Saturday, 27 September 2008

Teaching Taliesin

Today I had the weekly joy that is teaching hideously obscure Early Welsh poetry to a class of postgraduates. It's always an awkward feeling teaching people who are only a couple of years younger than me (and in the case of my friend K., rather older than me).

The poems are quite horrendously difficult: full of obscurities, cruxes in need of radical emendation, hapax legomena and words whose meaning has to be reconstructed by analogy with other less-than-widely-known languages, like Old Irish or Breton.
And yet...I love sitting in the chair at the end of that impersonal but light-filled Oxford teaching room, leaping up to prance in front of the whiteboard like a philological Rumplestiltskin, but heaver in the gut. My students are immensely talented: one is a Classical philologist who makes me quail with his talk of Indo-European laryngeals, then there are two very different but fiercely talented and beautiful Americans, and lastly there is the imcomparable K., who shoehorned herself into Oxford in her seventh decade to read Medieval Celtic Language and Literature. They are an intimidating bunch, and I try not to put on too amateurish a performance.

The poetry that we are doing dates from the later half of the sixth century, from the region around present-day Leeds, the dark-age British kingdom of Rheged. Yes, they spoke Welsh there, or a language essentially indistinguishable from Primitive Welsh: the time when the Britons were finally pushed back to Wales and Cornwall was yet to come, though not far off. (We have three words of the Celtic language of Cumbria, Cumbric, which ceased to be used around the tenth century.) The poems are attributed to a master-bard, Taliesin, who must not be confused with the legendary seer-poet and mystical time-traveller of later Welsh tradition. These historical poems are precious fragments of the culture of Britain in the dark ages, and understanding them requires a fair degree of philological acrobatics. That said, here is the poem we did today: the 'Lament for Owain', who was the son of Urien, the Lord of Rheged and Taliesin's patron. It praises his succesful raids on the Saxons, and his killing of Fflamddwyn, 'Flame-Bearer', a British nickname for some English warrior.


The Lament for Owain
The soul of Owain, Urien's son -
let the Lord look to its needs,
Chieftain of Rheged whom the heavy grey turf covers.
He was not shallow when it came to poems of praise.
In the chamber of the grave
is a warrior, renowned in song:
like wings of dawn, whetted spears,
since no equal will be found,
Llwyfenydd's shining lord!
Reaper of enemies, raptor,
the stock of his father and forefathers.
When Owain killed Fflamddwyn,
It was no more than napping.
The broad host of England sleeps,
the light in their eyes.
Those who did not flee a little way
were braver than they needed -
Owain punished them fiercely
like a wolf-pack hunting sheep.
A fine man atop his many-hued horse-gear,
He gave horses to those who asked.
Though he stored them up like a rapacious prince,
they have been shared out for his soul's sake,
the soul of Owain, Urien's son.

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