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Book of Taliesin

This article is about the medieval Welsh manuscript. For the album by Deep Purple, see The Book of Taliesyn.
For other uses, see Taliesin (disambiguation).
Book of Taliesin
Aberystwyth, NLW, Peniarth MS 2
facsimile, folio 13
Also known as Llyfr Taliesin
Date First half of the 14th century
Size 38 folios
Contents some 60 Welsh poems

The Book of Taliesin (Welsh: Llyfr Taliesin) is one of the most famous of Middle Welsh manuscripts, dating from the first half of the 14th century though many of the fifty-six poems it preserves are taken to originate in the 10th century or before.

The volume contains some of the oldest poems in Welsh, possibly but not certainly dating back to the sixth century and to a real poet called Taliesin (though these, if genuine, would have been composed in the Cumbric dialect of Brittonic-speaking early medieval north Britain, being adapted to the Welsh dialect of Brittonic in the course of their transmission in Wales).

Date and provenance of the manuscript

The manuscript, known as Peniarth MS 2 and kept at the National Library of Wales, is incomplete, having lost a number of its original leaves including the first. It was named Llyfr Taliessin in the seventeenth century by Edward Lhuyd and hence is known in English as "The Book of Taliesin". The palaeographer John Gwenogvryn Evans dated the Book of Taliesin to around 1275, but Daniel Huws now dates it to the first quarter of the fourteenth century, and the fourteenth-century dating is generally accepted.[1]

The Book of Taliesin was one of the collection of manuscripts amassed at the mansion of Hengwrt, near Dolgellau, Gwynedd, by the Welsh antiquary Robert Vaughan (c. 1592–1667); the collection later passed to the newly established National Library of Wales as the Peniarth or Hengwrt-Peniarth Manuscripts.

It appears that some "marks" presumably awarded for poems – measuring their "value" – are extant in the margin of the Book of Taliesin.

Contents by topic

Titles adapted from Skene.

Praise poems to Urien Rheged

Other praise-songs


Hymns and Christian verse


Philosophic and gnomic

Date and provenance of contents

Many of the poems have been dated to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and are likely to be the work of poets adopting the Taliesin persona for the purposes of writing about awen (poetic inspiration), characterised by material such as:

I have been a multitude of shapes,
Before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been in the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.

A few are attributed internally to other poets. A full discussion of the provenance of each poem is included in the definitive editions of the book's contents poems by Marged Haycock.[2]

Earliest poems

Twelve of the poems in the manuscript were identified by Ifor Williams as credibly being the work of a historical Taliesin, or at least 'to be contemporary with Cynan Garwyn, Urien, his son Owain, and Gwallawg', possibly historical kings who respectively ruled Powys; Rheged, which was centred in the region of the Solway Firth on the borders of present-day England and Scotland and stretched east to Catraeth (identified by most scholars as present-day Catterick in North Yorkshire) and west to Galloway; and Elmet.[3] These are (giving Skene's numbering used in the content list below in Roman numerals, the numbering of Evans's edition of the manuscript in Arabic, and the numbers and titles of Williams's edition in brackets):

Skene's numbering Evans's numbering Williams's numbering Williams's title (if any)
XXIII 45 I Trawsganu Kynan Garwyn Mab Brochfael
XXXV 60 VI Gweith Argoet Llwyfein
XXXVII 62 VIII Yspeil Taliesin. Kanu Vryen
XXXIX 65 IX Dadolwych Vryen
XLIV 67 X Marwnat Owein
XI 29 XI Gwallawc
XXXVIII 63 XII Gwallawc

Poems 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9 (in Williams's numbering) close with the same words, suggesting common authorship, while 4 and 8 contain internal attributions to Taliesin. The closing tag runs

Ac yny vallwyf (i) ben
y-m dygyn agbeu agben
ny byδif y-m·dirwen
na molwyf Vryen.


Until I perish in old age,
in death's dire compulsion,
I shall not be joyous,
unless I paise Urien.[4]

The precise dating of these poems remains uncertain. Re-examining the linguistic evidence for their early date, Patrick Sims-Williams concluded in 2016 that

evaluating the supposed proofs that poems in the Books of Aneirin and Taliesin cannot go back to the sixth century, we have found them either to be incorrect or to apply to only a very few lines or stanzas that may be explained as additions. It seems impossible to prove, however, that any poem must go back to the sixth century linguistically and cannot be a century or more later.[5]

Scholarly English translations of all these are available in Poems from the book of Taliesin (1912) and the modern anthology The Triumph Tree.[6]

Later Old Welsh poems

Among probably less archaic but still early texts, the manuscript also preserves a few hymns, a small collection of elegies to famous men such as Cunedda and Dylan Eil Ton and also famous enigmatic poems such as The Battle of Trees, The Spoils of Annwfn (in which the poet claims to have sailed to another world with Arthur and his warriors), and the tenth-century prophetic poem Armes Prydein Vawr. Several of these contain internal claims to be the work of Taliesin, but cannot be associated with the putative historical figure.

Many poems in the collection allude to Christian and Latin texts as well as native British tradition, and the book contains the earliest mention in any Western post-classical vernacular literature of the feats of Hercules and Alexander the Great.

Further reading


  1. ^ E.g. Patrick Sims-Williams, 'Dating the Poems of Aneirin and Taliesin', Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, 63 (2016), 163–234 (p. 164), DOI: 10.1515/zcph-2016-0008, September 2016.
  2. ^ Haycock, Marged. 2007 Legendary Poems from The Book of Taliesin & 2013 Prophecies from The Book of Taliesin (both CMCS, Aberystwyth).
  3. ^ The Poems of Taliesin, ed. by Ifor Williams, trans. by J. E. Caerwyn Williams, Medieval and Modern Welsh Series, 3 (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968), lxv.
  4. ^ 'Taliesin I the Historical Taliesin', in Celtic Culture, ed. by John T. Koch (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), pp. 1652- (at p. 1652).
  5. ^ Patrick Sims-Williams, 'Dating the Poems of Aneirin and Taliesin', Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, 63 (2016), 163–234 (p. 217), DOI: 10.1515/zcph-2016-0008, September 2016.
  6. ^ Thomas Owen Clancy (ed.), The Triumph Tree; Scotland's Earliest Poetry, AD 550-1350 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1998), pp. 79-93.

External links