The Poetic Tradition - Sarah Woodbury

The Poetic Tradition

Tonight the hall of my lord is dark,
With neither fire nor bed.
I will weep a while, then still myself to silence.

Tonight the hall of my lord is dark,
With neither fire nor candle.
Who will give me peace?

Tonight the hall of my lord is dark,
With neither fire nor light.
Grief for you overtakes me.

Darkness descends on the hall of my lord
The blessed assembly has departed, praying
That good comes to those of us who remain.

This poem (interpreted for my own purposes from the original: is from the Welsh poem Canu Heledd.   The poem tells a story of  Cynddylan, or Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn, a seventh century ruler  of a sub-kingdom of Gwynedd.  His father allied with Penda of Mercia, but died before 642:

“In the aftermath of victory Penda and Cynddylan seem to have fallen out and Cynddylan, allied with Morfael of Caer Lwydgoed (Lichfield), defeated an Anglo-Saxon army with bishops under the walls of the town, possibly in 655. According to the poems, Cynddylan and his brothers stood and fought at the ford of the River Tren.”

It is a modern conceit that ‘poetry is dead’; with the present state of publishing, authors of poetry have potentially a far more discouraging experience trying to get published than authors of fiction (whose experience is often plenty discouraging).

This observation, however, is far from the truth–or rather, only a particular kind of poetry is ‘dead’.   Our world is as full of poetry now as it was in the Dark Ages, in which, taking the poems of Taliesin as an example, poetry was of vital importance.  In a hall, with an illiterate population and one without the distractions and technology of today, every lord desired to have a court bard to help pass the long winter nights.  As with the bards of the twenty-first century, however, that poetry was sung, not spoken.

Up until 1282 and the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Welsh poets traveled the length and breadth of Wales, some to great reknown. Aneirin and Taliesin are the most famous poets of the 6th century, but their legacy flows down to the ages to Llywelyn’s own court poet, Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch, whose eulogy to Llywelyn was sung throughout Wales (below is my own interpretation of its translation from Welsh to English):

The wind rushes;
the rain falls
The sea crashes upon the shore;

The branches in the old oak thrash.
The sun hurls itself across the sky;
The stars fly from their moorings
And foolish men cannot see that the world is ending.

Why doesn’t the sea cover the land?
Why should we linger?
No counsel, no clasp, not a single path is left to us.
Our anguish is complete
For Llywelyn, our warlord, our dragon-king
Our Prince . . . is dead.

While generally not as tragic as this, the legacy of poetry is felt throughout our culture, most specifically in poetry set to music, available by the millions at I-tunes or on Youtube.   Spoken poetry is, in fact, the later development.  Shakespeare, for example, wrote poetry to entertain in the late 1500s, much of which he meant to have spoken, not sung (at the same time, much of his poetry that he wrote into his plays was also set to music).

Speaking poetry insteaded of singing it emerged as a real force in the 18th century with romanticism, as a product of the enlightenment.  The age of the romantic poets brings us the household names of Woodsworth, Keats, Burns, Shelley, Lord Byron and many others.

It is ironic that the reason we think poetry is less popular than it used to be is because this latter form of poetry is less common, rather than realizing that lyrics as poetry has continued within our culture in a long, uninterrupted stream.

4 Replies to “The Poetic Tradition”

  1. Hi, in the eulogy composed by Llywelyn’s court bard does he not mention the slaying of the eighteen?

    1. In searching for the full text, I found this by Bleddyn Fardd:

      And this by Gruffydd ap Ynad Coch:

      He has another poem here:
      Gryffydd ap yr Ynad Coch was one of many Welsh poets to write of Llywelyn’s death; the following is taken from DS Evans’ LITERATURE OF THE KYMRY (1876: 370-371):

      ‘Woe, ye tents of Cadwaladr, that the obstructor of the flood is pierced!
      It is my lot to complain of Saxon treachery…
      A lord I have lost, well may I mourn,
      A lord of a royal palace, slain by a human hand,
      A lord righteous and truthful: listen to me.
      I soar to complain. Oh that I should have cause!
      A lord victorious until the 18 were slain.
      A lord who was gentle, whose possession is now the silent earth.
      A lord who was like a lion, ruling the elements…
      Where shall we flee? to whom complain
      Since our dear Llewelyn’s slain?…
      A head which, when severed, was not avenged by Kymry.’

  2. Actually, if i’m not mistaken, “the church”, in 1209 CE, literally put a ban on travelors singing tales… as if akin to spells…?
    (yah, if i’m not mistaken.)
    Too much information, perhaps?
    (Now where on earth did i read that?)
    Well, having been reading your blog/s for better part of an evening, there is no doubt you will ferret that one out well.

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