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Chapter 8: Poetry of Discontent

There were other poets at work in the later Middle Ages that were not so eager to praise their benefactors and laud the stability of the peaceful conditions in Wales. Widespread oppression at the hands of the English administrators of Wales may not have bothered the upper-class gentry too much, anxious to reap the benefits of close cooperation with the English and not too eager to upset the status quo, but for the rest of the population, there was a great deal of discontent that culminated in the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr (c.1354-1416). For a short time it seemed that Owain would succeed in his call to "free the Welsh people from the slavery of their English enemies,' but it was not to be. Following the reassertion of English military authority over Wales, the rebellion came to grief with the disappearance of Owain himself.

Despite the failure of the rebellion, so glorious in its early days, the people of Wales continued to hope that one day they would regain their lost sovereignty. After all, were they not a people who claimed to be the original British, a fact that their long, literary history (recited to them by their bards) continued to remind them? Their dreams were nurtured by a class of poets who carried on the tradition of Cywydd brud, prophetic poems that drew on the fertile imagination of Geoffrey of Monmouth. When, in the years 1431, 1433, 1447 the English parliament continued to reaffirm the Penal Code that was based upon anti-Welsh sentiments, it was inevitable that the bitterness of the oppressed found expression in poetry. Dr. Davies believes that the Welsh literature of the century after 1415 is more nationalistic than that of any other period. He believes that it shows the ambiguity of a people fully aware of their defeat but anxious to make the best of a bad situation. That may be oversimplification, but there certainly was a revival of prophetic poetry, in which the tradition called for an overthrow of the Saxon overlords in favor of a Welsh monarch to rule all Britain and restore the rights and privileges of his people.

The major Welsh poets who wrote following the Glyndwr years gave expression to the people's grievances. Both Guto'r Glyn and Lewis Glyn Cothi longed for the expulsion of English office holders from their beloved country, in which the poets considered themselves no better than slaves. In place of the untroubled idealism of the praise tradition, these poets substituted the "derisive nihilism of the dychan (satire)" in which they utilized the old Celtic tradition of the curse. Through the use of invective and condemnation, they poured scorn on the anglicized gentry and upon those who would not offer their patronage.

An even more radical poet, using the Dychan, was Sion Cent (c.1400-45?) who wrote powerful poetic sermons on the mortality and vanity of all earthly things. His work had a lasting and profound influence upon his contemporaries and upon later poets. He hoped to show Man in his true nature - the magic and color of this world were all illusory; it was not for Sion to praise the simple life of the countryman or to take a keen delight in the beauty of the world. He portrayed reality as transient; the terrors of death and the pain of the soul in Purgatory or Hell demanded full repentance before Judgement Day. A few lines selected from "Hud a Lliw y Byd" (The Illusion of this World) will give some idea of his power of description, his biting wit, and his outlook toward the everyday things and experiences of this world:

Its purpose hidden, the world is like
an image painter with his brush
painting many images
and a myriad saints in star color.
Like a fat-bellied magician
it shows something where nothing is,
worthless stuff which is dearly bought.
That's the world; I know it well
magic and color; our work is of no import.
Where's all the world: It has only deceived us.
Where are the worthies of old Wales,
and the householders? Where is reverence
which I had as a youth?
No credible messenger,
no herald of the wind knows where.
The same dance, I hear it come,
will doubtless be for us.
We gather riches, a fool's errand;
magic and color all to no avail.
Then, Lord of worthy Death, will we see
magic and color, that our work is of no use.
Similar reminders of man's immortality, enhanced by graphic descriptions of death and the grave are found in a poem on "Man's Vanity", in which Sion writes of the mighty warrior who will obtain:
. . . a secure shirt,
bitter kind, of under six feet,
and set off for the crowded churchyard,
on his horse to the cold grave.
After wine, the beloved kinsman
will be placed gently into the earth,
and be mourned for a little while
as he is buried with the spade

And the earth weighs heavy,
And stones press upon his cheek.

At the time of Sion Cent's death, there were changes taking place in Wales that would radically affect all aspects of life; perhaps the most profound effect of all, the legacy completely unintended by Elizabeth Tudor was that created by the translation of the Bible into Welsh.

Chapter 9: The Welsh Bible

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