While literature and science after a brief outburst were crushed in England by the turmoil of the Barons' War, a poetic revival had brought into sharp contrast the social and intellectual condition of Wales.
To all outer seeming Wales had in the thirteenth century become utterly barbarous. Stripped of every vestige of the older Roman civilization by ages of bitter warfare, of civil strife, of estrangement from the general culture of Christendom, the unconquered Britons had sunk into a mass of savage herdsmen, clad in the skins and fed by the milk of the cattle they tended, faithless, greedy, and revengeful, retaining no higher political organization than that of the clan, broken by ruthless feuds, united only in battle or in raid against the stranger. But in the heart of the wild people there still lingered a spark of the poetic fire which had nerved it four hundred years before, through Aneurin and Llywarch Hen, to its struggle with the Saxon. At the hour of its lowest degradation the silence of Wales was suddenly broken by a crowd of singers. The song of the twelfth century burst forth, not from one bard or another, but from the nation at large. "In every house," says the shrewd Gerald de Barri, "trangers who arrived in the morning were entertained till eventide with the talk of maidens and the music of the harp." The romantic literature of the race found an admirable means of utterance in its tongue, as real a developement of the old Celtic language heard by Caesar as the Romance tongues are developements of Caesar's Latin, but which at a far earlier date than any other language of modern Europe had attained to definite structure and to settled literary form.
[Authorities. - For the general state of Wales, see the "Itinerarium Cam-brke" of Giraldus Cambrensis: for its general history, the Brut-y-Tywy-sogion," and " Annales Cambriae," published by the Master of the Rolls; the Chronicle of Caradoc of Lancarvan, as given in the tran-lation by Powel; and Warrington's "History of Wales." Stephen's " Literature of the Cymry " affords a general view of Welsh poetry; the "Mabinogion" have been published by Lady Charlotte Guest. In his essays on "The Study of Celtic Literature," Mr. Matthew Arnold has admirably illustrated the characteristics of the Welsh Poetry. For English affairs the monastic annals we have before mentioned are supplemented by the jejune entries of Trivet and Murimuth].
No other mediaeval literature shows at its outset the same elaborate and completed organization as that of the Welsh. But within these settled forms the Celtic fancy plays with a startling freedom. In one of the later poems Gwion the Little transforms himself into a hare, a fish, a bird, a grain of wheat; but he is only the symbol of the strange shapes in which the Celtic fancy embodies itself in the tales or "Mabinogion" which reached their highest perfection in the legends of Arthur. Its gay extravagance flings defiance to all fact, tradition, probability, and revels in the impossible and unreal. When Arthur sails into the unknown world, it is in a ship of glass. The "descent into hell," as a Celtic poet paints it, shakes off the mediaeval horror with the mediaeval reverence, and the knight who achieves the quest spends his years of infernal durance in hunting and minstrelsy, and in converse with fair women. The world of the Mabinogion is a world of pure phantasy, a new earth of marvels and enchantments, of dark forests whose silence is broken by the hermit's bell, and sunny glades where the light plays on the hero's armour.
Each figure as it moves across the poet's canvas is bright with glancing colour. "The maiden was clothed in a robe of flame-coloured silk, and about her neck was a collar of ruddy gold in which were precious emeralds and rubies. Her head was of brighter gold than the flower of the broom, her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood-anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. The eye of the trained hawk, the glance of the falcon, was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek was redder than the reddest roses." Everywhere there is an Oriental profusion of gorgeous imagery, but the gorgeousness is seldom oppressive. The sensibility of the Celtic temper, so quick to perceive beauty, so eager in its thirst for life, its emotions, its adventures, its sorrows, its joys, is tempered by a passionate melancholy that expresses its revolt against the impossible, by an instinct of what is noble, by a sentiment that discovers the weird charm of nature. Some graceful play of pure fancy, some tender note of feeling, some magical touch of beauty, relieves its wildest extravagance.
As Kalweh's greyhounds bound from side to side of their master's steed, they "sport round him like two sea-swallows." His spear is "swifter than the fall of the dewdrop from the blade of reed-grass upon the earth when the dew of June is at the heaviest." A subtle, observant love of nature and natural beauty takes fresh colour from the passionate human sentiment with which it is imbued, sentiment which breaks out in Gwalchmai's cry of nature-love, "I love the birds and their sweet voices in the lulling songs of the wood," in his watches at night beside the fords "among toe untrodden grass "to hear the nightingale and watch the play of the sea-mew. Even patriotism takes the same picturesque form; the Welsh poet hates the flat and sluggish land of the Saxon; as he dwells on his own, he tells of "its sea-coast and its mountains, its towns on the forest border, its fair landscape, its dales, its waters, and its valleys, its white sea-mews, its beauteous women." But the song passes swiftly and subtly into a world of romantic sentiment: " I love its fields clothed with tender trefoil, I love the marches of Merioneth where my head was pillowed on a snow-white arm." In the Celtic love of woman there is little of the Teutonic depth and earnestness, but in its stead a childlike spirit of delicate enjoyment, a faint distant flush of passion like the rose-light of dawn on a snowy mountain peak, a playful delight in beauty. "White is my love as the apple blossom, as the ocean's spray; her face shines like the pearly dew on Eryri; the glow of her cheeks is like the light of sunset." The buoyant and elastic temper of the French trouvére was spiritualized in the Welsh singers by a more refined poetic feeling. "Whoso beheld her was filled with her love.