Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 1/The plague of Elliant

2687135Once a Week, Series 1, Volume I — The plague of Elliant
1859Tom Taylor



[A large proportion of the ballads still sung in the gatherings of the Breton peasantry — at the “pardon” of the patron saint, the festivities of the wedding, or the consecration of the new threshing-floor—relate to historical events of remote antiquity. One of these time-worn, but deeply-stamped pieces of old bardic coinage, now come down to exclusive circulation among hard peasant-hands, but still precious for the quality of its true poetic metal, and venerable for its ancient mint-mark, is the ballad of “The Plague of Elliant,” of which the following is as literal a version, I think, as can be made from the Breton into the English. I have preserved the metre of the original, so that my version may be sung to the Breton air of the “ Bosen Elliant.” The plague which the ballad commemorates ravaged Brittany in the sixth century. The Book of Llandaff (in Jesus College, Oxford) contains an account of this lague in an abridgment of the life of Saint Gwenolé, made in the ninth century by Gurdestin, abbot of the convent. In this account special mention is made of the ravages of the plague in the parish of Elliant, though the country immediately round about it is said to have been preserved from the scourge by the prayers of a saintly hermit named Rasian. He is mentioned in the ballad, which, like all other ballads in M. de Villemarqué’s “Barsaz Breiz” (from which my translation was made), was taken down from oral recitation of the Breton peasantry.]

’Twixt Faoüet and Llangolan
There lives a hard, a holy man –
His name is Father Rasian.

On Faoüet his best he laid :
“Let every month a mass be said,
And bells be rung, and prayers be read.”

In Elliant the plague is o’er,
But not till it had raged full sore :
It slew seven thousand and five score.

Death unto Elliant hath gone down,
No living soul is in the town –
No living soul but two alone.

A crone of sixty years is one,
The other is her only son.

“The Plague,” quoth she, “is on our door-sill ;
’Twill enter if it be God’s will ;
But till it enter bide we still.”

Through Elliant’s streets who wills to go,
Everywhere will find grass to mow —

Everywhere, save in two wheel-ruts bare,
Where the wheels of the dead-cart wont to fare.

His heart were flint that had not wept,
Through Elliant’s grass-grown streets who stept,

To see eighteen carts, each with its load —
Eighteen at the graveyard, eighteen on the road.

Nine children of one house there were
Whom one dead-cart to the grave did bear :
Their mother ’twixt the shafts did fare.

The father, whistling, walk’d behind,
With a careless step and a mazy mind.

The mother shriek’d and call’d on God,
Crush’d, soul and body, beneath her load.

“God, help me bury my children nine,
And I vow thee a cord of the wax so fine :

A cord of the wax so long and fine,
To go thrice round the church and thrice round the shrine.

Nine sons I had ; I bare them all ;
Now Death has ta’en them, great and small.

Hath ta’en them all from my own door-stone :
None left, e’en to give me to drink—not one !”

The churchyard to the walls brims o’er,
The church is full to the steps of the door :
They must bless fields, if they ’d bury more.

There grows an oak by the chmchynrd wall,
From the top-bough hangs a white grave pall
The Plague hath taken one and all !

Tom Taylor