Essay on Welsh Poetry

There is certainly a reason for at least suggesting to those who concern themselves, for good or evil, with Celtic literature, what Celtic literature really is when it is finest; what a ‘reaction against the despotism of fact’ really means; what ‘natural magic’ really means, and why the phrase ‘Celtic glamour’ is perhaps the most unfortunate that could well have been chosen to express the character of a literature which is above all things precise, concrete, definite.

Lamartine, in the preface to the Méditations, describes the characteristics of Ossian, very justly, as le vague, la rêverie, l’anéantissement dans la contemplation, le regard fixé sur des apparitions confuses dans le lointain; and it is those very qualities, still looked upon by so many as the typically Celtic qualities, which prove the spuriousness of Ossian. That gaze fixed on formless and distant shadows, that losing of oneself in contemplation, that vague dreaminess, which Lamartine admired in Ossian, will be found nowhere in the Black Book of Carmarthen, in the Book of Taliesin, in the Red Book of Hergest, however much a doubtful text, uncertain readings, and confusing commentators may leave us in uncertainty as to the real meaning of many passages. Just as the true mystic is the man who sees obscure things clearly, so the Welsh poets (whom I take for the moment as representing the ‘Celtic note,’ the quality which we find in the work of primitive races) saw everything in the universe, the wind itself, under the images of mortality, hands and feet and the ways and motions of men. They filled human life with the greatness of their imagination, they ennobled it with the pride of their expectancy of noble things, they were boundless in praising and in cursing; but poetical excitement, in them, only taught them the amplitude and splendour of real things. A chief is an eagle, a serpent, the bull of battle, an oak; he is the strength of the ninth wave, an uplifted pillar of wrath, impetuous as the fire through a chimney; the ruddy reapers of war are his desire. The heart of Cyndyllan was like the ice of winter, like the fire of spring; the horses of Geraint are ruddy ones, with the assault of spotted eagles, of black eagles, of red eagles, of white eagles; an onset in battle is like the roaring of the wind against the ashen spears. These poets are the poets of ‘tumults, shouting, swords, and men in battle-array.’ The sound of battle is heard in them; they are ‘where the ravens screamed over blood’; they are among ‘crimsoned hair and clamorous sorrow’; they praise ‘war with the shining wing,’ and they know all the piteousness of the death of heroes, the sense of the ‘delicate white body,’ ‘the lovely, slender, blood-stained body,’ that will be covered with earth, and sand, and stones, and nettles, and the roots of the oak. They know too the piteousness of the hearth left desolate, the hearth that will be covered with nettles, and slender brambles, and thorns, and dock-leaves, and scratched up by fowls, and turned up by swine. And they praise the gentleness of strength and courage: ‘he was gentle, with a hand eager for battle.’ Women are known chiefly as the widows and the ‘sleepless’ mothers of heroes; rarely so much esteemed as to be a snare, rarely a desire, rarely a reward; ‘a soft herd.’ They praise drunkenness for its ecstasy, its uncalculating generosity, and equal with the flowing of blood in battle, and the flowing of mead in the hall, is the flowing of song. They have the haughtiness of those who, if they take rewards, ‘ale for the drinking, and a fair homestead, and beautiful clothing,’ give rewards: ‘I am Taliesin, who will repay thee thy banquet.’

And they have their philosophy, always a close, vehemently definite thing, crying out for precise images, by which alone it can apprehend the unseen. Taliesin knows that ‘man is oldest when he is born, and is younger and younger continually.’ He wonders where man is when he is sleeping, and where the night waits until the passing of day. He is astonished that books have not found out the soul, and where it resides, and the air it breathes, and its form and shape. He thinks, too, of the dregs of the soul, and debates what is the best intoxication for its petulance and wonder and mockery. And, in a poem certainly late, or interpolated with fragments of a Latin hymn, he uses the eternal numeration of the mystics, and speaks of ‘the nine degrees of the companies of heaven, and the tenth, saints a preparation of sevens’; numbers that are ‘clean and holy.’ And even in poems plainly Christian there is a fine simplicity of imagination; as when, at the day of judgment, an arm reaches out, and hides the sea and the stars; or when Christ, hanging on the cross, laments that the bones of his feet are stretched with extreme pain.

It is this sharp physical apprehension of things that really gives its note to Welsh poetry; a sense of things felt and seen, so intense, that the crutch on which an old man leans becomes the symbol of all the bodily sorrow of the world. In the poem attributed to Llywarch Hen there is a fierce, loud complaint, in which mere physical sickness and the intolerance of age translate themselves into a limitless hunger, and into that wisdom which is the sorrowful desire of beauty. The cuckoos at Aber Cuawg, singing ‘clamorously’ to the sick man: ‘there are that hear them that will not hear them again!’ the sound of the large wave grating sullenly on the pebbles,—

The birds are clamorous; the strand is wet:
Clear is the sky; large the wave:
The heart is palsied with longing:

all these bright, wild outcries, in which wind and wave and leaves and the song of the cuckoo speak the same word, as if all came from the same heart of things; and, through it all, the remembrance: ‘God will not undo what he is doing’; have indeed, and supremely, the ‘Celtic note.’ ‘I love the strand, but I hate the sea,’ says the Black Book of Carmarthen, and in all these poems we find a more than mediæval hatred of winter and cold (so pathetic, yet after all so temperate, in the Latin students’ songs), with a far more unbounded hatred of old age and sickness and the disasters which are not bred in the world, but are a blind part of the universe itself; older than the world, as old as chaos, out of which the world was made.

Yet, wild and sorrowful as so much of this poetry is, with its praise of slaughter and its lament over death, there is much also of a gentle beauty, a childlike saying over of wind and wave and the brightness in the tops of green things, as a child counts over its toys. In the ‘Song of Pleasant Things’ there is no distinction between the pleasantness of sea-gulls playing, of summer and slow long days, of the heath when it is green, of a horse with a thick mane in a tangle, and of ‘the word that utters the Trinity.’ ‘The beautiful I sang of, I will sing,’ says Taliesin; and with him the seven senses become in symbol ‘fire and earth, and water and air, and mist and flowers, and southerly wind.’ And touches of natural beauty come irrelevantly into the most tragical places, like the ‘sweet apple-tree of delightful branches’ in that song of battles and of the coming of madness, where Myrddin says: ‘I have been wandering so long in darkness and among spirits that it is needless now for darkness and spirits to lead me astray.’ The same sense of the beauty of earth and of the elements comes into those mysterious riddle-rhymes, not so far removed from the riddle-rhymes which children say to one another in Welsh cottages to this day: ‘I have been a tear in the air, I have been the dullest of stars; I was made of the flower of nettles, and of the water of the ninth wave; I played in the twilight, I slept in purple; my fingers are long and white, it is long since I was a herdsman.’

And now, after looking at these characteristics of Welsh poetry, look at Ossian, and that ‘gaze fixed on formless and distant shadows,’ which seemed so impressive and so Celtic to Lamartine. ‘In the morning of Saturday,’ or ‘On Sunday, at the time of dawn, there was a great battle’; that is how the Welsh poet tells you what he had to sing about. And he tells you, in his definite way, more than that; he tells you: ‘I have been where the warriors were slain, from the East to the North, and from the East to the South: I am alive, they are in their graves!’ It is human emotion reduced to its elements; that instinct of life and death, of the mystery of all that is tangible in the world, of its personal meaning, to one man after another, age after age, which in every age becomes more difficult to feel simply, more difficult to say simply. ‘I am alive, they are in their graves!’ and nothing remains to be said in the face of that immense problem. Well, the Welsh poet leaves you with his thought, and that simple emphasis of his seems to us now so large and remote and impressive, just because it was once so passionately felt, and set down as it was felt. And so with his sense for nature, with that which seems like style in him; it is a wonderful way of trusting instinct, of trusting the approaches of natural things. He says, quite simply: ‘I was told by a sea-gull that had come a great way,’ as a child would tell you now. And when he tells you that ‘Cynon rushed forward with the green dawn,’ it is not what we call a figure of speech: it is his sensitive, literal way of seeing things. More definite, more concrete, closer to the earth and to instinctive emotion than most other poets, the Welsh poet might have said of himself, in another sense than that in which he said it of Alexander: ‘What he desired in his mind he had from the world.

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