Review: The Gododdin: A Lament for the Fallen by Gillian Clarke
The Gododdin were a tribe living in what is now the south of Scotland, traditionally referred to in Welsh as Yr Hen Ogledd, or the Old North.
Sometime around the year AD 600 a war band, numbering some 300 men marched and rode from a court called Dyn Eidyn, now called Edinburgh to face their enemy at Catraeth, probably today’s Catterick.
The ensuing, brutal battle between the Welsh and the Picts together against the English was bloody in the extreme and despite many acts of valour each and every one of the 300 tribesmen was slain.
Excepting one: this last man standing was a bard called Aneirin, whose sad task it then was to memoralize the fallen.
The poem in which he enshrined them is Y Gododdin, blood and tear drenched words in early Welsh.
It was designed to be sung by bards in many a hall and eventually would be sung throughout the generations, passing down for seven centuries until the verses were written down.
As the introduction describes it, ‘Welsh is the oldest living literary language in Europe still written and spoken today, and Y Gododdin is one of the greatest cultural treasures of the islands of Britain.’
This is the rich text that the former National Poet of Wales has now reversioned, replacing academic faithfulness to the original with a new ‘word-music in English.’
She felt that the poem was ‘mine and yet not mine, part of my culture but just out of hearing, whispers through the wall of a neighbouring room. I longed to learn this 1400-year-old secret, its sound and its story, and, finally, to make my version of the poem in English.’ Clarke has done so with attentive care and a keen ear for the melodies of cynghanedd as in lines such as ‘placed a palisade of lances as a wall’ or in the singer’s prologue which opens the 100 verse poem:
Gododdin, I sing your epitaph,
in the hall before the hearth,
here before the gathered throng
where our soldier-poet sang,
firewood burning dusk to dawn,
the portal lit for a passing pilgrim,
Now our gentle bard is lost,
our poet, Dwyfai’s elegist.
When earth covered him, Aneirin,
poetry departed from Gododdin.
The poems, published here with the Welsh on the facing page, often have a martial beat, underlined by repeating refrains such as ‘Gwŷr a aeth Gatraeth/Men rode to Catraeth’ which opens up a few of them.
They give the sense of forward movement, of the poem, like the doomed men sallying forth. Some open with an element of a soldier’s character or strength or, indeed strength of character, such as Tudfwlch who is an ‘anchor’ or Mynog who is praised in verse,’ courteous and generous.’
Gradually we build up a picture of them all, singularly and severally, a group of war-dog who initially spend an entire year drinking mead by way of preparation for battle, mead having a holy significance as bees were held sacred by Celtic peoples.
So, ‘Men partied for a year/Then, fed for the fight, they rode to war.’
Carrion of the slain
From the various tight, vivid little descriptions we can built up a picture of the band, debonair, shy, drunk on mead, setting out in ‘blue-dark armour’‘in the green glow of the eastern dawn’ – ‘gold torqued men,’ with ‘armour burnished gold; ‘war-hardened men,’ ‘surging, furious horsemen,’ their white and grey horses whinnying.
Then, in the din and crash of battle, we see ‘stabbing spears,’‘splintering shields’ and steaming stallions.
But then, when the battle is finally lost, we note the ‘ground drowned/in blood and blades,’ ‘clothes blood-soaked, trees/trampled and trashed’ and the awful ‘burial in a bitter land.’ Wives are made widows, an army laid waste.
We also have the very first glimpse of a king already passing into legend, as in the 99th verse a hero called Gwawrddwr ‘fed ravens on the wall/though he was no Arthur.
Those ravens join the crows who dine on the carrion of the slain as the wind mourns over the land.
When the scribes first wrote down Aneirin’s lament they did so on very expensive vellum, therefore, to save money, filling up the pages right to the edges, but Clarke has freed up the words, giving them space to breathe out their grief.
But she has also done one very simple thing which changes them utterly, that is giving each poem a name, being the name of one of the fallen.
This personalizes it, makes us see each slain warrior such as Isag, Eithenyn and Cibno as an individual, as someone’s son or husband.
Indeed run them all as a list and they quickly form a found poem, although one which swiftly edges into litany… ‘Graid, Neirthiad, Cynhafal, Gwid, Heilyn, Cynddilig Aeron, Addonwy, Mynog, Moried, Erf…’
Reading Clarke’s superb, pellucid and enlightening version of Y Gododdin’s grim, poetic and ancient list, one is somehow reminded of the ceremony in Basra in Iraq in April 2009.
There, as pipers played, the names of the 179 British personnel who had died since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 were called out, a sorrowful catalogue of loss as well as a haunting reminder of the futility of war.
Clarke appropriately sets her version of Y Gododdin at the beginning of a historic litany which is could easily include Basra, for it is a ‘long one: in the last century Ypres, the Somme, then Gaza, Helmand, Aleppo. Aneirin’s lamentation is not done.’
Sadly, this is very much the case as one could now add Bucha, Mariupol, Mykolaiv and Irpin to those place names tragically synonymous with combat and suffering.
Perhaps Aneirin’s lamentation will never be done, the long and terrible list of war’s fallen never entirely finished.
The Gododdin: Lament for the Fallen by Gillian Clarke is published by Faber and is available from good bookshops.
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