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Chapter 10: The Renaissance

During the heady years of the reign of Elizabeth l, scathingly called by historian A.L. Rowse as that "red-headed Welsh harridan," many leading members of the Welsh gentry moved rapidly in and out of London society, reaching high office not only at Court, but also in various branches of government. Welshmen were found in strategic positions in legal, professional and military circles. They found themselves in the forefront of Britain's colonial enterprises, filled leading positions in the Welsh Church, and in 1571 were successful in having Jesus College, Oxford, founded as a Welsh college. Thus, according to Gwyn Williams, they moved upwards from a position of junior partners in the Elizabethan state to that of senior partners in the creation of a new and imperial British identity. It was not long before they abandoned their native language.

In Wales, far away from the hectic pace of the capital, the poetic tradition continued in the Welsh language. Despite the frenzy of the rush to London's feeding troughs, the time had not yet arrived when the majority of Welsh literary figures wrote in English. Just before the close of the 17th century, while Queen Elizabeth still reigned, Sir Philip Sydney, in his "Apology for Poetry" (1595), praised the long continuity of the craft of the Welsh bards despite almost unsurmountable odds:

In Wales, the true remnant of the ancient Britons,
there are good authorities to show the long time
they had poets, which they called bards; so through
all the conquests of Romans, Saxons, Danes, and
Normans, some of whom did seek to ruin all memory
of learning among them, yet do their poets to this
day, last; so as it is not more notable in soon begin
ning than in long continuing.
Though the new print culture of the Renaissance made it difficult for the Welsh poets to adapt, it was not only Sir Philip Sydney who admired their work. Many modern historians have commented favorably on the fact that the essentials of the poetic craft did not completely disappear but were handed down to amateurs who continued to play a central role in Welsh society. Even today, where the verbal artistry of medieval poetry continues to be a source of inspiration, their influence is widely felt in literary circles. A reading of some of the prize winning entries at the annual National Eisteddfod would confirm the astonishing link between the poets of today and those of the earlier period. At this time, too, we should mention the 17th-century revival of hen benillion (old penillion), four-line stanzas recited to the harp that had been preserved orally for centuries, and which still play a major part in eisteddfodau.

One noticeable change in the production of Welsh poetry that took place during the early part of the 17th century is the replacement of the old bardic system of twenty-four strict metres by that of "Free metres." The new system was quite complex, but unlike bardic poetry it did not use the more intricate cynghanedd that was characterized by the serial repetition of consonants together with the use of internal rhyme as well as its use of simple adornment. The use of the free metres enabled the craft of poetry to be more accessible to the ever-growing numbers of amateurs, especially the gentry.

Poems dealing with idealized love, such as those of Richard Hughes (d. 1618) were matched in popularity by those dealing with social issues, such as those of Huw Morus (1622-1709). Earlier examples of the protest poem include an anonymous one that laments the cutting down of the forest at Glyn Cynon in Glamorganshire to provide charcoal for a new iron works erected by a new class of industrialists settling in Wales, and one by Robin Clidro (1545-1580) that laments a similar cutting down of Marchan Wood, near Rhuthun in Clwyd.

The first poem, here in translation, accurately predicts the later effects of the industrial revolution upon the beautiful verdant valleys of south Wales.

"Coed Glyn Cynon" (Glyn Cynon Wood)

Aberdare, Llanwynno through,
all Merthyur to Llanfabon;
there never was a bigger disaster
than the cutting down of Glyn Cynon

They cut down many a parlour pure
where youth and manhood meet,
in those days of the regular star
the woods of Glyn Cynon were sweet

Many a birch-tree green of cloak
(I'd like to choke the Saxon!)
is now a flaming heap of fire
where iron -workers blacken.

For cutting the branch and taking away
the wild bird's habitation
may misfortune quickly reach
Rowenna's treacherous children

Rather should the English be
strung up beneath the seas,
keeping painful house in hell
than cutting Cynon's trees.

If there's a question who rehearsed
in verse this cruel tale,
it's one who many a tryst has kept
in the shades of Cynon Vale.

The second poem, also in translation, purports to have been written on behalf of the squirrels who went to London to protest the destruction of the forest. It too, can be seen as a kind of prediction of events far into the future, for the mid-1990's in North Wales is seeing attempts to preserve the last remaining red squirrels from extinction: the author, from the Vale of Clwyd was a wandering poet of the lower bardic class who lived during the second half of the 16th century. Creator of lively and amusing poetry, he may have been killed by a highwayman in South Wales.
"Coed Marchan" (Marchan Wood)

Odious and hard is the law
and painful to squirrels.
They go all the way to London
Crying with their matron before them
This red squirrel was splendid,
soft-bellied and able to read;

'All Rhuthyn's woods are ravaged;
my house and barn were taken
one dark night, and my store of nuts.'
The squirrels are all calling
for the trees; they fear the dog.
Up there remains of the hill wood
only grey ash of oak trees;
there's not a stump unstolen
nor a crow's nest left in our land....

Not all welcomed the new style; an anonymous poet in 1627 wrote that "Wales is fading, the bards are in their graves." Even ohn Davies of Mallwyd, (who had produced the revised Bible of 1620) was unhappy with much that was being produced:
Poets, in every language, through some
peculiar privilege of theirs,claim to
themselves the right to judge words . . .
But the writings of poets in general,
and particularly those of Welsh poets,
are such that they are incomparable
in the complexity of their sentences
and the obscurity of their words.
(dedication to the Prince of Wales,
("Dictionarium Duplex" 1632)
It was the same John Davies who proposed that Henry, the Prince of Wales should learn Welsh, though the idea was not put into practice until centuries later when Charles went to Aberystwyth in 1969 for that purpose a few months before his investiture at Caernarfon (the idea was also broached, without success, to Queen Victoria).

One of the most gifted Welsh poets of the 17th century was Huw Morys, (1622-1709) ("Eos Ceiriog": the nightingale of Ceiriog) who had the good fortune of enjoying the patronage of many wealthy landowners in Denbighshire. Writing as a devout churchman and staunch royalist during the period of the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth, Morys was also concerned with social issues. Much of his work deals with the cruel excesses of Cromwell and the Puritans. He composed in the traditional meters, but his unique contribution to Welsh prosody is that he helped create a new verse-form based on the traditional accented metre, but embellished with cynghanedd. in accentual meters. By judicious use of English borrowings and Welsh colloquialisms, especially in his many love poems and carols, Morys was able to set many of his verses to well known airs. His clever blending of words to music led to the founding of a new school of Welsh poets who followed his examples.

Much of the rest of the literature of 17th century Wales was designed to preach the Gospel. In their struggle for converts, both Protestant and Catholic poets used their skills to preach the Christian faith. One of the most popular of these preacher-poets was Rhys Pritchard (1579-1644), the Vicar of Llandovery who published his "Canwyll y Cymru" (The Welshman's Candle) in 1681. The book contained simple, moral verses that became the source of later Welsh hymns; it became immensely popular throughout Wales, where strenuous efforts had been undertaken by Thomas Gouge, a London clergyman to give the children of Wales knowledge of the scriptures and who had been persuaded to underwrite much of the literature coming off the new presses.

In 2688 Stephen Hughes of Carmarthen published "Taith y Pererin", a version of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress", a book that has remained for Welsh nonconformists one of the world's greatest literary works. (As a child in Wales, the author was told that the three greatest books in the world were "The Holy Bible", "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin".

Another influential poet who used the method of free meters in order to avoid the more restricting, and much more complex cynghanedd, was the prolific Edmund Prys (1543-1623), a kinsman of William Salesbury, and who had mastered eight languages while studying and teaching at Cambridge. His poems show his familiarity with both the humanistic learning of the Renaissance and of the traditional culture of Wales. Much of his work consists of debate with William Cynwal (d. 1587?), in which he urges the poets of his country to adopt humanistic standards. Prys also composed lively secular poems including one describing a game of football and another over the controversial cutting of the forests of Snowdonia. He is best remembered for his metrical Psalms, "Salmau Can" published as an appendix to the Welsh Book of Common Prayer in 1621. These psalms were practically the only hymnal used in Wales for over a century, and they still are used in many churches for congregational singing.

William Cynwal's "O Blaid Y Gwragedd" (Defense of Woman) shows his adoption of the humanistic traditions of Europe, but also his concern to teach the lessons of the Scriptures. He wrote the poem to defend women against an ungracious attack by an unknown poet earlier in the century. A strict observer of the bardic traditions, who was successful at the famed Caerwys Eisteddfod of 1568, Cynwal used a stanza form of the free metre for this poem. A few stanzas in translation demonstrate both the style and the subject matter of a poet who spanned two literary ages:

"In Defense of Woman"

Let all the nations listen
from the meadows and the mountains
where a satire was made public
against girls and women
for the ills of their behavior
in the beginning of ages

If you contemplate and render
all books and every story,
not one was born in any age
to be named without her sin;
they merit justice, there's no doubt
without God's heavenly mercy:

But before judging let all read
the eighth chapter of John,
where God quickly said to those
that brought a woman to him,
who most sadly had transgressed
against Christ himself:

To the woman he said softly,
'Go thou in faithfulness
and use no sin hereafter.'
To the multitude his charge was
none should rashly make judgement,
that moment had not come

The poets of Wales were not the only ones to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the printing press. Religious writing in prose also flourished, much of it produced by the Anglican Church as translations from English or Latin to fulfill the demand for devotional material. Some of these appealed only to scholars, such as a defense of Anglican Doctrine by Bishop Jewel or a translation of a work by Miles Coverdale. As the need for more practical works grew, however, especially with all the religious upheavals of the past century and a half, it was works of instruction that became most popular as well as satisfying the needs of Welsh printers to make a decent living. The literature of Wales was now to undergo a long period in which it was completely dominated by the themes of its ardently Protestant and mainly Puritan leaders.

Chapter 11: 17th Century Religious Literature

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