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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905)

By Hersart de la Villemarqué (1815–1895): The Heroic and Legendary Literature of Brittany

IF one were asked what were the three immediate influences, the open-sesames of literature, which revealed alike to the dreaming and the critical mind of modern Europe the beauty and extraordinary achievement of the Celtic genius, it would not be difficult to name them. From Scotland came Macpherson’s reweaving of ancient Gaelic legendary lore under the collective title of ‘Ossian’; from Wales came the ‘Mabinogion,’ obtained and translated by Lady Charlotte Guest; and from Brittany came the now celebrated life work of the Vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué, the ‘Barzaz-Breiz,’ or collection of the popular songs and heroic ballads of old Brittany,—some mediæval, some with their roots in the heart of ancient Armorica.

The history of the influence of these three books—‘Ossian,’ the ‘Mabinogion,’ and the ‘Barzaz Breiz’—has never yet been properly estimated. When a competent critic shall give us this history, in its exact and critical relation to literature itself, the deep and far-reaching power of what may be distinguished as fundamentally appealing books will be made apparent.

If these were the immediate influences in the awakening of the mind of Europe to the beauty and mystery and high significance of the old Celtic literature, legendary lore, and racial traditions, the general attention was attracted rather by two famous pioneers of critical thought. In France, Ernest Renan, himself of Celtic blood and genius, and having indeed in his name one of the most ancient and sacred of Armorican designations (Ronan), gained the notice of all intellectual Europe by his acute, poignantly sympathetic, and eloquent treatise on the ‘Poetry of the Celtic Races.’ Later, in England, Matthew Arnold convinced his reluctant fellow-countrymen that a new and wide domain of literary beauty lay as it were just beyond their home pastures.

Since Renan and Matthew Arnold, there have been many keen and ever more and more thoroughly equipped students of Celtic literature; but while admitting the immense value of the philological labors of men such as the German Windisch, the English Whitley Stokes, the French Loth, the Scottish Dr. Cameron, the Welsh Professor Rhys, and the Irish Standish Hayes O’Grady, or of the more popular writings of collectors and exponents such as the late Campbell of Islay, Mr. Alfred Nutt, Mr. Standish O’Grady, and others, it would be at once unjust and uncritical to omit full recognition of the labors of collectors and interpreters such as, say, Mr. Alexander Carmichael in Scotland, and Hersart de la Villemarqué in France.

There can hardly be a student of Celtic literature who is unfamiliar with the ‘Barzaz-Breiz,’ that unique collection of Breton legendary lore and heroic ballads so closely linked with the name of Hersart de la Villemarqué. This celebrated man—at once collector, folk-lorist, philologist, poet, and impassioned patriot—was not only born a Breton of the Bretons, but began life among circumstances pre-eminently conducive to his mental development along the lines where he has made his name of worldwide repute. His great work was not only the outcome of his own genius and of his racial inheritance, but was inspired by his mother, a remarkable woman of a very ancient Armorican family. It is to her that the ‘Barzaz-Breiz’ was dedicated: “À ma tendre et sainte mère, Marie-Ursule Feydeau du Plessix-Nizon, Comtesse de la Villemarqué.” So significant are the opening words of his introduction to the new and definitive edition (1893) that they may be given here:—

  • “A profound sentiment,” he says in effect, “inspired the idea of this book wherein my country stands forth self-portrayed, and in that revelation wins our love. In sending forth this revised reprint of my work, doubtless for the last time, and feeling myself to be as much as in my early days under the spell of her love, I dedicate this work to her who really began it, and that too before I was born,—to her who enthralled my childhood with old-world ballads and legendary tales, and who herself was indeed for me one of those good fairies who, as the old lore has it, stand by the side of happy cradles. My mother, who was also the mother of all who were unhappy, once restored to health a poor wandering singer of the parish of Melgren. Moved by the sincere regrets of the poor woman at her inability to convey aright her gratitude to her benefactress, having indeed nothing in the world to offer but her songs, my mother asked her to repeat one or two of her treasury of folk-songs. So impressed was she by the original character of the Breton poetry, that often thereafter she sought and obtained a like pleasure. At a later date, though this was not for herself, she made a special quest of this ancestral country-side fugitive poetry. Such was the real origin—in a sense purely domestic and private, and primarily the outcome of a sweet and pious nature—of this collection of the ‘Barzaz-Breiz’; some of the finest pieces in which I found written, in the first years of the century, on the blank leaves of an old manuscript volume of recipes wherein my mother had her store of medical science.”
  • As for what M. de la Villemarqué himself did to qualify for his lifelong labor of love, he writes as follows:—

  • “To render this collection at once more complete and worthy of the attention of literary critics, and of all students of literature and life, scrupulous and conscientious care has been taken. I have gone hither and thither on my quest through long years, and traversed every region of Basse-Bretagne [Lower or Northern Brittany], the richest in old memories; taking part in popular festivals and in private gatherings, at our national pardons [pilgrimages], at the great fairs, at weddings, or the special fête-days of the agricultural world and of the workers in all the national industries; ever by preference seeking the professional beggars, the itinerant shoemakers, tailors, weavers, and vagrant journeymen of all kinds,—in a word, in the whole nomad song-loving, story-telling fraternity. Everywhere, too, I have interrogated the old women, nurses, young girls, and old men; above all, those of the hill regions, who in the last century formed part of the armed bands of patriots, and whose recollections, when once they can be quickened, constitute a national repertory as rich as any one could possibly consult. Even children at their play have sometimes revealed to me unexpected old-world survivals. Ever varying as was the degree of intelligence in all these people, they were at one in this: that no one among them knew how to read. Naturally, therefore, the songs and legends and superstitions which I heard thus are not to be found in books, and never at least as here given; for these came fresh from the lips of an illiterate but passionately conservative, patriotic, and poetic people.”
  • In a word, Brittany is, in common with Ireland or Gaelic Scotland, the last home of the old-world Celt, of the old Celtic legendary and mythological lore, of the passing and ever more and more fugitive Celtic folk literature. Scotland has her Campbell of Islay, her Alexander Carmichael; Brittany has Hersart de la Villemarqué.

    The scientific value of M. de la Villemarqué’s ‘Barzaz-Breiz’ has been disparaged by some writers, to whom the pedantry of absolute literality is more dear than the living spirit of which language is but the veil; and this on the ground that his versions are often too elaborated, and are sometimes modern rather than archaic. The best answer is in the words of the famous Breton himself, in the preface to the revised and definitive edition. After detailing the endless care taken, and the comparative method pursued, he adds: “The sole license I have permitted myself is the substitution, in place of certain mutilated or vicious expressions, or of certain unpoetic or less poetic verses, of corresponding but more adequate and harmonious verses, or words from some other version or versions. This was the method of Walter Scott [in his ‘Scottish Minstrelsy’], and I could not follow a better guide.”

    The ‘Barzaz-Breiz,’ or Treasury of Breton Popular Chants, is a storehouse of learned and most interesting and fascinating matter concerning the origins and survival and inter-relations of the racial and other legendary beliefs, and superstitions, and folk-lore generally, of the Armorican people—Arvor, or Armorica, being the old name of Brittany, the Wales of France. In the introductory and appendical notes to each heroic ballad or legendary poem, Hersart de la Villemarqué has condensed the critical and specialistic knowledge of one of the most indefatigable and enthusiastic of folk-lorists; and this with the keenness of sympathy and of insight, and the new and convincing charm of interpretation, of a man of genius.

    It is amazing how little of his work has been translated or paraphrased in English, especially when we consider the ever-growing interest in literature of the kind, and particularly in Celtic literature. It is pleasant, however, to know that an English ‘Barzaz-Breiz’ is promised us before long, and that from the pen of an author who has a pre-eminent right to the task,—Mrs. Wingate Rinder; whose volume entitled ‘The Shadow of Arvor’ (a re-telling of old Breton tales and romances) is the most interesting and beautiful work of its kind we have, and is, I may add, a book that won the high approbation of M. de la Villemarqué himself.

    The three representative pieces which I have translated from the ‘Barzaz-Breiz’ are not only typical of the ancient and the mediæval Breton romance or heroic ballad, but are given intact with their prefatory and appendical notes.

    ‘The Wine of the Gauls’ is one of the earliest preserved utterances of the ancient Armorican bards. ‘The Tribute of Noménoë’ is still old, though not so ancient. ‘The Foster-Brother’ is a type of both the style and substance of the mediæval folk-tale.

  • [NOTE.—The three following citations from Villemarqué were translated, and the notes accompanying them prepared, by William Sharp of London, for ‘A Library of the World’s Best Literature.’ Mr. Sharp’s article on Breton Literature completes the survey of the literature of the Celtic races embraced in the articles on Celtic Literature (Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish) by William Sharp and Ernest Rhys; Ossian, by the same authors; and on Campion, Sir Thomas Malory, and The Mabinogion, by Ernest Rhys.]