Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Gododdin by Gillian Clarke (Faber 2021) A Review of sorts

The Gododdin. Lament for the Fallen.
 A Version by Gillian Clarke. (Faber 2021)

(Book includes an introduction by the poet, and the Welsh and English texts on facing pages.)


Soldiers stormed, fired up by mead,

Mynyddawg’s men, as one they died.

Famous in the war, they paid

For all night feasting with their lives.


Caradog. Madog, Pwyll and Ieuan,

Gwgon, Gwiawn, Gwyn and Cynfan,

Steel-armed Peredur,

Aeddan and Gwawrddur.

Shield-Shattered fighters slew and were slain.

Not one of them came home again.



Y Gododdin may be the ‘oldest surviving British poem’. You can split hairs and call it ‘The earliest Scottish’ or ‘The earliest Welsh’ but those terms would be anachronistic. Although only surviving in a manuscript from the 13th century, it purports to be the work of Aneirin, who may have lived sometime around the end of the 6th, the same time as Taliesin. It is a collection of individual poems ‘Gorchenau’ celebrating the deaths of men in a battle that may have been fought on an unknown date in a place that is often identified as modern Catterick.


Historically there’s a lot of ifs buts and maybes. 


There is no narrative, but the ‘background story’ can be pieced together. Mynyddawg the Generous, the Luxurious, the Magnificent, gathered an army by feasting it for a year. At the end of the year 300 or three hundred and thirty three rode south from modern Edinburg and were slaughtered. Only one man, the poet, survived the disaster. Or perhaps three men. And the poet. Or three men including the poet. You could be cynical and say this is the foundation text for the great British habit of celebrating its military disasters.


Establishing a text has taxed the skills of some of the most prominent students of early Welsh. Anyone interested in the difficulties should try Kenneth Jackson’s The Gododdin (Edinburgh University Press, 1969), in which he scrupulously provided a literal reading of the poems, acknowledging where he could not provide either a reading of the text or a translation of what he’d read.


The original manuscript is difficult to decipher, once deciphered the language itself is hard to read, archaic in places. What, if any, of the text can be reliably dated back to Aneirin is a matter for scholarly debate. This may seem academic but what Clarke calls the ‘earliest known reference to Arthur’ is only ‘the earliest reference’ if that particular line can be dated with confidence. 


While we should be grateful for all this scholarly attention, without it there would be little chance of reading the poem, it tends to reduce the poems to a potential, but highly problematic, historical source which might date to a period where there is an astonishing scarcity of insular texts.


If you’re not interested in the history, why bother? The first answer is obvious if you ever have  the chance to hear Y Gododdin read by a native welsh speaker. If poetry is words organised to pattern sound, or patterned sound organising words, Y Gododdin is a marvel.  


The experience of reading the poem takes the reader out of modern assumptions about poetry, poet and poem. The Gododdin is a public poem, designed to be recited to an audience. The Bard’s role here is to celebrate the dead, to record for posterity that these men earned their mead. 


In her introduction, Gillian Clarke shows she is aware of all the scholarly debates but sets them to one side, and approaches the poem as poem. This presents its own problems, of which she is also very aware. The languages and poetics are so different that any attempt to copy Welsh poetics into English tends to be unimpressive. It’s as though the high stepping, graceful Welsh pony has suddenly become an arthritic elephant with indigestion. Clark successfully avoids this. The book is very carefully titled ‘A version’, perhaps to ward off the attention of the small group of experts who could challenge the literal rendering of her work, and in her introduction she claims her aim was to produce a version which works in English. I think she has succeeded. 


Compare Jackson’s consciously literal version of these lines:


And unless one had been well-nourished it was not possible to withstand Cadfannan’s blow. (Jackson)


With Clarke’s and then with Clancy’s.


Armour and shield could not save them.

None but the nourished fight Cadfannan (Clarke p.9)


None could, on mead he was nourished,

Ward of the stroke of Cadfannan. (Clancy p 34)


So if you want an English translation of the Gododdin, this is it. It’s not literal, but it sings in English. If you’re curious what a poem written over a thousand years ago might look like, or you want to read a version of a poem that was important to David Jones and Basil Bunting, Clark’s version is the one to read. (There are others, but they are becoming impossible to obtain. And while we’re at it, Bunting’s ‘I heard Aneirin Number the dead’ passage in Briggflats is probably the neatest introduction to the poem you’ll find.)




Reading from beginning to end is a strange experience. The names blur, the verses blur, this is not the rhetorical device of repetition with variation, this reflects the fact that the options the poet’s culture had for praise were limited. X was brave, X was generous, X fought like an animal, X died.


The world evoked is also strange. The highest praise this culture could offer a man was to say he was eager for battle, a ferocious, exuberant, merciless killer, and he died slaughtering his enemies. And while my admiration for the translation should now be obvious, I’m not so impressed with the packaging. 


I may be in a diminishing minority, but I prefer the past plain. (or as plain as it can be). I don’t want it softened or censored. 


The book is subtitled ‘A Lament for the Fallen’ and the blurb tells us that ‘Clarke animates this historical epic with a modern musicality, making it live in the language of today and underscoring, that, in a world still beset by the misery of war, Aneirin’s lamentation is not done.’


From one of the UK’s leading poetry publishers the sloppy description of the poems as an epic is surprising. But what do the words ‘Lament’ and  ‘The Fallen’ evoke for you? A minute’s silence on Armistice day, the bugler playing the last post, the solemn laying of wreaths at the cenotaph and those seemingly endless rows of crosses in France? If you’re Australian or a New Zealander, the dawn service on Anzac day?  


To present The Gododdin as a lament is to misrepresent the poem. There are occasionally verse that express sadness, but there are very few and they are swamped by the rest of the poems. The majority of verses are celebrations of the violent deaths of exuberant killers. 


To present this as ‘a lament’ is to soften it, to use a loaded phrase like ‘the fallen’ is to associate these dark age killers with the volunteers and conscripts of the first world war or the professional soldiers of the twentieth and twenty first century. It seems like an attempt to make Y Gododdin more acceptable, more ‘relevant’ to a modern reader who obviously lacks the imagination or curiosity or willingness to encounter the past in all its confronting strangeness. 


Medieval Welsh could do laments. In the poems of the Llwyarch Hen cycle, or the poems in Canu Heledd, the personal cost of warfare is made obvious. Heledd laments the death of her bothers:


The hall of Cyndyllan is dark tonight

Without a fire, without a bed

I will weep and be silent. 


But is this a lament?


Flaunting a brooch, he rode ahead,

Warrior, princely leader,

Killed five times fifty with his sword.

Two thousand men of Deifr and Brynaich’s men

Died in an hour in mire and mud and blood.


Sooner meat for the wolf than to his wedding.

Sooner carrion for the crow than priest-blessing.

Before his burial, the field lay bleeding.

In the hall where mead flowed free

the poet will praise Hyfaidd Hir.


The Gododdin is the lie one generation told the next. Be a ferocious warrior, disdain the soft things in life, be eager for battle, be happy to die knowing your name will live on forever in the poets’ words. (Ironically of three hundred, not all are remembered with their own verse.)


In the context of its time it was a necessary lie. These men are not fighting for creed, country or ideology. They are fighting for stuff; to protect their Lord’s boundaries, cattle, and wealth or to steal another Lord’s land, cattle, and wealth. 


At a time when the elite were armed and combat of one sort or another was a part of life, you want your young men to believe the lie. Because if your young men say, well, actually, no, we’d rather not fight, there are better to things to do, then you’re going to be raided, enslaved, or killed. And you’re not going to inspire the next generation if you tell them the reality of being stabbed and hacked and bleeding out on a battle field, or losing consciousness as the ravens start on your eyeballs. 


The poet wants his audience to believe that the heroes of the previous generation sought death in battle in the hope that their dying was worth a song. In reality, they risked death or injury in battle because that’s what men of their class did to earn stuff to improve their lifestyle. Their goal was to die of old age, surrounded by friends and family in relative prosperity. 


If they had all known they were all going to die at Catraeth, they might have preferred to stay at home.


Attempting to domesticate the past so it can be packaged to a modern audience might make sense to the marketing agency, but it is a trendy mistake. It’s the flip side of cancel culture. Neither wants to deal with the past as it was. 


The Gododdin is a relic from a very different world.


Sooner meat for the wolf than to his wedding.

Sooner carrion for the crow than priest-blessing.


Imagine saying this of a young man today? We criminalise or professionalise our killers. If this was true of Hyfaidd Hir, then he would be a disturbed, disturbing personality in our society. Pretending he is one of the ‘fallen’ like the volunteers on the Somme, who left their daily lives to become ‘soldiers for the duration’ is to misrepresent him and his culture and the soldiers on the Somme. 


The past, especially the early medieval past, should knock us back on our heels. Reading The Gododdin should not be a comfortable experience. And on the recoil, we should be thinking  that if the Aneirin’s of the world are ‘still singing’ their lie, then it’s about time they shut up. 


Gillian Clarke’s excellent translation deserved better packaging. 


 (And one minor quibble. It’s a bonus to have an easily available Welsh text of the poem, but there needed to be a note explaining how the editors arrived at this particular version of text.)

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