Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 18

Venerable Old Gentleman — Surnames in Wales — Russia and Britain — Church of England — Yriarte — The Eagle and his Young — Poets of the Gael — The Oxonian — Master Salisburie.

MY wife had told me that she had had some conversation upon the Welsh language and literature with a venerable old man, who kept a shop in the town, that she had informed him that I was very fond of both, and that he had expressed a great desire to see me. One afternoon I said: “Let us go and pay a visit to your old friend of the shop. I think from two or three things which you have told me about him, that he must be worth knowing.” We set out. She conducted me across the bridge a little way; then presently turning to the left into the principal street, she entered the door of a shop on the left-hand side, over the top of which was written: “Jones; Provision Dealer and General Merchant.” The shop was small, with two little counters, one on each side. Behind one was a young woman, and behind the other a venerable-looking old man.

“I have brought my husband to visit you,” said my wife, addressing herself to him.

“I am most happy to see him,” said the old gentleman, making me a polite bow.

He then begged that we would do him the honour to walk into his parlour, and led us into a little back room, the window of which looked out upon the Dee a few yards below the bridge. On the left side of the room was a large case, well stored with books. He offered us chairs, and we all sat down. I was much struck with the old man. He was rather tall, and somewhat inclined to corpulency. His hair was grey; his forehead high; his nose aquiline; his eyes full of intelligence; whilst his manners were those of a perfect gentleman.

I entered into conversation by saying that I supposed his name was Jones, as I had observed that name over the door.

“Jones is the name I bear at your service, sir,” he replied.

I said that it was a very common name in Wales, as I knew several people who bore it, and observed that most of the surnames in Wales appeared to be modifications of Christian names; for example Jones, Roberts, Edwards, Humphreys, and likewise Pugh, Powel, and Probert, which were nothing more than the son of Hugh, the son of Howel, and the son of Robert. He said I was right, that there were very few real surnames in Wales; that the three great families, however, had real surnames; for that Wynn, Morgan and Bulkley were all real surnames. I asked him whether the Bulkleys of Anglesea were not originally an English family. He said they were, and that they settled down in Anglesea in the time of Elizabeth.

After some minutes my wife got up and left us. The old gentleman and I had then some discourse in Welsh; we soon, however, resumed speaking English. We got on the subject of Welsh bards, and after a good deal of discourse the old gentleman said:

“You seem to know something about Welsh poetry; can you tell me who wrote the following line?

“‘There will be great doings in Britain, and I shall have no concern in them.’”

“I will not be positive,” said I, “but I think from its tone and tenor that it was composed by Merddyn, whom my countrymen call Merlin.”

“I believe you are right,” said the old gentleman, “I see you know something of Welsh poetry. I met the line, a long time ago, in a Welsh grammar. It then made a great impression upon me, and of late it has always been ringing in my ears. I love Britain. Britain has just engaged in a war with a mighty country, and I am apprehensive of the consequences. I am old, upwards of four-score, and shall probably not live to see the evil, if evil happens, as I fear it will — ‘There will be strange doings in Britain, but they will not concern me.’ I cannot get the line out of my head.”

I told him that the line probably related to the progress of the Saxons in Britain, but that I did not wonder that it made an impression upon him at the present moment. I said, however, that we ran no risk from Russia; that the only power at all dangerous to Britain was France, which though at present leagued with her against Russia, would eventually go to war with and strive to subdue her, and then of course Britain could expect no help from Russia, her old friend and ally, who, if Britain had not outraged her, would have assisted her, in any quarrel or danger, with four or five hundred thousand men. I said that I hoped neither he nor I should see a French invasion, but I had no doubt one would eventually take place, and that then Britain must fight stoutly, as she had no one to expect help from but herself; that I wished she might be able to hold her own, but —

“Strange things will happen in Britain, though they will concern me nothing,” said the old gentleman with a sigh.

On my expressing a desire to know something of his history, he told me that he was the son of a small farmer, who resided at some distance from Llangollen; that he lost his father at an early age, and was obliged to work hard, even when a child, in order to assist his mother who had some difficulty, after the death of his father, in keeping things together; that though he was obliged to work hard he had been fond of study, and used to pore over Welsh and English books by the glimmering light of the turf fire at night, for that his mother could not afford to allow him anything in the shape of a candle to read by; that at his mother’s death he left rural labour, and coming to Llangollen, commenced business in the little shop in which he was at present; that he had been married, and had children, but that his wife and family were dead; that the young woman whom I had seen in the shop, and who took care of his house, was a relation of his wife; that though he had always been attentive to business, he had never abandoned study; that he had mastered his own language, of which he was passionately fond, and had acquired a good knowledge of English and of some other languages. That his fondness for literature had shortly after his arrival at Llangollen attracted the notice of some of the people, who encouraged him in his studies, and assisted him by giving him books; that the two celebrated ladies of Llangollen had particularly noticed him; that he held the situation of church clerk for upwards of forty years, and that it was chiefly owing to the recommendation of the “great ladies” that he had obtained it. He then added with a sigh, that about ten years ago he was obliged to give it up, owing to something the matter with his eyesight, which prevented him from reading, and, that his being obliged to give it up was a source of bitter grief to him, as he had always considered it a high honour to be permitted to assist in the service of the Church of England, in the principles of which he had been bred, and in whose doctrines he firmly believed.

Here shaking him by the hand, I said that I too had been bred up in the principles of the Church of England; that I too firmly believed in its doctrines, and would maintain with my blood, if necessary, that there was not such another church in the world.

“So would I,” said the old gentleman; “where is there a church in whose liturgy there is so much Scripture as in that of the Church of England?”

“Pity,” said I, “that so many traitors have lately sprung up in its ministry.”

“If it be so,” said the old church clerk, “they have not yet shown themselves in the pulpit at Llangollen. All the clergymen who have held the living in my time have been excellent. The present incumbent is a model of a Church-of-England clergyman. Oh, how I regret that the state of my eyes prevents me from officiating as clerk beneath him.”

I told him that I should never from the appearance of his eyes have imagined that they were not excellent ones.

“I can see to walk about with them, and to distinguish objects,” said the old gentleman; “but see to read with them I cannot. Even with the help of the most powerful glasses I cannot distinguish a letter. I believe I strained my eyes at a very early age, when striving to read at night by the glimmer of the turf fire in my poor mother’s chimney corner. Oh what an affliction is this state of my eyes! I can’t turn my books to any account, nor read the newspapers; but I repeat that I chiefly lament it because it prevents me from officiating as under-preacher.”

He showed me his books. Seeing amongst them “The Fables of Yriarte” in Spanish, I asked how they came into his possession.

“They were presented to me,” said he, “by one of the ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler.”

“Have you ever read them?” said I.

“No,” he replied; “I do not understand a word of Spanish; but I suppose her ladyship, knowing I was fond of languages, thought that I might one day set about learning Spanish, and that then they might be useful to me.”

He then asked me if I knew Spanish, and on my telling him that I had some knowledge of that language, he asked me to translate some of the fables. I translated two of them, which pleased him much.

I then asked if he had ever heard of a collection of Welsh fables compiled about the year thirteen hundred. He said that he had not, and inquired whether they had ever been printed. I told him that some had appeared in the old Welsh magazine called “The Greal.”

“I wish you would repeat one of them,” said the old clerk.

“Here is one,” said I, “which particularly struck me:-

“It is the custom of the eagle, when his young are sufficiently old, to raise them up above his nest in the direction of the sun; and the bird which has strength enough of eye to look right in the direction of the sun, he keeps and nourishes, but the one which has not, he casts down into the gulf to its destruction. So does the Lord deal with His children in the Catholic Church Militant: those whom He sees worthy to serve Him in godliness and spiritual goodness He keeps with Him and nourishes, but those who are not worthy from being addicted to earthly things, He casts out into utter darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The old gentleman, after a moment’s reflection, said it was a clever fable, but an unpleasant one. It was hard for poor birds to be flung into a gulf, for not having power of eye sufficient to look full in the face of the sun, and likewise hard that poor human creatures should be lost for ever, for not doing that which they had no power to do.

“Perhaps,” said I, “the eagle does not deal with his chicks, or the Lord with His creatures as the fable represents.”

“Let us hope at any rate,” said the old gentleman, “that the Lord does not.”

“Have you ever seen this book?” said he, and put Smith’s “Sean Dana” into my hand.

“Oh, yes,” said I, “and have gone through it. It contains poems in the Gaelic language by Oisin and others, collected in the Highlands. I went through it a long time ago with great attention. Some of the poems are wonderfully beautiful.”

“They are so,” said the old clerk. “I too have gone through the book; it was presented to me a great many years ago by a lady to whom I gave some lessons in the Welsh language. I went through it with the assistance of a Gaelic grammar and dictionary, which she also presented to me, and I was struck with the high tone of the poetry.”

“This collection is valuable indeed,” said I; “it contains poems, which not only possess the highest merit, but serve to confirm the authenticity of the poems of Ossian, published by Macpherson, so often called in question. All the pieces here attributed to Ossian are written in the same metre, tone, and spirit, as those attributed to him in the other collection, so if Macpherson’s Ossianic poems, which he said were collected by him in the Highlands, are forgeries, Smith’s Ossianic poems, which, according to his account, were also collected in the Highlands, must be also forged, and have been imitated from those published by the other. Now as it is well known that Smith did not possess sufficient poetic power to produce any imitation of Macpherson’s Ossian, with a tenth part the merit which the “Sean Dana” possess, and that even if he had possessed it, his principles would not have allowed him to attempt to deceive the world by imposing forgeries upon it, as the authentic poems of another, he being a highly respectable clergyman, the necessary conclusion is that the Ossianic poems which both published are genuine, and collected in the manner in which both stated they were.”

After a little more discourse about Ossian, the old gentleman asked me if there was any good modern Gaelic poetry. “None very modern,” said I: “the last great poets of the Gael were Macintyre and Buchanan, who flourished about the middle of the last century. The first sang of love and of Highland scenery; the latter was a religious poet. The best piece of Macintyre is an ode to Ben Dourain, or the Hill of the Water-dogs — a mountain in the Highlands. The master-piece of Buchanan is his La Breitheanas or Day of Judgment, which is equal in merit, or nearly so, to the Cywydd y Farn, or Judgment Day of your own immortal Gronwy Owen. Singular that the two best pieces on the Day of Judgment should have been written in two Celtic dialects, and much about the same time; but such is the fact.”

“Really,” said the old church clerk, “you seem to know something of Celtic literature.”

“A little,” said I; “I am a bit of a philologist; and when studying languages dip a little into the literature which they contain.”

As I had heard him say that he had occasionally given lessons in the Welsh language, I inquired whether any of his pupils had made much progress in it. “The generality,” said he, “soon became tired of its difficulties, and gave it up without making any progress at all. Two or three got on tolerably well. One, however, acquired it in a time so short that it might be deemed marvellous. He was an Oxonian, and came down with another in the vacation in order to study hard against the yearly collegiate examination. He and his friend took lodgings at Pengwern Hall, then a farm-house, and studied and walked about for some time, as other young men from college, who come down here, are in the habit of doing. One day he and his friend came to me, who was then clerk, and desired to see the interior of the church. So I took the key and went with them into the church. When he came to the altar he took up the large Welsh Common Prayer–Book, which was lying there, and looked into it. ‘A curious language this Welsh,’ said he; ‘I should like to learn it.’ ‘Many have wished to learn it, without being able,’ said I; ‘it is no easy language.’ ‘I should like to try,’ he replied; ‘I wish I could find some one who would give me a few lessons.’ ‘I have occasionally given instructions in Welsh,’ said I, ‘and shall be happy to oblige you.’ Well, it was agreed that he should take lessons of me; and to my house he came every evening, and I gave him what instructions I could. I was astonished at his progress. He acquired the pronunciation in a lesson, and within a week was able to construe and converse. By the time he left Llangollen, and he was not here in all more than two months, he understood the Welsh Bible as well as I did, and could speak Welsh so well that the Welsh, who did not know him, took him to be one of themselves, for he spoke the language with the very tone and manner of a native. Oh, he was the cleverest man for language that I ever knew; not a word that he heard did he ever forget.”

“Just like Mezzofanti,” said I, “the great cardinal philologist. But whilst learning Welsh, did he not neglect his collegiate studies?”

“Well, I was rather apprehensive on that point,” said the old gentleman, “but mark the event. At the examination he came off most brilliantly in Latin, Greek, mathematics, and other things too; in fact, a double first-class man, as I think they call it.”

“I have never heard of so extraordinary an individual,” said I. “I could no more have done what you say he did, than I could have taken wings and flown. Pray, what was his name?”

“His name,” said the old gentleman, “was Earl.”

I was much delighted with my new acquaintance, and paid him frequent visits; the more I saw him the more he interested me. He was kind and benevolent, a good old Church of England Christian, was well versed in several dialects of the Celtic, and possessed an astonishing deal of Welsh heraldic and antiquarian lore. Often whilst discoursing with him I almost fancied that I was with Master Salisburie, Vaughan of Hengwrt, or some other worthy of old, deeply skilled in everything remarkable connected with wild “Camber’s Lande.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50