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Welsh Literature

Welsh poets, Book of Taliesin, Drinking Horn, Thomas Jones, Welsh language

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Welsh Literature, literature written in the Welsh language. The earliest Welsh poetry is ascribed to Aneirin and Taliesin, two 6th-century poets living in Welsh territory far north, in what is now part of Scotland. Their poems survive, greatly altered, in The Book of Aneirin and The Book of Taliesin, 13th-century manuscripts. The poems fall mainly into two categories: eulogies, which sing the praise of kings and heroes and elegies, which lament the ruin and desolation of the world and express longing for days gone by.

The first important prose work in Welsh was the 10th-century law code, The Laws of Hywel Dda. In the next century appeared “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi”, a collection of four related tales, reflecting ancient myth and half-forgotten tradition, written down by an unknown author of exceptional skill. To these were added four independent native Welsh tales and three romances reimported from France: the latter, having originally gone to France from Wales, hold certain strands of the Arthurian legend. This material was first translated (1849) by Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Guest under the title The Mabinogion. An exemplary translation (1948) by the Welsh scholars Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, which continues the misnomer Mabinogion as its title, has superseded all others.

The Bardic Guilds

Meanwhile a school of court bards had arisen, organized in guilds that set precise standards for writing and reciting. Bardic rules were often ignored, however, and, despite a certain amount of conventional literature, poems of true genius appeared. Occasionally the bard was a prince and enjoyed great artistic freedom, as, for example, Owain Cyfeiliog, who wrote the Hirlas (The Long Gray Drinking Horn), a description of warriors celebrating a victory.

The Age of the Cywydd

The conquest of Wales by King Edward I of England in the 13th century almost eradicated the bardic tradition. A revitalization of poetry occurred, however, with the work of Dafydd ap Gwilym, foremost of all Welsh poets and one of the great poets of medieval Europe. Writing of nature, beauty, and love with both passion and humor, he used a flexible verse form called the cywydd. The cywydd reached its fruition in the works of such 15th-century poets as Lewis Glyn Cothi and Guto'r Glyn.

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