Saturday, June 24, 2023

The Book of Taliesin


Opening Passages: The book is a bunch of very different kinds of poems, so an ordinary 'opening passage' doesn't make sense. Here is the beginning of the first poem in the Lewis-Williams translation, "In Praise of Cynan Garwyn, Son of Brochfael":

Cynan bestowed on me
Shelter in battle --
My praise is no lie --
Gifts and property,
A hundred horses,
Saddles with silver,
A hundred mantles
All equally full;
My lap's full of armlets
And many brooches. (p. 3)

The National Library of Wales has a digital copy of the Peniarth MS 2 which has come to be called The Book of Taliesin, and if I am reading it correctly, the first poem in the actual manuscript is the poem usually known as "The Elegy of the Thousand Sons", because some scribe wrote that title on the page at some point despite its relation to the actual poem being very obscure; Lewis and Williams instead give it the title, "Saints and Martyrs of the Faith", and the beginning of it in their translation is:

Apostles and martyrs,
Virgins, renowned widows,
And Solomon who thought on God -- 
Your virtues a holy path for a holy people.
And they come to me, a harmonious company,
Till my own virtues are securely protected. (p. 169)

The most famous poem in the work is arguably "The Battle of the Trees", which begins:

I was in many forms
Before my release:
I was a slim enchanted sword,
I believe in its play.
I was a drop in the air,
The sparkling of stars,
A word inscribed,
A book in priest's hands,
A lantern shining
For a year and a half. (p. 54)

Summary: The Book of Taliesin by its nature evades simple summary. Indeed, its history makes it almost accidentally a literary classic; we have no idea what the original thinking was behind collecting these poems together in a single manuscript. It could very well be that what we have is just a medieval scribe's equivalent to a 'mixtape' of favorite poems, perhaps with others added later. At some point someone erratically gave some of the poems titles; there are occasional numbers in the margins of the manuscript whose point is not entirely known but are usually thought to be evaluation numbers, giving what points the writer thought the poem would get in a poetry competition; in the seventeenth century it began to be called Llyfr Taliesin or Llyvr Taliessin. Editors and translators have always seen fit to rearrange the poems, and the manuscript is defective in places, so for many poems there's always at least some level of reconstruction involved. Thus is The Book of Taliesin, a book made, it would seem, by practically the whole Welsh nation through its entire history, highly chaotic, somewhat fluid, and yet -- and this is not a minor point -- by that very fact somehow a perfect emblem of the boiling cauldron of inspiration that Taliesin and all Welsh poets since have claimed to be the source of their poetry. That its existence as a major classic just seems to have happened by accident -- or inspiration confined not to a single person but poured over many -- makes it more what it should be, and not less.

Lewis and Williams rearrange and divide the poems thematically -- Heroic, Legendary, Prophetic, Devotional, Ungrouped. I think this actually made it harder to read, particularly having the Heroic poems right at the beginning. The Heroic poems are mostly about praises of kings -- Urien of Rheged primarily, but occasionally others -- and descriptions of battles. They are on their own usually the least interesting poems, because while cleverly done, and vivid in their imagery, they have pretty much the structure and content you'd expect from poems that are eulogies celebrating warlords. But while they are less interesting in themselves, I think they benefit greatly from juxtaposition with some poems that Lewis and Williams group elsewhere. I think it's important, for instance, to see that there are links between the 'Heroic' poems about Urien and Owain and the 'Legendary' poems about Alexander the Great, Hercules, and various Welsh heroes; it's important to see the links between the (relatively) straightforward battle poems in the 'Heroic' section and the fantastic "The Battle of the Trees" in the 'Legendary' section. Likewise, it's important, I think, that the 'Heroic' and the 'Legendary' aren't really separated off from the 'Prophetic' and the 'Devotional'. The kinds of poems are not always the same, but when we get prophecies of future heroes or poems about the saints, these are in fact all just Welsh heroes, which include shadowy Celtic warriors lost in legend like Mabon and Uther Pendragon, semi-historical Welsh kings like Urien, Alexander the Great, Hercules, Biblical heroes like Moses, Solomon, and David, Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin Mary (who are not merely Biblical heroes to the poet, but contemporary and future heroes as well), and various historical Welsh heroes that are fit into the scheme by the literary device of writing their history as a 'prophecy' by Taliesin or Myrddin or some other noted Welsh prophet. In modern times we tend to have a weird purism whereby we select out the 'real' Welsh mythology, but the people who were enthusiastic about the Maginogion or Urien of Rheged or Uther Pendragon were also enthusiastic about Bible stories, hagiographies of saints from all over the known world, and the adventures of Alexander the Great. That was Welsh culture. And while the audiences could perfectly well distinguish out the fact that stories about Urien were different in source and sometimes kind from stories about Moses or about Hercules or about Math, there's no reason whatsoever to think that they thought these differences mattered all that much. Heroes are heroes; they don't need documentation to prove whether they are adequately Celtic in provenance. When you have a sky full of stars you don't go picking and choosing which are the Welsh ones. Likewise, they would never -- as we would almost never -- care all that much about how 'legendary' or 'historical' or 'religious' something was. You can sometimes distinguish such things out, if you really want to, but in practice, in the everyday life of a people, and certainly in the highly associative minds of poets, it all runs together.

While I think there's a good argument for just presenting the poems in the chaotic order in which the Peniarth MS 2 puts them, I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with rearranging them, either. But it's important to grasp, I think, that the poems by the juxtaposition of their diversity in one collection are always going to be richer than any scheme according to which you might rearrange them.

I should at least say something more specific about the poems themselves. The poems that are usually the best (some of the other poems give them a run for their money, but we're talking usually) are the Taliesin poems in a strict sense, in which the poet, in personam Taliessini, so to speak, tries to capture the sense of poetic inspiration and thus in a way speaks for all poets at all times:

I was path, I was eagle,
I was coracle at sea.
I was bubbles in beer,
I was a raindrop in a shower.
I was a sword in the hand;
I was a shield in battle.
I was a harp string,
Enchanted nine years
In water, foaming.
I was tinder in fire,
I was a forest ablaze. (p. 55)

I am the vigour
Of the Lord God's praise. (p. 66)

I sang at a feast over joyless liquor,
I sang before Llyr's sons in Aber Henfelen.
I saw battle's brutality, the grief, the mourning;
There were blades shining on the fine spearheads. (p. 69)

I've been a sow, I've been a buck,
I've been a sage, I've been a ploughshare,
I've been a piglet, I've been a boar. 
I've been the tumult of a storm,
I've been a spreading flood,
I've been a wave in a gale,
I've been the disperser of ruin. (p. 92)

I have sung with skill, and still I shall sing
Until the greatest day of all shall dawn,
Many matters in my mind,
Over which I worry. (p. 117)

I don't think it would be easy to find any poetry that so perfectly captures the overwhelmingness of poetic inspiration, in which, at its height, it can seem like the whole world is flowing through you; the poet, like the intellect itself, is open to everything, in some sense capable of being everything. The Book of Taliesin is a book of poems, yes, but more than that, I think the whole collection together becomes a book about poetry. It's not surprising that it's had the influence it's had on poetry both in Wales and beyond; even its chaotic and semi-fluid nature only makes it better at showing one what it is to be a poet. We get, to the extent a book can capture, a picture of poetic imagination itself, built out of many  different products of that imagination, like a picture built out of pictures.

Favorite Passage: From "The Great Song of the World":

I praise my Father,
my God, my sustainer,
who placed in my skull,
to form me, a soul.
Happily, he made for me
My seven elements:
Of earth and fire,
And water and air,
Flowers and cloud,
And wind from the south.

Second, my Father formed
For me the senses' design
By one, I breathe out,
And two, I breathe in,
And three, I give voice,
And by four, I taste,
And by five I see,
And by six I hear,
And by seven I smell --
To follow a trail. (p. 114)

(The initial capitalization and comma punctuation in the Lewis-Williams translation is a little inconsistent here, and I don't know how intentional this was, if at all.)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, although as a set of very diverse poems of very diverse kinds, this is generally more of a dip-in-and-taste book than a read-straight-through book.


The Book of Taliesin, Lewis & Williams, trs., Penguin (New York: 2020).

Listen How Low the Murmur of the Stream!

An Upland Brooklet
by William Struthers 

Αn upland brooklet trickles with soft sound
Over a wall of lichen-mantled rock,
That was uplifted 'mid some cosmic shock
When the earth's pulse less soberly did bound,
And when the land in tropic garb was gowned
With tall tree ferns, whose fronds would interlock
To let amphibia beneath them flock
What time the sun flung fiery javelins round. 

Listen how low the murmur of the stream!
Yet through it echoes a far-off refrain
Of Alpine grandeur, crag, and glacier gleam;
As if the brook, so high above the plain,
Shared the ecstatic secret of the dream
That visits them who nigh Life's heart have lain.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Dashed Off XX

 While states are sometimes slow to act, they also often overreact to problems when they do; thus the need for checks and balances.

the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary aspects of icons

democracy & the problem of cheap verbal extremism

recursive almsgiving -- almonry at multiple levels (private, official, bureaucratic, etc.)

Societies are structured by order and jurisdiction.

clerical assistance to lay service (e.g., chaplain) and lay assistance to clerical service (e.g., lay ministers)

Beauty is symbol for beauty.

Those who genuinely respect people will respect the material infrastructure used to support and refresh them.

co-situation as an important part of our experience as perceivers

proverb as expression of royal wisdom

Rosh Hashanah and God as King

Prayer is meant to be poured.

shoshanah (Song 2:1-2, 2:16, 4:5, 5:13, 6:2, 7:3)
-- usually thought to be etymologically from Egyptian zshn/zeshen = lotus
-- Greek (sousson) and Arabic (sawsan) derivatives mean lily
-- LXX uses krinon, another word for lily; Vulgate uses lilium
-- Rashi takes shosanah to be synonym for chavatzelet (= crocus) in 2:1

the rose as eros hidden

the veil as the silence of the face

Eros is hermeneutic by nature.

Whether something is underfunded always depends on what is being done with the money.

Innocence is often of greater value in questioning and testing assumptions than is intelligence.

the magisterial and colloquial aspects of Church teaching

subject-object distinction as arising from the capacity of form to emulate form

Aristotle's virtue of magnanimity makes for strong leaders with no interest in being tyrants.

Changing one's beliefs is a matter of shifting one's dispositions with respect to different objective and motive causes. Criticism of doxastic voluntarism often in reality criticizes the view that we can believe without respect to available motive causes or objective causes, or else falsely assumes that we always have only one undifferentiated motive or objective cause.

the character of reason as shining through passion

Every possible world in possible world semantics can be represented as an infinite string of 0's and 1's (assuming classical truth valuation, of course).

If one sets aside the requirements of the Church for a moment, focusing only on what is permissible for Christian life, God has shown in revelation that He accepts highly formal and highly informal ways of rendering devotion to God, and that He accepts gold-encrusted sanctuary and patron-backed ministry and poor bands devoted to prophetic and evangelistic mission. When it comes to living a life for God, God has shown Himself to be far less of a snob, far less picky, than many Christians.

It is clear from how moral education works that without punishment people would be horrible; people who think they are moral without punishment are always assuming that they and others have already been fully morally trained. The only real room for doubt is what role punishment should play, not whether it has one. Show me someone claiming they never had to be penalized in order to learn how to live a moral life, and I will show you an obvious hypocrite and liar.

The tendency to survival is the most stripped-down and minimal imitation of divine love.

Ministry gets its character from the mission of which it is part.

"The real altar is heaven, which is the goal of all our prayers and sacrifices." Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 4.18.8)

To do something in memory of something is not the same as merely remembering it, nor even the same as remembering it while doing something like it.

In art, suspension of disbelief must be earned.

The superstitions of yesteryear are often repeated in this age, but whereas the fearful powers were once usually understood on the model of persons, now they are understood more often on the model of unconscious forces.

The experience of being a Christian in the world is much like the experience of always being in the process of being betrayed. Nothing in the world can be wholly relied upon; you are always already sold out by parts of the world; it is already at least taking offers.

The Eucharist
(1) remits penalty for sin immediately as an act of divine mercy uniting us with Christ's passsion;
(2) remits venial sin mediately through graces of repentance;
(3) remits mortal sin mediately through graces of repentance.

spiritual communion in Mass // purgatory

While watching Mass on television or listening to it on radio is not eucharistic participation, it does contribute to the perpetual prayer of the Church.

Assessment of teaching is usually like the shadow-game in the cave.

The nonfixity of our will arises from our being unmoored, a process that reaches its final result in death.

direct object and indirect object as 'verb directions'
assertion as the identification of a teleology for an agent or patient, with the end being either the verb in itself or that to which the verb is directed in a certain way

Much of the work of being a student is developing what might be called a domain-specific aptness for further study. To be a good student is to learn to be more of a student in an area.

(1) signs
(2) signs that are instrumental causes
(3) instrumental signs of the sacred
(4) natural sacraments (sacraments improperly speaking)
(5) sacraments of covenantal grace
(6) minor sacraments 
(7) major sacraments (the Seven)
(8) the sacramental economy (Church as general sacrament)
(9) Christ as exemplar sacrament

All sacred icons depict divine actions, whether in the form of Scriptural or providential events or in the form of saints as blessing or prayer, or both.

If you can get it by spending money, it is not an 'identity'.

didactic poems as fossilized philosophy

Analytic philosophers have often used existential import to smuggle in assumptions about modality.

points as parts-of-boundaries with no proper parts

hypomune (endurance) as another name for hope  (Titus 2:2)
Titus 2:4 -- the elder women are to behave such as to sophronizosin (temperance-ize) the young woman so as to be husband-loving, child-loving, temperate (sophronas), pure, home-keeping, good (agathas), subordinate to husbands, that the Logos of God should not be maligned.
-- perhaps worth nothing that young women are assumed not to tend toward these things without training
Titus 2:6 -- the young men are likewise exhorted to be temperate (sophroneon)
Titus 2:12 -- sophronos kai diaios kai eusebos
prosdechomenoi ten makarion elpida: expecting the blessed hoped-for
note that Titus 2:13 calls back to 2:11 -- having epiphany, we await epiphany; cf. 3.4
2:14 -- laon periousion, a people out of the ordinary
2:15 -- the bishop should say (lalei, cf. 2:1) and invoke (parakalei, lit. call near, cf. 1:9) and argue for (elenche, cf. 1:9) these things of temperance
3:8 -- Pistos ho Logos
1:5 The bishop straightens/arranges things further (epidiorthose) what the apostle has done and designates (katasteses, lit. puts down) elders (presbyterous) in every city.
1:7  -- the bishop as God's steward (oikonomon, estate manager)
1:8 -- the bishops should be philoxenon, philagathon, sophrona, dikaion, hosion, enkrate
The letter to Titus more than once indicates that an essential part of the bishop's function is to argue (elenchein).
The list at Titus 2:4-5 seems to be neither an arbitrary list nor a checklist but a sample list of ways the temperance-ized person may be, according to her situation.

Romans 11:11-13 -- Even the lapse (paraptoma) and loss (hettema) of the Children of Israel is salvation to the nations and wealth to the universe and reconciliation of the universe; their completion must therefore be unimaginably great, life out of death.

Overlap implies compossibility.
Overlap is compossibility such that something can be a part. (This would mean that Overlap operator only impleis what is usually taken to be its defintiion, i.e., the usual definition assumes that if z is part of x and z is part of y, this implies that x and y themselves are compossible; it breaks down if we assume mutually inconsistent things can share a part.)
X and y being compossible and each being part of some z implies that it is possible that x and y overlap.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

As It Winds on Forever

by Edward Thomas

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods. 

 Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone. 

 On this earth 'tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure: 

 The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again. 

 They are lonely
While we sleep, lonelier
For lack of the traveller
Who is now a dream only. 

 From dawn's twilight
And all the clouds like sheep
On the mountains of sleep
They wind into the night. 

 The next turn may reveal
Heaven: upon the crest
The close pine clump, at rest
And black, may Hell conceal. 

 Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,
Though long and steep and dreary
As it winds on for ever. 

 Helen of the roads,
The mountain ways of Wales
And the Mabinogion tales,
Is one of the true gods, 

 Abiding in the trees,
The threes and fours so wise,
The larger companies,
That by the roadside be, 

 And beneath the rafter
Else uninhabited
Excepting by the dead;
And it is her laughter 

 At morn and night I hear
When the thrush cock sings
Bright irrelevant things,
And when the chanticleer 

 Calls back to their own night
Troops that make loneliness
With their light footsteps' press,
As Helen's own are light. 

 Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance: 

 Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering, 

 Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Book and Mirror

 Moreover, every intellect is by nature an intelligible, since it is naturally suited to receive in itself the inscription of the universe of the intelligibles, it is evident that, when it has received this inscription, it will be like a model of the universe and like a book of its complete inscription.

Moreover, since the intellect is a mirror by nature, that is, it is naturally suited for all intelligible forms to be reflected in it, and since the form of anything can naturally be reflected in it, it is naturally a mirror of it. Every intellect, then, is naturally a mirror of each and every intelligible and of the whole intelligible universe.

[William of Auvergne, The Universe of Creatures, Tesk, tr., Marquette University Press (Milwaukee: 1998) p. 155.]

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Like a Sharp Axe of Doom, Wreathed with Blush Roses

 What Is My Lady Like?
by Frances Anne Kemble

What is my lady like? thou fain would'st know--
A rosy chaplet of fresh apple bloom,
Bound with blue ribbon, lying on the snow;
What is my lady like? the violet gloom
Of evening, with deep orange light below,
She's like the noonday smell of a pine wood,
She's like the sounding of a stormy flood,
She's like the mountain-top high in the skies,
To which the day its earliest light doth lend;
She's like a pleasant path without an end;
Like a strange secret and a sweet surprise;
Like a sharp axe of doom, wreathed with blush roses,
A casket full of gems whose key one loses;
Like a hard saying, wonderful and wise.

Monday, June 19, 2023

'Real Relations'

 One of the big difficulties people often have when trying to navigate medieval philosophy is the notion of 'real relations' versus 'rational relations'. Part of this is because they are purely technical terms; the 'real' and the 'rational' don't at all mean what they would in English. Thus people think that 'real relations' are cases where you 'really' have a relation, as opposed to 'rational rational', where it is apparently all in the mind; but this is just a confusion. Here's a very brief guide to what a real relation is.

A few preliminary notes. 'Relation' here is also a technical term. We tend to think of relations as between things; these are what would have originally been thought as co-relations. 'Relation' here is something that applies directly to one term of a co-relation, not the co-relatedness itself. Thus 'being a father' and 'being a son' are distinct kinds of being-related-to, and each would be considered a relation in the original sense. Thus a relation is something you predicate of a subject, namely, that this subject is 'toward' another somehow, not something that you take to hold between two distinct subjects. Likewise, 'real' here is connected with res, which means what something substantively is, the 'something' that it itself is. The contrast here is with 'rational', from ratio, which in this context means something like the nature of the thing as it is understood or conceived. A real relation is a kind of relatedness qua res to something; a rational relation is a kind of relatedness qua ratio to something.

Keeping this in mind, a real relation has five aspects, all of which are necessary for a relation to be a real relation. A is related qua res to B when:

(1) A is related to B.

(2) This relatedness is due to some 'foundation' or actual aspect of A that makes the relatedness possible.

(3) A and B are not the same.

(4) The relatedness to B is 'in' A itself.

(5) The 'foundation' requires the relatedness to B.

The best way to think through them is to see what they exclude. Obviously, if (1) is not the case, there is no relation at all. If any of the others are violated, you have a rational relation. 

An example of (2) being violated is that of an extrinsic relation. If A is to the left of B, this is not due to some actual aspect of A itself, but simply to how the two things happen to be situated relative to each other. In modern philosophy, a change in this kind of relation is often called a 'Cambridge change'.

An example of (3) being violated is self-identity. A's relations to itself are rational relations because when I say A is A, I'm not actually predicating another A of A, I'm just duplicating A mentally and thinking of that in terms of a relation.

An example of (4) being violated is that of a purely mental relation, such as how I associate two different things, which depends not on the things themselves but on my outside perspective on them.

The most famous example of (5) being violated is the relation between God and creatures. Creatures have a real relation to God, because they are related to God, who is different from them, by being because they are creatures and could not possibly be unrelated to the Creator. However, while God as Creator is related to creatures, God does not have a real relation to creatures because what makes God a Creator, His power and will, does not require that creatures exist at all. The relation of God to creatures is an actual one -- He is related to these creatures as Creator, this is due to His will, which is 'in' Him, so that they are not the same as Him -- but it is not a 'real relation' because the divine will is free to create or not to create. From this we see that many cases of making something are also not going to be 'real relations'.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

With All Your Might Lift His Almightiness

 Psalm 150
by Mary Sidney 

Oh, laud the Lord, the God of hosts commend,
 Exalt his pow’r, advance his holiness:
 With all your might lift his almightiness;
Your greatest praise upon his greatness spend. 

Make trumpet’s noise in shrillest notes ascend;
 Make lute and lyre his loved fame express;
 Him let the pipe, him let the tabret bless,
Him organ’s breath, that winds or waters lend. 

Let ringing timbrels so his honor sound,
 Let sounding cymbals so his glory ring,
 That in their tunes such melody be found
As fits the pomp of most triumphant king. 

 Conclude: by all that air or life enfold,
 Let high Jehovah highly be extolled.