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Title: Brendan's Fabulous Voyage - A Lecture delivered on January 19, 1893, before the Scottish Society of Literature and Art
Author: Bute, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, Marquess of, 1847-1900
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Brendan's Fabulous Voyage - A Lecture delivered on January 19, 1893, before the Scottish Society of Literature and Art" ***

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New Edition.



It has been thought desirable to reprint the Essays and other short
Works of the late Marquess of Bute in an inexpensive form likely to be
useful to the general reader, and thereby to make them more widely
known. Should this, the second of the proposed series, prove acceptable,
it will be followed by others at short intervals.


[_A Lecture delivered on January 19, 1893, before the Scottish Society
of Literature and Art_.]

Brendan, the son of Finnlogh O' Alta, was born at Tralee in Kerry, in
the year 481 or 482.[1] He had a pedigree which connected him with the
rulers of Ireland, and thus perhaps secured for him a social prominence
which he would not otherwise have enjoyed. Nature seems to have endowed
him with an highly wrought and sensitive temperament. Putting aside
altogether the idealism which caused him, like so many others of his
time and race, to give himself to the Church, he displayed throughout
life a restlessness which led him to constant journeys, sometimes of the
nature of migrations, and the constant inception of projects to which he
did not continue long to adhere; and in the statements about him there
are elements from which I conjecture that he was probably of the class
of persons who furnish good subjects for hypnotic experiments. When he
was a year old he was handed over to the care of the nun Ita, when she
dwelt at the foot of Mount Luachra. With her he remained until he was
seven years old, when she sent him to Bishop Erc, by whom he had been
baptized, but during the whole of her life, which lasted nearly as long
as his own, he never ceased to regard and to treat her with all the
affectionate reverence of a son. His education was continued under Erc,
until he grew towards manhood, when he visited other parts of Ireland
for the sake of study, but it was to Erc that he returned to be
ordained to the Presbyterate. At that period there was a sort of passion
among the Celtic clergy for retiring into deserts after the manner of
the monks and hermits of Egypt, and the islands of the Western and
Northern ocean, if they could show nothing like the burning sands of
Africa, supplied deserts enough of a different sort. It was only in
accordance then with a common custom of his day, that Brendan, after his
ordination, set out by sea with a few companions, to find a place where
to found a monastery. It is to be remarked also that this was just about
the time of the migration of the Royal Race of the Dalriads to the
country which has ultimately received from them the name of Scotland,
and the project therefore bears a strong resemblance to that in which
Columba succeeded about 60 years later. If Brendan had not failed,
perhaps Columba would not have come. The wanderings or explorations of
Brendan and his companions appear to have lasted several years, during
which it may be presumed that they were in the habit of laying up
somewhere for the winter. It was doubtless partly owing to the
restlessness which was a part of his nature, that he finally settled
nowhere, and returned to Ireland.

[Footnote 1: Reeve's _Adamnan_, 221.]

In Ireland he did a good deal of work, but Ita urged him to try and do
good elsewhere, and he went over with some of his friends to Britain,
possibly in connection with movements affected by the career of the
historic Arthur, who was killed at Camlan or Camelon in 537. The
Christian Irish at that time certainly made endeavours to assist the
Christian party among the Britons. The nun Edana was making her
attempts, either in person or by her disciples, to found her girls'
schools in the south of Scotland, and it is not impossible that Ita
thought that she might also accomplish some good by sending forth a
male emissary. In connection with Brendan's sojourn in Britain, there is
a most curious mention of the use of a Greek Liturgy somewhere in the
British Church. There is a statement that Brendan was at the head of the
celebrated Welsh monastery of Llancarfan. He also went over to Brittany
to see Gildas the Wise, who was bewailing the woes of his native land on
the shores of the Morbihan. He ultimately returned to the Western
Islands, and there succeeded at last in founding two monastic
settlements, one in Tiree, at a place which the writers call Bledua, and
one in an island called Ailech, which it seems to me may possibly mean
Islay. Then he went back to Ireland, and started another monastery in a
desert island in Loch Oisbsen, which was given to him by Aedh, the son
of Ethdach. Hence, however, he again moved in 559, and founded the great
monastery of Clonfert, an act which is the principal achievement of his

He was friendly with the principal persons of his own race, time, and
class. He seems, as I have said, to have possessed the peculiar
temperament, which some call sensitive and others mediumistic, and which
leads to the phenomenon generally known as second-sight, for, putting
aside all other records about him which point in the same direction, it
is recorded of him, not only by Adamnan, but also by Cuimine the Fair,
that on one occasion when he came over, along with Comgall of Benchor,
Kenneth of Aghaboe, and Cormac o' Leathain of Durrow, to visit Columba,
who was then staying in Himba (Eilean na Naoimh, one of the Garveloch
islands, lying between Scarba and Mull), and Columba at their request
celebrated before them on the Sunday, he afterwards told Comgall and
Kenneth that during part of the ceremony Columba had seemed to him to be
standing at the bottom of a pillar of fire streaming heavenwards.

He lived to an extreme old age, and was in his 96th year when the end
came. When he felt that it was at hand, he went to see his sister Briga,
and I quote the sentences which follow, on account of the quaint
naturalism which inspires them. 'Among other things, he taught her
concerning the place of her resurrection. "Not here," saith he unto her,
"shalt thou rise again, but in thine own land, that is in Tralee.
Therefore, go thou thither, for that people will obtain the mercy of God
by thy means. This is a place of men, not of women. Now is God calling
me unto Himself out of the prison house of this body." When she heard
that, she was grievously afflicted, and said, "Father beloved, we shall
all die at thy death. For which of us could live when thou wast absent
living? Much less, when thou art dead." Brendan said farther, "On the
third day hence, I shall go the way of my fathers." Now that day was the
Lord's Day. Thereon, after the sacraments of the altar had been
offered, he saith to them that stood by, "In your supplications, commend
my going forth." And Briga speaketh and saith, "Father, what fearest
thou?" He saith, "I fear that I shall journey alone, that the way will
be dark--I fear the unknown country, the presence of the King, the
sentence of the Judge." After these things he commanded the brethren to
carry his body to the monastery of Clonfert secretly, lest, if they did
it openly, it should be kept by them among whom they should pass. Then
when he had kissed them all one by one, he saith unto holy Briga,
"Salute my friends on my behalf, and say unto them to beware of evil
speaking, even when it is true, how much the more when it is false."
When he had so spoken and foretold how some things would be in time to
come, he passed into everlasting rest, in the 96th year of his age.' He
died, May 16, 577.

By combining with all the collected and credible statements concerning
him illustrative matter from the history of his times and the
biographies of his contemporaries, it would no doubt be possible to
write a life of Brendan, which would be both of considerable bulk and of
considerable interest. But there would be nothing particularly startling
or striking about it. Apart from the interest of public events
contemporary with his long career, the monotonous variety produced by
his vagabond nature, and such psychical interest as might possibly
attach to stories of his mediumistic temperament, it would be rather
hum-drum. Brendan, however, has had the ill luck to be selected by some
unknown antient Irish novelist as the hero of a romance of the wildest
kind, which has certainly spread his name, if not his fame, in quarters
which in all his travels he could never have anticipated. Even in the
Canary Islands, the natives apply the term 'Isla de San Borondon' to a
peculiar effect like mirage, showing a shadowy presentiment of land,
which is sometimes seen off their coasts. His character as an hero of
romance, somewhat of the type of Sinbad the Sailor, if not of that of
Gulliver, has even injured him as a subject of serious study. There has
been a sort of custom, to which may be applied a celebrated phrase of
Newman, 'aged but not venerable,' of confounding the hero of the romance
with the real man. It would be just as proper to identify the hero of
the _Pickwick Papers_ with a certain Mr. Pickwick, whom it was, oddly
enough, the duty of one of Dickens' sons to call as a witness in an
English law-suit not many years ago. Even Homer sometimes nods--at least
according to the critics, of whose opinion Lucian credits him with so
low an estimation--and the great Bollandists had their historical
equanimity--much as experience must have already taught it to bear--so
upset by the brilliancy of the fable that they have omitted to print
the real life at all, a life which is, at the worst, no more startling
than a good many with which they have enriched their pages--e.g., those
of Patrick, Brigid, and Columba--and after a denunciation of what their
authorities call the _vana, fictaque vel apocrypha deliramenta_, 'the
silly, lying, or apocryphal ravings,' simply proceed to give a
compilation of isolated notices drawn from a variety of different

Prof. O'Curry, in his _Lectures on the MS. Material of Ancient Irish
History_, page 289, mentions four ancient Irish romances in the form of
voyages, of which the voyage of Brendan is one. He gives an epitome of
that of the sons of Ua Corra, which seems at least in parts to be almost
equally wild. But that of Brendan has certainly been the most popular.
M. Achille Jubinal, who edited one Latin and two French translations of
it, says that it also exists in Irish, Welsh, Spanish, English, and
Anglo-Norman. The Spanish, English, and Anglo-Norman I have never read,
and of the Welsh I have never heard. Of the Latin I once made a complete
translation from the Latin text published by Jubinal, but I have lost
it, and have had to do the work again so far as necessary for the
present lecture. I remember, however, that from several features, I came
to the conclusion that the Latin text was a translation from Irish, and
the Irish text must present considerable variants, as Dr. Todd in his
book on _St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland_, page 460, cites from 'An
Irish Life of St. Brendan,' but which must evidently be the fabulous
voyage, four incidents, of which one is about the finding of a dead
mermaid, another about one of the voyagers being devoured alive by
sea-cats, and the third about an huge sea-cat as large as an ox which
swam after them to destroy them, until another sea-monster rose up and
fought with the cat, and both were drowned, none of which incidents
occur in the Latin. However, to the Latin version my defective knowledge
must confine me, and there is enough of it for one lecture, and to
spare. I may, however, say that by the Latin text I do not here mean
only the text published by Jubinal. The present Bollandists were good
enough, some years ago, to edit for me the 'Codex Salmanticensis,' which
contains both the romance and the Life, and I find in the romance
serious divergences from the text given by Jubinal; they are of a kind
which, in my judgment, stamp it beyond all doubt as a later and corrupt
edition, but I have largely compared the texts, although not word for

Well, I am now going to deal with the 'silly, lying, or apocryphal
ravings.' The romance relates that on one occasion when Brendan was in a
place called the Thicket, there came to him a man called Barint O'Neil,
of the race of King Neil of IX. Hostages. This man told him that his
disciple Marnock had left him, and founded an hermitage of his own in an
island called Delight some, whither he himself afterwards went to visit
him. While he was there, they were one day together upon the shore,
where there was a small boat, and then, to translate the precise words,
'he said unto me, "Father, go up into the ship, and let us sail westward
unto the island which is called the Land of Promise of the Saints, which
God will give unto them that come after us in the latter time." We went
up into the ship therefore, and clouds covered us all round about us, so
that hardly could we see the stern or the prow of the ship. After the
space, as it were, of one hour, a great light shone round about us, and
there appeared a land wide and grassy, and very fruitful. And when the
ship was come to land, we went out, and began to go about, and to walk
through that land for fifteen days, and we could not find the end
thereof. We saw there no plant without a flower, and no tree without
fruit, and all the stones thereof are precious stones. And upon the
fifteenth day we found a river running from the west eastward. And when
we considered all these things, we doubted what we should do. We were
fain to pass over the river, but we waited for counsel from God. While
we discussed thus between us, of a sudden there appeared before us a man
in great brightness, who called us by our names and saluted us, saying,
"It is well done, good brethren, for the Lord hath revealed unto you
that land which He will give unto his Saints. For it is an half of the
island up to this river; but unto you it is not given to pass over. Go
back therefore whence ye are come." When he said thus, we asked him
whence he was, and by what name he was called. And he said unto me, "Why
dost thou ask me whence I am? and by what name I am called? Why dost
thou not rather ask as to this island? For even as thou seest it now, so
doth it remain since the beginning of the world. Hast thou any need of
meat or drink? Hast thou been overcome of sleep, or hath night covered
thee? Know therefore of a surety: there is always day here without
blindness or shadow of darkness. For our Lord Jesus Christ is the light
thereof, and if men had not done against the commandment of God, they
would have remained in the loveliness of this land." When we heard it,
we were turned to weeping, and when we were rested, we straightway took
our journey, and the man aforesaid came with us even to the shore where
our ship was. But when we got us up into the ship, the man was taken
away from our eyes, and we came into the darkness aforesaid, and until
the Isle of Delight some.' Barint goes on to relate his conversation
with Marnock's disciples, and how they told him that they often knew by
the fragrance of Marnock's garments, when he had been away from them for
a while and returned, that he had been in that garden of God, where, as
it is expressed, 'night gathereth not, nor day endeth ... for the angels
of God keep it.'

Incited by this narrative, Brendan proposed to some of his disciples to
set out in search of the Land of Promise, and after fasting for forty
days for three days at a time, they finally embarked from the
neighbourhood of Tralee. There is a very curious description of the
_corach_[2] or skin-boat in which they embarked. It was, it is stated,
'very light, with ribs and posts of wicker, as the use is in those
parts, and they covered it with the hides of cattle, dyed reddish in
oak-bark, and they smeared all the seams of the ship without; and they
took provisions for forty days, and butter for dressing hides for the
covering of the ship, and the other things which are useful for the life
of man.' Two of the MSS. add (and are justified by subsequent
passages):--'They set up a mast in the middle of the ship, and a sail,
and the rest of the gear for steering.' The voyagers were fourteen in
number besides Brendan, but at the last moment three other brethren came
and entreated to be taken, saying that if they were left where they
were, they would die of hunger and thirst. Brendan consents, but
predicts that while one of them would come to a good end, two would come
to a bad.

[Footnote 2: After the manner of the antient Celts, but which is not, I
believe, altogether extinct either in the Highlands or in Ireland, and
of which I remember having seen one once in actual use in Wales.]

They set off in the direction of the summer solstice, by which must, I
think, be meant the northerly western point where the sun sets in
summer, and are forty days at sea--it will be noticed that the periods
in this story are nearly always of forty days. At the end of this time
they come to a very high and rocky island, with streams falling down the
cliffs into the sea. They search for a landing-place for three days, and
then find a narrow harbour, between steep walls of rock. On landing,
they are met by a dog, which they follow to a town or fort, but see no
inhabitants. They go into a great hall set with couches and seats, and
find water prepared for washing the feet. The walls are hung with
vessels of divers kinds of metal, and bridles, and horns mounted with
silver. Brendan warns the brethren against theft, especially the three
who had come last. They find a table laid, and spread with very white
bread and fish. They eat and lie down to sleep. In the night Brendan
sees a fiend in the shape of an Ethiopian child tempting one of the
three last comers with a silver bridle. In the morning they find the
table again spread, and so remain for three days and nights. Then they
prepare to leave, and Brendan denounces one of the brethren as a thief.
On this the guilty brother draws the silver bridle out of his breast,
and cries out, 'Father, I have sinned: forgive it, and pray for my soul
that it perish not.' The devil is cast out, but the brother dies and is
buried on the island. As they are on the point of embarking, a lad
brings them a basket of bread and a vessel (_amphora_) of water, which
he gives to them with a blessing.

They start again upon the ocean, and are carried hither and thither,
eating once every two days. At last, on Maundy Thursday, they reach
another island, where are many abundant springs full of fish, and flocks
of white sheep as large as cattle, sometimes so thick as to conceal the
earth. There they remain until the morning of the Eve of Easter, when
they take, and apparently kill and dress, one sheep and one lamb without
blemish. The reference is evidently to an identity of custom with that
which still prevails in all the southern countries of Europe, of
preparing the flesh of a lamb on Holy Saturday, in honour of the Paschal
Lamb, which flesh is blessed on the Saturday, and used to break the fast
of Lent on the next day.[3] When all is ready there comes to them a man
with a basket of bread baken on the coals--evidently meaning Passover
bread. This man now becomes a regular although occasional feature in the
narrative, and is called their provider (_procurator_). He foretells
their journey for some time, and how they will be until a week after
Pentecost in a place which is called the _Eden of Birds_.

[Footnote 3: In Italy at least, in order as far as possible to combine
the strict fast of the Saturday with a fulfilment of the words of Ex.
xii. 8, 'And they shall eat the flesh in that night.' It is usual to
have an image of a lamb in sugar or other confectionary, which is also
blessed during the day, and eaten at supper.]

Thus furnished, they go to an island close by, which he has pointed out
to them as the place where they are to remain until the following noon.
This island is destitute of grass, and with but scanty vegetation, and
there is no sand upon its shores. All goes well until the next day, when
they light a fire to boil the pot, whereupon the island becomes restive,
and finally sinks into the sea, although they all manage to escape into
the ship. '"Brethren," saith Brendan, "ye wonder at that which this
island hath done." "Father," say they, "we wonder sorely, and great
dread hath taken hold upon us." He said unto them, "Little children, be
not afraid, for God hath this night shown unto me the secret of this
thing. Where we have been was not an island but the first fish of all
that swim in the ocean, and he seeketh ever to bring his tail unto his
mouth, but he cannot, because of his length. Jasconius is his name."'

This is the only incident in the whole romance which is actually
grotesque. But from the solemnity with which it is narrated, it is
evident that it did not appear to be grotesque to the author. It seems
to have taken the fancy of the early and mediæval public, and even of
the iconographic public in a special degree. The word _whale_ has
commonly been applied to the beast, and as the same episode occurs in
the story of _Sinbad the Sailor_, Jubinal has set himself to speculate
how that story, or the _Arabian Nights_ in which it is incorporated,
came to be known in Ireland. I confess I do not agree with him. In the
first place, the notion is not particularly recondite, and it has at
least this possible foundation in fact, that, as I have been told by
sailors, the back of a whale of advanced years, when asleep at the
surface, may be and has been mistaken from some distance, greatly owing
to the accretions upon it, for the top of a reef. Again, a somewhat
similar notion occurs in Lucian's _Traveller's Tale_, which was much
more likely to be known to the Irish fabulist. Lastly, I must observe
that all this is gloss. The word _whale_ (cete) is never applied to the
animal but always _fish_ (piscis) or _monster_ (bellua) or _beast_
(bestie), and the whole thing, with the notion of its vast size, and the
attempt to join the tail to the mouth, which brings it into connection
with the emblem of eternity, which is due, I believe, to the
Phoenicians, but which we ourselves so often use upon coffins and
grave-stones, seems to bring it into connection rather with the idea of
the Midgard-Worm, the great under-lying world-serpent which figures so
largely in the mythic cosmogony of the Scandinavians. I suggest that
this is the notion, of which the romancer may have heard from
Scandinavian sources; and there is even a kind of indication that it was
associated in his mind with the idea of paganism, as Brendan is made to
speak elsewhere of God having made the most terrible (_immanissimam_) of
beasts subject unto them.

On leaving the spot where the monster had sunk, they first returned to
the provider's isle, from the top of which they perceived another near
at hand, covered with grass and woods and full of flowers, and thither
they went.

On the south shore of this island they found a river a little broader
than the ship, and up this they towed her for a mile, when they came to
the fountain-head of the stream. It was a wondrous fountain, and above
it there was a tree marvellously beautiful, spreading rather than high,
but all covered with white birds, so covered that they hid its foliage
and branches. (The notion is perhaps taken from a tree loaded with
snow.) 'And when the man of God saw it, he began to think in himself
what or wherefore it should be, that such a multitude of birds should be
gathered together in one place. And the thing distressed him so, that he
wept, and fell down upon his knees, and besought the Lord, saying, "O
God, Who knowest the things which are unknown, and makest manifest the
things which are hidden, Thou knowest how that mine heart is straitened;
therefore I beseech Thee that it may please Thee to make manifest unto
me, Thy sinful servant, this mystery which now I do see with mine eyes.
And this I ask not for an desert of my worthiness, but in respect of Thy
mercy." When he had so spoken, behold, one of the birds flew from the
tree. From the ship, where the man of God was sitting, his wings sounded
as with the sound of little bells. He perched upon the top of the prow,
and began to spread his wings for joy, and looked kindly upon the holy
father Brendan. Then the man of God, when he understood that the Lord
had had regard unto his prayer, saith unto the bird, "If thou be the
messenger of God, tell me whence be these birds, and wherefore they be
gathered here." And it said, "We are of that great ruin of the old
enemy; but we have not fallen by sinning or consenting; but we have been
predestinated by the goodness and mercy of God, for wherein we were
created, hath our ruin come to pass, through his fall and the fall of
his crew. But God the Almighty, Who is righteous and true, hath by His
judgment sent us into this place. Pains we suffer not. The presence of
God in a sense we cannot see, so far has He separated us from the
company of them that stood firm. We wander through the divers parts of
this world, of the sky, and of the firmament, and of the earths, even as
other spirits who are sent forth [to minister]. But upon the holy days
of the Lord, we take bodies such as Thou seest, and by the ordinance of
God we dwell here, and praise our Maker. As for thee, thou and thy
brethren are a year upon the way, and yet there await you six. And where
this day thou hast kept the Passover, there shall ye keep it every year,
and afterwards shall thou find that which thou hast set in thine heart,
even the land promised unto the Saints." And when the bird had so
spoken, it rose from the prow, and returned unto the others. And when
the hour of evening came, they all began to flap their wings, and to
sing as it were with one voice, saying, "Praise waiteth for Thee, O God,
in Zion, and unto Thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem, through
our ministry." And they repeated that verse even for the space of an
hour, and the song and the sound of their wings was like harmony (carmen
cantus) for sweetness. Then holy Brendan saith unto his brethren,
"Refresh your bodies, since this day the Lord hath satisfied your souls
by His Divine rising again." And when supper was ended, and the work of
God done, the man of God and they that were with him gave their bodies
unto rest until the third watch of the night. And the man of God woke
and roused the brethren for the watches of the night, and he began
holily to sing that verse, "O Lord, open Thou my lips." And when the
word of the man of God was finished, all the birds sang out with wings
and voices, saying, "Praise ye the Lord, all His Angels, praise ye Him
all His hosts." Likewise at even for the space of an hour, they sang
ever, and when the dawn glowed they began to sing, "And let the beauty
of the Lord our God be upon us," with the same harmony and length of
singing as in the Morning Praises: likewise, at the third hour that
verse, "Sing praises to our God, sing praises, sing praises unto our
King, sing ye praises with understanding:" at the sixth hour, "May the
Lord cause His face to shine upon us, and be merciful unto us:" and at
the ninth hour they sang, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for
brethren to dwell together in unity." So by day and by night these birds
gave praise to God.'

I have read this passage at length, not only because of its intrinsic
merit, but also because of its evident meaning. It is obvious that it is
meant to propound doctrines similar to those which a distinguished
writer has recently discussed under the title, _Happiness in Hell_. It
is remarkable that the Codex Salmanticensis omits the whole passage in
this sense. Possibly it did not suit the views of the transcriber.

In a week the provider came to them bringing more food and drink, but
warned them not to drink of the fountain, as its waters were stupefying.
He returned again at Pentecost, bringing more, but bade them now
provision the ship with water, and with dried bread. A week later they
started. When they were on the shore, one of the birds came and perched
upon the prow and said, 'Ye have kept the holy day of the Passover with
us this year. Ye shall also keep the same day with us in the year to
come. And where ye have been in the last year at the Supper of the Lord,
there shall ye be upon the said day in the year to come. Likewise shall
ye keep the Lord's night, the Passover Supper, where ye have kept it
before, that is, upon the back of the monster Jasconius. And after eight
months ye shall find the isle which is called Ailbey. There shall ye
keep the birth of Christ.' And so he flew back, and as the boat sailed
away, all the birds sang, 'Answer us, O God of our salvation, Who art
the confidence of all the ends of the earth, and of them that are afar
off upon the sea.'

They were wandering upon the sea for three months, and afterwards came
to the isle Ailbey, where they stayed until the middle of January. There
is here described a monastery with twenty-four monks, who were fed on
miraculously provided bread, and, except the Abbat, never spoke. There
is rather a curious description of the church, which was square, with
stalls round the walls. It had three altars, all of crystal, as were
all the altar vessels, and seven lamps which were lit every evening by a
fiery arrow which came in and went out at a window.

They left Ailbey, and were carried about on the sea until the beginning
of Lent. They then came to an island where there was abundant
vegetation, roots, and streams full of fish, but some of the brethren
became insensible from one, two, or three days, from drinking the water.
I own that this and the remark about the water in the Eden of Birds
seems to me to be very likely plagiarised from the wine-river in
Lucian's _Traveller's Tale_. Hence they went north for three days, were
beating about for about twenty, and then eastward for three more, and
then came back for Maundy Thursday to the isle of the provider, who
again met them. All went on as before, and a week after Pentecost they
started again from the Eden of the Birds.

It will thus be observed that the real times of voyaging in each year
are limited to the months of February and March, and from about the
early part of June to the middle of December.

Forty days after starting in this new year they were much alarmed by a
vast fish which seemed to be coming after them to devour them, but it
was killed by another monster, breathing fire, which appeared against it
from the East, and tore it into three pieces.

The next day they came to a large and grassy island, where they found
the tail portion of the monster fish. On this island they beached the
ship, pitched the tent, and stayed three months, during which the sea
was too stormy for travel. They lived for the three months on part of
the monster, the rest of which was devoured by beasts, but another
portion of a fish was afterwards washed up, and they made a salt
provision of it--though as to Brendan himself, it is remarked that he
was a consistent vegetarian, having never, since his ordination, eaten
anything wherein had been the breath of life. Three days after this, the
sea being stiller, they set out again towards the North.

One day they saw an island in the distance, and Brendan told them that
there were three companies, of children, of young men, and of elders,
and that one of the three brethren last come was there to make his
earthly pilgrimage. They came to shore. The island was so flat that it
seemed level with the sea. It had no trees nor anything that wind can
shake. It was vast, and was covered with something which the Latin text
calls _scaltæ_--a word which I have failed to find in Ducange or in any
other authority which I have been able to consult. It is, however,
evidently, from the context, some kind of ground fruit, and may perhaps
be the strawberry or the Blaeberry--although the Latin for these seems
to be generally _fragum_ and _bacca myrtilii_. This fruit was white or
_purpureus_--wherein another difficulty arises as to the meaning of
_purpureus_. The individual berries were as big as large balls, and
tasted like honey. In this island were the three companies, who seemed
to be moving and standing in a kind of sacred dance, two moving round
while the one which had taken the farthest place stood still and sang,
'The Saints shall go from strength to strength: the God of gods will
appear in Zion.' It is vexatious that here the question of colour again
arises, as something very picturesque is evidently intended to be
described. The company of children were clad in pure and glistering
white, but the Latin, which is verbally followed by the French, gives
the colour of the young men's garments as hyacinthine, and that of the
elders' as purple. I have consulted all the authorities upon the
question that I can. The result is that it is disputed whether
hyacinthine means red or blue or both, and whether the Latin purple was
red or plum-coloured. I hazard the conjecture that there is here an
attempt to symbolize innocence, vigour, and ripeness, and that as the
first colour is certainly white, the others may be red and what we call

The voyagers landed at the fourth hour (10 A.M.) and the dance went on
until noon, when the three companies sang together the lxvii., the lxx.,
and the cxvi. Psalms, adding again, 'the God of gods will appear in
Zion.' At 3 P.M. they sang likewise Psalms cxxx., cxxxiii., and what is
called in the Septuagint the cxlvii., viz., the last nine verses of that
so called in the A.V. At even they sang the lxv., the civ., the cxiii.,
and then the whole 15 songs of degrees, during which they sat. When this
was done, a bright cloud overshadowed the island, a cloud so bright that
it blinded the sight of the voyagers, but they could still hear the
sacred song going on without ceasing until midnight (_vigilie matutinæ_)
when they heard sung Psalms cxlviii., cxlix., and cl., and then what are
called '12 Psalms according to the Psalter, up to "The fool hath said in
his heart,"'--an apparent reference to the present Roman Breviary
arrangement by which the xth is united (as in the Septuagint) with the
ixth, and the vth transferred out of its order. As day broke, the cloud
passed away from over the island and the companies sang Psalms li., xc.,
and lxiii., and at 9 A.M. xlvii., liv., and cxvi. From what this
peculiar arrangement of the Psalms is taken, I do not know. It is not
that of the Monastic Breviary, nor of the Roman, nor of the Greek
Church, nor is it that of the Mozarabic, at least at present, but from
its excessive irregularity, in which it resembles the Mozarabic, I guess
that it may belong to some Ephesine rite, as introduced by Patrick into
Ireland, and that it is here set down at length because it was becoming
obsolete in the days of the writer. Then they went to Communion. After
this, two of the company of young men brought a basket full of the
purple fruit, and put it into the ship, saying, 'Take ye of the fruit of
the strong men's isle, and give us our brother and depart in peace.'
Then Brendan called the brother to him and said, 'Kiss thy brethren, and
go with them that call thee. I tell thee, brother, that in a good hour
did thy mother conceive thee, who hast earned to dwell with such a
congregation.' So they bade him farewell with tears, and when he came to
the companies, they sang, 'Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for
brethren to dwell together in unity,' and then the _Te Deum_, and the
voyagers set out again upon their way.

The voyage now continues with two or three comparatively trivial
adventures. For twelve days they lived upon the juice of the scaltæ,
after which they fasted for three days. Then a bird brought them a
branch of an unknown tree, bearing a bunch of bright red grapes, whereon
they lived for four days, and then fasted for three more. On the last of
these they sighted the island where grew the grapes. It was thickly
wooded, with trees bending under the weight of the fruit, filled with
all manner of good vegetation, and exhaling an odour like that of an
house full of pomegranates (_mala punica_). Here they landed, pitched
the tent, and stayed for forty days.

After they left this island they were much alarmed by the sight of a
griffin flying towards them, but it was killed by another bird which
fought it in the air, and its body fell into the sea. They reached the
isle Ailbey in safety, and there passed the midwinter as usual.

The following years are passed over with merely the general statement
that they went about much in the ocean, and passed the usual seasons in
the usual places. It is mentioned that one midsummer the sea was so
clear for about a week that they could see the marine animals lying at
the bottom; and when Brendan sang, these came up and swam round the

It must be, as far as the chronology of the romance can be said to be
fixed, intended to be represented as in the February of the seventh
year, that the narrative again becomes continuous. They saw one day a
pillar standing in the sea, which appeared to be near them, but which
they did not reach for three days. Its top seemed to pierce the clouds.
At the distance of about a mile it was surrounded on every hand by a
sort of network, of a material like silver, but harder than marble. They
drew in the oars and mast, and passed through one of the interstices.
The sea within was as clear as glass, so that they could see the bottom,
with the lower part of the pillar and the network resting upon it. The
pillar was of absolutely clear crystal, so that the light and heat of
the sun passed through it. It was forty cubits broad on every side. On
the south side they found a chalice of the material of the network and a
paten of the material of the pillar. After passing again out of the
network, they sailed for eight days towards the North, and here begins
what may be called the diabolical portion of the story.

They saw one day a wild and rocky island, without grass or tree, but
full of smiths' forges. The wind bore them past it at about a stone's
throw, and they could hear bellows roaring with a sound like thunder,
and hammers striking upon anvils. Presently they saw one of the
inhabitants come out of a cave. He was shaggy and hideous, burnt and
dark. When he saw the ship, he ran back howling into his workshop.
Brendan immediately bid hoist the sail and have out the oars. While this
was doing the creature appeared again with a glowing mass of fused
metal (_massam igneam de scoria_) in pincers, which he hurled at them.
Where it struck the water about a furlong from them, it made the sea
boil and hiss. They had only escaped about a mile when they saw beings
swarming out upon the shore, throwing about molten masses, some after
them and some at one another, and then all went back into the forges and
set them blazing, until the whole island seemed one mass of fire. The
sea boiled like a boiling cauldron, and all day long the travellers
heard an awful wailing. Even when they were out of sight of the island,
the howls still rang in their ears, and the stench made their nostrils
smart. 'And Brendan said, "O ye soldiers of Christ, make you strong in
faith not feigned, and in the armour of the spirit, for we are upon the
coasts of hell. Watch, therefore, and play the man."'

The next day but one, they found the wind bearing them down upon
another mountain in the sea, black as coal, reaching steep down to the
sea, and whose top they could hardly see, but yet wrapt in soft mists.
When they came near it, the sole remaining of the three last come
brethren jumped out of the ship and waded to shore. Suddenly he showed
signs of terror, and cried out that he was being carried away and could
not return. The brethren in horror pushed the ship away from land, and
started towards the South. When they looked back they saw flames
shooting up from the top of the mountain, and then sinking in again, and
again surging up. It is a phenomenon familiar to any one who has watched
the top of a volcano--often even of iron-works--and which has been
splendidly described in the account of the burning essence of life in
_She_. From this sight they fled and journeyed for seven days toward the

We now reach an incident founded upon that fact from the contemplation
of which the human mind perhaps shrinks more than from any other. But
the literary treatment of it is so curious and striking, and is rendered
all the more so, at least to me, because I am aware of only one other
attempt to grapple with it in the whole cycle of human invention, and
that in the very highest sphere of imaginative literature, that I think
that you will forgive me if I deal with it, and give at any-rate a part
of it in full. 'And after these things,' says the novelist, 'the Father
Brendan saw as it were a very thick mist, and when they drew nigh
thereto, there appeared unto them a little shape as it had been the
shape of a man sitting upon a stone, and before him a veil of the size
of a bag hanging between two forks of iron, and thus the waves beat him
about as it were a boat when it is in peril in a tempest. And when the
brethren saw it, some of them thought that it had been a bird, and
others thought that it had been a ship. Then the man of God answered
them, "Brethren, let be this strife, and turn the ship unto the place."
And when the man of God drew nigh thereto, the waves round about stood
still as though they had been frozen. And they found sitting upon a
stone a man shaggy and mis-shapen, and from every side when the waves
came upon him, they smote him up to the crown of his head; and when
again they fell away from him then was seen the stone whereon the
unhappy one sat. And the wind moved about from time to time the cloth
that was before him, and it smote him upon the eyes and upon the
forehead. And when the blessed one asked him who he was, and for what
fault he was set there, and how he had merited such punishment, he said,
"I am that most unhappy Judas, the worst of bargainers. Neither for any
desert of mine do I have this place, but through the pardon and pity of
the Redeemer of the world, and in honour of His holy resurrection, have
I this rest" (now, it was the Lord's Day), "and when I sit here it
seemeth to me as though I were in the Garden of Eden, by reason of the
torments which I shall have this even, for when I am in torment I am
like a bit of lead molten in a crucible day and night. In the midst of
the mountain which ye have seen, there is Leviathan with his crew, and I
was there when it swallowed up your brother, and therefore hell was
glad, and sent forth great flames, and thus doth it ever when it
devoureth the souls of the wicked. But that ye may know the measureless
goodness of God, I will tell you of my rest. I have here my rest every
Lord's Day from evening to evening--,"' and then follow some words as to
other days which are evidently corrupted both in Jubinal's text and in
that of the Salamanca MS. Then it continues, '"But the other days I am
tormented with Herod and Pilate, with Annas and Caiphas; and therefore
I beseech you for the sake of the Redeemer of the world, that ye be
pleased to plead for me with the Lord Jesus that it be granted me to be
here until to-morrow at the rising of the sun, that at your coming the
devils may not torment me nor carry me away unto that evil heritage
which I have bought unto myself."' This is done. There is some talk,
from which it appears that the cloth is one which Judas once gave to a
leper, the forks some which he had given to Priests whereon to hang
pots, and the stone whereon he sits, one with which he had once filled
up an hole in a public highway. The whole episode closes thus:--'At the
breaking of the day, when the man of God began to take his journey,
behold, an infinite multitude of devils covered the face of the deep,
speaking with dreadful voices and saying, "O man of God, cursed be thy
coming in and thy going out, for our prince hath scourged us this night
with grievous stripes, because we brought him not that accursed
prisoner." And the man of God saith unto them, "Let that curse be not
upon us but upon you, for blessed is he whom ye curse, and cursed is he
whom ye bless." The devils said, "That unhappy Judas shall suffer double
pains these six days, because ye have shielded him this night." The
saint saith unto them, "Ye have no power, neither your princes, for
power is of God." And he said, "In the name of the Lord, I command you
and your prince that ye put him to no greater torments than ye have been
wont." They answered him, "Art thou the Lord of all, that we should obey
thy words?" The man of God saith unto them, "I am the servant of the
Lord of all; and whatsoever I command in His Name, it is done; and I
have no ministry save of them whom he giveth me." And so they followed
him, continually blaspheming, until he was borne away from Judas; and
the devils went back and lifted up that most unhappy soul among them,
with a great rushing and shouting.'

This subject is one that ought not to be treated at all. It ought to be
left veiled in the unknown, as it has been left for us by the Infinite
Mercy from Whose revelation we know all that we know about it. As a
matter of fact, I am only aware, as I have stated, of one other writer
besides this Irish romancer, who has treated it. That writer is Dante.
At the lowest depth of his Inferno sits Satan munching Brutus, Cassius,
and Judas in his threefold mouth. Brutus and Cassius have their heads
and upper parts hanging outside the mouth.

     'Quell' anima lassù, c' ha maggior pena,'
     Disse 'l Maestro, 'è Giuda Scariotto,
     Che 'l capo ha dentro, e fuor le gambe mena.'

The traditional epithet which the world has justly attached to the name
of Dante Alighieri is 'the Sublime'. I am almost afraid to say it, but
we all know how proverbially short is the distance between the sublime
and the ridiculous. And I venture to submit to the private personal
thought of each of you whether it be not merely the horror of the
subject and of the conception, and the almost stupefying grandeur of the
poetry, which separates this idea from the grotesque; and whether, if
the thing be to be touched at all, the old Irish fabulist has not
produced a conception both more tender and more truly tragic.

They then go for three days southward and find a small precipitous rocky
island, quite round, and about one furlong in circumference. Here they
find a narrow landing-place, and dwelling on the summit an hermit aged
one hundred and forty years, of which he had passed ninety in the
island. He had no clothes except his own hair, which was long and white.
He was an Irishman named Paul, and had known Patrick. For thirty years
he had lived on fish brought him by a beast, presumably an otter, in its
fore-paws, along with fuel wherewith to cook it, and which he kindled by
striking a flint, and for sixty years upon the water of a spring. He
gave them of the water of the spring, and bade them go their way,
telling them that in forty days they would keep the Passover as usual,
and so also Pentecost, and thereafter would they find 'the land holier
than all lands.'

They remained therefore on the open sea during all Lent, living only on
the water of the hermit's spring, and passed Easter and Pentecost in the
usual places. But this was the last time. Their provider came to them
and said, 'Get ye up into the ship and fill your bottles with the water
of this fountain. I also now will be the companion and leader of your
journey, for without me ye cannot find the land which ye seek, even the
land which is promised unto the Saints.' As they embarked, all the white
birds sang in chorus, 'The God of our salvation make your way
prosperous' (Ps. lxvii. 20, Vulg.). They went to their provider's island
and there took in provision for other forty days and set forth. And now
comes the discovery of the Land of Promise, which I had better read in

'And when forty days were past, and the evening was drawing on, a great
darkness covered them, so that scarcely could one see another. Then the
provider saith to holy Brendan, "Father, knowest thou what is this
darkness?" The Saint saith, "Brethren, I know not." Then saith the
other, "This darkness is round about that island which ye have sought
for seven years. Behold, ye see it; enter ye into it." And after the
space of an hour, a great light shone round about them, and the ship
stood upon the shore. When they went out of the ship, they saw a land,
broad, and full of fruit-bearing trees, as in the time of autumn. They
went round about that land as long as they were in it. They had no night
there, but the light shone as the sun shineth in his season. And so for
forty days they went about through that land, but they could not find
the end thereof. But upon a certain day they found a great river which
they could not pass, running through the midst of the island. Then saith
the holy man unto the brethren, "We cannot pass over this river, and we
know not how large is this land." While they thought upon these things,
behold, there came to meet them a young man with glorious countenance
and comely to look upon, who kisseth them with great joy, and calleth
them every one by his own name, and saith, "O brethren, peace be unto
you, and unto all who have followed after the peace of Christ," and
after this he said, moreover, "Blessed are they that dwell in Thine
house, O Lord: they will be still praising Thee." After these words, he
saith unto holy Brendan, "Behold the land which ye have sought of a long
time. But for this cause have ye not been able to find it since ye began
to seek it, because the Lord Christ hath willed to show unto thee divers
of His hidden things in this great and wide sea. Return thou therefore
unto the land of thy birth, and take with thee of these fruits, and of
precious stones as much as thy ship may hold. For the days of thy
pilgrimage are drawing near at hand, that thou mayest sleep with thine
holy brethren. But after many times this land shall be made known unto
them that shall come after thee, when it shall be helpful in the
tribulation of the Christians. The river which ye see divideth this
island, and even as now it appeareth unto you ripe in fruits, so is it
at every time without shadow or foulness. For the light shineth in it
without failing." Then holy Brendan saith unto the young man, "Lord
father, tell me if this land shall be ever revealed unto men." And he
saith, "When the Almighty Creator shall have made all nations subject
unto Him, then shall this land be made known unto all His elect." And
after these things, Father Brendan took a blessing from the young man,
and began to return by his way whereby he had come, taking of the fruits
of that land and of sorts of precious stones; and when he had sent away
the man that provided for them, who had prepared meat for him and for
the brethren season by season, he went up into the ship with the
brethren, through the darkness, whence he had begun to sail. And when
they had passed through it, they came unto the Isle Delight some, and
when he had been entertained there for the space of three days, he took
a blessing from the father of the monastery, and then under God's
leading came straight to his own monastery.'

It remains to make some remark upon the character and possible sources
of this curious composition.

In connection with fabulous voyages, it is natural to think not only of
Lucian's _Traveller's True Tale_, but also of _Gulliver's Travels_, but
these are skits, satirizing with wild wit certain features of life which
lay before the authors. The gravity of Brendan's _Voyage_ renders it
impossible to place it in any such category. It can hardly be said to
contain any grotesque adventure except that of the monster's back, and
from the way in which this is told, it is evident that it did not appear
grotesque to the narrator; and the religious tone of the whole thing
forbids any such explanation.

On the other hand, I cannot perceive any hidden meaning in it which
would assign it to the same class of allegorical romance of which
Bunyan's _Pilgrim's Progress_ is the most famous example.

It is impossible that it could ever have been intended to be believed.
Some of the incidents are so obviously fabulous--for instance, that of
Judas,--that such an hypothesis would be simply to condemn the author as
a profane forger, and his tone is much too pious for that; besides
which, there would have been no possible motive; and again, although
this romance stands alone or nearly alone in the popularity which it has
attained outside its own country, as Professor O'Curry remarks, it does
not stand by any means alone within the native literature of that
country, albeit its literary merit may place it above all or nearly all
the old Irish compositions of its class. It is, however, an
extraordinary fact that it has actually been sometimes taken for sober
truth. This has not been, I think, so much the case in Ireland. There
are, it is true, one or two incidents in the Life which may be remotely
identified at bottom with incidents in the Voyage, there is even
mention of the Land of Promise, but I am more inclined to regard these
as, more or less, distorted legendary statements about Brendan's real
career, afterwards seized upon, magnified, and worked in by the
romancer, than as incidents of the romancer appropriated and
nationalized into comparative possibility by the biographer. Thus the
Land of Promise may have been a fond title for the imaginary site of a
monastery for which he was seeking in the Western Isles. But even in
Ireland the son of Finnlogh O' Alta seemingly obtained a character for
certain adventures which must have been taken from the fable, and the
Martyrology of Donegal gravely refers to the Voyage as well as to the
Life as an authority upon the subject, although I confess I can hardly
believe that Cuimin of Condeire was not jesting when he wrote the

     'Brenainn loves constant piety,
     According to the synod and congregation;
     Seven years on a whale's back he spent;
     It was a difficult mode of piety.'

It was, however, outside Ireland, in countries where less was known of
the facts, and the Voyage was isolated from other works of its class,
that this romance was most largely accepted as serious matter of fact.
The possession of St. Brendan's Isle whenever it should be discovered
was, according to M. Jubinal, actually made the subject of State
documents, and he names no less than four maritime expeditions which
were despatched in search of it, the last from Santa Cruz in Tenerife in
1721, at the instance of Don Juan de Mur, Governor of the Canaries, and
under the command of Caspar Dominguez. I must, however, avow that I have
great difficulty in believing that such an expedition as this could have
been motived by any other hypothesis than that the romance was the
legendary record of some really existing island in the Atlantic.

The mention of such a belief brings me to the consideration of another
and very different form of what I may call the naturalistic school of
interpretation. This theory throws overboard the whole of the elements
of the class commonly called supernatural, and even treats the identity
of the voyagers as a matter of comparative indifference, but it sees in
the wild narrative a distorted and legendary account of some actual
voyage and some actual adventures and discoveries in the Atlantic. By
some the Canary Archipelago, with perhaps Madeira, the Cape de Verde
Islands, and some parts of the African coast, if not even the Azores,
have been supposed to be the original scene of the wanderings of some
early navigators, even if not of Brendan, and the Burning Island with
its savage inhabitants, and the infernal volcano would of course be
interpreted of the great volcano of Tenerife. But a more interesting
interpretation is that which sees in the voyage of Brendan a distorted
account of some ancient voyage by the Western Islands, the Orkneys and
Shetlands, the Faroe Isles, Iceland, and finally to the coast of
America. I need not remind you that the earliest voyages to America of
which we have historical accounts are those of the Norsemen, who, as
early as the year 1001, proceeded so far South as to come into a land
where the vine was growing wild, and which they consequently named
Vineland. It matters comparatively little to the naturalistic
interpretation of this romance whether it be based upon mutilated and
gossiping accounts of the voyages of the Norsemen, or upon some still
earlier adventures of which all truly historical record has perished.
The shores of America here become the Land of Promise, the clouds which
veil it are the fogs of the coasts of Newfoundland or Labrador, the
great and impassable river which divides it, perhaps the St. Lawrence:
the crystal column is an iceberg: the rough and rocky island, and the
black, cloud-piercing volcano, which burnt in the midst of the Northern
Ocean, are Iceland and its volcanoes; the Eden of white birds in some
region, perhaps the Faroes, where sea-fowl congregate in vast flocks:
and the minor isles are to be more or less identified with some of those
of the several archipelagos, many of which, in the time of the romancer,
if not in that of Brendan, possessed halls, monasteries, and hermits. It
may be urged as one of the main objections to this theory that it is
almost outside the bounds of possibility that a corach could make such a
voyage, but it is perhaps only fair to remark that in the Life, although
not in the Voyage, it is stated that after the first five years of the
wanderings Brendan returned to Ireland, where, among other things, he
went to see Ita, and the narrative then continues: 'She received him
with joy and honour, and said, "O my beloved, wherefore hast thou tried
without my counsel? Thou wilt not gain the Land of Promise borne in the
hides of dead beasts. Thou wilt find it with a ship made of boards." So
he went into Connaught, and embarked with 60 disciples in a ship
skilfully made of boards, and toiled in voyaging for two years; and at
length came to the island where he would be.' This island, however, is
only one with an old man dressed in feathers, who calls it 'an holy
land, polluted by no blood, open for the burial of no sinner, ... a land
like Eden,' but this seems to be the only Land of Promise which was
known to the biographer.

While, however, I willingly make a present of this passage to the
naturalistic interpreters, I do not accept their interpretation. As I
have said, I look upon Brendan's wanderings in the Western Isles soon
after his ordination, in search of a place wherein to found a monastery,
as the only scrap of historical basis, at any rate as far as he was
concerned, which the romance possesses. The Life says that he reached
many islands, but instances only two, one of these being the so-called
Land of Promise as above, and the incidents are not of a very startling
character. No one on the other hand will deny that the Voyage narrates a
series of incidents of a very startling character indeed, and it seems
to me beyond possibility that some of them, such as the Judas episode,
can have even a legendary basis, or be anything but pure, unmitigated,
intentional, avowed, undisguised fiction, like the incidents of any
novel of the present day. It seems to me that there is in the romance
more resemblance to Lucian's _Traveller's True Tale_ than is likely to
be accidental, and the Land of Promise indeed occupies a position
somewhat similar to that held by the Islands of the Blest in that
remarkable skit. Again I think that the Burning Island with its forges,
and its monstrous inhabitants hurling rocks into the sea after the
voyagers, and the great black volcano piercing the clouds, is very
suggestive of Etna and the Cyclopes as described in the Odyssey. It must
be remembered that Greek scholarship was a good deal cultivated in
antient Ireland. My own impression is that the author, whoever he was,
was a very pious man, who had read Homer and Lucian, and to whom it
occurred that it would be a nice thing to write an imaginary voyage
which might unite similar elements of interest and excitement with the
inculcation of Christian, religious, and moral sentiments. For his own
purposes he plagiarized them a little, and I am very far from wishing to
contend that it is impossible that he may also have worked in some vague
accounts of the wonders of America, which had reached his ears from the
adventurous voyages of the Norsemen, if indeed his date were late
enough, possibly of even earlier navigators, now to us unknown. But as
an whole, I look upon the Fabulous Voyage as a composition which is
really only differentiated by the elements due to the time and place of
birth from religious novels such as those which enrich the pages of the
_Leisure Hour_ or the _Sunday at Home_.


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