Aneirin and Taliesin: poets of the old north

Monday 6 August 2012, 16:14

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Ask anyone who is interested in literature and history to name the greatest poets of the Welsh nation and it is unlikely that they would ever come up with either Aneirin or Taliesin.

They might well offer Dylan and RS Thomas, or even Alun Lewis or Danny Abse. Maybe, at a stretch, Dafydd ap Gwilym. But Aneirin and Taliesin remain shadowy, unknown figures who wrote or composed a long time ago and therefore have little relevance in this day and age.

Yet these two men laid the foundations of a great and noble tradition. They were the original bards, the greatest poets of their day and, if for nothing else, for that reason alone they deserve to be remembered.

The Gododdin

Little is known about Aneirin. What we do know is that he existed and functioned as a bard or poet in the courts of the warrior kings in the second half of the sixth century.

We know, above all, that he wrote The Gododdin, the elegiac poem for a band of 600 warriors of the Gododdin region who fell in battle against the Saxons. It is the earliest known major work of literature in the western world and it was written or composed – never being intended to be written down – in Brythonic, an early form of the Welsh language.

Aneirin, like his contemporary Taliesin, was said to have spent much of his time in the old north, the name that was then given to to several of the kingdoms of post-Roman Britain.

In particular, these kingdoms lay across the areas we now know as southern Scotland, below Edinburgh, and the north of England. They had names such as Elmet and Gododdin and because the Romans had allowed the tribes within them – such as the Votadini and the Brigantes - to more or less rule themselves, the Celtic traditions remained strong, despite four centuries of Roman rule.

Early records of the poet call him Neirin – the syllable A seems to been added to his name at a later date. One stanza of The Gododdin states that the author was the son of Dwywai, the mother of Deiniol, the patron saint of Bangor – and we know that Aneirin wrote the poem because the opening verse says, quite simply "This is Y Gododdin: Aneirin sang it".

Apart from that, Aneirin remains an obscure figure. His main claim to fame was his great elegy to the men who fell at the Battle of Catraeth, a battle at which he may have been present. The poet claims to have escaped the slaughter that befell the men of the Gododdin because of his way with words and to have been imprisoned until released by three colleagues and friends.

Taliesin

We know a little more about Taliesin but while he left a series of 12 "praise poems" to Urian Rheged and other rulers, his legacy contains nothing as significant or as sustained as The Gododdin.

He was a clear contemporary of Aneirin, writing in the closing years of the sixth century. Like Aneirin he had many links to the old north but some scholars believe he came from the Powys area of Wales. He roamed freely between the various courts and was renowned as one of the greatest and best-known of all the bards.

Hanes Talisin

Unfortunately, from the ninth century onwards Taliesin – his life and his writings – were subsumed into legend. Hanes Talisin - the story of Taliesin – was composed about this time, several court poets of the 12th century referring to it in their writings.

The book/story tells how the goddess Ceridwen brews a magic potion that will give her son the gift of poetry. Her servant, Gwion Bach, swallows some of the liquid and then has to flee Ceridwen's wrath.

A long pursuit that sees both of the characters transform several times eventually leads to Ceridwen, in the guise of a hen, swallowing the piece of grain that is Gwion Bach.

Reborn, Gwion Bach is cast adrift at sea. He is rescued by Elffin ap Gwyddno Garanhir, takes the name Taliesin and quickly becomes a bard of note. Taliesin also features in the story of Branwen in the second branch of The Mabinogion and, as his legend as a prophet, poet and wise man grew, was increasingly associated with those other figures of Welsh legend, Merlin and Arthur. The truth about his life lies lost amongst the ruins of those legends.

So, to put it simply, we know very little about Aneirin and Taliesin. But these few lines from The Gododdin seem to apply equally to both men and to the times in which they sang their songs and kept the courts of kings and princes happy and entertained:

"He was not weak or base before the well-fed fire,
The pine logs blazing from dusk to dawn,
The doorway lit up for the purple-clad traveller."

Aneirin and Taliesin remain obscure and insubstantial – at least as men. As writers they are strong and memorable, standing as they do at the beginnings of a lasting and powerful tradition of poetry and story telling.

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