Page images
PDF
EPUB

acter.

people, giving a voice to their domestic af- unfamiliar costumes and ever-shifting fashfections and national usages, is generally ions, through the very core of their territhe safest, as it is always the most confi- tory. This influence has not been without dential, exponent of their history and char- its visible effect upon the people in the immediate neighborhood of the great highways; It would carry us out of the line which, while in the remote interior very little exfor the sake of clearness, we have prescrib-ternal modification of the primitive maned to ourselves in this paper, were we toners can be detected, notwithstanding that venture at large into the general subject of some movement of decay or progress must Breton poetry. It will be as much as we have set in every where over the country. can now accomplish to lay before the read- But whatever changes may take place, er a complete view of the ballad poetry of or may possibly be fermenting in a nation, Brittany; which, however, like ballad po- its poetry is always the last to forsake the etry in general, amongst races who continue soil. It even lingers long after the sources to preserve their early simplicity, embraces of its inspiration have perished, long after in its various forms nearly every aspect of its allusions have ceased to be understood, their poetical genius. By this strict limit- or its peculiar forms preserved; and when ation of our design, we escape the half-his- it is no longer a living principle, it contintorical problems which lie on the borders tinues to haunt the old place in the shape of the old Breton romances, and reserve of a tradition. Thus it was, and is, with for future and separate consideration the the poetry of Brittany. The higher classes longer, but intrinsically less interesting poems of a still earlier age, and which, in fact exercise very little present influence over the tastes or feelings of the people. It is more true of the Bretons, perhaps, than of any other distinct race in Europe, that their ballad poetry-comprising the songs of every class, serious and humorous, religious, festive, and mournful-presents a perfect epitome of their whole literature. Indeed the Bretons possess no other living literature. All the rest is ancient and traditional, while this alone goes on receiving occasional accessions, but without undergoing the slightest modification in style or spirit.

had abandoned their nationality, sold it, bartered it for places or for honors, for they are always the first to be reached or corrupted by foreign influences:-the poor cherished their nationality still. With their old national rights and usages the rich gave up also their old poetry. What business had they with a Muse who could only remind them of the associations they had relinquished, of the reverend customs and traditional faith they had renounced ? Turned out of doors at the chateaux, like an acquaintance of former days who had all of a sudden gone out of fashion, or out at elbows, and of whom people of rank and station had grown ashamed, this discarded Muse knocked at the doors of the cabins, and was received with joy and enthusiasm. There she has lingered ever since, lovingly protected in the hearts of the peasantry, the companion of their solitary thoughts, and the intimate participator in their woes and pleasures.

Before we touch upon the collection of ballads, to which in the volumes of M. Villemarqué, we shall presently refer in detail, it will be desirable to say a few words about the popular poetry of the Bretons generally, by way of introduction to the examples we shall adopt from his pages. When Brittany was united to France, Surviving thus, however, in the domestic she lost much of her peculiar physiognomy affections of the people, it still became by the change. With her independence necessary to change something of her went something of her individuality as a habits or style. She was still the same separate people; and, although, to this Muse as ever, faithful to her nationality, hour, Brittany is so essentially different but she was now placed in a new state of from the rest of France, that the moment society, and surrounded by new forms and the traveller crosses the bridge of Pontor-new classes of men. She had no longer to son, which separates Brittany from Nor-speak to chevaliers about the historical mandy, he becomes as conscious of a new glories of their houses, the prowess of their race as if he had passed into a new atmos- ancestors, their loves, their feats of arms,phere, yet the Bretons themselves are sensi- or to fine ladies about their vows or their ble of the influence of altered institutions, increased intercourse outwards, and the rush of a strange moving population, with

beauty-but to the common people, in a common language they could universally understand. Instead of being the muse of

princesses and knights in arms, this poor impulse, with a remarkably melodious infallen Muse of Brittany was compelled stinct, but, at the same time, an entire into be satisfied with being simply the Muse dependence of all rules. The singer is, in of men and women; she was obliged to most cases, the composer; generally a lay aside her fine spangled court suit, and young candidate for the priesthood, under to go work in a blouse with real nature. the influence of a love-melancholy,-a vilIt is needless to say how much she gain- lage schoolmaster, taking advantage of his ed by her fall, by the loss of all that fic- superior attainments to astonish the natives titious splendor in which she was wont-some forlorn, dreamy country youth, into bask, how much more natural and spired by the wild and desolate scenery truthful she became, how much healthier and sounder, how much more vigorous and elastic. Hence all the Breton poems that have descended from that period, are distinguished by their freedom from artifice, their naked truth, and bold simplicity. Here and there a few traces of the old lais may be detected-just as a broken light may seem to linger on the summits of hills long after the sun is actually set-but their traces are nothing more than reminiscences of the antique spirit breathed unconsciously into the comparatively modern verse.

The ballads which grew up under those circumstances, and which, consequently, do not date farther back than the close of the fifteenth century, still survive amongst the people in all their early purity, and in such numbers, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to form any thing like an estimate of their extent. They exhibit great propriety of diction, perfect regularity in the stanza, and a metrical elegance that could scarcely have been expected from such sources. Those which are written in the Celtic language (and which, of course, refer to a very ancient period) are almost invariably found in association with some well-known national air; the music in such cases forming so completely an integral part, or original element, so to speak, of the composition, that it is never to be traced in a separate state of existence from the words, nor could the words be recovered by the singer except by the help of the music. These pieces are always sung throughout, from the commencement to the end, which frequently involves a very laborious operation, as they are sometimes of a most extravagant length. Souvestre confidently asserts that, in some cases, a man could not finish one of these songs in a day. The only circumstance which can possibly entitle such productions as these to thename and functions of song is the shape, musical and metrical, in which they are written. Of the more modern ballads, the great majority are composed without much system, and sung, as birds sing, out of a kind of

amidst which he is bred up—or, as very frequently happens, a poor sailor, who superadds to his land-crosses the hazy superstitions of the sea. It is a remarkable feature in these songs, that the last stanza usually announces the name and profession of the singer or composer, with such family particulars as he may consider desirable for general circulation. The simplicity of all this is abundantly apparent.

The best way to judge of these quaint old ballads, is to listen to one of them on a still summer evening, as they are sung with responses from rock to rock, in the presence of old Druidical ruins, and feudal monuments massed into deep shadow, and recalling to mind, by their dark and broken outlines, their cumbrous forms and dismal grandeur, the modes of the antique life to which they refer. It is like a dream, conjured up in the imagination out of Ossian.

Metre and rhyme form the basis of Breton prosody. The songs are written generally in distiches or quatrains of equal measure: indeed, the uniformity of the measure is very striking. The most popular form is that of couplets, consisting of seven-syllabled lines; but sometimes the lines consist of six, and sometimes of eight or nine syllables; occasionally extending even to twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. The cesura is observed with as much distinctness in these Breton lyrics as in legitimate French verse, with which they are in some instances identical in this particular. In lines of twelve syllables, the cesura falls on the sixth-in those of fifteen, on the eighth. There is another peculiarity worth noticing in these poems-that every stanza, line, and even hemistich, is perfect in itself, so far as the sense is concerned, very rarely trespassing, for the completion of its meaning, upon the stanza, line, or hemistich, which follows. The object of this scrupulous exactitude in the structure of this species of poetry, seems to be the attainment of such an accurate balance of sound and sense, as may be most easily seized upon by the ear and committed to memory. Every incident

that enters into the formation of the Breton that it is applicable only in special cases. songs, favors the final purpose of the com-Like certain poison tests, it will detect the posers; and it is, no doubt, with an espe-presence of the element it seeks, if the elecial view to this end, that the rhymes are ment be there; but if it be not, the test is invariably consecutive, there not being, we useless. He founds his method of investibelieve, a single instance-at least M. gation into the age of popular poems upon Villemarqué, who is an unexceptionable au- his own definition of the character and atthority, never met with one-in which the tributes of popular poetry. The principle rhymes are alternate, or, to use the French of this poetry, he thinks, is the soul, unsoexpression, in which they cross each other phisticated in its good faith and native canAmongst some of the ancient ballads dor: destitute of the resources of knowthere are other peculiarities, which seem to ledge, and stimulated by an instinctive want have been engrafted upon them, such as to confide to some traditional monument alliterations in the body of the verse, and the records of contemporaneous events, of the employment of tercets, instead of coup-religious dogmas, or the adventures of helets and quatrains, artificial forms which roes. If this definition be correct (and we are certainly irreconcilable with the sim- have no desire to say any thing against it, ple character of popular poetry. These except that it is very French), then it folstrange introductions are of rare occur-lows that popular poetry in general must be rence, and would be scarcely worth noting, contemporaneous with the facts, or the senif they did not indicate something like a timent, or the tradition of religious belief correspondence with other literatures, of which it is the organ; and that, consewhich might, possibly, afford the historical quently, the date of such compositions may student some help in his arduous investiga- be determined by the age to which their tion into the chronology of these composi- allusions apply. There is no gainsaying tions. this. The same rule may be addressed But investigations of this kind are not with equal propriety to every work of art, now likely to be attended with very satis-in which any such allusions can be traced. factory results. One writer asserts that But what is to be done where there are no the Bretons have had a regular literature, such allusions? M. Villemarqué's method containing three distinct species of popular is evidently unavailable in such cases. It poetry, the historical, the amatory, and the is fortunate, however, that the Breton poreligious, since the sixth century-this is etry contains numerous local and historical M. Villemarqué. Another says that, with references, by the aid of which the industhe exception of some of the religious trious antiquary is enabled to speculate pieces, which he throws back as far as the with some confidence on the age of the third century, the great bulk of the poetry composition. In some instances the date is not more than from two to four hundred is actually fixed by the poet himself in that years old this is M. Souvestre. Both declaratory stanza, in which he confides these gentlemen are Bretons; both have the secret of his birth, parentage, educamixed largely with the people, are familiar tion, and calling, to his intimate friend, the with their habits, dialects, and literature: reader. Satisfied, then, that M. Villemarand both are credible witnesses. "Who shall decide when doctors disagree?"

qué has applied to the Breton poetry a test peculiarly applicable to a large portion of it, and convinced, moreover, that he is ably qualified in all other respects for his task, we are disposed to accept his estimate of the antiquity of some of these ballads in preference to that of M. Souvestre.

The method of investigation is by no means determined in questions of this nature. Every historical antiquary thinks he has laid down an infallible mode of testing the age of literary productions; yet when we come to compare the results of these It is hardly necessary to observe, howinfallible standards, we find them totally ever, that the age of each song is deterirreconcilable with each other. Now, as mined by its own internal evidences; and it is quite clear that only one can be right, that all we can here be considered to conit is equally certain that all the rest must cede or admit is, that M. Villemarqué be wrong. But the difficulty is to know, makes out a good case for the existence of not which are those that are wrong, but this class of poetry, in its different forms, which is the one that is right. M. Ville-thirteen centuries ago. We have never, marqué's mode of proceeding is excellent, ourselves, had any doubt whatever upon as far as it goes. The objection to it is, that point-independently of the proofs

of it we find scattered through the works | their clergy, and no other wealth than their of native writers; but how much of this legends and their lyrics; and who are unancient literature has been preserved in its avoidably thrown upon the singers for all original purity, how far it has been interpolated and tricked out in its progress down the stream of time, and to what extent the existing traditional ballads, in which no direct vouchers of antiquity can be traced, may be taken upon trust, or by analogy, are questions with which we must not, at present, venture to meddle.

the leisurely mental pleasure within their reach. It is not surprising, therefore, that this class of persons-the wandering singers-should occupy at this day in Brittany a position really as important, although, in this altered age of the world, not so formal and imposing, as that which, in the elder times, was held by the bards. These singTo a people like the Bretons, lyrical po- ers, or poets, for they are generally both, etry must at all times have been an abso- discharge for the Breton population the lute necessary of life. How could such a complicated offices of historian, novelist, people-ignorant of art, utterly unrefined, story-teller, poet, and singer. This very living in a state of the rudest simplicity, circumstance stamps upon their producand cowering down under the shadows of tions the fresh and immediate impress of the darkest superstitions-how could such popular feeling. He who lives to please, a people, in the absence of all other means must please to live. The travelling rhymer of giving a current language to their sym-selects for his theme such subjects of recent pathies and wants, exist without a locomo- or fugitive interest as happen to be familiar tive poetry? To such a people, the song to every body. The multitude, in fact, inis as essential as the crop of buckwheat; dicate to him the subject he is to illumiit sustains their spiritual vitality just as nate with his happy genius: it is to their their animal vitality is nourished by their tastes, their instincts, their passions, he black bread-and they could almost as easi- must address himself-he expresses their ly dispense with one as the other. The ideas, translates their opinions, identifies Breton of to-day is, in this matter of song- himself completely with them throughout. necessity, much the same man he was at This condition of adaptation to surroundthe earliest date of his musical budget. ing circumstances is imperative, and not to There are somewhere about 1,200,000 of be trifled with. He must please the people at this singing, buckwheat cultivating race, any price-it is a question of life and death thinly dispersed over the face of the pro- with him. If he select a topic remote from vince once known as Brittany (earlier still the manners, or epoch, or tastes of the peoas Armorica), but better known to the mere ple, he may as well sing to the mountain traveller, en route, by the departmental torrents. He will not have a single listennames of the Côtes du Nord, Finistère, Ile er, instead of undergoing a greater squeeze et Vilaine, Loire Inferieure, and Morbihan. than one may find any night in the season in Of this 1,200,000 people, it is tolerably cer- the crush-room of the Opera. He must tain that, with a very insignificant exception, either write for the people, or not write at there is scarcely one who knows how to read | all. His audiences are not only critical in or write. Throughout all Christendom, at their tastes, but inexorable in their decithis hour, there is not another race, we sus- sions. Hence all really popular songs are pect, so entirely dependent upon traditional lore for such intellectual pleasure as they are able to obtain. To them the popular ballad is every thing-it represents the consolations of religion, the delights of the fète, the communication of the affections: it carries love messages from commune to commune; it warns, exhorts, and rewards; it even supersedes the laws themselves, than which, amongst this primitive people, it is ten thousand times stronger.

Here, then, are 1,200,000 living and thinking beings, speaking no language but the old, uncouth Breton tongue, wholly uneducated, having no other cultivation than the oral instruction they receive from

destined to a long existence, because they are born under circumstances peculiarly favorable to traditional preservation, having their roots literally laid in the popular mind and affections. They are very appropriately compared by M. Villemarqué to those delicate plants, which are crowned with flowers only when they have been sown in ground previously prepared for them.

We adverted, in a former article already mentioned, to the rather curious custom in Brittany, by which this art of popular son is universally identified with particular classes of the population-almost with particular crafts, only that the pleasant rogues who profit by this identification, seem to

profess certain crafts without practising | singularly expressive and deeply interesting them. Thus the tailors and millers, par trait in the national manners. excellence, the collectors of old rags, and But it must not be supposed that these the beggars are generally recognized as vagrant rhymers engross the whole field to the authors of the current ballads, although themselves, and that there are no real amin many instances it is not unlikely that bulant poets to be found in this weird land they are only the singers and retailers of of modern antiquity. On the contrary, them. Notwithstanding, however, their there is a distinct class of poets who are nominal classification, these poetical va- always on the tramp, who are emphatically grants all lead the same sort of wandering called the barz, and upon whom, in short, life, making the tour of the whole country, the mantle of the bardic order has distinctvisiting cities, towns, and villages, calling ly fallen. As far as the changed habits of at manors and farm-houses, resting alike the country will permit, these ambulant with the poor and the rich, attending at all poets perform precisely the same offices as the fairs and markets and festivals, collect- their ancient namesakes, going about in ing news and gossip which they put into like manner to ceremonies and public festidoggrel, and sing as they go along from vals, and recording the loves and misforplace to place; and this song, thus com- tunes, heroic deeds, sacrifices, and penances posed, and thus cast like seed upon the of their contemporaries in suitable bursts winds, is carried on the wings of the jing- of wild lyrical verse. Like the bards of ling refrain from one end of Brittany to old, also, they sometimes relieve their rather the other. The beggars appear to confine monotonous voices by striking a rude intheir humbler labors to the accumulation strument of three cords, called a rebek, and repetition of these songs, for there is with a sort of fiddlestick, or bow. This no evidence that they ever ascend to the instrument is said to be exactly the same loftier ambition of composing rhymes of as one which was in use in the sixth centheir own. Yet, humble as their ministry tury. Indeed, the resemblance between of poetical delight undoubtedly is, they are the barz and the bard is so strong in every regarded with universal honor and affec- essential point, that a sketch which M. Villetion. Villemarqué tells us that the most marqué gives of their position to-day might, naïve and tender expressions are habitually with the greatest propriety, and without allavished upon them; such as 'bons pau- tering a single word, be inserted bodily into vres,''chers pauvres,'' pauvrets,' 'pauvres the history of the bards who flourished in chéris,' or simply 'chéris;' and sometimes Wales or in Ireland some twelve or thira more elaborate phrase, which we may teen centuries past. In fine," he says, venture to put into English, friends or "like the ancient bards domesticated brothers of the good God.' They are al- amongst the Welsh, they are the ornaways sure of an asylum wherever they go ment of all the popular fetes; they sit and -at the largest mansion on the hill side, sing at the table of the farmers; they figure or the pettiest cabin buried in the wintry in the marriages of the people; they give depths of the pine wood. When their away the future bride in virtue of their art, well-known voice of prayer and entreaty according to immemorial usage, and that is heard at the door, or their approach is even before the religious ceremony has annouuced by the bark of their dog-for taken place; the priest seems to be only they are frequently blind, and come guid- the consecrator of the nuptial benediction ed in this way -the inmates run out, which the bard has already bestowed. and bring the venerable man into the They have their share, also, in the marhouse, relieve him of his stick and wallet, riage gifts. They enjoy unlimited liberty and, placing him snugly in the chimney of speech, and great moral authority; they nook, set before him the best repast they are beloved, sought after, and honored, alcan afford. When he has appeased his most as much as were their predecessors, hunger and had a little rest, he repays all whom, in a less elevated sphere, they so their kind offices by long gossiping stories nearly resemble," And this, too, in the and snatches of the last new songs. Look-nineteenth century, amongst a people eming closely into the working of this system, as a thing of every day and every hour occurrence in Brittany, and as occupying a conspicuous space in the social life of the people, it cannot fail to be regarded as a

[ocr errors]

braced in the girdle of the most artificial and ineonstant nation in Europe, and occupying a territory within a few hours' sail of the shores of England!

The consequence of all this is the pre

« PreviousContinue »