1786
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards.

Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards. Interspersed with Anecdotes of, and occasional Observations on, the Music of Ireland. Also, an historical and descriptive Account of the musical Instruments of the ancient Irish. And an Appendix, containing several biographical and other papers, with select Irish Melodies. By Joseph C. Walker. 2 vols.

Joseph Cooper Walker


Citing a passage from View of the State of Ireland, the Irish antiquary Joseph Cooper Walker notes that Spenser's commentators had overlooked the possibility that he had incorporated bardic material into the Faerie Queene: "as these gentlemens' learned researches have not been always attended with success, I will take leave to suggest to them (and surely the suggestion will comfort them under their disappointment) that it is very probable Spenser borrowed several of his yet untraced fictions, from some of the Irish Poems, which he caused to be translated to him, and with which he was so much delighted. For in those Poems, as well as in the Works of BOYARDO, ARIOSTO, and CHAUCER, 'le Donni, i Cavallier, l'Arme, gli Amori,' nay Giants and Fairies too, may be found. Here Spenser might pilfer without fear of immediate detection" pp. 136-37n.

Walker also cites passages from the Faerie Queene to illustrate "the Bugle-horn breaking an enchantment with a single blast" p. 87, and the bagpipe: "SPENSER'S Perigot played on that instrument; (Shepherd's Calendar: August) as did also his Colin Clout. Fairy Queen. B. 6. ch. 10. s. 18" p. 81n.

Charles Burney: "Mr. W. defends the Bards of his country as well as he can. He has given both sides of the question — Extracts from the severe laws of Queen Elizabeth against the Rymers, he endeavours to invalidate by the encomiastic verses of his friends in their defence" Monthly Review 77 (December 1787) 425.

Walter Savage Landor to Robert Southey: "The death of Cromwell, usurper as he was, was by far the greatest misfortune that ever befel the English nation, not excepting the ministry of Pitt. How very interesting even still, is the account your 'Master,' Spenser gives of Irish affairs in his times! I have often turned to it, when I could not go on with the Faery Queen" 1824; in Forster, Landor, a Biography (1869) 373.




Selden in speaking of the War-Songs of different nations, says, that the tone in use among the Irish Kerns was called PHARROH [Author's note: Notes on DRAYTON'S Polyolb. Song. 6]. This song — (of the nature of the ORTHIAN Song of the Greeks [Author's note: Ibid. B. 11. v. 13], — the ROLAND of the Normans [Author's note: Hist. Univ. par VOLTAIRE. p. 69. BURNEY'S Hist. of Music. v. 2.] — and the UNBENJAETH PRYDAIN [Author's note: BARRINGTON'S Observ. upon the Statutes. p. 292.] of the Welch — recited the actions of an ancient hero called Pharroh or Pharrogh [Author's note: The vulgar Irish suppose the subject of this song to have been Forroch, or Ferragh, (an easy corruption of Pharroh) a terrible Giant, of whom they tell many a marvellous tale. Perhaps Pharroh was another Orlando. Vide Orl. Innam. del BOYARDO, and Orl. Furio. del ARIOSTO. While SPENSER was writing his Fairy Queen in the romantic castle of Kilcolman, (on his own estate in the county of Cork), the fame of Forroch reached his ears, and he determined to find a place for him in his poem. Accordingly we discover 'the bold Sir Ferraugh hight,' figuring in B. IV. c. 2. s. 4. — Ferragh is elsewhere noticed by Spenser. Vide his State of Ireland. It is rather extraordinary, that we should find a Sir Ferragh among Ariosto's Knights], and was probably set to that kind of music denominated Phrygian, which, according to Aristotle, had a maddening effect....

The character of Bard, once so reverenced in Ireland, began to sink into contempt in the reign of Elizabeth. We will, in this place, transcribe Spenser's animated description of this order of men in their fallen state, in which he sets forth his reasons for recommending their extirpation. In this description we shall find the poet lashing them without mercy, yet, at the same time, doing justice to their productions. "There is amongst the Irish, a certain kind of people called Bardes, which are to them instead of Poets, whose profession is to set forth the praises or dispraises of men in their poems or rithmes; the which are had in so high regard and estimation [author's note: Sir PHILIP SIDNEY bears evidence to the high estimation in which the Bards were held in Ireland about the commencement of Elizabeth's reign: 'In our Neigbor-Countrie Irelande, where truly learning goe's very bare, yet are their Poets held in a devout reverence.' Defence of Poesie. Likewise the elegant HURD: 'Even so late as Elizabeth's reign, the savage Irish (who were much in the state of the ancient Greeks, living under the anarchy, rather than the government, of their numberless puny Chiefs) had their Rhymers in principal estimation.' Letters on Chivalry and Romance, p. 37] amongst them, that none dare displease them, for fear to run into reproach through their offence, and to be made infamous in the mouths of all men. For their verses are taken up with a general applause, and usually sung at all feasts and meetings by certain persons [Author's note: Called Racaraide. OCONOR'S Diss. on Hist. of Irel. p. 74], whose proper function that is, who also receive for the same, great rewards and reputation amongst them." — "These Irish Bardes are for the most part so far from instructing young men in moral discipline, that they themselves do more deserve to be sharply disciplined: for they seldom use to choose unto themselves the doings of good men for the arguments of their poems; but whomsoever they find to be most licentious of life, most bold and lawless in his doings, most dangerous and desperate in all parts of disobedience and rebellious disposition; him they set up and glorifie in their Rithmes, him they praise to the people, and to young men make an example to follow." — Thus "evil things being decked and attired with the gay attire of goodly words, may easily deceive and carry away the affection of a young mind that is not well stayed, but desirous by some bold adventures, to make proof of himself. For being (as they all be) brought up idely without awe of parents, without precepts of masters, and without fear of offence; not being directed, nor imployed in any course of life which may carry them to vertue; will easily be drawn to follow such as any shall set before them: for a young mind cannot rest: if he be not still busied in some goodness, he will find himself such business, as shall soon busy all about him. In which, if he shall find any to praise him, and to give him encouragement, as those Bardes and Rithmers do for little reward, or a share of a stoln cow, then waxeth he most insolent and half mad with the love of himself, and with his own lewd deeds. And as for words to set forth such lewdnese, it is not hard for them to give a goodly and painted shew thereunto, borrowed even from the praises which are proper to Virtue itself: as of a most notorious thief and wicked out-law, which had lived all his life-time of spoils and robberies, one of their Bardes in his praise will say, that he was none of the idle milk-sops that was brought up by the fire-side; that he did never eat his meat, before he had wone it with his sword: that he lay not all night slugging in a cabin under his mantle; but used commonly to keep others waking to defend their lives; and did light his candle at the flames of their houses, to lead him in the darkness: that the day was his night, and the night his day: that he loved not to be long wooing of wenches to yield to him; but where he came, he took by force the spoil of other mens love, and left but lamentation to their lovers: that his music was not the Harp, nor lays of love, but the cries of people, and clashing of armour: and finally, that he died, not bewailed of many, but made many wail when he died, that dearly brought his death." — "I have caused divers of these poems to be translated unto me (he concludes) that I might understand them: and surely they savoured of sweet wit and good invention; but skilled not of the goodly ornaments of poetry [Author's note: The Commentators on the Fairy Queen, unwilling to allow its author the praise of originality, have taken much pains to trace all its Legends through the Greek and Roman Classics, and through the French, the Italian, and the old English Poets. But as these gentlemens' learned researches have not been always attended with success, I will take leave to suggest to them (and surely the suggestion will comfort them under their disappointment) that it is very probable Spenser borrowed several of his yet untraced fictions, from some of the Irish Poems, which he caused to be translated to him, and with which he was so much delighted. For in those Poems, as well as in the Works of BOYARDO, ARIOSTO, and CHAUCER, 'le Donni, i Cavallier, l'Arme, gli Amori,' nay Giants and Fairies too, may be found. Here Spenser might pilfer without fear of immediate detection. We have already found him adopting one of our Heroes. (Pag. 96. supr.)]: yet were they sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their natural device, which gave good grace and comeliness unto them: the which it is great pity to see so abused, to the gracing of wickedness and vice, which with good usage would serve to adorn and beautifie vertue" [Author's note: View of the State of Ireland.]

But the Irish Bards, in this period, so glorious in the annals of Great Britain, were not wholly employed in offering incense to the unworthy: they frequently exercised their talents with zeal, to preserve their country from the chains which were forging for it. They flung themselves into the midst of the armies of their much-injured countrymen, striking their Harps with

a louder yet, and yet a louder strain,
[Author's note: DRYDEN'S Ode for St. Cecilia's-Day.]

till they raised the martial fury of the soldiery to such an elevated pitch, that they often rushed on their enemies with the impetuosity of a mountain torrent, sweeping all before them, till they reached the standard of Victory....


[pp. 96; 134-37]