Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Taliesin

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TALIESIN (fl. 550), British bard, is regarded by Professor Rhys as a mythic personage, one of the many forms of the sun-god, and the characteristic ‘Taliesin’ poems as the work of a semi-pagan bardic school, who were ever at strife with their christian rivals (Celtic Heathendom, pp. 543–52). The name ‘Taliesin’ may be translated ‘fair forehead,’ and this is the popular derivation, though ‘Hanes Taliesin’ shows a tendency to adopt another rendering, viz., ‘fine pay.’ Professor Rhys believes, however, that the truer form is Telyessin, the second element of the name being akin to the Gaelic Ossian.

The first mention of Taliesin occurs in the tract, commonly called the ‘Saxon Genealogies,’ which is appended to the ‘Historia Britonum’ in four manuscripts of that work. There the writer names five men, among them ‘Taliessin,’ who, in the time of Ida of Northumbria and a British chieftain ‘Dutigirn,’ ‘in poemate Britannico claruerunt’ (Gildas et Nennius, ed. Mommsen, p. 205; Mon. Hist. Brit. p. 75). The tract is now believed to have been written about 690, with the exception of a few interpolations, which are not later than 800 (Phillimore in Cymmrodor, xi. 134–8; Zimmer, Nennius Vindicatus, p. 78), so that its evidence may be accepted without demur. All that is said of Taliesin in later Welsh literature must be regarded as legendary and due to the reputation he gradually acquired as the leading bardic figure of the sixth century, a reputation embodied in his title of ‘Taliesin Ben Beirdd,’ i.e. chief of bards (Mabinogion, Oxford ed., p. 107; Myvyrian Archaiology triads, ser. i. No. 92). He appears in later times as the author of a mass of poetry, largely predictive and occult in character, and also as the hero of a transmigration fable. But the mediæval bards, e.g. Cynddelw, Dafydd Benfras, and Phylip Brydydd (Myv. Arch. 2nd ed. pp. 169, 218, 259), who allude to Taliesin as a great master of their art, say little as to his career. Prydydd y Moch and Gwilym Ddu refer to his connection with Elffin ap Gwyddno, whom he is said to have delivered from the prison of Maelgwn Gwynedd (ib. pp. 214, 276). Other stories tell how he was discovered by fishermen in a leathern bag on the poles of a weir at the mouth of the Dovey (Iolo MSS. pp. 71–2), and how it was his curse which brought Maelgwn under the power of the yellow plague (ib. p. 77). These scattered legends were finally worked up into one consistent tale, which also embodied a good deal of the ‘Taliesin’ poetry; as ‘Hanes Taliesin’ it was printed in the ‘Cambrian Quarterly Magazine’ for 1833 (pp. 198–214, 366–81), and in Lady Charlotte Guest's edition of the ‘Mabinogion.’ According to this romance, the poet was the reincarnation of one Gwion Bach, and on his birth was set adrift by his mother Ceridwen upon the sea. He was found by Elffin near the mouth of the Dovey, and forthwith began to exercise his bardic gifts. Afterwards he rendered Elffin many services, freeing him from captivity and vanquishing the bards of Maelgwn. The immediate manuscript source of the printed story was a book written by Hopkin Thomas Philip in the sixteenth century (for the date see Stephens's Literature of the Kymry, 2nd ed. p. 409), and it is not necessary to go further back for its authorship; yet that it existed in an earlier form would appear from the statement in the Iolo manuscripts (p. 72) that Thomas ab Einion Offeiriad, who flourished, it would seem, about 1300 (Stephens, loc. cit.), composed a romance which covered (apparently) the same ground as ‘Hanes Taliesin.’ No importance should be attached to the statements in the Iolo manuscripts which connect Taliesin with Arthur, Caerleon, and ‘Henwg Sant’ (pp. 72, 73), since they are merely due to the anxiety of Glamorganshire antiquaries to associate all the great figures of Welsh legend with their part of the country.

The only genuine local tradition about Taliesin is that which points to a ‘cistfaen’ in the parish of Llanfihangel Geneu'r Glyn, Cardiganshire, as the poet's grave (Llwyd in Gibson's edit. of Camden's Britannia, p. 647). A village which has sprung up near the site is now called Taliesin. Taliesin is connected with Geirionydd lake in Carnarvonshire, on the strength of a line (of which the true reading is doubtful) in one of the poems attributed to him (Four Ancient Books, ii. 293); a modern monument has been raised in the poet's honour on the banks of the lake, and this the ordnance surveyors have wrongly described as ‘Bedd Taliesin’ (Taliesin's grave).

The ‘Book of Taliesin’ is a manuscript of the early fourteenth century, now in the Hengwrt collection; as one of the ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales,’ it was printed by Skene (1868), with a translation by Robert Williams (Rhyd y Croesau). It contains fifty-six poems (with two or three on pages now missing), some directly, and the rest by their inclusion in the book, attributed to Taliesin. All of them, with a number of other ‘Taliesin’ poems not to be found in this manuscript, had previously been printed in the ‘Myvyrian Archaiology.’ Though accepted as sixth-century productions in mediæval times and by modern uncritical writers, these poems are clearly from different hands and of different periods, and they have been the subject of much controversy. Edward Llwyd attributed about twenty to Taliesin himself (Archæologia Britannica, pp. 263–4), Stephens regarded twelve (including six to Urien Rheged) as beyond doubt of the sixth century (Literature of the Kymry, 2nd ed. p. 271), while Nash held that not one had in its present form been shown to be as old as the era of the poet (Taliesin, pp. 120–1). It was part of the purpose of Skene, in his edition of the ‘Four Ancient Books,’ to combat the destructive criticism of Stephens and Nash, and show that these and similar poems were in substance as old as the seventh century, and supplied important evidence for the struggle in the north between Angles, Picts, Scots, and Britons (pp. 11–15, 242–3). This has not yet been established, and for the present the view of Nash holds the field.

[Authorities cited.]

J. E. L.