Five poems from The Book of Merlin

LARRY BECKETT’s poetry ranges from songs, Song to the Siren, to blank sonnets, Songs and Sonnets, to the epic American Cycle, including Paul Bunyan, Wyatt Earp, Amelia Earhart, and seven other book-length poems. Beat Poetry is a study of the poets and poetry of the fifties San Francisco renaissance. The Book of Merlin will be published in October 2023 by Livingston Press, the University of West Alabama.

Merlin was a 6th-century poet in northwest Britain, who spoke the Brythonic tongue. He was known as Myrddin Wyllt, or Merlin of the Wilds. He was a contemporary and comrade of Taliesin, and though The Book of Taliesin is extant, for Merlin, there are only a handful of poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen, The Red Book of Hergest, and other middle Welsh texts. But scholars have suggested that Merlin’s other lyrics were embedded in the Latin poem Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Together, they tell of Merlin’s later life. My translation is the first time that his surviving words have been gathered in one manuscript since The Book of Merlin was lost in the 12th century.

Green Warriors

Can doom, so hard, so harm me by

spiriting away all my companions,

who made kings and far kingdoms

shake? We are uncertainty, death

is always here, and it’s in power

to strike with its secret blade, blow

poor life out of the body. Green

warriors, who will stand by me

in arms, stave off the commanders

coming to hurt me, and the armies

rising against me? You were brave,

and that bravery has spirited away

all your sweet years, your youth.

Oh only now you were charging

in armor and cutting all of your

enemies down. And now you lie

light on the earth: it’s reddening.

The Bride

I can hear Gwendolen grieving,

her tears: I grieve for her, down

in despair. No woman in Wales

of more beauty: beyond goddess,

the blossoms in the hedge, rose

in bloom, the lilies of the field,

in her, only, the light of spring,

in her eyes, only, constellations,

and in the gold glory of her hair.

All this is gone, the grace, away,

the blush, the snow, of her flesh.

She is not what she was, but worn

with crying, she knows nothing of

where her man is, or dead or alive,

and she lies sick, and she is fading,

in the dissolution of the long days.

Gwenddydd is by her side, in tears,

no consolation for her lost brother.

One, by marriage, one, by blood,

devoted, in mourning, pass time,

can’t eat, can’t sleep: they wander

all night in the wildwood together

with their anxiety burning inside.

To King Rhydderch

Let lords who think that they’re poor

have all these gifts, who, not content

with living simply, would have it all.

I’d rather have the oaks, the groves

of Celyddon, high hills, green vales

down below—that’s all that I want,

not what you offer, King Rhydderch.

And my wildwood, with all its food,

that I desire over all, will have me.

It’s men who pinch pennies, grab

for them, who go for gifts, and they

can be corrupted, so that their wills

can be bent any way they’re told.

What they have is not enough, but

for me only the acorns of Celyddon,

the shining creeks, and the grasses.

Let those misers have your bounty,
I can’t be bought: give me liberty.

Gwenddydd’s Lament

Mourn with me, women, mourn

the death of Rhydderch, a man

whose like’s unknown on earth,

peace-loving, all those warriors,

no violence, and fair to priests,

 with both high and low under

the law, the open hand, giving,

not keeping, all things to all,

doing right, knights’ blossom,

kings’ glory, kingdom’s pillar.

I am in pain, for what he was

is suddenly for worms to eat,

his body in the grave. We had

silk sheets: is this your bed,

your white flesh, king’s arms,

covered, under a cold stone,

nothing but dust and bones?

And so it is, our low destiny,

in the long years: none can

go back to what they were.

What use, this glory that comes

and goes, that fools and injures

even the mighty? The bee lays

out honey where it later stings,

like life. The best is brief; this

is its way: like flowing water,

all good passes away. So what

if a rose blush, a lily bloom,

a man, a horse, be handsome?

Questions for the god, not us.

So I’m leaving, all you kings,

high walls, local spirits, dear

sons, all that is of the world.

Today, by my brother’s side,

I’ll go live in the green wood,

and wrapped in a black shawl,

I’ll worship, with a glad heart.

I Decline

You are young, but at my time

of life, I can’t be asked to take

the scepter up, and to be fair.

I’m in old age; it has my body

and slacks my strength; I can

barely walk across the fields.

I have lived long, and enough,

in joy, in abundance, smiling.

In these woods there is an oak,

old and rugged, and so wasted

its sap’s failing, and it’s rotting.

I saw the acorn as it first fell,

and saw it sprout, woodpecker

above it, on a branch. I saw it

in detail, I honored it, I marked

in memory the place it stands.

I have lived long; age is heavy:

I will not reign again. I’ll stay,

green leaves: Celyddon Wood

is my delight, more than corn

of Sicily, grapes of Memphis,

robes in the perfumes of Tyre,

rubies of India, gold of Tagus,

tall towers, or cities in walls.

Nothing can touch me so, or lure

me away from the green woods,

so dear to me, as always. I’ll stay

while I’m alive; with its grasses

 and its apples, I’ll fast and purify,

till I’m worthy of everlasting life.

Look up, the cranes are flying,

in lines, in letters of the alphabet.