Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Sir Thomas Malory

Malory’s 1471 version of the story of King Arthur, said to be the first great prose epic to be written in English (I guess Beowulf doesn’t count), is probably the most enduring version of Arthurian legend.

His story follows that of Geoffrey’s but incorporated many motifs of the French Lays. How much is Malory’s own invention, as with Geoffrey’s version, is still under speculation as we don’t know what was still circulating in the oral tradition. 

Said to be written while Malory, a roughish knight and politician of Warwickshire, while he was imprisoned for many civil crimes during the reign of Edward IV, the tale ends with a plea for the prayer of his soul, so, once again, who was his audience? 

Let us look at the motifs: like Geoffrey’s story, this tale focuses on the conception, birth, life, love and death of King Arthur and his knights. A tale of, and for the nobility with adventure, honor, courtly etiquette, chivalry and jousting central to the story—which gives some clue to 14th c. mores and preoccupations. 

Sir Lancelot, a Cú Chulainn figure, is Arthur’s foremost champion. But because of his enduring love for Gwynevere, is impure, he cannot seek the Grail (the Celtic cauldron)—said to be a holy relic brought by Jesus’ father!—only a pure and virtuous knight. 

The only three (pure) white bulls of the Round Table: Sir Gareth, Sir Galahad and the third bull with the black spot (= one sexual adventure) King Pelles. The rest are with blemish. So they find the Grail in the Waste Lands, but since the clergy knew where it was all along, why couldn’t they either help/or get it themselves? 

Does the Grail shrive the knights from their sins or save anybody? Not really. Lancelot repents for his behavior in the end, but it seems to have little to do with the Grail itself. 

Gawain’s revenge (avenging murdered kin is a central motif) upon Lancelot hastens the destruction of King Arthur’s court—with a little help from Sir Mordred, Arthur’s incestuous stepson, who seizes the throne and Gwynevere while Arthur is fighting Lancelot in Brittany. In this blood feud we have the House of Arthur versus the House of Lancelot, in short, we have the War of the Roses in allegorical format with Marcher Lords and the fickle populace switching sides at will.

The role of the ultimate victory and power of the church is a strong story element, much stronger than in Geoffrey’s story, and he, a bishop! The stories of Tristram and the Holy Grail are so allegorical, they seem to be written (or edited) by someone other than Malory—perhaps he was appealing to the clergy? 

Saving souls and repentance play strong roles. The might of the church aside, many of the age-old Celtic motifs are present throughout: the three “F”s (feasting, fighting, and, er, swivving.) 

We have godlike heroes fighting the enemy and in times of peace, each other. We have betrayals, brother killing brother, false identities, incest, magic swords stuck in rocks, feasts, funeral barges, numerology (three days and nights, 15 days, a year and a day, seven years); apple trees, visions, miracles and allegory (seven knights/hermits = the seven deadly sins), 

We have questing beasts, monsters magic wells and rivers where noblewomen ride by on white palfreys, where heroes enter into the otherworld, where battles are fought, where all women are beautiful and are either sorceresses or virtuous. A preoccupation with noble blood, virginity and sex. 

Few commoners mentioned; oblique references to the common soldier, a woodsman, some foresters and hermits but most of these characters seem to have magical powers. As with Geoffrey’s story, Merlin doesn’t play a big role in the story. So many characters are imbued with druidic powers, it’s hard to categorize them. 

Only the clergy can correctly interpret dreams (how did they get this powerful?) Blood magic is a strong element throughout. Naming (or withholding of a name—sometimes with dire consequences—as with Cú Chulainn and Connla ) also prevalent. A virtual crescendo of miracles occur as the clergy take a stronger role toward the heavily moralized end of the story where Lancelot and Gwynevere repent and join monasteries. So many masses are said, I lost count! But God wins in the end.

Thursday, October 19, 2000

The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Whether it be fact or fantasy, Geoffrey’s History is a very readable, gossipy text. Because it is a modern translation from the Latin, it is harder to judge the voice/tone of the text—though Prof. Lewis Thorpe insists he was faithful to the original text—whatever that was.

There were several different texts including a pseudo-Geoffrey text. Geoffrey, who was probably Welsh, claims an earlier text, now lost, for his source material which in 1136, he also claims to have translated into Latin from the British. So we might have a 6 - 11th c. text translated from Welsh/British into Latin in 1136, and then into English in 1966. 

During the 12th c., monks were churning out manuscripts and there already was a tradition of pseudo-historical Latin texts in Britain: Gildas (6th c.), Bede (8th c.) Nennius (9th c), So Geoffrey’s claim is possible. 

Though the text covers 1900 years’ worth of the pseudo-history of British kings, it reminds me of the Irish Lebar Gabala, which is referred to: “Their leader, whose name was Partholoim,” Geoffrey’s dynastic book was meant to be read silently, not aloud after feasts—where everything needs to be repeated—who was his audience? 

If Shakespeare owes much to Geoffrey’s story of King Lear, then Geoffrey owes much to his fellow chroniclers and to Caesar. We have the usual Celtic leitmotifs—battles, single-hand combat, berzerker frenzy, fosterage, revenge, crossed-fealty, broken oaths, treachery, shape-changing. 

We have giants, magic burial stones transported from Ireland, sacred fires, feasts, potlatches, fords and hazel woods, etc. We have new elements of chivalry—though it could be construed that chivalry is merely an extension of Celtic Heroic society. 

Geoffrey’s main characters are the Trojan Brutus (this story stretches credulity but there really were Celts in Asia Minor) who founded and named Britain (“the best of islands”) after himself; his son Kamber who named Kambria/Wales; Brutus’ ancestors, the infamous brothers Belinus and Brennius who sacked Rome (he knows Hellenic writings but not historic dates) who ravage the Franks! 

Cassivelaunus who fights Caesar, and Arthur, who occupies much of the text. Interesting to reread Caesar through a Geoffrey-colored lens. Shades of interpretatio Gaufrido who does wicked things to historical timelines!

Arthur is modeled after Caesar—conquering the Islands, Europe and even Rome. Much of the story is hinged on the prophecies and magic of Merlin and Pallatius, druid winds, etc.; a Druid college is mentioned. 

The Prophecy of Merlin is the weirdest text I’ve read: all those animals—totemic, tribal or kinglists? Merlin disappears after Gorlais’s death and never even meets Arthur! The British are almost always spoken of in a favorable light—though Geoffrey repeatedly reminds us their arrogant and quarrelsome nature works against them—and indeed it eventually is the source of their God-ordained downfall. 

Geoffrey paints the Saxons, Irish, Scots & Picts in a malevolent light—as he does the kings of the East (who were probably Christian!) and of course, evil Mordred. Interesting change of tone with the final chapter on the Saxon as the true inheritors of Britain after it was ravaged by civil wars and plagues—partially due to the introduction of a bad seed? Malgo’s line. 

Geoffrey owes much to Bede here. Interesting to see the doings of Edwin, Cadwallo and Penda fleshed out so. Throughout, the clergy are portrayed in cloying favor—obviously they are of the nobility. Even St Patrick is mentioned. God is wrathful, more akin to the Wheel of Fate than to Reason. 

Once again, this is a story for the nobility, not for the peasant or craftsman. The ultimate insult is that the surviving Britons get demoted to Welshmen.

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Poetry at the Coffee Mill Tobey Kaplan & Maureen Hurley

The Wonder Smith & his Son, Ella Young, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

A Tale from the Golden Childhood of the World
Longman, Green & Co., NY, © 1927; Floris, Edinburgh, 1992
(In lieu of Celtic Wonder Tales, which I couldn’t find)
by Ella Young

Another book by Ella Young, in the same genre as Celtic Wonder Tales, is a collection of stories about the “Gubbaun Saor, whose other name was Mananaun, whose other name was Cullion the Smith...” Young writes in her foreword, “He was a maker of worlds and a shaper of universes.”

Young learned many stories as a child in Co. Antrim, Ireland. Born in 1867, Young was acquainted with Dr. Hyde and the Celtic Revival, and she collected her stories in Ireland. Later, in California, she wrote them down. “The stories were told to me in Gaelic at times, at times in English.” Patrick Gallagher was her main source. She wrote, “I have amplified the tales but I have not altered any incident.”

The first time I read the stories I thought them pointless. I had trouble recognizing Irish words as her transliteration is pre- Modern Irish. Dún is written as “dune,” which had me wondering why on earth anyone would be building a sand dune city! 

Upon second reading, I was better able to enjoy her extraordinary use of Hiberneo-English, rich imagery and metaphor: To the Gubbaun’s feast came king’s sons on white stallions with bells and apples of gold on their reins, their tails and manes “dyed a crimson-purple...” and the land of Ireland was so glad at his home-coming, the four directions played a music so wild that “...the white bulls of the forest moved to it, tossing their moon-curved horns...” 

 The backdrop of poetry is central to the story. One recognizes echoes of Amergin’s Mystery in it. As a cross-check, I also read Irish Fairy Tales (by Crocker, MacManus and Jacobs), they seemed dull and pedantic by comparison.

The loosely joined incidents, intended to “shorten a road,” do form a cohesive story about the Gubbaun. They are chock full of Celtic references as a dragon’s lair is filled with golden treasure: triads, blessings, spells, gessa, ogham, trees, white hounds, white bulls, pookas, piasts, ever-full cups, red capes, shape-shifters, a betraying giant: Balor of the One Eye, a Formorian King, and other gods (Angus, Midir), The Hag at the Ford, The Chief Poet, Tír na n-Óge...

The Gubbaun Saor, the cleverest wonder smith in the world, got his trade from a magic bag of tools dropped by three ravens who were once djinn craftsmen building a fairy city of stone, but a red-polled woman peeked and broke the spell.... 

The Gubbaun Saor became an inventor and builder of things. He had a crackerjack daughter Aunya, as wise as he, whom he traded (in fosterage) with an old woman for her son, Lugh, who was next to useless but played a mean fairy flute. 

Unable to teach Lugh anything, he regretted his bargain, and when Lugh was of marriageable age, The Gubbaun Saor interviewed many woman; only one was as clever as he, but she outwitted him over a sheepskin and mysteriously left. 

He sent Lugh in search of the cleverest woman in Ireland, with the sheepskin, saying: bring back both the skin and its price. Lugh was flummoxed but met a beautiful girl with hair of spun gold who took the sheepskin, plucked it of its wool and gave him back the skin with its price. Lugh sent the hound home and the Gubbaun made ready a feast for Aunya. But she drove a hard bargain for the Gubbaun’s forgiveness.... For the rest, you’ll just have to read the story yourself!

The Lay of the last Minstrel, Sir Walter Scott, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Sir Walter Scott

Scott’s long poem in 6 cantos is a story within a story written in heroic couplets, and it utilizes antique language so characteristic of the corpus of the Romantic poets.

The framing device is the last bard, or minstrel, who recounts the deeds of her illustrious ancestors to the lady of the manor born—the Duchess of Buccleugh at Newark Castle. 

Like the Táin, this tale is of and for the nobility, and the story is nearly lost but the minstrel holds the memory of her Clan’s deeds. However, time has left him behind. Noble families have no need of his services. 

I don’t know when the Lay was written (ca. 1800, during Mad King George’s reign?), however, the story takes place in the mid-1600s with the decay of the Bardic Order (the inter-regnal period?) with references to the Civil- and Border Wars. 

But the tale harkens back two generations to the end of the 1500s (Eliz I). Scottish society, both pastoral and warlike, was changing, becoming literate, if we can trust Dr. Johnson’s observations. “They said a great family had a Bard and a Senachie who were the poet and historian of the house... but that neither Bard nor Senachie had existed for some centuries.”

The action begins Michaelmas Eve, and ends three days and three nights later, culminating in a great feast—as told by the harper/historian who rustily resurrects the past. 

The story is filled with episodes of skirmishes, single-hand-combat, heroic boasting and honor code—many elements seemingly right out of the Táin—as are the extensive detail of battles and of dress. We have chivalry and pageantry bestudded with wronged knights, an illicit love tryst between the children of rival families (and nations: Scots Lady Margaret “the flower of Teviot” of Branksome Hall and English Lord Henry Cranstoun).

 We’ve got a wizard, Michael Scott, restless in his tomb at St Mary’s Abbey, a midnight raid to steal his treasure, his magic book that wouldn’t open for unChristian hands (remember: sitting on a grave gets you otherworld information!), a monk struck dead for fulfilling his Clan duties, a goblin page/changeling (and the kidnapping of young Buccleogh, hell hounds, a Robin Hood-ish hunter-rescuer yeoman), dead warriors brought back to life, shape shifters, druid shades, ghosts and fairies from the sidhe/barrows—even Arthur, as a constellation, is evoked. 

Did I mention spells gone awry? This is a wild wooded landscape (unlike Johnson’s 1773 landscape where he bemoaned the serious lack of trees throughout Scotland).

We’ve got jumbled historic references: St George, and the Crusades? (red cross) are thrown in for good measure. Lady Margaret of Branksome Hall (Scott’s relation?) of French origin (Picardie) ties this tale in with the French Romances—there’s something of the Provençale trouvere style hinted at as well. She’s a bit druidic herself as she has some influence with the weather. And she can heal mortal wounds—or is that her mother? 

Even with Scott’s prologue explaining the action, I was hopelessly unhorsed by Canto 3. I climbed back into the saddle. But by Canto 5, I was stirrup-less, and by Canto 6, I was beneath the belly of the beast—or maybe I was a head dangling from the Night-mare’s mane! HELP! Who are all those knights? 

I gleaned little other than bardic rivalry after the triumphant final feast—many ballads were pastiched into the text. Is Albert Grahaeme the Last Bard? But I do know that the Minstrel lived happily ever after in a little hut on the estate of Newark Castle. I’m afraid the Romantic poets try my patience.

NB: Weirdly enough, I sometimes have curious dreams of poetic lines and obscure words I’ve not heard of: Heriot (p 87,) baffled me for ages. I dreamt it appeared in bold Gothic letters superimposed on the woods of north Britain—I was dressed in a filmy white gown, my feet not quite touching the dewy grass, I was keeper of the woods, for what, or where, I knew not. I later racked my brain trying to figure out if, and where I previously saw the word, to no avail. Unfortunately Scott sheds no light on the subject either.

The Bard, by Thomas Grey, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Thomas Grey

The Bard is a poem written in 3 parts set at the time of the 1282 Conquest of Edward the First, when he invaded the kingdom of Llewlyn ap Griffith, “the last Welsh prince.” Edward the First “Longshanks” (“Cambria’s curse”) ordered all the bards be put to death. “

Politically the Conquest brought to the bardic order a diminished status...” A. H. Dodd writes of a vanishing social order (A Short History of Wales); future bards “soft-peddled warlike and political themes.” He recounts a bard’s tale of a 15th c. bard executed under the crabbed “law of London” for pursuing a family feud. The Statute of Rhyddan didn’t help either, but I digress...

Romantic poet Thomas Gray, a contemporary of Johnson and Goldsmith, opens his poem evoking the majestic Snowden range. He sets in the midst of a tempest, his protagonist, the haggard-eyed Poet, who totters the banks of the raging river “Conway” [Conwy], where he “Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.” Gray weaves a pageantry of kings: Hoel, Llewellyn, Cadwallo, Urien, Mordred?...who was Plinlimmon? “Ye died amidst your dying country’s cries—” 

Gray weaves a warp of ravens, eagles and revenge upon “Edward’s race. The characters of hell...” the succession of Edwards- I, II, and III; the sumptuous—nearly neoclassic—funeral scene in II, 2., must be Richard II?, a beloved (and maligned) hero, obviously well mourned. 

Gray’s tapestry reveals the Henrys- IV, V, VI; Edward IV; a reference to the War of the Roses in symbolic language, and the very, very short reign of Richard III, “The Boar.” After four Edwards, who is evoked in III, 1? 

A segue to the Once and Future King preparing us for the Tudor line? Gray is sympathetic to The Virgin Queene: “Her eye proclaims her of the Briton-Line.” We take a great leap from the 6th c., of the Great Poet Taliesin—who like Arthur, rises again—to the last bard, who speaks in a allegorical Spenserian style (the Red-Cross knight?) as he leaps to his death into the roaring tide.

The landscape is painted majestic—somewhat parallel to the paintings of Constable (too bucolic) or Turner (too industrial), or even Bierstadt who made the American landscape so famous. But David Lloyd showed us a fabulous painting of the last bard leaping to his death, so perhaps my vision is colored by art. “Hark how each giant oak, and desert cave/ Sighs to the torrent’s awful voice beneath!” 

The poem (low on plot) has a two king lists, and a plethora of warriors and damsels. And the endgame: a bard (or warrior) would rather commit suicide rather than face surrender, is an age-old Celtic motif. Thomas Gray's poem kicked of the Romantic Movement as well as becoming the impetus for the founding of the Celtic Twilight movement.

THE BARD: a Pindaric Ode —Thomas Gray 

“Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!
Confusion on thy banners wait!
Tho’ fanned by Conquest’s crimson wing,
They mock the air with idle state.
Helm, nor hauberk’s twisted mail,
Nor e’en thy virtues, Tyrant, shall avail
To save thy secret soul from nightly fears,
From Cambria’s curse, from Cambria’s tears!”
Such were the sounds that o’er the crested pride
Of the first Edward scattered wild dismay,
As down the steep of Snowdon’s shaggy side
He wound with toilsome march his long array.
Stout Glo’ster stood aghast in speechless trance:
“To arms!” cried Mortimer, and couched his quiv’ring lance

On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o’er cold Conway’s foaming flood,
Robed in the sable garb of woe
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard and hoary hair
Streamed like a meteor to the troubled air)
And with a master’s hand, and prophet’s fire,
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.
“Hark, how each giant-oak and desert-cave
Sighs to the torrent’s awful voice beneath!
O’er thee, O King! their hundred arms they wave,
Revenge on thee in hoarser murmurs breathe;
Vocal no more, since Cambria’s fatal day,
To high-born Hoel’s harp, or soft Llewellyn’s lay.

Enough for me: with joy I see
The diff’rent doom our fates assign.
Be thine Despair and sceptred Care;
To triumph and to die are mine.”
He spoke, and headlong from the mountain’s height
Deep in the roaring tide he plunged to endless night.

                               —Thomas Gray, 1757

see also, for an interesting parallel:
Hungary celebrates legendary tale of Welsh bards' slaughter

Friday, October 13, 2000


         —after Karen Finley

So I dared myself to open the car door 
and just lean out as we hugged the cliff
and nothing happened.
So I gave up everything for coffee and beer 
and nothing happened
except I was skinny, wired and a lightweight drunk. 
Drugs lost their thrill.
I cooked lavish meals and watched him eat 
and nothing happened.
So I took up eating meat 
and nothing happened 
except my stomach ached
and I dreamed of falling off cliffs, 
or fell in love with strangers, 
while reading Naked Lunch.
My clothes grew into tents, 
I thought about joining the circus.
One day my skin turned blue 
and I couldn’t eat a thing
except soda crackers 
and nothing happened. 
Beer and coffee lost their thrill.
I was cold, so I opened a Corona 
and crawled in the tub
until I was lobster-red and I thought 
about how veins were like highways.
In a traveling mood, I went north 
and put Christmas ornaments 
on the tomato vines to keep the frost back
and took to staying out late (while he worked nights)
and nothing happened.
I thought about how my veins were like highways. 
Wishing I was Kerouac on the road, 
I tried out homelessness before it was fashionable.
I slept on people’s couches 
and in the back seat of my VW Bug 
in Safeway parking lots
and nothing happened 
except that I felt kinda funny 
whenever I was in a real bed.
I stepped out dressed to the nines
and no one was ever the wiser.
So, I flushed the fetus, damn near bled to death 
and still nothing happened.
and I took to poetry and cross-dressing 
like a retro 40s movie star
with stiletto heels and carmine claws 
while everyone else was discovering
the navel of their earth mother selves
and they all moved to the country 
but I’d already been there, done that,
and nothing happened 
except that I decided to 
rewrite life again.
A lotta good that did.


Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Cuchulain of Muirthemne, by Lady Gregory, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Lady Gregory

In her dedication to the people of Kiltartan, Lady Gregory’s disclaimer of how she took the best of the ancient Irish stories and fitted them together again—clues the reader in that this too is an author’s redaction, not authentic translation.

I found the statement patronizing: “I left out a good deal I thought you would not care about for one reason or another, and I put in nothing of my own that could be helped, only a sentence or so now and again to link the different parts together. I have told the whole story in plain and simple words, in the same way my old nurse Mary Sheridan used to be telling stories from the Irish long ago, and I a child at Roxborough.” 

In her end Notes, L. Gregory further elaborates that she has condensed many passages, and has given a 19th c. context to obscure (medieval) formulae. She used some 24 translated sources of the stories including Scots-Gaelic versions—but no original Irish material. Which makes this book a Victorian paraphrase of secondary and tertiary translations from the German, French, English, and perhaps even Latin—each with their own linguistic flaws—for, to borrow an Italian aphorism: to translate is to assassinate. 

Like with MacPherson, we can no more hold L. Gregory’s text to be an authentic translation as we can the King James version of the Bible—though we continue to swear the whole truth by it. Which brings me back to an idle thought: nurse Mary Sheridan—is L. Gregory making a claim that she understands Irish—or not? It is a romantic notion to have been brought up by an Irish-speaking nurse. I am aware that Gregory and Yeats collaborated on many projects and that he based his plays on her interpretations of the Ulster Cycle.

We get a glimpse of the 1890s mindset from excerpts of Yeats’ review of L. Gregory’s CúChulain. He stated: “...no story has come down to us in the form it had when the storyteller told it in the winter evenings. Lady Gregory has done her work of compression and selection at once so firmly and so reverently that I cannot believe that anybody, except... for a scientific purpose, will need another text than this,.... When she has added her translations from other cycles, she will have given Ireland its Mabinogion, its Morte d’Arthur, its Nibelungenlied.” 

He added: “Lady Gregory has discovered a speech as beautiful as that of Morris, and a living speech into the bargain. ... Irish, and to understand that it is as true a dialect of English as the dialect that Burns wrote in. It is some hundreds of years old, and age gives a language authority. [it is] tender, compassionate, and complaisant, like the Irish language itself. “

With that said, we have a medieval text referring back to the epic/classical past, modernized to Victorian standards, which includes a newfound reverence for Irish exotica, the concept of Hiberneo-English as an art form, and the validation of genuine oral tradition. 

Hard romanticism based on the Classical tradition with many landscapes converging: mythic,/epic, medieval and neoclassic/ romantic. A pastoral landscape peopled with aristocratic heroes, kings and druids. Prophecy, gessa, pathos, hero-death lists, liminal boundaries. 

Synopsis: CúChulain bids his mother goodbye, vessels bleed (3 x); he and Cathbad the Druid see a washer at the ford (washing C’s. guts), eats dog with 3 hags (becomes crippled on left side). At the battle, he does his feats, throws his spears, which are lobbed back, killing kings as prophesied, Lugaid mortally wounds Cu, who is tied up to a stone pillar in order to die standing. Even in death he manages to maim. 

Battle head count with Cu’s wife Emer (who sounds like Hamlet at he gravesite), she falls into Cu’s grave and dies, where he was resurrected into the sky by a druid chariot. (Shades of Apollo!)

Celtic Twilight, by WB Yeats, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by WB Yeats

Yeats, while in his late 20s, published collections of Irish peasant folklore in two volumes of Celtic Twilight (1893, 1902)—many pieces which previously appeared in journals, in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), and in Miscellanies (1902?).

 I found Yeats’ comments on collecting folklore intriguing as it had become a science by the late 1800s. But Yeats criticized his predecessors: “...collectors of Irish folk-lore ...have made their work literature rather than science... The impulse... came from a class that, did not... take the populace seriously, .... What they did was not wholly false; they merely magnified an irresponsible type,.....” 

Yeats lauded: “But the best book since Croker is Lady Wilde's Ancient Legends.” (FFTIP 1888). However in a later review, Yeats complained of L.Wilde’s lack of methodology. Sir Wilde “... threw all his gatherings into a big box,... Lady Wilde has quarried the materials of her new book: a farrago of spells, cures, fairy-tales, and proverbs... districts seldom specified and the dates of discovery never. I ... wish they had been... more scientifically treated, but I scarce know whom to blame: Lady Wilde, Sir William Wilde, his collectors, or the big box.” 

In another review Yeats wrote: “Dr Hyde is by far the best Irish folklorist by the right of his incomparable skill as a translator from the Gaelic (Miscellanies). 

According to Yeats, the collector of folklore should take the tales down in the native language, and to document his informants. But Yeats didn’t speak Irish, and didn’t document his collections in CT either (though one may presume he documented the stories in his journals? In a 1924 edition, he added more documentation). 

Yeats wrote “If a poet cannot find immortal and mysterious things in his own country, he must write of far-off countries oftener than of his own country,...” (Miscellanies). But Yeats didn’t have to go as far afield as that: Paddy Flynn of Sligo was his main informant as was Mary Banner, his maternal uncle’s maid in Mayo. 

Yeats also collaborated with Lady Gregory, collecting tales from her servant Biddy Early. The landscape is pastoral (hard romanticism), the stories, an admixture of ancient tales, folk belief in the Aes Dána as shrunken faeries; other classes of spectres and inexplicable phenomena. Echoes of saint’s lives and heroic epics with a smattering of Classicism. Homer, Finn and Ulster tales, snatches of the Danu cycle.

Yeats’ writing style is very readable. I loved the Blind Raftery stories—since there is some doubt as to whether or not he was real or made up. A criticism later applied to Wentz, is that Yeats, desiring to believe in the occult and supernatural, might have colored his spectral lens with imagination.

One wonders how much he shaped the stories to fit his own cultural agenda? Somehow I am left with the feeling that their servants were also having one off on the gentry...

However I did recognize bits of stories that my grandmother was always afther telling me...except she was more earthy: the púca pissed on the berries on Samhain. And the ghost lore is familiar as well. We have the knocking at the door in the middle of the night before a family member dies—even I have answered the door only to find no one there, except once, the Morning Star bright as a moon in the predawn sky.

Thursday, October 5, 2000

Journal entry, Johnny Foley’s pub, poetry reading Campbell, Boland, Tracy 10/5/00

10/5/2000 We’re gathered at Johnny Foley’s pub in San Francisco for a poetry reading with Siobhan Campbell, Eavan Borland, and Bob Tracy. Johnny Foley’s does it up right with little sandwiches, and cheese bites. When I was last here was for the Irish poetry festival Finnegan’s Awake. It’s the same crowd, the event is funded by the American Ireland fund. Bob Tracey, an eminent James Joyce scholar, is emcee, introducing what he calls the 70s wave of Irish women poets. Bob Tracy says the second book can either make or break a writer, Eavan Boland is most renowned for her second book, The War Horse, published in 1975, she has nearly 20 books under her belt. She explores themes in the Mother Ireland tradition, she explainsthat so many poems were written by men where the women became objects, incapable of speaking. She explores the permutations of the role of women and Irish national identity. She mentions how permanent wave can be a gesture of greeting, or a farewell. In Her Own Image (1980) and Night Feed (1982), explored the ordinary lives of women and the extraordinary obstacles women poets faced in a male-dominated literary world. Her poetry is liquid nitrogen. She invokes the air, Saint Brigid, and the forced silence women bear. Words draw meaning out of sound. If a prayer cannot be read aloud, is it any less of a prayer?

The Poems of Ossian, by James MacPhearson, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by James MacPhearson

I am flummoxed, my flabber is ghasted by this primo-genital Celtic Ur-“tale” that sparked off the Romantic Movement. were they nuts? Since I can’t seem to retain any of the elements of the storyline except lots of swords and blue-eyed heroes named Fingal, Ossian, Cuthullen, Morva, Gaul and Orla, I am at a loss as to what MacPherson was actually writing about—his storylines and even his so-called summaries left me in the dark.

When the footnotes are longer than the so-called poems, it spells trouble. Their only purpose, as far as I can see (which isn’t very far at all), is to give an “authentic” and learnéd flavor to the texts, which I consider to be badly written archaic diction, and certainly NOT poetic. Is there a decent metaphor in the house? 

I’m sorry, but I’m a VERY tolerant reader, prone to reading cereal boxes and junk mail, but this text stretches my very patience (and dyslexia). For the record, I HATE exclamation marks!! (she said!!!) And O when thou speakest in sacred tongues—a Romantic notion of ancient language and diction—it simply makes me want to smack MacPherson in the gob.

How could Napoleon have carried a copy around with him, ere he saw Elba, during his campaigns—no wonder he was imprisoned. The Moscow mud was a just punishment for bad literary judgment. But then again, did he really know English? (Was he holding the book hidden in his jacket front all that time?).

The errata page prefacing the opening lines of Fingal, with its hyper-minute corrections of prepositions and articles set the (anal) tone. Poor Fingal, the hero, only gets two lines in edgewise before the author MacPherson interjects an “apologia” in both first- and third-person perspective, rendering some 15 lines of footnotes of disclaimer, which continues onto the next page another 35 lines about finding the “fragments,” and the orthography of CúChulainn’s name, thus merging him with the 3rd c. Fingal. Strange anachronisms indeed. 

The story isn’t about Fingal at all, it’s about what MacPherson, the scholar, knows, he’s wanking off. His spear is a blasted pine, all right. OK, so he professes to know Greek, makes textual comparisons to Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeniad, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, Pope’s Homer and Iliad, Dryden, Himself, Thompson, Gray, et al., in order to perhaps authenticate and place his own work with that of the great English poets, and to demonstrate a Scots-Celtic link with ancient Greece. 

Methinks the author doth protest too much. Does Toland’s book actually exist? Check out footnote 2 on p. 185/6 about his explanation of a “false translation” as to why the ancient Celts couldn’t have been drinking beer or wine...or the author’s “review on p. 206. Perhaps the author himself imbibed, if not in spirits, then in Robert Grave’s favorite hallucinogen, the amanita?

“The poet teaches us the opinions that prevailed in his time...” (p62, footnote 9) holds true for MacPherson: this is a hopelessly jumbled, deluded text. I’m surprised anyone ever took it seriously. 

OK, like B-movie commentator Joe-Bob Riggs, I will attempt to describe the action which takes place mostly in the Scottish Highlands and to the West, perhaps Scandinavia and Ireland as well: lots of battles, ghosts, spears, grimsome deaths, slaughters, heroic combat, suffering fair, lovesick damsels, Viking-like heroes, brave and stately in tall ships, chieftain-kings, druids, and bards, warring tribes...the mighty have fallen in battle indeed, and this author succumbed to sheer verbiage, a fallen warrior on the battlefield of muddled words.

Suggested reading order: 1) read footnotes, 2) read chapter summaries 3) read story—if you are able.

Monday, October 2, 2000

GROWING UP IRISH, take one, (final v. missing)

ASCII destroyed final version!!!

It was one thing to grow up Irish Catholic in the Mission
where shamrocks were painted on the sidewalk
but after the Depression my family fled to the country 
and I grew up in the sticks
where everyone else’s grandmother was a member of the DAR,
my classmates were Rainbow Girls or Bluebirds; clubs for WASPs only.
Like the San Geronimo Tennis and Country Club.
No matter that most of us were too poor to join.
The same Protestant ascendancy right here in America.

You were labeled a freak once the nuns came in their penguin suits
asking us Catholics to raise our hands.
There we were, branded in grade school, while they—
the Bluebirds and Brownies got cookies and milk after school
while we were hammering nails into our martyred psyches
and stealing candy after catechism 
from old man Lacy at the Lagunitas store.
Having left one revolution behind,
here were facing the religious segregation again
diminished like those of the sidhe who shrank
during the centuries of Christendom
disappearing into particle theory 
only to became invisible quarks and muons....


Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions, Lady Wilde, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Lady Wilde

This new compilation of Irish folklore from Lady Wilde’s two collections over 100 years after first US publication, is arranged and compiled for the modern reader by Shiela Ann Barry, which made me suspect the authenticy of the texts. The recipes are in Lady Wilde’s style, but it feels as if I’m viewing them through a Victorian Celtic Twilight veil—occluded by a New Age shroud. 

I don’t know how much of a scholar Lady Wilde was, or if she knew Irish (the internet yielded little). I recognize some proverbs from the Irish, but translations differ. Is binn béal ina thost/ a mouth is melodious in its silence becomes: “A silent mouth is musical” Some sean fhocail seem to have been “Bowlderized” (to borrow an Irish term). Too bad the Irish originals (or where she collected them) weren’t available. 

And who is writing the introductions, Wilde or Barry? “All nations... have held the intuitive belief....” or that myth and superstition become fixed that they “...form a national character and cannot be dissevered from it. ...especially...the Irish who have been wholly separated from European thought and culture for countless centuries...clinging to old traditions with a fervor and faith that cannot be shaken by any amount of modern philosophic teaching.” Yikes! 

The landscape is comprised of 18th c. antiquarian scholarship where the superstitious peasants hold sacred/arcane knowledge of a Golden Age. Themes: pre-Christian and Christian. Druid/aristocratic, peasant: The banshee only appears to aristocrats. “Ancient Druid charms...continued to hold their power over the people who believed in them with undoubting faith. ...and they are used to the present day amongst the peasants, who consider them as talismans of magic...no amount of argument would shake their faith...” She’s referring, in essence, to my great-grandparents! I can hear my grandmother grumbling, even now. 

I find the Cures to be the most genuine. They also have the most druid/healer references. The snail and insect recipes seem to be authentic folklore as I’ve browsed the Rosa Anglica (14th c.) by Chaucer’s immortalized “docktor of physik” (sic) John of Galen. 

Spider butter sandwiches and poitín cures aside, I’m insulted, by the fact that Wilde suggests that we Irish are indebted to Egypt for herb lore, festivals and even gods. I be alarmed by the foxglove and nightshade cures as my grandmother insisted upon their poisonous nature. 

I found the reference to the magpie as frankach (p. 92) interesting, as “Frenchman” is also the name of the Norwegian rat that stowed away to Ireland with the Vikings. (No rats, snakes, or magpies are native to Ireland). 

My grandmother said if a bird flies into the house, it was a portent of death, but the towhees, like small chickens, who came to peck the crumbs at her feet, were said to be “lucky.” Approaching 80, she once risked life and limb returning baby tree swallows to their nest under the eaves-—two stories up a broken ladder. And our cats were never thought of as evil, though Lady Wilde asserts that all the Irish believe this to be true.