THE dissolution of the religious houses in Wales in the reign of Henry the Eighth, and the dispersion of their libraries, led to many Welsh MSS., which had been preserved in them, passing into the hands of private individuals; and collections of Welsh MSS. soon began to be formed by persons who took an interest in the history and literature of their country.
The principal collectors in North Wales were Mr. Jones of Gelly Lyvdy, whose collection was formed between the years 1590 and 1630, and Mr. Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, author of a work termed British Antiquities Revived, published in 1662, who died at Hengwrt four years after, in 1666; and in South Wales, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who formed a collection at Raglan Castle in 1590; and Sir Edward Mansel, whose father had received a gift of the priory of Margam in Glamorgan, in 1591.
The collections of Mr. Jones and Mr. Vaughan became united at Hengwrt, in arrangement having been made between them that the MSS. collected by each should become the property of the survivor. Mr. Jones having predeceased Mr. Vaughan, the united collection, consisting of upwards of 400 MSS., remained
at Hengwrt till within the last few years, when it was bequeathed by Sir Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt to W. W. E. Wynne, Esq. of Peniarth, in whose possession it now is.
In the following century various collections were made, and among others some valuable MSS. became the property of Jesus College, Oxford. The collection of the Earl of Pembroke at Raglan Castle was destroyed by fire in the time of Oliver Cromwell; and a similar fate overtook two of those later collections, which had become the property of Sir Watkin Williams Wynne, and were preserved at Wynnstay, but which were likewise destroyed by fire. Other collections passed into the British Museum, and the principal collections of Welsh MSS. are now the Hengwrt collection at Peniarth, those in the British Museum, the MSS. at Jesus College, and those belonging to Lord Mostyn, Mr. Panton of Plas Gwyn, and others.
In the Hengwrt collection were preserved three ancient MSS., termed the Black Book of Caermarthen, the Book of Aneurin, and the Book of Taliessin, containing a considerable collection of Welsh poetry bearing marks of antiquity; and in the, library of Jesus College is a MS. which contains similar poems, termed the Red Book of Hergest. These poems are some of a historic character, and others not so, and are attributed, either by their rubric, by the title of the MS., or by tradition, to four bards termed Myrddin, Aneurin, Taliessin, and Llywarch Hen, who are supposed to have lived in the sixth century.
Two of these MSS. are still in the Hengwrt collection, and of one of them we know the history: the Black Book of Caermarthen belonged to the Priory of Black Canons at Caermarthen, and was given by the Treasurer of the Church of St. Davids to Sir John Price, a native of Breconshire, who was one of the commissioners appointed by King Henry the Eighth; the other is the Book of Taliessin, and it is not known how it was acquired.
The Book of Aneurin is now the property of Sir Thomas Phillipps of Middlehill.
The Red Book of Hergest is said to have been so termed from its having been compiled for the Vaughans of Hergest Court, Herefordshire, and seems to have come to Oxford from the Margam Collection in South Wales.
It is these four MSS.--the Black Book of Caermarthen, written in the reign of Henry the Second (1154-1189); the Book of Aneurin, a MS. of the latter part of the thirteenth century; the Book of Taliessin, a MS. of the beginning of the fourteenth century; and the Red Book of Hergest, a MS. compiled at different times in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries--that are here termed THE FOUR ANCIENT BOOKS OF WALES, and it is with the ancient poems contained in these four MSS. that we have now to do.
Numerous transcripts of these poems are to be found in other Welsh MSS., but undoubtedly it is in these four MSS. that the most ancient. texts of the poems are to be found; and, in most cases, those in the other
[paragraph continues] MSS. are not independent texts, but have obviously, with more or less variation, been transcribed from these. The contents of these MSS. remained little known till the publication of the Archæologia Britannica in 1707, by Edward Lhuyd, who had examined all the collections which were accessible, and the account which he included in his work of the Welsh MSS. attracted some attention towards them, but none of the poems were printed till the middle of the century, when the publication of the poems of Ossian by James Macpherson, and the sudden popularity they acquired, gave a temporary value to Celtic poetry, and led to a desire on the part of the Welsh to show that they were likewise in possession of a body of native poems not less interesting than the Highland, and with better claims to authenticity. In 1764, the Rev. Evan Evans published his Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards; and though they mainly embraced poems written in the twelfth and subsequent centuries, translated in the style of Macpherson's Ossian, he annexed a Latin dissertation, De Bardis, in which he printed ten of the stanzas of the great poem of the Gododin, and a stanza from the Avallenau, as specimens of the older poems, with Latin translations. He was followed by Edward Jones, who, in his Musical and Poetical Relies of the Welsh Bards, published in 1784, printed a part of the Gododin, three of the poems of Taliessin--viz. the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, the Battle of Gwenystrad, and the Mead song, one of the poems of Llywarch Hen, with metrical translations,
and part of the Avallenau, with a more literal prose translation by Mr. Edward Williams. He was likewise assisted in his work by Dr. W. Owen, afterwards Dr. Owen Pughe, who, a few years afterwards, published five of the poems of Taliessin in the Gentleman's Magazine for the years 1789 and 1790, being the Ode to Gwallawg, the Death-Song of Owen, the Battle of Dyffryn Garant, the Battle of Gwenystrad, and the Gorchan Cynvelyn, with English translations. These translations, however, were too diffuse and too much tainted by a desire to give the passages a mystic meaning, to convey a fair idea of the real nature of the poems.
In 1792, Dr. Owen Pughe published The Heroic Elegies, and other pieces of Llywarch Hen, with a much more literal English version. The work contains a pretty complete collection of the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen, but it is not said from what MS. the text was printed, while the notes contain collations with the Black Book of Caermarthen and the Red Book of Hergest. 1
At length, in the year 1801, the text of the whole of these poems was given to the world, through the munificence of Owen Jones, a furrier, in Thames Street,
[paragraph continues] London, who, in that and subsequent years, published the Myvyrian Archæology of Wales, containing the chief productions of Welsh literature. He was assisted by Mr. Edward Williams of Glamorgan and Dr. Owen Pughe; but though the text of almost all of these poems is given, it is not said from what particular MSS. they were printed, and no materials are afforded for discriminating between what are probably old and what are spurious. The text is unaccompanied by translations.
If the publication of the poems of Ossian thus drew attention to these ancient Welsh poems, the controversy which followed on the poems drew forth an able vindication of the genuine character of the latter. Sharon Turner, in his History of the Anglo-Saxons, the first edition of which appeared in 1799, founded upon some of these poems as historical documents. He quoted the Death-Song of Geraint as containing the account of a real battle at Longporth, or Portsmouth, between Cerdic, the founder of the kingdom of Wesser, and the Britons. He referred to the poems of Taliessin on the battles of Argoed Llwyfain and Gwenystrad as real history, and he considered the great poem of the Gododin by Aneurin as describing a real war between the Britons and the Angles of Ida's kingdom. This drew upon him the criticism of the two chief opponents of the claims of Ossian--viz. John Pinkerton and Malcolm Laing--who declared that these Welsh poems, were equally unworthy of credit. In consequence of this attack,
[paragraph continues] Turner published, in 1803, his Vindication of the genuineness of the ancient British poems of Aneurin, Taliessin, Llywarch Hen, and Myrddin. In this elaborate essay he endeavoured to demonstrate two propositions:--First, That these four bards were real men, and actually lived in the sixth century; and, secondly, that, with some exceptions, the poems attributed to them are their genuine works. He dealt, however, with the historical poems alone as sufficient for his purpose, and did not enter into any critical analysis of the poems as a, whole. This vindication, was, in the main, considered to be conclusive as to the poems being the genuine works of the bards whose name they bore; and it appeared to be now generally accepted as a fact, that a body of genuine poetry, of the sixth century, existed in the Welsh language which threw light upon the history of that century.
A new view was, however, soon taken of their real meaning; and some years after, the Rev. Edward Davies brought out, in his work called the Mythology of the British Druids, published in 1809, his theory that there was handed down in these poems a system of mythology which had been the religion of the Druids in the pagan period, and was still professed in secret by the bards, their genuine successors. The Gododin, he endeavoured to show by an elaborate translation, related to the traditionary history of the massacre of the Britons by the Saxons at Stonehenge, called the Plot of the Long Knives; and he appended to his work a number of the poems of Taliessin, with
translations to show the mystic meaning which pervaded them. This theory was still further elaborated by the Honourable Algernon Herbert, in two works published anonymously: Britannia after the Romans, in 1836; and The Neo-Druidic Heresy, in 1838. He took the same view with regard to the meaning of the Gododin; and he combined with much ingenious and wild speculation regarding the post-Roman history of Britain, the theory that a lurking adherence to the old paganism of the Druids had caused a schism in the British church, and that the bards, under the name of Christians and the guise of Christian nomenclature, professed in secret a paganism as an esoteric cult, which he denominated the Neo-Druidic heresy, and which he maintained was obscurely hinted at in the poems of Taliessin. It would probably be difficult to find a stranger specimen of perverted ingenuity and misplaced learning than is contained in the works of Davies and Herbert; but the urgency with which they maintained their views, and the disguise under which the poems appeared in their so-called translations, certainly produced an impression that the poems of Taliessin did contain a mystic philosophy, while, at the same time, the Gododin of Aneurin and the poems of Llywarch Hen were generally recognised as genuine historical documents commemorating real historical events.
The Rev. John Williams, afterwards Archdeacon of Cardigan, an eminent Welsh scholar, and a man of much talent, announced, in 1841, a translation of the poems of Aneurin, Taliessin, and other primitive bards,
with a critical revision and re-establishment of the text; but, although these poems had occupied a large share of his attention, I believe he never seriously prepared the materials for his edition, and he died in 1858, without having done anything towards carrying it out. I have frequently heard him give as a reason the great difficulty involved, and time and labour required, "in restoring the genuine text." What he meant by this we can see in the last work he published, termed Gomer, where (part ii. p. 33 et seq.), we have several specimens of how he meant to deal with the text. His plan obviously was to restore the orthography of the words from the existing text in the Myvyrian Archæology to what he conceived must have been their form when the respective poems were composed. His mind, too, appears to have been influenced in no slight degree by the school of Davies, and he was too ready to attach a mystic meaning to the text. In 1850, some time before the Archdeacon's death, a learned Breton, the Vicomte do la Villemarqué, published his Poemes des Bardes Bretons du VIe. Siecle, traduits pour la premiere fois, avec le texte en regard revu sur les plus anciens manuscrits; and he, too, proceeded upon the same idea of restoring the original text. In his preface, after noticing the oldest copies of the poems, which he says formed the basis of his edition, he adds, "Apres le travail de collation, il restait a reproduire les textes avec l'orthographe convenable, mais la quelle suivre;" and he fixes upon the Breton orthography as the most ancient, and in this, which he
terms "l'orthographe historique," presents us with the text of the poems which he translates. These poems are mainly the historical pieces, and he considers with Turner that they contain fragments of real history.
A more unfortunate idea than that of thus arbitrarily restoring the text never formed the basis of an important work; and while it has destroyed the value of Villemarqué's edition, it lessens the regret we should otherwise feel that the Archdeacon never carried his announced intention into effect. To present the poems in a different shape from what they appear in the oldest transcripts, and to clothe them with a supposed older orthography, is to confound entirely the province of the editor with that of the historic critic, and to exercise, in the character of the former, functions which properly belong to the latter, while it deprives him of the proper materials on which to exercise his critical judgment. Such restoration necessarily proceeds on the assumption by the editor that the poems are the genuine works of those to whom they are attributed, and existed in the same form and substance at the era at which their reputed authors lived; while the application of historical criticism to the poems as they now exist may lead to very different conclusions. It supersedes entirely the important work of the critic, by assuming the very questions which he has to solve. The true function of the editor is to select the oldest and best MSS., and to produce the text of the poems in the precise shape and orthography in which he there finds them: neither to tamper with, nor to restore
them, but to furnish the critic with the materials on which he can exercise his skill in determining their true age and value. 1
These remarks have likewise some bearing upon two very remarkable works which have inaugurated a new school of criticism of these poems, and subjected their claims to tests which they had not hitherto undergone. These two works are--first, The Literature of the Kymry, by Thomas Stephens, published in 1849; and, secondly, Taliessin, or the Bards and Druids of Britain, by D. W. Nash, published in 1858.
The main object of Mr. Stephens' work is to treat of the language and literature of the twelfth and two succeeding centuries; but it embraces likewise the poems attributed to the bards of the sixth century, in so far as he maintains that they are falsely so attributed, and are really the works of later bards. Mr. Stephens' work is written with much ability, and is, in fact, the first real attempt to subject these poems to anything like a critical analysis. He opens one of his chapters, to which he has put the title, "Poems, fictitiously attributed to Myrddin, Taliessin, Aneurin, Llywarch, Meugant, and Golyddan," with the following sentence:--"Reader! be attentive to what I am about to write, and keep a watchful eye upon the sentences as they rise before you, for the daring spirit of modern
criticism is about to lay violent hands upon the old household furniture of venerable tradition;" and he certainly fulfils this promise, for he maintains that, with some exceptions, these poems contain allusions, and breathe forth a spirit and sentiment, which demonstrate that they were composed subsequent to the twelfth century; and he endeavours to indicate their real authors. Of the poems attributed to Aneurin he appears to admit the Gododin to be genuine. He considers the whole of the poems attributed to Myrddin, including even the Avallenau--which Turner maintained to be genuine--to be spurious, and the work of later bards, and endeavours to point out their real authors, hesitatingly in the text, but more decidedly in the title to one of his chapters, where he has "The Avallenau and Hoianau, composed by Prydydd y Moch. The Gorddodau, composed by Gruffydd ab Yr Ynad Coch;" and of seventy-seven poems attributed to Taliessin, he admits only twelve to be "historical and as old as the sixth century."
His admission that some of these poems are as old as the sixth century of course neutralises any argument drawn from their orthography and grammatical or poetical structure, unless he can show that the poems he maintains to be spurious differ materially in that respect from those he admits to be genuine; and his attempt to indicate their real authors breaks down in so far as the Avallenau and Hoianau, and other poems contained in the Black Book of Caermarthen, are concerned; for the poems in that MS. must have
been already transcribed in the twelfth century, and Prydydd y Moch belongs to the succeeding century. So far as he shows that several of these poems contain direct allusions to events which occurred after the period when they are said to be composed, his criticism is successful, and may be received as well founded; but in his attempt to show that allusions, hitherto supposed to apply to events contemporaneous with the alleged date of the poem, were really intended to describe later events--which is, in fact, the main feature of his criticism--he is not equally successful. His reasoning appears to me to be quite inconclusive, the resemblances faint and uncertain, and the argument carries no conviction to the mind. For instance, in the poem attributed to Taliessin, termed Kerdd y Veib Llyr, where the lines occur--
"A battle against the lord of fame in the dales of Hafren,
Against Brochwel Powys; he loved my song"--
it is a fair and legitimate inference that it could not have been composed prior to the time of Brochmail, who is mentioned by Bede as having been at the battle of Caerlegion, the true date of which is 613; but when the following lines occur in a subsequent part of the same poem--
"Three races, wrathful, of right qualities,
Gwyddyl, and Brython, and Romani,
Create war and tumult,"
it is not satisfactory to be told that "they refer to the ecclesiastic dispute between Giraldus and King John respecting the see of St. David's." It is therefore not
without reason that the reader is exhorted to keep a watchful eye upon the sentences condemning the poems upon such grounds.
Mr. Nash, in his work, deals with the poems attributed to Taliessin only, and in the main he follows up the criticisms of Stephens. He goes, however, a step beyond him, as, without directly asserting it, he implies that none of the poems are older than the twelfth century, if he does not really assort that no earlier date can be assigned to them than the date of the oldest MS. in which they are found. Of the historical poems he sums up his criticism thus:--"Without, therefore, venturing to decide that these 'Songs to Urien' were not re-written in the twelfth century, from materials originally of the date of the sixth, and that there are no poetical remains in the Welsh language older than the twelfth century, we may nevertheless assert that the common assumption of such remains of the date of the sixth century has been made upon very unsatisfactory grounds, and without a sufficiently careful examination of the evidence on which such assumption should be founded. Writers who claim for productions actually existing only in MSS. of the twelfth all origin in the sixth century, are called upon to demonstrate the links of evidence, either internal or external, which bridge over this great intervening period of at least five hundred years. This external evidence is altogether wanting, and the internal evidence, even of the so-called 'Historical Poems' themselves, is, in some
instances at least, opposed to their claims to an origin in the sixth century." What he calls the mythological poems he entirely rejects, and appears to place them even in a much later age than Stephens has done.
While Mr. Nash's work must be admitted to be written with much ability, certainly the merit of candour cannot equally be attributed to it. It is less an attempt to subject the poems to a fair and just criticism than simply a very clever piece of special pleading, in which, like all special pleading, he proceeds to demonstrate a foregone conclusion by the usual partial and one-sided view of the facts--assuming whatever appears to make for his argument, and ignoring what seems to oppose it; while he makes conjectural alterations of the text when it suits his purpose, and the real sense of the poems which form the subject of his criticism is disguised under a version which he terms a translation, but which affords anything but a faithful or candid representation of their contents.
I consider that the true value of these poems is a problem which has still to be solved. Are we to attach any real historical value to them, or are we to set them aside at once as worthless for all historical purposes, and as merely curious specimens of the nonsensical rhapsodies and perverted taste of a later age?
Whether these poems are the genuine works of the bards whose names they bear, or whether they are the
production of a later age, I do not believe that they contain any such system of Druidism, or Neo-Druidism, as Davies, Herbert, and others, attempt to find in them; nor do I think that their authors wrote, and the compilers of these ancient MSS. took the pains to transcribe, century after century, what was a mere farrago of nonsense, and of no historical or literary value. I think that these poems have a meaning, and that, both in connection with the history and the literature of Wales, that meaning is worth finding out; and I think, further, that if they were subjected to a just and candid criticism, we ought to be able to ascertain their true place and value in the literature of Wales. The criticism to which they have hitherto been subjected is equally unsatisfactory, whether they are maintained to be genuine or to be spurious, mainly because the basis of the criticism is an uncertain and untrustworthy text, and any criticism on the existing texts, in the shape in which they are presented in the Myvyrian Archæology, is, comparatively speaking, valueless; and because the translations by which their meaning is attempted to be expressed, are either loose and inaccurate, or coloured by the views of the translators. Those who deal with the poems as the genuine works of the bards whose names they bear, and view them as containing a recondite system of Druidism, or semi-pagan philosophy, present us with a translation which is, to say the least of it, mysterious enough in all conscience. Those, again, who consider them to be the work of a later age, and to contain nothing but a mere farrago
of nonsense, have no difficulty in producing a translation which amply bears out that character.
The work of the editor must, however, precede that of the critic. An essential preliminary is to give the text of these poems in the oldest form in which it is to be found, and in the precise orthography of the oldest MSS., and to present a translation which shall give as accurate and faithful a representation of the meaning of the poems as is now possible as the basis of the work of the critic. The object of the present work. is to accomplish this. The contents of the four MSS., here called the Four Ancient Books of Wales, are printed as accurately as possible,--those of the first three completely, and as much of the last as contains any of these poems. It is in these four MSS. that the oldest known texts are to be found; and in order to secure a faithful and impartial translation, I resolved, in order to avoid any risk of its being coloured by my own views, to refrain from attempting the translation myself, and to obtain it, if possible, from the most eminent living Welsh scholars. With this view, I applied to the Reverend D. Silvan Evans of Llanymawddwy, the author of the English and Welsh Dictionary and other works, and the Reverend Robert Williams of Rhydycroesau, author of the Biography of Eminent Welshmen and the Cornish Dictionary, both distinguished Welsh scholars, who most kindly acceded to my request. Mr. Evans, has translated for me the poems in the Black Book of Caermarthen, the Book of Aneurin, and the Red Book
of Hergest, and accompanied them with valuable notes. Mr. Williams has translated for me the poems in the Book of Taliessin; and I beg to record my sense of the deep obligation under which they have laid me by the valuable assistance thus afforded. But while these eminent scholars an so far answerable for the translations, it is due to them to add that they are not responsible for any opinions expressed in this work except those contained in their own notes; and that, by permitting their names to be connected with this work, they must not be held as sanctioning the views entertained by myself, and to which I have given expression in the following chapters, or in the notes I have added. 1
5:1 It is remarkable that there is no reference to readings in the Llyfr du in the poems which are actually to be found there, while in six poems which are not in the Black Book, the foot of the page is full of references to the Llyfr du for various readings. These various readings, so far as I have been able to judge, correspond with the Red Book of Hergest, while those attributed to the Llyfr coch are not to be found there.
11:1 In 1852, an edition of the Gododin was published, with a translation, by J. Williams, at Ithel. He adopts the historical view of this poem, and has given the text, such as he had it, with much fidelity; while the translation, though somewhat too free, is the first to give anything like a fair idea of the original.
18:1 The Welsh text has been printed for some years. It was put in type as soon as the collation of the manuscript copy of the poems with the original MSS. was completed, and again collated in proof, and then thrown off, in order to facilitate the work of translation. The only request made to the translators was to make their version as literal and accurate as possible, even though the meaning might be obscured thereby; and the care and time requisite to prepare such a translation deliberately has delayed the appearance of the work since then. While engaged in the preliminary investigations, I from time to time communicated fragments of what was intended to appear in the Introduction and Notes in occasional papers to the Archæologia Cambrensis.