Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain
By Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams.
Published by Penguin Classics, June 2019
The great work of Welsh literature, translated in full for the first time in over 100 years by two of its country's foremost poets.
“There are poems here that offer glimpses into fierce battles and the lavish spoils of war, poems to consolidate the poet’s fame and status at the royal courts he serves; poems in a very distinctive voice that shifts unpredictably through time and space, the voice of a poet who writes as though he literally shared the life of the things he celebrates and had witnessed the distant events he recalls;…… containing compositions ranging in date from the ninth – possibly even the sixth – to the thirteenth century…….the Llyvyr Taliessin…...gathers together the kind of songs that may have been sung in the Northern British courts of the sixth century with the poems of Taliesin’s various anonymous successors in an ongoing bardic tradition, which transformed him into a North Welsh prophet, a kind of Christian shaman….” - Lewis and Williams, p. xiii.
The persona of 'Taliesin' is something of a mystery (Who is Taliesin?); the first mention of a poet of this name (or title) occurs in the 9th century Historia Brittonum and the earliest poems contained within the Book of Taliesin are said to date from the 6th century. Clearly it cannot be the same man who also wrote the later poems contained therein and dated to several hundred years later. Scholars have toyed with the idea that Taliesin was a title for a bard, and could therefore be used by different people over a long period of time, perhaps a poet laureate type position?
In the introduction of this new book by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams the authors discuss the many guises of Taliesin, the 'historical' figure, the Shape-Shifter, the Prophet, and the Taliesin Legend, as recorded in the 16th century Hanes Taliesin - none of which poems appear in the Book of Taliesin. The authors continue with In Reading Taliesin, the Poet's Self Representation, and Obscurity in the Poems. The introduction ends with a consideration of the Manuscript and Translation.
We now get to the Taliesin poems, all sixty-one of them translated into English and gathered together in one volume for the first time in a hundred years. The Poems are divided into sections, starting with the Heroic Poems. These are the twelve works considered by the late Ifor Williams to be by the 'Historical' Taliesin, the 6th century poet wrote in praise of Urien Rheged.
Section two features the so-called Legendary Poems, such as the well-known Battle of the Trees, Teyrnon's Prize Song, Ceridwen's Prize Song, The Spoils of Annwfn and the Elegy for Uther Pendragon.
The third section deals with the Prophetic Poems attributed to Taliesin, including the Great Prophecy of Britain (Armes Prydein Fawr) composed in the 10th century, and clearly not be the work of the same Taliesin who wrote of Urien in the 6th century.
The fourth part includes the Devotional Poems, works of a religious nature, followed by two ungrouped poems; Disaster for the Island and In Praise of Tenby.
The authors dedicate the book to Marged Haycock, 'in gratitude and admiration', who's earlier works on Taliesin have clearly had much influence on the authors of this volume.
Oddly, Williams and Lewis's includes a Guide to Welsh Pronunciation but there is no Welsh in this book, and it will be perhaps disappointing to some that the Welsh language versions of these poems are not included. However, that said, the majority of readers will be grateful for the complete collection of Taliesin's works with full translation in English, accessible in one volume.
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