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

The Persistence of the Celtic Race

By Ernest Renan (1823–1892)

From ‘La Poésie des Races Celtiques’: Translation of Olga Flinch

IF the excellence of races were to be decided by their purity of blood and inviolability of character, it must be confessed that none would be able to vie with the nobility of the still existing remnants of the Celtic race. No human family has ever lived more isolated from the world, and remained more pure from all foreign mixture. Driven by conquests to half-forgotten islands and peninsulas, it has raised an insurmountable barrier to all outside influence: it has depended upon itself for everything, and has drawn its life from its own sources. Hence this dominant individuality, this hate of the foreign element, which even to our day has been the distinguishing trait of the Celtic races. The civilization of Rome hardly touched them, and left but little mark upon them. The Germanic invasion drove them back but did not absorb them. At the present moment they are resisting another and even more dangerous invasion, that of modern civilization, so destructive to local distinctions and national types. Ireland especially (and this may be the secret of her irremediable weakness) is the only European country where the native can show the title of his descent, and can point out with certitude, even as far back as the prehistoric shadows, the race from which he sprang.

It is in this retired life, in this defiance of all outside influence, that we must seek the explanation of the principal traits of the Celtic racial character. It has all the faults and all the qualities of the solitary man: at once proud and timid, strong in feeling and feeble in action; at home free and open, away from home awkward and shy. It distrusts the stranger because it sees in him a being more subtle than itself, seeking to impose on its simplicity. Indifferent to the admiration of others, it asks only one thing,—that it be left alone. It is essentially a domestic race, made for family life and the joys of home….

It is easily seen that natures so strongly concentrated would not be of a kind to present one of those brilliant developments that impress the world with the sudden ascendency of a people; and that is undoubtedly why the Cymric race has always played a subordinate part. Lacking in the power to reach out, strange to all instincts of aggression and conquest, not caring to have its thought take the lead in the world outside, it has known only how to retreat into the least essential space; and then, driven into this last corner, meet its enemies with invincible resistance. Even its fidelity has been merely a wasted devotion. Hard to conquer, and always behind time, it is faithful to its conquerors when the latter have ceased being faithful to themselves. It was the last to surrender its religious independence to Rome, and it has become the greatest stronghold of Catholicism; it was the last in France to surrender its political independence to the king, and it has given the world the last royalists.

Thus the Celtic race has spent itself resisting the age and defending desperate causes. It would seem that at no time has it had any gift for political life: the sense of family has stifled all attempts at a larger organization. It would seem also that the peoples of which it is composed are not in themselves open to progress. Life is to them a fixed condition which it is not in the power of man to change. Gifted with but little initiative power, too apt to look upon themselves as minors under tutelage, they are inclined to believe in fatality and to resign themselves to it. To see it so submissive to God, one would hardly believe this race to be the daughter of Japhet.

Hence the reason of its sadness. Take the songs of its bard of the sixteenth century: the defeats they bewail are more than the victories they glorify. Its history is but one long complaint; it still remembers its exile, its flights over the waters. If at times it seems to awaken into glad life, a tear soon sparkles behind its smile; it does not know that strange forgetfulness of human life and its vicissitudes which we call gayety. Its songs of joy end in elegies: nothing approaches the delightful sadness of its national melodies; one is tempted to call them dews from heaven, which, falling on the soul drop by drop, sink into it like memories of another world. One never feels more completely the secret delights of consciousness,—those poetic memories where all the sensations of life meet at once, so vague, so deep, so penetrating, that were they to last but a moment longer one would die thereof, without being able to say whether it were of bitter sorrow or of tenderness.

The infinite delicacy of sentiment which characterizes the Celtic race is intimately connected with its necessity of concentration. Undemonstrative natures are nearly always those that feel most intensely; the deeper the sentiment, the less can it express itself. Hence this charming modesty, this something, as it were, veiled, serious, exquisite,—equally far from the rhetoric of sentiment, too familiar in the Latin races, and from the conscious naïveté of Germany,—which expresses itself in so admirable a way in the songs published by M. de la Villemarqué. The apparent reserve of the Celtic peoples, so often taken for coldness, comes from this timidity of soul which makes them think that a feeling loses half its worth when it is expressed, and that the heart must have no audience beside itself.

If it were permissible to give nations a sex as we do individuals, we should unhesitatingly say that the Celtic race, especially taken in its Cymric and Breton branches, is an essentially feminine race. No human family has, I believe, brought so much mystery into love. No other has had a more delicate conception of the ideal of woman, and has been more dominated thereby. It is a sort of intoxication, a madness, a dizziness. Read the strange Mabinogion of Pérédur, or its French imitation Parceval the Gaul: these pages are, so to speak, soft with feminine sentiment. Woman appears therein like a sort of vague vision, something between man and the supernatural world. I know of no literature which offers anything analogous. Compare Genevra and Isolde with the Scandinavian furies Gudrun and Krimhilde, and you will admit that woman, as chivalry has conceived her,—this ideal of tenderness and beauty set up as the supreme end of life,—is neither a classic, nor a Christian, nor a Germanic creation, but truly Celtic.

The power of imagination is almost always in proportion to the concentration of feeling and to the lack of events in outward life. The very limitation of the imagination of Greece and Italy comes from the easy self-expression of the peoples of the South, with whom the soul, spent upon the outside world, has very little self-reflection. Compared with classic imagination, Celtic imagination is really the infinite compared to the finite. In the beautiful Mabinogion of ‘The Dream’ of Maxen Wledig, the emperor Maxime sees in his dream a young girl so beautiful that on awakening he declares that he cannot live without her. For several years his ambassadors travel through the world to find her for him. She is finally discovered in Bretagne. This is what the Celtic race did: it grew tired of taking its dreams for realities, and running after beautiful visions. The essential element of Celtic poetic life is adventure,—that is to say, the pursuit of the unknown, a never-ending hunt after the always fleeing object of desire. This is what St. Brandan dreamed on the other side of the waters; this is what Pérédur sought in his mystic chivalry; this is what the knight Owenn expected of his subterranean peregrinations. This race wants the infinite; it is thirsting for it, it seeks it at all hazards, beyond the grave, beyond hell. The essential fault of the Breton people—the leaning toward drink, a fault which according to the traditions of the sixteenth century was the cause of its disasters—comes from this invincible need of illusion. Do not say that it is an appetite for gross pleasures, for, aside from this, there never was a people more sober and free from sensuality; no, the Bretons sought in the hydromel what Owenn, St. Brandan, and Pérédur, sought in their way,—the vision of the invisible world. Even to-day, in Ireland, drunkenness is part of all patronal feasts,—that is to say, of the feasts which have best preserved their national and popular character.

Hence this profound sentiment of the future, and the eternal destiny of its race, which has always upheld the Cymry, and makes it appear young still beside its aged conquerors. Hence this dogma of the resurrection of heroes, which seems to have been one of those most difficult for Christianity to uproot. Hence this Celtic belief in the coming of a Messiah (‘messianisme’), this belief in a future which will restore the Cymry and deliver it from its oppressors, like the mysterious Leminok which Merlin has promised them, the Lez-Breiz of the Armoricans, the Arthur of the Gauls. The hand which raises itself out of the lake when Arthur’s sword falls in, which seizes it and brandishes it three times, is the hope of the Celtic races. Little peoples gifted with imagination do usually thus take their revenge over those who conquer them. Feeling strong within and feeble without, they protest, they grow inspired: and such a struggle, strengthening their forces tenfold, makes them capable of miracles. Almost all great appeals to the supernatural are due to people hoping against all hope. Who can say what has in our days been fermenting in the heart of that most obstinate and most helpless of nations, Poland? Israel humiliated dreamt of the spiritual conquest of the world, and succeeded.