Celtic Literatures


CELTIC LITERATURES, are literatures in the traditional languages of the insular Celts, including Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. (Breton is considered an insular Celtic language because the Brythons, who spoke it, originally lived in England before the AngloSaxon invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries forced them to flee to France.) We have no remains of continental Celtic literature. However, our knowledge of the art and national character of the continental Celts, as described by ancient Greek and Latin writers, suggests that in many respects continental Celtic literature must have resembled that of the insular Celts.

The chief characteristics of Celtic literature are as follows:

(1) The Celtic peoples stand almost alone in that they used prose for epic narrative and reserved the verse form for lyric poetry. When the French Arthurian epics became known to the Welsh, they were changed from verse to prose; and the prose form of the Teutonic sagas and French romances is the result of Celtic influence.

(2) Although there is relatively little Celtic drama, the prose epics are often interspersed with dialogues in verse.

(3) Celtic poetry is frequendy deficient in the architectonic quality, in the sense of structural unity. The poets do not seem to have the ability to produce large, continuous compositions, but devote their attention to harmonious detail. In the longer poems or tales, image is added to image, fancy piled on fancy, but we feel the want of any organic progression of thought and feeling. Celtic poets are masters of detail rather than of the whole, just as Celtic artists were masters in decoration and craftsmanship but with few exceptions, such as Irish illumination, did not produce great representative works of art.

(4) Celtic devotion to detail explains why, in so many beautiful poems, we do not have elaborate or sustained description but rather a succession of impressionistic pictures and images. To the poets the halfsaid thing is dearest; they avoid the obvious and the commonplace. A thousand years later this “impressionism” would be rediscovered in France; that it happened on old Celtic soil is certainly no mere coincidence. The Celts are distinguished anıong the IndoEuropean peoples by high mental excitability accompanied by quickness and mobility of thought. Also their language shows more of a tendency to break tiıought into small parts than does any other IndoEuropean language.

(5) Celtic nature poetry stands quite alone in medieval European literature. Nowhere else do we find such a sensitiveness to nature’s various moods and such a capacity for bringing human moods into relation with those of nature. Celtic nature poetry is sentimental and highly imaginative, but never rationalistic. Often nature is described with a loving fîdelity that has no object but itself.

(6) The irrational plays a far greater part in Celtic literature than in other literatures. Celtic literature is full of tales of magic and the supernatural; the distinction between natural and supernatural has not yet been clearly drawn. Dreams and visions belonged to the stock of the poet’s repertoire, and even today some of the folk stories are actual daydreams. The Celtic storyteller had a vastly greater power of imagination and a much more subtle sense of the uncanny than the storyteller in other European countries. The fantastic exaggeration found in early epic tales was sometimes done for the fun of the thing, but by no means for this reason alone. The strong sense for the irrational was also a characteristic of continental Celtic art.

(7) Though the Celts appear in their literature as warlike people, gay and sensuous, fond of bright colors and eager for life, there is, after ali, a vestige of truth in the myth of the “Celtic twilight,” in which the Celts appeared to the rest of Europe as a result of the forgeries of the Scottish poet James Macpherson (q.v.) in the middle of the 18th century. In the earliest Celtic poems we occasionally find an intense, passionate yearning for that which is not possessed, for dead friends, for vanished youth, for the satisfaction that life can never give. But those elegies form merely a small part of the early Celtic literature. Only in modern times has the tragic fate of the Celts, who have struggled to maintain their identity as peoples, caused a change in their outlook. Political persecution and social depression could not be without effect upon the literary production.

(8) While poets of other nations usually endeavor to transiate the remote into terms of the present, Celtic poets invariably depict the remote as remote, producing in this way the sense of mystery and atmosphere of glamour found in so many Celtic romances.

Irish Gaelic Literature. This division of the Celtic literatures is treated in a separate article under the heading Gaelic Literature.

Scottish Gaelic Literature. The Scots, who came from Ireland to Scotland in the 6th century, long spoke the same Gaelic as their relatives in Ireland. Gradually, in the Scottish Highlands and the western islands a Scottish Gaelic oral language began to diverge from classical Irish Gaelic, and a rich oral literature developed. The ballads, mostly derived from older prose stories, are concerned chiefly with the deeds of the Irish heroes Fionn Mac Cumhail (see Fionn Mac Cumhail), who is called Fingal in Scotland, Oism (Ossian), and Oscar, members of the Fenians, a band of warriors who are often represented as fighting invaders from overseas. Since about the 12th century, Vikings often take the place of older, supernatural foes. No less interesting than the Ossianic ballads (and far more important to the folklorists) are the numerous charms and incantations collected by Alexander Carmichael in his immortal Carmina Gadelica (2d ed., 19281942).

Until the beginning of the 18th century, however, the literary language of the Scottish Highlands and the western islands continued to be the Gaelic of Ireland. The classical Gaelic poetry is the same in both countries. The subjects treated are about identical, since the literature of Scotland in its earlier stages drew its inspiration and themes from the motherland. The official poets and men of learning attached to the chiefs of Scottish clans went to Ireland for their bardic training. The family bards occupied an honored position in the Scottish social system; they kept alive the pride of race and ministered to it, especially by panegyrics.

We get the first glimpse of a special Scottish Gaelic literary tradition in an old ând precious collection of poems known as the Book of the Dean of Lismore, written between 1512 and 1529 and collected by Sir James Macgregor, dean of Lismore in Argyll. Though the subject matter of the poems does not differ much from the contemporary Irish literature, the curious phonetic orthography and stylistic peculiarities enable us to form a fair idea of the dialects spoken in Scotland. The rnost important part of the collection consists of 28 Ossianic ballads. Thus the dean’s book gives clear evidence that already at that time Ossianic poetry was recited and known in Gaelic Scotland and that it was very similar to the type known from later tradition. The use of the ballad for epic purpose originally was foreign to the Celtic poetic genius; no doubt its adoption was the result of Viking influence in both Ireland and Scotland.

Toward the close of the 16th century, owing to the decline of the trained professional poets and of the bardic organization, a new school of poets arose. The complicated syllabic meters of classical Gaelic were abandoned, and new meters came into existence. This modern poetry was usually regulated by stress, each line having a fixed number of stressed syllables—in other words, a certain rhythm. The foremost representatives of this new mode were Mary Macleod (called in Gaelic, Mairi Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh) and John Macdonald (Iain Lom).

More than 130 poets are mentioned between 1645 and 1830, many of them men of really great ability. Their language was the current Scottish Gaelic of their day. While the classic poetry was addressed to the aristocracy, the modern poetry was addressed to the people. The greatest original genius was Alexander Macdonald (Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair), who struck an entirely new note in Scottish Gaelic literature. In his descriptive poems he gave an expression to an intimate love of nature, similar to that found in early Irish lyrics. In 1741 he published the first Scottish Gaelic vocabulary, which was the first book printed in Scottish Gaelic. Other poets of great merit were Duncan Ban Maclntyre (Donnachadh Ban) and the great satirist Robert Mackay, called Rob Donn. The most outstanding writer of hymns and sacred poems was Dugald Buchanan. The poets of the new school were born, not made. Their poetry is spontaneous; it has the notes of freedom and sincerity, and great beauty of form; the style is direct and clear. The poets delight in manly vigor and beauty, in prowess in war and the hunt, in singing of festivity and of music. There is no trace of “Celtic mysticism” or of “Celtic gloom,” not even in the lyrical outburst that followed the Fortyfive (the Jacobite uprising against the English in 1745), when the Gaelic people of Scotland were left dependent on a foreign—and to them distasteful—cultuıe. The dominant note in such poetry is emphatic personal loyalty to their beloved prince. In the dawn of the 19th century every district in the Highlands stili had its native poet; today few bards of high reputation are left.

James Macpherson, the wellknown forger of Ossianic ballads, does not occupy a place among the classical Gaelic poets, because his Gaelic texts are mere retranslations from the English and are full of offenses against idiom, being written in an unnaturally strained language. Yet he was an AngloCeltic poet of real genius and, after ali, an heir to the ancient Celtic bards. Though his overfiowing sentimentality corresponds rather to the general tendency of the early romantic movement than to the Celtic character, there is a decided Gaelic atmosphere in his work, and his sentimental nature poetry is doubtless an old Celtic heritage. His great mission was to make people aware of the existence of Celtic tradition, and the Ossianic revival led to the diligent collection of Ossianic poetry in the Highlands and the Western islands. Efforts such as these were of lasting importance in the salvation of this tradition from oblivion.

Unfortunately there is not much Scottish Gaelic prose literature worth mentioning. The whole Gaelic Bible appeared in 1807; the earlier editions of 1767 and 1783 show too much Irish influence. But we have a great amount of valuable Gaelic folk tales published (see Bibliography), not to mention various collections of proverbs.

Manx Literature. There is no early literature extant in Manx. Of the many Ossianic poems known among the Manx people, only one fragment (and that possibly of an earlier period) has been preserved. Most of the existing literature of native origin consists of ballads and carols, locally called carvels. Only a small part of these has been published. There is, in addition, a fair amount of folklore, tales, and proverbs.

Literature translated into Manx is almost entirely religious. The earliest book known to have been written in Manx is a translation of the Book of Common Prayer, written between 1625 and 1630 (but published only in 1895). The first printed book is The Principles and Duties of Christianity (1699) by Bishop Thomas Wilson. The complete Old Testament appeared in 1772, and the New Testament appeared in 1775.

Among nonreligious translations may be mentioned a paraphrase of portions of Milton’s Paradise Lost by Thomas Christian (1794) and Aesop’s Fables by Edmund Faragher (1901).

Welsh Literature. The oral folk culture of Wales goes back to Megalithic times. Early Welsh written poetry is found mainly in four manuscripts commonly called The Four Arıcient Books of Wales, namely the Black Book of Carmarthen, the Book of Aneirin, the Book of Taliesin, and the Red Book of Hergest, ali written after the close of the 12th century. Most of the poems in these manuscripts are attributed to four poets: Aneirin, Taliesin, Myrddin (the Merlin of romance), and Llywarch Hen, who are ali called cynfeirdd (early poets). Metrically their work shows the main characteristics of Welsh syllabic verse. The rhythmic effect is attained chiefly by the use of internal rhynıe and consonantal correspondences. The first three poets belong to the “Men of the North,” the British tribes who, until the mid7th century, owned the south of Scotland and the northeast of England. The Gododin (Gododdin) of Aneirin, a poem on the Battle of Catraeth (probably modern Catterick), about 600 a. d., is not a narrative poem, but rather a succession of lyrical laments on the disastrous effects of the battle. Though largely modemized, the Gododin and several historical poems attributed to Taliesin show distinct traces of direct copying from a 9th century original. It has been claimed on internal evidence that the Gododin is actually the work of Aneirin (c.600). The Myrddin poems, as well as his name, are late and spurious. Llywarch Hen is not the author of the poSms attributed to him, but merely the chief character of a lost saga, produced about 850 in Pöwys or midWa!es. The poems are steeped in magic and have a prevailingly elegiac quality.

The next period, that of the gogynfeirdd (rather early poets), from about 1150 to 1350, is the time of the bardic court poetry. The bards were court ofRcials with closely defined duties and recognized privileges. Their teııdency to preserve the exclusiveness of their caste by multiplying the dıfficulties of their craft led to an exaggerated formalism and the substitution of verbal ingenuity for passion and imagination. Yet their poetry often succeeded in expressing not systematically but rather by suggestion the whole range of their emotions. Noun is piled on noun and adjective on adjective, so that one must feel their poetry rather than understand it.

The father of modern Welsh poetry is the 14th century Dafydd (Davydd) ap Gwilym, the greatest poet produced by Wales. He broke the tyranny of the bardic schools and freed poetic language from the fetters of conventional archaic diction by writing in the ordinary language of his educated countrymen. He introduced popular fresh themes and established the new metrical form called cytoydd. His love poems are derived from Provençal poetry through the channels opened by the clerici vagantes (wandering seholars), but are far more realistic. The highest summit of his poetic art he attains, however, in his nature poems.

Unfortunately the authority of the bardic schools soon reestablished the old formal strictness, though the cyıoydd remained and flourished. After centuries of decline the bardic organization fînally collapsed. The Calvinistic Methodism of the 18th century, which produced masterpieces of hymnology, and the literary renascence that was in strong opposition to Methodism, led to an extraordinary outburst of poetry. Here belongs Ceiriog (pen name of John Ceiriog Hughes), one of the chief lyric poets of Wales.

From about 1850 the accentual free meters gained more and more ground. The socalled new poet school was inaugurated by Sir John MorrisJones with his excellent translations from Heine. W. J. Gruffydd, one of the first to revolt against the prevailing puritanism, wrote poems of singular beauty. T. Gwynn Jones showed that the old tradition could answer to any demand that was made upon it. His translation of Goethe’s Faust is a masterpiece.

R. Williams Parry and Cynan are among the best contemporary poets. Modern Welsh lyrical poetry occupies an honorable place among the literatures of the great nations of Europe.

A gift for gnomic poetry and a fondness for the epigram have been characteristic of Welsh literature since the 12th century. There are hundreds of examples of the englıjn (a fourline stanza), many of them comparable to the Greek epigram at its best. Among the countless folk songs must be mentioned the anonymous penhillion (stanzas for singing to the harp), often quite heartrending in their perfect simplicity. In these, as in many other poems of the 19th century, we find for the first time a note of melancholy, that “nostalgia of the infînite” resulting from the hopeless social conditions and the influence of Calvinistic theology, which has often been quite wrongly ascribed to the Celts as such.

There was no Welsh drama until the 19th century, when this genre made a promising start. The interludes, or miracle plays, of Twm o’r Nant in the 18th century hardly deserve that name.

Welsh prose begins with the Lavos of Hoıvel (Hyıvel) Dda (lOth century). The vast body of Arthurian legend was widely known on the Ğontinent even before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Latin between 1135 and 1139 the Historıj of the Kings of Britain. The sources of the Arthurian verse epics of the 12th century French poet Chretien de Troyes must have been Welsh and Cornish documents as well as spoken narratives. The earliest attempt at turning prose to artistic purposes is found in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, preserved in the White Book of Rhydderch written in the late 13th or early 14th century. The first four tales (forming the Mabinogion proper) preserve old British mythical traditions, partly influenced by Irish mythology; the others are old British tales referring to Roman times, British Arthurian tales, and translations or adaptations of Norman French originals. The translation of the Welsh Bible (1588) laid the foundation for modern Welsh prose. The 19th century novels of Daniel Owen are not much inferior to the work of Dickens. In the 20th century the short stories of Kate Roberts and the novels of T. Rowland Hughes are real works of genius.

More is printed in Welsh—in books, papers, and magazines—than in ali the other Celtic languages together. Methodism has saved the Welsh language but has killed much of the old folk culture of Wales.

Cornish Literature. Though the preserved remains of nonreligious literature in Cornish are very scanty, there must have existed a large number of old Celtic legends in Cornwall during the Middle Ages. Arthur’s treacherous nephew Modret bears a purely Cornish name; in the story of Arthur, Cornwall plays a very important part. Similarly the topography of the Tristan saga in the sources of the AngloNorman writer Beroul is predominantly Cornish. The form of many Celtic names in the French epics shows that they must have been derived from written Cornish and Welsh sources. There cannot be much doubt that the world owes to Cornwall and Wales the “Matter of Britain.” Owing to Norman Conquest, Cornwall (where the French encountered a Celtic population dominated by an English aristocracy) grew to be a trilingual country, so that it is probably to Cornwall and not to Brittany that wc owc the transmission of the Celtic legends to the Continent.

Unfortunately the only nonreligious literary remains are a few Cornish conversations, some songs, proverbs, and epigrams, and a folk tale, the story of John of ChyanHur (The Ram s Home), the plot of which is well known in Ireland and elsewhere. Apart from a long poem on the Passion, the religious literature consists chiefly of mystery plays of learned origin, imitated from English sources. There are also fragments of translations, such as chapters of Scripture, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Commandments. During the Reformation neither the Book of Common Prayer nor the Scriptures were translated into Cornish; and when the Methodist movement came, it was too late. Some enthusiasts lately have attempted a kind of revival of Cornish, which has produced some fine lyrics and a mystery play.

Breton Literature. The earliest piece of connected Breton has been preserved in a manuseript of the 14th century. It seems to be a fragment of a love song, similar to the contemporary French chansonette. No other examples of the rich Breton poetry of the Middle Ages have been preserved. The earliest Breton printed work, a BretonLatinFrench dictionary, the Catholıcon by Jean Lagadeuc, was published in 1499. French seems to have been the language of the aristocracy and the medium ofculture; hence the oldest texts are either translated or imitated from French. The early literature is almost exclusively religious, such as The Hours (1486) and The Mirror of Death (1519).

The bulk of Breton literature before the 19th century consists of mystery and miracle plays. Brittany is the only Celtic land where the theater, though not of native growth and only introduced from France, has met with an immense popular favor. Upwards of 150 Breton mystery plays are known to exist. The oldest, the Life of S t. Nonn, belongs to the end of the 15th century and is modeled on a Latin version. The mysteries are adaptations mostly from French or Latin and are full of French words. From the 18th century we also find plays dealing with romances of chivalry, such as the Tragedy of the Four S ons of Aymon (of which no less than 15,000 copies were sold), Huon de Bordeaux, and Robert the Devil. Their subject matter is likewise taken from French sources, and their chief interest lies in the fact they are the last creations of the theater of the Middle Ages.

Only the 19th century brought an original Breton literature. The movement was led by Jean François Le Gonidec, the author of the first Breton translation of the Bible (1868), the first scientific Breton grammar, Grammaire celtobretonne (1807), and an excellent dictionary (1821). Ardent patriots endeavored to create a national literature. At about the same time, the attention of the whole world of letters was direeted to Brittany, when Hersart de la Villemarque (18151895) published his famous collection Barzaz Breiz (The Poetry of Brittany) in 1839. The work gave rise to a protracted and heated discussion, which is almost as famous as that caused by Macpherson’s Ossian forgeries. Today we know that Villemarque transformed the material that he had collected, eliminating anything that he believed to be crude and gross. He transferred modern poems to medieval times, rearranged others, and composed some himself. But at least hc had a fluent command of Breton, and his book is not only a great and really beautiful work of art, but also linguistically much superior to that of Macpherson. Just as in Scotland, Villemarques poems gave the signal for a serious study of the popular Breton ballads, legends, and folk tales that form the real literature of Brittany. The most famous collections we owe to F. M. Luzel and Anatole Le Braz.

It is usual to divide popular Breton poetry into gtoerziou and soniou. The gıverziou (complaints) are short ballads or complaints, village tales in verse of a highly dramatic quality and usually of tragic interest. The soniou (songs) consist of love songs, satires, carols, and sailors’ songs, and sometimes show traces of French influence. Breton folk tales and legends are extremely valuable from the folkloristic point of view and show some very archaic traits. In 1839 there also appeared Kanaouennou eur C’hernewad (Poems of a Man from Cornouailles) ‘the first book by Prosper Proux, one of the few original Breton poets of the 19th century. Another great poet of that time was Auguste Brizeux, author of T elen Arvor (The Harp of Brittany).

An important new literary movement in the 20th century was inaugurated by linguistic specialists including such men as Emile Ernault, François Vallee (Abherve), and Rene le Roux (Meven Mordiern). In 1918 there came into being a small circle of intellectual writers, whose work found expression in the pages of the journal Gıoalarn (Northwest), which appeared from 1925 to 1944 and was continued from 1946 as AZ Liamm (Bond). In 1921 appeared W ar an Daoıdin (A Genom), a small volume of poetry by Jean Pierre Calloc’h, written in the Vannes dialect and fumished with a French translation. This poetry is mystic and Catholic and completely free from the platitudes of Calloc’h’s contemporaries. Thence a new poetry came into existence, worthy of the best that other countries have produced. Among the younger poets may be mentioned Xavier de Langlais, Maodez Glanndour, and Roparz Hemon. Some of the finest examples of Celtic nature poetry are found among the poems of Roperzh Er Mason, Chal ha Dichal (Flood and Ebb Tide).

Other new developments in Breton literature were short stories and novels by Jakez Riou, Roparz Hemon, Kenan Kongar, and Youenn Drezen.

A modem theater was created by Tangi Malmanche, Xavier de Langlais, and Roparz Hemon. Some of their work almost equals that of the AngloIrish poets such as Yeats and Synge. The patriotic efforts of ali those idealists is the more to.be admired because they had no help whatever from any official circles. The French government was very hostile to ali their efforts and refused to tolerate the Breton language either in public schools or in public institutions, fearing a resurgence of the centuriesold Breton separatist movement.

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