Labara 4: A Taste of Welsh Verse
Celtic language learning, a guide for Pagans
by Meredith Richard
Now that we’ve established some basics about Celtic languages in the previous articles of this series, it’s finally time to look at Celtic language texts themselves. Specifically, we will be looking at poetry. Celtic poetry is absolutely central to Celtic heritage and spirituality, yet it is sadly neglected by most Druidic traditions. By its very nature, poetry is the most difficult of language-arts to translate – in fact, poetry has been defined as "that which is lost in translation." But even the newest newcomers to the Celtic heritage, and those who have not yet started learning any Celtic language, can take some very significant steps towards appreciating the power and beauty of Celtic poetry in the original. These ‘tastes of Celtic poetry’ are intended as a beginning guide to this path.
Here are some ways to work with Celtic-language verse, in order to help you experience the poetry on as many levels as possible:
The first verse we’ll be looking at is attributed to Taliesin, and in translation is probably the best-known Welsh verse in the English-speaking world. The fourteenth century manuscript, The Book of Taliesin, contains both poems attributed to the historical sixth-century poet Taliesin, and the prophetic and mystical body of poems (probably composed around the ninth or tenth centuries) associated with the legendary Taliesin, whose story is related in the ‘Tale of Gwion Bach’ and ‘Tale of Taliesin’, which exist in sixteenth century manuscripts.
The following are the first eight lines of the poem often called
the Hanes Taliesin (HAH-ness tal-YES-in, ‘History of Taliesin’),
adapted to modern Welsh spelling:
Wyf i i Elffin
A’m bro gynefin
Yw gwlad sêr hefin
A’m gelwis i Myrddin
Bellach pob brenin
A’m geilw Taliesin
A rough guide to pronunciation:
ooiv EE, ee EL-fin
am BROH gun-AY-vin
yoo gu’LAHD sair HAY-vin
am GEL-wiss ee MURDH-in
BELH-akh pohb BRENN-in
am GUY-loo tal-YES-in
DH: represents a soft "th" as in ‘the’; NOT the "th" of ‘thing’
LH: represents the notorious Welsh unvoiced l. Say "bell". Bellll, with the tip of your tongue ending up right behind your front teeth. Now say it again, except when you get to the ‘l’ part, don’t say ‘l’. Instead, keep your tongue in the ‘l’ position and blow air past it. Alternatively, make up your mind that you are going to say "bell" and "Beth" exactly at the same time, and then do it.
KH: represents the throaty ‘ch’ of loch or Bach
X - - X - - X - - X - -
"Prifardd cyffredin / wyf i (pause) i Elffin/ A’m"
The extra beat after "i" works well, stressing Taliesin’s identification of himself; this rhythm translates fairly well into English as "Primary chief bard am I [pause] to Elffin". However, rhyme is already lost, and the rhythm cannot be kept up in translation. It is certainly possible to recite a translation of these verses, perhaps with a harp accompaniment, and have it sound good. But the rhyme and rhythm of the original version gives it a much more compelling, almost hypnotic quality. It certainly has much more potential as a chant than the English translation.
Now let’s take a quick look at the words and structure of the verses:
|prifardd:||prif means ‘primary, principal’, and -fardd is a mutation of bardd, ‘bard’.|
|cyffredin:||‘common, general, universal’|
|wyf i:||‘am I’, in the sense of identification|
|i:||this second i means ‘to’|
|Elffin:||Taliesin’s patron in this story|
|a’m:||The a here means ‘and’, and the ‘m means ‘my’|
|bro:||This is one of those basically untranslatable words, although often translated as ‘region’ or ‘vale’. In a recent issue of Keltria, Brynach ab Adda discusses its meaning in his article on Celtic bioregionalism; basically, it is an area united by geography, economy and culture into a unit. In particular, a person’s bro is where they are at home, where they know and are known. It is telling that the phrase denoting Welsh-speaking areas (equivalent to the Irish Gaeltacht), is Y Fro Gymraeg, "the Welsh-language Bro". And the Welsh words for the Welsh people, land, language, etc are all based on the word for a Welshman: Cymro formed from cym-bro, ‘fellow countryman’: literally, someone from the same bro.|
|gynefin:||mutation of cynefin, ‘acquainted, accustomed, familiar; haunt, habitat’|
|yw:||‘is’ in the sense of identification|
|sêr:||‘stars’. The singular is seren. Forming
the singular from the plural, rather than the other way around, marks this
as a ‘collective noun’ in Welsh. Collective nouns are things which usually
occur in the plural and are chiefly comprehended as groups or collectives.
This is similar to having the word ‘forest, wood’ and referring to an individual
element of the forest as (say) ‘a foresten’. The collection, rather than
the individual elements, is the core meaning.
|hefin:||a form of the word haf, ‘summer’. This form also shows up in the term for the summer solstice invented by Iolo Morgannwg: Alban Hefin; and in the old word for May or the first of May: kyntefin, meaning ‘before/beginning of summer’. The words sêr hefin, ‘summer stars’, originated as a mistaken reading of ‘cherubim’, but has been retained here as a fortuitous and delightful misreading.|
|Johannes Ddewin:||Johannes (German form of John) the Diviner – ddewin, a mutation of dewin, is from the same source as English ‘diviner’ (ie, from Latin); but dewin also is used simply to mean ‘wizard’. Dewiniaeth is ‘divination’.|
|a’m gelwis i:||‘[who] called me’. The first word here, a’m, is different from the a’m in the first verse; here a is a particle roughly meaning ‘which’ or ‘who’. This is necessary because (again) it is not in the standard, verb-first Celtic word order. ‘m still means ‘my’, and the i at the end of this phrase also means ‘I, me’ – possessives in Welsh are often expressed in such a sandwich fashion, such as ei stafell hi, ei stafell o, ‘her room [her]’ and ‘his room [he]’. Gelwis is a third-person past tense of galw, to call. So instead of the English subject-verb-object structure, the Celtic sentence structure is really subject-possessive-verb: an extremely literal translation of these two lines might be: ‘[It was] Johannes Dewin who my calling-was Myrddin.’|
|Myrddin:||Merlin, in the modern spelling of the original Welsh form. The name was probably changed to Merlinus in Latin because the straightfoward Latinization Merdinus would have unpleasant connotations (cf French merde).|
|bellach:||‘farther, at length, now’ – particularly ‘now’ as differing from the past|
|brenin:||‘king’. This word is related to bri and bre (see Labara 2, Issue ??) and thus is actually cognate with ‘Brigid’|
|a’m geilw:||‘[who] calls me’ – This is the same structure as a’m gelwis i, except the past-tense form gelwis is replaced by the present tense form geilw, again a form of the modern galw.|
|Taliesin:||His name could be translated as ‘brilliant forehead’ or ‘shining brow’; he is the archtypal transformed and inspired poet in Welsh tradition, and medieval Welsh poets regarded him and Myrddin as "the two great and authoritative poets who stood together at the very beginning of the Welsh poetic tradition."|
This gives us in a fairly literal translation:
Am i to Elphin
And my region accustomed
Is [the] land [of the] stars [of] summer.
Johannes [the] Diviner
Called me Myrddin
Now every king
Calls me Taliesin
The next verse is an englyn. The englyn (pronounced ENG-linn, with no hard g) is a very ancient Welsh verse form, as well the most popular type of Welsh verse written today. It has often been compared to the Japanese haiku: it is a short verse following strict rules of composition, focussed on capturing the essence of a single moment, often on a nature theme. The most popular type of englyn has thirty syllables in four very specifically patterned lines, and follows the rules of Welsh alliteration, rhythm and internal rhyme, called cynghanedd (kung-HAHN-edh), which means something like ‘together-chiming’ or ‘harmony’. There are four main types of cynghanedd, each with several sub-types, and something like sixteen classes of technical errors – unsurprisingly, it takes a long time to learn how to write proper cynghanedd. Today you can buy books and take courses to learn this complex craft, but it was once only learned through apprenticeship to a master poet....or as Pat Neill puts it:
And the poor fellow would have to brew up some nettle soup to stop his tummy rumbling, wondering the nonce what heinous crime he had committed. And there was no fairy godmother available to take him to one side and explain things to him. To learn the rules of cynghanedd he had to have the full treatment, and this usually meant a costly live-in apprenticeship. Unless he was amply endowed with the ready cash, or had very pretty blue eyes, this course of instruction would have been beyond him, and and he never would have achieved acceptance as a bard.
This englyn is by Eifion Wyn, ‘White Anvil’, (Eliseus Williams 1867 - 1926):
Hed hebog fel dart heibio – a’i wgus
Lygaid yn tanbeidio;
Drwy y drain y dyry dro:
Nid oes gân lle disgynno.
Pronunciation, more or less (for ‘lh’ and ‘ooi’, see notes above):
Hed HEB-ogg vell dart HYE-byo – eye OO-giss
LUH-gye’d uhn tann-BYE-dyo
DROOI uh DRINE uh DUHR-ee DROH
Nid oyss GAHN lhay diss-GUN-oh.
Compared to the Taliesin verses, the rhythm is much more subtle. Here’s the pattern, where each letter is a syllable, the main accents are capital letters, and ‘a/A’ and ‘b/B’ are main rhyming syllables:
x X x x x A b – x X x
X a x x A b
x x X x x x B
x x X x x X b
And here are the consonants used in the englyn, with the major patterns in parentheses:
HD (HBG) FLDRT (HB – (G)) S
(DRDR) N (DRDR)
N (DSGN) LL (DSGN)
A full explanation of the rules that are involved here would be boring and pointless (unless you , like me, are a budding student of the form, in which case this isn’t the time or place.) However, rest assured that every pattern element noted above is behaving in accordance with some rule or another and is not optional frosting on the cake – including, for instance, the unaccented/accented internal rhyme in the second line. Yet the rules and limitations themselves contribute to the poetic expression of a deeply felt, intense moment of life – as one poet put it, the passion burns through the icy rules of cynghanedd.
It is in the rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration that we can see some of the basic cynghanedd patterns – in this englyn, the easiest place to hear them is the last two lines. Each line can be divided into two parts, each with a major accent; each line has a sequence of consonants repeated twice; and at the end of the lines, an accented syllable rhymes with an unaccented syllable. The resulting subtle rhythmic pattern of this type of poetry has an interesting correspondence in a type of Welsh music: in cerdd dant, there are two musical lines, the harp playing a given piece and the voice singing a given verse to another (ideally, but not always, improvised) tune, where the two lines of music weave together in a complex and subtle rhythm.
|hebog||‘hawk, a hawk’ (there is no indefinite article in Welsh) cognate with Irish seabhac|
|dart||‘dart, a dart’|
|wgus||a mutation of gwgus: ‘frowning, glowering’|
|lygaid||a mutation of llygaid, ‘eyes’|
|yn||linking word to the verbal noun tanbeidio - if we want to translate as literally as possible, we could say ‘at’, in the sense of ‘in the process of’ (the Irish equivalent is ag)|
|tanbeidio||‘to burn fiercely’ - tân is fire, cognate with Irish tine|
|drain||‘thorns’ - can mean thorn trees/hedges or thorns themselves|
|y dyry||‘gives’ – a somewhat formal or archaic form|
|dro||mutation of tro: ‘a turn, a twist, a period of time, an event’|
|oes||‘there is’, in the form used for questions or negations - so nid oes means ‘there is not/no’|
|gân||mutation of cân, ‘song’|
|lle||‘place, location, where’|
|disgynno||‘to descend, descending’|
One place to start looking at the levels of meaning in this verse is in the image of the hawk. There is no shortage of hawks and related raptors in Celtic mythology, and ‘hawk’ was a common epithet for a warrior. One character in early Welsh mythology is Gwalchmai – who may have developed into the better-known Gawaine of Arthurian legend – whose name may mean ‘hawk of the field’ but is often interpreted as ‘hawk of May’. And the hawthorn (draenen wen in Welsh, ‘whitethorn’) is a tree also with strong Maytime associations.
Next issue: A taste of Irish verse
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©Meredith Richard, 1998. All rights reserved.