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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)



Conversations between Myrddin and Taliesin

A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen
featuring the Conversation between Myrddin and Taliesin

The earliest recorded is in medieval Welsh in The Black Book of Carmarthen and this might, in fact comprise two different conversations. There is another in a medieval Latin poem by Geoffrey of Monmouth called Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin). Then there is Porius, the twentieth century novel by John Cowper Powys set in North Wales in the year 499 in which the two characters do not so much have a conversation as move around each other in relation to the events in the novel. None of these conversations bear much resemblance to the other in terms of content, though the conversation in The Black Book of Carmarthen, or some other source of it, seems to have provided the occasion for later versions.

It is likely that the 38 lines of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen contain two separate frames of reference, and have even been thought to be a mistaken conflation of two separate poems, though this seems unlikely. The first 22 lines (mainly in past or dramatised present tenses) appear to be about a battle resulting from a raid by Maelgwn Gwynedd from North Wales on territory in South Wales. The remaining 16 lines (in present or future tenses) refer to the Battle of Arfderydd after which, according to other sources, Myrddin became mad and retreated to the Caledonian forest, though here it simply says that 'seven score' ran mad from the battle into the forest. In the first of these scenarios Myrddin laments the slain of his side (the territory around Carmarthen) while Taliesin laments those of North Wales. The second scenario seems to be in the form of a prophecy foretelling the events of the Battle of Arfderydd in northern Britain.

This raises questions about relative time frames. Maelgwn Gwynedd (Maglocunus) was criticised by the sixth century monk Gildas who called him 'Dragon of the Island', supposedly a term of praise but used by Gildas dismissively in a denial of such terms as used by the bards about their patrons. Maelgwn ruled Gwynedd in the sixth century. The Battle of Arfderydd also took place in the latter part of that century. So from a chronological perspective it is quite possible to take the dialogue between the two bards as occurring after one battle and that they then prophesied another battle which was to follow. In this view the poem would have been written much later as a memorial of both events. The Black Book of Carmarthen is a thirteenth century manuscript but its contents are copies of older manuscripts. This poem has been dated on the basis of style, versification and other evidence to between 1050 and 1100(*).
 
But there is also the conflation of people and places to account for. The Myrddin who fled the Battle of Arfderydd lived in northern Britain and the battle took place there, near what is now the border between England and Scotland. But by the time the poem was written he had become associated with Carmarthen in Wales. Similarly, Taliesin was the bard of Urien of Rheged in the North, but was also associated with Maelgwn Gwynedd in Wales in the later prose tale about him. As with much of this early lore, place and time slide between northern Britain and Wales, and from the sixth century through succeeding centuries up until the twelfth and thirteenth when much of the manuscript source material that has come down to us was copied.

Geoffrey of Monmouth may have had access to some of this material, including some that has not survived. But it is thought that he had not seen the material about the northern Myrddin Wyllt when he composed his History of the Kings of Britain in 1136, which features a Merlin based on a character called Ambrosius in the earlier ninth century History of the Britons attributed to Nennius. Only later, after he had seen the story of Myrddin Wyllt, did he compose his Vita Merlini in about 1150. This led the slightly later commentator Giraldus Cambrensis to distinguish between 'Merlin Ambrosius' and 'Merlin Sylvestris', but it was the Merlin of Geoffrey's History that developed into the composite Merlin of later Arthurian romance. His Life of Merlin locates him in Carmarthen in spite of being based on the story of the northern Myrddin Wyllt, and so takes him north to join a battle against the Scots.(**)

Geoffey’s dialogue between Taliesin and Myrddin is more like two monologues for much of its length. Myrddin had sent Taliesin “to find out about the wind and the clouds” and much of Taliesin’s speech on his return is simply a summation of medieval natural history. He then discourses on the nature of different places, including The Isle of Apples, or Avalon, where he claims to have accompanied Arthur after the battle of Camlan. This may be parallel to the journey to Annwn in the poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ in The Book of Taliesin where Taliesin accompanies Arthur to the Otherworld on a raid to capture a magical cauldron. Or it may simply be another case of Taliesin boasting of his many journeys to different times and places. Geoffrey seems here either to be using material he was aware of, but had not studied in detail, or using it as a starting point for his own quite different purpose. So Taliesin, like Myrddin before him, is being appropriated by Geoffrey, into the Arthurian narrative of his earlier History of the Kings of Britain. As if to emphasise this, Myrddin’s reply is a monologue largely based on the prophecies of Merlin in Geoffrey’s History. It is only a reply to Taliesin in that it appears to validate his claim to have accompanied Arthur to Avalon. (**)

The exchange of prophecies that ensues is the basis of some sort of dialogue but it is interrupted by messengers bringing the news that a new healing spring has arisen. Myrddin goes to drink from it and is cured of his madness. The conversation continues with Myrddin asking Taliesin what power brought the spring into being which elucidates a reply from Taliesin describing various virtuous springs, rivers and lakes, concluding with a remarkably scientific explanation of how springs arise from aquifers. We then learn that Myrddin’s cure has robbed him of his prophetic powers, which are then transferred to his sister Ganieda (the ‘Gwenddydd’ of the Welsh poems?). Geoffrey’s account, then, seems not only to rely on knowledge of the Welsh Myrddin lore but also some knowledge of the Welsh Taliesin lore. But, especially in the case of the latter, either his knowledge was not detailed or, if it was, he chose to ignore the detail and use it to create something quite different.

In John Cowper Powys’ novel Porius, Myrddin Wyllt is characterised as an incarnation of Chronos who has kept a low profile through the reign of Zeus and now proposes to do the same for another 2000 years while the new Christian god rules, waiting for the time to bring about a return to his Golden Age. Taliesin is a young poet making a name for himself as the chief bard of Ynys Prydain. They meet on a few occasions in the novel and Taliesin, here, is a composite figure, essentially the historical bard of Urien of Rheged but at a time when he was attached to the court of Cynan Garwyn in North Wales, to whom a poem in The Book of Taliesin is addressed. But he is also referred to as the “pot-stirrer” of Ceridwen, a role he continues to adopt in the novel where he is both the chief bard and the head chef in Cynan’s retinue! In a novel that also contains aboriginal giants, pre-Brythonic forest people, Irish, Pictish and remnant Romans alongside the Brythons and Saxon invaders, the interactions of Myrddin and Taliesin are more at the level of psychological rather than actual conversation, as indeed is much of the significant content of this novel.

Each of them, however, comes with a supernatural ‘back-story’ and their similarity in this respect may be related to the penultimate line of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen: “Can ys mi myrtin guydi taliesin”, which has been literally translated as “As I am Myrddin, then Taliesin” taking ‘guydi’ as the modern Welsh ‘wedi’ (then, after). But the medieval Welsh word can also mean ‘in the manner of’ (***) so the line could indicate that Myrddin is here ‘in the guise of Taliesin’. Elis Gruffydd, writing in Welsh in the sixteenth century, was of the opinion that “Merlin was a spirit in human form, who was in that shape from the time of Vortigern until the beginning of King Arthur when he disappeared. After that, this spirit appeared again in the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd at which time he is called Taliesin ….. he appears a third time in the days of Morfryn Frych son of Esyllt, whose son he was said to be, and in this period he was called Merlin the Mad. From that day to this, he is said to be resting in Caer Sidia ….”. (****)

What these accounts all have in common is to ascribe the superior condition to Myrddin whose range of representation from that of the spirit-sired wonder child Ambrosius in the ninth century History of the Britons – and later as Merlin in Geoffrey’s History – all the way through to John Cowper Powys’ portrayal of him as a primal god existing outside of the constraints of space and time. Taliesin, on the other hand, fluctuates between his identity as an historical bard, the idealised figure and persona of the Spirit of Poetry and an other-world traveller and inhabitant of the far reaches of imaginative existence. He is, in these conversations, the alter-ego of Myrddin, a form Myrddin might take, or an apprentice whom Myrddin can send on errands, as in Geoffrey’s Vita, or who takes a subordinate role in a partnership, as in the Black Book of Carmarthen poem where Myrddin claims to encompass the identity of Taliesin and to be the one whose “prophecy is widespread/without end”. Even so, both of them share the characteristics of not being constrained by either space or time and can appear in different guises in different times and places, and in that sense share a mode of being with the gods.

~*~

(*) A. O H. Jarman Ymddidan Myrddin a Thaliesin  (Caerdydd, 1967). The text of the poem and discussion of its stylistic characteristics are taken from this edition.

(**) The sequence of Geoffrey’s compositions and his knowledge of sources given above is based on the interpretation of Jarman. But it might be that Geoffrey knew about the northern Myrddin material earlier but chose to ignore it in his earlier work until he had an occasion to use it that better suited his purposes.

(***)  J Lloyd-Jones Geirfa Barddoniaeth Gynnar Gymraeg (Caerdydd, 1931-63)

(****) Patrick K Ford (ed.) Elis Gruffydd The Death of Merlin (Viator 7, 1976)





SWALLOWS

There are four chicks sitting on the shelf at the back of the garage. They nest on a ledge in a recess most years. Sometimes in the roof above the car. It's not always clear if the same pair have come back in successive years or if the chicks are returning to where they were born. But this year, instead of a pair there were three and they spent a lot of time just flying in and out through the panel which is opened for them every year. So they were probably inexperienced young adults. Then they seemed to have disappeared, until the coming and going with a beak full of flies revealed the presence of chicks in the nest. Did two of the three pair up? If so what of the third? Although we are living so close to them their lives are a mystery.

But watching them fly now over the house to swoop low across the back field for insects is to watch the teeming life of Midsummer grow to fullness as the year matures. Along the edge of that field, behind the back garden, the abundance of insects is clear. The bramble flowers are alive with soldier beetles clambering over them and apparently mating even as they feed on the nectar. In the sunshine after rain butterflies of many hues feed on the flowers too, and on the garden buddleia.

Summer deepens and stretches towards an autumn that yet remains far away when the swallows will gather and sit on the wires before following the last of summer southwards. Those in the garage may have another brood before then, or perhaps they have left it too late. One way or the other, life will go on whatever happens to us or to them.

Poems as Stone Circles


​In the Foreword to The Burning Tree, his collection of early Welsh poems and parallel text translations (*), Gwyn Williams  argues that the structural patterns of cynghanedd and other features of Welsh literature are distinguishable from literature in English in the same way that Celtic art forms, with their interwoven patterns, are different from artistic practices based on a clear linear form and consecutive presentation. Where there is no no single centre of focus, but rather a number of juxtaposed focal points, what happens in a corner is as important as what happens between the corners. So any sense of a ‘centre’ is spatially dispersed. Often, themes or images are linked in ways which might appear to be incongruous, but in fact reflect a different way of seeing things in relation to each other. This, Gwyn Williams maintains, “distinguishes Dafydd ap Gwilym from Chaucer, John Donne from Ben Jonson, Dylan Thomas from W H Auden”. It is a distinction that  arises from “a different view of composition” from that usually found in writing in English based on precepts taken from Greek and Latin. But, he says, the early Welsh poets “were not trying to write poems that would read like Greek temples or Gothic cathedrals but, rather, like stone circles or the contour-following rings of the forts from which they fought, with hidden ways slipping from one to another.” 

For a modern example in English he cites the prologue to Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems which is constructed of 52 lines of verse with a returning rhyme scheme radiating backwards and forwards from a rhyming couplet at its centre. Dylan Thomas wrote this apparently spontaneously under a late deadline pressure after failing to meet the publisher’s request for the expected prose prologue.  Gwyn Williams finds the technique to be most consciously adopted in modern practice in English in the work of David Jones (whose long poem The Anathemata can be seen as structured in just that contoured way with ‘hidden’ links between spatially remote sections - see my post on his work HERE). Gwyn Williams also suggests that such effects can be observed in David Jones’ visual art, in which “a dimension is created which is unachievable in the classical convention”.

Vexilla Regis
David Jones : Vexilla Regis, Pencil & Watercolour

As if to return the compliment of this praise for his work, David Jones is known to have used Gwyn Williams’ book in his own studies of early Welsh poetry. His copy of it, now housed with the rest of his books in an archive in The National Library of Wales (**), contains annotations to aid his own interpretation of the medieval Welsh texts, in particular of the
Marwnad for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd which David Jones used for his painted inscription beginning Cara Wallia Derelicta:


Discussed HERE


Many years after the publication of that book, Gwyn Williams approached me to ask if I would be interested in publishing an article by him in The Anglo-Welsh Review, a journal of which I was then the editor. The article was entitled ‘The Paganism of Welsh Poetry’ (***) and it in he develops further his view of the distinctiveness of poetry in Welsh, this time in its subject matter rather than its formal structure. It may be a surprising assertion to some, given the amount of religious poetry that exists in Welsh, and the prevalence of the chapel in the social life of Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But his contention is that the spirit of Welsh poetry remained essentially pagan through the medieval period and beyond to the present. He cites “the delight in flowers, in birds, in the sea in its many moods, in wine and dancing, in love and sex, in the glory of the world…”. He sees a perceived closeness to Annwn, the Other World, as being more apparent than a perception of Heaven or Hell, and a sense of it being present in the natural world, and of  being able to inhabit it without going to a place of formal worship.  Dafydd ap Gwilym, he reminds us, often uses the language of the Church to celebrate a delight in nature as in his ‘Woodland Mass’. He finds the same emphasis in the urge to transcend time, asserting “what we have been conditioned to think of as past and even future is with us now, in this present redistribution of the human elements and in this marvellous world about us, a world our Welsh poets have spectacularly glorified.”

Like a slip-knot, a diversion in an interlaced design, a hidden corner of a landscape, a diverted path between those contour-following rings, time also slips, stills, falls through a barely-perceived gap, so that past and future are present in Annwn and here with us in the shared insight of the awenydd’s craft of shaping.



§

(*) The Burning Tree : Poems from the First Thousand Years of Welsh Verse, Selected and translated by Gwyn Williams (Faber, 1956)
(**) I spent many days browsing these often annotated books while a post-graduate student working on David Jones.
(***) ‘The Paganism of Welsh Poetry’ by Gwyn Williams The Anglo-Welsh Review No. 75, 1984, pp.70-80.

Iolo Morganwg & The Anti-Slavery Movement

At the Midsummer Solstice in 1792 Iolo Morganwg held the first meeting of his Gorsedd of Bards on Primrose Hill in London. Iolo was in the city to promote himself as ‘The Bard of Liberty’ and to get his verse in English published which required gathering subscriptions to fund the publication. It was taking a long time to get enough subscriptions, particularly as he had resolved not to accept any from those who opposed William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery bill. He had previously rejected subscribers from Bristol - a centre of the slave trade - who had rejoiced at the defeat of one of the readings of this bill in Parliament. Iolo’s identity as a political radical went hand in hand with his promotion of the Gorsedd as the public expression of the bardic mysteries. Along with prominent members of the London-Welsh community, several political radicals were also in attendance, including Joseph Johnson, the owner of a bookshop and publisher of dissenting pamphlets, including this picture engraved by William Blake showing an executed slave:

A Slave Hung from a Gallows
©Victoria & Albert Museum


Political dissent was a dangerous business at this time following the French Revolution as the authorities in Britain feared a similar uprising and suspects were often arrested for sedition for propagating revolutionary ideas. Although Iolo was careful to omit, on advice from Johnson, some anti-royalist sentiments he had penned, some of the more conservative London-Welsh attendees at the Gorsedd were clearly dismayed when Iolo read out potentially seditious verse as part of the ceremony:


Come Liberty with all thy sons attend

We’ll raise to thee the manly verse,

The deeds inspired by thee rehearse.


Iolo was clear, as was William Blake,  that ‘Bardism’ was a medium not only of druidic expression, but also of the creed of Liberty. Part of that creed, for the radicals of this time, was the opposition to slavery and the support of William Wilberforce’s campaign to have it abolished. Verse in praise of Wilberforce was therefore also read out by Iolo as part of his address to those assembled for the Gorsedd. Other radicals that Iolo fraternised with in London at this time included the young poet S.T. Coleridge. Iolo met him again some years later when returning to Wales from another stay in London. He walked the whole way and so stopped off to rest in Bristol where he stayed with a friend. While there Iolo attended an anti slavery rally which was addressed by Coleridge and they renewed their acquaintance. At this time sugar was one of many commodities being made widely available in Britain and much of it came from slave plantations in the West Indies. One piece of advice given to the audience in the anti-slavery rally was to boycott the produce of slavery, perhaps the earliest example of the ‘fair trade’ principle. 


Later, when Iolo was the proprietor of a short-lived shop in Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan he made a point of selling sugar that was, as he advertised it “untouched by human gore”. His customers, however, preferred to buy their sugar elsewhere, and without this guarantee, because it was cheaper. Iolo responded by displaying part of one of his English poems:


Behold on Afric’s beach alone,

Yon sire that weeps with bitter moan:

She, that his life once truly bless’d

Is torn forever from his breast,

And scourged, where British Monarchs reign,

Calls for his aid, but calls in vain.


But his verse had little effect, the shop failed and he was bankrupt. 


His verse in Welsh was another matter. It’s effects, one way and another, have been far-reaching. Whatever the limits of Bardism in English, Barddas encompasses all that Iolo could have hoped for it. He did not live to see that, but slavery was abolished in his lifetime.



SNICKETS

SNICKET : a narrow alley between houses - chiefly Northern English (of unknown origin) - Compact Oxford Dictionary

I hadn't thought of this word as specifically northern before checking, but my most memorable experience of using a snicket is, in fact, from Lincolnshire. Visiting my mother there in the village where she had retired, I used to walk to the village centre to go to the shop and post office for her. I discovered a route that avoided using the road but instead took me along a back lane behind cottages, then along a narrow snicket between two small housing estates which took many turns around houses, past garden fences and across two access roads before emerging into a small open square with a tree and a park bench from which a footpath led onwards to the village centre.

Elsewhere, snickets I've known have mainly been very short passages between roads or back lanes, and it is the latter that can be followed for some distance in many places I know in Wales, though these are usually wider than snickets and run, like a pedestrian road, and much less intimately, directly between back gardens.

The lines below (retrieved from an old notebook) were I think penned at the time  out of a desire to use the word, but also record memories of visiting Lincolnshire during the last years of my mother's life, and are posted now at a time when traversing such narrow ways would mean breaking the 'social distancing' guidelines if others were using them too. I don't, in fact, recall ever meeting anyone else along these snickets which had the forbidden air of trespass about them, so close they were to private spaces. So perhaps this sense of the forbidden would be further enhanced if I could use them; though even a back lane seems out of the question .....





Why go by road when there are other ways?

Like snickets that run between houses

and behind gardens, sneaking through

where it seems there is no way

but to go round.


You can’t take the car

if you go that way and though it seems

like you’re trespassing on someone’s private space,

still, you have to show your face as you go.


So no furtive creeping to your inquisitive walking

but a sense of traversing light and shadow

in what’s not an anonymous place, though it is

if you don’t belong there.


Don’t stare.

Just move on through, and when you get to where

you’re going, you’ll know you’ve been somewhere.


BLACKBIRD


Granny's Bonnets (Aquilegia)

A Blackbird Chick

...ran out of the undergrowth
where garden runs to wildness,
then scuttled back again.

For weeks the parent sang
from the branches of an oak,
spelled out an arc of protection

around the nest, hidden here below
in a tangle of ivy, under Granny’s Bonnets
and a spiny quince by the garden path.

It was a song that held the spring
of the year in every quavering note,
releasing the summer so this chick

discovers the world awaiting each new life
finding a way through the bushes and briars
out into the open and endless sky.


Quince