interval from 655, when they were subjected to the kingdom of Northumbria by Oswy after the defeat of Cadwallawn and Penda, to the battle of Dunnichen in 686, when Ecfrid, king of Northumbria, was defeated. From the 7th to the 9th century Cumbria, including under that name all the British territory from the Ribble to the Clyde, was the principal theatre of British and Saxon conflict. The rise of the dynasty of Maelgwn Gwynedd, who, according to Welsh tradition, was a descendant of Cunedda Wledig, one of the Picts of the north, brought Wales into close connexion with the Cumbrian kingdom, and prepared both North and South Wales for the reception of the northern traditions and the rise of a true Welsh literature.
Whether the poets of the north really wrote any of the poems which in a modified form have come down to us or not, there can be no doubt that a number of lays attributed to them lived in popular tradition, and that under the sudden burst of glory which the deeds of Cadwallawn called forth and which ended in the disastrous defeat of 655, a British literature began to spring up, and was nourished by the hopes of a future resurrection under his son Cadwaladr, whose death was disbelieved in for such a long time. These floating lays and traditions gradually gathered into North Wales, brought thither by the nobility and the bards who fled before advancing hosts of the victorious Saxon kings of the north. The heroes of the north became now the heroes of Wales, and the sites of the battles they fought were identified with places of similar name in Wales and England.
By far the longest and the most famous poem of this series is attributed to Aneurin. This spelling of his name is comparatively modern, and in the old manuscripts it is given as Aneirin. The later form seems to have been affected Aneurin by the form eurin, “golden,” and to owe the continuation of the misspelling to a belief that the poet and Gildas, whose name is supposed to be the Latin form of the Old English gylden, were one and the same person. This poem, called the Gododin (with notes by T. Stephens and published by Prof. Powel for the Cymmrodorion Society, London, 1888), is extremely obscure, both on account of its vocabulary and its topography and allusions. It deals mainly with “the men who went to Cattraeth,” which is supposed to have been fought between the Britons and the Scots under Aedan, king of Dalriada, and the pagan Saxons and their British subjects in Devyr (Deira) and Bryneich (Bernicia), and the half-pagan Picts of Guotodin, a district corresponding to the northern half of the Lothians along the Firth of Forth. Critics have attempted with partial success to cast some light on its obscurity by supposing that the poem as a whole is made up of two parts dealing with two distinct battles. This may or may not be, but there is no doubt that many of the stanzas of the poem as found in the manuscript are not in their proper places, and a critical readjustment of the different stanzas and lines would do much towards solving its problem. It seems probable, too, that the original nucleus of the poem was handed down orally, and recited or sung by the bards and minstrels at the courts of different noblemen. It thus became the common stock-in-trade of the Welsh rhapsodist, and in time the bards, using it as a kind of framework, added to it here and there pieces of their own composition formed on the original model, especially when the heroes named happened to be the traditional forefathers of their patrons, and occasionally introduced the names of new heroes and new places as it suited their purpose; and all this seems to have been done in early times. Older fragments dealing too with the legendary heroes of the Welsh were afterwards incorporated with the poem, and some of these fragments undoubtedly preserve the orthographical and grammatical forms of the 9th century. So that, on the whole, it seems as fruitless to look for a definite record of historical events in this poem as it would be to do so in the Homeric poems, but like them, though it cannot any longer be regarded as a correct and definite account of a particular battle or war, it still stands to this day the epic of the warriors of its own nation. It matters not whether these heroes fought at far Cattraeth or on some other forgotten field of disaster; this song still reflects, as a true national epic, the sad defeats and the brave but desperate rallies of the early Welsh. Like the music of the Welsh, its dominant note is that of sadness, expressing the exultation of battle and the very joy of life in minor notes. To a great extent Welsh poets are to this day true and faithful disciples of this early master.
Many of the poems attributed to Taliessin are undoubtedly late. Indeed, both Taliessin and Myrddin, the one as the mythological chief of all Welsh bards and the other as a great magician, seem pre-eminently suited to attract a great Taliessin. deal of later Welsh poetry under their aegis; but the older poems attributed to them are worthy of any literature. Sometimes, as in the verses attributed to Llywarch Hen beginning Stafell Cynddylan, an early specimen of poetic grief over departed glory, we find that gentle elegiac note which is so common in early English poetry. In the Taliessinic poems, the Battle of Argoed Llwyvain and others, we have that boldness of portraiture which is found in the Gododin, whilst in many a noble line we seem to hear again the ravens screaming shrilly over their sword-feasts, and the strong strokes of the advancing warriors.
It was but natural that all the pseudo-prophetic poems, written of course after the events which they foretold, should be attributed to the chief among seers, Myrddin, or, as Merlin. his name is written in English, Merlin; so that all the poems accredited to him, with the exception perhaps of the Avallenau, were not written before the 12th century.
In most of the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen and in some of the Myrddin poems, the verses begin with the same line, which, though it has no direct reference to the subject of the poem itself, is used as a refrain or catch-word, exactly like the refrains employed by Mr Swinburne and others in their ballads. These lines generally refer to some natural object or objects, as, for instance, “the snow of the mountain” or “bright are the tops of the broom.”
The first period, then, of Welsh literature lies between 700 and 950. It is in most respects the epic period, the period in which poets wrote of great men and their deeds, the legendary and the historic heroes of the Cymry, men like Urien Rheged, and heroes like Hyveidd Hir. Even in the next period the epic note had not quite died out.
3. The Prose Romances and the Poet Princes, 1100-1290.—It will be seen that there is a considerable gap between the first and second period of Welsh literature. It must not be supposed, however, that nothing was composed or written during these years. Indeed, it may well be that some of the poetry attributed to the minor bards of the last period was composed between 900 and 1100, and that some other poetry too was written and lost. But there are abundant reasons for believing that Welsh poetry was at a very low ebb during those years. The progress of Wales as a political unit had suffered a check after the battle of Chester in 613. The effects of this defeat were not immediate, as the Welsh had still enough of their characteristic hopefulness to expect ultimate victory; we therefore have reasons for believing The Gododin series. that the Gododin series of poems were still used—or perhaps used then for the first time—to spur on “the hawks of war” to greater efforts. Gradually, however, the Angles, hemming them in on all sides from the Clyde to the Severn, began to press nearer and nearer; the Welsh at last seem to have lost heart, and no one any longer “had the desire of song.” Content with their old epics and their older myths, which owe perhaps to these years a darker and more sombre tinge, they allowed their song to be hushed. The great lords had hardly chosen their final abodes; the smaller lords had all been killed in war and their places taken now by one, now by another, so that the warrior prince himself had not the leisure, and hardly the inspiration necessary, for song, and the bards found but scanty patronage among such a diminished and poverty-stricken nobility. The only order that seemed to prosper was that of the monks, and we owe them our gratitude for
- It is indeed probable that Myrddin is a purely fictitious character, whose name has been made up from Caer Fyrddin (= Maridunum), which was certainly not a personal name.