Between scythe and budding shoot …

 

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I have recently been reading a posthumous collection of Welsh-language verse by Tony Bianchi: Rhwng Pladur a Blaguryn. I was friendly with Tony when I was a post-graduate student and he had a fellowship in the same university and I have had intermittent contact with him, both professionally and informally, in the 35 years or so since then. So it was a shock to hear of his death last year. Tony was a Geordie from North Shields who, like myself, came to university in Wales and never left. He learnt Welsh sufficiently well to be able to write and publish both poetry and prose in the language. The posthumous collection that I have been reading includes poems written in Welsh cynghanedd metres. Some are very compact and highly charged englyns which manage both to be good examples of the formal requirements of this verse form and also very personal expressions of his characteristics and his concerns. The one that gives the volume its name goes like this:

Rhwng plader a blaguryn; rhwng afal
a’r anghofio sydyn;
rhwng y gwaed a’r angau’r gwyn;
o wynfa i bla: trwch blewyn.

Which I venture to translate, without the supporting force of the cynghanedd, like this:

Between scythe and budding shoot;
between an apple and the sudden forgetting;
between the blood and the pale death;
from paradise to plague : a hair’s breadth.

So it was for him: a vibrant life suddenly ended after a brief illness. That ‘hair’s breadth’ between life and death crossed in what seemed like an instant, the poem capturing in the brevity of its concise form the moment of transition. Finding those perceptions embedded in the tight formal structure of an englyn, opening out from the cynghanedd links which hold together the sequence of images leading to the final half line: ‘trwch blewyn’ with its shiver of liminality, is a miraculous revelation.

So the Awen fell on a scion of the Old North living in modern Wales, allowing the expression of an insight that was so characteristically his own, carrying his living breath, contained in an apparently restricting verse form which one of its exponents has described, paraphrasing Dylan Thomas, as ‘singing in chains’*, but which here seems to wear those chains lightly, releasing rather than imprisoning his words.

The book also contains longer poems, including an account of his daughter’s wedding which is both tender and amusing in a way that expresses Tony’s own character so eloquently. It will remain for me a living record of his voice, contained by death but released by his words and so free in the world he has left behind him.

*Singing in Chains by Mererid Hopwood (Gomer, 2004)
Rhwng Pladur a Blaguryn Tony Bianchi (Barddas, 2018)

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Cynghanedd and Multi-Culturalism

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Vikram Lyengar

Multi-culturalism is sometimes seen as a melting pot: cultures all mix together and the result is a universal, globally similar, amalgam which encompasses all. But people also value diversity. Visiting a place and finding it is the same as where you came from seems to defeat the object of travel. I am reflecting on these things after attending an evening of Welsh and Indian poetry interactions. Poets from Wales and from India have been involved in a project to see how each can learn from, and benefit from, the other while also acknowledging the value and distinctiveness of each of their traditions. The poets visited each other’s countries and held sessions to explore the particularities of their artistic practices and how they could compare and contrast them, and of course translate each other’s work.

The latest instalment for two of these poets culminated in an evening of activities including a traditional Indian dancer who had been working with them. The dancer, Vikram Lyengar, spoke of his use of music as a base rhythm over which the steps of his dance were made. This was compared to the rhythmic pulse of a line of verse, arranging the syllables of each line around the accents of the main stresses, shortening or lengthening them for emphasis. The poets, one writing in Bangla (Bengali) and the other in Welsh cynghanedd metres, sought to emulate this in their verse and the dancer separately sought to to dance the rhythms of their verse.

It was difficult for me to evaluate the way Sampurna Chattarji wrote the rhythms of the dance in her verse in Bangla, or how Vikram Lyengar danced the work of either poet, though his performance was both impressive and enjoyable in its own right. But I was fascinated by the way that Eurig Salisbury transformed the dance steps into a series of cynghanedd lines across some englyn forms chosen because of the correspendence between the required syllable count and the number of steps he had to ‘translate’ in each case. It couldn’t be said that the englynion produced said anything significant in terms of their meaning. But they did seem charged as forms with the energy of the exercise and the cross-cultural frisson by which the Welsh verse patterns were enlivened without in any way diluting their distinct character and mode of expression. Reflecting on the evening, it seems to me that something very deep was achieved. But, as often with such things, its significance remains elusive, even mysterious.  As it should be.

Awenydd Definition — Signposts in the Mist

Re-posted from Lorna Smithers :

Over the past few months Greg Hill, Lia Hunter, and I have been working on a definition of the awenydd path for Awen & Awenydd. Greg has done the mainstay of the work with input from myself and Lia and feedback from the contributors to the site. ‘An awenydd is a spirit worker and inspired […]

via Awenydd Definition — Signposts in the Mist

There is a direct link to the definition in the sidebar of this  blog ->

In Search of Sulis

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The reconstructed Roman Bath

The Roman town of Aquae Sulis, now the modern city of Bath, has accumulated many layers of history since it was settled by the Romans, within 30 years of their invasion of Britain, around the hot springs sacred to Sulis and re-dedicated by them to ‘Sulis-Minerva’. I went there recently to see what traces of Sulis I could find beneath the accumulations of successive occupations. As well as visiting the Roman Baths and Museum, I had also arranged to join a small group tour with one of the museum staff below the areas open to the public down to the level of Roman settlement now underneath the museum and surrounding streets. The famous Roman baths which are the main magnet for the many tourists who visit the site are in fact a nineteenth century reconstruction in the Roman style. Even in Roman times these were a public bathing area using water from the sacred springs but separate from the temple of Sulis-Minerva. The oldest part of the surviving building over the springs is in fact the so-called King’s Bath, named for Henry I. The medieval builders apparently had no knowledge of the Roman levels beneath as centuries of silting from the springs had overlain what was left of them.  Some traces were still visible to the Anglo-Saxons as the poem from those times known as ‘The Ruin’ apparently testifies:

This work is wondrous; fate fashioned its fall
Cement smashed; the work of giants come to grief.
Roofs have tumbled, ruinous towers,
Ravaged by frost ; roofs fallen
….

Although it is possible for visitors to walk around the recreated ‘Roman’ bath, the King’s Bath can only be viewed through windows and openings in the stone arches. Here the spring waters can be seen bubbling up into a pool within the derelict and empty medieval space and running off at one end towards the ‘Roman’ bath. This is the nearest that it is possible to get to the spring itself.

King's Bath
The Medieval structure around the Sacred Spring

On the way through to these baths, the museum has a reconstruction of the temple of Sulis-Minerva based on recovered fragments and limited excavations of the site which partly lies beneath the building which houses the museum but also extends out beneath adjoining buildings across the street and towards the medieval abbey situated next to the baths. Excavations beneath these buildings, all of which have their own protected conservation status as historically important later structures, have therefore been restricted.

The tour beneath the museum took us through cellars and along tunnels full of fragments of original Roman structures and over the bases of stone pillars now embedded in the uneven floors. Here we were standing at ground level of the temple beneath the street from where the voice of a busker singing above could be heard. As hard as I tried, it was difficult to imagine myself in the Temenos, the sacred precinct of the temple, before the shrine of Sulis-Minerva. That evening, when the crowds had abated, I stood in the street above where, until the early twentieth century, there was a fountain fed from the spring waters, and had more success locating myself imaginatively in that place.

Of the original Spring of Sulis we have little knowledge. The whole area around the site, in a loop of the River Avon, would have been a reedy marsh. There is evidence of Iron Age settlements on the nearby hills and the remains of a gravel-laid causeway approaching the springs have been discovered. So we do know that access to the site was ensured although no other building work has been found from this period. Perhaps the spring itself was sufficient for Iron-Age devotees visiting the site. If there are now too many layers of history over the original site for any aura of its numen to remain, what then of Sulis today? She remains as ambiguous as the so-called ‘Gorgon’s head’ that adorned the apex of the temple of her coupling with Minerva. Are these the snakes of Gorgon hair associated with Minerva’s protecting shield? And if so why is the face apparently that of a male? Or are they, instead, the swirling waters around the springs? This guardian of her site, as the site itself, remains a mystery for us to fathom in the depths of her waters and the layers from beneath which her divinity emerges.

1280px-romanbathsgorgonhead

Devotional Diary

I will be posting here a lot less often in the immediate future.

I have decided to switch my main  focus to an informal devotional diary rather than researched articles or discursive pieces, though these might still appear here occasionally.

Posts in my devotional diary will appear on The Horse Goddess site : http://rigantona.net

The first of them is about the annual brightening of the horse in my shrine for Rhiannon (as discussed in a recent post on this blog) and it can be found HERE=>

horse
Newly Painted Horse

Aneirin as an Awenydd

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A page from The Book of Aneirin

 

Mi na fi Neirin
Ys gŵyr Taliesin

Neu chant Ododdin

Aneirin (or Neirin) was one of five poets mentioned in the Ninth Century Historia Brittonum as being active in the Sixth Century. The lines above are included in the series of elegies for warriors of the Gododdin tribe killed in the battle of Catraeth attributed to Aneirin. They seem to say “I who am not Aneirin / As Taliesin knows /…/Sang The Gododdin”. Or do they? Translators have tended to hedge their bets with something like ”I, yet not I …” for the first line. We might think also here of the line from the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen: “As I am Merlin, and then Taliesin”. It seems that the persona of the bard can shift, that one prophetic bard can become another, or speak – inspired – in another’s voice. The act of creating the poem, in this view, comes from the bard drawing upon a power from beyond that inspires ‘song’, a condition which Aneirin here says would also have been shared by Taliesin.

It has been suggested that this verse and the one following from manuscripts in The Book of Aneirin actually belong to a separate saga about Aneirin (*) Taken together the two verses suggest that Aneirin lies beneath the earth in chains with worms or slugs crawling over him and that he was rescued from this place by Cenau whose praise he sings in the second of the two verses. The place of incarceration was “a place of death”.

There seems to be a conflation of two themes here: Aneirin’s rescue from a grave-like prison and his composition of a series of elegies by escaping from his everyday self. It is difficult to know for certain if these two themes are to be taken as significantly connected or if they stand against each other as separate pieces of information. It is not uncommon in this early poetry for unrelated facts to be conveyed together in a single stanza. But if they are connected, the release of the poet from captivity, or from death, and the release into the world of the verses which comprise The Gododdin would need to be taken as a single event. So the poet, who describes himself as “no weary lord” laboured through the night to produce his work “before the dawn” of the following day.

Whether this is to be taken as the night following the battle or the ‘night’ from which he was released, the composition of the Gododdin verses (or those of them that can be regarded as original) were the product of a night’s work during which the bard dwelt in a state resembling death. It’s important here not to think of him as writing down these verses. They would have been composed in the mind and remembered until – having been memorised and perhaps added to by successive generations – eventually written down centuries later. So what of Cenau who released him from whatever condition he was in to greet the dawn?

Cenau was a son of Llywarch Hen,  related to Urien of Rheged  and so unlikely to have fought at Catraeth. But if he rescued Aneirin rather than fought in that battle his “undaunted, bold” actions and his “shining sword” must have been employed in some other way. It could be that Aneirin was captured and that his “fair song” – as an earlier verse has it – saved him and that Cenau rescued him after he had composed the verses. But the narration here suggests that he was released from a death-like state, perhaps an awenydd-trance, after which Cenau rescued him or during which he guarded him.

So these verses may come from a different story, but collected with other extraneous material into The Book of Aneirin (as, for instance the ‘Pais Dinogad’ lines or the verses which apparently record other events than the attack on Catraeth {e.g. ->} ). If so then that story has been lost and these verses may be all that remains of it. Such a story might include events before the composition of the Gododdin verses. Even so, that they were composed by someone who was both Aneirin and Not Aneirin; that he was released (like Mabon) from an earthen prison, returning from darkness to light to sing his song; that it was the quality of his ‘fair song’ that saved him, and that Taliesin would also know these things: all point to the role of the bard as an awenydd, drawing inspiration from the Awen to ensure his immortality.

§

Further pages from Book of Aneirin can be viewed here.


References:

Aneirin Y Gododdin ed. A.O.H. Jarman (Llandysul, 1988)

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ed. A. O H. Jarman (Cardiff, 1982)

(*) Morfudd E  Owen ‘Hwn yw e Gododin. Aneirin ae cant’  in Astudiaethau ar y Hengerdd (Cardiff, 1978) pp. 136-139

Calan Mai

 

Rhiannononhorse

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mayday, but not time just yet to honour her coming
From the Otherworld – Rhiannon on a pale white horse
Evanescing like a glimpse of a first leaf in twilight – there
Then not there – as shadows rise and fall at the edge

Of the wood. I’ll wait for another turn of the Moon,
A new crescent, for a sign of her season; for leaves
Burgeoning bringing green light to the hawthorn,
And then blossom. So I will bright her horse,

With a new coat of whiteness to welcome her:
A new shrine for her coming when summer breezes
Dance in the leaves as her horse slows to turn
And she reigns to be among us once again.

 

altar with rose petals

Gramarye

 

gramarye

So Rudyard Kipling in ‘Puck’s Song’ from Puck of Pooks Hill. ‘Gramarye’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning both ‘grammar’ and also ‘occult learning, magic’. Another form of the word is ‘glamour’ in the sense of ‘enchantment’. Where does ‘grammar’ merge into ‘glamour’ to make magic? Consider that the earliest books of instruction for welsh bards, based on the even earlier purely oral methods of instruction, are known as ‘Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid’ (Grammars of the Chief Bards). Grammar, in the Middle Ages, was regarded as the ‘mother of the arts’. The secrets of the bards of Ynys Prydain were revealed alongside grammatical instruction in these handbooks. Versification and the structure of language were seen as one and the same study: the keys to the mysteries.

We are talking here of a time when literacy was possessed by only a few, and fewer still who were not using it more or less exclusively for ecclesiastical purposes in Latin. These select few were the holders of a skill which enabled them to give shape to a developing tradition to which only they had access. So to manipulate its history, and the ability to pass it on to the future, was an act of power involving both ‘occult knowledge’ and the skill to use it.

But, as the bardic grammars also make clear, both cynghanedd (the music of the language) and the traditional verse forms (the artistic shape of the language) are held within language itself, part of its hidden grammar which the bards had the power to reveal. As one modern theorist of cynghanedd puts it, the bards were instructed to “dathla yr anweledig yn weledig” {*} (celebrate the invisible into visibility). The same theorist also asserts that language has developed not simply as a denotive medium for naming and describing things in the everyday world, but also carries a deeper structure of meaning which may be hidden in its everyday use but which has the power to reveal otherness and, from that revelation, to create articulations of a hidden world. The welsh bards were special in that they produced an institutionalisation of this idea in the bardic grammars.

So grammar becomes glamour or enchantment, glossed as ‘gramarye’ in English in spite of there being no tradition of arcane handbooks of bardic practice in that language. But any inspired poet, or awenydd, in any language, will wish to fulfil the instinct to carry meaning from the hidden realms into the cultural sphere of common conversation and, by doing so, to infuse the world we know with hidden meaning. This is the only grammar that counts.

{*}  R. M. Jones  Meddwl y Gynghanedd  (Barddas, 2005)

The TOWER

From my evolving collection of Tarot Poems:

Tower Marseille Tarot

from the Marseille Tarot

illustrated by Jean Dodal

Tower Rider-Waite Tarot

from the Rider-Waite Tarot

illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith

To climb this is to reach out and to be repulsed.
We know the history : Babel being the prime case,
A step too near The House of God and down it comes:
Jupiter’s bolt of lightning, Zeus’ thunderclap, Jehova’s
Jealous guarding of the gateway to his sanctuary.
Our hubris or divine paranoia? One God’s defence

Against the many who throng the common world.
There are otherworlds around us too, islands
Over the sea, under the waves, below the earth
And right alongside us, a half-step away from here.
So why ascend? True, the ways are perilous, paths
May wind endlessly and then turn back nearly
To where they began; but never end in disillusion.
Never tip us like this tower through empty air.


 

The reflections leading to the poems begin from my past studies of the ‘esoteric’ decks, represented here by the Rider-Waite card, but primarily arise from my current historical study of the older Italian and French decks – represented here by Jean Dodal’s ‘Marseille’ card – and direct responses to the imagery. 

WINDOWS

Early morning landscape at Mynydd Bach
Mists in many hollows;
Some would find it magical
Others not notice at all.

There are many mysteries revealed in the everyday world if we care to be receptive to them and if we can be still long enough to experience them. A stillness of the spirit as well as of the body brings real presences in the world into touch with perception : two things moving into relationship to become one as they weave together what has been torn apart. So for a fleeting moment (which is forever) we are attuned to mysteries. This is to perceive the depths of things. But sometimes a reflection from a surface brings a sudden epiphany:

A WINDOW BURNS BRIGHT
ON A HILLSIDE FACING
THE GLASSY STILLNESS
OF THE WESTERN SEA
AT SUNSET

An ordinary window in the world for someone else to look through mirrors a splendour from far off sharpening the senses to ways in which windows both reflect and suggest ways of seeing through to otherness, glimpsing an otherworld, opening ways into it and paths along which gods may reveal their ways out of it, should our eyes be open to seeing them. Eyes, too, are windows which may be clear or clouded to different views:

EYEN

Even such obscure windows as these, filtering light and vision can enable a view for the seeing eye within as much as the clear glass onto a garden where the shade of leaves may hold deeper mysteries:

Through this window
a small corner of
Paradise glimpsed
momentarily as light
touched by shade under
buds breaking to
blossom on boughs
of a green apple tree

Such views are available to anyone who allows them to clear from the busyness of this and that. Cultivate deeper ways of seeing and whole landscapes of otherness may open up through windows which widen to gateways to travel through. Be open to promptings from within and what is without will open too as

The
N
A
R
R
O
W

ARROW
slit as in a castle wall

W – I – D – E – N – S

out to a FAR HORIZON

Or, like The Birds of Rhiannon, singing out on that horizon over the sea, come as close as a whisper in the ear to encircle and enclose you so that you might feel

Woven into the
stuff of the Universe.

Like a cat
purring
as the waves
of life
wash silkily
over skin
and the Earth
purrs too.

At dusk
something else
breathes mystery
into the
evening air,
silent with birdsong.

Night brings stars
and distances
in the closeness
of darkness
and otherness
deepens.

The Earth
is an anchor
holding the spirit firm
to sail to the stars.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~