Is it perhaps invidious to single out any living author for special mention, but this brief survey cannot close without noticing the dramatic poems of W.B. Yeats, the latest poet who attempts to present the old stories in an English dress. His plays On Baile’s Strand, Deirdre, and others, have become familiar to English audiences through the excellent acting of the members of the Abbey Theatre Company. The original texts are now much better known than they were in Ferguson’s day, and Mr. Yeats consequently cannot permit himself the same liberties. Similarly, it is only during the last twenty-five years that the language of Irish poetry has been carefully studied, and Mr. Yeats has this advantage over his predecessors that on occasion, e.g., in certain passages in The King’s Threshold, he is able to introduce with great effect reminiscences of the characteristic epithets and imagery which formed so large a part of the stock-in-trade of the medieval bard.
Friedel and Meyer: La Vision de Tondale (Paris,
1907); Boswell: An
Irish Precursor of Dante (London, 1908); Cambridge History of English
Literature, vol. I, chaps, xii and xvi; Windisch: Das Keltische
Brittannien (Leipzig, 1912), more especially chap. xxxvii;
Dictionary of National Biography; Gwynn: Thos. Moore ("English Men of
Letters” Series, London, 1905).
By ALFRED PERCEVAL GRAVES.
Among savage peoples there is at first no distinction of a definite kind between good and bad spirits, and when a distinction has been reached, a great advance in a spiritual direction has been made. For the key to the religion of savages is fear, and until such terror has been counteracted by belief in beneficent powers, civilization will not follow. But the elimination of the fear of the unseen is a slow process; indeed, it will exist side by side with the belief in Christianity itself, after a modification through various stages of better pagan belief.
Ireland still presents, in its more out-of-the-way districts, evidence of that strong persistence in the belief in maleficent or malicious influences of the pre-Christian powers of the air, which it seems difficult to eradicate from the Celtic imagination. In the celebrated poem entitled The Breastplate of St. Patrick, there is much the same attitude on the part of Patrick towards the Druids and their powers of concealing and changing, of paralyzing and cursing, as was shown by Moses towards the magicians of Egypt. Indeed, in Patrick’s time a belief in a world of fairies existed even in the king’s household, for “when the two daughters of King Leary of Ireland, Ethnea the fair and Fedelma the ruddy, came early one morning to the well of Clebach to wash, they found there a synod of holy bishops with Patrick. And they knew not whence they came, or in what form, or from what people, or from what country; but they supposed them to be Duine Sidh, or gods of the earth, or a phantasm.”