Review: Bard Song by Robin Herne

Bard SongThis review is long overdue. Coincidentally I was re-reading Bard Song with the intention of reviewing it at the time Robin published his recording of Gwynn’s Guest, dedicating it to me, which has spurred me along.

I’m not sure if I can give this book an objective review as I’ve owned it so long and like it so much. The pages are scored with under-linings. Against many of the poems are pencilled a’s, b’s and c’s from my attempts to decipher complex metres. The spine bends open on my favourite poems, which I return to frequently, have shared with my local Poetry Society and used as examples in Bardic workshops. But I’ll give it a go.

Robin Herne is a polytheist Druid based in Ipswich. Bard Song provides an introduction to reading and writing honorific and seasonal poetry (in English) in mainly Welsh and Irish metres. This fulfils an important role in Brythonic and Gaelic polytheism, giving people like myself who have not yet mastered the language of their gods the tools and inspiration to compose poems based on Celtic metres. It also opens new and exciting vistas for future developments within poetry as a whole.

In his introduction Robin speaks of the Awen, the source of Bardic inspiration as ‘a wild spirit, a passionate and consuming Muse that imparts not just pretty turns of phrase, but a new vision of the world.’ Poetry is a magical art which can be used to commune with and honour gods and ancestors, attain and express a spiritual vision, record history, praise (or deride) a person and for fun. Its ultimate purpose is re-enchantment.

The first four parts of the book are divided in accordance with the Gaelic festivals; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh. In each section Robin introduces the festival with associated myths, traditions, deities and suitable metres before sharing a selection of his poems, many of which have been used by his clan in ritual.

For Samhain, Robin introduces the forsundud, an Irish genealogical poem for the ancestors. We meet the Cailleach holding ‘cold vigil’ in ‘The House of Winter’ and rutting stags. ‘Gwynn’s Guest,’ one of my favourite poems of all time (written in tawddgyrch cadwnog metre) records St Collen’s encounter with the Welsh Fairy King on Glastonbury Tor. The first stanza captures Gwynn’s wild nature so perfectly I can’t resist quoting it;

‘Wind tears the Tor, unravels hair
Bound in plaits fair, wild blood yearning
For thunder’s roar, this hill my Chair,
Blessed wolf’s lair, white fire burning.

Tribes rise and fall…’ And the ending is wickedly humorous.

At Imbolc’s core stands the hearth of Brigit. ‘Sisters of the Hearth’ introduces her triple role as smith, healer and poet. ‘Brigit’s Song’ takes place in her Hall. Robin’s words in ‘Three Flames’ resonate most strongly with my personal experience of her as Brigantia, goddess of northern England and the fires of inspiration which consume and heal;

‘Light of compassion white burning
Thaw the ice that scalds my mind
Stir the flesh from torpor afresh,
Night-blind, scars mesh; pray be kind.’

The section on Beltaine speaks of magical and military poetry. ‘Cu Chulainn at the Ford’ provides a heart-wrenching representation of Cu Chulainn and Ferdiad’s tragic battle in Ae Freisilighe metre. On a more cheerful note we find ‘The Honey-Tongued,’ dedicated to Ogma ‘carpenter of song,’ who is the patron god of Robin’s Clan. Since its publication this poem has fittingly given its name to a new brand of mead.

Lughnasadh introduces the stories of Lugh and Tailtiu, recording Lugh’s arrival ‘At Tara’s Gates’ and Tailtiu’s death and ‘funereal commemoration.’ It covers the story of Gobanos, a god of smithing and brewing and there is also discussion of famed cauldrons in Celtic mythology and the important role of select brews in the arts of inspiration.

I have mentioned only a small selection of poems and themes. In later chapters Robin shares poems devoted to Heathen, Greek and Roman gods and those written for fun. In the appendices he provides guidelines for writing in Irish and Welsh metres. These are clearly introduced with rhythmic and syllabic patterns with examples. For Englyn Penfyr;

‘######a##b
###b##a
######a’

‘The old hunter sought the beast in the night,
Though without might, hope never ceased,
Yet frail, his skill found the feast.’

I have learnt vast amounts from this book about Celtic metres, composed some poems of my own in the Welsh ones and found it to be an excellent resource for use in Bardic workshops. Robin’s dedication to the Old Gods shines throughout his work and this alone has inspired me on my path as an Awenydd and polytheist.

Bard Song is a must read for Bards, Fili and people of Celtic and other polytheistic religions. I’d also recommend it highly to all Pagans and to poets looking for new and exciting metres with origins in the British Isles.

***

Bard Song can be purchased through Moon Books: http://www.moon-books.net/books/bard-song

Robin’s most recent poems, which continue his exploration of world mythology in carefully chosen metres can be found in Moon Poets: http://www.moon-books.net/books/moon-poets

His blog ‘Round the Herne’ is here: http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/

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Englyns on Auroch Skulls

Auroch Skull, the Harris Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staring from the museum
eye pits glare beneath fierce horns,
haunted wells of atrophy,
gazes flee their blind prisons

back to Taurean eras
of thunder down the river,
reeking ride of reddish hides
steaming wild to the water,

skidding sudden to a halt,
thick bones trembling, muscles taut,
bullish courage killed by fear
of men’s spears and swift assault.

Seeing skies alive with darts
herd wheels, swings and departs.
Knees buckle and hocks collapse
at the agony of barbs.

Most escape, some are slaughtered,
five stagger, tidal water
rises as they struggle and sink.
Its cold brink claims their corpses.

Tides turn. Sediments heap.
Silt and till on layered peat
bury bones in sunken sands,
erred, abandoned for centuries

until wrested from repose
five bovine skulls are disclosed
by dockland’s excavation,
shivering blind and exposed.

Breezes trace visages bared.
Tongueless trophies taste the air.
Denied thunder impaled rage
hangs displayed, an endless stare.

Skull songs lie trapped in the eyes.
Visions burst where times collide.
Bones cry for wind-swept stampede,
aurochs released to the wild.

Auroch Skulls, Harris Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

* This poem is based on a simplified variation of Englyn Cyrch, which I learnt from Robin Herne’s Bard Song.

Winter Vale

Greencroft ValleyI.
Snow fall lies broken
On dark ground dreaming.
Woodland’s limbs frozen
Hold ice sky reeling.
Huddled denizens
Sequester sleeping.
Imagination
Brings all that’s living.

Greencroft ValleyII.
Holly and Ivy,
A passion of green
Sounding survival
Twist blade and wrap leaf.
Foiling all rivals
On a pitch white scene
Evergreen striving
Boasts a battle supreme.

Greencroft ValleyIII.
Under bridge snow stacked
Each pebble glistens.
In a dress of bags
Lives a cold woman,
Deep echoing hag
Of water’s lament.
Her passing price:
Mere acknowledgement.

Greencroft ValleyIV.
By lamppost and Oak
A song I follow.
Playing wild wood dark,
A satyr shadow
With a smiling heart
Pipes warm tomorrows.
Nature’s chiefest arts
Transform her sorrows.

Greencroft Valley

V.

Absorbing the vale
A youthful Yew dreams
Of colours and stars;
Eternity’s weave.

~

Observing each part
Winter’s wise King
Drawing back the veil
Ends his masterpiece.

* This poem is written in Breccbairdne metre- another metre learnt Robin Herne’s Bard Song.