Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Welsh Poets, Russian Icons, and Other Points of Confusion

Russian icon.LenaNot because they are boring but because they are sensible, poets usually contrast things that are quite contrastable. In Prif Cyfarch the first ballad of Taliesin, the oldest of Welsh bards (6th c.)—assuming it is his, and assuming it does date from the sixth century, and assuming his name was Taliesin, and so forth (all topics I leave aside here)—posits contrasts from start to bottom. At the very beginning the poet asks, “Which was first, is it darkness, is it light?” Later, in about the middle of that ballad, he vaunts his capacity as a bard to defy time: “I am old. I am young. I am Gwion [a name], / I am universal, I am possessed of penetrating wit. / Thou wilt remember thy old Brython [Britain] (And) the Gwyddyl [i.e. the Irish], kiln distillers, / Intoxicating the drunkards. / I am a bard; I will not disclose secrets to slaves; / I am a guide: I am expert in contests.”[1]

Taliesin is, too, an expert in contrasts. His ambivalence about humankind’s origins in light or darkness, his conflicting statement about the bard’s sempiternal status of being old and young at once, his assumption that (as opposed to the mead-drinking Welsh) the Irish are drunkards because they are the suppliers of the distillations of kilns, and that he is the keeper of secrets (implying there are those who don’t know the secrets, e.g., slaves) and that as such he is a knowledgeable guide (to those who don’t know)—these are just a few of the contrasts that Taliesin sets out in his first poem, a poet that defines itself, as we all do to some extent, by contrast with those around us.

This poem and a lovely gift I received got me thinking this week about contrasts and cases of things easily mistaken. Before I get to the latter two ideas, let me begin first with the gift, a small plaque of Smolensk’s Cathedral of the Assumption. This gift was gently and generously presented to me by the mother of a friend of mine. That friend, Lena, and her mother both hail from Russia, from Smolensk itself, a modestly sized city of 327,000 most famous, perhaps for the Battle of Smolensk in 1812 when it was besieged by Napoleon where he was opposed by the Russian general Barclay de Tolly. Its most famous monument is the now-lost portrait of “Our Lady of Smolensk” attributed to St. Luke himself. Napoleon assumed that the Russians would defend the church at all costs and therefore stay close to the town, but they came out on the plane to oppose him. The Russians allowed their city to burn as their army retreated. Thus, while Napoleon won the battle, it was a high price to pay, a Pyrrhic victory.

Hodegetria virgin
Virgin Hodegetria, 13th c.

Golden eyeThe Cathedral, however, is not so much famous for that battle (or for the James Bond film “Golden Eye”). The icon itself went missing after the Germans conquered Smolensk in 1941. Was the icon destroyed?[2] Was it simply stolen (and still exists somewhere in some hidden Nazi vault)?[3] These questions are, of course, beyond the purview of this blog.

But I wax art-historical. Let me return to what I wanted to say about the confluence of the portrait of the lovely gift of the Cathedral of the Assumption, now on my desk, and the idea of contrasts that the quite old Welsh poet Taliesin brought to my mind. That idea was the question of anyone’s perception of “otherness,” on the one hand, and anyone’s confusion of contrasting ideas such as foreignness and familiarity, or, more especially, mildly contrasting ones, such as strength and power.

I’ll begin with the former, starker contrast. As I gazed at that image of the church this week, I had to think to myself how different Lena’s life must have been, growing up in Smolensk, and how even more different that of her mother, living much of her life in Soviet Russia. How for her mother, in particular, she had learned of Lenin and Stalin as heroes of the state and of Barclay de Tolly as a local hero—though he was not born in Russia, as he was born in modern day Estonia—as opposed to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. How different than my own—did I really mean “inferior to my own”?—Lena’s mother’s worldview must be.

And then it donned on me, how appallingly provincial my thoughts were and how, inasmuch as I am myself of Welsh descent, I should never indulge in such thoughts, as my forebears came from the tiniest of tiny and “meaningless” places. Though the poets of my tribe may from time to time playfully reference the Gwyddyl’s propensity for strong drink and have made uneasy alliances with Brython, mine is of a surety but a heritage of humility. My family comes from a small and, to most of the world, insignificant place (Llanelli) where, by all accounts, the beautiful if highly guttural and for me, at least, hard-to-pronounce language is waning, perhaps dying. There’s a lesson here somewhere. It’s a lesson of humility.

Napolean at the Battle of Smolensk, 1812 Jean-Charles Langlois – The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 159150 (public domain)

Then I thought about the easily confused ideas of strength and power. Undoubtedly puffing out his chest with pride, pompously perched on prancing steed, Napoleon watched most of Smolensk burn to the ground in August of 1812. Just over a century later, the Germans destroyed much of the city when they occupied it in 1941. It wasn’t a strong place, it doesn’t have a history that proclaims martial superiority. Rather, like most of the world, it suffered loss, it suffered humankind’s inhumane ravishes. Its most beautiful and famous icon is lost. Though after the Second World War it was proclaimed a Hero City, from all external appearances Smolensk lacks power. Yet I have a feeling that Smolensk and the people of Smolensk have great strength. I have a feeling that they have become much stronger from the losses that they endured. I have a feeling their strength is much greater than those of us whose towns have not endured such trials can know.

We human beings all too easily confuse strength with power. Smolensk’s famous Lucan icon did not have power in and of itself. Rather, it preserved the record of power, it embodied strength. Strength? The strength of a baby sitting on the lap of a mother? Yes, that very strength, not simply the image of the powerful relationship of mother and child, but the allusion to the strength that that particular Child would show as an adult in the face of the abuse of power by religious authorities and political figures: in His suffering, in His weakness, strength, admirable strength, masking but presaging cosmic power.

So I close this blog as I began, with a double-hinged idea: a challenge to myself to see the world from the point of view of another—some might even say “the other”—and to all of us to recognize that an apparent dearth of power does not imply a lack of strength. Rather, in may in fact imply an extraordinary Source about which we have but slender understanding.

[1] Trans. by William Forbes Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales (1868) from the fine and thoroughly Welsh website of Mary Jones at I thank Mary Jones for the proper reference.




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2 thoughts on “Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Welsh Poets, Russian Icons, and Other Points of Confusion

  1. At the very beginning the poet asks, “Which was first, is it darkness, is it light?” Later, in about the middle of that ballad, he vaunts his capacity as a bard to defy time: “I am old. Where did you get this information?

    1. Thanks for you good question. I did not use any secondary source material for my interpretation. I simply read the poem and thought about it. The notion of a bard defying time is, of course, a topos. Thus, I don’t pretent to offer anything all that new or original in my reading of the poem, but rather an observation about how this poet, in particular, seems to approach some of the big questions that he raises in his verses.

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