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Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century

Irish Bards

Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599)

From A View of the Present State of Ireland

Irenæus.There is amongst the Irish a certain kind of people called Bards, which are to them instead of poets, whose profession is to set forth the praises and dispraises of men in their poems and rhymes; the which are had in so high request and estimation amongst them, that none dare to displease them for fear of running into reproach through their offence, and to be made infamous in the mouths of all men. For their verses are taken up with a general applause, and usually sung at all feasts and meetings, by certain other persons, whose proper function that is, which also receive for the same great rewards and reputation besides.

Eudoxus.Do you blame this in them, which I would otherwise have thought to have been worthy of good account, and rather to have been maintained and augmented amongst them, than to have been misliked? For I have read that in all ages poets have been had in special reputation, and that (me seems) not without great cause; for besides their sweet inventions, and most witty lays, they have always used to set forth the praises of the good and virtuous, and to beat down and disgrace the bad and vicious. So that many brave young minds have oftentimes, through hearing of the praises and famous eulogies of worthy men sung and reported unto them, been stirred up to affect like commendations, and so to strive to like deserts. So they say the Lacedæmonians were more inclined to desire of honour with the excellent verses of the poet Tirtæus, than with all the exhortations of their captains, or authority of their rulers and magistrates.

Iren.It is most true that such poets, as in their writings do labour to better the manners of men, and through the sweet bait of their numbers, to steal into young spirits a desire of honour and virtue, are worthy to be had in great respect. But these Irish bards are for the most part of another mind, and so far from instructing young men in moral discipline, that they themselves do more deserve to be sharply disciplined; for they seldom use to choose unto themselves the doings of good men for the ornaments of their poems, but whomsoever they find to be most licentious of life, most bold and lawless in his doings, most dangerous and desperate in all parts of disobedience and rebellious disposition, him they set up and glorify in their rhymes, him they praise to the people, and to young men make an example to follow.

Eudox.I marvel what kind of speeches they can find, or what face they can put on, to praise such lewd persons as live so lawlessly and licentiously upon stealths and spoils, as most of them do; or how can they think that any good mind will applaud or approve the same?

Iren.There is none so bad, Eudoxus, but shall find some to favour his doings; but such licentious parts as these, tending for the most part to the hurt of the English, or maintenance of their own lewd liberty, they themselves, being most desirous thereof, do most allow. Besides this, evil things being decked and suborned with the gay attire of goodly words, may easily deceive and carry away the affection of a young mind that is not well stayed, but desirous by some bold adventure to make proof of himself; for being (as they all be) brought up idlely without awe of parents, without precepts of masters, without fear of offence, not being directed or employed in any course of life, which may carry them to virtue, will easily be drawn to follow such as any shall set before them; for a young mind cannot rest; and if he be not still busied in some goodness, he will find himself such business as shall soon busy all about him. In which if he shall find any to praise him, and to give him encouragement, as those bards and rhymers do for a little reward, or a share of a stolen cow, then waxeth he most insolent and half mad with the love of himself, and his own lewd deeds. And as for words to set forth such lewdness, it is not hard for them to give a goodly glose and painted show thereunto, borrowed even from the praises which are proper to virtue itself. As of a most notorious thief and wicked outlaw, which had lived all his lifetime of spoils and robberies, one of these bards in his praise said, That he was none of those idle milk-sops that was brought up by the fire side, but that most of his days he spent in arms and valiant enterprises; that he never did eat his meat before he had won it with his sword; that he was not slugging all night in a cabin under his mantle, but used commonly to keep others waking to defend their lives, and did light his candle at the flames of their houses to lead him in the darkness; that the day was his night, and the night his day; that he loved not to lie long wooing of wenches to yield unto him, but where he came he took by force the spoil of other men’s love, and left but lamentations to their lovers; that his music was not the harp, nor lays of love, but the cries of people, and clashing of armour; and that finally, he died not bewailed of many, but made many wail when he died that dearly bought his death. Do not you think (Eudoxus) that many of these praises might be applied to men of best desert? yet are they all yielded to a most notable traitor, and amongst some of the Irish not smally accounted of. For the song, when it was first made and sung unto a person of high degree, they were bought (as their manner is) for forty crowns.

Eudox.And well worthy sure! But tell me (I pray you) have they any art in their compositions? or be they anything witty or well savoured, as poems should be?

Iren.Yea truly; I have caused divers of them to be translated unto me that I might understand them; and surely they savoured of sweet wit and good invention, but skilled not of the goodly ornaments of poetry: yet were they sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their own natural device, which gave good grace and comeliness unto them, the which it is great pity to see so abused, to the gracing of wickedness and vice, which would with good usage serve to beautify and adorn virtue. This evil custom, therefore needeth reformation.