CREATING CELTIC STUDIES: ROMANTICISM AND RATIONALISM IN LATE NINETEENTH-CENTURY CELTIC SCHOLARSHIP
Donald E. Meek
The creation of what we conveniently call today 'Celtic Studies' has been a complex process, operating over some four centuries. In the course of these centuries, numerous different strata have been laid down - linguistic, literary, ideological, archaeological, to name but a few - and they have interacted to a considerable extent, with the appearance of faultlines and occasional earthquakes. The discipline which emerged from the primordial turmoil was partly a hybrid, deriving theories, insights and skills from Oriental and Classical studies (among others), but it also had its own distinctive concerns, based on close study of Celtic languages. The formation of the discipline within our modern universities occurred in the nineteenth century, and particularly (in Britain and Ireland) in the last quarter of that century. This period was noteworthy for its strong emphasis on discovering the historical roots of the Celtic languages. This is the movement which I have termed 'rationalism', though I recognise that this is not a wholly satisfactory designation; 'philological rationalism' may be nearer the mark. Prior to the formal creation of Celtic Studies, however, we can also discern a long gestation period, covering most of the eighteenth century, from at least the time of Edward Lhuyd in the late seventeenth century, when the first sense of a Celtic language family emerged, to the positioning of 'Celtick' within a wider language family by Sir William ('Oriental') Jones in 1786.
From about 1760, a strongly romantic interest in the literatures of the countries that we now call 'Celtic' (by extension of the term) emerged in the British Isles, and spread far beyond their shores. Romantic Celticism has frequently given Celtic Studies an important boost. Its later manifestations, however, have also given the discipline something of a bad name, by contributing a great deal of confusion to the nuances of the word 'Celtic', and applying it to a wide range of political and other ideological causes, often in a context divorced from the Celtic languages themselves.
Today we may feel curiously torn between the romantic and rationalist dimensions of the discipline. In a climate which so often encourages happy inclusiveness, we can easily forget the rationalist dimension or feel embarrassed about it. Romanticism has its charms, and we ourselves can quite easily fall victim. That strand of romanticism, however, does not allow us to abandon reason, nor are we permitted, as we see fit, to welcome excessive or groundless illusions based on wishful thinking about 'Celts' and 'Celtic fringes'. On the other hand, we can espouse a very hard-headed rationalism, while forgetting that our discipline has a powerfully romantic strand within it. In short, we have to know how to deal with our emotions, and to be prepared to subject them to the demands of reason - to sources and to evidence, whether linguistic, historical or literary. And it is useful to reflect sensibly on how romanticism and rationalism have interacted across the centuries, and particularly in the nineteenth century, when the foundations of the modern discipline were securely laid.
The emergence of romanticism
In acknowledging both the romantic and rationalist dimensions of the discipline, while rejecting nonsensical claims, we follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers (and they were male, not female) of Celtic Studies. The polarities with which they wrestled, and we continue to wrestle, have a long history. The movement which we designate 'romanticism' goes back to the publication of James Macpherson's Ossianic translations in the years between 1760 and 1763. An interest in Celtic language, literature and history was stimulated by the extraordinary controversy which followed in their wake. The Celts went global as Macpherson's work was translated into numerous languages, and influenced writers in Europe and America. 'Ossian' encouraged a great deal of faking, but it also stimulated the collection of much genuine traditional Gaelic material, and a desire to discover as much as possible about the 'ancient bards'. Eighteenth-century Wales likewise had its own 'creative refashioners', of whom the best known is Edward Williams, who assumed the name 'Iolo Morganwg'. Iolo's 'forgeries' have kept Welsh scholars in business down to the present day, as they have tried to sort out what was, and what wasn't, actually composed by Dafydd ap Gwilym in the fourteenth century, rather than by Iolo in the eighteeenth.
After the death of Macpherson in 1796, the Ossianic question was subjected to an enquiry by the Highland Society of Scotland, which issued its report in 1805. This enquiry was of vital importance in laying down some empirical approaches to the study of Gaelic tradition. The enquiry indicates that romanticism can generate rational investigations into its own causes; the Scottish Enlightenment, which encouraged the creation of 'Ossian', also had a sceptical element within it which challenged the authenticity of the alleged 'epics'. In particular, the later scepticism of David Hume, who was initially a 'believer' in 'Ossian', strengthened the cry for sources and evidence. Empiricism and rationalism thus went together, and were by no means mutually exclusive. Nor did rationalism or empiricism, however strong, banish romanticism. In Scotland after the publication of the Highland Society's report, it is possible to trace a steadily increasing interest in the collection and analysis of Gaelic tradition by scholars who recognised the importance of oral material and the need to preserve it in written and printed forms, but who did not necessarily approve of the methodology of James Macpherson. Thus John Francis Campbell of Islay, who published Popular Tales of the West Highlands in 1860-62 and Leabhar na Féinne in 1872, regularly condemned Macpherson in his editorial commentaries, while responding to the urge to gather Gaelic narratives, in both prose and verse.
Alongside the romantic rationalism and scepticism of Campbell of Islay, whose pioneering labours set the scene for the professional collecting of our own day, James Macpherson's reconstructions created a vaguer kind of misty pseudo-scholarship which affected the interpretation, not only of poetry, but also of much more specifically philological matters, such as place-names. It influenced perceptions of landscape and literature, and even of religion, and was internalised within the Celtic areas themselves through scholars such as Ernest Renan, one of the most influential Orientalist scholars of the nineteenth century and a native of Brittany. Renan, in turn, influenced Matthew Arnold, who gave his celebrated lectures on Celtic literature in Oxford in 1865-66. When Arnold gave his lecture, one of the members of the audience was a Welshman by the name of John Rhys, who was to become the first Professor of Celtic at Oxford in 1877 - a chair founded as a result of Arnold's exhortations. Here we can already see a direct line of descent from Macpherson, through Renan and Arnold, down to John Rhys - and there can be no denying the fact that romanticisim aided the emergence of Celtic Studies. Romanticsim was a powerful tool for creating enthusiasm, constructing ideologies, and raising funds. It had massive strengths, but it had equally massive weaknesses, for all too often it encouraged dreams at the expense of realities. Whether they want to admit it or not, Celtic scholars owe a great deal to the highly creative work of James Macpherson.
Sir John Rhys and the science of philology
Through translation into other European languages, notably German, Macpherson's 'Ossian' probably contributed to the second movement which influenced the founding fathers of Celtic Studies after 1870. This movement was indebted to the gradual emergence in Germany of philological studies based on rational enquiry into the relationship of languages to one another. The family of languages known first as Indo-Germanisch, and later Indo-European, provided a particular focus. In 1838 Franz Bopp demonstrated that Celtic belonged to this family. The basis of his enquiry was the form of the words themselves, and the extent to which they displayed common roots, which could be ascribed to a single ancestor language, nowadays known as Proto-Indo-European. Initially this encouraged a great deal of woolly nonsense which was produced by romantics who began to espouse the new ideas without having mastered the correct philological techniques: witness some of the wild etymologies offered by such learned men as Professor William Geddes of Aberdeen. In the long term and in the right hands, however, the new philological method produced a much more precise approach to the understanding of language than had prevailed hitherto. With this new analysis of language came a corresponding interest in explaining the common origins of mythology, and also of folktales. The Aryan or Indo-European hypothesis was the foundation stone of the new scholarly edifice which began to be built in Britain and Ireland from the 1870s. Its impact is very evident in Campbell of Islay's theories about the dissemination of folktales and their motifs.
Both romanticism and philological rationalism can be seen equally clearly in the approaches of several foundational Welsh, Gaelic and Irish scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The proportions of romanticism and rationalism vary within the profiles of individual scholars, and that makes the study all the more interesting. I have already mentioned the Welsh scholar John Rhys, and perhaps a further word or two about him would be appropriate at this point, in order to set the other scholars in context. As I have studied the emergence of Celtic Studies in Scotland, I have become aware of the importance of Rhys, as the first Professor of Celtic at Oxford, in establishing a paradigm of scholarship which could be followed by others. Rhys (1840-1915), who was a native of south Wales, had interests in Celtic mythology and religion, producing his Studies in the Arthurian Legend (1881) and On the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom (1888). He was also interested in folklore and ethnology. But Rhys was a philologist, and primarily a philologist. He published his first book, Lectures on Welsh Philology, in 1877, and, as the entry in The New Companion to the Literature of Wales puts it, 'he was the first to use the methods of Comparative Philology in a study of Welsh from the Brythonic inscriptions to the language of his own time'. His volume on The Outlines of the Phonology of Manx Gaelic was published in 1894. He was thus an all-round Celtic philologist, with an interest in both the Brythonic and the Goedelic branches of the Celtic family.
Alexander MacBain and Celtic philology
With the Goedelic branch of Celtic in mind, I now turn to Scotland. Two Scottish Celtic scholars, whose work I know particularly well, are Alexander MacBain and Donald MacKinnon, both of whom were native Gaelic speakers. Both were more or less contemporary with one another and with John Rhys. In both, one can see differing responses to the formative ideologies at the heart of the new Celtic discipline.
MacBain, who was younger than MacKinnon, was a native of Badenoch, and became Headmaster of Raining's School, Inverness, in 1880. He produced many ground-breaking writings, of which the best known is his Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, which was published in 1896, two years after Rhys's work on Manx. MacBain acknowledges the importance of Rhys's work in his dictionary, citing all his major works, including his Manx Phonology. He also has a scholarly profile very close to that of Rhys, since, in addition to his key concern with philology, he wrote extensively on mythology (in which he sometimes referred to Rhys, alongside Muller and Tyler), and explored aspects of early Celtic Scotland. Because of this, and the manner in which he influenced later scholars and provided essential tools for them, MacBain has the first claim (ahead of MacKinnon, in my view) to being the founding father of Celtic Studies in Scotland.
MacBain was a graduate in Mental Philosophy of the University of Aberdeen, but in the 1870s, while a student, he appears to have drunk deeply of the new Celtic philological perspectives which were introduced to Aberdeen, and to Britain more widely, by Iohann Kaspar Zeuss's major work, Grammatica Celtica, which had been reissued in 1871. MacBain was aware that the romanticism of the previous century or so, and the speculation of Celtophiles who were carried away by their own enthusiasms, had left a very dubious legacy which required to be cleared out before the new academic premises (in both senses!) could be built. For him, the way to do the 'carting' was to take up the same tools as the Germans of Bonn and Berlin, and to employ 'the science of language' or comparative philology, as it came to be known. This was what he wrote in a paper from the 1880s:
'It is needless to remark that until lately the Celts suffered much from the injudicious and unscientific theories of Celtic enthusiasts, and it has been only by the patient industry of the Germans that full recognition has been given to the proper position of the Celts among the other Indo-European nations. Even yet, in Scotland, too little attention is paid to the scientific facts established in Celtic ethnology and philology.'
'The scientific facts established in Celtic ethnology and philology', no less. The future lay with the philologists, according to MacBain, and in the years ahead he was to be the relentless scourge of all 'enthusiasts' who had not approached their linguistic evidence in a properly 'philologic' manner. Professor William J. Watson said of him that 'charlatans found to their cost that he could wield a grievous cudgel'. The 'cudgel' was employed most strikingly in the review columns, when MacBain ruthlessly exposed the weaknesses of those who were foolish enough to attempt explanations of Scottish place-names, without a proper knowledge of the necessary languages.
Charlatans, past as well as present, felt the force of MacBain's cudgel. In a manner similar to his dispatching of onomastic con-men, MacBain roundly dismissed James Macpherson's 'Ossian', declaring strongly, again in the mid-1880s:
'The conclusion we come to is simply this:- Macpherson is as truly the author of ''Ossian'' as Milton is of ''Paradise Lost''. Milton is to the Bible in even nearer relation than Macpherson is to the Ossianic ballads.'
MacBain also attacked, in spirited form, the contribution of historians such as William Forbes Skene, whose volume on the Scottish Highlanders was given the lash in 1897. Yet, in after-dinner speeches at the Annual Dinners of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, he could speak in a much more accommodating and romantic vein. In one speech, given in 1882, he showed how much he was part of a wider romantic movement, at the same time as he espoused rationalist perspectives. In his speech, he doffed his cap to Matthew Arnold, describing him as 'the most refined of our modern critics'. He was even mellow to James Macpherson. 'And after all', he asked, 'what does it much matter whether they [the epics] are largely composed by Macpherson himself or not, if the poems are really good and have the true Celtic ring about them?'
The 'true Celtic ring' was to be found in many parts of Scotland, but particularly in those societies, such as the Gaelic Society of Inverness, established in 1871, where a broad commitment to the even broader notion of 'Celtic' was forging powerful alliances of landlords, ministers, clan chiefs, school teachers, school inspectors, and, of course, scholars like MacBain. MacBain, in that context, had to play the 'Celtic game'. In its defence, it can be said that the use of the term 'Celtic', by transferring the label from a respectable academic perspective on the languages to a wider, more amorphous alliance or set of alliances, created its own romance. 'Highland Celts' and 'Hebridean Celts' were spoken of with admiration, and the old stigmas associated with Gaelic seemed to fall away in a superficial Celtic unity which helped to rally support for the language and its speakers.
Donald MacKinnon and the integrity of 'Ossian'
The 'Celtic game', which pooled the intellectual, political and financial resources of well-disposed 'Celts' of various kinds, but commonly of those who had moved to the cities, was of considerable importance in building the structures of Celtic Studies. In establishing Chairs of Celtic, the 'Celtic game' was of particular value, as the creation of the Edinburgh Chair in 1882 demonstrates. The Chair became an icon of Gaelic identity within Scotland, and a test of commitment to the language. My concern here, however, is not with the Chair, but with its first occupant, Professor Donald MacKinnon. MacKinnon (1839-1914) was a native of the Inner Hebridean island of Colonsay, and had obtained a degree in Mental Philosophy at Edinburgh. Similarly, MacBain had studied Mental Philosophy at Aberdeen. Similarly, too, both men moved towards Celtic Studies as their main academic pursuit, but they differed markedly in their scholarly emphases. MacBain was primarily a philologist, and MacKinnon likewise had an interest in place-names, particularly those of his native Argyllshire, on which he wrote important articles in the press. However, MacKinnon's main concern was with the elucidation and editing of Gaelic literature, and he has a claim to being the first modern Gaelic literary critic, writing in Gaelic in the 1870s and producing important (though now outmoded) articles on the major Gaelic poets. He also expounded the philosophy, as he saw it, behind Gaelic proverbs and proverbial sayings, and produced a series of Gaelic essays on this theme. His major academic work was his Descriptive Catalogue of Gaelic Manuscripts in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, published in 1912. This in itself demonstrates MacKinnon's commitment to making Gaelic literary material accessible, in form and content, to contemporary Gaels and scholars. In other words, while acknowledging the importance of the new philological science, he tended to lean away from the profoundly philological position occupied by MacBain, and to espouse the more 'traditional' side of Gaelic investigation. That was no bad thing, since the discipline needed both the literary and the philological inputs of its emerging scholars.
What is of interest to us, however, is the strongly romantic impulse which undergirds MacKinnon's writings, and in particular his literary criticism. His yardstick for good poetry is, perhaps surprisingly, Macpherson's 'Ossian'. His appeal to 'Ossian', captured in the qualifying phrase 'apart from Ossian', forms a leitmotif in his critical writings. When discussing Dugald Buchanan (1716-68), the Gaelic religious poet of the eighteenth century, MacKinnon made no secret of his admiration for the man and his verse, but even he had to play second fiddle to 'Ossian' and to other 'Ossianic' compositions, some of them bogus. Thus, MacKinnon claimed that Dugald Buchanan's poetry surpassed 'all other Gaelic poetry that we have - apart, perhaps, from Macpherson's Ossian and Smith's Seann Dàna' - the latter reference being to the Ossianic forgeries and imitations of the Rev. John Smith of Campbeltown. We may even see a Macphersonic touch in MacKinnon's enthusiasm for proverbial lore, with its overt deference to the wisdom of the ancestors from a great Gaelic past. 'The Sublime' was to be found in ancestral wisdom, and in Macpherson's 'Ossian', which MacKinnon regarded as the touchstone of how the Highland people once thought: Ann am bàrdachd Oisein gheibh sinn an dearbhadh as làidire a tha againn air a' bhuaidh a bha aig cumhachdan an t-saoghail mun cuairt daibh thairis air inntinnean an t-sluaigh o shean ('In the poetry of Ossian we will find the strongest proof that we have of the influence that the powers of the world round about them [the environment!] had over the minds of the people of old.').
The natural world of the Highlands, according to MacKinnon, was also perfectly delineated in 'Ossian'. Travellers who had written in derogatory terms about the Highland landscape prior to the publication of 'Ossian' had misunderstood the real beauty of the region, and 'Ossian' had set the record straight. Even the achievement of Duncan Bàn MacIntyre (1724-1812), probably the supreme Gaelic poet of nature who flourished in the eighteenth century, was surpassed by that of 'Ossian'. The question of authorship, which for men such as MacBain was easily resolved, was still an open question for MacKinnon about 1875: Coma an tràths' co-dhiubh is e Mac Mhuirich a rinn 'Oisean' no nach e, b' fhìor Ghàidheal e a dh' aon chor ('No matter for the moment whether or not it was Macpherson who composed 'Ossian', he was on any account a true Gael'). The 'true Gael', the essence of Gaelic integrity, had to be defended to the last drop of Gaelic ink.
There are ironies here, of the most profound kind. It would be hard to find, in the whole of Gaelic literature, a poet more different from Macpherson's 'Ossian' than Dugald Buchanan. Admittedly, we can argue that Buchanan was influenced by Macpherson's work and that both operated within an intellectual climate which sought the Sublime, but the sinuous, logical preaching of Buchanan hardly bears comparison with the heavily descriptive prose-poetry of James Macpherson. Even Duncan MacIntyre's ornate and well fashioned poetry in praise of his working environment on Beinn Dòbhrain has a very different feel from that of Macpherson.
Alongside 'Ossian' and the proverbs, and in the wake of the publication of Campbell's Popular Tales, MacKinnon acknowledged the importance of traditional tales as another treasure-house of early Gaelic values. His perspectives on the tales reached even farther into the remote past. They were, in his view, a repository of the Gaels' ancient beliefs, and he cited the German scholar, Heinrich Zimmer (1851-1910), as his authority in claiming that the Gaels had retained the purity of this aspect of their literature better than any other race in Europe. He believed, following Alfred Nutt and others, that the tales preserved a mythology held in common mun do dhealaich Gàidheal is Gall, Greugach is Ròmanach, Slabh is Innseanach, a choimhlionadh an dàin air faiche mhór an t-saoghail ('before Gael and Lowlander, Greek and Roman, Slav and Indian, went their separate ways to fulfil their destiny on the great field of the world'). The Indo-European linguistic model was thus extended to embrace and account for perceived similarities in the themes and mythologies of folktales in different European and Asian cultures. MacKinnon, however, appears to have overlooked Welsh and Irish tales as part of the same alleged continuum.
Here MacKinnon is closer to the contemporary mainstream, but his 'Ossianic' myopia may seem curiously at odds with the new, corrective vision which was informing the emergence of Celtic Studies in Scotland. We may be inclined to conclude that he was trying to hold back the tide of progress, which was sweeping away ancient values. Simultaneously he appears to counteract the growing scepticism which, by the early 1870s, had generally accepted that 'Ossian' was the work of James Macpherson. Nevertheless, we have to understand that such romanticism was not a reflection of MacKinnon's personal weakness, his intransigence or his old-fashioned ways. Rather, it was very much part of the Celtic academic package as a whole, and it sat hard alongside scholarly commitment to rational enquiry. After all, MacKinnon was appointed to the Edinburgh Chair in 1882, despite his overt 'Ossianism', which had been presented to the Gaelic-reading public in the main Gaelic periodical, An Gaidheal, in the preceding decade. It was neither a dark secret nor a good reason for banning him from the new Chair; indeed, John Stuart Blackie, who gathered the funds for the Chair, would have relished MacKinnon's Ossianic predilections. A scholar could choose which part of the romantic/rationalist package to emphasise, and when and where such an emphasis was most appropriate. And the scholars made their choices. Whereas MacKinnon was prepared to give house room to Ossianic romanticism in his writings, MacBain kept his more mellow views of 'Ossian', including 'the true Celtic ring', for the bonhomie and bombastic speech-making of Celtophile dinners at which the gulf between the philological scientist and the 'Celtic' enthusiast had to be bridged for the wider benefit of the discipline. 'Ossian' may have had little validity as an indigenous Gaelic work, but it had great mythopoeic and cohesive power. By the time Professor William J. Watson succeeded MacKinnon in 1914, the claims of 'Ossian' had receded into the background, and a more firmly philological and less speculative model for Celtic Studies could emerge.
Kuno Meyer and 'Mad Celts'
The ironies or choices or blind spots or fond delusions (call them what we will, from our own enlightened position!) in the perspectives of MacKinnon and others lay somewhere in the 'no man's land' between romanticism and rationalism, but they were by no means restricted to the foundational scholars of Celtic Studies in Scotland. I suspect that we could find them in Wales too without much difficulty, if 'The Book of Mad Celts' recently edited by Dr Marion Löffler is anything to go by. This book is based on the photographs taken by John Wickens at the pan-Celtic Congress held at Caernarfon in 1904. These show Celtic scholars and Celtophiles of various sorts masquerading in national costumes and druidic outfits on the battlements of Caernarfon Castle. Ireland, Scotland and Wales are well represented.
One of those who was not present at Caernarfon, but who was in both the rationalist and romantic streams of Celtic Studies and contributed to the creation of the pan-Celtic Congress, was Professor Kuno Meyer (1858-1919), an almost exact contemporary of Alexander MacBain. Kuno Meyer, who held a Chair at Liverpool and later at Berlin, was a German from Hamburg, and his career as a leading Celtic scholar impinged productively on Scotland, Ireland and Wales, though he is associated particularly closely with Ireland. As a philologist and brilliant linguist, he was a meticulous editor and translator of early Irish/Gaelic texts, and helped to found the School of Irish Learning, which was the precursor of the School of Celtic Studies of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Meyer was at the forefront of academic activity which sought to use the philological science, developed in Germany, to present the riches of early Irish literature to both scholars and popular readers, and thereby to counteract the views of Professor Robert Atkinson of Trinity College, Dublin, who had belittled the richness and variety of that literature. In his edition of the small text, King and Hermit, published in 1901, Meyer showed that, through engaging with those poems which were ascribed to nature-loving hermits, such as Marbán in his text, he himself could become something of a nature-loving hermit. Indeed, this hard-headed German philologist provided his small book with what must rank as the most romantic dedication ever penned by a Celtic scholar. The dedication is to four of his friends, Damer Harrison, John MacDonald, Walter Raleigh, and John Sampson, and it goes like this:
'When, a few years ago, we five, like Marban the Hermit, exchanging for awhile the flockbed of civilisation for the primitive couch of earth, went agypsying into Wales, and every evening pitched our tent now by a murmuring brook, now upon the shingle of the sea, then again among the heather on a mountain-side, or in some woodland glade, where the hundred-throated chorus of birds awoke us at dawn, and the hooting owl startled us out of our slumbers at night, - some of you, town-born and bred like myself, felt for the first time that exquisite charm of an intimate intercourse with nature which has found such beautiful expression in these verses of a nameless Irish poet. In memory of those happy times I dedicate this little book to you.'
It would take another chapter to unpack the complexities of that passage, and to trace its various allusions. Some of them are as much Wordsworthian and Arnoldian as Ossianic. Echoes of Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' may lie between Meyer's lines, but the most obvious source for his sentiments is Matthew Arnold's 'The Scholar Gipsy'. This rather overwrought poem is based on an older story, first told by the philosopher and cleric, Joseph Glanvill (1636-80) in The Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661). Arnold admires the 'scholar gipsy' who opted out of academic study in Oxford, and whose free spirit, with its heaven-sent spark of inspiration, is still to be seen in different parts of the countryside:
And near me on the grass lies Glanvil's book -
Come, let me read the oft-read tale again,
The story of that Oxford scholar poor,
Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain,
Who, tir'd of knocking at Preferment's door,
One summer morn forsook
His friends, and went to learn the Gipsy lore,
And roam'd the world with that wild brotherhood,
And came, as most men deem'd, to little good,
But came to Oxford and his friends no more...
For early didst thou leave the world, with powers
Fresh, undiverted to the world without,
Firm to their mark, not spent on other things;
Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt,
Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings.
O Life unlike to ours!
Who fluctuate idly without term or scope,
Of whom each strives, nor knows for what he strives,
And each half lives a hundred different lives;
Who wait like thee, but not, like thee, in hope.
Thou waitest for the spark from Heaven: and we,
Vague half-believers of our casual creeds,
Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will'd,
Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,
Whose weak resolves never have been fulfill'd...
An English poet as recent as the massively influential Arnold thus provided one of the visionary perspectives for Meyer's excursions into Celtic 'hermit' literature and Celtic countries. This perspective continues today, not so much in the minds of scholars as in those of the popularisers of 'Celtic Christianity', with its strong emphasis on the benefits of opting out of the contemporary rat-race and embracing a 'return to Nature'.
Given the overall evidence, we may justly conclude that whoever accuses our foundational Celtic scholars - in Scotland, Wales or Ireland - of lacking romantic interests (however we define these words!), and of being mere eggheads, assuredly does not have the truth upon his tongue. The discipline of Celtic Studies, as it emerged, engaged the hearts as well as the minds of even those die-hard rationalists who might prefer to call themselves 'the scientists of language'. It is also very clear that, although their hearts were warmed by romantic impulses which sometimes had roots in the indigenous literatures of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the stimuli were often far removed from these shores and even from the properly language-based world of Celtc scholarship which they professed. Germany, with its philological scholars and its strong literary romantic movement, which owed much to Macpherson's 'Ossian', was an ever-present model in their minds. This romantic perspective had both a softening and a broadening effect on what could have become something of a philological closed shop. It provided co-operation and 'inclusivity', while scholarship promoted specialisation and 'exclusivity'. Issues of contemporary significance to the Celtic languages could be accommodated enthusiastically, if desired, and there was some degree of flexibility. There was sufficient breadth in the 'Celtic' concept to allow Kuno Meyer to be closely involved with indigenous Irish scholars in the creation and maintenance of the Gaelic League. Along with Douglas Hyde and others, he fostered the desire to increase and enhance the status of Irish in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
The legacies of romanticism and rationalism
Despite the benefits of romantic revivalism, however, we must take due note that the evidence does not allow us to conclude that romanticism alone is sufficient to define Celtic Studies. Romanticism had its good points; romanticism helped to found the discipline; it gave it considerable support and publicity, and some political cohesion. But it had a conceptual hole at its centre, and it is not difficult to see that hole if one leafs through the warmly affectionate, but hopelessly imprecise, appreciations of Scottish Gaelic poetry (for example) which were produced in the nineteenth century by all sorts of 'Celtic' well-wishers. In the long term too, the perspectives which informed part of the literary approach of Professor MacKinnon became empty and vacuous, and failed to produce literary criticism of a lasting kind, at least in Gaelic Scotland. After the First World War (a war which, incidentally, seriously damaged Kuno Meyer's relationship with British and Irish scholars) and the experience of the trenches, young Gaelic intellectuals such as the Lewisman, Murdo Murray, who were spared to return to their homeland, began to reject the soft primitivism at the heart of much pre-1914 Gaelic poetry and its critics. However, it was only in the second half of the twentieth century and in the shadow of another world war, which finally put paid to the grosser excesses of 'Aryan' theorising, that properly informed literary criticism appeared in the field of Gaelic literature. Indeed, it is arguable that the literary critical dimension of Gaelic was the last area to rid itself of the deleterious effects and influence of 'Ossian'.
For some scholars, romanticism was, of course, no more than a personalised bolt-hole, which allowed them to retreat into the past, or to hold back the tide, or to go 'agypsying' with Kuno Meyer. We may sympathise with such escapism; rationalism needs its counterbalance in romanticism, and we all need our holidays (or so I am told). However, men like Rhys, MacBain, MacKinnon and Meyer all realised, in different ways, that proper foundations were required if the edifice was going to stand the test of time. These foundations were based on a critical, rational engagement with the Celtic languages. That engagement allowed scholars - and the wider world - to appreciate the proper meaning of place-names, manuscripts, poems, prose-texts and all of those things that are absolutely essential to the discipline as a discipline. That engagement was what produced the dictionaries, the onomastic studies, the philological understanding of the how and the why of linguistic existence. Those of us who operate within the Celtic academic discipline of the present day are the heirs of that engagement, and it falls to us to maintain it. Without such engagement, now as then, Celtic Studies will die.
Languages, past and present
Today, of course, we live in a very different world, and the issues with which we have to grapple are to some extent different from those which confronted the foundational scholars. The languages themselves continue to be a primary focus of attention for all of us in those areas of Britain and Ireland where they are still spoken - but we are interested as much in their future as in their past. We are concerned as much about the routes that they will take in the days ahead as we are about the roots from which they sprang. Earlier scholars, such as Rhys and MacBain, did not have to worry to quite the same degree about the survival of Welsh or Gaelic. Alongside their desire to correct the mythological and literary misconceptions which came in the wake of 'Ossian', their aim was to clean and purify the languages, and to purge them of the misty speculation which had accumulated over many years.
The living Celtic languages were thus among the beneficiaries of the philological excursions of the foundational scholars, although the preservation of these languages through 'revivalism' was not always their direct concern. Rhys was a former school teacher and inspector, and argued for a greater role for Welsh as a medium of instruction in schools, but he appears to have accepted that Welsh would soon disappear - and there are those who would fault him for that today. Alexander MacBain, likewise a schoolteacher as well as a major scholar, may not have been a tub-thumping revivalist campaigning for the preservation of Gaelic in Badenoch, but he had an enormously important role in creating the next generation of Gaelic scholars and creative writers, and also in supporting and encouraging educational initiatives on behalf of Gaelic in the 1880s and 1890s. This was vital at a time when the Scottish Education Act of 1872 made no mention of Gaelic. In his Edinburgh Chair, Donald MacKinnon was charged to maintain the Gaelic language in its contemporary context, and did so not only through teaching, but also through his essay-writing in Gaelic. The same charge has been at the heart of Celtic Studies ever since, despite the popular view that the discipline is medieval and retrospective. In Scotland, a century after 1872, the same desire to maintain the Gaelic language, but also to supplement the number of fluent speakers coming through the schools, led to changes in the focus of those Departments of Celtic which were born, along with Celtic Studies, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Over the last twenty or twenty-five years, all three Scottish departments have maintained their scholarly enquiries into Celtic matters, linguistic and literary, but they have also developed courses which allow complete beginners, without any knowledge of Gaelic, to acquire the language and take full Honours degrees. This in itself is a huge challenge, since it can divert scholarly interests from the academic enquiry at the heart of the discipline towards what may seem to be very basic and unprogressive pedagogy.
At the same time, something of a romantic breeze, with a very 'Celtic' scent, has been blowing during the last decade and more. It has brought gains and losses. On the one hand, it has increased awareness of something 'Celtic' and has no doubt attracted students to the departments. On the other, it has had a deflective tendency. To those who seek iconic consolation in the eternally malleable concept of the 'Celts', it is not always easy to present of the dangers of potential language loss among real Celts. As I said at the outset of this paper, enthusiasts are seeing great things on the 'Celtic fringes' of our linguistic archipelagos, and they want us to tell them of the Celtic cornucopia just over the horizon. It would be very easy to play the 'Celtic game', and to go for a generalised romantic Celticism, which would satisfy palates and fire the emotions. But that would be disloyal to the founding fathers of the discipline, and it would eventually impoverish all concerned. What Rhys, MacBain, MacKinnon, Meyer and others tried to do, in the midst of the romantic hazes of their own time, was to give priority to the Celtic languages and their literatures, and to recognise their needs at a scholarly level within the emerging Celtic discipline. The calling is the same for us today, but there is a greater note of urgency at the very heart of our calling. The prospect of imminent language death leaves little room for romanticism.