Saturday, March 2, 2013

Day 2: "Men went to Catraeth....": Early Welsh Poetry

For the second entry in this month of Celtic poetry, I'm going back to the earliest era of poetry written in the Welsh language.  Back to the 6th and 7th centuries, to a time when multiple British kingdoms still existed and were locked in a struggle against the Saxons.  This was a golden era, at least in the minds of Welsh nationalists in later centuries; a time when the Welsh (or their cultural and linguistic forebears) ruled Britain.  This was the Age of Arthur.  A time of heroic Christian (or nominally Christian) kings and princes, heirs of the Romano-British past, who were attempting to halt Saxon expansion.  Men like Coel Hen (Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme), Urien of Rheged (now the county of Cumbria), and Arthur himself.  This era has always posed a bit of a conundrum for Welsh nationalism.  The great British kingdoms in the poetry of this era are located in what is now northern England and southern Scotland (see map).  If Wales were to separate from the United Kingdom, it would essentially be separating from lands that were central to Welsh history, literature, and identity, and giving up on the myth that one day Arthur will return and reunite the British (that is, the Celts of Great Britain).

Our entry for today is the poem Y Gododdin/The Gododdin.  This heroic poem dates to the early 7th century and is attributed to the poet Aneirin.  The poem tells the story of a group of warriors, drawn from throughout the British kingdoms, who come to Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) in the kingdom of Gododdin. They train, and are wined and dined, for a full year before embarking south to attack the Saxons at Catraeth (modern-day Catterick in Yorkshire). And, as is all too often the outcome in tales of Celtic bravery, they are defeated and nearly every warrior is killed. The long poem (97 stanzas) is a series of elegies to the warriors.

There are a number of websites providing the full text.  William F. Skene's 1869 English translation "The Gododdin Poems" is available for those who simply want to access the poem in English.  Project Gutenberg has made available Rev. John Williams' 1852 edition of the poem in Welsh (with some spelling changes to ease pronunciation), followed by the English translation, and also providing introductory text and footnotes.  The extracts below are from the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse (in Welsh), with English translations from Skene's translation.


Gwyr a aeth gatraeth oedd fraeth eu llu;
Glasfedd eu hancwyn, a gwenwyn fu,
Trichant trwy beiriant yn catau--
A gwedi elwch tawelwch fu.
Cyd elwynt lannau i benydu,
Dadl diau angau i eu treiddu.

The men went to Catraeth, loquacious was their host;
Fresh mead was their feast, and also their poison.
Three hundred were contending with weapons;
And after sportive mirth, stillness ensued!
Though they went to churches to do penance,
The inevitable strife of death was to pierce them.


Gwr a aeth Gatraeth gan ddydd,
Neu lewes ef feddgwyn feinoethydd.
Bu druan, gyfatgan gyfluydd,
Ei neges, ordrachwres drenghidydd.
     Ni chrysiws Gatraeth
     Mawr mor ehelaeth
          Ei arfaeth odd uch medd.
     Ni bu mor gyfor
     O Eiddyn ysgor
          A ysgarai oswydd.
Tudfwlch Hir, ech ei dir a'i drefydd
Ef lladdai Saeson seithfed dydd.
Perheyd ei wryd yn wrfydd
A'i gofain gan e gain gyweithydd.
Pan ddyfu Dudfwlch dud nerthydd,
Oedd gwaedlan gwyalfan Fab Cilydd.

The man went to Catraeth with the day:
Truly he quaffed the foaming mead on serene nights;
He was unlucky, though proverbially fortunate:
His mission, through ambition, was that of a destroyer.
     There hastened not to Catraeth
     A chief so magnificent
          As to his design on the standard.
     Never was there such a host
     From the fort of Eiddyn,
          That would scatter abroad the mounted ravagers.
Tudvwlch Hir, near his land and towns,
Slaughtered the Saxons for seven days.
His valour remained until he was overpowered;
And his memory will remain among his fair associates.
When Tudvwlch, the supporter of the land, arrived,
The station of the son of Cilydd became a plain of blood.


O winfaith a meddfaith yd grysiasant
Gwyr yn rhaid molaid, enaid ddichwant;
Gloyw ddull i am drull yd gydfaethant;
Gwin a medd a mall a amugsant;
O osgordd Fynyddawg andwyf adfant fy mryd,
A rhwy rhy gollais o'm gwir garant.
O drychant rhiallu yd grysiasant Gatraeth,
Tru, namyn un gwr nid atgorsant.

From the banquet of wine and mead they hastened,
Men renowned in difficulty, careless of their lives;
In bright array around the viands they feasted together;
Wine and mead and meal they enjoyed.
From the retinue of Mynyddawg I am being ruined;
And I have lost a leader from among my true friends.
Of the body of three hundred men that hastened to Catraeth,
Alas! none have returned but one alone.

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