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EPICS OF THE BRITISH ISLES
Although the name Celt was given by the early Greeks to all the people living West of their country, the Romans included under that name only the tribes occupying the countries now known as France, Western Switzerland, Germany west of the Rhine, Belgium, and the British Isles. Blocked together under a generic name, the Celtic nation was, however, composed of many tribes, with separate dialects and customs. It has been surmised that two of these tribes, the British and Irish, early took possession of England and Ireland, where they flourished and subdivided until disturbed by invasions of various kinds.

The Celts all practised what is termed the Druidic cult, their priests being poets, bards, or gleemen, who could compose or recite in verse, ritual, laws, and heroic ballads. During the four hundred years of Roman occupation, the Celts in England became somewhat Romanized, but the Irish, and their near relatives the Scots, were less influenced by Latin civilization. It is therefore in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales that the oldest traces of Celtic literature are found, for the bards there retained their authority and acted as judges after Christianity had been introduced, and as late as the sixth century. Although St. Patrick is reported to have forbidden these Irish bards to continue their pagan incantations, they continued to exert some authority, and it is said Irish priests adopted the tonsure which was their distinctive badge. The bards, who could recite and compose poems and stories, accompanying themselves on a rudimentary harp, were considered of much higher rank than those who merely recited incantations. They transmitted poems, incantations, and laws, orally only, and no proof exists that the pagan Irish, for instance, committed any works to writing previous to the introduction of Christianity in their midst.

The heroic tales of Ireland from a large and well-marked epic cycle, the central tale of the series being the anonymous "Cattle of Cooly," wherein is related the war waged by the Irish Queen Mab against her husband for the possession of a mystic brown bull. In the course of this war the chief hero, Cuchulaind, makes himself famous by defending the country of Ulster single-handed! The still extant tales of this epic cycle number about thirty, and give in detail the lives of hero and heroine from birth to death, besides introducing many legends from Celtic mythology. The oldest MS. version of these tales, in mingled prose and verse, dates back to the twelfth century, and is hence about as venerable as the Edda.

The Fennian or Oisianic poems and tales form another famous Irish cycle, Finn, or Fingal, their hero, having acted as commander for a body of mercenaries in the third century. His poet son, Oisin (the Ossian of later Romance), is said to have composed at least one of the poems in the famous Book of Leinster. Between the twelfth century and the middle of the fifteenth, this Fennian epos took on new life, and it continued to grow until the eighteenth century, when a new tale was added to the cycle.

The names of a few of the early Irish poets have been preserved in Irish annals, where we note, for instance, Bishop Fiance, author of a still extant metrical life of St. Patrick, and Dallan Frogaell, one of whose poems is in the "Book of the Dun Cow," compiled before 1106. Up to the thirteenth century most of the poets and harpers used to include Scotland in their circuit, and one of them, Muiredhach, is said to have received the surname of "the Scotchman," because he tarried so long in that country.

When, after the fifteenth century, Irish literature began to decline, Irish poems were recast in the native Scotch dialect, thus giving rise to what is known as Gaelic literature, which continued to flourish until the Reformation. Samples of this old Gaelic or Erse poetry were discovered by James Macpherson in the Highlands, taken down from recitation, and used for the English compilation known as the Poems of Ossian. Lacking sufficient talent and learning to remodel these fragments so as to produce a real masterpiece, Macpherson—who erroneously termed his work a translation—not only incurred the sharpest criticism, but was branded as a plagiarist.

The Welsh, a poetic race too, boast of four great poets,—Taliessin, Aneurin, Llywarch Hen, and Myrden (Merlin). These composed poems possessing epic qualities, wherein mention is made of some of the characters of the Arthurian Cycle. One of the five Welsh MSS., which seem of sufficient antiquity and importance to deserve attention, is the Book of Taliessin, written probably during the fourteenth century. The Welsh also possess tales in verse, either historical or romantic, which probably antedated the extant prose versions of the same tales. Eleven of these were translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, and entitled Mabinogion (Tales for Children), although only four out of the eleven deserve that name. But some of these tales are connected with the great Arthurian cycle, as Arthur is the hero par excellence of Southern Wales, where many places are identified with him or his court.

Although almost as little is known of the historical Arthur as of the historical Roland, both are heroes of important epic cycles. Leader probably of a small band of warriors, Arthur gradually became, in the epics, first general-in-chief, then king, and finally emperor of all Britain. It is conjectured that the Arthurian legends must have passed from South Wales into Cornwall, and thence into Armorica, "where it is probable the Round Table was invented." Enriched by new accretions from time to time, the Arthurian cycle finally included the legend of the Holy Grail, which must have originated in Provence and have been carried into Brittany by jongleurs or travelling minstrels.

It has been ascertained that the legend of Arthur was familiar among the Normans before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his books, and it certainly had an incalculable formative influence on European literature, much of which can be "traced back directly or indirectly to these legends." It was also a vehicle for that element which we call chivalry, which the church infused into it to fashion and mould the rude soldiers of feudal times into Christian knights, and, as it "expanded the imagination and incited the minds of men to inquiry beyond the conventional notions of things," it materially assisted in creating modern society.

After thus tracing the Celtic germs and influence in English literature, it becomes necessary to hark back to the time of the Teutonic invasions, since English thought and speech, manners and customs are all of Teutonic origin. The invaders brought with them an already formed language and literature, both of which were imposed upon the people. The only complete extant northern epic of Danish-English origin is Beowulf, of which a synopsis follows, and which was evidently sung by gleemen in the homes of the great chiefs. Apart from Beowulf, some remains of national epic poetry have come down to us in the fine fragments of Finnsburgh and Waldhere, another version of Walter of Aquitaine.

There are also the Legends of Havelock the Dane, of King Horn, of Beves of Hamdoun, and of Guy of Warwick, all four of which were later turned into popular prose romances. Intense patriotic feeling also gave birth to the Battle of Maldon, or Bryhtnoth's Death, an ancient poem, fortunately printed before it was destroyed by fire. This epic relates how the Viking Anlaf came to England with 93 ships, and, after harrying the coast, was defeated and slain in battle.

The earliest Christian poet in England, Caedmon, instead of singing of love or fighting, paraphrased the Scriptures, and depicted the creation in such eloquent lines that he is said to have inspired some of the passages in Milton's Paradise Lost. Chief among the religious poems ascribed to Caedmon, are Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, but, although in general he strictly conforms with the Bible narrative, he prefixed to Genesis an account of the fall of the angels, and thus supplied Milton with the most picturesque feature of his theme.

Next come the epic poems of Cynewulf, Crist, Juliana, Elene, and Andreas, also written in alliterative verse. In Elene the poet gives us the legend of finding of the cross[20] by the empress Helena, dividing his poem into fourteen cantos or fitts.

It is in Gildas and Nennius' Historia Britonum that we find the first mention of the legendary colonization of Britain and Ireland by refugees from Troy, and of the exploits of Arthur and the prophesies of Merlin. This work, therefore, contains some of the "germs of fables which expanded into Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of Britain, which was written in Latin some time before 1147," although this historian claims to derive his information from an ancient British book of which no trace can be found.

There is, besides, a very curious yet important legend cycle, in regard to a letter sent from Heaven to teach the proper observation of Sunday. The text of this letter can be found in old English in Wulfstan's homilies. Besides sacred legends, others exist of a worldly nature, such as the supposed letter from Alexander to Aristotle, the Wonders of the East, and the Story of Apollonius of Tyre. The first two, of course, formed part of the great Alexander cycle, while the latter supplied the theme for Pericles of Tyre.

With the Norman Conquest, French became the literary language of England, and modern romance was born. Romance cycles on "the matter of France" or Legends of Charlemagne, and on "the matter of Britain" or Legends of Arthur, became popular, and Geoffrey of Monmouth freely made use of his imagination to fill up the early history of Britain, for his so-called history is in reality a prose romance, whence later writers drew themes for many a tale.

Walter Map, born on the border of Wales in 1137, is credited with the no longer extant Latin prose romance of Lancelot du Lac, which included the Quest of the Holy Grail and the Death of Arthur. Besides Wace's Brut, we have that of Layamon, and both poets not only explain how Britain's name is derived from Brut,—a member of Priam's family and refugee from Troy,—but go on to give the history of other early kings of Britain, including Arthur. They often touch the true epic note,—as in the wrestling match between Corineus and the giant,—use similes drawn from every-day life, and supply us with legends of King Lear and of Cymbeline.

It was toward the end of the twelfth century that Arthur reached the height of his renown as romantic hero, the "matter of Britain" having become international property, and having been greatly enriched by poets of many climes. By this time Arthur had ceased to be a king of Britain, to become king of a fairy-land and chief exponent of chivalric ideals and aims.

To name all the poets who had a share in developing the Arthurian Legend would prove an impossible task, but Nennius, Gildas, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon, Benoit de St. Maur, Chrestien de Troyes, Marie de France, Hartmann von der Aue, and Wolfram von Eschenbach have, in English, French, and German, helped to develop the "matter of Britain," and have managed to connect it with "the matter of France."

During the age of metrical romances (1200 to 1500), all the already extant cycles were remodelled and extended. Besides, not only were Greek and Latin epics translated so as to be within reach of all, but one country freely borrowed from another. Thus, the French romances of Huon de Bordeaux and of the Four Sons of Aymon found many admirers in England, where the former later supplied Shakespeare with some of the characters for a Midsummer Night's Dream. It was to offset the very popular romance of Alexander, that some patriotic poet evolved the romance of Richard Coeur de Lion, explaining how this king earned his well-known nickname by wrenching the heart out of a lion!

Some of these romances, such as Flores and Blancheflour, have "the voluptuous qualities of the East," make great use of magic of all kinds, and show the idyllic side of love. The tragedy of love is depicted in the romance of Tristram and Iseult, where a love-potion plays a prominent part. But, although knightly love and valor are the stock topics, we occasionally come across a theme of Christian humility, like Sir Isumbras, or of democracy, as in the Squire of Low Degree and in the Ballads of Robin Hood.

With the advent of Chaucer a new poet, a new language, and new themes appear. Many of his Canterbury tales are miniature epics, borrowed in general from other writers, but retold with a charm all his own. The Knight's Tale, or story of the rivalry in love of Palamon and Arcite, the tale of Gamelyn, and that of Troilus and Cressida, all contain admirable epic passages.

Spenser, our next epic poet, left us the unfinished Faerie Queene, an allegorical epic which shows the influence of Ariosto and other Italian poets, and contains exquisitely beautiful passages descriptive of nature, etc. His allegorical plot affords every facility for the display of his graceful verse, and is outlined in another chapter.

There are two curious but little-known English epics, William Warner's chronicle epic entitled "Albion's England" (1586), and Samuel Daniel's "Civil Wars." The first, beginning with the flood, carries the reader through Greek mythology to the Trojan War, and hence by means of Brut to the beginnings of English history, which is then continued to the execution of Mary Stuart. The second (1595) is an epic, in eight books, on the Wars of the Roses. Drayton also wrote, on the theme of the Civil Wars, an epic entitled "The Barons' Wars," and undertook a descriptive and patriotic epic in "Polyolbion," wherein he makes a tour of England relating innumerable local legends.

Abraham Cowley composed an epic entitled "Davideis," or the troubles of David. He begins this work in four books with a description of two councils held in Heaven and hell in regard to the life of this worthy.

Dryden was not only a translator of the classic epics, but projected an epic of his own about Arthur. Almost at the same time Pope was planning to write one on Brut, but he too failed to carry out his intentions, and is best known as the translator of the Iliad, although some authorities claim the "Rape of the Lock" is a unique sample of the épopée galante.

The poet Keats, whose life was so short, left us a complete mythological epic in "Endymion," a fragment of one in "Hyperion," and a reproduction of one of the old romances in "Isabella, or a Pot of Basil."

Shelley, Keats' contemporary, wrote poems abounding in epic passages,—"Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude," "The Revolt of Islam," "Adonais," and "Prometheus Unbound"; while Byron's epical poems are "Manfred," "The Corsair," and "Don Juan"; and Scott's, "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," "Marmion," "The Lady of the Lake," and "The Bridal of Triermain."

The greatest of Coleridge's poems, "The Ancient Mariner," is sometimes called a visionary epic, while his "Christabel" conforms more closely to the old roman d'adventure.

As the translator of the epical romances of "Amadis de Gaule" and "Palmerin," Southey won considerable renown; he also wrote the oriental epics "Thalaba" and "The Curse of Kehama," as well as epical poems on "Madoc," "Joan of Arc," and "Roderick, the Last of the Goths."

Moore, although preeminently a lyric poet, has left us the eastern epic "Lalla Rookh," and Lockhart some "Spanish Ballads" which paraphrase the Cid.

Among Macaulay's writings the "Lays of Ancient Rome" have epic qualities, which are also found in Leigh Hunt's "Story of Rimini."

The plot of Tristram has been utilized both by Matthew Arnold and by
Swinburne, while William and Lewis Morris have rewritten some of the
old classic stories in "The Earthly Paradise," the "Life and Death of
Jason," the "Defense of Guinevere," and the "Epic of Hades."

It was, however, the Victorian poet-laureate Tennyson who gave the Arthurian Legend its latest and most artistic touches in "Idylls of the King." Some critics also claim as an example of the domestic epic his "Enoch Arden."

Among recent writers, sundry novelists have been hailed as authors of prose epics. Thomas Westwood has composed in excellent verse the "Quest of the Sangreall," Mrs. Trask "Under King Constantine," a notable addition to the Arthurian cycle, and Stephen Philips has sung of Ulysses and of King Alfred.


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