contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Awen

BOOK REVIEW: ZEN FOR DRUIDS

jhp574843867221aIn this user-friendly book, Joanna van der Hoeven further develops ideas already present in her earlier ones, especially Zen Druidry. On my reading, this book will work best for Druids committed to a modern eco-spirituality. I imagine readers already re-enchanted by their experience of the natural world, who want a harmonious relationship with that world, and to honour, protect and preserve it. Zen for Druids confirms this stance and adds something else: the interwoven ethical and attentional training of the Buddhist tradition.

The author draws specifically on Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master who founded the Community of Interbeing and is a leading model and exponent of ‘engaged Buddhism’. This cultivates personal, social and ecological levels of awareness. It recognizes the radical interdependence of all beings and a need to make ethical/political choices in line with this interdependence. Such Buddhism is not in any way world denying, in the way that Buddhist tradition has at times been in the past. I see Thich Nhat Hanh as a perfect source of influence for this book, and several of his own works are cited in the bibliography.

Zen for Druids is divided into five parts. The first is a clear exposition of Buddhist basics, helped by that tradition’s own style of clear exposition and list making. It includes chapters on the three treasures, the four noble truths, the five basic precepts for lay Buddhists, the eightfold path and the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts. By age-old Buddhist design, there is a certain amount of repetition in these lists, with the same issues coming up again in slightly different contexts. Each individual chapter ends with a set of questions designed to engage the reader in their own reflections.

The second part moves through the eightfold wheel of the year, frequently found as a festival year in Druid and Pagan communities. Each festival is given its own chapter, and each chapter combines traditional Druid and Pagan themes with a principle from the Buddhist eightfold path. The author starts at Samhain (right effort), moves on to the Winter Solstice (right mindfulness), Imbolc (right concentration), Spring Equinox (right intention), Beltane (right view), Summer Solstice (right action), Lughnasadh (right speech) and the Autumn Equinox (right livelihood). Each section is followed by a list of suggestions for practice.

The book’s remaining three parts are shorter. They concern, respectively, meditation, mindfulness and integration. In two chapters on meditation, the first explores ‘mind traps’ – “those little prisons of our own making. We are constantly hijacked by our thoughts and feelings, attachments to them and our egos, such that we spin endlessly in circles until we fall down”. The second shows us to how do a brief meditation session in the Zen manner. The following section, concerning mindfulness in the world, suggests a practice of ‘mindful Mondays’ and explores the relationship between present time awareness and an animist world view. The final section, on integration, focuses on our integration with nature, looking at the issue of ‘ego, self and identity’ before reflecting on ‘awen and relationship’. For Joanna van der Hoeven, indeed, “awen is relationship and integration, the connecting threads that bind us soul to soul”.

In Zen for Druids, one Druid shows how she has taken an iteration of Zen Buddhism into her life and practice, combining them into one path. She sets out her stall very clearly and offers the reader specific opportunities and resources for practice and reflection. This book does a valuable job well.

Joanna van der Hoeven Zen for Druids: a further guide to integration, compassion and harmony with nature Winchester & Washington: Moon Books, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: THE BROKEN CAULDRON

14606507_342051356186231_2360625875228974566_nHighly recommended. Author Lorna Smithers describes The Broken Cauldron as “a fragmentary collection of essays, stories and poems”. Yet I experienced this book as a unity, a poet’s meditation even when presenting technical information about fracking and nuclear power. For it is built around a compelling core image, made visible in Tom Brown’s striking cover illustration.

At its fullest and most majestic, that image is “a cauldron full of stars”, the womb of Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, and traditionally the source of inspiration, wisdom and rebirth. Yet here the cauldron lies shattered, the universe is fragmented, and the world is out of kilter. Smithers takes myth out of archetypal romance and into the wounded world of history, making it awkward, jarring – and dynamic. She confronts us with where we are and transmits a warning wake-up call from gods and storytellers.

In her introduction, Smithers explains how she was led into a quest to understand the significance of the broken cauldron in ancient British history. The myths she studied were penned in medieval Wales but are rooted in an older oral tradition. All tell the story of the cauldron. When it is broken or stolen, cataclysmic consequences are unleashed. Smithers was particularly drawn “to the violence of Arthur’s raid on Annwn (the Otherworld) and assault on its inhabitants. The moment Lleog thrusts his flashing sword into the cauldron came to symbolize the patriarchal world view … founded on oppression of the Other”. In her poem about this she writes:

“The sinking blade lit like lightening.

Reflected in it faces of a million million souls,

Eyes melting, disintegrating like shadows

Into pure white light.”

Lleminog, another of Arthur’s companions, carries the broken prize away:

“Lleminog scooped the cracked cauldron

Into his hand,

Escaped like a thief into the night

With moon, stars, sun, broken pieces

Of Old Mother Universe jangling in his pocket.”

Smithers works under the aegis of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god “who haunts the peripheries of the Bardic tradition”. His world is Annwn – an Otherworld described as ‘not-world’ and ‘the deep’. There he keeps a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, “the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe, Ceridwen”. Much of our inherited Bardic tradition is seen as problematic. In particular, “Taliesin epitomizes all that is questionable and dislikeable” about it. The poet of The Broken Cauldron.is an outsider “watching with horror as Gwion escapes with the Awen and Gwyddno’s horses perish in the poison” – paying the terrible price for three drops of inspiration. The Gwion who becomes Taliesin pays little attention to this and becomes a sycophantic court Bard as kingdoms fall.

Gwyn offers the possibility of fixing the broken cauldron by gathering the poison back into it from the land, and Lorna Smithers supports this work by telling the stories of “marginalized figures – the overshadowed, the oppressed and the slaughtered”. The Broken Cauldron is divided into five sections: The Broken Cauldron and The Flashing Sword, Ridiculous, Drowned Lands, Operation Cauldron and Uranium.  The urgency of myth trying to reconstruct itself for are times is conveyed in a number of ways. One is the striking language of set piece poems, as in Dumb Man:

You come mouthing words.

There are burnt out cities in your mouth.

The vocabulary of sign language

Cannot convey the stories

You need to tell.

There are the cumulative effects of the giant Diwrnach’s repeated death in slightly variant stories from different regions of Celtic Britain, as he defends a cauldron in a feasting hall and is slain by his own sword. Smithers describes this back-to-backing of versions as a ‘montage’. There is dark whimsical fantasy in The Day I Raised the Dead, which takes place in The Court of the Sons of the King of Suffering – a “joyless place”. There is a realistic account of a journey to find out about, and find, the drowned Porth Wyddno, once one of “the three chief ports of the island”, which Smithers places in Lancashire rather than at Borth in west Wales. There is a discussion of uranium and the nuclear power station at Sellafield aka Windscale aka Calder Hall, and its inclusion in the myth of the “cauldron which is filled with stars” and dangerously toxic when messed with.

Most poignant, for me, is the story of Morfran, which straddles time. His mother, “a scientific genius with a meticulous eye for detail” runs an award winning chemical plant. Growing up gawky and ugly as a cormorant, he has been nick-named Afagddhu (utter darkness) by a mother who is determined to fix him and make him presentable. Events occur, though not to him. At the end of his story, he muses “perhaps that’s where I’ll go, down into the deep where there is no ugliness and no perfection, surface with a fish for a clean breath or air before her child is born and the cycle begins again.”

There is much more. The Broken Cauldron is a wonderful example of the re-visioning of myth, fully immersed in the old traditions, yet bringing out new meanings and new possibilities for our time.

 

Lorna Smithers The Broken Cauldron King’s Lynn, Norfolk: Biddle’s Books, 2016 Cover art by Tom Brown.

HEADLESS AWEN?

In my current spiritual inquiry, I am exploring Douglas Harding’s ‘Headless Way’, now with some direct guidance from Richard Lang and the Shollond Trust. For me, the brief passage below suggests a re-framed view of what we Druids call Awen. It also feels very Sophian, so I’m finding my pointers to an integrated path. I just have to be patient as new understandings unfold and I learn better how to live them.

“Speaking from my own experience now, if I picture a writer here who is thinking up these words, the result is more-or-less mechanical, uninteresting, inappropriate.

“But to the extent that I experience these words moving spontaneously from the empty Awareness that I am, from the Tao, why then they have a more authentic ring. That is not forgetting myself in the heat of literary composition. Quite the contrary: it is being clearly Self-aware as the Tao, the formless origin of all form.” (1)

(1) Douglas Harding Religions of the world: A handbook for the open-minded London: Shollond Trust, 2014 (digital edition). Originally published by Heinemann Educational Books in 1966.

WESTERN WAYS: DRUIDRY AND SOPHIA

In my world, Druidry and the Way of Sophia are linked, though not the same. In The Western Way (1,2) authors Caitlin and John Matthews made a distinction between a ‘Native’ Tradition and a ‘Hermetic’ one, which act as “complementary opposites”. The Native Tradition is “the inward spiral of a maze which leads into the heart of ancestral earth-wisdom”. The Hermetic Tradition is the outward spiral of the same maze: a path of evolving consciousness which is informed by the inner resources of our ancestral roots, “augmented in a macrocosmic way” (2).

My original interest in a ‘Celtic’ spiritual thread, developing from the 1980s, wasn’t specifically Druid or Pagan. It came mostly through Celtic and Celtic influenced literature. Although a long tradition in its own right, it post-dates the demise of institutional Druidry and Paganism in Celtic speaking regions. Most of it has been written with at least an element of Christian reference and influence. So we get verses like this from the medieval Welsh Book of Taliesin:

I was at the cross

With Mary Magdalene.

I received the Awen

From Ceridwen’s cauldron. (3)

 

What I intuitively liked about this was the sense of a culture working to integrate diverse influences rather than attempting to be ‘pure’. Pure culture (or the attempt at it) narrows horizons and banishes possible resources, becoming limited and inflexible in my view. Sophia is both an image of the divine and expresses a blending of Jewish and Greek wisdom traditions. She came to prominence in Alexandria, the largest city of Roman Egypt. She is cosmopolitan. In the verse above Mary Magdalene (an incarnation of Sophia in some gnostic traditions) and Ceridwen (not a traditional Celtic goddess from Pagan times) both have Sophian roles in relation to male figures seen in different ways as light bringers.

Some of the Celtic-derived stories from the medieval period are clearly breaking new cultural ground whilst using resources from the Celtic past. They belong to a realm of creative mythology, as Joseph Campbell called it, whose purpose is “the opening … of one’s own truth and depth to the depth and truth of another in such a way as to establish an authentic community of existence” (4). Twelfth century Western Europe sought to renew itself by drawing on its classical heritage (native in Italy) and Geoffrey of Monmouth drew on it in his Mystic Life of Merlin (5), for example by dedicating a contemplative ‘Observatory’ to the owl deity Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom. It also drew on Celto-Germanic heritage, with the Arthurian mythos – the matter of Britain – taking a prominent place. This mythos does not name Sophia. But it does have the image of the grail and the story of the grail quest. For me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia, and Caitlin Matthews has described it as “a prime symbol of Sophia” (6).  Perceval, the grail winner, has to encounter the divine in a new way for himself. At one level his role is to honour and heal the land, renewing its tantric energy. But the Grail Goddess, whilst enabling that traditional collective healing, adds a new and more individuated depth of wisdom and compassion. So although I have always been moved by the scenes and images of the more archaically oriented Peredur (7), I have found a more compelling narrative in Parzival (8). It is the innovative aspect of the story that engages me and the grail image that nourishes me.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, (9) Jesus of Nazareth asks three leading followers to say what they think he is like. Peter, traditionally Jewish, says “you are like a just messenger” (or righteous angel in other translations). Matthew, familiar with Graeco-Roman ways, says “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas says, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like”. The teacher responds, ‘I am not your TeacherBecause you have drunk, you have been intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended’.  As I read this text, it is a confirmation that a lived spirituality is beyond packaging.

In this sense, terms like Druidry, Way of Sophia or Western Way have only a limited use. Joseph Campbell said “the best things cannot be told; the second best are misunderstood; after that comes civilised conversation”. The problem is real yet I believe he overstates his case. I think it is worth the effort of finding words, making distinctions and enabling affiliations in full awareness of the difficulties. Civilised conversation with moments of … something more … feels like an honourable pursuit.

  1. Caitlin & John Matthews (1985) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 1 – the Native Tradition London: Arkana
  2. Caitlin & John Matthews (1986) The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition: Volume 2 – the Hermetic Tradition London: Arkana
  3. John Matthews (1991) Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: The Aquarian Press (with additional material by Caitlin Matthews)
  4. Joseph Campbell (1976) The Masks of God: Creative Mythology Harmondsworth: Penguin
  5. R. J. Stewart (1986) The Mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana 
  6. Caitlin Matthews (1986) Sophia Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God Wheaton, IL: Quest Books
  7. The Mabinogion (1976) Harmondsworth: Penguin (translated with an introduction by Geoffrey Gantz)
  8. Wolfram von Eschenbach, W. (1980) Parzival Harmondsworth: Penguin (translated by A. T. Hatto)
  9. The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (1992) San Francisco, CA, USA: Harper San Francisco (translation with introduction, critical edition of the Coptic text and notes by Marvin Meyer; with an interpretation by Harold Bloom)

THE WAY OF SOPHIA

“A Sufi mystic was staying with Rabiya. His name was Hasan. He must have heard Jesus Christ’s statement: ‘knock and it shall be opened to you. Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you will find it’. So every day in his morning prayer, afternoon prayer, evening prayer, night prayer, five times a day he said to God, ‘I am knocking, Sir, and I am knocking so much. Why has it not opened up to now? I am beating my head against your door, Sir. Open it.

“Rabiya heard it one day. Rabiya heard it the second day. Rabiya heard it the third day. Then she said, ‘Hasan, when will you look? The door is open. You go on talking nonsense – ‘I am knocking, I am knocking’ – and the door is open all the time. Look! But you are too concerned with your knocking and asking and desiring and seeking, and you cannot see. The door is open.” (1)

For me Rabiya is the Sophia in this story, the teacher and guide. Sophia emerges in the eastern Mediterranean. She is most associated with contexts that are urban, multicultural and entranced by the power of the written word. She inherits the rose from Aphrodite and Isis, and the grove from Asherah, the lost goddess of Israel. She becomes a traveller, eastward bound on the Silk Road, taking other names.

The Sophia of my experience is not quite the being of the traditions, though the traditions have fed me (2, 3). As a living presence, anam cara and guide, she undermines my pompous attempts to impose narrative order on the cosmos and thus possess the infinite. She stands for creative mythology, continuous revelation, and a compassionate free spirit. Infinitely sceptical and infinitely believing, she embraces the life of the senses, feeling and thinking. Yet she points also to other possibilities: nourishment in the silent heart of being, and the energy of what Coleridge called the primary imagination and Druids call Awen.

  1. Osho Zen: the path of paradox New York, NY: Osho International Foundation, 2001
  2. Caitlin Matthews Sophia Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God Wheaton, ILL: Quest Books, 2001
  3. Anne Baring & Jules Cashford The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image London: Arkana, 1993
  4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria: or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions London: Dent, 1965 (Edited with an introduction by George Watson)

 

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY: MEME OR MOVEMENT?

On 3 October Contemplative Druid Events (CDE) – see http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com – will hold its last planned event for 2015. This will be a Contemplative Day, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The facilitators will be James Nichol, Elaine Knight and Nimue Brown. Our programme is designed for a group of up to 15 people, and 12 are already committed. With just over a month to go we have a comfortable size of group, with room for a few more.

CDE offerings are built around insights from the book Contemplative Druidry: People Practice and Potential about the kinds of contemplative work that most seemed to resonate for the present generation of Druids. We offer sitting meditations of based both on a bare attention and on active imagination. We have outdoor walking meditations and opportunities simply to be, with awareness, in natural settings. We use methods that draw on creative arts. We have developed ‘Awen space’ as a group opening to, in and as Spirit. We build our repertoire as we gain in experience.

Is CDE spearheading Contemplative Druidry as a movement? I don’t see it that way. CDE was created as a minimal level of organisation for a single purpose. This is to offer a particular kind of event to small groups of Druids and fellow-travellers willing to join us. In doing this, we also promote the contemplative Druid meme, which now seems to be well recognised in modern Druid culture. But the CDE brand does not exhaust the possibilities of contemplative Druidry and we wouldn’t want it to. Modern Druidry, which is in some senses a postmodern Druidry, has a strong commitment to free exploration and diversity. The contemplative meme will find its place within that wider cultural framework. For better or for worse, we will never, as a collective, be organised around a Druid ‘four noble truths’. Contemplative Druidry will mean different things, and inspire different journeys, for different Druids.

POEM: PRIMARY CHIEF BARD

Gnostic Bardistry from The Book of Taliesin? These are just five of the verses, selected by me from one poem. What interests me is not so much working out what to us seems like a set of puzzles, but how something new and dialogical is created by interweaving indigenous material and biblical references. I say a few words in italics after each verse.

Primary Chief Bard

Primary Chief Bard

Am I to Elffin

And my native country

Is the region of the summer stars.

 

The first statement is a statement of identity. It begins with a local (though important) role, and goes on to the cosmic and transcendent. This taps into a sense of belonging somewhere else (whether perceived as a place or state). It makes me think that statements like ‘being here now, in the present’ and ‘my native country is the region of the summer stars’ only seem contradictory: meaning depends so much on context and the work that words are doing. If the two statements are separated and polarised, they diminish into limiting slogans. Taken together, they can lead us to a different quality of experience.

I was full nine months

In the womb of the hag Ceridwen.

Before that I was Gwion

But now I am Taliesin.

Taliesin’s current personal identity is explained in terms of a second birth, in this life, triggered by the actions of Ceridwen. This second birth fits him to be a Bard and take the Bardic name ‘Radiant Brow’, one that bespeaks major shifts in energy and consciousness. It also allows the sense of the summer stars as his ‘native country’ to be real within him. It orients him to his true home.

I was patriarch

To Elijah and Enoch.

I was there at the crucifixion

Of the merciful Mabon.

Elijah and Enoch ascended to heaven without dying. They have deep roles in Jewish mysticism. They are in the tradition of so-called ‘ascended Masters’. If we treat these metaphors (insofar as they are metaphors) as concerned with enlightenment, then – as their ‘Patriarch’ – Taliesin is claiming primacy over them. He is in some sense a Christ figure and so can be present at the crucifixion of another Christ figure, referred to here by the name of the magical child of British tradition ‘the Mabon’.

 

I was at the cross

With Mary Magdalene.

I received the Awen

From Ceridwen’s cauldron.

The poem presented here is a product of the later Middle Ages, likely as late as the fourteenth century. Traditions giving Mary Magdalene the role of major teacher and possibly spouse of Jesus were deep underground, but everyone in Christendom Knew of her witnessing role at both the crucifixion and the resurrection, and so as privileged in some way. She also shares her name with Mary the mother. The two couplets together bring the idea of Christ’s transformation through death on the cross with Taliesin’s transformation from Ceridwen’s cauldron, and the critical role of a feminine power in each.

I was in the larder

In the land of the Trinity

And no one knows whether my body

Is flesh or fish.

Despite all the above, Taliesin remains an enigma – a shape shifter and trickster. He defies definition and description and won’t fit into any box that attracts unwanted piety. Other readers may understand this verse much better than I do, but I see it as very tough minded and unwilling to let me parcel up this poem and tie it with a neat bow. To the extent that I get a sense of medieval Welsh literature, this seems very characteristic. However, in the most obvious ‘Land of the Trinity’ (Western Christendom) people want to know where everyone stands. The accepted narrative is that we’re with Jesus the avatar of Pisces and through the sign of the fish we know him. And yet the old Celtic world has many trinities and many fish, including the salmon of wisdom. And Taliesin’s body might be flesh after all. So we are thrown back on our resources, with riddling words and ambiguous images to reflect them.

 

The complete poem can be found in Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland by John Matthews London: The Aquarian Press, 1991.

BRIGHID AND THE ORAN MOR

Truly inspiring! I am greatly moved by Joanna’s  eloquent and powerful piece. It’s great when someone else in in the current of a similar yet distinct inspiration.

Down the Forest Path

This is a reblog from my latest blog post at Moon Books. I hope you enjoy it, and do let me know if you’ve had similar experiences. 🙂

I had meditated and tranced for nearly an hour before my altar, to the sounds of the birds outside and Heloise Pilkington on my cd player. http://www.heloisepilkington.com/index.htm  My cats joined me, sleeping in their respective spots, their purrs vibrating along my spine.  As the incense burned out, I came back to myself, having danced with my goddess, diving in her mysteries and those of my own soul.

I was ready now. Time to go out, to seek her, to seek the awen.  I packed a small bag with more incense and some water and made my way out of the house and onto the heath. Taking my time, walking slowly, I feel more graceful after my time spent at my altar…

View original post 1,172 more words

BOOK REVIEW: ENCHANTING THE SHADOWLANDS

product_thumbnailIn formal terms, this is a five star review of Enchanting the Shadowlands, a book of numinous poems and short stories by Lorna Smithers. She describes it as “gathered from my local landscape in response to an imperative from a Brythonic god called Gwyn ap Nudd”. If you have any interest in the lingering subtle resonance of the old Celtic and pre-Celtic world in parts of England like the poet’s native northwest, you will appreciate this volume. If you have any interest in ‘awen’ as an inspirational force or creative current, and what it is to be ‘awenydd’, you will appreciate this volume. If you have any interest in poetry and landscape, or what is now called psycho-geography, you are likely to appreciate this volume. I strongly recommend this book.

More deeply, I am hoping in a small way to share something of the magic of the work as I have experienced it. I find that the best way in is to say that, for me, the resonance of the project, its feeling-tone, can be found in the first two verses of ‘A Journeying Song’, one of the later poems in the collection.

1: Horse and Hound

She will carry me

down invisible horse paths.

He will lead us

to invisible lands.

She will carry me

beyond the stolen skyline.

He will lead us

to where horizons end.

2: The Dreaming Land

The dream is not a dream

it is the life force of the land.

A living memory,

it is the dawn. It is the damned.

The dream is not a sleep.

It is a wakefulness

of past people and their dreams.

It is mistakes and shining laughter.

When I read these lines, I can feel myself riding the mare who will “carry me down invisible horse paths”, led (in my mind’s eye) by a large and shaggy hound. I can easily accept that, surrendering to the instinctive wisdom of these animal powers, I might find myself beyond a “broken skyline” at a place where “horizons end”.  I can settle into the felt apprehension of a Dreaming Land where the dream is not a dream, but “the life force of the land, a living memory” and a “wakefulness of past people and their dreams”. The words are a portal to the living reality of the experience itself. In that sense, these two brief verses stand as a microcosm of the whole book.

Peneverdant/Penwortham, the locality described, is a watery place. Its first human inhabitants are called “The Dwellers in the Water Country”, drawn by the obvious attractions of auroch and deer and also by destiny and “the dream of a bard”.

They came with the splash of oars

and the steady splash of feet

drawn by auroch, deer and destiny,

the dream of a bard

who saw the green hill rising

from a wilderness of carr and marsh.

The awenydd poet’s own seership, her own process of inspired and connected reaching back, is caught in her ‘Prayer for Netholme’.

I write this prayer for the White One

Who loaned to me a mare of mist,

Led me across the marsh of time

And granted me the seer’s gift.

For later periods, the poetry is sometimes dialogical with older texts – such as the Domesday Survey of 1086, or James Flockhart’s ‘De Mowbray:A legend of Penwortham’. The latter is referenced in in ‘St. Mary’s Well, Twilight’ – a poem that also includes finely wrought observation of nature and the meaning it makes for the observer/the observer makes for it.

The setting sun is casting his vast aura

With a majesty I never dreamt him capable of

Enflaming clouds in luminescent orange and red,

Purple like mountains behind the trees.

The birds are singing as if it is their last dusk song.

I enlist bold robin, blackbird and little wren …

As if this is the evening of all evenings

And will be their last so better make it their best.

It is hard to write freshly about sunsets, though I do think this is well-managed even in the first four lines, especially through bringing in a delighted shift in the observer’s perception, and then going on to dare purple poetry. But what makes this section of the poem for me is the succeeding lines, which create a foreground for the majestic sunset background through the activity of the birds and their commitment to Being while it lasts.

Throughout the book we are aware of the interweaving of two worlds. This is done particularly well in the stories, which are every bit as inspired as the poetry. I was especially moved by the last, called ‘The Brown-Eared Hound: Rivington, October 31st. 1917’. It concerns sudden, shocking bereavement and also a direct experience of Gwyn’s wild hunt. I could almost see a novel, or at any rate novella, in this story – bringing together the world of Wilfrid Owen, D.H Lawrence and Virginia Wolf with that of living Brythonic myth. At the same time the piece as written did everything it needed to.

I don’t think it is possible to do this volume justice in a single review. It’s hard, with poetry. So I’m suggesting that readers also have a look at Crychydd’s review in https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/04 and the author’s own discussions about her work and its continuing development at: http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/

Lorna Smithers Enchanting the Shadowlands Lulu, 2015

HANES TALIESIN (THE CAULDRON OF CERIDWEN)

The Sage Ceridwen was the wife

Of Tegid Voel, of Pemble Mere:

Two children blessed their wedded life,

Morvran and Creirwy, fair and dear;

Morvran, a son of peerless worth,

And Creirway, lovely nymph of earth:

But one more son Ceridwen bare,

As foul as they before were fair.

She strove to make Avagddu wise;

She knew he never could be fair:

And, studying magic mysteries,

She gathered plants of virtue rare:

She placed the gifted plants to steep

Within the magic cauldron deep,

Where they a year and day must boil,

‘Till three drops crown the matrons toil.

Nine damsels raised the mystic flame;

Gwion the Little near it stood:

The while for simples roved the dame

Through tangles dell and pathless wood.

And when the year and day had passed,

The dame within the cauldron cast

The consummating chaplet wild,

While Gwion held the hideous child.

But from the cauldron rose a smoke

That filled with darkness all the air:

When through its folds the torchlight broke,

Nor Gwion, nor the boy, was there.

The fire was dead, the cauldron cold,

And in it lay, in sleep uprolled,

Fair as the morning-star, a child,

That woke and stretched its arms and smiled.

What chanced her labours to destroy;

She never knew, and sought in vain

If ‘twere her own misshapen boy,

Or little Gwion, born again:

And vexed with doubt, the babe she rolled,

In cloth of purple and of gold,

And in a coracle consigned

Its fortunes to the sea and wind.

The summer night was still and bright,

The summer moon was large and clear,

The frail bark, on the springtide’s height,

Was floated into Elphin’s weir:

The baby in his arms he raised:

His lovely spouse stood by, and gazed,

And, blessing it with gentle vow,

Cried “TALIESIN!” “Radiant brow!”

And I am he, and well I know

Ceridwen’s power protects me still:

And hence o’er hill and vale I go,

And sing, unharmed, what’er I will.

She has for me Time’s veil withdrawn:

The images of things long gone,

The shadows of the coming days,

Are present to my visioned gaze.

And I have heard the words of power,

By Ceiron’s solitary lake,

That bid, at midnight’s thrilling hour,

Eyri’s hundred echoes wake.

I to Diganwy’s towers have sped,

And now Caer Lleon’s halls I tread,

Demanding justice, now as then,

From Maelgon, most unjust of men.

This poem comes from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829. It is (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin, in which the Bard Taliesin he has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales. Taliesin has to win a Bardic contest at the court of the High King, Arthur and thus be able to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the Taliesin’s winning entry and concerns his mysterious birth. It differs somewhat from the version presented 20 years later by Lady Charlotte Guest, whilst being a recognisable if variant presentation of the same tale. The audience “shouted with delight” at this song, which wins the contest for Taliesin and entitles him to a boon from Arthur.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy. Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, and also recommends the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog in Merionethshire for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

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