I have always considered the interest of modern popular culture in traditional bardic culture – or in fact any other facet of medieval society – to be a good thing. The more general interest in such an esoteric topic the better so far as I am concerned, as general interest creates a demand for specific learning. Lately, however, it has been made agonisingly clear that there is a distinct lack of awareness among most of what bardic tradition actually entailed. I always looked on Shakespeare’s appellation ‘the Bard’ with (dare I say) contempt, but I never fully comprehended how loosely the term is used. I’ve seen popular compositions with the vaguest sense of structure and harmony — or worse, the most structurally hulking ones — referred to as bardic. Nowhere have I seen in the modern tradition the elaborate yet subtle and elegant complexities of medieval Celtic (and Norse!) versification, so I’ve decided to begin posting here some of the basic concepts that define and communicate the medieval Gaelic aesthetic.
There is no better illustration of the bardic aesthetic and importance than a traditional tale of a man who was talented at poetry and his jealous neighbour. I first read this story in a collection of tales from Cape Breton but also heard it from my Gaelic teacher when I was taking a distance course from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, so the tale itself is still in the living oral tradition (so far as I can tell). The poet, who had a hump on his back, was not a wealthy man and spent most of his time walking the hills and enjoying music and poetry, at which he had a natural instinct. His neighbor was quite well off, due to his being a serious man and something of a miser. One evening the poet was walking the hills and heard the sound of merriment coming from inside. He snooped around and found a door in the side of a hill and, with curiosity getting the better of him, stepped inside. He saw a troop of faeries (na sìdhean) dancing around to a kind of chanting song that went: Diluain, Dimàirt, Diluain, Dimàirt. Now this means literally ‘Monday, Tuesday, Monday, Tuesday,’ but the rhythm is very close to ‘da-deedle-de-dum, da-deedle-de-dum.’ The man couldn’t help himself but stepped up and said ‘that’s a fine song, but I know one better.’ The faeries all listened as the man sang:
Diluain, Dimàirt, Diluain, Dimàirt, Diluain, Dimàirt, Diceudain
Monday, Tuesday, Monday, Tuesday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
but the rhythm runs something like ‘da-deedle-de-dum, da-deedle-de-dum, da-deedle-de-dum, da-DEEH-dum.’ The faeries were so impressed and pleased that they took off his hump and threw it in the corner. Moreover, they gave him a heap of gold and sent him on his way. On arriving home, he happened to run into his neighbour who was impressed and wanted to know how the poet had found such good fortune. The poet told him the whole story in detail and, thinking to find similar riches, the wealthy man went up into the hill. Interrupting the faeries’ dance he announced that he could improve their song and said:
Diardaoin, Dihaoine, Diardaoin, Dihaoine, Diardaoin, Dihaoine, Disathairn
Thursday, Friday, Thursday, Friday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Now, in the English the rhythm of the two men’s songs is roughly similar (or equally bad) but in the Gaelic the second man’s rhythm runs something like ‘dadeer-de-loinya, dadeer-de-loinya, dadeer-de-loinya, da-DEEH-dum.’ The faeries were quite unimpressed and, laughing at the man’s ignorant impertinence, slapped the former man’s hump on the miser’s back and pummeled him out of the hill.
At the heart of this story is the importance to the sìdhean of a particular aesthetic in poetry. Now, in the oldest traditions, the sìdhean represent both the ancestors as well as the spirits of the land, since most of the early Irish (and thus the Gaelic-speaking Scots as well) traced their ancestry back to the sìdhean. For a good example of this, see the tale ‘the Three Sons of Mac Luighdeach’ in ‘Tales of the Elders of Ireland’ and elsewhere — e.g. Geoffrey Keating retells it in his Foras Feasa air Eireann. It’s as if the tale’s moral is ‘you can achieve wealth through left-brained thinking, but you’d better please the spirits through an appreciation of poetic beauty and hospitality if you want to hold onto it.’
At the very least, the tale valorizes an aesthetic viewpoint over an economic one, but my interest here is in the poetic rhythm and harmony that the faeries found so pleasing and no less the ability of humans to complement faerie culture. It’s not the faeries who teach poetry to the man, as often is the theme in other tales, but the man who improves the faeries’ song. The improvement is not even a drastic change but a simple addition that improves the rhythm and, more importantly, the pacing of the song. It adds a sense of structure and timing to the faeries’ own endless and uniform cycle, and I see this as an illustration of the value of humanity to the spiritual world: we add an awareness of time and thus rhythm to its infinitude. The result is that we in turn receive the blessing and wealth of infinity. Conversely, logistical and economic thinking, dependent as it is on a sense of finitude and lack (viz. managing finite resources) removes the benefit of eternity and destroys both economic and physical wealth.
More importantly, the miser did not entirely lack the poetic aesthetic; he simply took what he knew of the other man’s knowledge and expanded left-brainedly on it, focusing on the lyrics rather than the necessary aural elements. He should have thought about the structure of the song, which his predecessor had transformed from an endless repetition by adding a cadence. This cadence transforms the faeries’ uniform repetition (XXXXXXX …) into a segmented, fourfold structure (XXXD XXXD XXXD …). The miser’s rhythm copies this but lacks internal harmony so is nothing more than a bad copy.
This is an important lesson for anyone attempting to assume the bardic arts. Our tradition is not — cannot! — be a ‘whatever-you-feel-like’ kind of thing. I once had a student try to convince me that what made poetry was a lack of structure. If we define poetry as nothing more than an outpouring of emotion then structure and form truly may not matter, but I go further in asserting that real poetry in the sense of something that carries actual spiritual force is something much harder to define but simultaneously more definite. Structure, rhythm, and harmony must define poetry or it is not poetry. Moreover, it also must have that transcendent, ‘more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts’ quality. Each of these things is carefully defined in the bardic tracts, so I make a commitment here to post some of these concepts that define poetry as soon as I can.