The Celts are well known for many things, but poetry is perhaps the most consistent and quintessentially Celtic literary form. The great bards of days long past served many roles in Celtic culture. They were much more than entertainers. The bards were keepers of wisdom and history. They were also considered to have spiritual powers so that their songs of praise, or of criticism, could have real world effects.
Taliesin was the most famous of the Welsh bards. He served in the courts of a few different kings and while his poetry was largely a kind of propaganda praising his wealthy patrons, he also slipped in quite a bit of divine wisdom alongside all that. The poem I want to share with you in this article is mysterious to put it lightly. It shows quite well the way which Taliesin would weave pagan and Christian beliefs and metaphors together without any apologies.
Exactly what this poem means and describes requires a great deal of interpretation, as it is not the sort of thing we would find many people writing today. So, the interpretation I am going to give is purely my own and is based entirely on how the poem makes me feel and the imagery it evokes in my own heart – rather than being one of scholarly analysis.
The poem is titled “The Battle of Godeu” and can be found in the Book of Taliesin, which is one of the four ancient books of Wales. It is a rather long poem and so I have pulled out my favourite parts and greatly reduced the length. You can read the full text here. The reason I love this poem so much is that it describes a kind of spiritual experience of being everything which is so hard to put into words.
The interconnectedness of all things, throughout time and place, is a very prominent theme in this poem and Taliesin describes the various forms he has taken throughout the history of existence. He ends the poem looking forward to the the day of judgment in which Christ will return and time will end.
Here is my shortened version of the poem:
I have been in a multitude of shapes,
Before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been the light of lanterns
I have been a course, I have been an eagle.
I have been a coracle in the seas:
I have been a sword in the grasp of the hand:
I have been a shield in battle.
I have been a string in a harp,
Disguised for nine years.
In water, in foam.
There was a calling on the Creator,
Upon Christ for causes,
Until when the Eternal
Should deliver those whom he had made.
The Lord answered them,
Through language and elements:
Take the form of the principal trees.
Hazel trees, it was judged
That ample was your mental exertion.
The oak, quickly moving,
Before him tremble heaven and earth.
The tops of the birch covered us with leaves,
And transformed us, and changed our faded state.
Laughing on the side of the rock,
The Lord is not of an ardent nature.
Not of mother and father.
When I was made,
Did my creator create me.
Of nine formed faculties,
Of the fruit of fruits,
Of the fruit of the primordial God,
Of primroses and blossoms on the hill,
Of the flowers of trees and shrubs.
Of earth, of an earthly course,
When I was formed.
I was enchanted by the sage
Of sages, in the primitive world.
When I had being;
When the host of the world was in dignity,
I traveled in the earth,
Before I was proficient in learning.
I traveled, I made a circuit,
I slept in a hundred islands.
You intelligent Druids,
Declare to Arthur,
What is there more early
Than I that they sing of.
And one is come
From considering the deluge,
And Christ crucified,
And the day of future doom.
I just absolutely love the way he breaks down every conceivable barrier. Not only has he been natural objects like rain drops and stars, but he has also been objects made by human hands like the string in a harp. Not only has he been physical things but also a word among letters.
Taliesin also appears to be switching from speaking as himself (whatever that means in this context) and speaking as God, the first cause of everything. This easy melding of self with nature, words, musical instruments, and even God is at the heart of the Celtic understanding. When all boundaries between things fade away we can move freely throughout time and place and exist as anything and everything. That is, assuming you believe in poetry.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or sign up for our email list to receive weekly reflections. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.