Early Welsh Verse as Modern Poetry

Recent Translations of the Cynfeirdd

The Goddoddin : Lament for the Fallen , a version by Gillian Clarke (Faber, 2021)

The Book of Taliesin : Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain Translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams (Penguin Classics, 2019)

The texts of the earliest poems in Welsh have long since been available in edited printed texts and in translations that, at least since the twentieth century, attempt a reliable literal rendering of their meaning. In some cases, where literal meaning is obscure, the scholarly texts provide discussions of possible interpretations of difficult words or phrases informed both by philological analysis and by implications of the metre and other aspects of verse structure. Notably, recent editions of the texts of The Goddoddin by A.O.H Jarman and The Book of Taliesin, by Marged Haycock supply the original Welsh texts with annotations and detailed notes alongside literal line by line translations into English, thereby making them comprehensible to a wider readership. The primary purpose of these translations is to render the original meaning as far as that is possible rather than to produce an English text that could be regarded as poetry. Modern poets attempting their own translations of the texts include Gwyn Thomas’ modern Welsh version of Y Gododdin and extracts from both The Gododdin and the Taliesin poems into English by Gwyn Williams, Joseph Clancy and Tony Conran. A version of the whole of The Gododdin was presented as poetry in English by Steve Short in 1994. This does not attempt to be a literal rendering of the text but does contain an accurate reflection of it in expressive modern verse. Written in vivid language and employing a style of epigrammatic commentary it gets close to the atmosphere of the original in a way that the word-for-word parallel texts cannot achieve. Steve Short’s version was produced by the Llanerch small press and is unlikely to have gained a wide circulation, though I note that it is still available.

More recently translations of The Book of Taliesin by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams and of The Gododdin by Gillian Clarke have appeared. Both, in their different ways, seek to give an accurate rendering of the poem as modern English poetry. The Book of Taliesin by Lewis and Williams supplies the texts of all the poems as given by Ifor Williams in his edition of those poems he supposed to be by the original sixth century poet, or later renderings of them, as well as those given by Marged Haycock in her editions of the ‘Legendary Poems’ and the ‘Prophetic Poems’, supposed to be the work of later bards adopting the Taliesin persona. They provide an extensive introduction discussing the provenance of the poems, their metrical features and the nature of awen as understood by the medieval bards {this latter matter discussed separately HERE~>}. They also preface each poem with it’s own introduction and provide both footnotes and endnotes to aid interpretation. So although they offer a readable version of the Taliesin poems as modern poetry, this edition also has an interpretive dimension that delves more deeply into the background, although some readers simply wanting a version of the texts may find the multiple footnoting a distraction. What Lewis and Williams do not provide is the original Welsh text. By contrast, Gillian Clarke’s edition of The Gododdin dispenses with much of the scholarly apparatus but does print her version of the poem as a parallel text facing the Welsh version as given by Jarman. Her ‘Version’ (as she titles it) does not always follow the facing text line by line but re-arranges it into a sharpened and syntactically more flexible modern English.

In both cases what results is editions of the poems as accessible modern poetry by accomplished poets from major publishers which should bring them to the attention of a wider readership than the niche market of those interested in medieval Welsh poetry or the world of the early Welsh bards. But they too will be well served by both of these books. The Taliesin poems of Lewis and Williams provide most in the way of background analysis and context for the poems and even render some in a metrical configuration reflecting the original. But Gillian Clarke’s Gododdin poems may be best appreciated as modern English poems in their own right and do include the original Welsh text for comparison. She adds a translation of ‘Pais Dinogad‘ a short poem the manuscript of which was contained in the same binding as the Gododdin poems. Together these publications are invaluable additions to the published corpus of translations from early Welsh poetry.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s