Sunday, 7 July 2013

Matthew Arnold ( 24/12/1822 -15/4/88) - Celtic Magic

In Matthew Arnold's lifetime only a quarter of his productive life was given to writing poetry, his reputation rests equally on his prose and critical essays, especially the relationship of man and nature. Ideas that W.B Yeats himself would later develop. Both attracted to the secrets of natural beauty and natural magic.
Here is a famous essay where he draws on these themes, which he brings alive with much eloquence..

'The Celt's quick feeling for what is noble and distinguished gave his poetry style; his indomitable personality gave it pride and passion; his sensibility and nervous exaltation gave it a better gift still, the gift of rendering with wonderful felicity the magical charm of nature. The forest solitude, the bubbling spring, the wild flowers, are everywhere in romance. They have a mysterious life and grace there; they are Nature's own children, and utter her secret in a way which makes them something quite different from the woods, waters and plants of Greek and Latin poetry.  Now of this delicate magic, Celtic romance is so pre-eminent a mistress, that it seems impossible to believe the power did not come into romance from the Celts. Magic is just the word for it, - the magic of nature; not merely the beauty of nature,-  that the Greeks and Latins had; not merely an honest smack of the soil, a faithful realism - that the Germans had; but the intimate life of Nature, her weird power and her fairy charm . . . Gwydion wants a wife for his pupil: "Well." says Math, " we will seek, I and thou, by charms and illusions, to form a wife for him out of flowers." So they took the blossoms of the oak, and the blossoms of the broom, and the blossoms of the meadow-sweet, and produced from them a maiden, the fairest and most graceful that man ever saw. And they baptized her, and gave her the name of Flower-Aspect." Celtic romance is full of exquisite touches like that, showing the delicacy of the Celt's feeling in these matters, and how deeply Nature lets him come into her secrets. The quick dropping of blood is called "faster than the fall of the dewdrop from the blade of red-grass upon the earth, when the dew of June is at the heaviest." And this is Olwen described:
"More yellow was her hair than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood-anemony amidst the spray of the meadow fountains."

For loveliness it would be hard to beat that; and for magical clearness and nearness take the following:

"And in the evening Peredur entered a valley, and at the head of the valley he came to a hermit's cell, and the hermit welcomed him gladly, and there he spent the night. And in the morning he arose, and when he went forth, behold a shower of snow had fallen the niight before, and a hawk had killed a wild-fowl in front of the cell. And the noise of the horse scared the hawk away, and a raven alighted upon the bird. And Peredur stood and compared the blacknness of the raven, and the whiteness of the snow, and the redness of the blood, to the hair of the lady whom best he loved, which was blacker than the raven, and to her skin, which was whiter than the snow, and to her two cheeks, which were redder than the blood upon the  snow appeared to be."

And this, which is perhaps less striking, is not less beautiful:

"And early in the day Geraint and Enid left the wood, and they came to an open country, with meadows on one hand and mowers mowing the meadows. And there was a river before them, and the horses bent down and drank the water. And they went up out of the river by a steep bank, and there they met a slender stripling with a satchel about his neck; and he had a small pitcher in his hand, and
a bowl on the mouth of the pitcher."

And here the landscape, up to this point so Greek in its clear beauty, is suddenly magicalised by the romance touch:

"And  they saw a tall tree by the side of the river, one-half of which was in flames from the root to the top and the other half was green and in full leaf."

Magic is the word to insist upon, - a magically vivid and near interpretation of nature; since it is this which constitutes the special charm and poer of the effect I am calling attention to, and it is for this that the Celt's sensibility gives him a peculiar aptitude.

Matthew Arnold - On the Study of Celtic Literature

For those interested in Celtic themes and narratives, I will also refer you to The Mabinogion a rich collection of texts relating to the mythological past of the British isles. A collection that I return to again and again.

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