Poetry Review: The Mabinogi by Matthew Francis

Poetry Book The MabinogiSpeaking at the Hay Festival last month, Matthew Francis described his first encounter with The Mabinogi (which he read in 1999 when he moved to Wales). “I was both baffled and fascinated by it,” he explained, “It’s extraordinary, and strange in the way it’s constructed, and it also has a strange logic.” He is not a Welsh speaker himself, and this is not a translation – he described it as a “re-imagining” of the myth, in the same way that Shakespeare drew on existing stories for his plays.   

The ancient Welsh legend known as The Mabinogi is a series of eleven interlinked magical tales which were written down (in Welsh) in the 1300s, but actually date back much further than that as part of the Welsh storytelling tradition. Matthew Francis has taken the first four of these and transformed them into a modern narrative poem which, though it uses contemporary language and is easy to understand, succeeds in transporting the reader to another time and place, where the realms of the physical and magical worlds begin to shimmer and blur.

Matthew Francis

Matthew Francis speaking at the Hay Festival

The tales were originally written in prose, and existing translations are also in prose (including the recent Sioned Davies translation, which Francis based his work on) but he explained how he thought “they would work better in modern poetry than modern prose, because it’s not the kind of content you’d expect from a novel, but it is the kind of content you’d expect from a poem”. It’s also possible that the original tales began as poems, recited by bards as they travelled around Wales, before being written down.

The first thing you notice about this retelling, is the way in which it is laid out on the page. In fact, it looks ragged, like an ancient Medieval poem, and this was the effect he was trying to achieve, as he explained at Hay: “Each section is split into four parts, containing a total of 14 lines, like a sonnet, and using a specific syllabic pattern which creates a tapering shape (e.g. 13, 11, 9, 7, 5 then 11, 9, 7, 5 and so on).” He described this as “a kind of wave form, which creates lots of extra white space, to make it look like a Medieval manuscript”.

This ‘tapering’ syllabic form also creates a strange sense of rhythm, which is helpful in a narrative poem, making it easier to read and putting emphasis on the final few words of each section. It’s a technique that Francis often uses in his poems, echoing the tradition of poets such as Marianne Moore.

Here’s an extract from the book, which illustrates the effect:

“From up here, everything is cloud: the grass, forest, corn,
even the rocks, are nuances of weather.
The road’s a white line through the billows.
He watches with his men as
a figure grows there:

a horse with a lick of sunlight on its back,
a horse with a knight in gilt armour,
a horse with a splash of silk
horsewoman riding,

not so much moving as sharpening.
Will she ever be real?
The boy he sends down

finds the road silent, her back
already dwindling.”

The text also has notes alongside, explaining what is going on, such as the introduction of a new character. I found this particularly useful when reading the stories that I was less familiar with. They don’t distract, if you want to read without them, but they do help to place each scene in context.

Although it has been written in modern English, the language fits the theme, and doesn’t jar. Francis explained at Hay that he spent a long time agonising over the word “snazzy”, wondering if it was too modern for the poem, but in the end he decided to keep it. You might disagree, but if you see it in context I think it works well:

“They say if you sit on the summit
you’ll see a sight more chilling
than the greys of rain,

or something more brilliant than
lightning’s snazzy gold.”

This combination of syllabic form, simple contemporary language and an emphasis on the visual creates a readable poem which is both engaging and dramatic, enhancing the mysterious and enchanting nature of these ancient tales. There is an intensity to the text which emphasises the surreal nature of the original stories, whilst simultaneously grounding them in a physical and emotional world with which we are all familiar.

The Mabinogi by Matthew Francis is published by Faber and Faber.

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One thought on “Poetry Review: The Mabinogi by Matthew Francis

  1. The form makes for an interesting approach and shape to the storytelling. To me ‘snazzy’ is a step too far – I like the plainness of the rest of the language but ‘snazzy’ seems not-quite-current and so out of time. I can see why he agonised!

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