Skene's Four Ancient Books of
RECENT CRITICISM OF HISTORICAL POEMS EXAMINED.
The objections under the second
proposition apply mainly to the poems classed
by Mr. Stephens and Mr. Nash as historical. Mr. Stephens maintains that there
are not only in some of these poems direct allusions to persons and events of a
later date than the period when the poems must have been composed, if they are
genuine, but also that, in most of the poems, it can be shown that allusions
which have been supposed to refer to early events were really intended to apply
to those of a later date, and that later persons are indicated under the names
of earlier heroes.BLACK BOOK OF CAERMARTHEN.
Now, here also I go along with the objection, so far as direct allusions are
made to later persons and events, but there I stop.
When I find in the Black Book a poem on the death of Howel ap
which he is named, I can have no difficulty in believing it to apply to Howel ap
Goronwy, who died in 1103, and that it must have been written after that date.
The poems in the Black Book bearing to be the composition of Cynddelw are of
course not within the scope of our inquiry. The poem in the Red Book attributed
to Myrddin, which mentions Coch o Normandi, I can have no
doubt refers to William Rufus, as I find him called Y Brenhyn Coch
in the Brut y Tywysogion. The poems referring to Mab Henri, or the son of
Henri, I can have equally little doubt proceeded from Glamorgan, and refer to
Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the son of King Henry I.; and the Hoianau, which
mentions the five chiefs from Normandy, and the fifth going to Ireland, must
have been composed, either in whole or in part, in the reign of Henry II.
The attempt which Mr. Stephens makes, however, and in which he is followed by
Mr. Nash, to show that the greater proportion of these poems contain indirect
allusions to later events, is, in my opinion, unsuccessful, and will not bear
examination. it is this criticism which mainly affects a large number of the
poems attributed to Taliessin, and it appears to me to be superficial and
inconclusive in its reasoning, and based upon fancied resemblances, which have
no true foundation in fact. Mr. Stephens, in a series of articles on the poems
of Taliessin, which appeared in the ArchŠologia Cambrensis
subsequent to the publication of the Literature of the Cymry, has, to
some extent, modified the views expressed in the latter work. Of the poems which
he there classed as doubtful he now removes three, and, of those in the fifth
class, two, to the first class of genuine poems; but the mere fact that he does
so on a more careful examination will show how superficial the grounds must have
been on which he made that classification.
The mode in which he has dealt with two of the poems will afford a good
illustration of the character of this criticism. Among the poems in the Book of
Taliessin is one called Marwnad Corroi m. Dayry, or the death-song of
Corroi, son of Dayry (B. T. 42). In his Literature of the Kymry Mr.
Stephens places this poem in his fifth class of "Predictive poems, twelfth
and succeeding centuries," but in a paper in the ArchŠologia Cambrensis
(vol. ii. p. 151) he gives his more matured views, and reverses this verdict. He
now considers it to have been written about 640. The grounds upon which he comes
to this conclusion are these. The poem alludes to a contention between Corroi
and Cocholyn (Kyfranc Corroi a Cocholyn). Here is his own account of his
process:--"The name of Corroi's opponent piqued my curiosity. I forthwith
went in search of his history in the Anglo-Saxon Annals, and, much to my
delight, the personage whom I sought appeared in good company, being Cuichelm,
one of the West Saxon kings." He then gives extracts from the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle of the event, connected with Cuichelm from A.D. 611 to 626, when he
died. He confesses he can make nothing of Corroi, but he immediately identifies
Cocholyn with Cuichelm, and forthwith removes the date of the composition of the
poem from the twelfth to the seventh century. This is a good specimen of the
mode in which this kind of criticism is made to tell upon the dates of the
poems. If there is any poem in which we can predicate with certainty of the
subject of it, it is this; and if Mr. Stephens, instead
of betaking himself to the Saxon Chronicle, had gone to Ireland for his hero, he
would have been more successful. Cocholyn is no other than the celebrated
Ossianic hero Cuchullin, and Corroi, son of Dayry, was the head of the knights
of Munster. They are mentioned together in an old: Irish. tract, which says,
"This was the cause which brought Cuchulain and Curoi son of Daire from
Alban to Erin."1
The allusions in the poem are to the events of a legendary tale in which these
heroes figure, and there are none to any other events. The poem belongs to a
period when there was more intercommunion between the different branches of the
British Celts, and when they had a common property in their early myths.
The other poem is one in the Red Book of Hergest commonly called Anrhec Urien
(R. B. 17). It is likewise placed by Mr. Stephens in the same class of
predictive, poems of the twelfth century, and in an article in the same volume
of the ArchŠologia Cambrensis (p. 206), Mr. Stephens adheres to this
opinion as to its date, and maintains that it refers to events of the eleventh
century. These events are supposed to be contained in a series of extracts from
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Brut y Tywysogion, ranging from 1055 to
1063, but the reader will seek in vain for anything but the most vague and
general resemblance, which might be equally well traced between the allusions in
the poem and any other series of events. Mr. Nash makes much shorter
work of it. His argument is this:--The poem mentions a battle of Corsfochno. The Hoianau also refers to a battle of
Corsfochno. The Hoianau was
written in the twelfth century, therefore this poem also was written in the
twelfth century! Admitting that the Hoianau was written in the twelfth century,
does it follow that a poem of that date may not refer to an event of an earlier
period? The Hoianau mentions likewise Rhydderch Had and the battle of Argoed
Llwyfain, and both belong to an early period. There can be no doubt as to
Rhydderch Hael being a real person in the sixth century, and as little that the
battle of Argoed Llwyfain was a real event of the same century. Both Mr.
Stephens and Mr. Nash admit it. Mr. Stephens, in his Literature of the Kymry,
says, with his usual candour: "Corsfochno is in Cardiganshire, but I can
find no other notice of this battle than another prediction;" but in his
article on this poem he endeavours to find a notice of it in some lines of
Gwalchmai, who flourished in the twelfth century, and Mr. Nash adopts the.
conclusion at once. Corsfochno, however, was a real place, and these lines only
refer to events in South Wales having been tra Corsfochno, beyond
Let us now see whether another construction may not be put upon this poem,
which is, to say the least of it, equally well borne out. The poem opens with a
greeting of Urien Reged. It then mentions three of the sons of Llywarch Hon--Jeuaf,
Ceneu, and Selev. It then alludes to a competition between "
four men maintaining their place with four hundred, with the deepest water." One
of these is mentioned as
Dragon from Gwynedd of precipitous lands and gentle towns.
Surely this was
enough to have indicated at once Maelgwn Gwynedd, whom Gildas calls "the
insular dragon," as the person probably alluded to. Then another is thus
alluded to as
A Bear from the South, he will arise,
and Cyneglas is called by Gildas a "Bear and the Charioteer of a
Bear." If two of the four men thus indicate two of Gildas's kings, we may,
well presume that the four men meant are his four kings of Wales. It is said of
the Dragon of Gwynedd--
Killing and drowning from Eleri (a river in
Corsfochno) to Chwilfynydd,
A conquering and unmerciful one will triumph;
Small will be his army on returning from the (action of) Wednesday.
He that will escape from the affair of Corsfochno will be
Now, does not this
contest between the four men, in which the deep waters play a part, and the
Dragon of Gwynedd triumphs, and which is said to be the affair of Corsfochno,
very plainly refer to the transaction at Corsfochno, whatever it really was, by
which Maelgwn Gwynedd, the insular dragon, became supreme sovereign of Wales,
and in which these northern chiefs may have taken a part? The reference to Urien
at the end--
Urien of Reged, generous he is and will be,
is conclusive as to the antiquity of the poem. If it had been composed in the
twelfth century, when all memory of the Cymric states in the north had passed
away, Urien would have been brought to South Wales, where the later bards had
provided a Reged for him between the Tawy and the Towy.
And has been since Adam.
He, proud in the hall, has the most wide-spreading sword
Among the thirteen kings of "Y Gogledd," or the North--
It is needless to examine more of this criticism. These two specimens will
suffice, and the notes to the poems will indicate, as far as possible, the real
events referred to. The real character and bearing of this criticism upon the
poems may be sufficiently indicated by a short illustration. Let us suppose that
the question is the genuinuess of the poem called The Wallace, attributed
to a popular minstrel Blind Harry. Why, we might suppose Mr. Stephens and Mr.
Nash would say, Here is a battle fought by Wallace against the English at
Falkirk. We know the real battle of Falkirk was fought against the English by
Prince Charles Edward in 1746. Wallace heads an insurrection against the
English, so does Prince Charles. It is quite clear that the battle of Falkirk in
1746 is the real battle; under the name of Wallace, an ancient hero, Prince
Charles is meant, and we must bring down the age of the poem to the eighteenth
century. In using this illustration I do not think I am caricaturing this branch
of the recent criticism.
The objections taken to these poems under the third proposition are, that the
orthography and verbal forms are not older than the date of the MSS. in which
they were transcribed, and that the poetical structure and the sentiments they
breathe are analogous to the poetry of a later age. Mr. Stephens, by admitting
that some of the poems are genuine, neutralises the first branch of this
objection entirely, and the second to some extent. If some of the poems are
pronounced to be ancient, notwithstanding the orthography being of a later date,
so may all, and Mr. Stephens is bound to show that there is a marked difference
between the poetical form and the sentiments of the poems he rejects and those
he admits to be genuine, before he can found upon such an argument. Mr. Nash,
however, goes further. He does not absolutely deny that some of the poems may be
genuine, but he does not admit that any are older than the MSS. in which they
appear, and he throws upon the advocates of their authenticity the burden of
proving that they are older, notwithstanding their structure and orthography.
It may be admitted that these poems, as well as all such documents, whatever
their age may be, usually appear, in so far as their orthography and verbal
forms are concerned, in the garb of the period when the MS. in which they appear
was transcribed. The scribes of those times had not the spirit of the
antiquaries of the present, which leads them to preserve the exact spelling and
form of any ancient document they print. When such poems were handed down
orally, those who recited them did not do so in the older forms of an earlier period, but in the
language of their own. In their vernacular forms, a process of phonetic
corruption and alteration was going on, but it was a gradual and insensible one,
and the language of the poems was easily adapted to it as their spoken idiom.
The reciters and the hearers both wished to understand the historic and national
lays they were, dealing with; and the reciter no more thought it necessary, in
transcribing them from older MSS., to preserve their more ancient form, than he
did, in reciting them orally, to preserve any other form of the, language than
the one in which he heard them repeated. This is not peculiar to Welsh MSS., but
is true of all such records. The only exception was when the scribe did not
understand the piece which he was transcribing, and retained the old forms, and
hence arise those pieces which appear in an obsolete form of the language with
glosses. There was also this peculiarity in Welsh MSS., that there had been at
intervals great and artificial changes in the orthography, and the scribe was no
doubt wedded to the orthographic system of the day.
It is fortunate, however, that these poems are contained in MSS. of different
dates, as it affords at once a test of the soundness of this objection. Between
the Black Book of Caermarthen and the Red Book of Hergest there is an interval
of two centuries, and the Books of Aneurin and Taliessin stand between them.
Now, there are poems in the Red Book of Hergest and in the Book of Taliessin
which are also to be found in the Black Book of Caermarthen. Had this latter MS. not been preserved, there
would have been no older text of these poems than in the two former MSS., and
Mr. Nash's argument as to their being no older than the MS. in which they appear
would have applied with equal force, but here we have the same text nearly two
Let us then compare a few lines of the same poem in each Book:--
Adwin caer ẏssit ar lan llẏant
BOOK OF TALIESSIN.
Adwin ẏd rotir ẏ pauper ẏ chwant.
Gogẏwarch de gwinet boed tev wẏant,
Gwaewaur rrin. Rei adarwant.
Dẏv merchir. gueleisse guir ẏg cvinowant.
Dẏv iev bv. ir. guarth. it adcorssant.
Ad oet brẏger coch. ac och ar dant.
Oet llutedic guir guinet. Dit ẏ deuthant.
Ac am kewin llech vaelvẏ kẏlchuẏ wriwant
Cuẏtin ẏ can keiwin llv o carant.
Adu˙yn gaer yssyd ar lan lliant.
BLACK BOOK OF CAERMARTHEN.
Adu˙yn yt rodir y pa˙b ychwant.
Gogyfarch ti vynet boet teu u˙yant.
G˙aywa˙r ryn rein a derllyssant.
Du˙ merchyr g˙eleis wyr ygkyfnofant.
Dyfieu bu g˙artheu a amugant
Ac yd oed vriger coch ac och ardant.
Oed lludued vynet dyd y doethant
Ac am gefyn llech vael˙y kylch˙y vriwaut
C˙ydyn ygan gefyn llu o garant.
Rac gereint gelin kẏstut
RED BOOK OF HERGEST.
Y gueleise meirch can crinvrut
A gwidẏ gaur garv achlut
Rae gereint gelyn kẏthrud
But there are indications in the Black Book of Caermarthen that in some of
the poems the writer had transcribed from some older record, and had not always
understood what he wrote. The fact that no older record has come down to us, is
no proof that it never existed; and had such record been preserved, we no doubt
would have found a difference between its text and that of the Black Book,
analogous to the difference between the latter and the Red Book of Hergest. Had
we the Book that Scolan confesses to have drowned, it might have settled the
G˙eleis y veirch dan gymryd
A g˙edy ga˙r gar˙ achlud.
But though we have no older record of any of the existing poems than the
Black Book of Caermarthen, we have two fragments of other poems of older date,
and these may help us to penetrate still a little further back. The first is a
verse preserved in the old Welsh Laws, and there expressly said to have been
sung by Taliessin. The other is the short poem preserved in the Cambridge
Juvencus. It is not attributed to any bard, but it approaches so
closely, in style, structure, and sentiment, to one of the
poems attributed to Llywarch Hen, as to leave no rational doubt that they are by
the same author. Though we cannot compare them with the same passages in the
later MSS., we may place them in contrast with passages as nearly approaching to
them in metre and style as we can find.
In comparison with the first, let us take three lines in the same metre out
of the first poem in the Book of Taliessin, which is also to be found in the Red
Book of Hergest. And with the other let us compare a few stanzas in the poems of
Llywarch Hen which most nearly approach it:--
OLD WELSH LAWS.
Kickleu odures eu llaueneu
BOOK OF TALIESSIN.
Kan Run en rudher bedineu
Guir Aruon rudyon euredyeu
Achyn mynh˙yf derwyn creu
RED BOOK OF HERGEST.
Achyn del ewynuri˙ ar vyggeneu
Achyn vyghyfalle ar y llathen preu
A chynn mynn˙yf deruyn creu
A chynn del ewynri˙ ar vynggeneu
A chynn vyngkyualle ar llathen preu
RED BOOK OF HERGEST.
Henoid. Mitelu nit gurmaur.
Mi. amfranc dam amcalaur
Nicanu niguardam nicusam
Henoid. Cet iben med nouel.
Mi amfranc dam an patel
Stauell gyndylan ystywyll
BLACK BOOK OF CAERMARTHEN.
Heno. Heb dan heb gannwyll
Namyn du˙ p˙y am dyry p˙yll
Stauell gyndylan ystywyll
Heno. Heb dan heb oleuat.
Elit amda˙ am danat
Pan wisgei garanmael, gat peis kynndylan
A phyrydya˙ y onnen
Ny chaffei ffranc tranc oe benn
Oct re rereint dan vortuid
There can be no doubt that the analogy here carries us back to the ninth
century, but before we can advance further it will be necessary to revert to the
historic argument as to the true date and place of these poems in Cymric
Gereint. Garhirion gratin guenith
Rution ruthir eririon blith.
Oct re rerient dan vortuid
Gereint. Garhirion graun ae b˙
Rution ruthir eriron d˙.
To enter into an inquiry with regard to the metrical structure and poetic
character of these poems, in order to show the extent to which they indicate
that they are the work of an earlier age, and the essential difference between
them and the poetry of the twelfth and succeeding centuries, would exceed the
limits of this work. It would involve a detailed examination of the whole of
these poems, which is here impossible. The examples above given will show that
the metre of most of the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen, and which is usually
called the Triban Milwyr, or warrior's triplet, is at least is old as the ninth
century, and one of Taliessin's metres as the tenth.
There is a remarkable admission by Iolo Morganwg himself as to the difference
in character between the genuine and the spurious poems attributed to Taliessin.
He says of the Mabinogi of Taliessin--
"This romance has been mistaken by many for true
history; but that it was not, might have been easily discovered by proper
attention to the language and its structure to the structure of the verse in the
poems attributed in this fiction to Taliessin having nothing but the externals
of the verse of the genuine Taliessin, and nothing of its internal rhythm and
No one knew better than Iolo Morganwg where these spurious poems really came
The poems attributed to Taliessin have been subjected to criticism both by
Mr. Stephens and by Mr. Nash, but the poems attributed to Myrddin, with which
Mr. Nash does not profess to deal, are likewise included within the scope of Mr.
Stephens' criticism. We have only to deal with those, the texts of which are to
be found in the four ancient MSS. There are four in the Black Book of
Caermarthen, and two in the Red Book of Hergest, and no doubt the legendary
connection of the name of Caermarthen with that of Myrddin led to their
occupying a prominent place in the former MS. The first poem in that book (B. B.
1) is a dialogue between Myrddin and Taliessin, and the last stanza--
Since I, Myrdin, after Taliessin
indicates Myrddin as the author. The subject is the Battle of Ardderyd, and
one of Arthur's battles--that at Trywruid--is alluded to in it; but there is one
allusion in it which marks great antiquity--that to a place called Nevtur--which
can be no other than Nemhtur, the most ancient name of Dumbarton, and one
not applied to it, or indeed known, after the eighth century.
Let my prophecy be made common,
The other three are Nos. 16, 17, and 18, the two last being the Avallenau and
the Hoianau. Mr. Stephens considers both to be spurious, and the work of Llyward
Prydydd y Moch, the bard of Llywellyn, prince of North Wales from 1194 to 1240,
but the poems had evidently been already transcribed before his
time: Mr. Stephens is of course dealing with the text in the
Myvyrian ArchŠology; but while the texts of the Hoianau in the Black Book and
in the Myvyrian ArchŠology are substantially the same, there is a great
difference between the two texts of the Avallenau. That in the ArchŠology
contains twenty-two stanzas, while the text in the Black Book has only ten, and
the order is different; but further, the stanzas omitted in the Black Book are
just those upon which Mr. Stephens founds his argument for its later date.
While, therefore, I agree with Mr. Stephens in considering the Hoianau as a
spurious poem written in imitation of the Avallenau, I consider that his
criticism is not applicable to the text of the latter as we have it in the Black
Book, and that it is an old poem to which the stanzas founded upon by Mr.
Stephens have been subsequently added. The poem No. 16 I rank along with the
The two poems contained in the Red Book of Hergest are the first two in the
MS. The first is the Cyfoesi Myrdin, but this poem will be more conveniently
considered in the next chapter, in connection with the historical argument. The
second is the Guasgardgerd Vyrddin; and from the direct allusions to a king
under the name of Coch o Normandi, who can be no other than William
Rufus, as he is invariably termed in the Bruts Y Brenhin Coch, and to Mab
Henri, or the son of Henri, whom I believe to be intended for Robert, Earl
of Gloucester, son of Henry the First, I
can have no hesitation in assigning it to the beginning of the twelfth century.
None of these three poems, which I consider to be unquestionably spurious,
ought in my opinion to be assigned to any bard of North Wales. They, along with
some other poems of the same class contained in the Red Book of Hergest, emanate
very plainly from South Wales, and probably from Glamorgan.
1. Chron. Picts and Scots, p. 319.
1. Chron. Picts and Scots, p. 319.