How ‘The Book of Taliesin’ Will Change Your Idea of British Literature

The Book of Taliesin, also known by its Welsh name as Llyfr Taliesin, is a remarkable collection of poetry. It was written in Middle Welsh, but many of the older poems show signs of Old Welsh and Cumbric (a very closely related language to Old Welsh).

It is particularly interesting as it does not record one poet’s work, or follow a single narrative. Instead, it is a gentle accumulation of poems that have been attributed to the name of one poet.

These clearly are not all the work of one poet, as they were composed over the span of hundreds of years. They date back from when the end of Roman rule was only a generation or so removed to the times of the last sovereign Welsh princes.  

This new translation by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams is the first translation of the full work, rather than an collection of poems attributed to Taliesin, for many years. Yet that is not to say that these poems have not cast a long shadow over British literature from works of a similar time like The Gododdin to more recent poets such as Tennyson.

The name Taliesin has then been used as a poetic nom de plume for many years since, and so it is easy to see how the work of one poet, with that name, grew in reputation and so became the seed around which other poets added work of a similar feel, borrowing the name to add gravitas and poetic credibility.

In some ways you could image Taliesin as being a bit like the Greek poet Homer. With both there are many debates about if one person wrote the works that they are famous for. There are also many other works that were once attributed to them, and even now that facts get in the way of such attribution, the name and links sticks.

It is also important to think of the role of poet in that society. It is no coincidence that many langauges use the same word for poet, and seer or prophet. The ability to conjure stories and play with the interface between reality, memory and imagination, always has a hint of the prescient nature of magic.

Unlike many other collections of early British poetry, there is not a single thread that binds them, nor is it easy to pick out the warp of theme and weft of form, that might give a sense of textual cohesion. Because of this any translation is left with the problem of order.

Should the poems be left in the order of the surviving manuscript, which has gaps and is clearly cobbled together from earlier sources, or do you pick out styles and themes to give a sense of grouping.

In this case the poems are grouped by genre, which works well as it means that it is easy to dip in and just read one section at a time without feeling that it is incomplete.

That ability to be dipped into is helped by the very comprehensive introduction. It would be possible, although perhaps unwise, to skip past it and dive straight into the poems. Yet is does provide a brilliant spring board of information to give context to the poems, and so once read, perhaps as if it were a separate primer to Middle Welsh poetry (for it does include a very helpful guide to pronunciation of Welsh).

I must say that it is a very intense introduction, and it helps to read it slowly, and often jumping back to remind yourself of aspects. But once, you have a firm grasp of it, you can dip back and forth between the sections of the poems, with a decent grounding.

It is also interesting to read about how different poetry was. I, having studied Ancient Greek poetry, always knew that poetry was not written in the same way, with marked lineation and punctuation, yet I had not quite realised that even into the early Norman period poetry was written continuously, in much the same way as prose, and the only breaks were dots.

The grounding given by the introduction is helped by the copious footnotes which both explain allusions, but also mention where there might be confusion or details that cannot be satisfactorily translated in only one way.

This translation, for all its erudite, enchanting, and lyrical verse, however, is somewhat lacking when it comes to the poetically minded reader. For whilst the translation treads that fine line of all good translation, balancing the literally meaning, allusions, meter, sonorousness and for a work that can be read with such political force, it skilfully avoids being overly domesticating, without feeling ostentatiously foreignizing, it does feels overly consciously wrought.

That, somewhat distracting sense of craft, is added to by the page layout, with dense text and copious footnotes. It seems that practicalities overtook aesthetics when it came to the book’s design.

Such clear craft can work, but coupled with copious footnotes (which are brilliantly informative and give context to the poems) it distracts from the emotive feel of the poems. Indeed, it is partially because of the almost ineffable incantational nature of the poems, that such scholarly grounding has such an effect.

I feel that this volume is trying to straddle a line that does not fully work, in both working as poetry on its own right (for translated poetry should always be treated as a new interpretative work) and also being comprehensive scholarly edition that address all the manuscriptal issues.

Yet for that flaw, it is still a surprisingly easy read, considering the depth of information wrapped around each poem. The poems manage to blend the very detailed forms of Middle Welsh poetry, with a massive depth of poetic allusions and intricate theology, the translation feels as if it has settled naturally.  

And so, I cannot think of any better way to approach The Book of Taliesin, for this translation provides both engaging poetic fluidity, yet also a lightly worn depth of knowledge that is clearly explained so that no prior knowledge is needed to understand it.

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