A Welcoming to Welsh Ways (A Dialogue)

For all impractical purposes let us examine the divisions of poetic persona by interrupting a scene from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In our take on the play, Audrey, an American country dame, continually questions Touchstone, a European clown of the court. The two banter back and forth in the forest of Arden.

Touchstone: When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical. (As You Like It III, iii)

Audrey: I do not know what “poetical” is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?

Touchstone: Are you implying, then, that you cannot understand my verses, Audrey? Come on. I know you have more than a mere child’s understanding of the world, even if it doesn’t include comprehending “poetical” things quite as well as I.

Audrey: If you say so.

Touchstone: Come, Audrey, don’t be confused. There’s nothing wrong with a child’s understanding when it comes to things poetical. Some have said that it’s a good thing—and not just Martha Stuart. Take a contemporary of our creator Shakespeare: Sir Philip Sidney, and how he observes in his Apology to Poetry (1595):

If then a man can arrive, at that child’s age, to know that the poet’s persons and doings are but pictures of what should be, and not stories of what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written.[i]

So all I mean, Audrey, is that you must learn to arrive at a child’s age, that is, if you are to someday know the nature of things “poetical” and not give in to the lies of literalists who have no understanding for what is allegorically and figuratively written.

Audrey: You may know what you know, but because you talk so much, I hear everything that you know as well as otherwise. And though I am but a country hick compared to you, tall, terrible Touchstone, understand, my man, that I still hear all things from all beings.

Touchstone: Well, stop with all the hearing and start listening to me, for I will speak of things poetic. I think it best to begin with the pre-origins of the English language poets, those found in the persona of the ancient Welsh bard.

Audrey: But why Welsh?

Touchstone: Because I am specifically interested in how the historical personage of the Welsh bard compares to the English poet—a cultural archetype sometimes called “the good writer.” I am interested in whatever functions, obligations, and responsibilities are required of the modern “good writer” and how they compare to those of the ancient bard. And if that is not enough to inspire indulgence in the subject of bardism, then for no other reason, Audrey, let us be led in the same scholastic spirit as J. R. R. Tolkien:

For myself I would say that more than the interest and uses of the study of Welsh as an adminicle of English philology, more than the practical linguist’s desire to acquire a knowledge of Welsh for the enlargement of his experience, more even than the interest and worth of the literature, older and newer, that is preserved in it, these two things seem important: Welsh is of the soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; and Welsh is beautiful.[ii]

Touchstone: Welsh as an adminicle of English philology contains some compression of thought, Audrey: “adminicle” is fairly rare according to my searches through both the Oxford English Dictionary and Google. It principally means supportive, so we might take Tolkien to mean that the study of the Welsh language is supportive of the original study of English philology. But adminicle has another meaning—that of the decorative graphics that surround the main figure on a coin.

Audrey: So then, we can interpret Tolkien for our purposes to say that Welsh is a kind of decorative graphic, an ornamental interlacing that surrounds the main (and more important) figure of English? And yet both are embossed on the coin of philology (or what today we call linguistics)?

Touchstone: In so many words, Audrey, yes. And from this same essay, “Welsh and English” (1955), Tolkien adds:

If I may once more refer to my work, The Lord of the Rings [1954], in evidence: the names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modeled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical) [particularly “Arthurian romance”]. This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.[iii]

Audrey: So Tolkien is a modern bard, The Lord of the Rings is his song, a song supported by the decorative graphics found in Welsh tales of Arthur, the most notable I suppose, being found in the Mabinogion. Therefore: the Mabinogion functions as an adminicle to Lord of the Rings, or so Bard Tolkien tells us, and this adminicle is what gives readers the most pleasure.


[i] Sidney, Philip. An Apologie for Poetrie. (1595). Ed. John Churton Collins. (1907). Clarendon, Oxford. p. 39. GB. The original Elizabethan spelling reads:

If then a man can ariue, at that childs age, to know that the Poets persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what haue beene, they will neuer giue the lye to things not affirmatiuely but allegorically and figuratiuelie written.”

[ii] Tolkien, J. R. R. English and Welsh. (1955). O’Donnell Lecture Series. October 21, 1955. In The Monsters and the Critics – the Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. (1983) (2006) Harper Collins. p. 189.

 [iii] Ibid. p. 197, n. 33.


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