Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so if we understand what someone sees as beautiful, then we see them eye to eye. To know what a person sees as beautiful is to know that person in a deep way. The universe is God’s artwork and so to see the beauty in creation is to share something profound with the artist who made it. We see God reflected in the creation precisely because it is God’s concept of beauty. We know the artist through the artwork. In like manner, we know a poet through their craft because it shows us what they see as beautiful.
Celtic spirituality has always had a special place for poetry. The bards were more than entertainers. They were mystics, philosophers, and political theorists capable of bestowing blessings and curses. They also kept the tradition of the community alive. Through story and verse the culture is cared for and passed from one generation to the next. One of the greatest of the ancient bards was Taliesin. A Welsh bard who is as much legend as he is history, Taliesin speaks from days long past with wisdom for all ages. I wrote another article about his poetry titled, Taliesin On Being Everything if you want to learn about his poetry from the perspective of being one with all creation. In this article, I want to talk about how he understood beauty.
Before I begin, I have to admit that this poem is not likely from the historical Taliesin, who lived in sixth century Wales. It likely dates to the thirteenth century and was written by bards of the school of Taliesin. This poem is titled The Loves of Taliesin, and is perhaps a tribute to the ancient poet who these bards in the thirteenth century were honouring. It can be found in the collection called The Book of Taliesin, some of which was likely written by Taliesin himself and some of which was written by his spiritual descendants in the centuries which followed. This poem is so incredibly useful to us because it is about beauty – about things which are to be loved and cherished.
This glimpse into the bardic understanding of what is beautiful gives us a profound window into the world of Celtic spirituality. Even though it is likely a later addition to the Taliesin corpus, it is a classic expression of the Celtic bardic art. It combines many aspects of creation, including the world of humans, in a way which is very true to the earliest Celtic poetry that survives. It also shows us that beauty can be found in unexpected places and gives a completely different way of looking at the quintessentially Celtic love of penance and asceticism than most modern people are used to.
The poem lists beautiful things in pairs. It names something as beautiful and then places it side by side with another claim of beauty. It opens with these two pairs:
"The beauty of the virtue in doing penance for excess, Beautiful too that God shall save me. The beauty of a companion who does not deny me his company, Beautiful too the drinking horn's society."
In these opening lines we see that each pair relates to each other, but that the sequence of pairs is important as well. The first pair speaks of the Christian tradition as the Celtic church understood it – doing penance and being saved. The first line is about the beauty of penance itself and the second line is about the beauty of salvation which comes from penance. Notice how penance is not something awful to be gotten through for the sake of salvation. Rather, it is beautiful in and of itself. In the second pair, we see another beauty named – that of the bardic tradition of gathering in mead halls. The beauty of the drinking horn’s society and of the fellowship which comes from it is placed directly beside the beauty of the church and what it offers.
We can see from the very opening of this work that the poet loves both priests and bards. One is not beautiful at the expense of the other, but rather they live side by side and can be loved by the same person. The theme of penance will come up quite a bit throughout the poem, in fact, it is the thing that Taliesin seems to love most of all. It is mentioned more than other beauty. The poem weaves together two main themes – the beauty of penance and the beauty of nature. We can see this in another pairing in the middle of the poem which says,
"The beauty of the sun, clear in the sky, Beautiful too they who pay Adam's debt."
There is a recurring juxtaposition between what is wild and untamed and what is domestic and civilised. The poem speaks of the beauty of the wild deer and the domestic horse; and the beauty of wild foods and domestic foods in the following verses which appear side by side:
"The beauty in the wilderness of doe and fawn, Beautiful too the foam-mouthed and slender steed. The beauty of the garden when the leeks grow well, Beautiful too the charlock in bloom."
When I read all these things, I can’t help but be reminded of the story of Eden. There is something about humanity which is different from the rest of creation, even though we are undoubtedly part of it. It seems like all the things Taliesin loved are balanced between the wild and the domestic. The ancient teaching of the bards is like the doe and fawn in the wilderness and the penance of the church is like a steed with a harness. There is wisdom to be found in the glens and fields and there is wisdom to be found in a chapel and a book. Whatever it is that makes humans different from the other animals, we are wise to see beauty in what we share with the rest of nature and what seems to be uniquely human.
Perhaps, in a certain sense, to be saved is to see the beauty in everything. It is to make whole what has become divided in the human spirit. When we can have a spirituality that sees the beauty in a feast of mead and poetry as well as a fast of penance and prayer then we will have paid Adam’s debt and returned to wholeness. There is salvation in the sun, birds, and mountains and there is salvation in the bible, church, and sacraments. The poem ends with these words, that break the pairing system for the first time,
"And for me there is no less beauty In the father of the horn in a feast of mead. The beauty of the fish in his bright lake, Beautiful too its surface shimmering. The beauty of the word which the Trinity speaks, Beautiful too doing penance for sin. But the loveliest of all is covenant With God on the Day of Judgement."
The bard is beautiful in his feast hall. The fish is beautiful in her lake. The bible is beautiful in its church. All of these have beauty and each has a home where it belongs – but the most beautiful of all is to be joined with the creator of all. Whether you come to this sacred covenant through a feast of mead, a shimmering lake, or the art of penance, it is the source of all this beauty to whom we must turn in the end. The bard has one path, the fish has another, and the church has a third – all are beautiful and all work to pay Adam’s debt and restore us to the harmony with nature we lost when we stopped naming the beauty all around us.
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