Wild Wales: The People, Language, & Scenery
Wild Wales: The People, Language, & Scenery
Wild Wales: The People, Language, & Scenery
TALK ABOUT “WILD WALES”
WHY “WILD WALES” IS A SIMPLE ITINERARY
I have been invited by the editor of this series to say a few words upon Borrow’s “Wild Wales.” The invitation has come to me, he says, partly because during the latter days of Borrow’s life I had the privilege as a very young man of enjoying his friendship, and partly because in my story, “Aylwin,” and in my poem, “The Coming of Love,” I have shown myself to be a true lover of Wales – a true lover, indeed, of most things Cymric.
Let me begin by saying that although the book is an entirely worthy compeer of “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye,” and although like them it is written in the autobiographic form, it belongs, as I propose to show further on, to an entirely different form of narrative from those two famous books. And it differs in this respect even from “The Bible in Spain.” Unlike that splendid book, it is just a simple, uncoloured record of a walking tour through the Principality. As in any other itinerary, events in “Wild Wales” are depicted as they actually occurred, enriched by none of that glamour in which Borrow loved to disport himself. I remember once asking him why in this book he wrote an autobiographic narrative so fundamentally different from “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye” – why he had made in this book none of those excursions into the realms of fancy which form so charming a part of his famous quasi-autobiographic narratives. It was entirely characteristic of him that he remained silent as he walked rather sulkily by my side. To find an answer to the queries, however, is not very difficult. Making a tour as he did on this occasion in the company of eye-witnesses – eye-witnesses of an extremely different temper from his own, eye-witnesses, moreover, whom he specially wished to satisfy and please – his wife and stepdaughter – he found it impossible to indulge in his bohemian proclivities and equally impossible to give his readers any of those romantic coincidences, those quaint arrangements of incidents to illustrate theories of life, which illuminate his other works. The tour was made in the summer and autumn of 1854; during the two or three years following, he seems to have been working upon this record of it. The book was announced for publication in 1857, but it was not until 1862 that his publisher, who had been so greatly disappointed by the reception given to “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye,” took courage to offer it to the public.
BORROW’S EQUIPMENT FOR WRITING UPON THE WELSH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE
In 1860 Borrow’s interest in Wales and Welsh literature had specially been shown by the publication of his English version of “Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg,” a curious kind of allegory in the form of a vision, written in the early years of the eighteenth century by a Welsh clergyman named Ellis Wynne. The English reader of Borrow’s works will remember the allusion made to this book. As might have been expected, Borrow’s translation of this Welsh prose classic is not very trustworthy, and it has been superseded by the translation of Mr. R. Gwyneddon Davies, published in 1897. A characteristic matter connected with Borrow’s translation is that in the Quarterly Review for January 1861 he himself reviewed it anonymously, and not without appreciation of its merits – a method which may be recommended to those authors who are not in sympathy with their reviewers. The article showed a great deal of what may be called Borrovian knowledge of the Welsh language and Welsh literature, and perhaps it is not ungenerous to say a good deal of Borrovian ignorance too. For never was Nature’s love of whim in the fashioning of individuals more delightfully exemplified than in the case of Borrow’s irresistible desire for scholarship. Nothing whatever had he of the temperament of the true scholar – nothing whatever of the philologist’s endowment, and yet to be recognized as a scholar was the great ambitious dream of his life. I wish I had time to compare his disquisitions upon the Welsh language and literature in this article with a very rare little book on the same subject, the “Sketch of the History of the Welsh Language and Literature,” by a remarkable man as entirely forgotten now as Borrow is well remembered – Thomas Watts of the British Museum. In the one case we get nebulous speculation and fanciful induction based upon Borrovian knowledge; in the other, a solid mass of real learning accompanied by the smallest possible amount of speculation or fanciful induction.
Borrow had a certain something of Mezzofanti’s prodigious memory for words, accompanied by the great Italian’s lack of philological science. It may be remembered in this connection that Mr. Thomas St. E. Hake in his reminiscences in Notes and Queries of a relation of mine, the late Mr. James Orlando Watts, says that the learned recluse used to express a good deal of humorous contempt of Borrow’s “method of learning languages from dictionaries only,” without any grammatical knowledge. And these strictures, if we consider them, will explain much in regard to the philological disquisitions in “Lavengro,” “The Romany Rye,” and “Wild Wales,” where the knowledge is all “dictionary knowledge.” But it was not the shaky philology that caused “Wild Wales” to fall almost dead from the press. What, then, was the cause? It arose from the fact, as I hinted above, that “Wild Wales” belongs to a different kind of autobiographic narrative from “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye,” and also, if the truth must be said, from “The Bible in Spain.”
At the period when Borrow wrote this book the great and vigorous renascence of the Cymric idea, the new and deep interest that Welshmen are now taking in the preservation of the Welsh tongue, had not begun. That Borrow did not live to this day, when Welsh is much more spoken among the cultivated class than in his time, is to be lamented. With regard to this revival, whatever may become of it (whether the Welsh language can really be made to survive in the great linguistic struggle for life, which will be one of the principal features of the twentieth century), no one will deny that it is a language which from the poetic side as well as from the historic ought to survive. If I tread here upon dangerous ground, I may yet venture to say that one great obstacle against the spread of the Welsh language beyond Wales is the strange orthography. It is difficult for a person unacquainted with Welsh to believe that the sounds represented by such awkward arrangements of consonants as Welsh displays are otherwise than unmusical. And yet as a matter of fact those sounds are very musical. It may be remarked here that there is another language spoken in Europe which suffers from the same misfortune in regard to phonetics – the Magyar language. I have elsewhere in a novel, whose scene is partly laid in Hungary, made a character speak of the disappointment expressed by the traveller in Central Europe, when crossing the Austrian frontier into Hungary by rail, at the sight of the Hungarian names with which the stations become suddenly placarded. German is an ugly-looking language enough, but in this respect it is nothing to the Hungarian. And yet it would be hard to find in the whole of Europe a more musical tongue than that which is represented by the uncouth consonantal syllables. It is not a little striking too that between the Cymric race and the Magyar race there are many points of likeness; one of these is the intense love of music displayed by the two, another is the blending of poetic imagination with practical sagacity. The Magyars have been called a race of lawyers, but their love of law-points and litigation is not greater than that of the Welsh, and yet how poetical is each race to the core!
With regard to languages – to survive will in the present century mean to spread. Languages that do not spread will be crushed out. People who talk glibly about the vast expansion of the English language all over the world do not seem to realize that it is not the excellence of a tongue which makes it survive and causes it to spread over the earth, but the energy, military or commercial, of the people who speak it. It is not the excellence of the tongue of Shakespeare and Milton that has carried it all round the globe, but the busy energy of the commonplace people who migrated for the most commonplace ends imaginable, and took the language with them, and then increased and multiplied, building up new English-speaking communities. It is for this reason that the English language seems destined to become, if not the “universal language,” at least the lingua franca of the world. And nothing is more pathetic than to observe the dread among Continental nations that this will be the case in the future; and nothing is more humorous than the passionate attempts to invent artificial languages, Volapük, Esperanto and what not, to do the work that the English language is already doing all over the sea, and will, apparently, soon be doing all over the land.
I dwell here upon this interesting subject in order to say that if Welsh does not survive it will not be because it is not a fine language, but simply because Destiny has decreed that it shall share the fate of many another language spoken at present much more widely than Welsh.
IS NOT “WILD WALES” WRITTEN BY A CELT AND NOT BY AN ANGLO-SAXON?
In speaking of any one of Borrow’s books it is always necessary to say a good deal about Borrow as a man. Besides being the very child of Nature’s fantasy, he was the prince of literary egotists. Everything in human life and everything in nature upon which he looked was enveloped in a coloured atmosphere shed by the eccentric ego. That his love of Wales was genuine there can be no doubt whatever. For this there was perhaps a very special reason – a reason quite unrecognized by himself. I have somewhere – but I forget where – remarked upon a curious and common mistake in regard to Borrow – I mean the mistake of speaking of him as an East Anglian. Very gratifying was this mistake to Borrow himself. When walking with me in Richmond Park, or elsewhere, he would frequently stop, look round and murmur, “Beautiful England!” and then begin to declare eloquently that there was not in the world a country to be compared with it, and that the race which lived in this beloved land was equally incomparable in most things, especially in what he valued so much – athleticism in all its forms. This was merely because England was his place of birth. Born in East Anglia he was, to be sure; but Dr. Johnson long ago held to the opinion that a man born in a stable need not necessarily be described as a horse. When a man’s father is pure Cornish (Celtic) and when his mother is mainly French, the fact of his having been born in Norfolk is not enough to make him an East Anglian. By an accident the regiment to which his father belonged was located in Norfolk at the time of his birth, just as by an accident it might have been located in Ireland or Scotland. In either of these cases he would have been George Borrow the Celt, or rather, George Borrow the Unique, but not a Scotsman – not an Irishman. It is the blood in a man’s veins, it is not the spot in which he is born, that decides the question of his race. Does one call the daughters of the Irishman, Patrick Bronte, who were Celtic to the marrow, Yorkshire girls because they were born at Thornton? Does one call Mr. Swinburne a Londoner because he, a Northumbrian by a long line of ancestors, chanced to be born within a stone’s-throw of Belgrave Square? Does one call the Rossettis Londoners, because it was in London, and not in Italy, that they were born? To imagine any man more Celtic than Borrow is impossible. Not a single East Anglian characteristic exhibited by him do I remember – except perhaps his Norfolk accent, and his very worthy and exemplary passion for “boiled leg of mutton with turnips and caper sauce,” which he pronounced to be “food for the gods.” It was his own way of writing and talking about himself, however, that fostered if it did not originate the conception that Borrow was an East Anglian. There is no more unreasonable, as there is no more winsome, trait in human nature than the form of egotism which I will call provincial patriotism – a quality of which Borrow was so full. No matter what unlovely spot in any country had given Borrow birth, it would have become in his eyes sanctified because of the all-important fact that it gave birth to George Borrow, the “word-master.” Rest assured that had he been a fenman he would have been as proud of his treeless, black-earthed fen as he would have been proud of the Swiss mountains had his birthplace chanced to be Switzerland. Rest assured that had he been born upon the barren soil of Damaraland he would have been proud of his desert, as proud as he would have been of any hilly district that had chanced to have the honour of giving him birth. But being born in East Anglia, to feel that he was the typical Anglo-Saxon of all Anglo-Saxons around him, gave him a mighty joy. At “The Bald-faced Stag” his eloquent addresses, to me and the little band of friends who loved him, about Norfolk ale were inspired by the same cause. Compared to that East Anglian nectar all other nectars were “swipes.” I know East Anglia well; few men know it better – few men love it better. I say emphatically that a man more out of sympathy with the East Anglian temperament never lived than he who wished to be taken, and was taken, as the representative East Anglian. Moreover, one very potent reason why he was such a failure in Norfolk – one very potent reason why he was such a failure in his contact with the Anglo-Saxon race generally – was this: he was a Celtic duckling hatched at Dereham, who took himself for a veritable Norfolk chicken. It is no wonder, therefore, that, without knowing it, his sympathy with the Celt, especially the Cymric Celt, which he himself fully believed to be philological, was racial.
The scenery of Wales had a very especial appeal for him, and no wonder; for there is nothing like it in the world. Although I am familiar with the Alps and the other mountain ranges of Europe in their wildest and most beautiful recesses, it is with me as it was with Borrow: no hill scenery has the peculiar witchery of that around Eryri. It is unique in the scenery of Europe. Grander scenery there is on the Continent, no doubt – much grander – and scenery more soft and lovely; but none in which grandeur and loveliness meet and mingle in so fascinating a way as in Wales. Moreover, to Borrow, as to all lovers of Wild Wales, beautiful as its scenery is, it is the romantic associations of that scenery which form so large a portion of its charm. For what race in Europe has a story so poetic, so romantic, so pathetic as the Welsh? Over every inch of the Principality hovers that great Spirit who walks the earth hand in hand with his brother, the Spirit of Poetry, and throws a rainbow radiance over it – the Spirit of Antiquity. Upon this Borrow and the writer of these lines have often talked. No man ever felt more deeply than he that part and parcel of the very life of man is the atmosphere in which the Spirit of Antiquity lives. Irrational the sentiment about this Spirit may be, if you will, but stifled it will never be. Physical science strengthens rather than weakens the magical glamour of the Spirit of Antiquity. Even the most advanced social science, try to hate him as it may, cannot dim his glory. To the beloved poet of the socialists – William Morris – he was as dear, as great and as strong as to the most conservative poet that has ever lived. Those who express wonderment that in these days there should be the old human playthings as bright and captivating as ever – those who express wonderment at the survival of all the delightful features of the old European raree-show – have not realized the power of this Spirit and the power of the sentiment about him. What is the use of telling us that even in Grecian annals there is no kind of heroism recorded which you cannot match in the histories of modern countries – even of new countries, such as the United States and the Australias and Canada? What is the use of telling us that the travels of Ulysses and of Jason are as nothing in point of real romance compared with Captain Phillip’s voyage to the other side of the world, when he led his little convict-laden fleet to Botany Bay – a bay then as unknown almost as any bay in Laputa – that voyage which resulted in the founding of a cluster of great nations any one of whose mammoth millionaires could now buy up Ilium and the golden fleece combined? The Spirit of Antiquity knows not that captain, and hence the Spirit of Poetry has nothing to say about him. In a thousand years’ time, no doubt, these things may be as ripe for poetic treatment as the voyage of the Argonauts, or the voyage of the Cymric Prince Madoc, who the romantic lover of Wales, in spite of the arguments of Thomas Stephens, will still believe sailed westward with his fleet and discovered America before Columbus, – returned, and then sailed westward again into eternity. Now every peak and cliff of Snowdonia, and every matchless valley and dale of the land of the Druids, is very specially beloved by the Spirit of Antiquity. The land of Druidism – the land of that mysterious poetic religion which more than any other religion expresses the very voice of Nature, is the land painted in this delightful volume – Wild Wales. Compared with Druidism, all other religious systems have a sort of commonplace and modern ring, even those which preceded it by centuries. The scenic witchery of Wild Wales is great, no doubt, but it is enormously intensified by the memory of the heroic struggle of the unconquerable remnant of the ancient Britons with the brutal, physical power of Roman and Saxon. The history of Wales is an epic not to be surpassed for poetry and for romance. And even these things did not comprise all the points in connection with Wild Wales that delighted Borrow. For when the student of Welsh history and the lover of Welsh scenery is brought into contact with the contemporary Welsh people, the charm of the land does not fade, it is not fingered away by personal contact: it is, indeed, augmented tenfold. I have in “Aylwin” dwelt upon the poetry of Welsh common life, the passionate love of the Welsh people for a tiny strip of Welsh soil, the religion of hearth and home, the devotion to wife and children. In the Arvon edition of that book, dedicated to a Welsh poet, I have said what I had previously often said to Borrow, that, “although I have seen a good deal of the races of Europe, I put the Cymric race in many ways at the top of them all. They combine, as I think, the poetry, the music, the instinctive love of the fine arts, and the humour of the other Celtic peoples with the practicalness and bright-eyed sagacity of the very different race to which they were so closely linked by circumstance – the race whom it is the fashion to call the Anglo-Saxon. And as to the charm of the Welsh girls, no one who knows them as you and I do, can fail to be struck by it continually. Winifred Wynne I meant to be the typical Welsh girl as I have found her – affectionate, warm-hearted, self-sacrificing and brave.”
BORROW’S METHOD OF AUTOBIOGRAPHIC NARRATIVE COMPARED WITH THE METHODS OF DEFOE, WILKIE COLLINS, DICKENS AND THE ABBÉ PRÉVOST
It seems almost necessary that in this desultory talk upon “Wild Wales” I should, before proceeding any further, say a few words upon the book in its relations to two of Borrow’s other autobiographic narratives, “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye,” and I do not know any literary subject more suggestive of interesting criticism.
Although Borrow always acknowledged Defoe as his master, he had, of course, qualities of his own that were as unlike Defoe’s qualities as they were unlike those of any other writer. And as this speciality of his has, so far as I know, never been discussed, I should have liked, had space permitted, to give interest to my remarks upon “Wild Wales” by a thorough comparison between Borrow’s imaginative works and Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” This is impossible in the space at my command. And yet a few words upon the subject I cannot resist indulging in, for it relates to the very core and central light of Borrow’s genius; and I may now never have another opportunity of touching upon it.
I remember a long talk I once had with him upon the method of Defoe as contrasted and compared with his own method in “Lavengro,” “The Romany Rye,” and “Wild Wales,” and the method of other writers who adopt the autobiographic form of fiction. He agreed with me that the most successful of all stories in the autobiographic form is “Robinson Crusoe,” although “Jane Eyre,” “David Copperfield” and “Great Expectations” among English novels, and “Gil Blas” and “Manon Lescaut” among French novels, are also autobiographic in form. It is of all forms the most difficult. But its advantages, if they can be secured without making too many artistic sacrifices, are enormous. Flexibility is, of course, the one quality it lacks, but, lacking that, it cannot secure the variety of picture and the breadth of movement which is the special strength of the historic form.
The great pupils of Defoe – and by pupils I mean those writers who try to give as much commonplace ἀπάτη as possible to new and striking incidents – Edgar Poe, Wilkie Collins, Gaboriau and others, recognize the immense aid given to illusion by adopting the autobiographic form.
The conversation upon this subject occurred in one of my rambles with Borrow and Dr. Gordon Hake in Richmond Park, when I had been pointing out to the former certain passages in “Robinson Crusoe” where Defoe adds richness and piquancy to the incidents by making the reader believe that these incidents will in the end have some deep influence, spiritual or physical, upon the narrator himself.
Borrow was not a theorizer, and yet he took a quaint interest in other people’s theorizings. He asked me to explain myself more fully. My reply in substance was something like this: Although in “Robinson Crusoe” the autobiographer is really introduced only to act as eye-witness for the purpose of bringing out and authenticating the incidents of the dramatic action, Defoe had the artistic craftiness to make it appear that this was not so – to make it appear that the incidents are selected by Crusoe in such a way as to exhibit and develop the emotions moving within his own breast. Defoe’s apparent object in writing the story was to show the effect of a long solitude upon the human heart and mind; but it was not so – it was simply to bring into fiction a series of incidents and adventures of extraordinary interest and picturesqueness – incidents such as did in part happen to Alexander Selkirk. But Defoe was a much greater artist than he is generally credited with being, and he had sufficient of the artistic instinct to know that, interesting as these external incidents were in themselves, they could be made still more interesting by humanizing them – by making it appear that they worked as a great life-lesson for the man who experienced them, and that this was why the man recorded them. Those moralizings of Crusoe upon the way in which the disasters of his life came upon him as “judgments,” on account of his running away from his parents, seem to humanize the wheels of circumstance. They create in the reader’s mind the interest in the man’s personality which Defoe wished to create.
In reply to my criticism, Borrow said, “May not the same be said of Le Sage’s ‘Gil Blas’?”
And when I pointed out to him that there was a kind of kinship between the two writers in this particular he asked me to indicate in “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye” such incidents in which Defoe’s method had been followed by himself as had struck me. I pointed out several of them. Borrow, as a rule, was not at all given to frank discussion of his own artistic methods, indeed, he had a great deal of the instinct of the literary histrio– more than I have ever seen in any other writer – but he admitted that he had consciously in part and in part unconsciously adopted Defoe’s method. The fact is, as I said to Borrow on that occasion, and as I have since had an opportunity of saying more fully in print, there are two kinds of autobiographic stories, and these two kinds are, if properly examined, really more unlike each other than the autobiographic form is unlike what is generally supposed to be its antithesis – the historic form. In one kind of autobiographic story, of which “Rob Roy” is a typical example, the narrator, though nominally the protagonist, is really not much more than the passive eye-witness of the dramatic action – not much more than the chorus to other characters who govern, or at least influence, the main issue. Inasmuch as he is an eye-witness of the dramatic action, he gives to it the authenticity of direct testimony. Through him the narrative gains a commonplace ἀπάτη such as is beyond the scope of the scattered forces of the historic form, howsoever powerfully handled. By the first-hand testimony of the eye-witness Frank Osbaldistone in Scott’s fascinating novel, the more active characters, those who really control the main issue, Di Vernon, Rashleigh Osbaldistone, Rob, and Bailie Nicol Jarvie, are painted in much more vivid and much more authentic colours than the method of the historic form would allow.
It is in the nature of things that this kind of autobiographic fiction, howsoever strong may be the incidents, is not nearly so absorbing as is the other kind I am going to instance, the psychological, to which “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye” belong; for in literature, as in life, the more interest we feel in the character, the more interest we feel in what befalls the character. Unlike the kind of autobiographic fiction typified by “Rob Roy,” in which, as I have said, the main issue is little influenced and not at all controlled by the narrator but by other characters, or, if not by other characters, by the wheels of circumstance; – in the psychological kind of autobiographic fiction, the personality of the narrator controls, or largely controls, the main issue of the dramatic action. In other words, the incidents in the latter kind of autobiographic fiction are selected and marshalled for the purpose of declaring the character of the narrator. The most superb exemplars of this kind of autobiographic narrative are stories which in all other respects are extremely unlike Borrow’s – “Caleb Williams,” “Manon Lescaut,” “Jane Eyre,” and “Villette.”
A year or two ago I recurred to this subject in some comments I made upon some judgments of a well-known and admirable critic. I will take the liberty of referring here to one or two of the remarks I then made, for they seem to bear very directly upon Borrow’s method as compared with Defoe’s. The same artistic instinct which we see in Defoe and in Borrow’s quasi autobiographic work is exhibited by the Abbé Prévost in “Manon Lescaut.” The real object of the last-mentioned story (which, it will be remembered, is an episode in a much longer story) was to paint vivid pictures of the careless life of Paris at the period of the story, and especially to paint in vivid colours a kind of character which is essentially peculiar to Paris, the light-hearted, good-natured, unheeding grisette. But by making it appear that the incidents in Chevalier des Grieux’s life are selected by him in order to show the effect of the life-lesson upon himself, Prévost gives to every incident the piquancy which properly belongs to this, the psychological form of autobiographic fiction. It must, however, be admitted that at its best the autobiographic form of fiction is rarely, very rarely, broad enough to be a satisfactory form of art, even when, as in “The Woman in White,” the story consists of a series of autobiographic narratives stitched together. It was this difficulty which confronted Dickens when he wrote “Bleak House.” When he was writing “David Copperfield” he had felt the sweetness and fascination of writing in the autobiographic form, and had seen the sweetness and fascination of reading it; but he also felt how constricted the form is in regard to breadth, and it occurred to him that he could combine the two forms – that he could give in the same book the sweetness and the fascination and the authenticity of the autobiographic form and the breadth and variety of the historic form. To bring into an autobiographic narrative the complex and wide-spreading net that forms the story of “Bleak House” was, of course, impossible, and so he mixed up the chapters of Esther Summerson’s autobiographic narrative with chapters of the history of the great Chancery suit and all that flowed from it. In order to minimize as much as possible the confusion of so very confused a scheme as this, he wrote the historic part of the book in the present tense; and the result is the most oppressively-laboured novel that was ever produced by a great novelist.
I have dwelt at length upon this subject because if I were asked to name one of the greatest masters of the autobiographic form, in any language, I should, I think, have to name Borrow. In one variety of that form he gave us “Lavengro” and “The Romany Rye,” in the other, “Wild Wales.”
WHY ARE THE WELSH GYPSIES IGNORED IN “WILD WALES”?
“Wild Wales” seems to have disappointed Borrovians because it ignores the Welsh gypsies, the most superior branch of all the Romany race, except, perhaps, the gypsy musicians of Hungary. And certainly it is curious to speculate as to why he ignores them in that fashion. Readers of “The Romany Rye” wonder why, after his adventure with Mrs. Herne and her granddaughter, and his rescue by the Welshman, Peter Williams, on reaching the Welsh border, Borrow kept his mouth closed. Several reasons have occurred to me, one of which is that his knowledge of Welsh Romany was of the shakiest kind. Another reason might have been that in “The Romany Rye,” as much of his story as could be told in two volumes being told, he abruptly broke off as he had broken off at the end of the third volume of “Lavengro.” Or did the same reason that caused him to write, in “Wild Wales,” an autobiographic narrative without any of the fantasies and romantic ornamentation which did so much to win popularity for his previous books, govern him when he decided to ignore the gypsies – the presence of his wife and stepdaughter? There is a very wide class, including indeed the whole of British Philistia, that cherishes a positive racial aversion to the Romany – an aversion as strong as the Russian aversion to the Jew.
Anyhow, it was very eccentric to write a book upon Wales and to ignore so picturesque a feature of the subject as the Welsh gypsies. For, beyond doubt, the finest specimens of the Romany race are – or were in Borrow’s time – to be found in Wales. And here I cannot help saying parenthetically, that as Borrow gave us no word about the Welsh Romanies and their language, the work of Mr. Sampson, the greatest master of the Welsh Romany that ever lived, is especially precious. So great is the work of that admirable scholar upon the subject that he told me when I last saw him that he was actually translating Omar Khayyam into Welsh Romany! Although the Welsh gypsies have a much greater knowledge of Welsh Romany than English gypsies have of English Romany, and are more intelligent, I am a little sceptical, as I told him, as to the Welsh Romanies taking that deep interest in the immortal quatrains which, it seems, atheists and Christians agree in doing among the gorgios.
CELT v SAXON
Those who have seen much of the writing fraternity of London or Paris, know that the great mass of authors, whether in prose or in verse, have just as much and just as little individuality – have just as much and just as little of any new and true personal accent, as the vast flock of human sheep whose bleatings will soon drown all other voices over land and sea. They have the peculiar instinct for putting their thoughts into written words – that is all. This it is that makes Borrow such a memorable figure. If ever a man had an accent of his own that man was he. What that accent was I have tried to indicate here, in the remarks upon his method of writing autobiographic fiction. Vanity can make all, even the most cunning, simple on one side of their characters, but it made of Borrow a veritable child.
If Tennyson may be accepted as the type of the man without guile, what type does Borrow represent? In him guile and simplicity were blent in what must have been the most whimsical amalgam of opposite qualities ever seen on this planet. Let me give one instance out of a thousand of this.
Great as was his love of Wales and the Welsh, the Anglo-Saxonism – the John Bullism which he fondly cherished in that Celtic bosom of his, was so strong that whenever it came to pitting the prowess and the glories of the Welshman against those of the Englishman, his championship of the Cymric race would straightway vanish, and the claim of the Anglo-Saxon to superiority would be proclaimed against all the opposition of the world. This was especially so in regard to athletics, as was but natural, seeing that he always felt himself to be an athlete first, a writing man afterwards.
A favourite quotation of his was from Byron —
“One hates an author that’s all author– fellows
In foolscap uniforms turned up with ink.”
Frederick Sandys, a Norfolk man who knew him well, rarely spoke of Borrow save as a master in the noble art of self-defence.
It was as a swimmer I first saw him – one of the strongest and hardiest that ever rejoiced to buffet with wintry billows on the Norfolk coast. And to the very last did his interest in swimming, sparring, running, wrestling, jumping remain. If the Welshman would only have admitted that in athletics the Englishman stands first – stands easily first among the competitors of the world, he would have cheerfully admitted that the Welshman made a good second. General Picton used to affirm that the ideal – the topmost soldier in the world is a Welshman of five feet, eight inches in height. Such a man as the six-feet-three giant of Dereham knew well how to scorn such an assertion even though made by the great Picton himself. But suppose Borrow had been told, as we have lately been told, that the so-called “English archers” at Crecy and Agincourt were mainly made up of Welshmen, what a flush would have overspread his hairless cheek, what an indignant fire would have blazed from his eyes! Not even his indignation on being told, as we would sometimes tell him at “The Bald-faced Stag,” that Scottish Highlanders had proved themselves superior to their English brothers-in-arms would have equalled his scorn of such talk about Crecy and Agincourt – scenes of English prowess that he was never tired of extolling.
But you had only to admit that Welshmen were superior to all others save Englishmen in physical prowess, and Borrow’s championship of the Cymric athlete could be as enthusiastic and even as aggressive as the best and most self-assertive Welshman ever born in Arvon. Consequently I can but regret that he did not live to see the great recrudescence of Cymric energy which we are seeing at the present moment in “Cymru, gwlad y gân,” – an energy which is declaring itself more vigorously every day, and not merely in pure intellectual matters, not merely in political matters, but equally in those same athletics which to Borrow were so important. Sparring has gone out of fashion as much in the Principality as in England and Scotland; but that which has succeeded it, football, has taken a place in athleticism such as would have bewildered Borrow, as it would have bewildered most of his contemporaries. What would he have said, I wonder, had he been told that in this favourite twentieth-century game the Welsh would surpass all others in these islands, and save the honour of Great Britain? No one would have enjoyed witnessing the great contest between the Welsh and the New Zealand athletes at the Cardiff Arms Park on the 16th of last December with more gusto than the admirer of English sparring and of the English pugilistic heroes, from Big Ben Bryan to Tom Spring. No one would have been more exhilarated than he by the song with which it opened —