British and Irish Literature Literature of the Bardic Revival
by
Mary-Ann Constantine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0003

Introduction

The term “bardic poetry” primarily refers to the work of professional guilds of poets in the medieval period, particularly in the Celtic-speaking countries of the British Isles. The important body of scholarship on this material is not the chief focus of this article, which is concerned with much later literary responses to the figure of the bard as it emerged through antiquarian studies and translations in the mid- to late 18th century and beyond. The bard (also figured as the Anglo-Saxon scop or the Scandinavian skald), conceived both as the memory and the voice of his people, became an extraordinarily potent character for writers throughout Europe in the Romantic period and inspired some of the period’s most influential works. The bardic revival (or “neobardism”) is intimately connected with the phenomenon of Celticism, the primitivist “rediscovery” of the native Celtic languages and cultures of the British Isles and Brittany. This article focuses mainly on works dealing with writing from the British Isles, where English-language poetry such as Thomas Gray’s The Bard (1757) and James Macpherson’s Ossian (1759–1763) produced a host of imitators and even influenced the surviving native bardic traditions in Welsh, Irish, and Scots Gaelic. The revival also contributed to the growth of what has been termed “bardic nationalism,” a resurgence of cultural confidence within the Celtic-speaking countries that fed into later nationalist movements. Fictional representations of the bard in novels or “national tales” can also be read as articulating these concerns. The figure of the bard, then, while offering a window into the past, inevitably became part of a wider political discussion about loyalties and identities in the relatively new polity of “Great Britain.” Bardic revival poetry was also at the heart of several notorious literary controversies—the “Ossian scandal” chief among them—as alternative versions of the past were offered and contested, and the lines between translation and invention became blurred.

General Overviews

For a short introduction to the function of the bard through time, the three entries in Koch 2006 are a good place to begin; the third of these, “Romantic Perceptions,” introduces key concepts for the revival. Leerssen’s discussion of “Celticism” (Leerssen 1996) offers an essential theoretical framework. Snyder 1923, one of the first works to consider the question of literary relations between the Celtic peripheries and the English canon, remains a useful introduction to the material. Frank 2003 is both a helpful way into the subject and highly entertaining: an article of great wit and scholarship that surveys the various bardic models available to writers in the 18th century. Rix 2012, besides introducing some key texts, explores the underemphasized contribution of Norse literature to the 18th-century bardic “mix.” McLane and Slatkin 2011 discusses the developing notion of orality, central to the period’s understanding of both the poetry of Homer and that of his Northern bardic counterparts. Broader Romantic perceptions of the early history of Britain are explored in Smiles 1994, which opens up a whole new area of research into visual depictions of the Ancient British past (an important area beyond the scope of this bibliography). Pittock 1999 and Trumpener 1997 both develop an explicitly postcolonial angle on the Celtic–British relationship, and Trumpener in particular explores the role of the bard in protonationalist thinking.

  • Frank, Roberta. “The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet.” In Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England: Thomas Northcote Toller and the Toller Memorial Lectures. Edited by Donald G. Scragg, 137–160. Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 1. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2003.

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    A lively guided tour through an 18th-century “bardic theme park” in search of the elusive Anglo-Saxon scop, this article is packed with information and insight into the period, taking in Celtic and Gothic models alike.

  • Koch, John T., ed. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia. 5 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2006.

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    The entries in Vol. 1 for “bard” (pp. 169–173) and “bardic order” (pp. 174–183) are very useful for understanding the role of the professional poet in Celtic-speaking societies from the earliest Classical accounts through to the early modern period. The section on “Romantic perception” (pp. 172–173) offers a concise explanation for the importance of the bards as “intermediaries with a heroic past” (p. 173).

  • Leerssen, Joep. “Celticism.” In Celticism. Edited by Terence Brown, 1–20. Studia Imagologica 8. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

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    Authoritative account of the concept usefully derived (but with important differences) from Edward Said’s Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978). Argues that the “construction of the Celt” is not simply a matter of the center’s relation to the peripheries, but “also the story of these regions’ sense of ethnic inter-relatedness as Celts, and of the contacts between these peoples mutually” (p. 18).

  • McLane, Maureen N., and Laura M. Slatkin. “British Romantic Homer: Oral Tradition, ‘Primitive Poetry’ and the Emergence of Comparative Poetics in Britain, 1760–1830.” ELH 78.3 (2011): 687–714.

    DOI: 10.1353/elh.2011.0029E-mail Citation »

    Useful and informative article showing how the notion of orality developed in scholarship and literary practice throughout the 18th century through the impact of key texts such as Macpherson’s Ossian and Robert Wood’s influential essay on Homer. Available online by subscription.

  • Pittock, Murray G. H. Celtic Identity and the British Image. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.

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    Interesting analysis including a discussion of how Primitivism gave rise to an “antiquarian colonization of the British periphery,” which, Pittock argues, rendered the Celtic cultures anodyne and unthreatening to the newly formed British state (p. 36).

  • Rix, Robert R. Norse Romanticism: Themes in British Literature, 1760–1830. Romantic Circles Electronic Edition. 2012.

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    A very useful counterpoint to the largely Celtic bias in discussions of the bardic revival, this is a user-friendly online edition of key texts (by, among others, Gray, Percy, Wordsworth, and Southey) that drew their inspiration from the Scandinavian past. Includes a fine general introduction and individual contexts for each piece.

  • Smiles, Sam. The Image of Antiquity: Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

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    Groundbreaking and lavishly illustrated work looking at depictions of the “Ancient Britons” in art and literature in the romantic period. Chapter 4, “The Bards of Britain,” discusses some of the iconic images of the bard that developed in direct response to the works of Gray and Macpherson, including Thomas Jones’s The Bard (1774) and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s The Bard (1784).

  • Snyder, Edward Douglas. The Celtic Revival in English Literature, 1760–1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923.

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    The first three chapters discuss the work of Lewis Morris, Evan Evans, Thomas Gray, and James Macpherson in reviving texts and concepts from the Celtic-speaking medieval past. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are a very useful annotated bibliography of works in English dealing with bardic themes.

  • Trumpener, Katie. Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire. Literature in History Series. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

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    Highly influential book credited with stimulating much further work on romanticism in the Celtic countries. Argues, from a postcolonial perspective, for the role of antiquarianism (in its broadest sense) in creating a national and historical consciousness among the Celtic-speaking peoples. Not, however, reliable in discussions of Welsh material.

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