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A FIRST SKETCH
ENGLISH LITERATURE. .
THE FORMING OF THE PEOPLE : CELTS.
1. THE Literature of a People tells its life. History records its deeds; but Literature brings to us, yet warm with their first heat, the appetites and passions, the keen intellectual debate, the higher promptings of the soul, whose blended energies produced the substance of the record. We see some part of a man's outward life and guess his character, but do not know it as we should if we heard also the debate within, loud under outward silence, and could be spectators of each conflict for which lists are set within the soul. Such witnesses we are, through English Literature, of the life of our own country. Le us not begin the study with a dull belief that it is but a bewilderment of names, dates, and short summaries of conventional opinion, which must be learnt by rote. As soon as we can feel that we belong to a free country with a noble past, let us begin to learn through what endeavours and to what end it is free. Liberty as an abstraction is not worth a song. It is precious only for that which it enables us to be and do. Let us bring our hearts, then, to the study which we here begin, and seek through it accord with that true soul of our country by which we may be encouraged to maintain in our own day the best work of our forefathers.
The literature of this country has for its most distinctive mark the religious sense of duty. It represents a people striving through successive generations to find out the right and do it, to root out the wrong, and labour ever onward for the
love of God. If this be really the strong spirit of her people, to show that it is so is to tell how England won, and how alone she can expect to keep, her foremost place among the nations.
2. Once Europe was peopled only here and there by men who beat at the doors of nature and upon the heads of one another with sharp flints. What knowledge they struck out in many years was bettered by instruction from incoming tribes who, beginning earlier or learning faster, brought higher results of experience out of some part of the region that we now cali Asia. Generation after generation came and went, and then Europe was peopled by tribes different in temper : some scattered among pastures with their flocks and herds, or gathering for fight and plunder around chiefs upon whom they depended ; others drawing together on the fields they ploughed, able to win and strong to hold the good land of the plain in battle under chiefs whose strength depended upon them. But none can distinguish surely the forefathers of these most remote forefathers of the Celt and Teuton, in whose unlike tempers lay some of the elements from which, when generations after generations more had passed away, a Shakespeare was to come.
Their old home may have been upon the plains and in the valleys once occupied by the Medes and Persians, and in the lands watered by those five rivers of the Punjaub which flow into the Indus. We may look for it westward from the Indus to the Euphrates ; northward from the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea to the Caucasus, the Caspian, and the river Oxus.
Through the passes of the Caucasus it may be true that those known as the Celts first migrated to the region north of the Black Sea. Ezekiel, 600 years B.C., named Gomer as a nation, placing it in the north quarter, that is, south of the Caucasus. Æschylus, about 130 years later, placed the Cimmerians (whose name lives with our Welsh countrymen as Cymry) about the Sea of Azov and in the peninsula called from them the Crimea. We are told that in Assyrian inscriptions the Sacan or Scythian population which spread over the Persian Empire was called Gimiri ; and the two words (each, perhaps, meaning “ rover”) were applied afterwards to separate branches of the same national stock. North of the Black Sea, between the Danube and the Don, were the Cimnierian or Cymric Celts. East of the Don were the Scyths, whose name may live anong ourselves as Scot, since they are thought to be forela, hers of
CELTS AND TEUTONS.
those Gaels who are of our nation as the Celts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.
Then came the migrations in which, it is said, the Scythian or Gaelic Celts, pushing westward across the Don, forced the Cymry before them. The Cymry, crossing the Danube, ravaged part of Asia Minor, and spread into Europe. The Gaels who followed them spread also into Europe, and were also driven westward as more tribes came after them.
These next tribes appear to have been men of another stock, who held by the eastern plains of Europe, and there established the Slavonic populations.
Then came the Teutons. First, perhaps, came those from about the upper waters of the Tigris and Euphrates and the northern part of the plateau of Iran, who went north-westward towards the shores of the North Sea and western Baltic, there to become forefathers of Low German populations. From the coasts of France and Spain they were shut out by the strong Celtic occupation; and behind them pressed men of another branch of their own stock-men, perhaps, who had once occupied the highlands of Southern Iran. These established themselves on the higher lands of Central Europe, and were, if the theory be true, ancestors of the High Germans.
3. Gaelic Celts, migrating by sea from Spain, struck on the western coast of Ireland and on our south-western shores. Thence they spread over these islands, of which the first thin peopling seems to have been by a Celtic population of the Gaelic branch.
Low Germans afterwards crossed the Rhine, and made their way by Belgium along North France to the Seine, expelling Cymry whom they found there in possession. These Cymry, driven across the Channel, landed on the eastern part of our south coast, and forced Gaels there in occupation westward. The Low Germans, who had formed a Belgic Gaul, crossed also, and were strong enough to form a Belgic England. Low Germans and Scandinavians from all lands opposite our eastern coast came over as colonists. The Gaels went westward before pressure of the Cymry, as the Cymry were pushed westward by incoming Teutons. At last the main body of the Gaels of Southern Britain had been forced to join their countrymen across the Irish Sea. The Cymry held the pasture land among the mountain fastnesses of Western England, and the Teuton ploughed the plains.
This process of change was continuous, and may have been so for some centuries before the hundred years between the middle of the fifth and the middle of the sixth century after Christ, during which there were six Teutonic settlements thought worthy of especial record. The six settlements were thus distinguished because they established sovereignties and began the strong uprearing of the nation which took from a great immigrant Teutonic tribe its name of English.
4. As tribe pressed upon tribe, lands were not yielded without struggle. These changes and recombinations in the chemistry of nations were accompanied with a quick effervescence; there was war. War and the common needs of life were foremost in man's thought. We have in this country two famous traditional periods of Celtic literature. One belongs to the Gael, the other to the Cymry; and each centres in a battle.
5. About the Battle of Gabhra, said to have been fought A.D. 284, is gathered the main body of old GAELIC tradition. Fionn (which means “Fair-baired"), the son of Cumhaill, known in modern poetry as Fingal, had a son Oisin (which means “The Little Fawn”), who is known in modern poetry as Ossian. Fionn's father, Cumhaill, had been slain in battle by Goll Mac Morna, who, as Fionn's mortal enemy, and afterwards his friend, has an important place in the old traditions. Fionn led one of the four.bands into which the Gaels were parted, that of Leinster, known as the Clanna Baoisgne. His clan attained to so much power that the other three combined against it, and then Fionn and his family had to fight for their lives against all the forces of Erin armed against them, except those of his friend the King of Munster. Stirred to the depths by a struggle that compelled them to put out all strength in the defence of what they held most dear, they felt keenly, reached the highest level of the life of their own time, and poured its music out in song. Fionn's cousin, Caeilte Mac Ronan, was warrior and bard. Oisin, the son of Fionn, was warrior and bard. The brother of Oisin, Fergus the Eloquent (Fergus Finnbheoil), was chief bard, and bard only.
More or less changed by time, some fragments of the singing of these men remain on the lips of country folks among the Scotch and Irish Gaels. Only eleven of them are to be found in records older than the fifteenth century; but others were collected from the lips of the people by a Dean of Lismore in Argyllshire, before the days of Queen Elizabeth.