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It continues to be the medium of intercourse by the majority of the Welsh people.
Language is the medium for the communication of ideas. The language of a people at any given time, is a true test of the amount of knowledge and civilization which they possess. From the infancy of society, when the savage utters his sounds, and makes his signs, to communicate his wishes or wants to his fellow, down through the various long and winding ages which must elapse before that same society reaches the climax of civilization, its language, for the time being, is a never-failing index to its social and political condition. The first language of a people is that of sounds and signs. These are such as the occasion naturally suggests. At first they are unintelligible ; but, by a repetition of the circumstances, the same sound or sign is, by common consent, employed to denote the same object or thing. These are the germs of language. At first language only described external and material objects. It afterwards reached immaterial things, or spiritual and moral objects. The process of the formation of language is gradual, and obtains only by slow and painful steps. The first words must have been those which described simple external objects—as a tree, a brook, or a cloud. Even general terms, descriptive of external objects—as a plain or a forest-must have been employed before any language was formed expressive of mental ideas. And here, again, the same process was pursued : first, simple, mental ideas were expressed; then these were put together, and general terms used. The language of a society or people was necessarily confined to the ideas and objects with which they were at the time conversant. New words were invented, and the vocabulary of the people or nation extended, as from time to time they coined new ideas, or became acquainted with fresh objects. Thus language, like most terrestrial things, was gradually formed: first, simple objects were expressed by simple words; then general ideas were communicated by appropriate terms. The last efforts of the faculty of language must have been those which affixed a vocabulary to the abstract sciences.
The Welsh nation retain their language until the present day, The majority of the Scotch and Irish people have long abandoned theirs, and have adopted the English. The last has been for centuries the language of the learned and scientific in this kingdom, and the depository of their discoveries and works. It is the language which has led the learning and civilization of the empire. The natives of the Principality were therefore, by their own institutions, placed in a disadvantageous position, compared with the inhabitants of the rest of the kingdom, in the race after learning and fame.
Yet, notwithstanding the disadvantages referred to, the Principality has produced names that rank high in the annals of distinction. In poetry we find a Taliesyn, a Dafydd ap Gwilym, and a Williams of Pantycelyn ; in general literature, a Sir William Jones, and Drs. Rhys and Pughe; in languages, a Giraldus Cambrensis, a Jones, and a Williams ; in natural science, a Pennant; in law, a Powell, a Richards, and a Kenyon; and in the terrible art of war, a Syr David Gam, a Picton, and a Nott. These are names, some of which stand at the summit of the walks which they pursued, while the others hold an honourable place in the pages of fame.
It has been often asked, what are the chief characteristics of Welsh literature? The question, as far as we are aware, has not yet had a complete solution.
Mr. Macaulay has justly observed, Nations, like individuals, first perceive, and then abstract. They advance from particular images to general terms. Hence, the vocabulary of an enlightened society is philosophical—that of a half-civilized people is poetical.' Without implying that the Welsh people are not as civilized, in the general acceptation of the term, as their neighbours, we still think that their literature is more poetical than philosophic—more descriptive than scientific. The poets of Wales are more numerous than her philosophers or men of science, as their productions are certainly of greater excellence. Her poetry can compete with the best productions of the English or Scottish muse; and, if it should ever be the glory of the Welsh language (as it is of its classic predecessors of Greece and Rome) to be studied and acquired a century after it shall have ceased to be a living tongue, the toil will be undergone by those alone who would wish to explore the treasures left by her bardic sons.
A love for poetry has characterised the Welsh people from the earliest period. An order of the Druidical priests were bards, and their poetry exercised a potent spell over the multitude. The Welsh chicftains had each his bard, who delighted his lord with songs of love and victory in times of peace, and accompanied him in war. On the latter occasion, the bard's service was no mean one ; he recited to the army the triumphs of their forefathers on less auspicious days, and incited them to similar deeds. The effect was often magical. Aroused to enthusiasm by the narration of their fathers' achievements, the army often rushed impetuously to battle, and secured the triumph. But in a season of calamity, did Gray's bard sing
On dreary Arvon's shore they lie.' We think the two grand characteristics of Welsh poetry are power and pathos. The poetry of Wales may better compare with that of England in Shakspere's age, than of any later period. There is a license of idea and language allowed in both, which would not be tolerated in a more philosophic and advanced epoch. This is a common remark as applied to the earlier poets of England, and therein consisted the power of their verse. Homer and Shakspere both lived in the earlier ages of civilization, and they are the two monarchs of poetical power. The later poets of England excel in accuracy of conception and beauty of style, in harmonious versification and chasteness of thought; yet they are wanting in all the grander elements of poetry-in all those qualities which inspire the deepest emotions of terror, horror, pity, hatred, and love. The one is beautiful, the other is sublime; the one is pleasing, the other is majestic. As the nation has been advancing in science and the arts, poetry has been declining in sublimity and power. The culture of the understanding weakens the efforts of imagination; the strengthening of the judgment deadens the passions. A people not far advanced in mental attainments delight in those strong masculine pictures of nature and man, which their poets and orators create; while those nations which have reached higher culture would be displeased rather than gratified by such exhibitions, and valne more perfect, though less forcible, images—more accurate, though less grand, workmanship. Poetry therefore flourishes most in the earlier ages of society, while later times are dedicated more to philosophical research
By power in poetry is meant that quality which produces great effect. The aphorism is no less true in morals than physics, that like causes produce like effects. The result is always commensurate with, and similiar to, the means which brought it to pass. That poetry, therefore, which is capable of producing great effect has power. This quality eminently distinguishes the poetry of Wales. It is also characteristic of the language ; and there is, therefore, a combination of power in the language and ideas of the people of this country. A stranger witnessing the powerful effects of a Welsh oration or sermon, would be perplexed to discover the cause of so much enthusiasm. The explanation we have before given. The language, learning, and ideas of the people, have not yet passed the poetical cycle in the history of nations.
Perhaps the quality, which, beyond all others, characterises the poetry of Wales, is pathos. The Welsh people have always been distinguished for the possession of intense feeling. The same remark is applicable to all the Celtic races. The French and Irish people share the quality in an eminent degree. The Saxon and the Gaelic tribes are more characterised by strength of judgment and power of reasoning, as well as solidity of character and determination of purpose; while the Celts are distinguished by more vivid imagination, more brilliant wit, finer taste, and deeper pathos. These constitute the poetical element.
The religious poetry of Wales bears a much larger proportion than any other, and into its channels has the Welsh poet poured his richest gifts. Here he has breathed his divinest song. In
. chasteness of style, happy illustration, tender pathos, as well as devout feeling, the religious poetry of the Principality much excels any collection in the English language, not excepting that of Watts. But the acknowleged prince in this department is William Williams, of Pantycelyn. His hymns are unapproachable for animated devotion and pathos. Much of their interest is necessarily lost in translation. The following are selected by way of example. We omit the original in deference to the ignorance of our English readers :
There is naught but weeping still,
Do my heart with rapture fill:
From the dread captivity,
Let there be no rest for me.
Yonder is my native home,
Where sweet Canaan’s hillocks gloom ;
Did my vessel long detain,
Aid me soon to cross this main.'
Strength and skill alike were ended,
Naught but sinking in the tide,
Bethlehem's star to be my guide.'
Fix, O Lord, a tent in Goshen,
Thither come, and there abide,
And with sinful man reside.
Where the holy tribes ascend;
Till the world in flames shall end.'
The first, in point of time and celebrity, was Aneurin. He was the son of a Welsh chieftain, and was born at the commencement of the sixth century. He was early bred to the use of arms, and distinguished himself at the battle of Cattraeth, which was fought between the Welsh and the Saxons, but proved disastrous to the Welsh, and particularly to our bard. He was taken prisoner, and consigned to a dungeon, where he languished a considerable time in chains, but, being rescued by the instrumentality of Cenau, a son of the venerable bard, Llywarch Hen, he retired to South Wales, and took refuge at Cadog's College, at Llancarvan, where he remained many years, and composed his principal poem, "The Gododin.' This is a production of the martial strain, and is descriptive of the battle of Cattraeth. The death of this poet occurred about the year 570, and was occasioned by a blow from the axe of an assassin.
The greatest of the ancient Welsh bards was Taliesyn. There is some uncertainty respecting the precise time of his birth, but the best accounts place it at the commencement of the sixth century. His early history savours of romance.
It is recorded that he was discovered, soon after his birth, in a fishing weir on the coast of Cardigan, belonging to Gwyddno, a petty prince of that country, and was found there in a basket, or coracle, like Moses, by some fishermen, who carried him to Gwyddno, whose only son, Elfin, took him under his protection. Whether this account be true or not, it is certain that Taliesyn was a native of this part of Wales, and enjoyed the friendship and protection of Gwyddno and Elfin. Among his works is a poem entitled . The Consolation of Elfin,' in which the latter is gratefully eulogized for his patronage of the young bard. After spending some time at the College of Cadog, in South Wales,