Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Day 5: Marwnad Owain ab Urien and the Role of the Bard

Today’s post focuses on two aspects of Welsh poetic tradition: the elegy and the role of the bard in Welsh society. The poet’s job was to maintain and transmit oral tradition as well as sing praises to, and maintain the memory of, great leaders. These roles were divided between two groups within the poetic class: those that maintain tradition and history (known as the fili in Ireland) and the professional poets, bards, who were employed by noblemen and leaders to sing praises and elegies, maintain genealogies, and entertain at court. No self-respecting Great Man in Celtic society would be without his bard.

The Marwnad Owain ab Urien is an early example of an elegy in memory of a great man. Written by Taliesin in the 6th century, the poem honors Owain ab [son of] Urien, King of Rheged. It also provides a good example of the use of complex rhyming and similarity of sounds employed by Welsh poets. For instance, in the third through sixth lines below:

Internal rhyme within the 3rd line: udd and cudd
End and internal rhyme between the 3rd and 4th lines: tromlas and fas
End rhymes between the 4th and 6th: gywyddaid and llifaid
End rhyme and internal rhymes in the 5th and 6th: clodfawr, gwawr, and gwaywawr
Similar sounds at beginning of 5th and 6th lines: Isgell and esgyll

Over time, Owain would be remembered in literature as one of Arthur’s knights of round table, and would be the main character in Chrestien de Troyes’s Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. He also features in the collection of Welsh tales, The Mabinogion, in Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain, and The Dream of Rhonabwy.

The Marwnad Owain ap Urien is from the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse. The English translation that follows is by W.F. Skene, available at http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/t44.html.


Enaid Owain ab Urien,
Gobwyllid Rheen o’i raid.
Rheged udd ae cudd tromlas,
Nid oedd fas ei gywyddaid.
Isgell gwr cerddglyd clodfawr,
Esgyll gwawr gwaywawr llifaid.
Cany cheffir cystedlydd
I udd Llwynfenydd llathraid.
Medel gallon, gefeilad,
Eisylud ei dad a’i daid.

Pan laddawd Owain Fflamddwyn
Nid oedd fwy nogyd cysgaid.
Cygid Lloegr llydan nifer
A lleufer yn eu llygaid;
A rhai ni ffoynt haeach
A oeddynt hyach no rhaid.
Owain a’u cosbes yn ddrud,
Mal cnud yn dylud defaid.
Gwr gwiw uch ei amliw seirch
A roddai feirch i erichiaid.
Cyd as cronnai mal called,
Rhy ranned rhag ei enaid.
Enaid Owain ab Urien,
Gobwyllid Rheen o’i raid.

The soul of Owain son of Urien.
May its Lord consider its need.
The chief of Rheged, the heavy sward conceals him.
His knowledge was not shallow.
A low cell (contains) the renowned protector of bards,
the wings of dawn were the flowing of his lances.
For there will not be found a match
for the chief of the glittering west.
The reaper of the tenacious foes.
The offspring of his father and grandfather.

When Flamdwyn killed Owain,
there was not one greater than he sleeping.
A wide number of Lloegyr
went to sleep with light in their eyes
And those that fled not instantly
were beyond necessity.
Owain valiantly chastised them,
like a pack (of wolves) pursuing sheep.
A worthy man, upon his many-coloured trappings,
he would give horses to those that asked.
While he hoarded hard money,
it was not shared for his soul.
The soul of Owain, son of Urien.

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