Optimism in unlikely places

I happened to be reading the strange and wonderfully archaic bardic poems in Poems from the Book of Taliesin (Welsh, uncertain dates), not expecting to encounter anything relevant to this blog. But in one poem the great bard Taliesin has a good long rant against gloomy drunken pessimistic pseudo-bards. These were evidently roaming the countryside in bands, demanding free beer for their song and then singing gloomy prophesies of apocalypse and hell. The situation sounds familiar.

From THE CHAIR OF TALIESIN (Wales, before the later modern period)

… over-draining of mead [beer] disgraces the bard,
who becomes dark like a cellar, wary like a liquor store;
a lewd, paunchy fellow; an unworthy receptacle of song;
a mere vagabond.

[…]

To the [free-beer giver] in the friary [of a monastery] a whole troop
of these swollen-breasted bards do often come!
They then admit, over the mead cups [i.e.: when they are drunk], that
they cultivate the muse irregularly.

These [drunkard bards] that seek [their free beer] shall not have it,
regardless of law, and the rule of giving;
and they that [then being drunk] seek to create
mischief [with their gloomy songs], from sheer love of anarchy,
shall have no presents for their song, nor peaceful beds.

Of such a troop was one ingenious bard-man I met. He greeted me thus:
“Have you seen, mighty master, the prophecy
concerning the Opening of the Gates of Hell?
Then, no one bears an offspring
[and we all die]”

Yet, this swivel-eyed crowd of miseries was set free
by the merit of the Lord,
who gave us all the little learning that releases us from ignorance
and in this way are you yourselves saved.

[but] before I foam at the mouth; and
am myself associated with such scandalous bards,
may I say this [for happiness and optimism] — let your soul enjoy these good festivals.
Since scarcely do any books tell me that there
will be suffering after the bed of death.
Listen to my true and bardic lore,
and let those who listen secure heaven, the happiest home.

[He then launches into a huge two-page list of things that make men happy]


Just a word of warning to those who might want to use this in a lecture. Taliesin has lots of Welsh nationalist forgeries, alongside genuine post 11th century transcriptions of older oral poems, some 16-17th century works that are perhaps oral transcriptions mixed with old Irish content, plus a dozen or more poems that seem genuinely to be from circa the 6th century (although even that dating rests on the work of an ardent Welsh nationalist). ‘Taliesin’ is thus a quagmire of misdirection and mis-labelling, not to mention variable translations, that would take a year of close reading to untangle for any particular poem.