poetry

Early Welsh poetry

Last updated: 11 August 2008

The first Welsh poets included Aneirin and Taliesin, whose work descended from the tradition of the druids.

Sometime between 400 and 700 AD, Brittonic developed into four different languages: Early Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Cumbric. The latter was spoken in northern England and southern Scotland and now extinct.

The little evidence we have of Brittonic shows similarities to Latin. Both contained case endings, which vanished in the language change. The noted translator Tony Conran believes this may have been a reaction to the retreat of Rome and the consequent invasions, as the huge stresses in British society were reflected in the language.

Labelled the Heroic Age, this is the period of the earliest Welsh poetry. The ninth century historian Nennius mentions five British poets famous in the sixth century. Unfortunately no work survives from Talhaiarn Cataguen, Bluchbard, and Cian. But the other two, Aneirin and Taliesin, are acknowledged as the earliest authors of Welsh poetry and known as the Cynfeirdd (Early Poets).

Aneirin is famous as the author of Y Gododdin, found in the 13th-century manuscript known as Llyfr Aneirin (Book of Aneirin) now kept in Cardiff City Library. The precise age of the poem is not known; it has been dated to anywhere between the 7th and the early 11th centuries.

The poem concerns a disastrous attempt by the Cumbric-speaking Gododdin tribe from southern Scotland to re-take Catterick in Yorkshire from a Germanic tribe in around 595 AD. Out of some 300 warriors only a handful, including Aneirin himself, survived. The poem is an elegy to those warriors.

As the poet of Y Gododdin, Aneirin is not that far removed from the druids who maintained the memories of the tribe. The poem is not only an artistic statement but also a ritual which ensures those warriors and their sacrifice will always be remembered. One of the fallen is compared to the mysterious Arthur, in the earliest known reference in world literature to this legendary figure.

When the Cumbric kingdoms were eventually overrun it appears that their culture and literature found a new home in Wales, possibly due to noblemen and Celtic monks fleeing to safety there. Cumbric was easily understood by speakers of Welsh and Y Gododdin became a well-known and respected poem. Indeed, it was referred to by the 12th century poet Prince Owain Cyfeiliog of Powys in his poem Hirlas Owain, which unlike Y Gododdin celebrates a victory.

In contrast to his contemporary Aneirin, Taliesin is associated with a number of poems. Little is known about his life but it is believed he came originally from Powys and moved north to find his most famous patron, Urien, king of Rheged in present day Cumberland, in the latter part of the sixth century. Taliesin became something of a mythic figure and features as a shaman or magician in early Welsh legend.

Both these poets were studied by the Welsh poets who followed them and continue to be studied today. They were masters of their art who inspired writers down the ages and provide important clues for British historians about what happened in the post-Roman age.


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