Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > The Arthurian Legend > Celtic Literature
  Tristram and Iseult  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend.

§ 17. Celtic Literature.


In this necessarily cursory review of an extensive and complicated subject, a good deal has been claimed for Celtic sources and Celtic influence; and it may not be out of place to conclude with an attempt to summarise, very briefly the actual debt of English literature to the early literature of the Celtic peoples. Upon few subjects has there been, in our time, so much vague and random writing as upon so-called Celtic“traits”and “notes” in English imaginative literature. Renan and Matthew Arnold, in two famous essays, which in their time rendered a real service to letters by calling attention to the buried literary treasures of Wales and Ireland, set a fashion of speculating and theorising about“the Celt”as perilous as it is fascinating. For, after all, no critical method is more capable of abuse than the process of aesthetic literary analysis which seeks to distinguish the Celtic from the other ingredients in the genius of the greater English writers, and which sounds Shakespeare, or Byron, or Keats for the Celtic“note.”While there is no difficulty about admitting that the authentic literature of the Celts reveals a“sentiment,”a“natural magic,”a“turn for style,”and even a“Pindarism”and a“Titanism,” 80  which are all its own, it is a very different mater to assign a Celtic source to the supposed equivalents of these things in later English poetry. An example of the peculiar dangers besetting such speculations is furnished by Matthew Arnold’s own observations about Macpherson and the Celtic“melancholy.”The Ossianic poems, whatever their original Gaelic sources may have been, reflect far more of the dour melancholy peculiar to the middle eighteenth century than of anything really characteristic of the primitive Celtic temperament. Matthew Arnold is, indeed, able to parallel the laments over the desolation of the halls of Balclutha and so on, with extracts from the old Welsh poet Llywarch Hêen. But even Llywarch’s anguish as he contemplates the vanished glories of the hall of Kyndylan is by no means peculiar to the Celt. The same melancholy vein is found in the early poetry of other races; it appears in the Old English poems of The Seafarer and The Wanderer, and even in the ancient poetry of the east, for
       
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep,
And Bahrám, that great Hunter—the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head but cannot break his Sleep.
  43
  The direct influence of Celtic literature upon that of England amounts, on any strict computation, to very little. And this is only natural when we remember that the two languages in which the chief monuments of that literature are preserved —Welsh and Irish—present difficulties which only a few very intrepid English linguists have had the courage and the patience to surmount. Thus it happens, for example, that the greatest of all the medieval Welsh poets—Davyd ap Gwilym, a contemporary of Chaucer—is only known to English readers by fragmentary notices, and indifferent translations, supplied by George Borrow. A few tantalising, and freely translated, scraps—for they are nothing more—from the Welsh bards are due to Gray; while Thomas Love Peacock has treated, in his own peculiar vein of sardonic humour, themes borrowed from ancient Welsh poetry and tradition. Above all, there remains the singularly graceful translation of the Welsh Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest. The literature of Ireland has, at a quite recent date, been much better served by translators than that of Wales, and several admirable English versions of Irish poems and prose tales are making their influence felt upon the literature of the day. So far, however, as the older Celtic literature is concerned, it is not so much its form that has told to any appreciable extent upon English writers as its themes and its spirit. The main channel of this undoubted Celtic influence was that afforde by the Arthurian and its kindred legends. The popularity of the“matter of Britain”came about at a time when there was, comparatively, much more intimate literary commerce between the European nations than there is now. The Normans suceeded in bringing Britain and France at least into much closer contact than has ever existed between them since; and it was France that controlled the literary destinies of Europe during the great romantic period of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It would be rash to endeavour to apportion between the south of France and the northern “Celtic fringe” their respective contributions to all that is denoted by the ideals of chivalry. But, in the mist which still overhangs the subject, we do seem to discern with fair distinctness that it was the conjunction of these apparently diverse racial tendencies, directed by the diplomatic genius of the Normans, that gave us our vast and picturesque body of Arthurian romance. Through all the various strains of Arthurian story we hear
       
the horns of Elfland faintly blowing;
and it is quite possible that, to the Celtic wonderland, with its fables of“the little people,”we owe much of the fairy-lore which has, through Shakespeare and other poets of lower degree, enriched the literature of England. Chaucer, at any rate, seemed to have very little doubt about it, for he links all that he knew, or cared to know, about the Arthurian stories with his recollections of the fairy world.
       
In th’ olde dayes of the king Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye:
The elf-queen, with hir joly companye
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
So let us believe, with the poets, and leave the British Arthur in his unquestioned place as the supreme king of fairy-land.
  44

Note 80. These are some of Matthew Arnold’s“notes”of the Celtic genius in The Study of Celtic Literature. [ back ]

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  Tristram and Iseult  
 
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