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The Bard and Poetry

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

BARD, a word of Celtic derivation (Gaelic baird, Cymric bardh, Irish bard) applied to the ancient Celtic poets, though the name is sometimes loosely used as synonymous with poet in general. So far as can be ascertained, the title bards, and some of the privileges peculiar to that class of poets, are to be found only among Celtic peoples. The name itself is not used by Caesar in his account of the manners and customs of Gaul and Britain, but he appears to ascribe the functions of the bards to a section of the Druids, with which class they seem to have been closely connected. Later Latin authors, such as Lucan (Phar. p. 447), Festus (De Verb. Sign. s.v.), and Ammianus Marcellinus (bk. xv.), used the term Bardi as the recognized title of the national poets or minstrels among the peoples of Gaul and Britain. In Gaul, however, the institution soon disappeared; the purely Celtic peoples were swept back by the waves of Latin and Teutonic conquest, and finally settled in Wales, Ireland, Brittany and the north of Scotland. There is clear evidence of the existence of bards in all these places, though the known relics belong almost entirely to Wales and Ireland, where the institution was more distinctively national. In Wales they formed an organized society, with hereditary rights and privileges. They were treated with the utmost respect and were exempt from taxes or military service. Their special duties were to celebrate the victories of their people and to sing hymns of praise to God. They thus gave poetic expression to the religious and national sentiments of the people, and therefore exercised a very powerful influence. The whole society of bards was regulated by laws, said to have been first distinctly formulated by Hywell Dha, and to have been afterwards revised by Gruffydd ap Conan. At stated intervals great festivals were held, at which the most famous bards from the various districts met and contended in song, the umpires being generally the princes and nobles. Even after the conquest of Wales, these congresses, or Eisteddfodau, as they were called (from the Welsh eistedd, to sit), continued to be summoned by royal commission, but from the reign of Elizabeth the custom has been allowed to fall into abeyance. They have not been since summoned by royal authority, but were revived about 1822, and are held regularly at the present time. In modern Welsh, a bard is a poet whose vocation has been recognized at an Eisteddfod. In Ireland also the bards were a distinct class with peculiar and hereditary privileges. They appear to have been divided into three great sections: the first celebrated victories and sang hymns of praise; the second chanted the laws of the nation; the third gave poetic genealogies and family histories. The Irish bards were held in high repute, and frequently were brought over to Wales to give instruction to the singers of that country.

In consequence, perhaps, of Lucan's having spoken of carmina bardi, the word bard began to be used, early in the 17th century, to designate any kind of a serious poet, whether lyric or epic, and is so employed by Shakespeare, Milton and Pope. On the other hand, in Lowland Scots it grew to be a term of contempt and reproach, as describing a class of frenzied vagabonds.

See Ed. Jones, Relics of the Welsh Bards (1784); Walker, Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786); Owen Jones, Myvyrian Archaeology of Wales (3 vols., 1801-1807); W. F. Skene, Four Ancient Books of Wales (2 vols., 1868).