Twenty-six items from Special Collections (f)

Exhibit ‘F’: medieval Welsh. (“Eiry mynydd,” anonymous, 12th century, two versions and the original)

Bibliography: “Gnomic Stanzas” is from The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse, translated with an introduction by Anthony Conran (Penguin, 1967, pages 99–100).  [“Mountain snow, white is every place…”] is from Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry, by Kenneth Jackson (Cambridge University Press, 1935; reprinted 2011, pages 58–61). ¶ “RBH col. 1028” [= Red Book of Hergest, column 1028] is from Early Welsh Gnomic Poems, by Kenneth Jackson (University of Wales Press, 1935; third impression 1973, pages 22–26). ¶ The poem was supposedly written in the 12th century.

Back story: In 2003, I brought an anthology into the house—one of these classic hodgepodges, mainly trading on the reputations of the two big shots who did the compiling. I doubt I would buy such a book today. They tend to lie around unread. Indeed, by 2003, anthologies of any description were already receiving a lot of skeptical looks in this household. Nadya (who at that point had lived with me for seven or eight years) grabbed up the book and slammed it open to a random page in the middle. She goes: “Let’s just see”—and proceeded to read a poem whose translator had given it the title “Gnomic Stanzas.” She and I, little suspecting, were both instantly vaporized.
     It’s interesting to observe how long things can take. To cook, I mean. I must have read “Gnomic Stanzas” twenty times before I ever looked up the word gnomic. It didn't mean what I thought. I thought it meant something like “enigmatic”—and I guess it can mean that. But in the context of old poetry it means anything said in the spirit of “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.” The poet says things that are obvious and undeniable but with a cosmic resonance. Elemental truths are heaped up, and some more debatable items slipped in, so these can share in the general approval. It’s a very ancient method.
     One would think that since I was so excited by the piece I would take the trouble to find out if there were more poems like it. What do I know about Welsh. And I did do this. The pressure had to build for ten years, but eventually I ordered some hard-to-gets and read all the footnotes. It appears there is a great mountain of medieval Welsh poetry, with its own saints and stars and MVPs, but only a few poems written on the model of my belovèd. Nine or ten of ’em are in the codex known as the Red Book of Hergest, a leaf of which appears above. These poems, all of them, are irresistible to a certain type.


Comment: This version, first encountered by me in The School Bag (ed. Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes), is about half the length of the original poem.

Gnomic Stanzas

Mountain snow, everywhere white;
A raven's custom is to sing;
No good comes of too much sleep.
Mountain snow, white the ravine;
By rushing wind trees are bent;
Many a couple love one another
Though they never come together.
Mountain snow, tossed by the wind;
Broad full moon, dockleaves green;
Rarely a knave's without litigation.
Mountain snow, swift the stag;
Usual in Britain are brave chiefs;
There's need of prudence in exile.
   Mountain snow, hunted stag;
Wind whistles above the eaves of a tower;
     Heavy, O man, is sin.
   Mountain snow, leaping stag:
Wind whistles above a high white wall;
     Usually the calm are comely.
Mountain snow, stag in the vale;
Wind whistles above the rooftop;
There's no hiding evil, no matter where.
Mountain snow, stag on the shore;
Old man must feel his loss of youth;
Bad eyesight puts a man in prison.
Mountain snow, stag in the ditch;
Bees are asleep and snug;
Thieves and a long night suit each other.
Mountain snow, deer are nimble;
Waves wetten the brink of the shore;
Let the skillful hide his purpose.
Mountain snow, speckled breast of a goose;
Strong are my arm and shoulder;
I hope I shall not live to a hundred.
Mountain snow, bare tops of reeds;
Bent tips of branches, fish in the deep;
Where there's no learning, cannot be talent.
Mountain snow; red feet of hens;
Where it chatters, water's but shallow;
Big words add to any disgrace.
Mountain snow, swift the stag;
Rarely a thing in the world concerns me;
To warn the unlucky does not save them.
   Mountain snow, fleece of white;
It's rare that a relative's face is friendly
     If you visit him too often.
   Mountain snow, white house-roofs;
If tongue were to tell what the heart may know
     Nobody would be neighbors.
   Mountain snow, day has come;
Every sad man sick, half-naked the poor;
     Every time, a fool gets hurt. 


Comment: Below is a translation of the entire poem, including blanks where the manuscript is illegible. The translator, Kenneth Jackson, is best known as the creator of a beloved anthology: A Celtic Miscellany, continuously in print since 1951.

[Mountain snow, white is every place…]

Mountain snow, white is every place;
the raven is accustomed to sing;
good does not come of excessive sleeping.
Mountain snow, white is the ravine,
the trees bend at the assault of the wind;
many a couple love one another
but never come together.
Mountain snow, the wind heaps it;
broad is the full moon, green the dock-leaves;
a mischievous man is rarely without litigation.
Mountain snow, swift is the stag;
usual are valiant chieftains in Britain;
there is need of discretion in the alien.
Mountain snow, the stag in heat,
ducks in the pond, white is the ocean;
slow is the old man, easy to overtake him.
Mountain snow, the stag is roaming;
the heart smiles on what it loves;
though a tale be told me
I recognize what is shameful wherever it be.
Mountain snow, white pebbled is the shingle;
the fish is in the ford; one is sheltered in a cave;
hateful is he who oppresses.
Mountain snow, the stag in flight;
usual for a chieftain to have a splendid weapon
and to mount by the side of the saddle-pommel
†and                                              †.
Mountain snow, the stag is hunched;
much have I said indeed;
this is not like a summer say.
Mountain snow, the stag is hunted;
the wind whistles over the eaves of a tower;
grievous, my friend, is sin.
Mountain snow, the stag is leaping;
the wind whistles over the high white wall;
it is usual for the calm to be comely.
Mountain snow, the stag is in the vale;
the wind whistles over the top of the roof;
evil does not conceal itself wherever it be.
Mountain snow, the stag is in the strand;
the old man misses his youth;
an ill countenance hampers a man.
Mountain snow, the stag is in the grove;
very black is the raven, swift the roebuck;
the healthy and free, it is strange that he complains.
Mountain snow, the stag is in the rushes,
cold are the bogs; mead is in the vat;
usual for the wounded is lamentation.
Mountain snow, flecked is the front of the tower,
the animals make for shelter;
woe to the woman who gets a bad husband.
Mountain snow, flecked is the front of the crag,
withered the reeds, the cattle †shun the water†;
woe to the man who gets a bad wife.
Mountain snow, the stag is in the ditch,
the bees sleep snugly;
well agreed are the thief and long night.
Mountain snow; liverwort in the river;
slow to strife
the sluggard does not soon avenge an insult.
Mountain snow; there are fish in the lake;
proud is the hawk, curly-haired are chiefs;
everyone does not get what he wants.
Mountain snow; the crest of the †pear tree† is brown;
fierce and serried are spears;
alas, for longing, my brothers.
Mountain snow; swift is the wolf,
it frequents the border of the wilderness;
usual is every hurt upon †the wretched†.
Mountain snow, the stag is not slow;
rain falls from the sky;
sadness breeds utter despondence.
Mountain snow, the deer is nimble;
the waves wet the brink of the strand;
the skilful, let him conceal his design.
Mountain snow, the stag is in the glen;
summer is calm, the lake is still;
greybearded is the ice; the brave is on the exposed side.
Mountain snow; speckled is the breast of the goose;
strong is my arm and shoulder,
I pray I may not be a hundred years old.
Mountain snow, bare are the tops of the reeds,
bent the tops of the branches; there are fish in the ocean;
where there is no learning there will be no mental facility.
Mountain snow, there are fish in the ford,
the thin bent stag makes fro the sheltered coombe;
longing for the dead does not avail.
Mountain snow, the stag is in the wood;
the fortunate does not journey on foot;
the coward fosters many hurts.
Mountain snow, the stag is on the hillside;
the wind whistles over the top of the ash-trees;
a third foot to the aged is his stick.
Mountain snow, the stag is swimming;
ducks in the lake; white is the lily;
the perverse is not willing to listen.
Mountain snow; red are the feet of hens;
water is shallow where it babbles,
talking big increases the disgrace.
Mountain snow, the stag is swift;
scarcely anything at all interests me;
warning avails nothing to the unfortunate.
Mountain snow, white is its fleece;
rarely is the face of a friend kindly
at frequent visiting.
Mountain snow, white are the roofs of houses;
if the tongue related what the mind knew,
none would be neighbors.
Mountain snow, day has come;
sick are the sad, bare the ill-clad;
usual is every hurt for the fool. 

Comment: Below is the original poem, as transcribed by Kenneth Jackson. The character that looks like the number 6 is rendered as a "w" in a much more recent book, Early Welsh Gnomic and Nature Poetry, ed. Nicholas Jacobs (Modern Humanities Research Association, 2012).


RBH, col. 1028

Eiry mynyd, g6ynn pob tu;
kynneuin bran a chanu;
ny da6 da o drachyscu.
Eiry mynyd, g6ynn keunant,
rac ruthur g6ynt g6yd g6yrant;
llawer deu a ymgarant
a phyth ny chyfarudant.
Eiry mynyd, g6ynt ae ta6l;
llydan lloergan, glas taua6l;
odit dyn dirieit diha6l.
Eiry mynyd, hyd escut;
gna6t ym Prydein gynrein drut;
reit oed deall y alltut.
Eiry mynyd, hyd ar des,
h6yeit yn llynn, g6ynn aches;
h6yr hen, ha6d y ordiwes.
Eiry mynyd, hyd ar dro;
chwerdyt bryt 6fth a garo;
kyt dywetter 6rthyf chwedyl
mi a atwen veuyl lle y bo.
Eiry mynyd; graennwyn gro;
pysc yn ryt; clyt y ogo;
kas vyd a oreilytto.
Eiry mynyd, hyd ar daraf;
gna6t gan gynran eiryan araf,
ac ysgynnu o du corof 
a disgynnu bar ar araf.
Eiry mynyd, hyd kynr6on;
llawer a dywedeis, os g6nn;
anhebic y hafdyd h6nn.
Eiry mynyd, hyd hella6t;
gochwiban g6ynt y6ch barga6t t6r;
tr6m, a 6r, y6 pecha6t.
Eiry mynyd, hyd ar neit;
gochwiban g6ynt y6ch g6enbleit uchel;
gna6t ta6el yn deleit.
Eiry mynyd, hyd ym bro;
gochwiban g6ynt y6ch blaen to;
nyt ymgel dr6c yn lle y bo.
Eiry mynyd, hyd ar draeth;
collyt hen y uabolaeth;
drycdrem a wna dyn yn gaeth.
Eiry mynyd, hyd yn ll6yn,
purdu bran, buan jyrchwyn;
iach ryd, ryueda6t pa g6yn.
Eiry mynyd, hyd my6n br6yn,
oer micned; med y gherwyn;
gna6t gan bob anauus g6yn.
Eiry mynyd, brith bronn t6r,
kyrchyt aniueil glyd6r;
g6ae wreic a gaffo drycwr.
Eiry mynyd, brith bronn kreic,
krin kalaf, alaf dichleic;
g6ae 6r a gaffo drycwreic.
Eiry mynyd, hyd yn ffos,
kysgyt g6enyn yn didos;
kytuyt lleidyr a hir nos.
Eiry mynyd; kynglhennyd [yn] auon;
h6yrweda6c yng kynnyd
ny moch dieil meuyl meryd.
Eiry mynyd, pysc yn llyn;
balch heba6c, bac6ya6c unbynn;
nyt ef a geiff pa6b a uynn.
Eiry my<ny>d; coch blaen pyr;
llidia6c lluossa6c | ongyr;
och, rac hiraeth vy myodyr! 
Eiry mynyd; buan bleid,
ystlys diffeith6ch a dreid;
gna6t pob anaf ar dieid.
Eiry mynyd, hyd nyt h6yr;
dyg6ydyt gla6 o awyr;
megyt tristit lleturyt llwyr.
Eiry mynyd; eilion ffraeth;
gowlycht tonneu glann traeth;
keluyd kelet y aruaeth.
Eiry mynyd, hyd my6n glynn;
g6astat uyd haf, araf llynn;
baryfl6yt re6; gle6 y erchwynn.
Eiry mynyd; brith bronn g6yd;
kadarn vy mreich a’m ysg6yd,
eidunaf na b6yf gannml6yd.

Eiry mynyd, ll6mm blaen ca6n,
cr6m blaen g6rysc, pysc yn eigya6n;
lle ny bo dysc ny byd da6n.
Eiry mynyd, pysc yn ryt,
kyrchyt car6 culgr6m cwm clyt;
hiraeth am uar6 ny weryt.
Eiry mynyd, hyd yg koet;
ny cherda detwyd ar troet;
meckyt ll6uyr llawer adoet.
Eiry mynyd, hyd ym bronn;
gochwiban g6ynt y6ch blaen onn;
trydyd troet y hen y ffon.
Eiry mynyd, hyd ar na6,
hwyeit yn llynn, g6ynn ala6;
dir yeit ny mynn g6aranda6.
Eiry mynyd; coch traet ieir;
bas d6fyr myn yt leueir;
chwenneckyt meuyl ma6reir.
Eiry mynyd, hyd esgut;
odit a’m dida6r o’r byt;
rybud y dr6ch ny weryt.
Eiry mynyd, g6ynn y gnu;
ys odida6c wyneb ku o gar
gyt a mynych athreidu.
Eyry my[ny]d, g6ynn to tei;
bei traethei daua6t a wypei geuda6t
ny bydei gymyda6c neb rei. 
Eiry mynyd, dyd a doeth;
bit glaf pop tr6m; ll6m lletnoeth;
gna6t pob anaf ar a a[n]noeth.



Appendix: Click the link below to listen to David N. Klausner, Professor Emeritus of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, reading "Eiry Mynydd" aloud in Welsh. Klausner is an authority on the pronunciation of various medieval European languages, and was kind enough to make this recording for me in 2012.