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Chapter 2: The Saga Poems

The praise tradition exemplified by Aneirin and Taliesin was continued by a number of anonymous poets all writing in the same tradition during the ninth and tenth centuries. Their subject is mainly the characters and events of the sixth and seventh centuries, during the long years of warfare with the Anglo-Saxon invaders. There are three main cycles, groups of poems that refer to the same story material: The "Llywarch Hen", the "Heledd," and those dealing with the death of Urien Rheged.

Like the better-known English poets of the same period, the Welsh writers made much use of situations to convey the feelings and thoughts of a speaker in certain surroundings that intensify the emotion. Indeed, Anglo-Saxon poetry, in its use of conventional motifs highly developed in Wales, often seems to consciously imitate Welsh poetry. We find the same combination of personal lament, descriptions of nature, and sententiousness in the expression of general truths or fundamental principles. The Welsh poems, setting a very early precedent, utilize the englyn metre of three lines, either the simple englyn milwr (with three mono-rhymed lines of equal length) or the more complex englyn penfyr (with the lengthened first line and short second).

All the poems in the cycle consist of dramatic utterances by the main characters. Llywarch is an old man; but his character has also been transferred from his northern British background to Wales in the context of the incessant border skirmishes with the English. His story revolves around his relationship with his twenty-four sons whom he urges to show extreme heroism on the battlefield, boasting of his own former bravery. His boasts are answered by his youngest son Gwen, who is the last to die. Llywarch is left alone to blame himself for their deaths, subsequently casting doubt on his earlier praise of death in battle as the highest honor. As in the rest of the saga poems, the emphasis is not on the deeds of the dead hero as it is on the psychological state of the lone survivor and the development of his self-knowledge. Particularly moving is the powerful climax in which Llywarch laments all that he has lost because of his own stubborness. Some stanzas from "The Old Man's Lament" drive the theme home most dramatically:

Old age is mocking me
From my hair to my teeth
And the knob women used to love

What I loved as a youth is hateful to me
A girl, a stranger, and an unbroken horse.
No indeed, they do not suit me.

Neither sleep nor merriment comes to me
Since Llawr and Gwen were slain.
I am a cantankerous carcass. I am old

Wretched the fortune given to Llywrch
From the night he was born
Long hardship and never-ending weariness.

The "Heledd Cycle" deals with the death of Cynddylan, king of northern Powys in the seventh century, whose lands were devastated by the English of Mercia. The ninth century poems do not deal with historical events but reflect the background of the border conflict. The lone survivor in this cycle is Heledd, the sister of Cynddylan. The poem concentrates on her grief as she meditates on her brothers's ruined hall, on the destruction of the land, and most poignantly, on the eagles that will feast on Cynddylan's dead body. The theme is powerfully reinforced through the use of incremental repetition, concentrating on social disintegration. Exemplified in the following lines from "Cynddylann's Hall", it is a theme that is found throughout Welsh poetry right up to modern times:
Dark is Cynddylan's hall tonight
With no fire, no bed.
I will weep awhile, then I will be silent

Dark is Cynddylan's hall tonight
With no fire, no candle.
Save for God, who will give me peace?

Dark is Cynddylan's hall tonight
With no fire, no light.
Grief for you overwhelms me.

The third cycle is the most obscure of the three: Urien Rheged's head is carried off the battle field by the narrator who laments the death of his lord: "Woe to my hand that Owain's father is killed." The strongly characterized main speaker found in the other two cycles is not present in this group of poems that are unclear and lacking lyric intensity, though the constant repetition of the cry of woe does invoke genuine lament. The remainder of the surviving saga poems do not seem to involve historical events, but merely present a dramatized situation. One deals with a passionate complaint by a leper, in which the speaker's emotional state is bitterly contrasted with the description of nature (the "Leper of Abercuawg").

In such poems a strong contrast is presented between the state of the speaker and some happier time.in his life; the descriptions of nature highlight those features of his present surroundings that affect him strongly. The poets show that they are affected by the sounds as well as the sights of nature, particularly by the cries of birds. The cry of the cuckoo, for instance, brings sorrow to all who hear it. In "The Sick Man of Abercuawg", we find the following lines:

At Aber Cuawg cuckoos sing
On blossoming branches:
Wretched is the man who hears them constantly!

At Aber Cuawg cuckoos sing.
It is most bitter to me
That one who heard them does no more

Other poems of the period relate to King Arthur. They tantalizingly suggest that there was a rich body of literary traditions about him that predated those gathered (or invented) by Geoffrey of Monmouth. In one of the poems, we find the first expression of the popular belief that Arthur did not die, but that he would one day return to lead his people to victory. This belief was so pervasive and so long-lasting in many rural parts of Britain that even Shakespeare made use of it: Macbeth, fearing the prophesies of the three witches, refers to the chough. This was a rare blackbird protected by law and believed by the country folk for centuries to be the reincarnation of Arthur (the red-legged chough appears also on the Flintshire coat of arms as well as on that of the Watkin-Williams family of North Wales).

Though much poetry did not survive the warring centuries, one that did come down to us shows the strong continuance of the tradition begun so very early on. One of these is the "Armes Prydein" (Prophecy of Britain) of about 929 AD, that mourns the death of a combined British army at the hands of the Saxon king Athelstan. For centuries the defeat of the native British and their hopes for a revival was instrumental in providing material for the body of literature known as Arthuriana.

Chapter 3: Arthuriana

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