Picture of Gerald of Wales

Gerald of Wales

places mentioned

Book 1, Ch. 12: Of their quickness and sharpness

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Of their quickness and sharpness of understanding

These people being of a sharp and acute intellect, and gifted with a rich and powerful understanding, excel in whatever studies they pursue, and are more quick and cunning than the other inhabitants of a western clime.

Their musical instruments charm and delight the ear with their sweetness, are borne along by such celerity and delicacy of modulation, producing such a consonance from the rapidity of seemingly discordant touches, that I shall briefly repeat what is set forth in our Irish Topography on the subject of the musical instruments of the three nations. It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers, the musical proportions can be preserved, and that throughout the difficult modulations on their various instruments, the harmony is completed with such a sweet velocity, so unequal an equality, so discordant a concord, as if the chords sounded together fourths or fifths. They always begin from B flat, and return to the same, that the whole may be completed under the sweetness of a pleasing sound. They enter into a movement, and conclude it in so delicate a manner, and play the little notes so sportively under the blunter sounds of the base strings, enlivening with wanton levity, or communicating a deeper internal sensation of pleasure, so that the perfection of their art appears in the concealment of it:

"Si lateat, prosit;
- - ferat ars deprensa pudorem."
"Art profits when concealed,
Disgraces when revealed."

From this cause, those very strains which afford deep and unspeakable mental delight to those who have skilfully penetrated into the mysteries of the art, fatigue rather than gratify the ears of others, who seeing, do not perceive, and hearing, do not understand; and by whom the finest music is esteemed no better than a confused and disorderly noise, and will be heard with unwillingness and disgust.

They make use of three instruments, the harp, the pipe, and the crwth or crowd (CHORUS). (22)

They omit no part of natural rhetoric in the management of civil actions, in quickness of invention, disposition, refutation, and confirmation. In their rhymed songs and set speeches they are so subtle and ingenious, that they produce, in their native tongue, ornaments of wonderful and exquisite invention both in the words and sentences. Hence arise those poets whom they call Bards, of whom you will find many in this nation, endowed with the above faculty, according to the poet's observation:

"Plurima concreti fuderunt carmina Bardi."

But they make use of alliteration (ANOMINATIONE) in preference to all other ornaments of rhetoric, and that particular kind which joins by consonancy the first letters or syllables of words. So much do the English and Welsh nations employ this ornament of words in all exquisite composition, that no sentence is esteemed to be elegantly spoken, no oration to be otherwise than uncouth and unrefined, unless it be fully polished with the file of this figure. Thus in the British tongue:

"Digawn Duw da i unic."
"Wrth bob crybwyll rhaid pwyll parawd." (23)

And in English,

"God is together gammen and wisedom."

The same ornament of speech is also frequent in the Latin language. Virgil says,

"Tales casus Cassandra canebat."

And again, in his address to Augustus,

"Dum dubitet natura marem, faceretve puellam,
Natus es, o pulcher, pene puella, puer."

This ornament occurs not in any language we know so frequently as in the two first; it is, indeed, surprising that the French, in other respects so ornamented, should be entirely ignorant of this verbal elegance so much adopted in other languages. Nor can I believe that the English and Welsh, so different and adverse to each other, could designedly have agreed in the usage of this figure; but I should rather suppose that it had grown habitual to both by long custom, as it pleases the ear by a transition from similar to similar sounds. Cicero, in his book "On Elocution," observes of such who know the practice, not the art, "Other persons when they read good orations or poems, approve of the orators or poets, not understanding the reason why, being affected, they approve; because they cannot know in what place, of what nature, nor how that effect is caused which so highly delights them."

Gerald of Wales, The Description of Wales (Oxford, Mississippi, 1997)

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