Another large audience listened to the third lecture by E. Charlton Black on English literature. He spoke of Celtic prose and poetry, and the subject was so full of elementary and historic details that it needed all of Mr. Black's peculiar charm to lend it lively interest.
No people, said he, have been so low in social conditions that they have not felt the need of some expression of the peculiar temper of their age. Even in the midst of the British invasions upon England, the harp and song accompanied and perpetuated the deeds of these rough warriors. There is no question that there existed before the arrival of the Romans a distinct Celtic literature which gained its peculiar character from the domination of the Druids.
These Druids were living repositories of learning. They spent a great part of their life in committing to memory an enormous number of verses, embracing the experience and the ideals of the people. To retain these the more surely in their minds a great number of mechanical devices were invented, and these devices, especially that of rhyme, have lasted to our own days.
After their own invasions, the next stirring epoch in the life of the Celts came with the invasions of the Anglo Saxons. The grand figure in these conflicts is that of King Arthur, and the fountain of romance that has found its source in his life seems inexhaustible. Such modern poets as Wadsworth, Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold, have shown themselves greatly influenced by the history or the legends of this mediaeval hero.
The Celts were divided into two parts as a result of these wars. We may call the Highlands of Scotland the characteristic home of the Garlic branch, and Wales of the Cimbric branch. The Gallic Celts found in Fingal a hero worth succeeding King Arthur, and their poetry is largely devoted to his exploits. The Cimbric branch developed rhyme into something like the form in which we have it today. There are suspicions of rhyme in antecedent Arabic literature; and scattering hits also in Latin poetry. The Druids however were obliged to assist their memory in committing their religious verses, and rhyme, strong and unmistakeable, was first used by them.
Another device was the tryad, or a composition of three facts, fancies or maxims with a certain underlying resemblance. The device enabled the Druids to put things in compact and striking form.
The poems of the Celts are chiefly cynical. They have never made a success in war or politics, and naturally their poems would not be didactic or ethical. They have no humor about their poems, but in all these there is a one of sadness always prevalent and generally distinct. As the great nation was pushed back from its vast empire, and again and again suffered defeat, their spirit was not broken, but their despondence is everywhere to be seen.
The peculiar merits of the Celtic character were the quick eye, the responsive mind and the sensitive soul. They were naturally gifted with a light and airy temper. It made them appreciate the beauties of nature to a wonderful degree, and gave them their exquisite sense of a fine expression of a fine thought. They were the very opposite of he phlegmatic Saxons. These latter proved the conquerors in physical force, but the Celts no less in intellectual life.