Monday, 24 November 2014

Book Review: Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry

As I mentioned a good while ago, I treated myself to a copy of Celtic Cosmology: Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland, which was released earlier this year. I've been working my way through it sloooowly because as much as I'm enjoying it, it's not exactly light bedtime reading. And I'll be honest, in an effort to encourage Tom to branch out from the reading a set of I Wonder Why... books so much he can now recite them almost verbatim, I bought the full set of Harry Potter from the charity bookship at the train station for him, and read the whole lot myself. So I got a bit sidetracked (but it did pique Tom's interest and he's on book four now, so it worked...).

Anyway. I'm about half-way through the Celtic Cosmology book, but in between working my way through articles from there I've been doing some other reading. One of those is Kenneth Jackson's Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry, which doesn't have the most exciting title, but it does have some good stuff in there, so I think it's worth a review.

Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry
Kenneth Jackson

Kenneth Jackson was one of the big names in Celtic Studies from the 1930s up until the mid-twentieth century, and he was a linguist as much as a historian. He studied and translated early Irish poetry and mythology (along with works in other languages), and gave a hugely influential and inspirational lecture in the 1960s that declared the Ulster Cycle "a window on the Iron Age." The lecture was so well-received at that time that it was then published as a small book. This isn't that particular book, but I think it's an important point to mention, because it shows where he's coming from. Jackson was one of the great Nativists, as they're called these days, and he viewed the myths that survived in medieval manuscripts as evidence of a conservative and thriving oral tradition. Academics have since challenged his views on this and other things, but his work remains an important contribution to the field.

This is a book that was first published in the 30s, so it's difficult to consider it without accounting for its age or context. It's something that I've never really had the chance to sit down and read from cover to cover before now, though I was familiar with its contents, but I'm glad I had the chance. In spite of its age, and the fact that yes, he's calling it "Celtic" when he's really only talking about Irish and Welsh poetry, there's some genuinely good stuff here. Some of it may be outdated now, but it's worth a read regardless.

The book is split into two parts (kind of), with the poetry given first, followed by a number of essays that discuss the various themes that crop up in them. As the title suggests, we're dealing with poetry that focuses on nature in particular, and the poems are split into Irish and then Welsh translations. It's a shame the original Irish or Welsh isn't given as well, but in theory, if you know where to look you can find a good portion of it online at (the Irish, anyway. I really couldn't say about the Welsh). It seems that this book isn't out of copyright itself yet, but much of the source material is.

Jackson gives his own translations of the poems and there are some notes that explain where and why he's chosen to translate something differently to other versions that are available (by authors like Kuno Meyer or Whitley Stokes, for example). This helps give some clarity to the way he's rendered some verses, and over all he seems to have a good feel for poetry so he does a good job of giving the intended (or apparent) meanings while making the translations readable. That helps the beautiful imagery and turns of phrases to shine through, and while I don't have a head for poetry myself, I can appreciate those who do. I do think you lose something without being able to see the verses in the original language, but still. It's better than nothing and this is the way it was often done back then, in books intended for a more general audience if not in articles you find in journals.

In some cases I wouldn't be surprised to find that the translations Jackson has given are still the most up to date and widely available versions, but I couldn't say that for sure. The poems are grouped together so examples that are of a similar age or focus can be found easily and that allows for quick reference and comparison, especially if you want to look back over the poems as you read the commentary given in later chapters. Some of the Irish poems are very obviously hermit poetry - poems written by Christian hermits who chose to take themselves out of society, to live alone in solitary spiritual devotion - and as such the poems talk about the surrounding the hermits could see as they sat in their hut. In their isolation, the birds and animals become their companions, and in the absence of the monastery kitchens they talk about the rich pickings they might forage for in the forests around them. Some of them are more obviously secular, and these are the ones that raise some of the most interesting questions for me.

Jackson's theory, in one of the chapters that follow the poems themselves, is that these secular poems that announce and seem to rejoice in and celebrate the arrival of the seasons, are evidence of the kind of hymns or carols that may have been sung in a pre-Christian setting. It's certainly tempting to want to believe that, in spite of the lack of hard evidence, but Jackson's fervour on the subject makes me easily convinced. Plus there's no real reason to think they wouldn't have songs like that, when it tends to be such a universal thing, and so far it's not something that's really been discussed much. In that respect, I think the poems are going to be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists because it raises questions on how we ourselves might greet the seasons, and how we can incorporate the poems or liturgy into that. Or, for those of us who have the head for it, compose our own poems or songs. I'll leave that endeavour to people who won't butcher the good name of poetry and poets everywhere, don't worry.

But I think this book is a good one to have on the shelf, even if some of it needs careful consideration as a product of its time. It's not a hefty tome, and it's a fairly easy and engaging read as more academically focused books go. Although I can't really comment much on the Welsh side of things, even if it's not my focus or real area of interest there's no denying that there are some beautiful examples there, too. Although Jackson himself doesn't really go into it, one of the big things in Celtic Studies at the moment is looking at just how much influence and feedback between Ireland and Wales there really was at the time, so that's something to consider too.

I think this would be of interest to anyone, whether a beginner or someone more advanced, who may be looking for insights into the kind of attitudes there may have been towards the immediate environment, the turning of the seasons, and for possible inspiration when it comes to devotional pieces or liturgy. This one's definitely a keeper for me, and one I'll get good use out of in future.