Poetry is the one lasting gift that Powys left us, and Canu Heledd stands at the heart of Powys. Only an extraordinary work of literature can speak across the centuries, as this does, in images and ideas that have meaning for our wholly different lives today. It laments an English invasion that devastated Powys and left only one survivor of the royal house. Heledd, as narrator of the poetry, speaks of personal responsibility and ethics, the fragility of peace, the consequences of war and its particular costs to women. Among other poetry of the era, most of it male-dominated heroic elegy lauding a warrior society, Canu Heledd stands out sharply.
Heledd’s name does not appear in the annals. Her story might not exist but for the poetry that makes her the emblem of her ruined country. She appears in genealogies of the Cyndrwynyn, the royal house of lowland eastern Powys that apparently ended with the defeat and death of her brother Cynddylan; at least one genealogy gives her name not as Heledd but as Elen. A few late folk rhymes are attributed to her and to other family members. Several place names of Llanheledd (Heledd’s Church) indicate a belief that Heledd founded churches either as benefactress or as holy woman.
All of these could be later embroideries inspired by a popular story. Heledd means “place of salt” or “salt pit” in Welsh; in Old English, with a slightly altered pronunciation, it means “warrior.” This name seems appropriate—resonating with connotations of sorrow, preciousness, payment, blood, perhaps Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt, with classical echoes of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid and especially Helen in Euripides’s Trojan Women—for a heroic tragic figure from the past. Is it too appropriate? Canu Heledd is considered unhistoric, since it describes seventh-century events that are otherwise unrecorded. Perhaps it was a deliberate creation, an early work of historical fiction which the poet deployed for a now unknown political or dynastic purpose. The passions and events that gave rise to the cycle are long forgotten; only its timeless themes endure.
The poet’s name is lost, but his surviving stanzas hint at his background. He speaks of the rich life of the Powys court, a ruler’s privilege and obligation, farming and herding, natural history, war, territory laid waste and the desolation of a homeless wanderer. His scant knowledge of lost eastern Powys was perhaps gleaned from tradition or travelers’ tales. He balances his praise of the warrior caste’s heroic ethos with demonstration of its toll on the larger society.
Remarkably, the poet portrays a woman as a thinking and feeling person whose actions could either preserve or destroy peace. The poetry is probably the work of a man and not a woman, embodying attitudes to women shaped and limited by male cultural perceptions. Yet it reflects a surprisingly modern view of the relationship between guilt and madness. “My tongue did it,” Heledd cries, “How can I stay sane?” and, “Alas, not to do good as the opportunity comes.”
The few Christian traces in the poetry suggest the older Pelagian belief in human free will rather than the newer church doctrine of exclusive divine grace. (Interestingly, Powys copyists may have distributed heretical Pelagian documents as late as the mid-eighth century, suggests medievalist David Dumville.) All in all, the poet shows an unusual, in fact radical, vision for his time.
Canu Heledd’s meter, diction, consonance and imagery are masterful and effective in the surviving stanzas. At several points in the cycle the poet uses disciplined understatement; elsewhere he applies a relentless layering of remorse and grief. The images are so neatly turned and contained in so few words that they are difficult to translate briefly. Consider two stanzas from the first section of the cycle:
Stauell gyndylan ys tywyll heno
heb dan heb wely.
Wylaf wers. Tawaf wedy.
Cynddylan’s hall is dark tonight,
without fire, without a bed.
I will weep a while, be silent later.
Stauell gyndylan ys tywyll y nenn
gwedy gwen gyweithyd.
Gwae ny wna da ae dyuyd.
Cynddylan’s hall, dark its roof
after its fair company.
Alas not to do good as it comes.
Yet the cycle’s topics and viewpoints are inconsistent, suggesting a fragmentary nature and later revision. The first poem praises Cynddylan for a fairly standard catalog of virtues including courage, ferocity and generosity. Later, less cohesive poems follow his sister Heledd’s aimless journey through a devastated landscape. An unknown number of stanzas are lost; an original ending may be among them. Welsh triads represent Heledd as a homeless wanderer at last finding sanctuary in a royal court; this may be the substance of a lost Canu Heledd conclusion. This poet is too deliberate, too deft, to let his cycle trail off into incoherence as it does now.
If the unknown Canu Heledd poet lived through the wars between Powys and Mercia and the building of Offa’s Dyke, his experience would inevitably shape his view of Powys political realities. It would be natural, when he created a poetry cycle about a long-ago Powys disaster, to set it against a familiar backdrop of border war in which the enemy lay eastward in Mercia.
Heledd, Cynddylan and the seventh-century loss of lowland Powys clearly had special significance for him. Historians disagree about the relative violence of Mercia’s seventh-century acquisition of lowland Powys; theories range from peaceful absorption to cataclysmic war. The poetry describes a brutal invasion: a dear country laid waste, territory forever lost, the royal household slaughtered, the sole survivor Heledd wandering homeless and deranged by grief.
The poet may have regarded Heledd, consciously or otherwise, as personifying the sovereignty of Powys, according to the foremost modern Canu Heledd scholar. Jenny Rowland demonstrates that in several stanzas the poet characterizes landscape features as women. It may be that he saw both Heledd and her country as raped and left for dead.
We can only guess at a date for Canu Heledd, its companion cycle Canu Llywarch Hên and a possible lost cycle about a third Powys hero, Llemenig. Scholars have proposed mid-ninth to tenth century dates on linguistic grounds, but the evidence is ambiguous. The poetry makes no reference to the Danish and later Norman invasions that threatened Powys from mid-ninth century onward. Although it was absorption by Gwynedd that ended Powys independence in 854, the cycle identifies the threat as Mercian aggression.
The poet may have avoided openly identifying the real danger. A blunt warning about Gwynedd might have been dismissed by his audience, possibly including his king. Cyngen’s brother-in-law was the energetic, aspiring king of Gwynedd called Merfyn Camwri (the Oppression) or Merfyn Frych (the Speckled). Merfyn’s equally ambitious son Rhodri was Cyngen’s nephew. Instead perhaps the poet chose to guide Cyngen and his court to see a parallel between perilous inattention to military threat and perilous inattention to dynastic threat. In the late 820s Mercia’s violent invasions of Powys would be fresh in mind, though Gwynedd’s growing strength would soon loom larger on the horizon.
Why the poet chose to address his own Powys through Heledd’s bleak story—half-remembered history, a storyteller’s creation or his own creation—is a more difficult question.
Others have supposed that the poetry’s desolate quality must derive from a time of great despair in Powys. Looking back across more recent wars and devastations, I question this. True, our dreadful warfare and genocides have produced bitter or viciously ironic literature, but some of our most despairing works in many languages were written in times of peace, prosperity and optimism. Often they were written to warn of dangerous times ahead.
The Canu Heledd poet likewise may intend to warn of coming disaster brought about by arrogance, selfishness, love of luxury, isolation and lack of political foresight—all the sins that Heledd confesses of her heedless early life. Destruction will come not only from enemies massed on a sparsely defended eastern border, the poet may be saying, but from ambitious men awaiting their opportunity in the west; the real danger lies in Powys’s internal fragmentation, fratricide and other misfortunes, and in its repulsion of potential allies through Cyngen’s military aggression, an echo of Cynddylan’s. Whatever exact meaning it conveyed to his fellow countrymen, the poet’s artistry would ensure that his audiences paid full attention to Heledd’s story.
Highly skilled in the Welsh poetic tradition, seemingly capable of references to classical and biblical literature, fond of contrast and irony, a keen observer, widely experienced, compassionate, acknowledging women within his cultural limits, without overt animosity toward the Mercian enemy, a man who loved Powys: who and what was the poet?
An educated man of his era was likely a trained bard, a churchman or a member of the ruling elite. Given the absence of decisively Christian themes, he was probably not a churchman. It may be that the Canu Heledd poet was of privileged rank, associated with a royal house of Powys and formally trained as a professional poet. In truth we can say little more about his identity, having at our disposal too few ninth-century personal histories and names.
One name we do know because it was carved in enduring stone, not entrusted to perishable parchment and error-prone copyists. A literate and eloquent man wrote the text for Elise’s Pillar “at the command of my king Cyngen.”
Conmarch was how Cyngen’s man wrote his name; today we write it as Cynfarch. It is a name from history and legend, the name of a king of Rheged two centuries earlier in the Old North centered on Carlisle; Cynfarch Oer was the father of the famous Urien Rheged and gave his name to the Cynferchin line. A saint Cynfarch is associated with northern Powys. The name also appears in the genealogies of Penllyn, whose ruling family may have claimed a bond of blood with Heledd’s Cyndrwynyn house. Since his name alliterated with his king’s name, Howard Williams suggests, Cynfarch may have been Cyngen’s kinsman or heir.
Nothing else is known historically of Cyngen’s man Cynfarch, yet his apparent date, as well as his expertise, position and passions seem to parallel those of the Canu Heledd poet. In my novel Awen I suggest that Cynfarch wrote the text of Elise’s Pillar and also composed Canu Heledd.
— excerpted from Awen, 2020
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