1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Shakespeare's Country: Early Union of Celtic and Teutonic Races

William Shakespeare
(Part 6)


Early Union of Celtic and Teutonic Races.

The fact that no record of any early Angle conquest remains seems to indicate that, after at most a brief resistance, there was a gradual coalescence of the invading with the native tribes rather than any fierce or memorable struggle between them. Even the more independent and warlike tribes about the Severn repeated joined the Saxon Hwiccas, whose northern frontier was the forest of Arden, in resisting the advance of Wessex from the south. And for more than a hundred years after the establishment of the central kingdom of the Angles, the neighbouring Welsh princes are found acting in friendly alliance with the Mercian rulers. It was thus the very district where from an early period the two race element; that have gone to the making of the nation were' most nearly balanced and most completely blended. The union of a strong Celtic element with the dominant Angles is still reflected in the local nomenclature, not only in the names of the chief natural features, such as rivers and heights, -- Arden and Avon, Lickey, Alne, and Thame, -- but in the numerous combes and cotes or cots, as in the reduplicative Cotswold, in the duns, dons, and dens, and in such distinctively Celtic elements as man, pol, try, in names of places scattered through the district. The cotes are, in is true, ambiguous, being in a majority of cases perhaps, Saxon rather than Celtic, but in a forest country near the old Welsh marches many must still represent the Celtic coet or coed, and in some cases this is clear from the word itself, as in Ringscot, a variation of Kingswood, and even Charlecote exists in the alternative form of Charlewood. This union of the two races, combined with the stirring conditions of life in a wild and picturesque border country, gave a vigorous impulse and distinctive character to the population, the influence of which may be clearly traced the subsequent literary as well as in the political history of the country. As early as the 9th century, when the ravages of the Danes had desolated the homes and scattered the representatives of learning in Wessex, it was to western Mercia that King Alfred sent for scholars and churchmen to unite with him in helping to restore the fallen fortune1 of religion and letters. And after the long blank in the native literature produced by the Norman Conquest the authentic signs of its indestructible vitality first appeared on the banks of the Severn. Layamon's spirited poem dealing with the legendary history of Britain, and written at Redstone near Arley, within sight of the river's majestic sweep amidst its bordering woods and hills, is by far the most important literary monument of semi-Saxon. And, while the poem as a whole displays a Saxon tenacity of purpose in working out a comprehensive scheme of memorial verse, its more original parts have touches of passion and picturesqueness, as well as of dramatic vivacity, that recall the patriotic fire of the Celtic bards. A hundred and fifty years later the first great period of English literature was inaugurated by another poem of marked originality and power, written under the shadow of the Malvern Hills. The writer of the striking series of allegories known as Piers Plowman's Visions was a Shropshire man, and, notwithstanding his occasional visits to London and official employments there, appears to have spent his best and most productive years on the western border between the Severn and the Malvern Hills. In many points both of substance and form the poem may, it is true, be described as almost typically Saxon. But it has at the same time a power of vivid portraiture, a sense of colour, with an intense and penetrating if not exaggerated feeling for local grievances which are probably due to the strain of Celtic blood in the writer's veins. Two centuries later, from the same district, from a small town on an affluent of the Severn, a few miles to the west of the river, came the national poet, who not only inherited the patriotic fire and keen sensibility of Layamon and Langland, but who combined in the most perfect form and carried to the highest point of development the best qualities of the two great races represented in the blood and history of the English nation. Mr. J. R. Green, in reterring to the moral effects arising from the mixture of races in the Midland district, has noted this fact in one of those. sagacious side-glances that make his history so instructive. "It is not without significance," he says, "that the highest type of the race, the one Englishman who has combined in their largest measure the mobility and fancy of the Celt with the depth and energy of the Teutonic temper, was born on the old Welsh and English borderland, in the forest of Arden." And from the purely critical side Mr. Matthew Arnold has clearly brought out the same point. He traces some of true finest qualities of Shakespeare's poetry to the Celtic spirit which touched his imagination as with an enchanter's wand, and thus helped to brighten and enrich the profounder elements of his creative genius.

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