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by Frank Olding
Green Magic, 2024
224 pages, Paperback, £12.99
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I love this book! Had it existed 50 years ago, it would have saved me decades of rooting around in second-hand book shops and having friends search university libraries. It is the first book to bring together clear English translations of all the existing early material by or about Taliesin, the semi-mythical 6th century poet known as the primary chief bard of Britain. The 54 poems attributed to him are all here, including such well-known, mysterious and much-debated gems as Kat Godeu, ‘The Battle of the Trees,’ and Preideu Annwfyn, ‘The Spoils of Annwn.’

As well as the author’s superb new translations of these poems, verses by other hands referring to the bard are included. Plus there are four by the late 12th-early 13th century poet, Lywarch ap Llewellyn, also known (for reasons unknown) as ‘The Poet of the Pigs,’ who is the prime candidate to be the author of several of the ‘legendary’ poems attributed to Taliesin. Not only that but we also have translations of the earliest literary reference to Taliesin, from the 9th century ‘History of the Britons’; relevant sections from two medieval prose tales, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and ‘Branwen, daughter of Llyr’; and four different 16th and 17th century versions of the Story of Taliesin that detail his involvement with the witch-like, shape-shifting ‘ruler of bards,’ Ceridwen, brewer of the magical cauldron of inspiration, imbibing three drops from which gives Taliesin the gifts of poetry, seership and shape-shifting.

On top of all this, the author’s introduction is among the best concise introductions to medieval Welsh verse in general, and the history and legend of Taliesin in particular, that I’ve come across, conveying in 15 pages more than most writers manage in 50 or more. His introductions to the individual poems and prose pieces are equally informative, setting out briefly and clearly what is known of their authorship, historical background, characters and geographical locations referenced in them, and their overall significance. Particularly for some of the lesser-known historical poems, these introductions are invaluable. For those wishing to pursue further, the author provides footnotes linked to a very thorough, 7-page bibliography.

Frank Olding is a scholar by training, an archaeologist by profession and a poet by inclination. The last of these shines through in his wonderfully clear translations. Translating poetry is always difficult, doubly so when the originals were composed centuries ago in verse forms that rely heavily on alliteration, repetition, internal rhyme, strict syllable length and multiple meanings. Given these problems, the author’s achievement here is all the more remarkable. Here’s a small sample, from Buarth Beird, ‘The Meeting-place of Bards’:

I’m a craftsman; I’m a singer fine and clear;
I am steel, I am a Druid, seer, craftsman;
I’m a viper, I am lust, I gorge myself on learning;
I am no dumbfounded poet, I do not stammer:
when the singers sing their songs by rote,
they weave no wonder greater than myself.

Beautiful, fluent, and with no sacrifice of accuracy.

Whether your interests are in poetry, the development of verse forms, Welsh literature, British history, mythology and folklore, the bardic tradition or contemporary Druidry, you’ll find a world of wonder in these pages. As the great bard himself says:

I am Taliesin, the ardent one,
I endow the world with song:
praise-songs to the abundant wonders of the world.

2

It being May Day and the weather cool but fair, I wandered through the woods and scrambled down to a hidden hollow by the brook, where water tumbles over rocks and makes a magical sound that eases that slide into reverie in which awen flows and words emerge. With mobile phone as notebook, I jotted down the basis of this poem. It hasn't reached its finished state yet, at least I don't think it has, perhaps it never will, but I wanted to share it now, while the inspiration is still fresh. I am grateful for the gift of a poem made from just the interweaving of awen with the spirits of a special place and time... /|\

Beside the brook I sat a while
and watched the water flow
through the lichened rocks below
with rush and tumbling foam.
Astride a lichen-cushioned log
I perched and heard Sabrina’s song
as glistening waters ran their course
across the ages long.
Ancestral race, this mystery
had so sat contemplating,
this unceasing rush through time
on to an ever waiting sea.
Spirit-full and ever changing,
silver flow will make its way,
stopping not for tree or boulder,
save to skirt them both around,
for water’s wisdom is the gift
of ever finding ways anew,
unerring and unstoppable,
ageless and unwavering,
yet constantly renewed.
And so to you, great goddess,
I give thanks beside your play,
for filling all my senses
on this first day of May,
reminding me that time and tides
will bear all things away,
and for the gift of awen,
thus to weave these words in rhyme,
from mortal to immortal passed
until we merge in time.

Composed May 1st 2018
White Horse Beltaine Camp

Text and images © Greywolf 2018

1

Sometimes, waves of sadness wash over us, regret comes by unbidden, sorrow for what was lost or might have been. For no particular reason, this happened to me this afternoon and I wrote this poem, the first I've written for a long time, in memory of a lost love. The painting is one I made about 20 years ago in recollection of that same winter. It was a magical, insane time.

Once upon a winter time was I well beloved
with freedom, honesty, openness and joy,
way back when I was no more than a boy,
taught the ways of love by a woman with pale skin,
straight black hair and a taste for heroin,
a mouse that nestled ‘neath the kitchen table
while snow outside fell thick and bluish white
as we walked starlit skies until first light,
the sound of frosted drums on sparkling air,
hearth warmed by broken legs of burning chairs,
illumined by cream candles from a place of sighs,
cavernous and Church of England high,
Victorian Gothic, the essence of our style,
with dark eyes and ever wistful smile,
my shirt that bound your arms in bloody strips,
my squeamishness that turned away from whips,
leaving my sweet Venus wrapped in furs,
your black dog the gentlest of curs,
you covering the pain you gave in part
payment for the track marks on your heart,
the craziness that dragged us to the edge,
with broken fingernails to grip the ledge,
because to slip would take us from this world,
with all its frail faults and failings,
forever.

And it’s forever that I should have stayed with you,
as happiness and understanding grew,
but I was still so young and still a fool,
seventeen and barely out of school,
yet once upon a winter time was I well beloved,
in Chapel Park Road in an L-shaped room
that could have been a primal womb
in which love’s endless wonder bloomed,
and yet became instead another tomb
where love was lost and intimacy died,
where lovers rocked as for that loss they cried
and then were gone like flickering stars that hide
when dawn’s light robs them of their morning glory,
as black holes one night will devour their story,
as time’s insatiable maw devours all things,
from babies’ cries to soaring eagles’ wings,
erasing memories of gods below and gods above,
yet once upon a winter time was I well beloved.

For Toni
3rd September 2017