The Poetry of Dafydd Ap Gwilym – The Nightingale of Dyfed

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Dafydd ap Gwilym was described by his fellow-poet Madog Benfras as eos Dyfed, “the nightingale of Dyfed”. Dafydd was born sometime between 1320 and 1330 and died around 1380. He was a member of one of the most influential families in South Wales, and was buried at Strata Florida like many of the princes of Dyfed. Consequently he felt no need to look up to the English conquerors. Neither was he dependent on the patronage of noble families, unlike most of his contemporaries. This was to have a profound effect on the subject matter of his poetry, which is lighter, and more playfully risqué than the other works of his age.

It is believed that he was educated in the court of his Uncle Llywelyn ap Wilym ab Einion, a man of great learning. He was to be surrounded by the greatest European works of the time, from which he borrows a great deal of his subject matter and style. Dafydd skilfully ties this in with the Welsh tradition – a master of ‘cynghanedd’ and the ‘awdl’ he was to create works of great beauty and merit. His poems are often merry and playful. His tales of the adventures experienced whilst trying to court young ladies, Morfudd and Dyddgu in particular, are truly hilarious. Dafydd also wrote extremely beautiful nature poetry, and there is a general consensus that he is one of, if not the greatest of Welsh poets and of European stature.

Dafydd ap Gwilym, Wales’ greatest poet (and lover!), is a fascinating yet shadowy figure from the past. He was born in the early part of the fourteenth century, a contemporary of Boccaccio and some thirty years older than Chaucer. He spent his early years in Llanbadarn with his parents and with his uncle Llywelyn in Castell Newydd Emlyn. He spent much of his later life in exile, and, so popular belief has it, was buried in Strata Florida, near Tregaron. Llywelyn was described by Dafydd as a warrior, as Lord of Dyfed, and also as a poet, a scholar, a linguist and a teacher. Llywelyn and Dafydd were learned and cultured: they probably spoke several languages and were versed in both contemporary and in classical literature. Dafydd describes Llywelyn’s house, Cryngae, as a white-washed house perched on a hill, with lamps burning brightly, with seats covered with silk brocade, and in which fine French wine was drunk from cups of gold.

I took the above from an old file of mine, that I put together many years ago, and unfortunately the links no longer work – sadly, the link to the notes below no longer works either! It is regrettable that I cannot credit the work and words to their rightful owners.

His family originated from the cantref of Cemais in Pembrokeshire, and it had in earlier generations included several officials who had held positions of high authority in the same area under the English crown. The few datable allusions which Dafydd makes to contemporary events all point to the middle years of the 14th century as his period of maximum poetic output: he may thus have been born about 1320 – a slightly older contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Tradition places Dafydd’s birth at Brogynin in the parish of Llanbadarn Fawr, a few miles north-east of Aberystwyth, in a substantial mansion or plasty which lay adjacent to a farmhouse still retaining this name. It is believed that he lies buried not far away, near Pontrhydfendigaid, within the precincts of the monastery of Strata Florida. Several poems indicate that the neighbourhood of Aberystwyth and north Ceredigion was more familiar to Dafydd than any other part of Wales, yet he appears to have travelled widely throughout the length and breadth of the country, and to have been well-acquainted with places in Anglesey such as the borough of Rhosyr or Newborough, and with Bangor and Caernarfon in Gwynedd. He may also have visited Chester, whose famous Cross is the subject of a poem which has latterly come to be accepted as belonging to the canon of his work; but there is no indication other than this that Dafydd ever travelled beyond the borders of Wales.

He describes himself, no doubt fancifully, as a member of the clêr: these were the Welsh equivalents of the clerici vagantes or “wandering scholars” of other countries, and Dafydd may indeed have qualified at an early period in his life for minor religious orders – a not uncommon practice. But the indications are that he was a man of birth and breeding, and of no fixed occupation, who had sufficient means to travel at will through town and country, visiting the taverns in the Norman boroughs, and the homes of his cultivated friends over a wide area of Wales. And in both tavern and plasty there were no doubt to be found audiences fully capable of appreciating the cywyddau which, in their different kinds, he composed for their entertainment.

Dafydd’s range of personal contacts included his fellow-poet Gruffudd ab Adda, Madog Benfras, and Gruffudd Gryg – the last being an Anglesey poet with whom Dafydd exchanged a sequence of cywyddau in the form of a debate concerning the proper subjects to be treated of in the newly-introduced cywydd verse-form. Among his friends and acquaintances were also uchelwyr or men of hereditary station in Ceredigion and further to the south – men such as Rhydderch ab Ieuan Llwyd of Glyn Aeron and his family, and his uncle Llywelyn ap Gwilym, the constable of Newcastle Emlyn, who appears to have been a powerful educational influence upon the poet’s early life. Dafydd’s uncle may, perhaps, have been the first to have introduced Dafydd to the “two cultures” – that is to the native bardic tradition as well as to the language and poetry and romances of the Anglo-Norman world. There was in addition Dafydd’s friend and patron Ifor ap Llywelyn or “Ifor Hael” of Basaleg in present-day Gwent. To all of these men he addressed praise-poems which by the very fact of their existence provide an authentic framework, however exiguous and inadequate, for the bare facts of the poet’s life. For in all his other compositions but these few poems, fantasy intermingles with fact to such an extent that it is impossible to distinguish the one from the other, or to estimate the degree of reality which lies behind what Dafydd ruefully presents as his perpetually thwarted love-affairs.

Love and Nature are the prime subjects of his poetry, and the two are very frequently blended, for he presents his love-theme most characteristically in an idealised woodland setting, in which he imagines himself as building a deildy or house of leaves and branches in which to shelter with his chosen sweetheart – “Morfudd” or “Dyddgu” or some other un-named girl, making his retreat with her in the wilderness, as an escape from the hampering restrictions of conventional society.

There is a website dedicated to his work, and it can be a little fiddly to navigate initially, but it’s easy once you familiarise yourself with it. There is a choice of language on the home page, so for English speakers, select English. Then select “The Poems”. You are then asked to choose a poem, and there is a drop down list, but the list is in Welsh! Once you select the poem however, there are options along the bottom of the page; one of which is “English Translation”. On selecting this option, the poem is shown in Welsh on the left hand side of the page, and in English on the right. For non-Welsh speakers, it’s pretty much pot luck selecting the verse, but as his verse is very beautiful, you can’t go wrong.

http://www.dafyddapgwilym.net/index_eng.php
Here is one example: The Wind from

Sky-wind, unhindered course,
mighty commotion passing yonder,
you are a harsh-sounding minstrel,
4 world’s fool without foot or wing.
It’s amazing how wondrously you were sent
from the pantry of the sky without any feet,
and how swiftly you run
8 now across the hilltop on high

Constant hymn, tell me your destination,
you north wind of the valley.
You fly the length and breadth of the world,
12 hilltop weather, be on high tonight,
oh man, and go to Uwch Aeron
nice and gently, a clear song.
Don’t wait, don’t restrain yourself,
16 don’t be afraid despite Bwa Bach,
[he who] serves a malicious accusatory complaint.
The land and its nurture is closed to me.

[One who] steals nests, though you winnow leaves
20 no one indicts you, you are not restrained
by any swift troop, nor officer’s hand,
nor blue blade nor flood nor rain.
No mother’s son can kill you (false expression),
24 fire won’t burn you, deceit won’t weaken you.
You won’t drown, you’ve been forewarned,
you won’t get entangled, you are smooth.
There’s no need for any swift horse beneath you,
28 or bridge over estuary, nor boat.
No official or retinue will arrest you
to bring you to judgement, winnower of treetop foliage.
No eyesight can see you, huge open lair,
32 thousands hear you, nest of the great rain.

You are God’s blessing over all the earth,
roaring, fierce shattering of oaktree tops,
swift-natured notary of the sky,
36 fine leaper over many barren lands.
Dry nature, powerful creature,
trampler of the sky, immense journey,
shooter on snowfields up above,
40 noisy disperser of chaff-heaps,
storm agitating the sea,
high-spirited lad on beach waves,
you are a fine author of an awdl who scatters snow,
44 you are a scatterer, a pursuer of leaves,
free laugher [on] hilltop,
thruster of the wild-masted white-breasted sea.

Woe is me that I placed deep love
48 on Morfudd, my golden girl.
A maiden made me an exile,
run on high to her father’s house.
Knock on the door, make it open
52 to my messenger before daybreak,
and seek a way to her, if there be one,
and sing the voice of my sigh.
You come from the splendid stars,
56 say this to my noble faithful maid:
as long as I be in the world,
I am a true servant.
Woeful is my face without her,
60 if it is true that she is not untrue.
Go up on high, you will see the fair girl,
go down below, sky’s favourite.
Go to fair-haired Morfudd Llwyd,
64 come back safely, you are the sky’s treasure.
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