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Reference group
Cynfeirdd (act. 6th–11th cent.), meaning ‘early poets’, are so called from a Welsh term that appears to have been coined by the antiquary Robert Vaughan (1592–1667), perhaps in imitation of the Latin protovatis (‘first bard’) used of the early poet Taliesin by Sir John Price (or Prise) in his Historiae Brytannicae defensio of 1573. Vaughan used the term in the title of ‘Y kynfeirdh Kymreig’, his manuscript anthology of early Welsh poetry copied from the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century codices in his own collection at Hengwrt, principally the Book of Taliesin, the Black Book of Carmarthen, and the Book of Aneirin. Only a few leaves now survive of Vaughan's anthology, but it was used and named by Edward Lhuyd in his survey of the contents of medieval Welsh manuscripts, published in Archaeologia Britannica in 1707. Through this channel the term cynfeirdd had by the mid-eighteenth century become sufficiently well established to spawn a contrastive designation gogynfeirdd (‘not so early poets’) for the named court poets who were composing from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Both terms were given prominence in The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (1801–7), the collection of texts assembled by Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), Owen Jones, and William Owen Pughe.

Subsequent scholarship followed this broad periodization, also following the medieval usage by referring to the work of the cynfeirdd as hengerdd (‘old poetry’). But in the twentieth century, following the lead of John Morris-Jones and above all of Sir Ifor Williams, who devoted a lifetime of scholarship to editing and interpreting early Welsh poetry, the term cynfeirdd came to be used more particularly for the five poets named in the twelfth-century text of the Historia Brittonum (829–30) contained in Harley MS 3859 in the British Library. There they are assigned to a flowering of Brittonic poetry synchronized in broad terms with a period when Eudeyrn was fighting against the Angles during the reign of Ida of Bernicia (r. 547–559/60). The first of these poets, Talhaearn Tad Awen (‘Ironbrow the Father of Inspiration’), is accorded his own renown (‘in poemate claruit’). The other four are then listed, perhaps as an addition, as having been renowned in British poetry together at the same time (‘simul uno tempore in poemate Britannico claruerunt’). As well as Taliesin (‘Radiant Brow’), they are Aneirin (a name derived from the Latin negrinus), Blwchfardd (‘Bald Poet’), and Cian (a name formed from ci, ‘hound’), said to be ‘also called Gueinth [recte Gwenith] Gwawd’ (‘Grain/Wheat of Song’). Some of these names are evidently bardic aliases. Cian and Talhaearn have appended honorific titles; Tad Awen is used of another figure, Tydei, in the ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ in the Black Book of Carmarthen.

Of the five poets, only Aneirin and Taliesin are connected with surviving poetry from the early middle ages. The rubric in the Book of Aneirin of c.1250, like the testimony of the poet Dafydd Benfras (fl. 1220–58), asserts that it was Aneirin who ‘sang the Gododdin’, the series of elegies for the war band defeated at the battle of Catraeth (Catterick) at an uncertain but probably sixth-century date. Eight praise poems to the sixth-century north British king Urien, and an elegy for Urien's son Owain, have been regarded as the ‘genuine’ work of Taliesin, the evidence for his authorship turning on the presence of the poems in the Book of Taliesin (although this contains a body of material patently later than the sixth century under his name), internal references to Taliesin in two of these poems, and the occasional coupling of Taliesin with Urien by poets such as Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr in the twelfth century. Other poems in the Book of Taliesin, and material from later tradition, associate Taliesin with a patron called Elffin, and have him confounding the bards at Maelgwn Gwynedd's court at Deganwy, a connection that may have been fostered by the passage in De excidio Britanniae where Gildas—in the earliest view of the cynfeirdd at work—condemns the sycophantic behaviour and empty praise of Maelgwn's court poets. Poems in Taliesin's persona also make passing mention of Talhaearn and Cian, two of those listed in the Historia Brittonum.

Names of other putatively early poets survive in various medieval sources, especially the triads: these include Arofan (the poet of Selyf ap Cynan Garwyn who ruled in Powys), Afan Ferddig (poet of Cadwallon), Tristfardd (poet of Urien), Dygynnelw (poet of Owain son of Urien), and Myrddin or Merlin, whose poems in persona picture him as the bard of a sixth-century northern British king Gwenddolau, and subsequently as a wild sage and prophet living in the Caledonian forest. Whether these poets were real people is impossible to know. The old idea, especially prominent from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, that Llywarch Hen was an early poet, was demolished in 1935 by Ifor Williams, who demonstrated that Llywarch was the speaking persona of his poetry cycle, not its author. The twelfth-century prophet Meilyr Awenydd of Gwent, and others possessed with the gift of divination, are described by Gerald of Wales in his Itinerarium Cambriae of c.1191; the twelfth-century life of Gwynllyw (St Woolloos) mentions, but does not name, a poet who composed Welsh verses on the life and miracles of the saint.

The bulk of the poetry produced by the cynfeirdd is anonymous. It includes a great variety of material, and it is very likely that some of the cynfeirdd-type poems continued across the apparent divide about 1100 when the gogynfeirdd, the named court poets, come into prominence. Eulogy and elegy include works that may be contemporary: the Gododdin, and the praise poems composed for Gwallawg and for Cadwallon of Gwynedd, as well as those honouring Urien and his son, Cynan Garwyn of Powys, Cynddylan, Bleiddudd of Tenby, and Aeddon of Anglesey. Others relate to legendary or semi-legendary figures, for instance Dylan son of Wave, Cunedda, Arthur, Hercules, and Alexander. A large number of poems adopt a character persona, including the three englyn cycles about Urien, Llywarch, and Heledd (8th–10th cent.) and there is a range of dialogue poems, including a colloquy between Taliesin and Myrddin (a theme echoed in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini). Legendary material that is also reflected in prose tales like Culhwch ac Olwen and the ‘four branches of the Mabinogi’ is alluded to in some poems. There are also substantial bodies of nature, gnomic, and proverbial material, and of religious and scriptural poems, as well as prophetic verse ascribed in some cases to Myrddin or to Taliesin. The tenth-century Armes Prydein vawr (‘The great prophecy of Britain’), an unusually focused piece of propaganda, voices hostility to the imposition of taxes by Athelstan of Wessex and reasserts the primacy of the Welsh as rulers of the island of Britain. Named and unnamed, the bards and seers ranked by posterity among the cynfeirdd have left striking testimony to the power and variety of their poetic gifts.

M. E. Haycock

Sources  

Nennius, ‘British history’ and ‘The Welsh annals’, ed. and trans. J. Morris (1980) · Gildas, ‘De excidio et conquestu Britanniae’, Gildas: ‘The ruin of Britain’, and other works, ed. and trans. M. Winterbottom (1978) · J. G. Evans, ed., Facsimile and text of the Book of Taliesin (1910) · The poems of Taliesin, ed. I. Williams, trans. J. E. Caerwyn-Williams (1968) · Taliesin, Armes Prydein / The prophecy of Britain, ed. I. Williams, trans. R. Bromwich (1972) · I. Williams, ed., Canu Aneirin (1938) · I. Williams, ed., Canu Llywarch Hen, 2nd edn (1953) · J. Rowland, Early Welsh saga poetry: a study and edition of the englynion, another edn (1990) · Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, ed. A. O. H. Jarman (1982) · T. Jones, ed., ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen: “Stanzas of the Graves”’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 53 (1967) · J. G. Evans, ed., The poetry in the Red Book of Hergest (1911) · K. H. Jackson, Early Welsh gnomic poems (1935); repr. (1961) · M. Haycock, ed., Blodeugerdd barddas o ganu crefyddol cynnar (1994) · R. Bromwich, ed., Trioedd ynys Prydein, 3rd edn (2006) · Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini / Life of Merlin, ed. and trans. B. Clarke (1973) · Gerald of Wales, ‘The journey through Wales’ and ‘The description of Wales’, trans. L. Thorpe (1978) · A. W. Wade-Evans, ed. and trans., Vitae sanctorum Britanniae et genealogiae (1944) · J. Prise, Historiae Brytannicae defensio (1573) · E. Lhuyd, Archaeologia Britannica (1707) · O. Jones, E. Williams, and W. O. Pughe, eds., The Myvyrian archaiology of Wales, collected out of ancient manuscripts, 3 vols. (1801–7) · Four ancient books of Wales containing the Cymric poems attributed to the bards of the sixth century, ed. and trans. W. F. Skene, 2 vols. (1868) · J. Morris-Jones, ‘Taliesin’, Y Cymmrodor, 28 (1918) · I. Williams, The beginnings of Welsh poetry, ed. R. Bromwich (2nd edn, 1980) · M. E. Griffiths, Early vaticination in Welsh, with English parallels, ed. T. G. Jones (1937) · M. E. Owen, ‘Chwedl a hanes y cynfeirdd yng ngwaith y gogynfeirdd’, Ysgrifau Beirniadol, 19 (1993) · D. Huws, Medieval Welsh manuscripts (2000)