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THE STORY OF

ENGLISH LITERATURE.

CHAPTER I.

KELTIC AND FIRST ENGLISH LITERATURE

(A.D. 248---1066).

The earliest literature of this country was not written by the English people. Before our forefathers came over from the north of Germany, there was a people living in this island called the Kelts; and the remains of this race are still dwelling amongst us in the north of Scotland, in Ireland, and in Wales. The Kelts were divided into two great families—the Gaels, whose descendants are living in the Highlands and in Ireland, and the Cymri, who were the forefathers of the Welsh. All the Kelts have much power of imagination, and a keen sense of what is beautiful both in nature and life; they have quick feelings also, which are easily stirred to strong emotion, though there is a difference between the Gael and the Cymri in this respect, for while the Gael like to be moved to laughter and joy by what is lively and bright, the Cymri love to be touched to tears by what is pathetic and mournful; but both the Gael and the Cymri are readily stirred to intense enthusiasm by a heroic story of brave deeds and resolute conflict.

If we were asked, what form of literature would such a race produce? we might answer at once-poetry.

The Kelts had among

B

them a class of men called Bards, who were the poets of the nation. They had, perhaps, not always a much higher poetic gift than many of the people had, but they put the thoughts and feelings of the people into poetic words, and so became as it were the tongues of the people, speaking for them what each one could not utter for himself. These poems were seldom written down, but they were sung by the bards, and learnt by the people, who sang them again to their harps.

Among such a race we can easily imagine that any event which stirred the heart of the whole people would be celebrated in their poetry; and thus we find that most of the fragments which have come down to us relate to the struggle of a clan or family for existence among the Gael, and to a great battle fought by the Cymri against the Teutons, who were gaining possession of Britain.

The Gaelic battle was fought, so it is said, about the year 284; it was called the battle of Gabhra. The Gaels in Ireland were at that time divided into four tribes or clans, and one of these had risen to so much power that the other three clans joined together to destroy it. At the head of this powerful clan was a chief named Fionn, or Fingal; he had two sons, and the second of them, whose name was Fergus, was the chief bard; the elder, named Oisin, or Ossian, was also a bard and a warrior ; and so, too, was Fionn's cousin, Caeilte MacRonan. With three poets in the family, there would be of course much singing of the family history, and especially of the last fierce battle in which the powerful clan of Fionn was crushed by the other tribes. In that battle a son of Oisin, a brave young man, named Oscar, who was greatly beloved by the whole tribe, had fallen on the battle-field; and his death was sung by his uncle Fergus, the chief bard. Fionn, the chief, is supposed to be asking Fergus about the battle, and after Fergus has told him the sad story of the defeat of their clan, and of the many heroes who had fought bravely and had fallen in the struggle, Fionn says

Now, O Bard- -my son's son, my desire,

My Oscar, of him, Fergus, tell

How he hewed at the helms ere he fell." To which Fergus replies

“Hard were it, Fionn, to nuniber,

Heavy for me were the labour,
To tell of the host that has fallen,
Slain by the valour of Oscar.
No rush of the waterfall swifter,
No pounce of the hawk on his prey,
No whirlpool more sweeping and deadly
Than Oscar in battle that day.
And you, who last saw him, could see
How he throbbed in the roar of the fray,
As a storm-worried leaf on the tree,
Whose fellows lie fallen below,
As an aspen will quiver and sway,
While the axe deals it blow upon blow.
When he saw that MacArt, King of Erin,
Still lived in the midst of the roar,
Oscar gathered his force to roll on him,
As waves roll to break on the shore.
The King's son, Cairbar, saw the danger,
He shook his great hungering spear,
Grief of griefs ! drove its point through our Oscar,
Who braved the death-stroke without fear.
Rushing still on MacArt, King of Erin,
His weight on his weapon he threw,
And smote at MacArt, and again smote
Cairbar, whom that second blow slew.
So died Oscar, a king in his glory.
I, Fergus, the Bard, grieve my way
Through all lands, saying how went the story

Of Gabhra's fierce battle-day. “Say!'"* The other great battle celebrated in Keltic literature was fought nearly three hundred years after the battle of

· Library of English Literature." Prof. Henry Morley. Vol. i.

Gabhra. Our own forefathers, the Teutons, from North Germany were now gaining possession of the land, and the Cymric Kelts were being driven further and further westward. But the Kelts did not yield without many a hard struggle for land and liberty; and the danger and conflict of the time called out brave warriors, who fell on the battlefield, dying for freedom and home; and produced many a deeply-stirred poet, who sang of hope in the conflict, and of sorrow and mourning over those who fell in the struggle.

Among the warrior chiefs of the time Urien was the most 'famous. He carried on the war of Keltic independence in the north, while Arthur, a name less known in Keltic literature than in English, was the leader in the south. Around Urien gathered the chief poets of the time : Aneurin, Llywarch Hen, and Taliesin. Aneurin was also a warrior, and was himself present at the great battle of Cattraeth, the sad story of which he is supposed to sing in a poem called Gododin. Ninety-seven stanzas of this poem still remain, and nearly every one is a lament over a different Cymric chief who fell in this battle.

The battle of Cattraeth was probably fought near Richmond, in Yorkshire ; it was one of the last desperate efforts of the Kelts to expel the Teuton invaders; and many tribes had joined their forces for this final struggle. The battle lasted for a week, and three hundred and sixty of the Cymric chiefs fell upon the battle-field. One of the stanzas of the Gododin describes the gay going-forth of the chiefs to battle, and the dark sad close of the long conflict when all was over

“ To Cattraeth's vale in glittering row

Twice two hundred warriors go ;
Every warrior's manly neck
Chains of regal honour deck
Wreathed in many a golden link ;
From the golden cup they drink

Nectar that the bees produce,
Or the grape's extatic juice,
Flushed with mirth and hope they burn;
But none from Cattraeth's vale return,
Save Aeron brave and Conan strong
(Bursting through the bloody throng),
And I, the meanest of them all,
That live to weep and sing their fall."*

carried me;

Llywarch Hen, another poet of the time, was the Prince of Argoed, and also took part in the struggle of his race with the invading Teutons. He was chief bard and friend of Urien, and fought beside him at Lindisfarne, where the great chief was killed. After the battle, Llywarch carried the head of his friend and chief from the field wrapped in his cloak, and he sang—“The head that I carry I shall find it no more; it will come no more to my succour. Woe to my hand, my happiness is lost!” Llywarch outlived many of his friends and all his sons, who every one died upon the battle-field fighting for their country. He was an old man, and had been called Llywarch Hen—which means the old—when he lost his last and youngest son Gwenn. Over him he sang, what was perhaps his last lament—"O, Gwenn, woe to him who is too old, since he

A man was my son, a hero, a generous warrior, and he was the nephew of Urien. Gwenn has been slain at the ford of Morlas. Sweetly sang a bird on a peartree above the head of Gwenn, before they covered him with the turf. That broke the heart of old Llywarch.”

Those were terrible times, and men who felt things as the bards did, and saw around them the slaughter and downfall of their race, and the hopelessness of the struggle, grew broken in spirit, and could sing no more stirring songs, filled with the promise of victory to the Cymri. Thus Merlin, a bard of Arthur's hall, went out of his mind at the sight of

has lost you.

* Gray's “ Death of Hoei."

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