‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.’ (Sonnet 18, Shakespeare W., 1609)
Way before these lines could resonate in the people of Great Britain’s ears and then widely spread around the world, poetry has carved itself into the British cultural heritage in many forms. Light is often shaded in Shakespeare’s time and the renowned playwright’s sonnets remain famous even today, partly because it belongs to the first written works in Modern English. But British poetry can draw its influences from way before Shakespeare. Throughout a series of articles on its history, the aim will be to depict an overview of the poetical landscape of Great Britain, from the period of its first invasions to the beginning of Modern English. This article will explore some poetic influence that the Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon invasions brought to Britain.
British Poetry 101 will be divided into the following chapters:
A History of British Poetry 101: Traditional Oral Poetry
A History of British Poetry 101: First Epic Poems
A History of British Poetry 101: The Influence of Romances
A History of British Poetry 101: Satirical Poetry and Ballads
A History of British Poetry 101: Poetry under the Reformation
A History of British Poetry 101: Poetry in the Elizabethan Age
A History of British Poetry 101: Oral Tradition
The Celtic Invasion: Oral Tradition and Sacerdotal Poetry
In 1000 B.C., Britain went through its first invasion by the Celtic people from Europe. The Celtic people are imaginative, animated by strong oral traditions. Countless stories, legends, and narratives were told aloud. They later inspired many poets and historians and laid the foundations of what would then become British poetry. Supposedly, many of the original Celtic kings and figures remained famous thanks to these legends and would then inspire many pieces, figures like Cymbeline, Lear, Uther, Arthur, etc.
Among the Celts, there lived druids. Apart from being the priests of nature and healers, they were poetry experts and had to memorize the legends of their people. The latter was also comprised of bards that contributed to the sharing of Celtic history, poetry, and music through the tales of heroes and their feats. Their main role was to make and keep the oral tradition alive. For that purpose, poetry was of major importance. The Welsh, the Britons, the Scots, and the Gaels had bard poets that practiced a kind of poetry segmented into three parts: sacerdotal poetry, belligerent poetry, and satirical poetry.
The poetic art in Celtic civilization is seen as a fundamental link to the divine, the invisible, and the spirits of other worlds. For that reason, Robert-Jacque Thibaud reminds us in La symbolique des druides dans ses mythes et légendes (Dervy, 1997), that Celtic poets, either druid or bard, became priests after the Christianisation of the 7th century, confirming the link they maintained with the spiritual world. Interestingly enough, the poetic vocation was not only destined to be borne by men. One famous aoidos was a woman called Yspaddaden Penkawr (white trace, the white colour is associated with the sacred).
Originally, Celtic poetry was part of their religion. The historian Patrice Genty in his Études sur le celtisme (éditions traditionnelles, 1988), describes three processes of divination used by bards: the linbas foros-nai (the great science that enlightens), the teinm loïda (the light of the lyrical poem) and the dichetal di chennaib cnaime (the incantation known like the back of one’s hand). Each of these processes responds to a shamanic ritual that can last several days and that aims at connecting the practitioner with the world of spirits to provide him with divine inspiration that would then flow into his verses. Poetry, religion, and magic were somehow interconnected.
Oghma, the god of eloquence, was their master because he provided them with a sacred alphabet. Celtics despised the writing system brought by the Romans. The druids thought writing enclosed the mind, petrified the ideas, and killed them. As a consequence, they invented their series of signs: the ogham. Unlike regular alphabets, it is evolutive and it is not used to create words but each symbol as an association to the name of a tree, a constellation, a natural element, a sound, and a number. It was used mainly for occult practices, numerology, astronomy, or rituals and bore a kind of magic. It was first discovered in Ireland, then in Wales, and it is considered as the first original Celtic writing system. Druids and bards mastered the art of the oghamics alphabet.
But Bards were later reduced to simple singers, losing their sacred undertone:
‘The bard will become in charge of poetry and literature. They were the ones that, in Ireland, were called fili and whose peers would unite with Saint Patrick […]. These “druids that can see” are also experts in shamanism and are interested in cosmogonic matters that establish the “small mysteries”. But the bards are poets that sing the deeds of famed men, just as our minstrels from the Middle Age. They accompany themselves with a five-stringed lyre called cruithenin Irish. This lyre, which was also Appolo’s instrument, forms an important symbol for druidism since it is the instrument of cosmic harmony. […] These bards had to know five hundred poems, composed under strict laws and in the form of triades. After the Roman invasion (1st-century b.c.), Cesar will grant them important functions within his remit. They were in charge of literature, justice, education, diplomacy, music, architecture…’ (Darcheville Patrick, Druides ou moines ?, Trédaniel, 1995)
Roman Invasion: A New Linguistic Asset
But British poetry was bound to reshape itself after Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor, led his troops on British soil in 55-54 b.c. It took him almost a decade to complete the second invasion of the territory, known as the Roman invasion.
In 42 A.D., Romans spread their influence on Britain. This altered the latter’s linguistic sphere and as a result, Latin became an official language. For instance, the toponymy of certain towns of today still carries the suffix – chester or – cester which comes from the Latin word castrum (meaning military camp).
Latin also set itself up as an element of separation between the invaders and the invaded. It was mainly spoken by educated people, whereas, Celtic dialects were spoken by merchants. The construction of Hadrian’s wall marked a clear physical rift between the Celtic people in the north and the Romans. Among the stories shared orally dwelled a common conception that the birth of Britain was somehow linked to the Trojan war. Aeneas’s great-grandson (or Brutus) would have come to Britain and given his name to this new territory. His descendant, Lud, gave his name to the town of Lud, formerly named New Troy, which would later develop as the town of London.
The Roman occupation lasted until the beginning of the 5th century, when the Celts were pushed sideways (to nowadays’ Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, Wales). The linguistic assets they provide will greatly influence poetry to come, among other cultural elements that will be mentioned in the next articles of this series.
Anglo-Saxon invasion: belligerent and satirical poetry
From the middle of the 5th century until the 7th century, the Saxons and the Angles launched the third British invasion. For instance, Northumbria, which designated the area in the north of the river Humber, got invaded by the Angles in the 7th century at the expense of the Britons. Apart from the sacerdotal poetry, Lucain, a famous Roman writer, also denotes what could be called belligerent poetry by the British people of the time. The historian Jean-Jacques Ampère analyses the correspondences between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic poetry. One of them is the construction in triades of Celtic bards’ poems and those of the scalds (Scandinavian poets, often originated from Iceland) that helped in the drafting of the Edda, a complex of poems in Old Norse gathered in the 13th century:
‘The Edda contains mythological and cosmogonic poetry, whose writers were scalds who were priests or scalds affiliated to the priests of the nation, writing under a religious and sacerdotal influence. Furthermore, we possess numerous chants from warrior scalds; these chants are similar to the belligerent chants mentioned by Lucain. The Scandinavian legends also include plenty of satirical chants, called nidungr visu.’ (Ampère Jean-Jacques, Littérature et voyages — Allemagne et Scandinavie, Paulin, 1833)
Anurim was one of the famous Celtic poets and tells about one battle where the warrior had satisfied black eagles, and readied a feast for birds of prey. The poetic structure and content connect the Celtic bard with the poem about Viking Ragnar-Lothbrok that exclaimed in the snake pit where he’s been thrown: ‘We have readied an abundant feast for the crows, we have satisfied the birds of prey.’ (Ampère Jean-Jacques, Des bardes chez les Gaulois et chez les autres nations celtiques, 1836, ebook location 89/649). Both cultures seem to approach war by mixing blood and delight. The bard goes on saying ‘the flesh was ready for the wolves instead of for the bridal feast’ and the scald makes Ragnar-Lothbrok confess that ‘when [he] is in between spears, [he] feels as much joy as when [he] is holding in [his] harms a woman beaming with beauty.’
The Celtic, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon invasions made different people coexist on territory under the turmoil of various cultural inspirations, languages, and traditions. This impressive richness was already promising for British poetry to come. It was deeply rooted in the oral traditions of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, and three main forms of poetry resulted from it: sacerdotal, belligerent, and satirical poetry.
DARCHEVILLE P. (1995), Druides ou moines ?, Trédaniel.
THIBAUD R.-J. (1997), La symbolique des druides dans ses mythes et légendes,Dervy.
GENTY P. (1988), Études sur le celtisme, Éditions traditionnelles.
JONES B., Britain’s Trojan history, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Britains-Trojan-History/
MONMOUTH, G. O., & Legends, A. (2019). Historia Regum Britanniae. Independently Published.
Figure 1: The Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe, oil on canvas by George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel (1890), Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC), https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-druids-bringing-in-the-mistletoe-84452
Figure 2: The Bard (Musical and poetical relics of the Welsh Bards), subject from Thomas Gray’s poem ‘The Bard’, standing on the side of a cliff at the right playing the harp, his cloak, beard, and hair blown by the wind, a group of Edward I’s soldiers pointing towards him from the opposite side of the river below, etching and engraving by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1784), collection of the National Museum of Wales, print made by John Hall, Samuel Middiman, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1917-1208-1223
Figure 3: Brutus the Trojan, public domain, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Britains-Trojan-History/
Figure 4: Ragnar Lothbrok in the snake pit, Mathias Skeibrok (1877), sculpture, https://scandinavism.com/2020/03/28/in-the-snake-pit/#jp-carousel-425