Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Celtic Literature
IV. Cornish
Critical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905) and Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
THE LITERATURE of a single county of England is not likely to be very extensive, and when that literature and its language died for good and all, a century ago, it becomes still more limited. Until the reign of Henry VIII., though for some time English had been very generally spoken throughout the county, the old Celtic Cornish, holding a middle position, philologically as well as geographically, between Welsh and Breton, was the mother tongue of at any rate the peasantry as far east as the Tamar. The great ecclesiastical revolution of that period helped to destroy it. Neither prayer-book nor Bible was translated into it; and though the ardently Catholic Cornish at first would have none of the former, saying that it was “but like a Christmas game,” they were overruled by the forcible argument of “apostolick blows and knocks,” and had to submit. Then the language receded rapidly. By the time of the Great Rebellion Truro was its eastern limit; early in the eighteenth century only the two western claw-like promontories retained it; and though Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1778, was not really the last person who spoke it, it was dead before the present century was born. A few traditional sentences, the numerals up to twenty, and some stray words lingered on until our own day,—twenty years ago the present writer took down a fair collection from the mouths of ancient mariners in Mount’s Bay,—and a few words are still mixed with the local dialect of English. But as a language Cornish is dead, though its ghost still haunts its old dwelling in the names of villages, houses, woods, valleys, wells, and rocks, from Tamar to Penwith.  1
  As may be expected, a great proportion of the literature is in verse, and most of that is in dramatic form. So little is there that an exhaustive list of what survives is quite possible. It is as follows:—  2
  1. The Poem of the Passion. A versified account of the Passion of our Lord, recounting the events from Palm Sunday to Easter, with the addition of many legendary incidents from the Gospel of Nicodemus and other similar sources. The earliest MS. (in the British Museum) is of the fifteenth century, which is probably the date of its composition. It has been twice printed, once by Davies Gilbert, with a translation by John Keigwin in 1826, and by Dr. Whitley Stokes in 1862.  3
  2. The Ordinalia. Three connected dramas, known collectively under this title. The first recounts the Creation and the history of the world as far as Noah’s Flood. The second act of this gives the story of Moses and of David and the Building of Solomon’s Temple, ending with the curiously incongruous episode of the martyrdom of St. Maximilla, as a Christian, by the bishop placed in charge of the Temple of Solomon. The second play represents the life of our Lord from the Temptation to the Crucifixion, and this goes on without a break into the third play, which gives the story of the Resurrection and Ascension, and the legend of the death of Pilate. The connecting link between the three is the legend of the wood of the cross. This well-known story, most of which is interwoven with the whole trilogy, is as follows:—Seth was sent by his dying father to beg the promised Oil of Mercy to save him; the angel who guarded Paradise gave him three seeds, or, according to the play, apple-pips; and when he returned and found his father already dead, he placed them in Adam’s mouth and buried him on Mount Moriah. In process of time the three seeds grew into three trees, and from them Abraham gathered the wood for the sacrifice of Isaac, and Moses got his rod wherewith he smote the sea and the rock. Later the three trees, to symbolize the Trinity, grew into one tree, and David sat under it to bewail his sin. But Solomon cut it down to make a beam for the Temple, and since it would in no wise fit into any place, he cast it out and set it as a bridge over Cedron. Later on he buried it, and from the place where it lay there sprang the healing spring of Bethesda, to the surface of which it miraculously floated up, and the Jews found it and made of it the Cross of Calvary.  4
  These plays were probably written in the fifteenth century, perhaps by one of the priests of Glazeney College near Falmouth, and were acted with others that are now lost in the places called Planan-Guare (the Plain of the Play), of which several still remain. The ‘Ordinalia’ were published with a translation by Edwin Norris in 1859.  5
  3. The Creation of the World, with Noah’s Flood, was a modernized version of the first act of the first of the ‘Ordinalia’ trilogy. It was written by William Jordan of Helston in 1611; but the author has borrowed whole passages of considerable length from the older play. The language represents a later period of Cornish, and occasionally several lines of English are introduced. Perhaps by a natural Celtic antipathy to the Saxon, these are generally put into the mouths of Lucifer and his angels, who furnish a good deal of the comic part of the piece. This play was published by Davies Gilbert in 1827, and by Dr. Whitley Stokes in 1864.  6
  4. The Life of St. Meriasek. This play, written in 1504, is perhaps the most interesting of the batch. The story at least of the others contains nothing very new to most people, but St. Meriasek or Meriadoc (to give him his Breton name), the patron of Camborne, is not a well-known character, and his life, full as it is of allusions and incidents of a misty period of Cornish history, is most curious and interesting. It is not perhaps simplified by being mixed up in the wildest manner with the legend of Constantine and St. Sylvester, and the scenes shift about from Cornwall or Brittany to Rome, and from the fourth to the Heaven-knows-what century, with bewildering frequency. There are also certain other legends interwoven with the story, and it seems probable that at least three plays have been, as Dr. Whitley Stokes expresses it, “unskillfully pieced together.” Yet there are many passages of considerable literary merit. The only existing MS. of this play is in the Hengwrt collection at Peniarth, and it was edited and translated by Dr. Stokes in 1872.  7
  5. There were probably many other plays which have perished, but one other there certainly was, of which a fragment exists. What it was called or what it was about no one knows, but an actor in it, setting about to learn his own part in it, wrote that short piece of thirty-six lines on the back of a title-deed of some land in the parish of St. Stephen, near Bodmin. The deed drifted eventually into the British Museum, and the present writer discovered the Cornish verses on it, not wholly by accident, about nineteen years ago. The writing belongs to the latter part of the fourteenth century, and is therefore the earliest literary fragment of the language.  8
  6. The rest of the literature of the Cornish language consists of a few songs, epigrams, mottoes, proverbs, and the like, a short dissertation on the language, and the tale of ‘John of Chy-an-Hur,’ a widely known folk-tale. These are mostly in the latest form of Cornish, and are contained in the MS. collection of William Gwavas in the British Museum and in that of Dr. Borlase, until lately in the possession of his descendants. Most of them have been printed by Davies Gilbert (with the play of the ‘Creation’), by William Pryce in the ‘Archæologia Cornu-Britannica’ in 1790, by Mr. W. C. Borlase in the Transactions of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, and in a fragmentary way in a few other places. They are mostly translations or adaptations from the English, but a few, such as the rather doggerel ‘Pilchard Fishing Song,’ are originals. Lastly, in the Church of St. Paul, near Penzance, there is the one solitary epitaph in the language; written while it was still just alive, and perhaps the last composition in it.  9
  [The versions given of these specimens of Cornish literature are founded on those of Dr. Whitley Stokes and Dr. E. Norris. The phraseology has been to some extent altered, but the renderings are almost all the same.]  10

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.