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Welsh Verse

Tony Conran (1931-2013)
Publication Date: 
Friday, August 4, 2017
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Welsh Verse, Tony Conran’s milestone of translation, makes a welcome return. Formerly the Penguin Book of Welsh Verse, Seren has expanded the selection of what is the standard text of high quality translations of Welsh poetry stretching from the sixth century to the late twentieth century. Virtually every significant poet (or poem: there are several Anonymous entries over the centuries) is present, and every poetic form is present: the epics of Taliesin and Aneurin, the poets of the medieval princes, Tudor poets, Non-conformist poets, hymn-writers, Romantics, Social Realists and political Nationalists. The poets translated include Aneirin, Taliesin, Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Iolo Goch, Lewis Gkyn Cothi, Morgan Llwyd, William Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffith, John Ceiriog Hughes, Robert Williams Parry, T.H. Parry-Williams, Saunders Lewis, Gwenallt, Waldo Willams, Bobi Jones and Gwyn Thomas. There is even a selection of thirty englynion over five centuries.

In addition to an unrivalled breadth of poetry beautifully translated – for many, Conran’s translations are unsurpassed – Welsh Verse also includes a lengthy and influential Introduction full of insight into the history of poetry in the Welsh language, and into the challenges of translating it, particularly over so many centuries and styles. A guide to poetic style, including the strict metres, a glossary and a guide to pronunciation complete this invaluable and peerless book.




Review by Katherine Stansfield, Gwales

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

This volume was originally published as the Penguin Book of Welsh Verse, and appeared in its first Seren edition in 1986. The new edition marks the book’s welcome return to print as a significant contribution to wider understanding of Welsh poetry from its earliest beginnings.

The book is arranged in three distinct parts: a one-hundred-page introduction, almost two hundred pages of translations, followed by useful appendices. To begin at the beginning, as one Welsh poet would say in English, Tony Conran’s introduction kicks off by claiming the originality of the Welsh tradition: ‘I think it is wiser to treat Welsh poetry as something sui generis, a product of a civilisation alien to our own. [...] Welsh poetry (as it has come down to us) begins not long after the Romans left Britain; and from then on, at least until the sixteenth century, it develops within a single expanding tradition, metrically, thematically and stylistically distinct from the rest of Europe.’

Conran then goes on to make his case for this specialness, providing a chronological overview of Welsh poetry from the sixth century onwards. He outlines poetic developments, showing change as well as continuity, and maps these developments onto historical events in Wales, the wider British Isles and Europe. It’s a gripping narrative, peppered with extremely helpful analogies, as in this example: ‘Dafydd [ap Gwilym] is his own most constant and fascinating subject-matter, the Charlie Chaplin of the time. His is decidedly the art of a great comic: like Falstaff he is not merely witty himself, but a great cause of wit in others.’

Conran isn’t afraid to occupy some extreme positions; when he’s enthusiastic, as he is about Dafydd ap Gwilym, he’s very enthusiastic. The same is true for condemnation – he’s unafraid to be critical of certain kinds of cultural production: ‘A high culture in its death throes is surely one of the most unregenerate manifestations of mankind. The eighteenth century found Wales practically a spiritual vacuum, [...] on the level of folk culture, I suppose Wales was a lively enough place to live.’

Not everyone will appreciate this personal tone but, for me, Conran’s presence in the text, his intellect and his forthright opinions, gives the introduction a compelling drive. He shows how Welsh identity, autonomy and the position of the Welsh language are part of the poetic narrative. In all aspects – poetry, history, language – this is an accessible guide, and Conran is particularly good at explaining, clearly and succinctly, the characteristics of certain movements for non-specialists.

Turning to the translations themselves, it’s a diverse body of work that takes in many forms, including sagas, court poems, the ingrained tradition of the elegy, love poems, boasting poems, praise poems, the earliest glimpses of King Arthur, stanzas to be sung with the harp, folksongs, and a whole section dedicated to the Englynion. Personal highlights include Llywelyn Goch ap Meurig Hen’s ‘The Tit’ from the fourteenth century, in which the titular bird is praised as the ‘Wildwood poet hawks let live’, a ‘bard of woodsong’ tasked to fly to the speaker’s lover. Special mention must also go to Siôn Cent’s witty lambasting of poetry in ‘The Lying Muse’, addressed to the unfortunate Rhys Goch Eryri, part of a tradition Conran euphemistically terms ‘bardic exchanges’:

The fool loves being flattered,
Trusts it as a sacred word.
O my God, who has less wits –
Him, or his best poets?

The sad songs on the deaths of the last Welsh princes, and the powerful grief that still emanates from those poems, struck me forcefully, as did the more personal loss explored by Lewis Glyn Cothi in a poem on the death of his son:

A sweet apple and a bird
The lad loved, and white pebbles;
A bow cut from a thorn-twig,
A frail enough sword of wood. (‘The Death of Siôn y Glyn’)

In a different vein entirely, Dafydd ap Gwilym’s work is a breath of fresh, bawdy air, and I enjoyed the Englynion section very much, despite Conran’s apologetic note that in translation ‘its poetry usually evaporates’.

The appendices explore names and pronunciation, as well as metres. The latter section is quite specialist in nature, unsurprising considering the complexity of metrical constraints in Welsh. It’s still an engaging guide to the evolution of certain metres, the practical use of metrical constraints in Welsh, and the differences in using stress in Welsh and English. Conran intersperses the definitions with his own experiences of translating these poems. Here, we have a sense of Conran’s deep commitment to his subject; in discussing his attempts to translate the cywydd metre into English using a model from Irish, he notes: ‘It often took a week to translate a single poem. But no other method seemed anywhere like as faithful.’

Katherine Stansfield

A review from, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

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