! O fire! O steel! O steel! O fire! O fire! O steel and fire! O oak! O oak! O earth! O waves! O waves! O earth! O earth and oak!—
Red blood and white wine, a river! red blood and white wine!
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
Better new wine than ale; better new wine.        5
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
Better sparkling wine than hydromel; better sparkling wine.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
Better wine of the Gauls than of apples; better wine of the Gauls.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.        10
Gaul, vines and leaf for thee, O dunghill! Gaul, vine and leaf to thee!
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
White wine to thee, hearty Breton! White wine to thee, Breton!
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
Wine and blood flow mixed; wine and blood flow.        15
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
White wine and red blood, and thick blood; white wine and red blood.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
’Tis blood of the Gauls that flows; the blood of the Gauls.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.        20
In the rough fray have I drunk wine and blood; I have drunk wine and blood.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
Wine and blood nourish him who drinks; wine and blood nourish.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
Blood and wine and dance, Sun, to thee! blood and wine and dance.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
And dance and song, song and battle! and dance and song.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
Dance of the sword in rounds; dance of the sword.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.        30
Song of the blue sword which murder loves; song of the blue sword.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
Battle where the savage sword is king; battle of the savage sword.
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
O sword! O great king of the battle-field! O sword! O great king!        35
            —O fire! O fire! etc.
May the rainbow shine on thy forehead! may the rainbow shine!
            —O fire! O fire! O steel! O steel! O fire! O fire! O steel and fire! O oak! O oak! O earth! O earth! O waves! O waves! O earth! O earth and oak!


  IT is probable that the expedition to which this wild song alludes took place on the territory of the Nantais; for their wine is white, as is that of which the bard speaks. The different beverages he attributes to the Bretons—mulberry wine, beer, hydromel, apple wine or cider—are also those which were used in the sixth century.
  Without any doubt we have here two distinct songs, welded together by the power of time. The second begins at the thirteenth stanza, and is a warrior’s hymn in honor of the sun, a fragment of the Sword Round of the ancient Bretons. Like the Gaels and the Germans, they were in the habit of surrendering themselves to it during their festivals; it was executed by young men who knew the art of jumping circularly to music, at the same time throwing their swords into the air and catching them again. This is represented on three Celtic medallions in M. Hucher’s collection: on one a warrior jumps up and down, while brandishing his battle-axe in one hand, and with the other throwing it up behind his long floating head-dress; on a second one, a warrior dances before a suspended sword, and, says M. Henri Martin, he is evidently repeating the invocation:—
  “O sword, O great chief of the battle-field! O sword, O great king!”
  This, it is obvious, would cast us back into plain paganism. At least it is certain that the language of the last seven stanzas is still older than that of the other twelve. As for its form, the entire piece is regularly alliterated from one end to the other, like the songs of the primitive bards; and like them, is subject to the law of ternary rhythm. I have no need to draw notice to what a clashing of meeting weapons it recalls to the ear, and what a strident blast the melody breathes.

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