Thursday, March 7, 2013

Day 7: Dafydd ap Gwilym and the Changing Nature of Welsh Poetry

Dafydd ap Gwilym, Wales’ greatest poet, was like a burst of light on the Welsh literary scene in the 1300s. He lived and wrote at a time when the relationship between poet and patron was changing. Also, literary themes were changing throughout Europe. Although he was not the first Welsh poet to incorporate themes of nature and love—Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd did so over 100 years prior—Dafydd took these themes to new heights, even bringing himself and his feelings into his poems. Animals serve as messengers conveying the poet’s love to his favorite maiden. Poems are addressed to women with whom he had affairs (such as Morfudd, to whom he addressed many poems), or to women he hoped to bed. And, he wrote of failed attempts at love, sometimes poking fun at himself. In “Trafferth Mewn Tafarn” (“Trouble in the Tavern”), he woos a young woman over dinner and wine, then arranges to meet her later in her bed. Sneaking through the tavern at night, in the dark, he trips over a stool, bangs into a table knocking off dishes and goblets, wakes up some Englishmen (who assume a Welshman is trying to steal from them) as well as the tavern-keeper and others, and in the ensuing chaos, misses his lovemaking opportunity. To be sure, there were the occasional praise poems and elegies, but these were the exceptions. For a good summary of Dafydd’s life and pathbreaking contributions to Welsh poetry, see

Swansea University has created a great website devoted to Dafydd and his works. Two minor downsides to the site: poems titles are only in Welsh and are not listed in alphabetical order. But, those are small prices to pay for the luxury of having Dafydd’s work, in Welsh and English, at one’s fingertips.

One of my favorites is Yr Wylan/The Seagull. I’ve included the first verse in Welsh and the entire poem in English:

Yr wylan deg ar lanw, dioer,
Unlliw ag eiry neu wenlloer,
Dilwch yw dy degwch di,
Darn fel haul, dyrnfol heli.
Ysgafn ar don eigion wyd,
Esgudfalch edn bygodfwyd.
Yngo’r aud wrth yr angor
Lawlaw â mi, lili môr….

Fair gull on the tide, indeed,
of the same hue as snow or the white moon,
your beauty is without blemish,
a piece like the sun, gauntlet of the brine.
You are light on the ocean wave,
swift proud fish-eating bird.
You’d go close by the anchor
hand-in-hand with me, sea lily.
Just like a letter you are painted silver,
you’re a nun on the crest of the sea tide.

Perfect praise of a girl, you are praised afar,
make for the curve of fortress and castle.
Gull, look for one
of the colour of Eigr on the lovely fortress.
Say my ardent words,
may she choose me, go to the girl.
If she’s alone, make bold to greet her,
be courteous to the dainty maid
for gain; say I will not live,
noble refined youth, unless I have her.
I love her, strength of complete passion,
oh men, neither Myrddin
with his fine wheaten lips
nor Taliesin ever loved a fairer one.
A sought-after girl [dressed in] fine linen under copper [hair],
exquisite visage perfectly formed.

Ah gull, if you get to see
the cheek of the fairest girl in Christendom,
unless I get a most gentle response
the girl will be the death of me.

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