Who is Taliesin? First, the easy answer: Taliesin was an early medieval Welsh poet.
Or maybe not—there seems to have been more than one famous poet named Taliesin in early Welsh literature. First you have to determine which Taliesin?
Scholars, beginning with Ifor Williams, have usually postulated that there are essentially “two Taliesins.” The first is the historical bard, a professional poet serving the courts of Welsh princes in the North during the latter part of the sixth century. These Welsh princes were battling a constant influx of Anglo-Saxon invaders. It is this Taliesin referred to in passing in the Historia Regnum Britannia attributed to Nennius and the ninth century. In the Historia Regnum Britannia, Taliesin is listed as one of the five poets known for their craft in sixth century Britain (of those listed the only other extant poet is Aneirin, of The Book of Aneirin and Y Goddodin). The first Taliesin is one of only two cynfeirdd or “earliest poets” whose work is still extant; the other is Aneirin.
The second Taliesin is a figure from mythology, one associated with other mythological figures, with folklore, and with arcane “metaphysical, transformational” poetry (Ford 1992, 3).
There are two central “texts” or really, bodies of work, that have to do with the Welsh poet Taliesin, historical or legendary. The first is a unique manuscript, the Book of Taliesin, or Llyfr Taliesin, known to scholars as Peniarth 2, in the National Library of Wales, Aberwystwyth. Peniarth 2 is a 7 x 5 inch vellum manuscript created sometime during the second half of the fourteenth century, the work of a single scribe most likely from Glamorgan. The manuscript is damaged, and currently consists of 93 leaves, and “wanting,” as its editor J. Gwenogvryn Evans said “beginning, middle, and end.” The manuscript contains about sixty Welsh poems; of these sixty twelve are ascribed to the “historical,” Taliesin, a professional court poet or bard, creator of praise poems for Urien Rheged and his son Owain ab Urien in the latter part of the sixth century. Another fifteen poems are associated with the “legendary” Taliesin; these texts refer to a wide-ranging time trans-shifting shape-shifting all-knowing mythological being who is described as both timeless and eternal (Ford 1992, 9). The manuscript also contains the “Armes Prydein Faw,” “Preiddeu Annwfn” (an important early text for Arthurian literature), and a number of elegies to historical persons (Haycock, 1987-88). You can see an extremely well-executed digital facsimile of the Llyfr Taliesin/Peniarth 2 manuscript here.
Marged Haycock, writing of Lyfr Taliesin, suggests persuasively that
It seems likely that the sixty or so poems in the anthology were brought together primarily as a Taliesin compendium to include the supposed ‘genuine’ work of the sixth-century cynfardd, later pieces declaimed by his bombastic alter ego, and an assortment of material relating to spheres in which that fictional being claimed to have mastery, whether scripture, prophecy, riddling, or cosmography (Haycock 1997, 19).
The second central Taliesin text is the Ystoria Taliesin, or as it is sometimes known, the Hanes Taliesin, or, even the chwedl Taliesin. This text is a mixture of Welsh prose and poetry, about and purportedly by Taliesin, though none of the poems in this text are included in the Llyfr Taliesin. There are over twenty manuscripts of this tale, several of them fragmentary (Ford 1977, 17 n.23; Ford 1992 55-59). The earliest text of Ystoria Taliesin is that of Elis Gruffydd, where the tales is part of two episodes in Gruffydd’s Chronicle of the Six Ages of the World. This is National Library of Wales MS 5276, compiled during the first half of the sixteenth century, and edited by Patrick Ford (Ford, 1992), and translated by Ford a few years later (Ford 1999). There are other, later versions of this text, including two from the hand of the often inventive Iolo Morganwg/Edward Williams (this is one of the mansucripts used by Lady Charlotte Guest for her Mabinogion translation). Many of the manuscripts only have the first part of the tale, which describes how Gwion Bach imbibes three inspirational drops from Ceridwen’s cauldron, is swallowed by Cerridwen after shape-shifting, and is reborn as the supreme poet Taliesin. They omit the latter portion which describes how the thirteen year old Taliesin journies to Gwenydd and the court of Maelgwn, rescuing his master Elphin through superior poetic composition (Ford 1977, 159). The poems embedded in the tale present a problem as well, for they are often omitted, or altered, and the order varies from manuscript to manuscript (Ford 1977, 162)
There are other references to Taliesin, for instance in the Welsh triads, and in the beginning of Culwch ac Olwen, but these are the two central bodies of work.
Rather than postulate some bizarre mythic persona to explain the “legendary” texts, I follow Ford’s model:
“Clearly, the tales of Gwion Bach and Taliesin cannot be lightly dismissed as “folktale” or late developments. Perceptible in them and in their attendant poems, despite the layering of successive generations and external influences, lies the myth of the primeval poet, in whom resided all wisdom” (Ford 1977, 21).
In other words, in the legendary poems, we see references to a body of traditional Celtic beliefs about the nature of poetry and the poet, beliefs which predate the life of the “historical” Taliesin but which were likely to have been shared by him, as well as by other poets in Irish and Indo-European cultures, and which were quite possibly assembled in the form of the “folk tale” we have today long after the historical Taliesin. The legendary materials refer to ideas about the nature of the poet, and the practice of poetry, that are strikingly similar to the shamanic behaviors of Irish and other Indo-European poets. These beliefs, and their relationship to Taliesin the legendary poet, have been particularly fruitfully explored by Patrick Ford (1999) and Joseph Nagy (1990).
Clancy, Joseph P. 1970. The Earliest Welsh Poetry. Macmillan: London, 1970. On 105–07. Translates a few of the “legendary” poems, and pp. 23–32 (using the numbers given in Williams’ edition) Clancy translates poems 1, 2,3, 5, 6 and 9, 10 of the “historic” Taliesin poems.
Conran, T. Welsh Verse. 1992. Poetry Wales Press: Bridgend. pp. 105–12 Translates “historical” poems 2, 3, 5, 6, 9 and 10.
Ford, Patrick K. 1990. “The Blind the Dumb, and the Ugly: Aspects of Poets and their Craft in Early Ireland and Wales.” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 19. Summer: 27–40. Ford examines the nature of poets, the poetic gift, and inspiration, in an early Celtic context.
Ford, Patrick K. 1977. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press. Ford includes a translation of the “Hanes Taliesin / Story of Taliesin” as well as of the “legendary” poem “Cad Goddeu/Battle of the Trees,” with some introductory material.
Ford, Patrick K. 1992. Ystoria Taliesin. University of Wales Press: Cardiff. This is an edition, with an excellent introduction in English, to the Welsh text of the “Hanes Taliesin,” complete with a glossary.
Ford, Patrick K. 1999. The Celtic Poets: Songs and Tales from Early Ireland and Wales. Ford and Bailie: Belmont, Mass. Includes the complete English translation of the Ystoria Taliesin, prose and poems, and on pp. 162–67 poems 1, 2 and 4 of the “historical” Taliesin poems. Ford also includes a section of the nature of Celtic poetry and inspiration, with a good selection of the central Irish and Welsh texts in translations.
Haycock, Marged. 1997. “Taliesin’s Questions.” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 33 (Summer): 19–79. Haycock examines examples and allusions from some of the more obscure and arcane texts, placing them in a wider Celtic and medieval context.
Haycock, Marged. 1987. “‘Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules’: three early medieval poems from the ‘Book of Taliesin.” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies. 13 (1987): 7–38. Haycock translates three of the “legendary” poems.
Haycock, Marged. 1987–88. “Llyfr Taliesin,” National Library of Wales Journal 25: 357–86. This is largely in Welsh, but the bibliography contains many references to works in English.
Haycock, Marged. 1983-1984. “Preiddeu Annwn and the Figure of Taliesin.” Studia Celtica 18/19: 52–78. An edition and translation of Preiddeu Annwn, and discussion of Taliesin’s association with the poem.
Koch, John and John Carey. 1995. The Celtic Heroic Age. 2nd ed. Celtic Studies Publishing: Malden, Mass. 295–96, 338–44, 346–47. Translations of “historical” poems 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10; there is a fourth edition forthcoming, which includes these texts with alternate pagination.
Williams, J. E. Carwyn. 1987. The Poems of Taliesin. Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies: Dublin. Welsh edition (complete with English notes and a glossary) of the twelve “historical” Taliesin poems. This is the standard edition of the historical Taliesin poems, and Williams’ numbering is used by most scholars who translate or refer to these texts.