« PredošláPokračovať »
THE IRISH BARDS AND SONG-WRITERS.
not for base motives, but because it is good, it makes friendship stronger and life altogether pleasanter; not for brutal gluttony, but because it exhilarates and cheers. Comical excuses for excess are ever ready, but the grosser motives and the consequences of over-indulgence are never dwelt on.
Though, therefore, from a political point of view the Celtic nations may have, in a critic's words, 'proved themselves useless,' from a poetical point of view the Irish branch of the race is by no means so. The qualities that endowed them with a poetic disposition, the extreme susceptibility, the impetuosity and fervour, the vividness of fancy and sympathetic imagination, rendered them incapable of being great poets, for these qualities were over-compensated by a want of perseverance, the incapacity to maintain a steady self-reliance, the unenduring nature of their impressions and resolutions, the lack of industry, the tendency to melancholy inaction. Thus we have sweet airs, but no oratorios; thrilling lyrics, but no epic ; tender songs, but few dramas.
The assertion, therefore, that the Irish were at all times a poetic nation is but half true. They were poetical in that they possessed the deep poetic glow; that is to say, the mental ingredients that go to make a poet. But they possessed it mostly in silence, and sought not for the lesser glory of poetic fame. Poets, in the sense of creators or seers, they were not. In vain we seek distinctive periods with distinguishing characteristics in their poetic literature. The Celtic mind in its songs and poetry, as in most things, has ever been conservative. The poetry of to-day has the same features, the same methods of thought, is urged by the same influences that marked it in days gone by. It has also, at all events in later times, a fugitive, half-furtive tone about it. It has not by a new departure shaped or influenced the coming literature, however much it had an influence in maintaining the character and traits of the people. The poets and song-writers of the period we have chosen—which in another country and under other conditions would have been a Renaissance period—were, for the most part, obscure persons, of whom little is recorded and little known. Of many of them, of the place and time of birth, of the mode of life, of the manner and date of deathabsolutely nothing is known of a certainty ; much is conjectural, much apocryphal. The materials for the construction of their biographies are either non-existent or of the scantiest. The singers emerge from obscurity, sing their songs—one or more of which by chance, or because of real merit, are snatched from oblivion-and pass on into the eternities, unwept, unhonoured, and unsung. Many may have deserved immortality, but they never attained it; they may have followed after Fame, but they never, in their lifetime, overtook her. But with all these disadvantages, notwithstanding all the oppression and hunting-down of which they were the victims, though they themselves are wrapt in gloom and darkness, the songs shine out brightly. These heart-outpourings were a consolation and a solace to them and their little world in their affliction ; and because of their artlessness and naturalness they have not lost their power to please the generations that come after them. They have none of the melodious lusciousness of a Swinburne, none of the etherialism of a Shelley, none of the dignity of a Tennyson, none of the majesty of a Byron, but they have a sweetness and tender eloquence, a coyness and a pathos, a pureness and un
THE IRISH BARDS AND SONG-WRITERS.
affectedness, a light-hearted sentimentality, which are not found so constantly, or not found at all, in the songs of other peoples. The songs, whether of love, or patriotic, or convivial, come from the heart, appeal to the heart, and dwell in the heart; they are intensely human. It is because of these qualities, rather than because of literary merit, that they are ever fresh and that they deserve to be known, remembered and sung by the sons of the people for whom they first were sung.
The deficiency in literary merit is easily accounted for. Not only is it to be remembered that there were no facilities or means of literary education, but, even if there had been, the majority of these poets made their songs for their own time and their own people. The chief aim was to gain and maintain a contemporary popularity and fame, and not a fame amongst posterity. The preservation of many of their compositions is accidental, and due, not to the composer's industry and care, but to the care of friends and admirers and to tradition. The songs may remain, but, as we have said, the writers are mere shadows, nonentities to us. Their names are strange and unfamiliar; their lives are deep in the dark. They are obscurities on the whole, and on the whole they did not rise to a high literary level. Because of these circumstances, and because of the entire paucity of poets who might be esteemed as great poets, we find a Thomas Moore unduly magnified and belauded until he is made to seem as great as his poetcontemporaries. We also find that compilers and collectors of Irish literature claim as Irish writers numbers who have no title whatsoever to be so regarded. The exigencies of an editor perhaps compel him to this course; for Celtic-Irish literature cannot provide a very brilliant collection of writings, and therefore Anglo-Irish writers, and writers who were in no sense Irish or part Irish, are pressed into the service. Perhaps it is a pardonable vanity to claim such as Irish, and to make boast of them; it is hero-worship, though of a distorted and selfish description. Thus we find Swift and Sterne, Congreve and Farquhar, 'Cooper Hill Denham' and Steele, and a multitude of minor literati, set down in our collections of Irish authors. For this there is no other reason than that the mothers of these happened to be on Irish soil when they gave birth to them. These names may be surrendered with reluctance, but Ireland has no claim on hem. Gold
Goldsmith, Davis, Lover, Lever, and numerous others, are not Celtic-Irish, but Anglo-Irish; and they and their songs will form a second series of this work. This volume deals only with song-writers of the Celtic-Irish race; for we are satisfied that their songs, be they forgotten or famous, are sufficiently interesting to be collected, sufficiently meritorious and characteristic to be read and studied, sufficiently gay and humorous to be remembered, and sufficiently melodious, pure, tender, and pathetic to touch the hearts and affections of all readers, even in this commercial and costermonger age.'
There are a few considerations to be noted in regard to those whose biographies are here briefly given. With the exception of the Sheridan family, all the Celtic-Irish songwriters are of immediately humble birth. We say 'immediately humble,' for possibly they were all descendants of ancestors who, in remote mythical ages, or even later,
vere kings, or chiefs, or hereditary bards. But in Irish poetbiographies there are no Surreys, or Buckhursts, or Byrons, or Swinburnes-no aristocratic writers, in fact. From the peasant class, or a social grade but one degree above it,
THE IRISH BARDS AND SONG-WRITERS.
Irish song-writers are taken. Nor is this to be wondered at, when it is remembered that the Irish nobles and chiefs, before they were plundered, exiled, or exterminated, filled their days with sterner pursuits than the study and fosterage of polite literature. As long as bards were an institution, it was their office to make and recite poetry; and harpers were in permanent service to play and sing. The extinction of bardism was simultaneous with the extinction of the Irish aristocracy. There was not either a middle class in Ireland. After the Elizabethan settlement the native Irish were, on the whole, reduced to a condition of serfdom, were made ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water; in fact, the Irish nation became, between Elizabeth and Cromwell, a nation of peasants. Their own language was proscribed, and the conditions attached to learning the English language were intolerable to them. The wonder, therefore, is, not that these singers should have been peasants, but that there were any singers at all: and having sung, that they should have sung so well and truly. ' In the ancient days the bards were of the kin of princes, were rewarded with: lands and castles, were circled with privileges, were regarded with a sacred awe. But in the later days those who made songs enjoyed no privileges, but struggled through countless difficulties, and emancipated themselves from disheartening drawbacks; they received no rewards, were humble and poor. Of the song writers whose lives are briefly recorded in this volume, the majority were directly the sons of peasants, or a little better; which fact considering, and considering also the wretched means for a fugitive and, at best, elementary education which were alone accessible to them, the productions of these Irish song-writers are marvellous for their poetic