The Study of Celtic Literature


By Matthew Arnold


Smith, Elder & Co.   London






These pages come from four lectures MA gave as the Chair of Poetry at Oxford.


He doesn’t aim to “treat any special branch of scientific Celtic studies.”  He humbly says he’s unqualified for that.  He will make general points. 


But, as a “mere literary critic” he must consider ethnology and philology. 


Viii - MA called Mr. Nash a Celt – Hater.   It is not that MA won’t permit criticism, but it must be one that permits / encourages a future.  If it is totally all damning it just ends the conversation. 


Ix – He doesn’t like when people feel a need to disparage Welsh to push their pro-English vision.  MA too thinks English the future of Wales.  But, promoting this doesn’t mean you cannot also be nice and consider Welsh literature and people in high esteem.


X – “Nations disinherited of political success may yet leave their mark on the world’s progress and contribute powerfully to the civilization of mankind.”


And, as the British Aristocracy’s philistinism is the biggest danger to England, the English may have more to learn than to teach the Welch.


Xi – It is better to develop gifts than chastise defects.


When you insult Ireland constantly, is it any wonder you have trouble governing Ireland?


Xiv – Though they wish to fuse with the Celtic folk, they are so rude to them, it turns them off.  “Accordingly, there is no vital union between him and the races he has annexed; and while France can truly boast of her ‘magnificent unity.’”


Xv – “What attaches people to us is the spirit we are of, and not the machinery we employ.”


Xiii – Someone calls MA “dainty.”


Xvi – There is a “want of sympathy and sweetness in the English nature.”


Xvii – Though the Englishman has a “strong sense and sturdy morality.”


Some say “England is the favourite of Heaven.  Far be it from me to say that England is not the favorourite of Heaven; but at this moment she reminds me more of what the prophet Isaiah calls, ‘a bull in a net.’


Xviii – “But let us leave the dead to bury their dead, and let us who are alive go on unto perfection.”


Xix – Last intro words, MA wishes to “remove the main ground of the Celt’s alienation from the Englishman, by substituting, in place of that type of Englishman with whom alone the Celt has too long been familiar, a new type, more intelligent, more gracious, and more humane.”





2 – “Wales, where the past still lives, where every place has its tradition, every name its poetry, and where the people, the genuine people, still knows this past, this tradition, this poetry, and lives with it, and clings to it.”


“While the prosperous  Saxon, . . has long ago forgotten his.”


5 – “And his Saxon subduers scout his speech as an obastacle to civilization.” [the welsh].   But there is a revival movement in Wales – and this is all told in story, as MA is going to visit a revival event – The Bardic Congress of Wales. (BCW)


2 of 6 Welsh words are from their Roman conquerers.  But, MA is impressed that 4 of six withstood pressure and remain.


6 – His children were disappointed, thinking under the tent would be a circus.  “But I, whose interest in poetry, and who also, hating all one sidedness and oppression, wish nothing better than that the Celtic genius should be able to show itself to the world.


7 – The Welsh, too, share, it seems to me, with their Saxon invaders, an inaptitude for show and spectacle. Show and spectacle are better managed by the Latin race, and those whom it has moulded.”


Few attended this event.


8 – The announcer called the visiting Saxons folk, “The English branch of the descendants of the ancient Britons.”


But the event was lifeless and boring.


9 – They stepped out of the event, and rather than talking of bards, spoke of sewage questions and the glories of local self-government.


10 – This boredom represented the “triumph of the prosaic, practical Saxon.”


While he understands the distress of the last Cornish speaking person dying, “Cornwall is the better for adopting English, for becoming more thoroughly one with the rest of the country. The fusion of all the inhabitants of these islands into one homogenous, English-Speaking whole, the breaking down of barriers between us, the swallowing up of separate provincial nationalities, is a consummation to which the natural course of things irresistibly tends; it is a necessity of what is called modern civilization, and modern civilization is a real, legitimate force.”

“The sooner the Welsh language disappears as an instrument of the practical, political social life of Wales, the better.”


11 – And, if a Welsh enthusiast wishes to be heard, he had best give his message in English.


“For all modern purposes, I repeat, let us all as soon as possible be one people; let the Welshman speak English, and, if he is an author, let him write in English.”


This much is popular among Saxons.  But, now he will part ways with them in opinion.


12 – I regard the Welsh literature, - or rather, dropping this distinction between Welsh and Irish, Gaels and Cymris, let me say Celtic literature, - as an object of very great interest.”

My brother saxons have, as is well known, a terrible way with them of wanting to improve everything but themselves off the face of the earth.; I have no such passion for finding nothing but myself everywhere; I like variety to exist and to show itself to me, and I would not for the world have the lineaments of the Celtic genius lost.”


13 – While Celtic power may not be materially wealthy; “but perhaps if it can get itself thoroughly known as an object of science, it may count for a good deal, - far more than we Saxons, most of us, imagine, - as a spiritual power.”


“The bent of our time is towards science, towards knowing things as they are.”  And we can do this, without extraneous pretensions. 


15 – His father’s generation used philology to establish the Celts were not Teutonic.  People called them, ”aliens in speech, in religion, in blood.”


16 – Even the Jew seemed closer than the Celt. Via Bible verses, “the sense of affinity between the Teutonic nd the Hebrew nature was quite strong.”  Then ethnographers found about the great Indo-European unity going from Hindoos to Celts to Slavs.


17 – This changed how Teuton’s thought of himself and distanced him from the Jew’s ethic.  He developed “the consciousness of a certain antipathy in the depths of his nature to this, absorbing, tyrannous, terrorist religion,” so claimed Humbolt.

And Humbolt’s extreme version shows us the power of race and primitive constitution.  But, still, even in religion, we have a native sense of diversity between our European bent and the Semitic bent.


18 – It might not be totally assimilable to our European nature.  “And for its justification this tendency appeals to science, the science of origins.”  And this has lessened the feeling of estrangement from the Irish.


This has led to more sympathy in political realms, as their members of the Indo-European family. 


19 – And this new reconciling has “its roots in science.” 


20 – “To know the Celtic case thoroughly, one must know the Celtic people; and to know them, one must know that by which a people best express themselves, their literature.”


21 – And there are about 15,300 pages of Celtic lit in the British museum.  And much more elsewhere.   The Myvyrian Archeology of Wales is a huge and important collection.


25 – And he lists 10s of thousands more.  One featuring “Battles, voyages, sieges, tragedies, cow-spoils, courtships, adventures, . . . etc.”


But what does “this mass of documents really tell us about the Celt.”?  Most who have studied them, either do it as haters or cheerleaders, few as disinterested men of science.

28 – The lovers add to shards and the haters, like Nash, attacking them too emotionally.


35 – The Celt lovers push the narrative back to the 6th century and earlier without evidence.


38 – But the haters say there is next to nothing left.  And, this too is not good.


39 – But these books could not have been written by fools or by foolish people. This is a ‘true presentiment’ to have in one’s mind as you read Irish documents.


40 – They have a primitive voice. The true critic is he who can detect this precious and genuine part in them, and employ it for the elucidation of the Celt’s genius and history.”  Though they are generally not older than the 12th century.  But, even though they’re not 6th, does that make them worthless?


41 - People also thought they showed ties to hidden druid or pagan mysteries.  Not so.  But, they were not wiser or more pagan in the 6th than their neighbors in the 12th.



43 – But there is the theory that times of Roman withdrawal in the 6th and the 12th struggle with the Saxons were the historical moments to produce great works.   And the slight evidence shows work in the 6th and this means a continuance output and shows a great tradition.


45 – In the 12th we have a lot of reference to the great literature of the 6th.


47 – And a reader will see abundant references to earlier times throughout the 12th century works.    But Nash concludes there is no evidence of the 6th.  OK!  But there is evidence of a tradition and what does it tell us?

49 – Nash deals with this in enmity and not as a man of science.   It seems a bit much to say Stonehenge is purely a calendar.


51 – He lists many odd characters who are obviously not medieval and show an intense cosmology.  Hey had religion.


Like people build from scavenged buildings, this literature uses pieces from an earlier time that it doesn’t fully understand.


55 – He conveys a legend that has past detritus strewn in it.


Nash says such bizarre and far fetched tales are told by all peoples. 


56 – And that we see remnants of shared proto-myths is interesting.  But, science also wants to see the roots of each people’s genius.  Including their formative pressure from without and within the people.


58 – He quotes one passage and asks, is this purely universal?  “Have they not an inwarness, a severity of form, a solemnity of tone, which indicates the still reverberating echo of a profound doctine and discipline, such as was Druidism?”


59 – Nash displays comparative works but cuts them off at the wrong points.   We don’t want fawning or damning. All we want is a scientific approach.


60 - Herein philology helps.   It is patient and disinterested.  Zeuss does this beautifully.


62 – Zeuss uses orthography, declensional and syntax forms. And, these are beyond MA’s understanding. But, he’ll delve into it.


He sees in Welsh and Irish words that the sharp consonants have not become flat.


64 – Unity has been presumed, between races, absurdly.  “Science has and will long have to be a divider and a separatist, breaking arbitrary and fanciful connections, and dissipating dreams of a premature and impossible unity.  Still, science, - true science, - recognizes in the bottom of her soul a law of ultimate fusion, of conciliation.  To reach this, but to reach it legitimately she tends.  She draws, for instance, towards the same idea which fills her elder and divine master, poetry, - the idea of the substantial unity of man; though she draws towards it by roads of her own.  But, continually she is showing us affinity where we imagined there was  isolation.”


65 – He uses philology to connect Greek and Sanscrit.


The Latin familia, is from Thymele, the sacred center of fire. The hearth thus comes to mean home.  Then from home it goes to group of homes, the tribe; from the tribe to the entire nation; and in this sense the word appears in Gothic, Norse, Celtic, and Persoan.  Teutates has


69 – There is a Sanskrit word “Arya” which means land of the Aryans or noble men, but perhaps Western man.  It is a debate.


70 – Thre are two great divisions of Celtic language: Gaelic and Cymric.  Gaelic is younger and more synthetic. Cymric is older.  


“By the forms of its language a nation expresses its very self.  Our language [English] is the loosest, the most analytic, [71] of all European languages.  Ad we, then, what are we? What is England?  I will not answer.”


But the forms of its language are not our only key to a people; what it says in its language, its literature, is the great key, and we must get back to literature.”


 “Here, too, science exercises the reconciling, the uniting influence of which I hae said so much.”  Here they find spiritual kinship with the Celts. 


72 – MA himself is a “Semitico-Saxon mixture.”


“We have seen how philology carries us towards the idea of affinity of race which are new to us.”


Embryonic similarities do not count for much. 


73 – It is when the embryo has grown and solidifid into a distinct nation, into the Gaul or German of history, . . . that contact and mixture are important, and may leave a long train of effects; for Celt and Teuton by this time have their formed, marked, national, ineffaceable qualities to oppose or to communicate.”  

But long after each had crystallized, there was contact between the Celt and Germanic, when the Saxons invaded.


And, though the Saxons won, there must still be some Celtic vein running in us via the contact.  Those in some quarters say there was absolutely no influence from vanquished to victor. 


74 – The Saturday Review “treats these matters of ethnology with great power and learning,” and says, “ we are ‘a nation into which a Norman element, like a much smaller Celtic element, was so completely absorbed that it is vain to seek after Norman or Celtic elements in any modern Englishmen.” 

This is very significant.  1st, it seems rather cultural instead of genetic.  2nd, it is amazing how much ethnology and pride were in this magazine, the Saturday Review.


The matter of how much influence is a question of science.  “The language and the physical type of our race afford certain data for trying it, and other data are afforded by our literature, genius and spiritual production generally. Data of this second kind belong to the province of the literary critic; data of the first (75) kind belong to the province of the philologist and of the physiologist.” 



75 - Philology and physiology are beyond his kin.  But, we heard of no wholesale annihilation of Celtic Britons during the Saxon invasion. So many must have remained in the country.  Their “blood entering into the composition of a new people, in which the stock of the conquerors counts for (76) most, but the stock of the conquered counts for something.”


In France the Celtic element remains strong behind the Latinized element.  “The Germanisation of Britain went far deeper than the Latinisation of France, not only in laws, manners, and language, but the main current of the blood became Germanic.” But still some Celtic blood entered the Germanic stock.

The linguistic sharing has not been done.  But it is said that peaceful words, like ‘basket’ are more likely to be Celtic than others.  And the same for racy, idiomatic popular words.


77 – For example, Bam, Kick, Whop, Twaddle, Fudge, Hitch, and Muggy are Celtic.   Bu this needs more study.


And, the physiology aspect hasn’t had much looking into.  Monsieur W. F. Edward’s  “Des Caracteres Physiologiques des Races Humaines Consideres Dans Leurs Rapports Avec l’ History’ is worth re-reading.  It deals with physical types of groups.


78 – This looks into the physical types of the two great Celtic families, the Gaels and the Cymris.  But he says the Cymris no longer exist in England.


79 – MA thinks there a lot of Briton left.  But we need tests, such as looking for “physiology physical marks, such as the square heads of the German, the round head of the Gael,  . . .”


80 – This alongside looking for the spiritual genius.


And foreigners have seen Celtic influence in our literature.


81 – Now MA is qualified to speak to national spirit being present in literature.


The English spirit is characterized by “energy with honesty.”


The Germanic genius is same but with steadiness in place of honesty.  So we have ‘steadiness with honesty.”


82 – The danger herein is humdrum, the plain and ugly, the ignoble.  The curse of Germanness against which Goethe was all his life fighting.   But their excellence is freedom from whim, flightiness, perverseness; fidelity to Nature, - in a word, science, - leading to the better life. 


The clumsiness of eternal beer, sausages, and bad tobacco. 


83 – The Gaedhil are both branches of the Celtic family – Cymri and Gale.


Renan was struck with the timitidy, the shyness, the delicacy of the Celtic nature, its embarrassment at having to deal with the great world.


This is true of the Cymri, but not the Gael.


84 - We can best describe the Celts as ‘sentimental.’ With strong feeling.  A tad wounded. Yet, trying to be gay.  A Celtic word from gair (to laugh).


85 – Germans, physiologists say, have long intestines and French better respiration, the Celts a proud look and a light stomach.   AS WE MIGHT SAY THESE ARE COMICAL.  But, OUR TOTAL IGNORANCE OF DIFFERENCES is not LAUDIBLE.


85 – Sentimental – always ready to react against the despotism of fact.


86 – “Balance, measure and patience are just what the Celt has never had.”  He does well in ornamentation, in rings, and brooches, but not in painting and sculpture which take much more patience.


87 – He has more emotion than the German, but the German beats him in music due to patience.  Science too.


His poetry has great invention, but nothing is a masterpiece.  He does technic, not archtectonic whole pieces.


88 – Rebellion against fact has also lamed the Celt in his spiritual work.  And, this does not make for wealth. 


89 – Or success in war. But, he does have the ingredients of genius.


90 – “Do not let us wish that the Celt had had less sensibility, but that he had been more master of it.”  But there is something feminine in their nervous disposition.


91 – He is intimate with life.  His mind is attractive and romantic.  “It is just the opposite of the Anglo-Saxon temperament, disciplinable and steadily obedient within certain limits, but retaining an inalienable part of freedom and self-dependence.”


92 – “All tendencies of human nature are in themselves vital and profitable; when they are blamed, they are only to be blamed relatively, not absolutely.”


Germanic philistinism is a soul of goodness, MA is seen as the enemy of it because he does “not wish it have things all its own way.”  It leads “up to science, up to the comprehension and interpretation of the world.”


93 – The Philistine has invented many good things.


So the Anglo and Celtic co-mingling, that we’re considering the existence of, could be great, but we too need to consider the Norman.


94 – People say the Normans are just Teutonic.  But it’s governing point is Latin, not Teutonic.  France, without changing her blood, became, for all intents and purposes, a Latin country . . . through the Roman conquest.




Latinism conquered Celtism in her, as it also conquered the Germanism imported by the Frankish and other invasions.


95 – We see German traces of the French when we see their troops in Italy.   When they conquered England they were already Latinized.


96 – “The Latinized Normans in England had the sense for fact, which the Celts had not; and the love of strenuousness, clearness, and rapidity, the high Latin spirit, which the Saxons had not.  They hated the slowness and dullness of the creeping Saxon; it offended their clear, strenuous talent for affairs, as it offended the Celt’s quick and delicate perception.”


96 – In short, the Germanic genius has steadiness as its main basis, with commonness and (97) humdrum for its defect, fidelity to nature for its excellence.  The Celtic genius, sentiment as its main basis, with love of beauty, charm, and spirituality for its excellence, ineffectualness and self-will for its defect.  The Norman genius, talent for affairs as its main basis, with strenuousness and clear rapidity for its excellence, hardness and insolence for its defect.  And, now to try and trace these in the composite English genius.”


97 - If they are purely Germanic, why are the Germans so unlike them?


98 – English is better for rhetoric.


99 – The English have great orators.


100 – Prussian speeches from the throne are much worse.   But, from where?


“Modes of life, institutions, government, climate, and so forth, - let me say it once for all, - will further or hinder the development of an aptitude, but they will not by themselves create the aptitude or explain it.  On the other hand, a people’s habit and complexion of nature go far to determine its modes of life, institutions, and government, and even to prescribe the limits within which the influences of climate shall tell upon it.”


101 – For evidence?  The Greek Latin and Germans have done well in the plastic arts.  The Celts “have shown a singular inaptitude for the plastic arts; the abstract, severe character of the Druidical religion, its dealing with the eye of the mind rather than the eye of the body, . . . . all point this way from the first.”


THIS IS much like Richard Nisbett’s work.


102 – “Ireland, that has produced so many powerful spirits, has produced no great sculptors or painters.  Cross into England.  The inaptitude for the plastic art strikingly diminishes, as soon as the German, not the Celtic element, preponderates in the race.  And yet in England, too, in the English race, there is something which seems to prevent our real mastership in the plastic arts, as the more unmixed German races have reached it.  Reynolds and Turner are painters of genius, who can doubt it?  But take a European jury, . . . and see if you can get a verdict giving them the rank of masters.” 


The fall short in ‘architectonice, in the highest power of composition.”


103 – So the English as a go between Celtics and Germans, try plastic arts, but fall short due to the Celt in them.


104 – We see the same pattern in religion.  Puritanism is between German exegesis and Celtic sentimentality – in Romanism.  The Germans turned Protestantism into science.  The English blend of German reason and Celtic piety is Puritanism.


105 - The Germans do platitudes.  The English emotions make them stop short of holding to these.


106 – 8  - He compares two stories.  The English one is plain and has a moral.  The German one only leads to bathos.


109 – And, yet, just what constitutes special power and genius in a man seems often to be his blending with the basis of his national temperament, some additional gift or grace not proper to that temperament.”




MA does not consider Heine German because “Heine was a Jew, and the Jewish temperament is quite another thing from the German.”


110 – People tend not to see other nations’ particularities in a positive light.


111 – Germans and Latins arrive at fact, but do so in different ways.


112  - George Sand says, ‘Nearly every Englishman, . . . has always something singular about him which easily comes to seem comic.”


113 – This MA thinks, comes from the Englishman being mixed, unlike the other nations.   But this mixed remnant is most apparent in poetry.  And, we’ll hit that next.


  ---        -----


English poetry has a turn for melancholy, natural magic, and vivid renderings of nature.  Where? Style perhaps Celtic; melancholy likely Celtic; natural magic all Celt.


114 – German poetry lacks style, for which it shows little feeling.   They have genius, thought, and feeling expressed in clear language, simple, passionate, eloquent, language; with harmony and melody.  But, no style.


116 – “The turn for style is perceptible all through English poetry, proving, to my mind, the genuine poetical gift of the race.”


117 – Goethe had to labor hard for a sense of style.  It didn’t fully take.


Luther also had a dash of coarseness and commonness: A Philistine of Genius.


119 – The German is quick to say he is not a Dane, due to their closeness.   The nature of Icelandic poetry makes MA suspect Celtic blood.


120 – The Nibelungen, has half of its power taken out of it by a lack of style. 


The Scandinavians’ realism proves their relation to the Germans.


The Celts have sublime style in a wonderful measure.


122 – To see it is better than the English, he looks at epitaphs on tombstones.  


123 – The English often show the same lack of style as their German kinsmen.   It is hard to say whose hymns are worse.   We only like them because of their religious nature.  But, as pure poetry . . . ?


125 – Whereas the Semitic genius placed its highest spiritual life in the religious sentiment, and he made that the basis of his poetry, - The Indo-European genius places its highest spiritual life in the imaginative reason.”


“We are none the better for trying to make ourselves Semitic, when Nature has made us Indo-European, and to shift the basis of our poetry.”

It is because religion isn’t really the Indo-European strong suit that its hymns suck.


127 – The English non-religious poetry, like that of Byron, is sublime, has “Titanism,” due to the admixture of Celts.


129 – He dings Werther, Lotte, and Faust for not having Titanism.  It is wistful, soft , tearful longing; not the Celt’s struggling, fierce, passion.


131 – Byron and the Celt are different than the intelligible motive of Faust.   Milton’s Satan is also great.


133 – “Magic is just the word for it, - the magic of nature; not merely the beauty of nature, - that the Greeks and Latins had.”  Not the realism of the Germans.  But fairy charm.


The Saxon names of places, with the smack of soil, “Weathersfield” are not like the Celts’ names of penetrating beauty – Tyntagel. 


Rhyme, it seems, comes to us via the Celts.  The ancients did not have rhyme.


136 - But this matter needs fine handling as “Europe tends constantly to become more and more one community, and we tend to become Europeans instead of merely Englishment, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians;” so each gets imitated by all. 

But, though imitated, characteristics don’t shine as bright, as perfectly, as when the native person uses them. 


137 – There are the faithful, Greek and magical ways of handling nature.


138 – Each is more subjective than the prior.


140 – “Shakespeare, in handling nature, touches this Celtic note so exquisitely, that perhaps one is inclined  to be always looking for the Celtic ote in him, and not to recognize his Greek note when it comes.”


That is, we mistake exactitude in natural descriptions for poetic flourish.


Yet there is clearly Celt in him.  


142 – Do you doubt the Celtic is in English poetry sometimes?  If not, where do you think they got it from?


He does not seek to disparage the Germans. But we all have our strengths. People just see what they like and hate in literature and explain it as such.  But we must be analytic.


The Germans give us a moral interpretation, from an independent point of view, of man and the worlds.


143 – “Shakespeare’s task was to set forth the spectacle of the world when man’s spirit reawoke to the possession of the world at the Renaissance.”  He made us see the spectacle, fullness, and variety of the moment.  But there was no new basis of spiritual life at that time. 

144 - But when Goethe came, Europe had lost her basis of spiritual life; she had to find it again.  Thus he had the same modern task as in Pericles’ time.  Not to give a sermon, like Dante. Not to exhibit the varieties of life, like Shakespeare, but to interpret human life afresh, to supply a new spiritual basis to it.


This is not only a work for style, eloquence, charm, poetry; it is a work for science; and the scientific, serious German spirit, not carried away by this and that intoxication.”


145 – But the English being mixed, may not be up to the task.  And, had they been Latinized, they might have governed Ireland without being detested.  But now we have Germanism enough to make us Philistines and Normanism enough to be imperious, and Celt enough to be self-conscious and awkward.


In every virtue they fall short.  But if we recognize our shortcomings, they might serve us.  Via measure, control and guidance, they may be made to work for our good and carry us forward.

147 – Then we might get good out of our Latin, German and Celtic parts. And consciously counter our weaknesses.   But now we ride one aspect of our nature to death.   And, these characteristics have spread to America too.


148 – Some say studying Chicago, not the past is the way forward.  But that is just to delve further into our ‘flame of Anglo-Saxonism.” Instead, we should look to Celtic literature and language.  


Those the English rule are not foreign to them and they should take intense interest in knowing them in order to know themselves.


Yet in our universities there is no Chair of Celtic literature or teaching of Celtic matters. TO study it you must go abroad.  Oxford or Cambridge university could take a Celtic student on as a professor.  


150 – England needs manuscripts.


151 – Our philistinism needs to be slowly reduced by culture, by spiritual life. And, this can only be gained by studying things outside of ourselves, disinterestedly.


“Let us reunite with our better mind and with the world through science; and let it be one of our angelic revenges on the Philistines.”  Let us do this by founding “at Oxford a Chair of Celtic, and to send, through the gentle ministration of science, a message of peace to Ireland.”