Due to many thousands of miles in airplanes and much teaching it's been a few weeks since i last got to the blog. A fond mention to the Minnesota Mens Conference, up in the Northern woods. Always a delight to experience that kind of genial fellowship, and to witness a great revival of enthusiasm and investment from the men present. After seven years service i'm stepping down from the leadership - primarily for a break - but know i'll see all your irascible faces again. Maybe sooner than you'd like! It's a great conference with a splendid future.
So here's a few lines from the life of Finn MacCool i'm working on, and then a larger piece on the bardic schools to make up for my tardy absence.
Finn on his way to Tara:
It was Samhain.
The land combed red and bronze-gold.
Air sharp with frost,
the crunch of leafy humus under foot.
Time of autumn beef and red ale,
the silver canopy of the rain,
a thick cloak with bronze clasp.
A fire that holds embers all night.
Time for the bard to tune his harp,
for spitted ox, a keg,
blue fingers as kindling is gathered,
a friendly hound, a bed.
Finn as a Boy
Became a great listener,
curled in the yellow gaze
of lonely sunshine,
ear bent to the
Thousand voiced wind.
Competitor to the reed-croak
of the jackdaw,
his raw speech warbled its twigged praise.
Rough skinned from thickets,
and sharp tufts of nettle,
knees blue from long hours
padding the watery trails of the otter.
A lover of the briar
and the quiet croft,
low-shaken apple trees
and the sap of the alder.
Flakes of snow
had crowned his blond curls,
as he perched
ever-long by the icy pool.
He had shivered through seasons,
Had plowed his little ship
through the flowered singing
of the grove, over the tips of
the slim, white branches that crested his house.
The house of many doors.
His amiable gaze
would settle on whatever
beast made it through
the rough hedge of his walls.
The solemn horse,
the cow of rich-milk,
the spider on the leaf,
the lightning-swift fly.
His loneliness was a strange bliss.
The green sway
of the hawks bough,
the mottled oak shadow,
the star-proud lintel of night.
The Great Plough Tail and the Circle of Gwydion:
The Ancient Bardic Schools
The great bardic schools of Ireland were an extraordinary bridge between orality and literature. For a start, they were run by lay people not clerics. Although flourishing for a time alongside monastic institutions their roots went deeper, already being regarded as utterly ancient by the time of St Patrick.
The business of the schools was mainly: history, law, language, literature. The history would have been that of their own country, as was the law, language and literature. Running quite opposed to the rest of Europe and its clinging onto Roman law – by now a rotting corpse in a foreign land – they encouraged and repeatedly polished the diction of their own tongue, till it was truly an art form. Speculation remains on the sympathetic teaching of Greek and Latin too – possibly with the arrival of Gallic scholars in Ireland in the 5th Century, in flight from the barbarian invasions.
Night and darkness generally was an ally in the schools. Students would be given a subject at the very edge of their abilities – perhaps something on Concord, Quartans, Termination, Syllables and Union –
each subject with its own obtuse set of inner-instruction. The student would be separated from the group and take to his bed, turning the conundrum around and around in his head. The next day too, they stayed in darkness until, at a specific point, lights were brought in and they then, and only then, committed it to writing. It had to take root in the brain and be retained there orally before the hand moved ink across the parchment. They then gave a kind of presentation to the master-poet who chided, advised or approved, before they finally got to shuffle off and eat something.
In the fertile darkness, surely we see a remnant of some druidic practice. A turning within, a reliance on the old oral stability of mental mnemonic to hold the images in place. A shutting down of any secular distraction into the totality of knowledge that lies underneath the apparently innocent task. The bardic secret. A grappling of poetry’s hazels in the ebony cloak of privacy. It is easy to imagine the young student drifting in and out of dreaming as they allowed the task to become luminous, far past book smarts and into the terrain of inner-awakening. This was an entrenched practice, a constant resource and discipline. In an institution that gradually become far more domestic and court orientated (poetry for the approval of nobles) I would suggest these nocturnal journeys kept intact an older, wilder route back to the experiential and mystical origins of bardic practice. Night was a gateway to inner-wildness, inner-spaciousness.
The school was not so much about a geography or grand house (often a hut or home) but focused around the charisma and knowledge of the Ollamh, the big man, chief-poet. Their influence radiated out in all four directions, and when they circuited Ireland amongst kings and nobles, the school, for all intents and purposes, went too. They were intellectually fierce, opinionated and full of the pomp their status conferred. On visiting a dignitary, it was not unheard of for an Ollamh to remind their host of their own standing as being like a kind of king or bishop (Corkery 1998 :32). The word bard was actually used for a lower rank of untrained poet, the word they all aspired to was to be a fili. A bard in Ireland was more raggle-taggle; a wandering jongleur, teller of tales, maybe, heaven forbid, a singer of songs. There were heavy fines incurred for trained students tarting their gifts in such a way. This naughty underbelly of performing rogues became known as ‘bad fellows’ when they wandered England, or filous in France.
However, payment for the more noble strand could prove difficult too, even with the amount of praise they rained down on their employee's head. If they arrived en masse, they brought with them an enormous cauldron entitled ‘The Pot of Avarice’. With this they grandly emphasised the need for payment in gold and silver, or, at the very least,food. This cauldron was made of pure silver, and supported on the points of nine spears. There they would stand at the entrance to the compound. We can see them now, dusk settling, chill in the air, the great cauldron glowing silver in the gloom, the line of poets standing in the mist. They would pass a poem down the line, man by man, stanza by stanza, to demonstrate their recall and honed poetic tongue. A brisk encouragement for praise, a bed, or payment.
Over in Wales, and preserved or rediscovered or made up, by Iolo Morgannwg (or Edward Williams, Welsh antiquarian – 1747-1826), we hear of a bardic astronomy: constellations of stars with names like:
The Circle of Gwydion
The Grove of Blodeuwedd
The Hen Eagle’s Nest
The White Fork
The Woodland Boar
The Conjunction of a Hundred Circles
This is all thrilling material, especially when aligned with Morgannwg’s revealing of the bardic dividing of the seasons, ancient chronologies and descriptions of poetic trials. It is less thrilling when we realise that The Barddas, from where this language arises, is certainly a forgery, a fake, either by Morgannwg or texts he studied, that were themselves bogus. It is less thrilling when we realise that he was actually doing jail time in a Welsh prison when he started to gather the fragmentary materials from which his heady imaginings created the above, and more.
But this is far from just a calculated attempt to deceive. Indeed, he and another forger, James Macpherson (the ‘Ossian’ poems) did more to preserve some notion of the bards than anyone since possibly the Middle Ages. Who knows what was going on in their heads when they wrote this down, certainly much creativity and imagination. The trouble comes when the artist tries to place the effervescent results of their producing into a space and time that is not authentic. No matter how much we hunger for union and fullness in these old fragments, a devised ‘whole’ such as Iolo attempts to provide, tends to a fictitious atmosphere – for obvious reasons.
Many of the serious controversies in Robert Graves' “The White Goddess”, come from him taking Morganwg’s utterings as inherited knowledge. A lively poetic sensibility works at a different tempo to the kind of snail-paced scholarship required if you are to produce game-changing statements about goddesses within European mythology. In a strange way “The White Goddess” has continued a tradition of historically wobbly, but conceptually vigorous ideas that that could include this brief ‘holding of the flame’ by Morganwg and Macpherson. Later in this book I will include at least one other character that seems to be part of this on-going imaginal tradition.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, when composing his History of the Kings of Britain, claims to have come into the keeping (or loan from the Archbishop of Oxford) of a book in ‘the British language’ (probably Welsh) that gave extensive details of major figures from Brutus to Cadwallader. It is from this document that he supposedly mines all kinds of facts and detail – although again, there is a great speculation that the book never existed and was a device for Monmouth’s florid imagination to run riot. We begin to detect a pattern.
These days both men – Macpherson and Morgannwg - would probably have happy careers as writers of fantasy, or even be regarded as ‘channellers’, and make a living that way. When something beautiful has been lost, but a residual consciousness remains, we will accept even a mimic of that beauty. What makes the work of Iolo really complicated is that he did copy some authentic documents that are now lost, which means, like any great lie, there are hidden fragments of the real within it.
I suspect that what many of us long for in the figure of the bard is not the courtly reciter of the post-Norman world, but the older, more mystical, nature-connected figure of the primordial earth, a world that by its very nature is, as Robin Williamson says, made of the ‘quality of mist and starlight’; something profoundly druidic, magical, but also hard to access in modern times. This very figure was already being promoted rather clumsily by 14th and 15th Century bards in an attempt to stop a steady decline in interest of the form. Some academics insist that their speculation is the root of what we now regard as ‘fact’ about this earlier stage.
For anyone interested in orality, literature, and the wildness inherent in both, the later bardic world is problematic. One, for its frozen quality – wildness and creativity grow steadily more absent after its chief concern becomes the history of court and nobles. We get far less of an ecstatic nature stream pouring through the compositions (this is why we get so excited about Taliesin, although he is another figure under fierce debate) and more stodgy praise of dignitaries, whilst shaking the money tin for another round of drinks. Poetry is rarely vital when tenured.
Secondly, their diminishing of local dialect in favour of a unified, unwavering tongue is absolutely at loggerheads with the bio-regional flavour of this book. We need more burrs and rasps in language, not less. It may have been necessary at the time to create a clear Gaelic art form that was internationally recognised, but that time is not this time. The regional voice reveals trails back to the soil. We could go down to the specific – to dirt, twigs, streams, family roots, geographic understanding, the spontaneous and natural, than up and general – honouring wealth, status, stilted poetry, the status quo. We need to take our praise back to the natural world, not offering it to the ‘land’ owner.
We have been cut from our home ground so many times we eventually find ourselves ‘out of our mind’ – our thinking extending out into silvery lakes, jaguar teeth and dandelions – not just caught in the skull.
Whilst we honour the early stories of reciting by memory 60,000 lines of verse, and the practice of darkness as a way towards luminous awakening, as well as the love of language and also its use as dark speech – a form of verbal combat, it would be appropriate to return to an original source of the bardic inspiration, the land. When we get caught up entirely in the recreation of flowing robes, badly played harps, and forged histories, it all starts to feel like a clumsy theatre, and surely we are missing the point. Still, the word bard has vitality to it, energy, it’s still potent, and so could respond to a re-visioning with the move back to forest consciousness, moor consciousness, ocean consciousness at its centre.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2013