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Chapter 6: The Court Poets

The general growth of European court culture in the twelfth century also found its counterpart in Wales, where resentment against the Anglo-Normans, followed by military success, led to a new flourishing of Welsh poetry. The three independent kingdoms of Wales, Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth were all served by the poets of the Princes, a closely knit bardic order of highly trained professionals who enjoyed special status and whose exuberance was matched by high standards. The awarding of the bardic chair at today's National Eisteddfod of Wales has a direct link with these poets, for the highest rank was that of pencerdd (head or chief of song) who occupied a special chair eistedd in the royal court. His duties, strictly defined by the law codes, included the singing of one song to God and the other to his temporal lord, the prince. There were also twenty-four officers of the court, including the bardd teulu (poet of the retinue or family) who sang to the warriors before battle as well as to the Queen or princess in private.

The surviving poetry of the period is represented by about thirty poets with the majority belonging to two: Cyndelw Brydydd Mawr (Cyndelw the Great Poet) and Llywarch ap Llywelyn, who was the bard of Llywelyn the Great. Recited to the harp, and using an archaic diction, the highly ornate poems made much use of the ornamentation of sound, continuing the process of alliteration and rhyme that was so marked in earlier Welsh poetry. The "Awdl", a short mono-rhymed piece, was the main poetic form, using one or more of a number of intricate meters.

Cyndelw's career seems to have begun in the 1150's. He traveled all over Wales, serving many courts, including those in the three major kingdoms. His songs of praise, religion, and love covered all the topics and genres of medieval Welsh poetry, but he concentrated on eulogy and elegy. His moving elegy on the death of his own son Dygennelw set a standard that was closely followed by many later poets. In one of his love poems there occurs the earliest reference in Welsh literature to the stock figure of the jealous husband. His praise poem to the huntsman of Llywelyn son of Madoc, "Dau Englyn" (Two stanzas) is given below:

Balch ei fugunawr ban nafawr ei lef
pan ganer cyrn cydawr;
corn Llyelyn llyw lluydfawr
bon chang blaen hang bloed fawr.

Corn wedi llad corn llawen
corn llugynor Llywlyn
corn gwyd gwr hydr ai can
corn meinell yn ol gellgwn.

Some idea of the alliterative patterns of the original is given by the translator Gwyn Williams in his translation:
Proud its call when its cry is raised,
when horns are blown in concord,
horn of Llywelyn, lord of great hosts,
broad-based, thin-mouthed and loud of blast.

A horn after killing, a happy horn,
horn of Llywelyn's advance guard,
a horn of wold, a brave man sounds it,
a tapering horn in the track of hounds.

There were two other outstanding poets of the period: Gwalchmai ap Meilyr and Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd. Gwalchmai (1130-80) was a court poet to Owain ap Gruffudd. His poems show originality in content and simplicity of diction in which his gift for narrative description is best shown in such poems as an awdl to his lord which describes a sea-battle off the coast of Anglesey. He also composed a dream poems, but his most famous work is the "Gorhoffedd" (Exultation), named by Meic Stephens as one of the great poems of the Welsh language. Stephens briefly describes it as a long boast containing the poet's exuberance in the beauty of the world of nature, his allegiance to Owain, and his great love of women. Some of the images he conjures up are those of a morning in May, the songs of the birds, seagulls playing on the surface of the sea, the colors of the waves as they strike the beach, and the names of favorite Welsh rivers. A few lines translated by Gwyn Williams can only give a hint of the lyricism and descriptive powers of the original:
The green wave at Aber Dau woke me,
it strikes at the grey shore with is fair streams,
bravely the birds sing there;
that's the gentle, hospitable place for me.
I know wild grass which confidently grows,
I know the proud tree-covering, its flowers are lovely
I know that I drank mead served tome from gold
in the hall of tall Owain, brave worthy one.
The second great poet of the period, perhaps the greatest, is Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd (d. 1170). An illegitimate son of Owain Gwynedd, Hywel in no need of a patron, was able to break from the traditions of the court poets. He is thought to have written the first love poetry extant in the Welsh language, though many historians believe that he was the heir to a long tradition of love poetry now lost. His poems show a masculine delight in the love of women, praise of nature, and prowess in battle; all show a sense of unfulfilled desire and a strong sensuality. Despite his amateur standing, Hywel's work was mainly composed of sophisticated entertainment for a courtly audience. According to Meic Stephens, his poems are marked by "sensitivity, tenderness, warmth and a sense of humour." Characteristic of Hywel's verse is that rapid association of images shown in the following translation:
A white wave, splendid in attack, foams over,
colored like hoar-frost in the hour of its advance.
I love the sea-coast of Merionnydd,
where a white arm was my pillow.
I love the nightingale in the wild wood,
where two waters meet in that sweet valley.
Active in military campaigns, Hywel was killed in battle against his half-brothers. This was at the time that Henry II of England, in a letter to the Emperor of Byzantium) wrote of the Welsh:
A people called Welsh, so bold and
ferocious that, when unarmed, they
do not fear to encounter an armed
force, being ready to shed their blood
in defence of their country, and to
sacrifice their lives for renown.
It was perhaps such character that prevented the Welsh from uniting in a single political entity, yet out of all the in-fighting that took place among the Welsh royal families, by the time of Owain Gwynedd's grandson, Llywelyn the Great, the kingdom of Gwynedd had become pre-eminent in Wales. It was at the court of Llywelyn that a flowering of poetry took place which, if not as exuberant as that of Cyndelw did show a heightened political awareness and maturity of theme. Llewarch ap Llywelyn, (1173-1220) whose nickname was the poet of the pigs, composed a series of majestic awdlau to celebrate the achievements of his lord. He was succeeded by Llygad Gwr, but the death of his lord Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, in 1282 at Cilmeri, after trying to unite Wales, marked the end of his country's political independence. It was followed by a decline in the long continuity of the Welsh bardic order. A contemporary of Llywelyn ab yr Ynad Coch was Bleddyn Fardd, whose most well-known "awdl" lamented the fall of the princes of Gwynedd in a stoical statement of human tragedy

One of the last, great poets who wrote in the elegant tradition was Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch (fl. 1280) whose poem on the death of Llywelyn remains one of the most moving and powerful laments in the language. The poet's use of mono-rhyme and the repetition of certain sounds for cumulative effect imparts his feeling of utter dismay. A few lines of the original will show the dread induced by the repetition of the final aw sound in each line, pronounced as in the English word how:

Oeruelawe callon dan vronn o vraw,
rewyd val crinwyd yssyn crinaw.
Pony welwch chwi hynt y gwynt ar glaw?
Pony welwch chwi r deri yn ymdaraw?
Pony welwch chwi r mor un merwindaw yr tir?
Pony welwch chwi r gwir yn ymgyweiraw?
Pony welwch chi r heul yn hwylaw r awyr?
Pony welwch chwi r syr wedyr syrthiaw?

Och hyt attat ti Duw na daw mor tros dir!
Pa beth yn gedir y ohiriaw?
Nyt oes le y kyrcher rac carchar braw,
nyut oes le y trigyer: och or trigyaw!

An English translation can give only a hint of the sheer power of the Welsh original:
Lying cold under a breast of fearful pity
Lust shrivels up like dried kindling
Do you not see the way of wind and rain
Do you not see the oaks beating together
The sting of the sea against the shore?
Do you not see the anguish of the truth?
Can you not see the sun's path in the sky?
The falling of the great stars?

Why does not the sea cover the land?
Why are we left here to linger?
There's no place to hide from fear's prison,
Nowhere left to dwell, such a dwelling!

Of the effect of the death of Llywelyn upon the poet, John Davies has written "the cosmos itself could not but be part of the torrent of grief." His lord had been "the keystone where the Welsh congregated." Llywelyn's death was the end of the dream of Welsh independence,it was, according to Davies, the uprooting of a polity which has yet had no successor. No wonder the modern poet Dafydd Iwan expresses, in his "Balad Cilmeri": "Colli Llywelyn, colli'r cyfan" ("Losing Llywelyn, losing everything"). As far as literature is concerned, the end of Welsh political independence marked by the death of Lywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282 and the consequent decline of the kingdom of Gwynedd meant a radical shift in both the status of the poet and in the form of poetry.

Chapter 7: Poets of the Gentry

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