Beckett’s take on the legend of Merlin revives the sensibilities of ancient British poetry in this book of verse.
In this new series of poems, the author, an accomplished poet and lyricist whose previous works include book-length poems on American folk heroes Paul Bunyan and John Henry, offers an original interpretation of the roots of Arthurian legend. His new translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 11th-century TheLife of Merlin, which was based on long-lost 6th-century material, aims to capture the tone of those vanished originals (prose translations were published in 1925 and 1973, and an earlier poetry version published in 2013 followed the style of Monmouth’s medieval Latin). According to Beckett, “My translation is the first time that his surviving words have been gathered in one manuscript since The Book of Merlinwas lost in the 12th century.” The Merlin of these poems is not at all like the popular conceptions of a genial and powerful (if slightly befuddled) wizard. As the author states, he was “a 6th-century poet in northwest Britain, who spoke the Brythonic tongue. He was known as Myrddin Wyllt, or Merlin of the Wilds.” The bards of that time were revered as prophets and held princely status. Merlin’s story begins when he is driven mad during an exceptionally bloody battle and flees to the Caledonian Forest in what is now the Scottish borderlands to live as a wild man—happy in nature until he experiences winter’s deprivation. The servant of his sister, Gwenddydd, brings him back to court, temporarily cured, but he rejects the lure of wealth and power and returns to the forest, where he extols nature and prophesies the succession of kings and their battles for power and territory with each other and foreign invaders.
Beckett’s poetic technique loosely follows traditional Welsh forms, using short, rhythmic lines, caesurae, subtle alliteration, rhyme, repetition, and simple vocabulary (apple, oak, king, killed, grass) to create a familiar feeling of ancient oral traditions that’s also crisp and vivid to the modern ear. In the first poem, “Green Commander,” each verse begins with a variation of the same two-part phrase (“Green commander, no lamenting”; “Green commander, no hallooing”; “Green commander, no agonizing”), while “Prophecies for Gwenddydd” features the refrain “who after him?” “Words with Taliesin” uses alliterative phrases such as “the shield shattered,” “blessed in battle,” and “his army hailed him.” Nature as both a harsh and healing force is a prominent theme in poems such as “To the Apple Tree,” whose “branches delight, / luxuriant, shooting”; “To the Wolf,” with its leafless, acorn-less trees, starving pigs, winter, wind, and rain; and “The Seasons,” in which the speaker wishes there were only spring and summer and no winter. While long lists of kings and battles or hard-to-pronounce Welsh names such as Ardderyd, Maelgwn, Rhodri, and Lloegyr may not be to every reader’s taste, anyone interested in the craft of poetry, early English literature, Celtic culture, or the roots of Arthurian legend will find much to savor in this slim but rich collection.
An accomplished poet provides a new interpretation of ancient and medieval British lore.