Celtic Literature -  Essay  - United State Literature - Matthew Arnold

Celtic Literature - Essay - United State Literature - Matthew Arnold

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CELTIC LITERATURE MATTHEW ARNOLD To mark clearly to the reader both this provisional character of much which I advance, and my own sense of it, I have inserted, as a check upon some of the positions adopted in the text, ...
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To mark clearly to the reader both this provisional character of much which I ad- vance, and my own sense of it, I have in- serted, as a check upon some of the posi- tions adopted in the text, notes and com- ments with which Lord Strangford has kindly furnished me. Lord Strangford is hardly

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less distinguished for knowing ethnology and languages so scientifically than for knowing so much of them; and his interest, even from the vantage-ground of his scientific knowl- edge, and after making all due reserves on points of scientific detail, in my treatment,– with merely the resources and point of view of a literary critic at my command,–of such a subject as the study of Celtic Literature,


is the most encouraging assurance I could have received that my attempt is not alto- gether a vain one.

Both Lord Strangford and others whose opinion I respect have said that I am un- just in calling Mr. Nash, the acute and learned author of Taliesin, or the Bards and Druids of Britain, a ’Celt-hater.’ ’He is a denouncer,’ says Lord Strangford in a note


on this expression, ’of Celtic extravagance, that is all; he is an anti-Philocelt, a very dif- ferent thing from an anti-Celt, and quite in- dispensable in scientific inquiry. As Philo- celtism has hitherto,–hitherto, remember,– meant nothing but uncritical acceptance and irrational admiration of the beloved object’s sayings and doings, without reference to truth one way or the other, it is surely in the


interest of science to support him in the main. In tracing the workings of old Celtic leaven in poems which embody the Celtic soul of all time in a mediaeval form, I do not see that you come into any necessary oppo- sition with him, for your concern is with the spirit, his with the substance only.’ I entirely agree with almost all which Lord Strangford here urges, and indeed, so sin-


cere is my respect for Mr. Nash’s critical discernment and learning, and so unhesi- tating my recognition of the usefulness, in many respects, of the work of demolition performed by him, that in originally desig- nating him as a Celt-hater, I hastened to add, as the reader will see by referring to the passage, 0a words of explanation and apology for so calling him. But I thought


then, and I think still, that Mr. Nash, in pursuing his work of demolition, too much puts out of sight the positive and construc- tive performance for which this work of de- molition is to clear the ground. I thought then, and I think still, that in this Celtic controversy, as in other controversies, it is most desirable both to believe and to pro- fess that the work of construction is the


fruitful and important work, and that we are demolishing only to prepare for it. Mr. Nash’s scepticism seems to me,–in the as- pect in which his work, on the whole, shows it,–too absolute, too stationary, too much without a future; and this tends to make it, for the non-Celtic part of his readers, less fruitful than it otherwise would be, and for his Celtic readers, harsh and repellent. I


have therefore suffered my remarks on Mr. Nash still to stand, though with a little modification; but I hope he will read them by the light of these explanations, and that he will believe my sense of esteem for his work to be a thousand times stronger than my sense of difference from it.

To lead towards solid ground, where the Celt may with legitimate satisfaction point


to traces of the gifts and workings of his race, and where the Englishman may find himself induced to sympathise with that sat- isfaction and to feel an interest in it, is the design of all the considerations urged in the following essay. Kindly taking the will for the deed, a Welshman and an old acquain- tance of mine, Mr. Hugh Owen, received my remarks with so much cordiality, that


he asked me to come to the Eisteddfod last summer at Chester, and there to read a pa- per on some topic of Celtic literature or an- tiquities. In answer to this flattering pro- posal of Mr. Owen’s, I wrote him a letter which appeared at the time in several news- papers, and of which the following extract preserves all that is of any importance

’My knowledge of Welsh matters is so 12

utterly insignificant that it would be imper- tinence in me, under any circumstances, to talk about those matters to an assemblage of persons, many of whom have passed their lives in studying them.

’Your gathering acquires more interest every year. Let me venture to say that you have to avoid two dangers in order to work all the good which your friends could de-


sire. You have to avoid the danger of giving offence to practical men by retarding the spread of the English language in the princi- pality. I believe that to preserve and honour the Welsh language and literature is quite compatible with not thwarting or delaying for a single hour the introduction, so un- deniably useful, of a knowledge of English among all classes in Wales. You have to


avoid, again, the danger of alienating men of science by a blind partial, and uncritical treatment of your national antiquities. Mr. Stephens’s excellent book, The Literature of the Cymry, shows how perfectly Welsh- men can avoid this danger if they will.

’When I see the enthusiasm these Eisteddfods can awaken in your whole people, and then think of the tastes, the literature, the amuse-


ments, of our own lower and middle class, I am filled with admiration for you. It is a consoling thought, and one which history allows us to entertain, that nations disin- herited of political success may yet leave their mark on the world’s progress, and con- tribute powerfully to the civilisation of mankind. We in England have come to that point when the continued advance and greatness


of our nation is threatened by one cause, and one cause above all. Far more than by the helplessness of an aristocracy whose day is fast coming to an end, far more than by the rawness of a lower class whose day is only just beginning, we are emperilled by what I call the ”Philistinism” of our mid- dle class. On the side of beauty and taste, vulgarity; on the side of morals and feeling,


coarseness; on the side of mind and spirit, unintelligence,–this is Philistinism. Now, then, is the moment for the greater delicacy and spirituality of the Celtic peoples who are blended with us, if it be but wisely di- rected, to make itself prized and honoured. In a certain measure the children of Tal- iesin and Ossian have now an opportunity for renewing the famous feat of the Greeks,


and conquering their conquerors. No ser- vice England can render the Celts by giving you a share in her many good qualities, can surpass that which the Celts can at this mo- ment render England, by communicating to us some of theirs.’

Now certainly, in that letter, written to a Welshman and on the occasion of a Welsh festival, I enlarged on the merits of the Celtic


spirit and of its works, rather than on their demerits. It would have been offensive and inhuman to do otherwise. When an ac- quaintance asks you to write his father’s epitaph, you do not generally seize that op- portunity for saying that his father was blind of one eye, and had an unfortunate habit of not paying his tradesmen’s bills. But the weak side of Celtism and of its Celtic glo-


rifiers, the danger against which they have to guard, is clearly indicated in that let- ter; and in the remarks reprinted in this volume,–remarks which were the original cause of Mr. Owen’s writing to me, and must have been fully present to his mind when he read my letter,–the shortcomings both of the Celtic race, and of the Celtic stu- dents of its literature and antiquities, are


unreservedly marked, and, so far as is nec- essary, blamed. 0b It was, indeed, not my purpose to make blame the chief part of what I said; for the Celts, like other peo- ple, are to be meliorated rather by devel- oping their gifts than by chastising their defects. The wise man, says Spinoza ad- mirably, ’de humana impotentia non nisi parce loqui curabit, at largiter de humana


virtute seupotentia.’ But so far as condem- nation of Celtic failure was needful towards preparing the way for the growth of Celtic virtue, I used condemnation.

The Times, however, prefers a shorter and sharper method of dealing with the Celts, and in a couple of leading articles, having the Chester Eisteddfod and my letter to Mr. Hugh Owen for their text, it devel-


oped with great frankness, and in its usual forcible style, its own views for the amelio- ration of Wales and its people. Cease to do evil, learn to do good, was the upshot of its exhortations to the Welsh; by evil, the Times understanding all things Celtic, and by good, all things English. ’The Welsh language is the curse of Wales. Its preva- lence, and the ignorance of English have


excluded, and even now exclude the Welsh people from the civilisation of their English neighbours. An Eisteddfod is one of the most mischievous and selfish pieces of sen- timentalism which could possibly be per- petrated. It is simply a foolish interference with the natural progress of civilisation and prosperity. If it is desirable that the Welsh should talk English, it is monstrous folly


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