Welsh Literature


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Chapter 1: Heroic Poetry

Surviving Welsh language poems, part of the heroic tradition, date all the way back to the late sixth century AD, making them part of the oldest attested vernacular in Europe. Two poets who continued what seems to have been an old Celtic bardic tradition of elaborate sound patterns and social ideals were Taliesin and Aneirin. Both these poets lived in northwestern Britain (Strathclyde) during the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions. The Britons were desperately trying to hold on to their lands in the face of unrelenting pressure from the Germanic tribes now holding most of the eastern half of the island. Apart from what is now known as Wales, the British (or Brythonic) kingdoms that survived were Rheged, Gododdin and Strathclyde. These were cut off from Wales politically in the seventh century, but Strathclyde continued as a centre of the old poetic traditions for a few more centuries when the burden (and the honor) fell to Wales.

Taliesin exemplified the image of the poet as sober craftsman and upholder of the social order. His poems are above all songs of praise to his lord, the ideal ruler Urien Rheged (King of Rheged), who protected his people by bravery and ferocity in battle, but who was magnanimous and generous in peace. The poems remind the king of his responsibilties at the same time they remind his followers of their duties to their leader. The vivid impressions of the poems are compressed into complex patterns of alliteration and internal rhyme that later developed into the peculiarly Welsh system known as cynghanedd in which key words are linked by repetition of consonants. In his elegy on the death of Urien, Taliesin incorporated Christian elements such as the prayer for the soul beginning and ending the poem, but also the pagan ideal of worship of the warrior leader.

Legends about Taliesin and Myrddyn (Merlin) have inspired the long-lived tradition of the wild, inspired Celtic seer that found itself exemplified in the "Hanes Taliesin" (story of Taliesin) composed in the ninth or tenth century. In this folk tale, the author deals with the magic origin of poetic inspiration; after experiencing a series of transformations and being reincarnated as a poet, Taliesin is given the gift of prophecy. The stories that deal with the magical powers of Myrddyn, unlike those dealing with Taliesin, are not based on an historical figure: they are pure legend. Like those connected with the poet, however, they were used to give authority to many poems that prophesied victory for the native Britons over the Saxon invaders.

Aneirin, the other great poet of the period, is best remembered for the "Gododdin", which commemorates the heroics of small band of warriors and their allies at the Battle of Catraeth about 600 AD, in which they were defeated by a much larger force of Angles. In the poem, after slaying many times their number of enemies, all except one of the band were killed. Their willingness to die is emphasized as a duty that they owed their lord in return for his hospitality. Their deaths also ensured them everlasting glory. Because the poem constantly circles around the main event of the battle, possessing no liner development, no regular beginning or end, it is seen as a prototype of Celtic design, an early, sophisticated literary expression of the circular motifs expressed so beautifully in other art forms of the Celtic peoples all over Europe. In addition to the intricate interweaving of emotion produced by the tension between grief and exhilaration, the poem's vivid imagery gives it a powerful impact even in these few lines in a modern translation:

Men went to Catraeth, swift was their host
Fresh mead was their feast and it was poison.
Three hundred fighting according to plan,
And after jubilation there was silence.
Though they went to churches to do penance,
The inescapable meeting with death came to them.

The poems of Aneirin and Taliesin provided a model of Welsh literature that was followed for centuries. The constant warfare between the native British and the Germanic invaders provided a strong motif for the poets for many centuries. It was continued in the work of the saga poets.

Chapter 2: The Saga Poems

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