Talgesin, Taliesin Ben Beirdd, Talyessin, Teliessin, Thelgesinus
Tradition says Taliesin flourished in the sixth century, which means he lived after any “historical” Arthur. He was a poet and bard from northern Britain who, it is told, traveled widely and were singing at the courts of at least three Brythonic kings. Not many poems have remained to this day, although eleven are preserved and thought to be the work of the historical Taliesin. Some of his works are addressed to Urien of Rheged, Owain mab Urien (Ywaine), Brochfael Ysgithrog of Powys and Cynan Garwyn. In some of the poems, there are referrals to, among others, the Battle of Arfderydd, c. 573.
Several poems attributed to Taliesin survive in The Book of Taliesin and other sources, though it is unclear how many of these are authentic. Many of them glorify the lives and lament the deaths of Urien and Owain. He is first connected (anachronistically) to Arthur in The Spoils of Annwn, in which Arthur travels to the Welsh Otherworld and obtains a magic cauldron. Taliesin, the supposed author of the poem, is one of only seven warriors who survived the expedition. A similar fate befalls him in the non-Arthurian Welsh tale of Branwen, in which he is one of seven to survive King Bran the Blessed’s conquest of Ireland. In Culhwch and Olwen, he is Arthur’s “chief bard.”
Geoffrey of Monmouth makes him a friend of Merlin and tells us that Taliesin and Merlin took Arthur’s body to Avalon after the battle of Camlann. Taliesin came to Merlin’s assistance when Merlin went insane and roamed the forest of Caledon. After Merlin was healed, Taliesin remained with him in Caledon.
Taliesin is unknown to Medieval romance, but in Thelwall’s The Fairy of the Lake and Tennyson’s Idylls, he resumes his Culhwch role as Arthur’s chief bard.
Glennie names him as one of the four, some accounts says five, renown poets. Historia Brittonum lists them as Talhaearn Tad Awen, Aneirin (Aneurin), Blwchfardd, and Cian Gwenith Gwawd. Glennie lists them as Llywarch Hên, Aneurin and Merlin.
The legends say Elffin ap Gwyddno (Elphin), son of Gwyddno Garanhir, adopted the child Taliesin. Elffin became a king in Ceredigion, Wales and the boy was raised at court in Aberdyfi. When he was thirteen years old he visited King Maelgwn Gwynedd, Elffin’s uncle, and correctly prophesied about the king’s death of yellow plague. In time he becomes a hero, a companion of King Arthur and Bran the Blessed.
Taliessin is our fullest throat of song,
says Arthur in Tennyson’s idyll The Holy Grail.
The spelling of his name, Taliessin, comes from Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which in Middle Welsh means ‘shining brow’. In Medieval Welsh poetry and legend he is often named Taliesin Ben Beirdd, which means ‘Taliesin, Chief of Bards’, or ‘Chief of Poets’. The following poem is a fragment by Taliesin Ben Beirdd.
I have been a multitude of shapes,
before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been in the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.
The Welsh Triads names Afaon (Adaon), a great warrior, as his son, who suffered a violent death.
Tal is Welsh and means ‘end’, when applied to places, but when applied to persons it denotes ‘front’. Talyhont signifies the end of the bridge, while Taliesin means radiant front or luminous head.
Preiddeu Annwfn | Attributed to Taliesin, c. 900
Culhwch and Olwen | Late 11th century
Historia Brittonum | Probably Nennius, early 9th century
Vita Merlini | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1150
Triads of the Island of Britain (Welsh ”Triads”) | 11th century to 14th century
The Fairy of the Lake | John Thelwall, 1801
Idylls of the King | Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1859-1886