Before I dive into this review, I feel a bit of a grounding is needed. The Gododdin by Gillian Clarke is a collection of short elegies mourning the aftermath of a disastrous battle. It is also known by its Brittonic name Y Gododdin, but I will use the English as that is what the book uses.
This battle happened in a region known in Brittonic languages as Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) which included much of southern Scotland and northern England, and remembered a time before Germanic tribes started to conquer the kingdoms there.
At this time most of England, Wales and southern Scotland spoke interrelated languages (all descended from Common Brittonic) and shared cultural traditions. Steadily Germanic tribes started to settle in the east and conquer more and more land. As the regions speaking Common Brittonic became separated from each other, their languages diverged more and more. Some of these languages died out or were deliberately relegated in favour of English, as such most of the literature and oral tales from that period only survive in Welsh forms, as the Welsh language did not suffer as much as the others.
Interestingly, this poem also contains the earliest direct reference to Arthur, who is used as an example of a heroic warrior, and so must have already been a well-known figure/myth.
The Gododdin is perhaps the oldest work of British literature, having been written between the 7th and 10th centuries. It is attributed to the poet Aneirin, who likely wove together the different versions into one written text. Before this time, it is most likely that it was transmitted as an oral tale. This spoken nature can be felt in the heavy use of alliteration and rhyme, which Ms Clarke cleverly incorporates into her translation, without feeling forced. This is not just for reading them out loud, as the elegies would likely have been sung, rather than simply recited.
The link between poetry and music is very clear in Brittonic languages. Consider the Welsh credd, which means both ‘song’ and ‘poem’, or the Cornish kan, which means the same. This translation manages to be faithful to that idea, and I found myself muttering along as I read. These poems almost demand to be given sonic form, and have a rhythm and melody to them.
A thing to note, is that the written version straddles Old and Middle Welsh, and so shows the evolution of language within the UK, and poses an extra difficulty for translation. Do you try to mirror that complex blend of grammar and vocabulary, or stick to a single language style?
One aspect of the poem that fascinates me is how it straddles many of the constituent parts of the UK. Written in a language that would end up focused in Wales, set in a kingdom that straddles what is now southern Scotland and north-east England.
This helps to show the fluid nature of nations, and that the UK is far more complicated than the idea of four constituent parts might give. Ms Clarke, also makes clear the complexity of identity. The stories of these poems (alongside others) are a key part of the Welsh literary tradition, and yet frequently are kept at a linguistic remove. In translating Ms Clarke has not merely carried the poem over from one language to another, but created a bridge linking the languages and literary traditions.
In this way the layout of the book is vital. By presenting each translated poem opposite the Old Welsh original, the link between them is preserved. This might be a heavily domesticated translation, in that the English does not feel alien, but it does not try to hide its nature as a translation. There is also a certain poignance that this poem, commemorating scores of deaths in a battle between Brittonic and Germanic kingdoms, now sits in two facing forms, one in a Brittonic language, and the other in a Germanic one.
Now, this might all seem rather academic, but these poems feel anything but. They are full of pathos and emotion. You get a sense of the youthful brashness of some of the characters, before they go off to war. And then a strong taste of the sadness left behind, as their family grieves.
To build on the powerful sense of loss, Ms Clark has chosen to include a poem known as Pais Dinogad, which is not a normal part of The Gododdin. It describes a child being told about their dead father. The descriptions of the father as a hunter, link into the martial traditions of The Gododdin, and the language is very similar in terms of praise, yet it is undercut by the pathos of realising that this man has died leaving a small child to mourn him. This sense is heightened by the use of the Welsh ‘tada’ instead of the rather Germanic feeling, and formal, ‘father’ or the rather diminutive and sentimentally loaded ‘dad’.
For this reason, you should find a copy. It might be a fascinating insight into early British literature, and show the complexities, both in terms of culture and language, of parts of the UK, but ultimately it is a hard-hitting poetic memorial to the suffering of war, and the power of grief. For in reading these elegies, which Ms Clarke has titled after those they remember, you are keeping an aspect of those people alive, and linking into a sense of shared mourning.
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