Among the most enigmatic and fascinating of early Welsh poems are the sequences of stanzas commonly categorized as gnomic. In their most typical form they juxtapose vivid natural description with generalisations about the physical world and about human life, combining an evident delight in weather and the changing seasons, landscapes and seascapes, and birds, beasts and plants with a serious and often witty concern for the moral and practical aspects of daily life. The origin and function of these stanzas remains a puzzle; some may be associated with particular situations in narratives now lost, but as a whole they appear to have developed at an early stage into a recognised genre of their own. They may be supposed to have a philosophical purpose, serving to assert a continuity between the natural and moral orders; on the other hand they may be read simply as a repository of folk-wisdom. While their interpretation remains a matter for discussion, their language is comparatively simple, and they thus provide an engaging window on the ordinary conceptual world of mediaeval Wales. This volume presents texts of the gnomic stanzas from the most important collection, that in Red Book of Hergest, and from some other manuscripts, with a few other poems containing related material, some of them edited in English for the first time, together with a literary and linguistic introduction, explanatory commentary and extensive glossary. Nicolas Jacobs is an Emeritus Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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‘Gnomic poetry’ is the conventional term for a compilation of sententious verse concerning human life and the natural world; as thus defined, it is particularly typical of the cultures of North Western Europe in the early middle ages, being best exemplified in Mediaeval Welsh and Old English, together with some slight remains in Old Norse and some prose parallels in Old Irish. It may be viewed as a subdivision of the wider category of wisdom poetry,¹ but is distinguished by its preference for sententious statement over moral instruction and by its pervasive interest in the natural world, which in the...
The simplest of the texts from a linguistic point of view is XII, and the student unfamiliar with mediaeval Welsh is recommended to begin by reading it, while remembering that it is late and untypical of the gnomic corpus as a whole. It is suggested that the Red Book stanzas be approached next, II, IV, V, VII, VIII, III being a convenient order. VI.1–7, which is of comparable difficulty, and IX, with its different style, may follow. By this time the reader should be sufficiently familiar with the general manner of the gnomic poems to confront the linguistic difficulties...
This sequence is preserved only in the Black Book of Carmarthen, NLW MS Peniarth 1, now dated about 1250. Because of its composite nature it has been edited in full only by Jenny Rowland inEWSP. Stanzas 1–24 and 35, which contain the gnomic and natural elements, are edited by Kenneth Jackson inEWGP, pp. 18–20; the remaining stanzas, together with those lines in the others which he regarded as representing the saga element, by Ifor Williams inCLlH, pp. 27–29. Jackson’s stanza-numbering, as far as it goes, is identical with Rowland’s; Williams numbers his stanzas or...