Saturday, 27 September 2008

Dafydd ap Gwilym




My Supervisor has a lovely habit of teaching the astonishing poetry of the medieval master Dafydd ap Gwilym in Trinity term each year. Dafydd (born ?1320) is, to me, one of the pre-eminent poets of desire and wild nature. He can seem strangely out-of-time. He weirdly combines the profound, reverent contemplation of nature and locale found in John Clare with the wit of an Ovid, added to amazing, exuberant imagery and a linguistic facilty which deserves to be called Shakespearean. Many of Dafydd's poems are about the beauty of May, and it is a lovely thing to sit in the light-filled Celtic teaching room in Wellington Square, reading Dafydd and watching the light shiver in the new leaves of the gigantic horse-chestnut outside.

Dafydd lived in mid-Wales in the early 14th century. His uncle was an officer in the Anglo-Norman administration, and it's likely that Dafydd could speak English, and perhaps French too. (The majority of Wales would have been monoglot at that time.) It's a mistake to look back at medieval Wales through the medium of later historical developments: there was no industrialised South, no mining, no Methodism or Non-Conformity. Instead there was a vigorous, profoundly Catholic folk-life, coupled with a native and very ancient literary culture of professional poets going back into the Celtic past. All of this set against a natural environment as yet so unspoiled as to be nearly unimaginable to us. Perhaps one needs to imagine something like a damper, cooler Catalonia to get a sense of what Wales was like in Dafydd's day in all its cultural vigour.

He is the greatest poet of medieval Wales, indeed, probably the greatest poet in the Welsh language. In his day, with the death of Llywelyn the Last, the old system of the aristocracy as poetic patrons had been swept away by the Normans and the English, and the slack had been taken up by the Uchelwyr, the 'Gentry'. So regional earls and lords now received praise-poetry in the tradition which stretched back to the parasitoi which Diodorus Siculus records as sitting by Gaulish chieftains and singing their praises in metrical verse. The nearest English comparison is to the 17th century poetry dedicated to a benevolent land-owning aristocracy by Jonson and Marvell. (Jonson's 'To Penshurst' is a good example.) Dafydd's patron was an uchelwr called Ifor Hael, Ifor the Generous.

This brings me to the formal qualities of his verse. Welsh poetry is strict-metre (or was at least until the 20th century, and strict-metre poetry is still exceptionally popular.) And it is strict in a way that is almost unimaginable to an English reader. Though there are innumerable verse-forms - the
awdl, the proest, the englyn etc - Dafydd wrote in a metre called the cywydd, which had developed over the previous century. Supple and elegant, it consists of seven-syllable lines in rhyming couplets. The end-rhymes must rhyme an unstressed syllable with a stressed one, as though we were to rhyme 'sea' and 'silly'. The intial letters of lines may alliterate in batches or runs.

But this is where it gets complicated: each line must be further ornamented with one of four patterns of consonant chiming, or cynghanedd. Each of these radically increases the pressure brought to bear upon the poet's inventiveness and vocabulary. Here is an example of the so-called cynghanedd sain:

A bedwen | fonwen | fanwallt
O birch-tree white-trunked fair-haired...

The line divides into three. The final syllable of the first two sections rhymes, fully. The first letter of the second and third sections alliterates. An English example might be 'The birch doth search ceaselessly', which makes little sense but illustrates the point. There are three other types. The most fiendish form is called cynghanedd groes, 'criss-cross cynghanedd', where the consonants of the first half of the line must be repeated in the second half, in the same order, but with different vowels. Here's an example.

Cnwd da iawn, cnawd dianaf
daw o'r ddaear hen yn haf.

'Very good crops, unblemished flesh,
come from the old earth in summer.'

The first line of the couplet has the consonant sequence cnddn cnddnf. (The final un-picked up -f is allowable, and indeed is often not pronounced.) To do this and make extraordinary imagery as well requires prodigious technical skill. Robert Graves had a go at producing cynghanedd-like effects in English:

Billet spied, bolt sped;
across fields crows fled;
aloft, wounded, left one dead.


But this is feeble stuff in comparison to Welsh. in contrast, Jan Morris's son Twm Morys, a skilled poet, has produced an excellent, surreal example of an English cywydd:

I have seen the Diva, sir,
mending your salamander.
I knew she'd been beaten hard
for losing half your lizard.
And I've seen the Diva's sons
drugging comodo dragons
in Peking. They were singing,
and the gecko echoing.
When we kissed I noticed newts
with oboes in her thighboots.

Cynghanedd is suited to Welsh because it is spelled phonetically, despite its gobbledegook appearance to English speakers. The overall effect is of intricately-articulated musicality, which appeals fundamentally to the ear rather than the eye. The use of cynghanedd also necessitates the frequent use of 'chevilles', or in Welsh, sangiadau, which are little off-the-cuff interjections within a line. In a poor poet, these can be bland, and have only the vaguest connection to the main clause. Dafydd, however, uses them with miraculous skill.
Though Dafydd wrote on a wide variety of themes, including religious poetry, elegy, eulogy and satire, his is associated overwhelmingly with the themes of love and nature. Many of his poems have a woodland setting, in which the poet (or his comical, slightly-self-satirising persona) waits for his beloved, often to be disappointed. He addresses the season of summer, the month of May, and numerous wild birds and animals. These latter two he often sends off as llatai, or 'love-messengers', dispatched to take a message to a particular girl. In all these cases, the subject addressed is described with spectacular, dizzying runs of metaphor, which circle about the creature or season or object in question, attempting to capture its indivuality, its thisness. These runs of metaphor are technically called dyfalu, but before Dafydd they seem pricipally to have been used in the streams of witty name-calling characteristic of Welsh satire. It is Dafydd's innovation to have put them for use is a positive context; for Dafydd would surely have agreed with Rilke that the poet's role is fundamentally to praise.

It has been remarked, rightly, that were it not for the utter impossibility of translating him accurately, Dafydd ap Gwilym would be ranked among the most accomplished and important poets of medieval Europe. He is so hard to translate because of the metrical effects detailed above; within these incredibly intricate and demanding poetic patterns he miraculously achieves a kind of luminous freedom of expression. Here are a few examples: each one should be hyperlinked to the text of the original in Welsh, from which an English translation can be found on the bottom right. Addressing the Wind, which he sends as a love-messenger to his girl, the poet writes:

Yr wybrwynt, helynt hylaw
Agwrdd drwst a gerdda draw,
Gŵr eres wyd, garw ei sain,
Brud byd heb droed, heb adain.

Skywind of knockabout course,
madcap ruckuss who travels yonder,
You’re an uncanny fellow, harsh-sounding,
World’s wild one, no feet, no wings!

The musical effects of the Welsh are untranslatable, being a series of complex consonantal chimes and assonance. The only comparable poets in English in terms of technique are Hopkins, and to a lesser extent, Dylan Thomas. In two remarkable, dense lines, the poet describes the Fox:

Taradr daeargadr dorgau,
Tanllestr ar gwr ffenestr gau.

An auger of the fair earth’s hollow belly,
A lantern in the corner of a closed window.

What is so clever here is the way in which the extreme demands of the metre are not felt as a constraint, but exploited to make remarkable, vivid metaphorical corespondences. In this couplet, the fox is vanishing into its hole. It's like an auger or boring tool because of its elongation as it dives into its den – paws forward, brush extended, snout pointed. So it is similarly sharp. I’m also not sure whether that image of the fair earth’s hollow belly isn’t actually to do with leather-working and the image of the augur boring holes for the waxed thread to go through on a leather jerkin. The second part of the image – the lantern at the corner of a closed window, is similar. It relates to the pervasive fire imagery of this particular poem – the fox is ‘lliw marworyn’ ‘ember-hued’ at line 32, and at 36 has ‘cnawd eirias’, is ‘fire-fleshed’. The glimpse of a lantern seen through shutters constellates several ideas. First, the flash of red as the fox darts away – not a whole lantern, but a chink of warm red light half glimpsed, as though by a traveler though a dark wood. (It’s a bit like that image of Dido’s ghost in Aeneid 6, where she’s like ‘the moon that a man sees - or thinks he sees - through mist at the month’s beginning.’) The fox is always receding ‘rhydaer y’i caid’ ‘too swift to be caught’. But if the fox is like a chink of lantern-light glimpsed coming from a shuttered house, to whom does the house belong? I suggest it is the world of nature from which the poet is exiled by his humanity, underscoring the vacillation between respect and vexation that marks the attitude towards the fox adopted by the speaker. This apparently simple metaphor introduces a submerged note of envy and longing.

As Guy Davenport said of Marianne Moore, 'Her subjects are those of a mind intent on seeing things not only for what they are precisely, but how they act in and with the imagination.' (G. Davenport, 'Marianne Moore', The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays (London, 1984), pp. 121-2.)Dafydd's capacity in this is extraordinary. The stars are the 'icy cherries of the night, the kernels of the frosty moon'. The Wind is 'a privilidged jester prancing on a hill', 'a roaring boy on the waves of the beach, a scatterer of leaves, a hurler of wild masts on the white-breasted sea.' Often these images have a Dickinson-like mysteriousness and density, so that the wind becomes 'a nest of the great rain', and the fog 'bear's breath where dogs bark, the ointment of the underworld's witches'.
Dafydd's relationship to wild creatures is an equal one: they talk back to him, sometimes dishing out satirical backchat (as in 'The Magpie's Advice') or telling him a few home-truths.There is constantly a sense of absolute wonder at the multiplicity of the world, and behind that, I sense, a spiritual insight into the profound interconnections and likenesses between things. The very nature of cynghanedd reflects this: like a kind of Welsh gematria, the shifting of vowels within matrices of consonants inexhaustibly generates startling metaphors that that betoken the providence of God at work within his Creation. Of the Moon, Dafydd tells us:

Cyflunddelw gogr cyflawnddellt,
C F L N DD (L G G R) C F L N DD (Ll T)
Cynefin ei min â mellt.

Her form is that of a finely meshed sieve,
her rim is familiar with lightning.

Cynghanedd proves the old point that misty Celtic Twilightism absolutely traduces the aethetics of Irish and Welsh pre-Modern art. It is not vagueness, but precision that is the key; not a blurry simplicty, but a ferociously controlled formal complexity, within which great imaginative invention may lie. (Finnegans Wake may well be the most 'Celtic' work of literature ever produced, in this respect, and that 'The Book of Kells' was in Joyce's mind throughout the entirety of its composition is well-known.) That the kind of formal achievement that we see in the welsh strict metres should be possible at all is amazing; that the poetry written in this style by Dafydd should be so moving, so extraodinarily abristle and aglitter with metaphor is nothing short of miraculous.

I'll close this post now with a loose translation of that poem of Dafydd's which so struck Jan Morris, as it struck me too.

Offeren y Llwyn

Lle digrif y bûm heddiw
Dan fentyll y gwyrddgyll gwiw,
Yn gwarando ddechrau dydd
Y ceiliog bronfraith celfydd
Yn canu ynglyn alathr,
Arwyddion a llithion llathr.

Pellennig, Pwyll ei annwyd,
Pell siwrneiai'r llatai llwyd.
Yma doeth o swydd goeth Gaer
Am ei erchi o'm eurchwaer,
Geiriog, hyd pan geir gwarant,
Sef y cyrch, yn entyrch nant.
Amdano yr oedd gamsai
O flodau mwyn geinciau Mai,
A'i gasul, dybygesynt,
O esgyll, gwyrdd fentyll, gwynt.
Nid oedd yna, myn Duw mawr,
Ond aur oll yn do'r allawr.
Morfudd a'i hanfonasai
Mydr ganiadaeth mab maeth Mai.

Mi a glywwn mewn gloywiaith
Ddatganu, nid methu, maith,
Ddarllain i'r plwyf, nid rhwyf rhus,
Efengyl yn ddifyngus.
Codi ar fryn ynn yna
Afrlladen o ddeilien dda,
Ac eos gain fain fangaw
O gwr y llwyn ger ei llaw,
Clerwraig nant, i gant a gân
Cloch aberth, clau a chwiban,
A dyrchafael yr aberth
Hyd y nen uwchben y berth,
A chrefydd i'n Dofydd Dad
 charegl nwyf a chariad.
Bodlon wyf i'r ganiadaeth,
Bedwlwyn o'r coed mwyn a'i maeth.



The Mass of the Grove

In a lovely place was I today,
under the worthy cloaks of green hazels,
listening, at dawn of day,
to the skilful he-thrush
singing a polished poem
of shining signs and lessons.

A wanderer, wise his nature,
a grey love-messenger from far off;
from fair Carmarthenshire he came,
requested by my golden girl;
fluently, with no word's warrant,
from Nentyrch Nant his course.
Upon him as a garment
were tender flowers of May's branches,
and his chasuble, you'd think,
was the green-cloaked wings of the wind.
By God! there was not there
as roofing to the chancel
anything but gold.
Morfudd sent it to me,
the measures of music of May's foster-son.

I heard there in splendid language
a chanting, long and without cease,
the reading of the Gospel to the parish,
no stumbling, no unseemly haste.
there was raised upon an ash-tree hillock,
a good leaf for a holy wafer;
and the eloquent slender nightingale
(the dingle's wandering she-poet)
from the corner of the grove
rang out the sanctus bell to those gathered there,
with her clear whistling.
And the sacrifice was raised
to heaven afloat above the thicket,
with faith in the Lord our Father,
with a chalice of ecstasy and love!

Pleased am I with my music.
The birch-grove in the gentle wood fostered it.

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