Taliesin

Image of old poetry

Last updated: 20 October 2009

Taliesin is one of the most well-known and highly-regarded early Welsh poets, one of Y Cynfeirdd, dating from the sixth century.

Taliesin is often referred to in early poetry and legend as Taliesin Ben Beirdd, meaning Taliesin, Chief of Bards. He is noted in a now famous passage of the Historia Brittonum, a Latin work that some associate with a Welsh cleric called Nennius (c.800) but others attribute to an unknown writer, as being one of a number of early poets who flourished in the late sixth century:

"Then Talhaearn Tad Awen gained renown in poetry, and (A)neirin and Taliesin and Blwchfardd and Cian who is called Gwenith Gwawd gained renown together at the same time in British poetry."

Poems attributed only to Taliesin and Aneirin have survived. No poems by the other three poets mentioned in the Historia - Talhaearn, Bluchbard and Cian - have survived, and may have been lost at an early date.

The Book of Taliesin

The majority of work accredited to Taliesin has been collected in The Book of Taliesin, of which about a dozen poems are believed to be genuinely from his own hand.

Dating from around the first half of the 14th century it is one of the most famous Welsh manuscripts and, along with poems written by Taliesin, contains many famous early Welsh poems such as Armes Prydein and Preiddeu Annwfn, a poem featuring Arthur.

The book contains approximately 60 compositions on various subjects including religious and prophetic poems. Once believed to have been by the poet himself, they have since been dismissed as his and are now credited to different writers ranging from the ninth to the 13th centuries.

Of Taliesin's poems, the majority praise rulers of northern Britain. These include Urien of Rheged (an area of south-western Scotland today); his son Owain ab Urien; Gwallog, a ruler of a Celtic kingdom called Elmet; and Cynan Garwyn - a king of Powys.

Taliesin's poem that praises Cynan Garwyn's competency in battle and the gifts the poet received from him, if to be believed truly authentic, is probably one of the earliest extant poems in the Welsh language.

However, it is his poetry praising Urien and his son Owain for which he is most well-known. In these poems he set the benchmark for panegyric verse - a speech or text in praise of someone or something - which remained a tradition in Welsh literature until the Middle Ages.

It is believed that Taliesin was a court poet to Urien and the best known of his poems is Gwaith Argoed Llwyfain, or The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, in which he recounts a dramatic altercation between Urien, Owain and their men and a party led by an enemy named Fflamddwyn (Flamebearer). The poem ends with a description of their successful victory and consequently the slaughter of their opponent.

Further poems in The Book of Taliesin praise the father and son in battle and also include an elegy for the son Owain entitled Marwnad Owain, and two in praise of Gwallog.

In the mid 16th century Elis Gruffydd wrote a mytholigised account of Taliesin's life, entitled Ystoria Taliesin, The Story of Taliesin.


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