Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dafydd Ap Gwilym

Dafydd ap Gwilym, slightly older than Chaucer, melded the tradition of courtly love poetry with innovation to traditional Welsh meter and rhyme.  Rachel Bromwich had written: "It is a general belief that poetry is untranslatable except at a cost of so great a loss as to call in question the reasons for ever attempting it.  Dafydd ap Gwilym's poetry is an extreme example of the validity of this interdiction, since his awdlau and cywyddau made their primary appeal to the ears of the original audiences: rarely - if ever - did these audiences see his poems in writing."  (Dafydd Ap Gwilym: A Selection Of Poems, Gomer Press, Llandysul, Dyfed, 1982).  Not to enter into a controversy about translation, especially since I believe it can be an invaluable labor of love, but medieval Welsh poetry is simply not possible to translate literally into a poetry in English.  And English was the oppressor's language - Dafydd having lived in the 14th century, "between the fall of Llywelyn and the rebellion of Owain Glyn Dwr." ("The Story of Dafydd ap Gwilym" by Gwyn Thomas with Illustrations by Margaret Jones - published by Y Lolfa, Talybont, 2004).  Of course one could attempt what Pound did in "Cathay" or what Blackburn did with "El Cid" or what Logue did with Homer.... There are some translations on the web,  published by The Swansea Project.   

He was the greatest, certainly the most well-known, medieval Welsh poet, though perhaps there are those who regard his colleague, friend and rival in the composition of cynghanedd and cywdd, Gruffudd Gryg, as his equal.   

Much of his poetry concerns love's frustrations; often the poems are self-deprecating, even sardonic; however, his irony is sometimes imbued with the beauty of the natural world, the forests of Wales, and the birds and beasts who live there, and his work uses racy and erotic language within the internal rhymes, stress, assonance, and alliterations of the cynghanedd, or harmony, as Dr. Bromwich had noted in her exceptional text: "Cynghanedd was an organic growth which like the cywydd itself, became permanently stablilized in its lasting form in the 14th century.  It had evolved slowly over the previous two centuries in the long lines of nine or ten or twelve syllables in the awdlau composed by the court poets who were Dafydd's predecessors."  She modestly asserts that her translations should be regarded as prose. 

Here are two very brief excerpts from her 1982 book (with an Introduction by Thomas Parry), which features the Welsh, interfacing.

from: The Girls of Llanbadarn  ("Merched Llanbadarn")

I am distraught with passion:
a plague on all the parish girls!
because I never - violation of trysts -
was able to win even one of them,
no maiden - a gentle request -
nor little maid, nor hag, nor wife.

What bashfulness is this, what mischief?
How have I failed, that they'll have none of me?
What harm, to lass with slender brows,
to meet me in the forest's thick-set dark?
No cause of shame to her
to see me in my leafy lair.


And when I have long surveyed
across my feathers, the people of my parish
one sweet tender lass will say
to her companion, lively, famous, wise:

"That grey-faced flirt of a boy
wearing in his head his sister's hair,
lascivious is the look he has,
he has a side-long glance, he must know mischief well."

"Is that how it is with him?"
the other by her side replies,
"He'll get no answer while the world endures,
to the devil with him, stupid thing!"

Shocking to me was the bright girls's curse,
a trifling payment for distracting love.
Needs must that I contrive to cease
this habit, with its tantalizing dreams.
It is imperative that I become
a hermit - job for a dejected man.
Because of ever looking - awful lesson -
over my shoulder, an image of distress,
it has befallen me, though poetry's friend,
to go wry-headed, without any mate.

And, in much the same vein, (but with angry final quatrain) from "Cyngor y Biogen" or "The Magpie's Advice"

I, the poet of a lissom girl
in the greenwood, joyful enough
yet weary-hearted from remembering her;
my spirit being refreshed within
for sheer joy of seeing the trees
with vital force, having donned new clothes
and the shoots of vine and wheat
after the sun-shot rain and dew,
and the green leaves, on the valley's brow,
and the thorn-tree, fresh, white-nosed.
By Heaven, there was also
the Magpie, most cunning bird in the world
building - lovely stratagem -
in the tangled crest of the thicket's core
an ambitious tenement of leaves and clay and lime,
and her mate was helping her.


The Magpie muttered - indictment of my anguish -
proud, sharp-beaked, upon a thorn-bush:
"Great is your fuss, a vain and bitter chant,
old man, all by yourself,
better it were for you, by Mary of eloquent fame,
to be beside the fire, you grey old man,
rather than here, amidst the dew and rain,
in the greenwood, in a chilly shower."

"Shut up, and leave me here in peace
if only for an hour, until my tryst.
It is my passion for a lovely, faithful girl
that causes me this tumult."

"It is but vain for you, servant of passion,
despicable grey old man, half imbecile;
-a foolish sign of the labour of love -
to rave about a sparkling girl."


"You Magpie, black your head,
help me, if you are so wise,
and give me the best advice
that you may know for my sore sickness."

"I would impart to you sound advice
before May comes, and do it, if you will.
You have no right, poet, to the handsome girl:
there is for you but one advice
since you are so deep in verses, become a hermit,
alas, you foolish man!  and love no more."

By my faith, God witness it,
if ever yet I see a Magpie's nest
from this time on, she will not have
God knows, either egg or fledgeling.