that Spenser found the poems wild and rugged which, without those “goodly ornaments,” had yet good grace and comeliness, and which savoured of sweet wit and good invention. Yet Lord Macaulay simply tells us that the Irish ballads, “wild and rugged as they were, seemed to the judging eye of Spenser to contain a portion of the pure gold of poetry.” This scarcely gives an idea of how Spenser judged.
Macaulay had drunk in without knowing it the debasement theory of the Scotchman he despised, so far as it related to the value of any Irish poems, and he could not see that Spenser did not hold it. Macaulay could not believe his own eyes that an ancient witness, like Spenser, had nothing about the corruptions and the dross, mixed with portions of pure gold, in the works of Irish bards. He was thoroughly, though unconsciously, imbued with the Macpherson theory of Irish curiosa felicitas.
Mr. Matthew Arnold, too, in his studies of Celtic literature, seems after all to find not much more than this curiosa felicitas. M. Rénan, indeed, appears more favourable. He tells us that Irish imagination has grouped round the legend of a monk a whole cycle of physical and maritime myths, and that the poem of the Voyage of St. Brendan is one of the most astonishing creations of the human mind. But who really attends to M. Renan’s views on Celtic?
We shall find what people generally think, in a plain but carefully-written paper on “The Celt of Wales and the Celt of Ireland,” that appeared four or five years ago in the Cornhill Magazine. The author has had good experience of both countries, and evidently studied the inhabitants from many points of view. He appears quite free from every kind of prejudice against them. He bears freely testimony to the good qualities of Irishmen. In regard of pure morality, he tells us “the peasantry of Ireland are at the very summit of the scale of the whole world.” He tells us that one can perceive “the different pace of Celtic minds” from that of Anglo-Teutons, “by a comparison of the really delightful intelligence of a school of Irish children, with the heaviness and slowness of a similar and much better fed and clothed class, in any part of England, even in the great towns.” He adds:—
I have often tested the ability of young Irish boys and girls, either to understand a piece of humour or to appreciate an act of heroism, or, generally, to take in any idea quite new to them; and never yet failed of success. But the very same joke or story or new idea presented to very “sharp” English town boys, has been utterly misunderstood.
But when this clearly painstaking and unprejudiced observer comes to speak of Celtic Literature, we find ourselves simply face to face once more with the curiosa felicitas of Macpherson.
Immediately after the paragraph quoted above, we read the following:—
Imagination is a quality which I suppose will on all hands be conceded pre-eminently to the Celtic race; and yet perhaps it would be more proper to credit it with the poetical temperament, than with the actual power of imagination in its higher walks. . . . . . One point at all events is patent, that the merits of Erse and Cymric poetry is (sic) not of that solid kind which can bear translation.
A little farther on the writer gives us his ideas as to what our Irish imaginative productions are. He writes:—
Irish imagination, though it has called up the banshee and an abundance of hereditary curses, revels chiefly in more riante dreams—the Leprachaun and Phuca (Puck); the beautiful invisible island of St. Brandan in the far Atlantic; the towers of the submerged city beneath Lough Neagh; and the endless droll legends of the giant Fin McCool.
This utterly “crass” ignorance as to what Irish literature is, this supposing the numerous myths about Fionn to be “endless droll legends,” this it is which allows Macpherson’s theory of curiosa felicitas to continue prevalent. The great blow against it has been struck by Dr. Joyce. He has ventured to translate for the ordinary cultivated reader a considerable portion of that Erse poetry which it is said cannot bear translation; and he has translated in such a manner as to show that what he least cares for is any curiosa felicitas that may happen to occur. He has taken prose tales and tales in verse together, without
- ↑ Old Celtic Romances: C. Kegan, Paul and Co., London, 1879.