2013 StAnza lecture delivered by National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke
Poet cites elegiac poem Y Gododdin as shared cultural reference point of Welsh and Scots
The StAnza lecture given by Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales started by referring back to a Britain when Brythonic was spoken throughout the land extending from Wales into the Midlands and through Cumbria as far north as Fife. This immediately created a rapport with the audience in the Town Hall of St Andrews. Clarke also has one of those rich velvety voices and expresses herself with humour and depth so it was a pleasure to listen to her. Clarke referenced the Elegiac poem Y Gododdin (circa AD500), attributed to the poet Aneirin, its hundred and so verses recited and remembered until written down in the 12th century. The poem is a cultural treasure shared between the Scots and the Welsh which remembers and laments each of the warriors of Gododdin who were killed in the Battle of Catraeth fighting against the Angles. Three hundred of them fought bravely against a much greater number and they were all killed in the battle. These heros were from Fife and Lothian and as far south as the Tyne. Their king had his stronghold in Edinburgh and they had feasted there for a year before going on the fateful journey to what is modern day Catterick.
Men went to Catraeth, keen their war-band; pale mead their portion, it was poison.
Three hundred under orders to fight and after celebration, silence.
Though they went to churches for shriving, true is the tale, death confronted them.
This translation by Joseph Clancy is available to read online, and in stanza 102 compares one of the warriors to Arthur, possibly of the Round Table fame.
The lecture touched on a Britain that is lost but Clarke was reminding her audience of the British shared culture and peoples.
She also linked the aural tradition from this past to the habit of reciting and teaching nursery rhythms to children. Poetry is at the very beginning of childhood; and its beat and rhythms and imagery teaches a child to listen and remember. The lecture then ranged into early emotions and how they form the creative well of memory into which poets go to power their words. She spoke of Seamus Heaney saying that his memories of childhood fear spark his poetry.
Having spoken of motivation, Clarke then talked of style. She told us about Cynghanedd, a sophisticated pattern of sounds used in Welsh poetry. It was formalised into rules in the 14th century with four different forms. Cynghanedd includes alliteration, harmony, rhythm and stress. Good poets, such as Keats naturally practise Cynghanedd without knowing about it. Clarke said she and other Welsh poets like to play with it but not be bound by it so that it becomes a straitjacket.
The Gododdin elergy is a shining example of Cynghanedd. The poem continues to provide inspiration and context for modern Welsh poets such as Anthony Conran (1931-2013) who wrote 'Elegy for the Welsh Dead in the Falklands 1982'.