Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Welsh Eisteddfods

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3069179Once a Week, Series 1, Volume V — Welsh Eisteddfods
1861George Phillips Bevan


Notwithstanding the jealous care of antiquarians and archæological societies, there are but few places in the kingdom where old customs have not disappeared in these days of railways and telegraphs, as if the country had become too utilitarian, or too engrossed in business to waste time or money in shows, guilds, and pageants.

To me such occurrences as the Preston Guild, the Lady Godiva procession at Coventry, and the Shrewsbury pageant are interesting and picturesque, and if of no use, afford at all events a pleasant holiday to many hard-worked townsfolk. Of a higher and more attractive, because more national class of meetings, the Eisteddfods of Wales are worthy of record, not because they are likely to become extinct—for they seem at this moment more flourishing than ever—but because the Welsh appear to be the only race, a component part of Great Britain, which has not had its nationality so rubbed out, if one may use the term, by constant intercourse with the English, as to forget that it ever had any national customs.

While the amount of good that these Eisteddfods do, as they are at present carried on, may be questioned, they certainly offer a field for local genius, which would otherwise never be displayed, and also perpetuate Welsh characteristics of temper and talent to a remarkable degree.

Among these characteristics love of country is certainly a very marked feature, and a determined belief that everything good had its origin in Wales; not to mention a pugnacious way of arguing the case, when doubt is thrown on their assertions by incredulous heretics.

Tell a Welsh dissenting minister that the Church is gaining ground, or a bard that the Eisteddfods are nonsensical, and you are overwhelmed with a storm of fiery reproach, followed up in the county paper by a number of strongly-worded letters, in which the subject is pursued until the editor inserts a notice that all future communications must be paid for as advertisements.

It certainly is a great question how far the Eisteddfods are useful or mischievous, some asserting that as long as the Welsh is kept up, so long will the English language be retarded; while others rush to the opposite extreme, and think that by proving that bardism began with Adam, they have done signal service to their native country.

The truth probably is that these assemblies are neither very good nor very bad, but might be made productive of much use, when divested of their mummery, by developing national talent and encouraging sound instruction.

And if their promoters like to dress themselves up as bards and druids, and if plain Mr. Jones likes to dub himself with the high-sounding name of Taliesyn or Cuhelyn, there is not much harm in it. Tennyson and Tupper might call themselves Ossian and Chaucer if they pleased. Not that I would ever place our modern bards in the same category with the Welsh poets, who I rather think have a dim notion that nobody would listen to their effusions when offered to the public under their own names. However, apart from these absurdities, there is no doubt but that a large amount of old Welsh lore, which would otherwise have sunk into oblivion, has been kept up, and much interesting information elicited; and if the English language, which is so rapidly gaining ground in Wales, was only more encouraged, instead of being kept so much in the back ground, the Eisteddfods would really become valuable institutions. And in saying this I do not wish the Welsh language to become extinct; but when we observe how the other national languages, such as the Erse, Manx, Irish, and Cornish have nearly all died away, it is folly to fight against an inevitable order of things; and the Welshman will best consult the interests of his country, while preserving her old customs, by adapting himself and fellow Cymri to the requirements of the age.

As the Eisteddfods are of ancient institution, and are conducted after a traditional fashion, it may not be uninteresting to detail the proceedings for the benefit of such of my readers as may not have witnessed one. An Eisteddfod (plural, Eisteddfodau) Cymreigiddion is an assembly of Welshmen for the purpose of hearing speeches, essays, music, and poetry in the Welsh tongue, for all of which subjects prizes are offered, frequently amounting to a very considerable sum. These meetings are known to have been held, as early as the sixth century, on an eminence near the now fashionable watering place of Llandudno, although the first detailed account did not take place until 1176, when Rhys ap Gryffydd, Prince of Wales, held a congress in Cardigan Castle, on which occasion the prize for poetry was gained by a North Welshman.

The opening of the Eisteddfod is usually preceded by some mysterious ceremonies called the Gorsedd, for which a pedigree is claimed dating from 1000 years before the Christian era, and which can be conducted only by those who are initiated into the sacred rites (or mummeries, as many may be disposed to call them).

The place for holding the Gorsedd is usually an open space, in the centre of which is a huge stone, the “Maen Llog,” surrounded by a circle, thirty feet in diameter, of twelve other stones, supposed to represent the signs of the Zodiac. On the outside of the eastern portion of the circle three other stones are placed, in such a position as regards the Gorsedd stone, that lines drawn from it to them will indicate the rising of the sun in the summer and winter solstices, and the equinoxes respectively. The form which these lines, or pencils of light as they are termed, would assume in the mystic symbol of the bards and druids, and when written down appear thus awen, is in fact the druidic expression for the Creator of all things. To this Gorsedd stone a solemn procession is formed, which is at least curious and picturesque, owing to the peculiar dresses assumed by the different orders. The colour of the bards is blue, to symbolise the blue sky, and supposed to indicate peace and tranquillity; the druids are dressed in white, significant of great purity; and the ovates or candidates for the higher orders are (rather unfortunately) habited in green, to represent the grass of the field, which is typical of growth and progress.

Another singular custom is the carrying of a sword by a bard, who holds it by the point, to show that he is a man of peace, and would rather turn the weapon against himself in preference to any others.

On arriving at the circle, a prayer, said to have been composed 1300 years ago, is recited to the following effect:—

May Heaven grant strength,
And to strength add understanding,
And to understanding, knowledge,
And to knowledge, what is just,
And to what is just, love,
And to love, the love of all things,
And in the love of all things, the love of God.

As soon as the prayer is finished, the Gorsedd is declared to be opened, and the business of conferring degrees on the bards and ovates is proceeded with. Of the three orders the ovate is the lowest.

Under the old druidic dispensation, he was required to devote twenty years of his life (rather a long period of incubation) before he could qualify as a bard, to gain which honour he had to study the laws and maxims of the institution, generally in verse, besides using his brains to compose fresh ones. At the expiration of his time he became a bard, which gave him the privilege of holding or presiding at Gorsedds, as well as instructing disciples, which was usually done in a series of pithy truisms called triads. Although they are full, even to repletion, of wisdom, they are characterised a good deal by repetition, and were sometimes not a little obscure to ordinary mortals who had not the advantage of studying them for twenty years; as for instance, “the three dignities of poetry are the praise of goodness, the memory of what is remarkable, and the invigoration of the affections.” And again, “three things to be chiefly considered in poetical illustration—what shall be obviously, what shall be instantly admired, and what shall be eminently characteristic.” Some of these “proverbial philosophies” are rather graceful, as “the three primary requisites of poetical genius:—an eye that can see nature, a heart that can feel nature, and a resolution that dares follow nature.” Literature, however, was not the only thing that the bards had to look after, for morals also came within their scope, as we find that the three ultimate objects of bardism were “to reform morals, secure peace, and follow everything that is good,”—a delightfully comprehensive view of the whole duty of man, which was still further carried out by “the three things forbidden to bards—immorality, satire, and bearing of arms.” The only thing that one wonders at is, that so many people could be found to undertake such heavy responsibilities. I fancy, though, that some of these laws must be obsolete, for I know at least two bards who are enthusiastic members of a rifle corps. In former times, it was considered rather a good thing to be a bard; for we read in one of the laws of Howell Dda (the Welsh Coke upon Littleton), that whoever injured a bard, even slightly, had to pay a fine of six cows and 120 pence, while a murderer of one was mulcted in 126 cows. Bards also had the privilege of passing in safety through a hostile country, of maintenance wherever they went, and, what was more valuable to a Welshman than anything else, according to Giraldus, their word was to be taken before that of any other person. Nevertheless, it is to be feared that the bards were not the perfect characters they ought to have been; for it is recorded that Gryffydd ap Cynan, one of the kings of Wales, in order to restrain their inordinate vanity, enacted, “That if a minstrel offended in certain points, any man whatsoever might arrest and inflict discretional punishment on him—seize whatever property he had about his person.” The highest order of all was that of the Druids, who united in their sacred persons the office of priest and judge, and traversed the whole country trying causes and instructing the people. Though the worship of the Druids is generally looked upon as a mixture of the savage and the impious, it is probable that they were clever observant men, well versed in many of the phenomena of natural philosophy, by which they maintained their power over the people. But Druidism as a system does not appear—according to the statements of some of the literati cymreigidd—to have been of that heathenish nature with which it is popularly invested—at least, so I understood a speech made at an Eisteddfod at Llangollen, in which the hearers were informed that bardism was as ancient as Noah, or even Adam, and when the dispersion of nations took place, the Cymri were the only ones who, without revelations, kept the true religion undefiled; so that when the Messiah came, they saw that He answered the types they had of Him, and accepted the Gospel as a completion of Druidism, which consequently was the basis of all Christianity—a very satisfactory and complacent way of settling all difficulties upon the point.

The peculiar systems of the Druids were not to be revealed except to descendants of the order, amongst whom there are some even now existing, who carry the fearful secret in their breasts, which they are bound to keep inviolate under fear of pains and penalties, to which the conventional red-hot poker of freemasonry is nothing. Above all, if the Archdruid holds secrets in proportion to his rank, it is a wonder how he can go through life: but not only does he do so, but is a very affable and pleasant-spoken gentleman, who, if you chance to meet him in company, as I had the pleasure of doing, does not overwhelm you with an undue sense of his exalted position. But the Archdruid at a dinner-party, and the Archdruid presiding over a congress of bards, are very different people, and I feel shocked to this day at having ventured to speak familiarly with a being who, as he himself informed us at a Gorsedd on the “Maen Chwyf,” or rocking stone, on the banks of the Taff, was “the representative of the first progenitor of mankind, and was also figuratively the sun of the moral world!”

Having examined the leading features of the Gorsedd, I will briefly describe those of the Eisteddfod, which is thrown open to the profanum vulgus who are not initiated into the mysteries of bardism. This is, after all, the most important business of the day; and if on a large scale, as those at Denbigh last year, and at Merthyr Tydvil the year before, attract a large number of visitors as well as competitors for the prizes. The programme consists of speeches, essays, poetry, and harp playing, which is almost always the cream of the whole performance. Of the former some are good, and evince much patient research and learning, and when on a sensible subject,—such as “The Mineral Resources of Wales,” which gained a prize at Llangollen,—are calculated to be of immense utility to the country.

A very common form of poem is the “Englyn,” usually composed in honour of some person or some personal event, and generally embodied in a few lines or stanzas. Frequently they are racy and expressive, but too often—particularly in small local Eisteddfods—the englynion in praise of a person are fulsome and laudatory to a laughable degree.

The harp playing is always more or less good, and, from its characteristic nationality, is pleasant to hear. The Welsh harp, however, appears to have derived its origin from Ireland; for, as late as the eleventh century, the Welsh were accustomed to pass over into that country to receive instruction in the harp and the bardic profession generally; and it is said that Gryffydd ap Cynan, before mentioned, brought over from thence “divers curious musicians,” from whom was derived a great part of the instrumental music. The harps used at the performances of the Eisteddfods, as elsewhere in the principality, are not the large pedal harps which are turned out all gold and ornament from Erard’s factory, but are rather small, triple-stringed instruments, which, to any one but a native, would be perplexing in the extreme. Many of them, however, are of very great sweetness, and are adapted before all others for the simple pathos of the Welsh airs. The most peculiar performance connected with the harp is the style of accompanied singing known as “pennillion singing,” which certainly, I think, nobody but a Welshman could ever imagine or execute. The singer does not begin with the strain, but strikes up whenever he likes, at the third, fourth, or fifth bar, although at whatever point he commences, he is in duty bound to end with the strain which contains eight bars. The great point seems to lie in the number of words that they can cram in, so as to bring the air and stanzas to a simultaneous conclusion. To judge by the frequent applause which pennillion singing always evokes, it is evidently the favourite portion of the programme with the Welsh hearers, who, I fancy, care more for the music and englynion than anything else. Indeed, nobody who has ever lived in the principality can fail to remark the universal love of music in the Welsh character, in some cases amounting almost to a passion.

There are few towns or villages which do not possess their choir (probably attached to some chapel), which attends at the different Eisteddfods for the purpose of competing for a prize, and sustaining the reputation of the neighbourhood. Sometimes there is an individual competition, the subject being an air out of the “Messiah,” which is the oratorio par excellence of the Welsh; while on other occasions each choir is at liberty to select what they like best. In the mining districts particularly there is a great passion for Handel, and the “Messiah” in particular, and I am bound to say that difficulties never stand in the way of a Welsh choir, for they almost always select a chorus in which there is most fugue—a style of music which appears to delight them immensely. The hymns and anthems which every choir-leader is sure to compose for his flock, generally abound in rapid runs and fugues, in which the different parts are certainly taken up with great precision. It is a pity that with all their innate love of music, and their capabilities for it, that the Welsh do not possess a wider range, and that a greater knowledge of the works of the great masters is not more frequently attempted, as has been done in the case of the Lancashire and Yorkshire folks, who have by such practice attained a reputation as first-rate chorus singers; but it is to be feared that the national vanity and conceit stands in the way of all improvement, as it has so frequently done before.

G. P. B.