Notes on William Sharp, Pharais, and Celticism.

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1. Arnold, Sharp, and the Celtic
2. "Fiona MacLeod" (William Sharp) Pharais (1894)
W. B. Yeats, Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland (1894)
Further Reading

Other useful links:

1. Arnold, Sharp, and the Celtic.

Invention of "the Celtic" as a racialcategory in the late nineteenth century a consequence, at least in part, of the discovery of a common Indo-European basis for nearly all European as well as sub-continental languages, including the celtic languages, accompanied by increasing theorisation of racial characteristics and differences as a determining feature in cultures as a means of explaining and justifying European Imperialism. Arnold’s lectures on the Celtic element in English poetry an example of how this racial ideology cashes out within the colonising country itself, Great Britain.

Compare this essay to Scottish Enlightenment attitudes to the Highlands in eg. Waverley. There, Gaelic-language culture understood as representing a past stage of society, the historical past of our own modernity, indeed. As such, it is the source of various virtues, aesthetic (Ossian) and military (The Black Watch, and then the Highland regiments raised by Pitt for the wars with revolutionary France), which can be appropriated by the modern world; but the social order in which they originate is itself doomed, and indeed these virtues are only available for appropriation in the aftermath of the military and political defeat (conceived by Enlightenment stadial history as inevitable) of Highland society as an autonomous political entity in 1746 and its aftermath.

Late 19th century "Celtic Revivalism" (or the "Celtic Twilight" movement) follows a similar path. Celtic culture is seen as historically doomed (clearances in the Highlands, and the even more catastrophic failure of the potato crop in Ireland in the 1840s, worked as both consequences and justification of this claim); but as representing certain values that needed to be recovered/maintained within the modernity that was destroying them. The nineteenth century is the age of the great decline in religious faith among educated elites, as a consequence of, among other things, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the discovery by Geologists of the great age of the earth, both of which undermined the biblical version of history; and by scholarship in comparative religion in Germany). So this time round, rather than representing a stage in history, "the Celtic" comes to name a set of values or truths, spiritual truths, lost by and at odds with the modern world; values, that is, outside historical experience altogether. Race itself now understood as a trans-historical essence, and ideal entity outside of space and time, but which acts within space and time to make history happen as it does. "The essential abides" (Dedicatory Letter to Pharais).

Matthew Arnold’s lectures a good example of this: takes the historical, political defeat of the Celtic races as (a) inevitable, an outcome of the same unstoppable historical processes that also conveniently destine Anglo-Saxons of one type or another to rule the world; and (b) a sign of the racial essence of the Celts themselves, as inhabitants of an ideal, imaginative world in permanent contradiction with the material world of history. However, "the Celtic" will survive precisely in this imaginative form, because the English themselves are not entirely Anglo-Saxon/Germanic, but a cross-breed with the Celts they conquered in the invasions of the sixth century. It is to this racial strain that the English owe their genius for poetry, just as they owe their genius for practical matters to their Germanic blood. "The Celtic" survives, that is, as an element of the English character, even after (or because?) all the actual celtic cultures on England’s margins have been defeated and eradicated. The Celtic constitutes the unconscious, the aesthetic sensibility, of the British Empire.

Much of the prose writings of Sharp that I have extracted here can be read as a re-writing of Arnold’s position in the first-person plural: "we" are the Celts here (though Sharp, Paisley-born, is not consistent in this). In the essay "Celtic" from 1900, Sharp is if anything more explicit about Celticism’s imperial destination, the role it has in a pooled Britishness, "a common fatherland" as the emotional or spiritual or aesthetic element in a composite British personality. This is, admittedly, a British personality where Arnold’s swallowed up the Celtic within Englishness itself: Sharp does imply that English identity will itself have to be "pooled" with the others, and thus deploys a more equitable conception of how Empire accommodates its constituent nationalities (the statement that the English should be more proud to be British than to be English would have had Arnold scratching his whiskers in incomprehension, since surely "Britain" is just "England" at export-strength?). Nevertheless, the difference of the Celtic continues to align it with the ideal and the immaterial, turning political assertions of national difference into a sort of category-mistake (and Sharp has his eye quite explicitly on continuing political violence in Ireland, but also the Home Rule movement in Scotland that was to stand on the brink of success by 1914). "In that love [of nation] we love vaguely another land, a rainbow-bow land, and . . . our most desired country is not the real Ireland, the real Scotland . . ." Politics is deflected into the ideal: national culture is spiritualized into "genius" which can then be swallowed up in "English Literature". In this, repeating Arnold: but note that the latter insistence inevitability of the cultural hegemony of the English language is still basically Edwin Muir’s position in 1936 in Scott and Scotland. In addition, this comment:

"What is a Celtic writer? If the word is to have any exact acceptance, it must denote an Irish or a Scottish Gael, a Cymric or Breton Celt, who writes in the language of his race. It is obvious that if one would write English literature, one must write in English and in the English tradition."

leaves it very unclear how Sharp can claim to be a Celtic writer at all, and by extension, just how "the Celtic" is available for appropriation by the English tradition in the first place. This is an interesting point in Sharp’s essay where he (almost inadvertently) acknowledges the actual continuing existence of Gaelic-language culture or Irish-language culture, not something already almost dead; and by contrast reveals his own use of the word "celtic" as naming a set of values and interests that were always already within his own, metropolitan, anglophone perspective in the first place: nothing to do with the actual Celtic cultures (far from being dead, Scottish Gaelic culture went on to produce, in Sorley Maclean, a great Modernist poet – writing in Gaelic. The awkward persistence of Gaelic produces a similar blind-spot in Muir’s argument).

And yet, in distinction to Arnold, for whom art must always serve a public function, Sharp is unwilling to claim a public, political role for a recovered and recycled Celtic art. In the Dedicatory Letter to Pharais (1894) he describes it as a "story of alien life – of that unfamiliar island life so alien in all way from the life of cities, to which, in the communal sense, we both belong." But this Celtic life provides a space in which these friends can meet as friends, rather than as members of a wider community; that is, outside the troublesome realities of that urban (that is, modern), communal life. Note the comparison with Keats’s use of Greek myth: this is basically the same comparison as that made in the eighteenth century between Homer and Ossian: the classical remains the standard against which peripheral cultures are judged by those inhabiting the new imperial centres. The difference is that the Celtic here is "obscure" as the classical is not: the classical world provides the myths, the framework of consciousness, for a public culture; the Celtic is here characterised as a private obsession, uniting people not in political communities, but in an aesthetic project that is in essence antithetical to political and communal life; as esoteric.

In this, Sharp is participating in a rejection of a public role for the arts by the Aesthetic movement: the "art-for-art’s-sake" doctrine, beauty as an end in itself and itself providing a sort of quasi-religious experience, associated with the name of Oscar Wilde; but compare also Yeats’s interest in the Occult: art, including literature, as the private, even secret, code of a restricted coterie, an elite who had the superior intelligence to understand it (although see also those perplexing final lines of "Celtic": is this a rejection of elitism?). Also in the essay "Celtic" (1900) an accompanying rejection of a moral role for art, and of mimesis as the fundamental mode of art: "There is no "art" saved by a moral purpose, though all true art is subtly informed of the spirit; I know none, with pen or brush, with chisel or score, which, ignobly depicting the ignoble, survives in excellence"; "There is no law set upon beauty. . . . It is the domain of the spirit. . . ." Aestheticism itself is in part a rejection of the other great shift in late-nineteenth century literature, towards naturalism in the novel: a realism that concentrates on the ugly, the sordid, the degraded. The House with the Green Shutters could almost stand as an example of "the ignoble depiction of the ignoble" in this sense: except that George Douglas Brown’s narrator continually relates the ignoble action narrated to (precisely) classical precedent, classical tragedy, as if to try and distinguish his own art from his sordid material by some gesture at his own ability to transcend the ignoble world that he describes by rooting himself instead in these elite literary codes. Aestheticism, in its insistence that art not merely report reality but transcend it, redeem it in some way, already a precursor of modernism. To the extent that this denies a public, political role for "culture", about as far away from Matthew Arnold as you can imagine: this perhaps the great split that is modernism’s rejection of the Victorians, including Arnold.

In the later essay the links between Celticism and Modernism even easier to spot. Sharp edges towards the idea that what the Celtic can give the modern world is precisely a myth, although he never actually says this: "There were poets and mythmakers in those days; and today we may be sure that a new Mythus is being woven; though we may no longer regard with the old wonder, or in the old wonder imaginatively shape and colour the forces of Nature and her silent and secret processes"; his final line here, "for the mythopoeic faculty is not only a primitive instinct but a spiritual need" sums up the modernist hope that myth, in the form of elite art, could fill the spiritual void left by the decline in religious faith (at least among the metropolitan elites) in Europe in the nineteenth century; a hope nourished by, above all, Frazer, and his postulation of mythic structures common (and by extension necessary) to all societies. Hence also Sharp’s insistence on Celticism as drawing on a tradition: much modernist writing is concerned both with a perceived break with "tradition" (with the entry into "modernity") but also the absolute necessity of recovering or reinventing traditions as a way of asserting, at least at the aesthetic level, the continuities with the past that make art possible but have vanished at the material, social level. "When we look for its source we find it in the usufruct of an ancient and beautiful treasure of national tradition."


2. "Fiona MacLeod" (William Sharp) Pharais (1894)

As a way into this, let me ask the obvious question: why did Sharp write under a woman’s name? Never revealed himself to be, in fact, "Fiona Macleod" in his lifetime. Familiar examples of women writers adopting a male nom de plume (e.g. George Eliot) as a way of gaining the cultural authority that a patriarchal society affords the male. But here it's the other way round: why do that?

One answer: look again at Arnold: "no doubt the sensibility of the Celtic nature, its nervous exaltation, have something feminine in them, and the Celt is thus particularly disposed to feel the spell of the feminine idiosyncrasy; he has an affinity to it; he is not far from its secret." What links the Celtic to the feminine is their common marginality to a public culture understood as predominantly masculine. After all, the qualities Arnold accords the Anglo-Saxon ("steadiness", practicality, rationality) are usually gendered masculine, the qualities of the Celt (sensitivity, emotionality, imagination) are usually gendered feminine. The Celt, one might say, seems designed to be, not so much the partner of the Anglo-Saxon in their joint Imperial project, as his wife. By adopting a female persona Sharp is assimilating himself as author to the celtic world that his fictions portray.

Another answer, from the opposite direction: one of the aspects of modernity that the Celtic revivalists might be uncomfortable with was precisely the new authority that it was, increasingly, granting to women. The late nineteenth century was the age of the "New Woman", a middle-class woman with an unheard of level of independence (tho', still, not much) appearing both at the political level (eg. the suffragette movement) and the economic level (an economy becoming more and more oriented towards consumer goods gives economic power to middle-class women, who, to be blunt, do the shopping). One reaction to this within Celticism might be Yeats's, whose vision of a heroic Irish past restores the male epic hero (Fergus, Cuchulain) to centre-stage. A more subtle approach might be Sharp's, whose fictions put women at their centre, with a fair degree of authority, but as exotic creatures, as inhabitants par excellence of that "alien" celtic world Sharp is setting out to explore. Hence the feminine pseudonym: this exotic world is one to which women might have privileged imaginative access.

I discuss the role of the feminine in Pharais further below, but it is noticeable that the story opens with the movement of a child in Lora's womb, a sign of hope for the future immediately undercut by an anxiety about the future, a future being delivered by the modern world to the island in the shape of the Greenock steamer and a husband returning with a knowledge, a diagnosis, of his own lack of a future. It is primarily through Alastair's illness that this story thematizes the doomed state of Celtic culture: Alastair's mental illness seems to mostly take the form of his retreat into an inner world of the imagination, and is imaged from the start, as celtic culture is, in terms of "mist" and "twilight". Indeed, when Alastair reappears after his long amnesia on another island, it is as "a king among men: and as a king the naked figure was crowned, with moonflowers and yellow sea-poppies woven into his gold-sheen hair" (p.55); or as "some beautiful creature of an antique tale" (p.64). Alastair has already been assimilated into art, into myth, as a risen Christ, or King Lear in his redemptive madness, or a naked Adam, one from before the start of history. But this reappearance as myth is not a cure, but a pause, a delay in his decline, and itself a sort of delusion: modernity's only diagnosis for the Gael is an interlude of rebirth as aesthetic object before inevitable extinction. After this, Lora and Alastair retreat to another island, a space set aside for them separate from community, in something like the way that Sharp sets this celticist art apart from his own communal existence in the dedicatory letter. Similarly, their child is born blind: isolated (I think the implication is) in its own internal world in a similar way to its father.

This gap between the isolation of these characters in their personal crisis, figuring (I suggest) the isolation of Celtic culture in its (ever-extended) historical moment of vanishing, also appears in the deeply problematic language in which this tale is told. There is a destructive tension in the narrative voice here between its self-consciously "poetic" techniques, biblical stylings, its dense use of alliteration and assonance, and its play with syntax to give the impression of non-English linguistic structures underlying the prose, on the one hand; and the need occasionally to explain or translate aspects of the island's culture for the reader on the other. Sharp's prose style thus makes obvious that which it needs to hide: the fact that this is a construction of the Celtic by one who is not in fact writing from within that culture; an exercise in self-conscious poetical-ness by an urban aesthete, not the translation into English of an authentic Gaelic sensibility. Hence also the problematic status of Gaelic here: English is at once categorised as "cold, unfriendly" by Ian on p.10, yet Sharp attempts to infuse his own English with a poetry he can name as "celtic". Sharp's prose itself, that is, acts out the appropriation of the "Celtic" for aesthetic purposes of "English Literature" described by Arnold. Yet the description of death as "going into the silence" points to the historical fate of the Gaelic language itself as it is projected by both Arnold and Sharp: the Gaelic voices of this island will eventually be silenced. "Among the islefolk many words are not used" (p.21); instead, it is the natural world that is repeatedly given a voice, as if the Gael is one to whom nature speaks, but need make no reply: themselves assimilated into the natural world rather than being seen as themselves a human community, a society. In particular, it is not clear when the images the narrator uses represent the content's of Lora's consciousness, at whatever level, and to what extent they are the narrator's aestheticising of those perceptions. Hence at p.15: "Her eyes . . . saw, and yet saw not. Her ears . . . heard, and yet heard not" (15): can be read as a description of Lora's relation with a narrator who insists on doing the seeing and hearing on her behalf.

At times, indeed, this very elevation of "the celtic" away from any historically particular society holds shadows both of MacDiarmid's "cosmic conscisousness" and Gunn's gaelic metaphysics. See the start of chapter II:

Slowly, as though a veil were withdrawn, the cloudy dusk passed from the lift. The moon, lying in violet shadow, grew golden: while the sheen of her pathway, trailed waveringly across the sea and athwart the isle, made Innisron seem as a beautiful body motionlessly adrift on the deep.

One by one the stars came forth -- solemn eyes watching for ever the white procession move onward orderly where there is neither height, not depth, not beginning, nor end.

In the vast stellar space the moon-glow waned until it grew cold, white, ineffably remote. Only upon our little dusky earth, upon our restless span of waters, the light descended in a tender warmth.

-- Innisron, like the Drunk Man's Scotland, isn't really part of the world at all, but a state of consciousness afloat in an otherwise inhuman cosmos. Similarly, the standing stone of the story's closing pages looks forward to the role of these reminders of the primeval in Nan Shepherd or A Scot's Quair: Lora's writing on its indifferent surface a plea to the Christian God recalls the inscription on the stone above Kinraddie the names of the toun's war-dead; the ambiguity of Alastair's end is itself reminiscent of Chris's death, if that's what it is, on the Barmekin at the end of Grey Granite. Embarrassing though it at times undoubtedly is, Pharais contains the seeds of much that will be characteristic of Scottish modernist writing in the '20s and '30s.

Pharais is also a story with a deep and problematic investment in the feminine. One of the first things we see Lora do is gaze at herself in a rock-pool: an image which indeed raises the question of which is the real Lora, the body or the reflection, thematising the Celt's characteristically slender grasp of the distinction between imagination and reality; but it also echoes Adam's first sight of Eve in Milton's Paradise Lost balancing Alastair's later appearance as the naked (ie. pre-Fall) Adam: is the primal simplicity of Lora's life on the island an innocent one, or one inflected with original sin? A noticeable absence of presbyterian ministers on this island, tho' a priest puts in a brief appearance: the prevailing beliefs tend to be a (historically quite accurate) mix of Catholicism and paganism of the type that so horrified the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (the Highlands' main missionary group) but would hardly have surprised Frazer.

If the destiny of Celtic culture in historical oblivion is mainly thematized in Alistair's illness, it is also represented in the prevailing problems with female fertility. Alastair and Lora win a new lease of life for themselves by a symbolic death and rebirth from the womb-like space of the Cavern of the Sea-Woman. The female kelpie that is imagined as lurking here is the monstrous feminine of male nightmare; yet the story pointedly rebukes those male islanders who would assimilate one of their own, the widow Ealasaid, to this role, as a witch. Indeed, it is the women of the island who seem most to perceive their fertility as a threat: see the remarkable prayer against fertility on pp.53-4. All that the symbolic death-by-drowning achieves is a drawn-out postponement of the inevitable. The characters seem to be trapped in patterns of repetition: Alastair, in his lonely sojourn on the seas, repeatedly destroys the dingies that carry him from island to island (for an islander, he's a terrible man for boats); he stays on one island inhabited only by a shepherd couple; reunited with Lora, they end up on . . . an island inhabited only by a shepherd couple. The absence of a future is thus figured once more, this time in the way the future keeps turning out to resemble the past.

A useful comparison could be made between this story and Neil Gunn's novel, The Green Isle of the Great Deep: which is also an exercise in escapism or fantasy, but uses the imaginative space it thus creates to confront the forces of history that have marginalised and impoverished the Highlands and imagines a different sort of history, a different sort of identity for the Gael (tho' still couched in racial/essentialist terms) than that of beautiful victim. If Celticism imagines a parallel universe, an Other world to urban, cosmopolitan modernity, it is still possible to ask whether this triumph is to be enjoyed imaginatively only, or as the foundation for political resistance and revival? Gunn at least leaves this latter option open: Sharp goes out of his way to close it down.

Compare Sharp’s Scottish Celticism to that in Ireland: there, revival of the Irish language becomes a political, nationalist, imperative; and even Yeats, though he does, early in his career, buy into the Arnoldian equation of the Celtic with the ideal, the spritual, and the aesthetic, nevertheless puts this at the service of a public movement for cultural revival (the Abbey Theatre etc). A poem like "Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland", published in the same year as Pharais, is about the internalising of Irish identity as myth, in the face of historical oppression (here imaged in the same wind-blasted landscape that we find in Sharp); and the embodiment of that myth in the feminine; but this internalisation, this turn to myth, itself an act of political resistance, not an acceptance of defeat.


W. B. Yeats, Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland (1894)

The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen Strand,

Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand;

Our courage breaks like an old tree in a black wind and dies,

But we have hidden in our hearts the flame out of the eyes

Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.


The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,

And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.

Angers that are like noisy clouds have set our hearts abeat;

But we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet

Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.


The yellow pool has overflowed high up on Clooth-na-Bare,

For the wet winds are blowing out of the clinging air;

Like heavy flooded waters our bodies and our blood;

But purer than a tall candle before the Holy Rood

Is Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.


Further reading:

Alaya, Flavia. William Sharp: "Fiona Macleod", 1855-1905. Harvard University Press, 1970.