CHAPTER II. LITERATURE A TEACHER OF HISTORY. CELTIC REMAINS.
The Uses of Literature. Italy, France, England. Purpose of the Work.
Celtic Literary Remains. Druids and Druidism. Roman Writers. Psalter of
Cashel. Welsh Triads and Mabinogion. Gildas and St. Colm.
THE USES OF LITERATURE.
Before examining these periods in order to find the literature produced in them, it will be well to consider briefly what are the practical uses of literature, and to set forth, as a theme, that particular utility which it is the object of these pages to inculcate and apply.
The uses of literature are manifold. Its study gives wholesome food to the mind, making it strong and systematic. It cultivates and delights the imagination and the taste of men. It refines society by elevating the thoughts and aspirations above what is sensual and sordid, and by checking the grosser passions; it makes up, in part, that “multiplication of agreeable consciousness” which Dr. Johnson calls happiness. Its adaptations in religion, in statesmanship, in legislative and judicial inquiry, are productive of noble and beneficent results. History shows us, that while it has given to the individual man, in all ages, contemplative habits, and high moral tone, it has thus also been a powerful instrument in producing the brilliant civilization of mighty empires.
A TEACHER OF HISTORY.—But apart from these its subjective benefits, it has its highest and most practical utility as a TEACHER OF HISTORY. Ballads, more powerful than laws, shouted forth from a nation's heart, have been in part the achievers, and afterward the victorious hymns, of its new-born freedom, and have been also used in after ages to reinspire the people with the spirit of their ancestors. Immortal epics not only present magnificent displays of heroism for imitation, but, like the Iliad and Odyssey, still teach the theogony, national policy, and social history of a people, after the Bema has long been silent, the temples in ruin, and the groves prostrate under the axe of repeated conquests.
Satires have at once exhibited and scourged social faults and national follies, and remained to after times as most essential materials for history.
Indeed, it was a quaint but just assertion of Hare, in his “Guesses at Truth,” that in Greek history there is nothing truer than Herodotus except Homer.
ITALY AND FRANCE.—Passing by the classic periods, which afford abundant illustration of the position, it would be easy to exhibit the clear and direct historic teachings in purely literary works, by a reference to the literature of Italy and France. The history of the age of the Guelphs and Ghibellines is clearly revealed in the vision of Dante: the times of Louis XIV. are amply illustrated by the pulpit of Massillon, Bourdaloue, and Bridaine, and by the drama of Corneille, Racine, and Moliere.
ENGLISH LITERATURE THE BEST ILLUSTRATION.—But in seeking for an illustration of the position that literature is eminently a teacher and interpreter of history, we are fortunate in finding none more striking than that presented by English literature itself. All the great events of English history find complete correspondent delineation in English literature, so that, were the purely historical record lost, we should have in the works of poetry, fiction, and the drama, correct portraitures of the character, habits, manners and customs, political sentiments, and modes and forms of religious belief among the English people; in a word, the philosophy of English history.
In the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Dryden, and Addison, are to be found the men and women, kings, nobles, and commons, descriptions of English nature, hints of the progress of science and advancement in art; the conduct of government, the force of prevailing fashions—in a word, the moving life of the time, and not its dry historic record.
“Authors,” says the elder D'Israeli, “are the creators or creatures of opinion: the great form the epoch; the many reflect the age.” Chameleon-like, most of them take the political, social, and religious hues of the period in which they live, while a few illustrate it perhaps quite as forcibly by violent opposition and invective.
We shall see that in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and in Gower's Vox Clamantis are portrayed the political ferments and theological controversies of the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II. Spenser decks the history of his age in gilded mantle and flowing plumes, in his tribute to Gloriana, The Faery Queen, who is none other than Elizabeth herself. Literature partakes of the fierce polemic and religious enthusiasm which mark the troublous times of the Civil War; it becomes tawdry, tinselled, and licentious at the Restoration, and develops into numerous classes and more serious instruction, under the constitutional reigns of the house of Hanover, in which the kings were bad, but the nation prosperous because the rights of the people were guaranteed.
Many of the finest works of English literature are purely and directly historical; what has been said is intended to refer more particularly to those that are not—the unconscious, undesigned teachers of history, such as fiction, poetry, and the drama.
PURPOSE OF THE WORK.—Such, then, is the purpose of this volume—to indicate the teachings of history in the principal productions of English literature. Only the standard authors will be considered, and the student will not be overburdened with statistics, which it must be a part of his task to collect for himself. And now let us return to the early literature embodied in those languages which have preceded the English on British soil; or which, by their combination, have formed the English language. For, the English language may be properly compared to a stream, which, rising in a feeble source, receives in its seaward flow many tributaries, large and small, until it becomes a lordly river. The works of English literature may be considered as the ships and boats which it bears upon its bosom: near its source the craft are small and frail; as it becomes more navigable, statelier vessels are launched upon it, until, in its majestic and lakelike extensions, rich navies ride, freighted with wealth and power—the heavy ordnance of defence and attack, the products of Eastern looms, the precious metals and jewels from distant mines—the best exponents of the strength and prosperity of the nation through which flows the river of speech, bearing the treasures of mind.
CELTIC LITERARY REMAINS. THE DRUIDS.—Let us take up the consideration of literature in Britain in the order of the conquests mentioned in the first chapter.
We recur to Britain while inhabited by the Celts, both before and after the Roman occupation. The extent of influence exercised by the Latin language upon the Celtic dialects cannot be determined; it seems to have been slight, and, on the other hand, it may be safely assumed that the Celtic did not contribute much to the world-absorbing Latin.
The chief feature, and a very powerful one, of the Celtic polity, was Druidism. At its head was a priesthood, not in the present meaning of the word, but in the more extended acceptation which it received in the middle ages, when it embraced the whole class of men of letters. Although we have very few literary remains, the system, wisdom, and works of the Druids form one of the strong foundation-stones of English literature and of English national customs, and should be studied on that account. The Druid proper was governor, judge, philosopher, expounder, and executioner. The ovaidd, or ovates, were the priests, chiefly concerned in the study of theology and the practice of religion. The bards were heroic poets of rare lyric power; they kept the national traditions in trust, and claimed the second sight and the power of prophecy. Much has been said of their human sacrifices in colossal images of wicker-work—the “immani magnitudine simulacra” of Caesar—which were filled with human victims, and which crackled and disappeared in towering flame and columns of smoke, amid the loud chantings of the bards. The most that can be said in palliation of this custom is, that almost always such a scene presented the judicial execution of criminals, invested with the solemnities of religion.
In their theology, Esus, the God Force—the Eternal Father—has for his agents the personification of spiritual light, of immortality, of nature, and of heroism; Camul was the war-god; Tarann the thunder-god;Heol, the king of the sun, who inflames the soldier's heart, and gives vitality to the corn and the grape.
But Druidism, which left its monuments like Stonehenge, and its strong traces in English life, now especially found in Wales and other mountainous parts of the kingdom, has not left any written record.
ROMAN WRITERS.—Of the Roman occupancy we have Roman and Greek accounts, many of them by those who took part in the doings of the time. Among the principal writers are Julius Caesar,Tacitus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Suetonius.
PSALTER OF CASHEL.—Of the later Celtic efforts, almost all are in Latin: the oldest Irish work extant is called the Psalter of Cashel, which is a compilation of the songs of the early bards, and of metrical legends, made in the ninth century by Cormac Mac Culinan, who claimed to be King of Munster and Bishop of Cashel.
THE WELSH TRIADS.—The next of the important Celtic remains is called The Welsh Triads, an early but progressive work of the Cymbric Celts. Some of the triads are of very early date, and others of a much later period. The work is said to have been compiled in its present form by Caradoc of Nantgarvan and Jevan Brecha, in the thirteenth century. It contains a record of “remarkable men and things which have been in the island of Britain, and of the events which befell the race of the Cymri from the age of ages,” i.e. from the beginning. It has also numerous moral proverbs. It is arranged in triads, or sets of three.
As an example, we have one triad giving “The three of the race of the island of Britain: Hu Gadarn, (who first brought the race into Britain;) Prydain, (who first established regal government,) and Dynwal Moelmud, (who made a system of laws.)" Another triad presents “The three benevolent tribes of Britain: the Cymri, (who came with Hu Gadarn from Constantinople;) the Lolegrwys, (who came from the Loire,) and the Britons”
Then are mentioned the tribes that came with consent and under protection, viz., the Caledonians, the Gwyddelian race, and the men of Galedin, who came from the continent “when their country was drowned;” the last inhabited the Isle of Wight. Another mentions the three usurping tribes; the Coranied, the Gwydel-Fichti, (from Denmark,) and the Saxons. Although the compilation is so modern, most of the triads date from the sixth century.
THE MABINOGION.—Next in order of importance of the Celtic remains must be mentioned the Mabinogion, or Tales for Youth, a series of romantic tales, illustrative of early British life, some of which have been translated from the Celtic into English. Among these the most elaborate is the Tale of Peredur, a regular Romance of Arthur, entirely Welsh in costume and character.
BRITISH BARDS.—A controversy has been fiercely carried on respecting the authenticity of poems ascribed to Aneurin, Taliesin, Llywarch Hen, and Merdhin, or Merlin, four famous British bards of the fifth and sixth centuries, who give us the original stories respecting Arthur, representing him not as a “miraculous character,” as the later histories do, but as a courageous warrior worthy of respect but not of wonder. The burden of the evidence, carefully collected and sifted by Sharon Turner, seems to be in favor of the authenticity of these poems.
These works are fragmentary and legendary: they have given few elements to the English language, but they show us the condition and culture of the British mind in that period, and the nature of the people upon whom the Saxons imposed their yoke. “The general spirit [of the early British poetry] is much more Druidical than Christian,” and in its mysterious and legendary nature, while it has been not without value as a historical representation of that early period, it has offered rare material for romantic poetry from that day to the present time. It is on this account especially that these works should be studied.
GILDAS.—Among the writers who must be considered as belonging to the Celtic race, although they wrote in Latin, the most prominent is Gildas. He was the son of Caw, (Alcluyd, a British king,) who was also the father of the famous bard Aneurin. Many have supposed Gildas and Aneurin to be the same person, so vague are the accounts of both. If not, they were brothers. Gildas was a British bard, who, when converted to Christianity, became a Christian priest, and a missionary among his own people. He was born at Dumbarton in the middle of the sixth century, and was surnamed the Wise. His great work, the History of the Britons, is directly historical: his account extends from the first invasion of Britain down to his own time.
A true Celt, he is a violent enemy of the Roman conquerors first, and then of the Saxon invaders. He speaks of the latter as “the nefarious Saxons, of detestable name, hated alike by God and man; ... a band of devils breaking forth from the den of the barbarian lioness.”
The history of Gildas, although not of much statistical value, sounds a clear Celtic note against all invaders, and displays in many parts characteristic outlines of the British people.
ST. COLUMBANUS.—St. Colm, or Columbanus, who was born in 521, was the founder and abbot of a monastery in Iona, one of the Hebrides, which is also called Icolmkill—the Isle of Colm's Cell. The Socrates of that retreat, he found his Plato in the person of a successor, St. Adamnan, whose “Vita Sancti Columbae” is an early work of curious historical importance. St. Adamnan became abbot in 679.
A backward glance at the sparse and fragmentary annals of the Celtic people, will satisfy us that they have but slight claims to an original share in English literature. Some were in the Celtic dialects, others in Latin. They have given themes, indeed, to later scholars, but have left little trace in form and language. The common Celtic words retained in English are exceedingly few, although their number has not been decided. They form, in some sense, a portion of the foundation on which the structure of our literature has been erected, without being in any manner a part of the building itself.