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- The Visions of the Sleeping Bard - 2/21 -


Methodist revival in Wales, a voice crying in the wilderness, calling upon his countrymen to repent. He neither feared nor favored any man or class, but delivered his message in unfaltering tone, and performed his alloted task honestly and faithfully. How deeply our country is indebted to him who did her such eminent service in the days of adversity and gloom will never be known. And now, in the time of prosperity, Wales still remembers her benefactor, and will always keep honored the name of Ellis Wynne, the SLEEPING BARD.

II.--THE TEXT.

The Bardd Cwsc was first published in London in 1703, a small 24mo. volume of some 150 pages, with the following title-page

"GWELEDIGAETHEU Y BARDD CWSC. Y Rhann Gyntaf. Argraphwyd yn Llundain gan E. Powell i'r Awdwr, 1703." {0f}

A second edition was not called for until about 1742, when it was issued at Shrewsbury; but in the thirty years following, as many as five editions were published, and in the present century, at least twelve editions (including two or three by the Rev. Canon Silvan Evans) have appeared. The text followed in this volume is that of Mr. Isaac Foulkes' edition, but recourse has also been had to the original edition for the purpose of comparison. The only translation into English hitherto has been that of George Borrow, published in London in 1860, and written in that charming and racy style which characterises his other and better known works. He has, however, fallen into many errors, which were only natural, seeing that the Visions abound in colloquial words and phrases, and in idiomatic forms of expression which it would be most difficult for one foreign to our tongue to render correctly.

The author's name is not given in the original nor in any subsequent edition previous to the one published at Merthyr Tydfil in 1806, where the Gweledigaetheu are said to be by "Ellis Wynne." But it was well known, even before his death, that he was the author; the fact being probably deduced from the similarity in style between the Visions and an acknowledged work, namely, his translation of the Holy Living. The most likely reason for his preferring anonymity is not far to seek; his scathing denunciation of the sins of certain classes and, possibly, even of certain individuals, would be almost sure to draw upon the author their most bitter attacks. Many of the characters he depicts would be identified, rightly or wrongly, with certain of his contemporaries, and many more, whom he never had in his mind at all, would imagine themselves the objects of his satire; he had nothing to gain by imperilling himself at the hands of such persons, or by coming into open conflict with them; he had his message to deliver to his fellow-countrymen, his Visions a purpose to fulfil, the successful issue of which could not but be frustrated by the introduction of personal hatred and ill-will. Ellis Wynne was only too ready to forego the honor of being the acknowledged author of the Visions if thereby he could the better serve his country.

The Bardd Cwsc is not only the most popular of Welsh prose works, but it has also retained its place among the best of our classics. No better model exists of the pure idiomatic Welsh of the last century, before writers became influenced by English style and method. Vigorous, fluent, crisp, and clear, it shows how well our language is adapted to description and narration. It is written for the people, and in the picturesque and poetic strain which is always certain to fascinate the Celtic mind. The introduction to each Vision is evidently written with elaborate care, and exquisitely polished--"ne quid possit per leve morari," and scene follows scene, painted in words which present them most vividly before one's eyes, whilst the force and liveliness of his diction sustain unflagging interest throughout. The reader is carried onward as much by the rhythmic flow of language and the perfect balance of sentences, as by the vivacity of the narrative and by the reality with which Ellis Wynne invests his adventures and the characters he depicts. The terrible situations in which we find the Bard, as the drama unfolds, betoken not only a powerful imagination, but also an intensity of feeling which enabled him to realise the conceptions of such imagination. We follow the Bard and his heavenly guide through all their perils with breathless attention; the demons and the damned he so clothes with flesh and blood that our hatred or our sympathy is instantly stirred; his World is palpitating with life, his Hell, with its gloom and glare, is an awful, haunting dream. But besides being the possessor of a vivid imagination, Ellis Wynne was endowed with a capacity for transmitting his own experience in a picturesque and life-like manner. The various descriptions of scenes, such as Shrewsbury fair, the parson's revelry and the deserted mansions; of natural scenery, as in the beginning of the first and last Visions; of personages, such as the portly alderman, and the young lord and his retinue, all are evidently drawn from the Author's own experience. He was also gifted with a lively sense of humor, which here and there relieves the pervading gloom so naturally associated with the subject of his Visions. The humorous and the severe, the grotesque and the sublime, the tender and the terrible, are alike portrayed by a master hand.

The leading feature of the Visions, namely the personal element which the Author infuses into the recital of his distant travels, brings the reader into a closer contact with the tale and gives continuity to the whole work, some parts of which would otherwise appear disconnected. This telling of the tale in propria persona with a guide of shadowy or celestial nature who points out what the Bard is to see, and explains to him the mystery of the things around him, is a method frequently adopted by poets of all times. Dante is the best known instance, perhaps; but we find the method employed in Welsh, as in "The Dream of Paul, the Apostle," where Paul is led by Michael to view the punishments of Hell (vide Iolo MSS.). Ellis Wynne was probably acquainted with Vergil and Dante, and adopted the idea of supernatural guidance from them; in fact, apart from this, we meet with several passages which are eminently reminiscent of both these great poets.

But now, casting aside mere speculation, we come face to face with the indisputable fact that Ellis Wynne is to a considerable degree indebted to the Dreams of Gomez de Quevedo y Villegas, a voluminous Spanish author who flourished in the early part of the 17th century. In 1668, Sir Roger L'Estrange published his translation into English of the Dreams, which immediately became very popular. Quevedo has his Visions of the World, of Death and her (sic) Empire, and of Hell; the same characters are delineated in both, the same classes satirized, the same punishments meted out. We read in both works of the catchpoles and wranglers, the pompous knights and lying knaves--in fine, we cannot possibly come to any other conclusion than that Ellis Wynne has "read, marked and inwardly digested" L'Estrange's translation of Quevedo's Dreams. But admitting so much, the Bardd Cwsc still remains a purely Welsh classic; whatever in name and incident Ellis Wynne has borrowed from the Spaniard he has dressed up in Welsh home-spun, leaving little or nothing indicative of foreign influence. The sins he preached against, the sinners he condemned, were, he knew too well, indigenous to Welsh and Spanish soil. George Borrow sums up his comments upon the two authors in the following words: "Upon the whole, the Cymric work is superior to the Spanish; there is more unity of purpose in it, and it is far less encumbered with useless matter."

The implication contained in the foregoing remarks of Borrow--that the Bardd Cwsc is encumbered to a certain degree with useless matter, is no doubt well founded. There is a tendency to dwell inordinately upon the horrible, more particularly in the Vision of Hell; a tiring sameness in the descriptive passages, an occasional lapse from the tragic to the ludicrous, and an intrusion of the common-place in the midst of a speech or a scene, marring the dignity of the one and the beauty of the other.

The most patent blemish, however, is the unwarranted coarseness of expression to which the Author sometimes stoops. It is true that he must be judged according to the times he lived in; his chief object was to reach the ignorant masses of his countrymen, and to attain this object it was necessary for him to adopt their blunt and unveneered speech. For all that, one cannot help feeling that he has, in several instances, descended to a lower level than was demanded of him, with the inevitable result that both the literary merit and the good influence of his work in some measure suffer. Many passages which might be considered coarse and indecorous according to modern canons of taste, have been omitted from this translation.

From the literary point of view THE VISIONS OF THE SLEEPING BARD has from the first been regarded as a masterpiece, but from the religious, two very different opinions have been held concerning it. One, probably the earlier, was, that it was a book with a good purpose, and fit to stand side by side with Vicar Pritchard's Canwyll y Cymry and Llyfr yr Homiliau; the other, that it was a pernicious book, "llyfr codi cythreuliaid"--a devil-raising book. A work which in any shape or form bore even a distant relationship to fiction, instantly fell under the ban of the Puritanism of former days. To-day neither opinion is held, the Bardd Cwsc is simply a classic and nothing more.

The Visions derive considerable value from the light they throw upon the moral and social condition of our country two centuries ago. Wales, at the time Ellis Wynne wrote was in a state of transition: its old-world romance was passing away, and ceasing to be the potent influence which, in times gone by, had aroused our nation to chivalrous enthusiasm, and led it to ennobling aspirations. Its place and power, it is true, were shortly to be taken by religion, simple, puritanic, and intensely spiritual; but so far, the country was in a condition of utter disorder, morally and socially. Its national life was at its lowest ebb, its religious life was as yet undeveloped and gave little promise of the great things to come. The nation as a whole--people, patrician, and priest--had sunk to depths of moral degradation; the people, through ignorance and superstition; the patrician, through contact with the corruptions of the England of the Restoration; while the priesthood were

"Blind mouths, that scarce themselves knew how to hold "A sheep-hook, or had learnt aught else the least "That to the faithful herdman's art belongs."

All the sterner and darker aspects of the period are chronicled with a grim fidelity in the Visions, the wrongs and vices of the age are exposed with scathing earnestness. Ellis Wynne set himself the task of endeavouring to arouse his fellow-countrymen and bring them to realize the sad condition into which the nation had fallen. He entered upon the work endowed with keen powers of perception, a wide knowledge of life, and a strong sense of justice. He was no respecter of person; all orders of society, types of every rank and class, in turn, came under castigation; no sin, whether in high places or among those of low degree, escaped the lash of his biting satire. On the other hand, it must be said that he lacked sympathy with erring nature, and failed to recognize in his administration of justice that "to err is human, to forgive, divine." His denunciation of wrong and wrong-doer is equally stern and pitiless; mercy and love are rarely, if ever, brought on the stage. In this mood, as in the gloomy pessimism which pervades the whole work, he reflects the religious doctrines and beliefs of his times. In fine, when all has been said, favourably and adversely, the Visions, it will readily be admitted, present a very faithful picture of Welsh life, manners, and ways of thought, in the 17th century, and are, in every sense, a true product of the country and the age in which they were written.


The Visions of the Sleeping Bard - 2/21

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