Welsh Literature

  Search Britannia
Britannia Home
Wales Home

History of Wales
Welsh Language
Wales Forum
Seven Wonders
Cultural Traditions
Facts About Wales
Welsh Royal Families
Welsh: The 8th Wonder
Welsh Proverbs

Travel Home
London Guide
Touring Online
Planning Resources
Reservations Centre

Chapter 7: Poets of the Gentry

Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch was one of the last of his kind. With the loss of the independent kingdoms, and the consequent decline of royal patronage, Welsh poetry was about to take on new directions. The place of the princes as patrons of the poets was now filled by the native Welsh gentry, whose growing importance and influence was recognized by an event taking place in 1176 that is of great significance in the long Welsh poetic tradition. This was the calling together of the bards of Wales to compete for a chair, the tradition of the national Eisteddfod.
At Christmas in that year the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd held court in splendour at Cardigan, in the castle. And he set two kinds of contests there: one between bards and poets, another between harpists and crowders and pipers and various classes of music-craft. And he had two chairs set for the victors. ("Brut y Tywysogyon" 1176).
The Lord Rhys had been set up by Henry II as a deputy in Wales as a counterpoise to the great lords in Ireland, but the Welshman had taken advantage of his position to take back much of Ceredigion (Southwest Wales) from Norman control, and it was he who richly endowed the Abbey at Strata Florida in 1184. The 1176 Eisteddfod helped emphasize his position of importance.

At the end of the 12th century, Giraldus Cambrensis had described the magic of Welsh poetry, with its special emphasis on alliteration. He could not have anticipated the full flowering of what we now term "the poetry of the gentry" that replaced that of the courts of the princes. Though the church, long supportive of the native literary culture, continued to patronize the Welsh bards, it was the native gentry, the uchelwyr, the land-owing classes that took upon itself the task of maintaining the Welsh bardic order, especially since more and more, it dealt with the purely secular theme of the alliance of love and nature.

No longer guaranteed a place of privilege at the courts, the bards could not rely on being employed on a permanent basis by the gentry either, so they were forced to travel from home to home on "bardic circuits" being especially welcome at special occasions such as religious festivals or seasonal feast times. Though they were highly trained in their craft, and thus distinguishable from the host of itinerant minstrels so popular throughout Wales, circumstances made them develop more personal and informal styles of poetry. In this they were encouraged by the gentry, who were always anxious to enhance their social status by having the services of a skilled, practiced bard at their disposal.

Poetry became simpler in form: the new style made extensive use of the meter known as the cywydd, consisting of couplets of seven-syllable lines, with the end rhyme alternately stressed and unstressed. This allowed much greater flexibility than the rigid traditional awdl. In addition, further adding to its adaptability to humorous subjects or detailed description, the rhyme changed with each new couplet.

In the 14th century, cynghanedd (with the literal meaning "harmony") was added as compulsory ornamentation within each line, thus increasing the complexity of what had been a rather simple form. The new form had become so established by the 15th century as the standard, that the poets themselves were known as the makers of cywyddor the cywyddwyr. There were four main types of cynghanedd: cynghanedd lusg, cyhghanedd groes, cynghanedd draws and cynghanedd sain. These differed in their rhyming schemes, sequence of consonants, and line divisions. Its seemingly artificial and restrictive system, with its emphasis on stressing the main syllables in the line, is ideally suited for the ear, not the eye. (as indeed all poetry should be). The cynghanedd is primarily intended for the listener, not the reader. The harpist-poet was still the one who was given the place of honor.

At the time of Chaucer in England and just following that of Dante in Italy, Wales had its own "world-class" master of the poetic art. Many modern writers see Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-70) as the greatest Welsh poet of all time, but certainly the most distinguished of medieval Welsh poets. Following the loss of political independence and the disappearance of the great Welsh princes, there was a century of political and social turmoil. Of the period, Professor Davies states that "lack of unity was the essence of the Welsh experience." Yet out of the vacuum Dafydd was able to create a bold synthesis of the old Welsh bardic tradition and the European concepts of courtly love. Indeed, a body of literature was created in Wales that fully equalled that produced in either England or the continent. It was as if the loss of power of the Welsh princes only served to strengthen the self-awareness of the Welsh people. In any case, during the reigns of Edward ll and Edward lll, there were certainly periods of considerable tranquillity and stability in Wales. In particular there was an increased contact with France and French literature that could only encourage the Welsh to emulate such works as "Roman de la Rose". As exemplified by the works of Dafydd ap Gwilym, the period was one of the most glorious times in Welsh literary history.

Dafydd praised his uncle, the Constable of Newcastle Emlyn as a poet and a linguist; to him he acknowledged much of his learning. His poetry shows that his training included not only a mastery of native bardic techniques, but also knowledge of many Anglo-Norman themes and literary practices. Echoes are found of many popular French verse forms; his rich vocabulary is based upon his extensive knowledge of earlier Welsh poetry and the newer influences reaching Wales from the continent. These certainly helped his great flexibility in the use of subtle nuances of vocabulary as well as his use of innuendo and words with various shades of meaning.

Like the new class of "poets of the gentry," enjoying the more prosperous conditions that accompany the end of inter-tribal warfare, Dafydd's specialty was to exuberantly sing the praises of nature, of beautiful women, and finally, revelling in the fullness of life itself. Acknowledging his debt to one considered the supreme authority on love, he went so far as to describe himself as "Ovid's man. " Dafydd's command of the language is unparalleled among Welsh poets. With much of the beauty and delicacy of rhyme lost in translation, an idea of his lyricism can be found in these few lines from "The Seagull".

I love her with the full force of passion;
Ah, men, never Myrddin,
With his fine flattering lip, nor Taliesin,
Did love a prettier girl,
Sought after like Venus, copper-haired,
Surpassing beauty of perfect form. . .
Oh, seagull, if you ever see
The cheek of the fairest maid in Christendom,
Unless I have the most tender greeting,
That girl will be the death of me.
Professor Davies has pointed out that the central happening of Dafydd ap Gwilym's age was the Black Death that swept a devastating path throughout Europe. Though the plague perhaps killed more than a fourth of the population of Wales, Dafydd made no mention of it, and over the one hundred and fifty of his poems that survive, the majority are love poems written in a highly innovative style in the cywydd meter. His primary theme, the pursuit of love, is usually associated with an idealized forest setting of animals and birds, but he also employed passages of a racy, colloquial dialog. One particular technique used by Dafydd In his praise of nature and his celebration of the seasons, is that of the dyfalu, (comparing or describing) by which a series of imaginative metaphors follow one another "with kaleidoscopic effect so that fog becomes a parchment-roll, a grey cowl, and a mail-coat hanging heavy on the earth." (Johnston, p.37). He used this method to heap abuse on or to satirize some object that had obstructed his success in love-making, for example a clock, a magpie, an owl or even the wind.

By making himself the main subject of his poems, Dafydd also introduced a new element into the Welsh poetic tradition that hitherto had mainly employed an impersonal and objective style. A few lines from "Merched Llanbadarn" (The Girls of Llanbadarn) Dafydd's portrayal of his own feelings and experiences:

I bend before this passion;
a plague on the parish girls!
Since, o force of my longing,
I have never had one of them!
Not one sweet and hoped-for maiden,
Not one young girl, or hag, nor wife,
What recoil, what malicious thoughts,
What omission makes them not want me?
What harm is it to a thick-browed girl
to have me in the dark, dense wood?
It would not be shameful for her
To see me in a den of leaves.
In addition to his love poems, Dafydd also made an innovative contribution to the Welsh praise tradition by adapting the characteristic styles of love poetry to those of eulogy. He was able to use the cywydd as a highly flexible medium to create praise poetry of a warm intimacy and subjectivity. To his friend and patron Ifor Hael (Ifor the Generous) of Glamorgan, Dafydd wrote seven such poems, but his most moving works are those in which he meditated on a ruined house where he had once made love to his girl or where he foresaw the old age of another beautiful former lover.

Contemporaries of Dafydd ap Gwilym were Llywelyn Goch (1350-90) whose best known poem is perhaps "Marwnad Lleucu Llwyd" (The Death of Lleucu Llwyd) one of the finest love-poems in Welsh, and Iolo Goch (1320-1398) who records that "Marwnad Lleucu Llwyd" was always one of the first poems asked for when young people assembled. The passionate, moving poem bids farewell to a wife who had died while the author was away from her. Despite the beauty of this particular poem, Llywelyn Goch is not as well-known as Iolo Goch, one of the first of the gentry poets, writing eulogies to the gentry and others in the cywydd meter. His detailed knowledge of the period's wars and of people and places in his native Wales as well as those of Ireland, France and England is shown in this praises of King Edward III and Sir Roger Mortimer. Three of the works of this much-traveled poet deal with Owain Glyndwr, his most famous patron, and it is to one of these that we have a description of the luxury of Sycharth, Owain's court, with a fine mansion and beautiful gardens.

Iolo's finest poem, certainly the most notable, is one in praise of "Y Llafurwr" (The Ploughman or Laborer), in which he uses the bardic method of dyfalu to describe the art of ploughing and the usefulness of the plough in a witty series of fanciful metaphors:

The useful old Elucidarium
put it thus happily,
'Blessed is he who through his youth
holds in his hands the plough.'
It's a cradle tearing the smooth long broom,
a fishing basket lacing the field,
a holy image of a dear praise,
a heron opening a quick furrow,
a basket for the wild earth, now to be tamed
in honored, cultured order;
a gander of the wild acres,
grains come from its true skill.
It brings forth crops from the rich earth,
A good beast biting the ground
Iolo Goch is also remembered for a number of satirical poems written is a jesting bardic contest as well as one poem that made fun of the wealthy Franciscan Order and another that advocated marriage for the clergy. As a youth, he experienced the horrors of the Black Death and, unlike Dafydd ap Gwilym, wrote poetry that showed an awareness of the dangers inherent in social disintegration and the necessity of preserving order. The order found at Sycharth (home of Owain Glyndwr) is one expression of this conservatism. It may have been these concerns that led to Iolo's ambivalence towards English rule in Wales, both resentful in its attitude, yet loyal in its advocacy of established social order.

The native Welsh culture showed no signs of decline despite the political situation that followed the failure of Owain Glyndwr's rebellion that had ended around 1413. By 1430, the status quo had been re-established. The rise of the Welsh middle class and their freedom from warfare meant an increase in the time they could devote to literature and to patronage of the bards, who showed a new vigor and strength. In such favorable conditions, the popularity of the cywydd continued unabated.

At Carmarthen in 1451 an eisteddfod was held that brought together poets and musicians from all parts of Wales. It also provided an occasion to revise the rules of poetry. Amateur poets such as Dafydd ab Edmwnd, who won the chair at the Carmarthen Eisteddod showed that there was much to be gained in a period of peace. It was Dafydd's use of the twenty-four metres that became an accepted standard of Welsh poetry. A wealthy landowner from Maelor Saesneg in northeast Wales, Dafydd was one who did not need the benefits from the network of gentlemanly or aristocratic patronage that began to establish itself throughout Wales. Other poets, however, relied heavily on this support.

Although a hierarchical social structure that emphasized what Saunders Lewis called "the heritage and the tradition of an ancient aristocracy" made possible the productive period of poetry, Professor Davies has pointed out that it was perhaps not so much that the aristocracy provided for the poets the deep philosophical roots that were founded in a necessary precondition of civilized life, but that such an aristocracy provided the luxuries craved by the poets. The rich hospitality of layman and cleric alike certainly provided the opportunities for the poets to practice and polish their craft. A few lines from Dafydd ab Edmund's poem "Cywydd Merch" (To a Girl) will serve to illustrate the workings of the cywydd, with its couplets of seven-syllable lines and alternate stresses in end rhymes.

Dy laeswallt fal dylusael,
dy drem fal dued yr ael;
dy bryd fal dillad broidyr,
du a gwyn i hudo gwyr;
dy wyneb fal od unnos,
dy wrid fal bagad o ros.
Dy garu di a gerais,
dy gas im nis dygai Sais.

Your soft hair, your bilberry brow,
your glance, how dark your brow.
your color like monsks' vestments,
black and white, bewitches men;
your face like the snow of the night,
Your blush like a garland of roses.
I have loved loving you:
No Englishman would hate me so.

Other notable poets of the time included Guto'r Glyn, Dafydd Nanmor, Lewys Glyn Cothi and Gutun Owain. All were masters of the cywydd, and testament to the continuance of the Welsh poetic tradition undeterred by foreign wars or pestilence at home. Their craftmanship is exemplified in poems that mask the skill and dexterity involved by an easy, natural style. Perhaps the finest of this class of poets was Tudor Aled, whose clever use of imagery and ornamentation allowed him to cover the whole range of poetic genre. Tudor's poems contain a great deal of references to genealogy; they praised not only Welsh families but also those of Norman or even English origin. In his work, the Welsh bardic tradition of the Middle Ages reached its climax. But there were other forces at work, not so favorable to the production of poetry of praise. Changes in society led to an inevitable decline in the bardic craft of Wales.

Chapter 8: Poetry of Discontent

The place to meet new friends and interesting people, ask questions, get and give answers and share experiences relating to Wales and Welsh culture. Click.
UK Vacation Packages
Reserve Hotels Online
uk vacation packages
UK car tours
London Special Packages
Amazon.com logo
Search for:

Enter keywords:

Copyright ©2001 Britannia.com, LLC   Questions? Comments!   Design & Development Unica Multimedia
Corporate Hospitality Concert Tickets London Theatre Tickets Football Tickets