March 15, 2007

General Characteristics of Welsh Poetry

In 1848, the Blue Books Comissioner, Jelinger C. Symons claimed 'there is no Welsh literature worthy of the name'.

H.I. Bell notes how, just as Wales itself has assimilated foreign influences, so has its poetry. It is ‘dominated […] by tradition’ (in form and content) and it retains ‘a technical mastery and a concentrated force’ (2). Bell also notices Welsh poetry’s ‘lyrical quality’ and also its production of ‘compositions of an epical, romantic, dramatic, philosophical or didactic character’ (4). The preference though on the whole is for the lyric.

Bell makes a criticism of Welsh poetry suggesting that ‘image is added to image, fancy piled on fancy, in a rich jewellery of verbal felicity, but in which we feel the want of any organic progression of thought or feeling’ (5). This generalisation is really too general!

However, Bell does hit the mark when he suggests that Welsh poetry displays, ‘a peculiar sensitiveness to the music of words’ (5). Bell writes: ‘The chime and clash of rhythm, alliteration and assonance, the interplay of vowel and consonant, have been pursued with unfailing zest. sometimes to the detriment of sense and structural quality’ (6). Bell suggests that cynghanedd may appear ‘to an Englishman extravagantly complicated and artificial’, but he argues that the form is inestricably allied to the Welsh language. It represents, ‘a love of accomplished and eloquent speech’ as in the case of the peculiar speaking manner (hwyl) of the Welsh preacher (6).

Welsh poets supposedly have a ‘love of nature’ and can intuit its ‘various moods’ (6). However nature is more often, ‘the background’ and is not ‘the primary theme’ as is the case in some English poetry, yet Welsh poetry does manifest ‘a peculiar responsiveness’ to it (6). Nature is the poet’s companion and fellow-traveller. Bell wonders whether it is a Celtic influence that creates this ‘sensibility to natural influences (7). In any case, Welsh poets are often able to ‘bring human moods into relation with those of nature’ in ‘a relation […] of either contrast or sympathy’ (8). The kinds of nature that appear in Welsh poetry are often ‘softer landscapes and more intimate aspects of nature’ rather than wildernesses (11). Poets of the nineteenth century are he exception to this rule thouh, as they do celebrate ‘the storm and wilder aspects of nature’ (11).

Another aspect of Welsh poetry is ‘the gnomic style and the epigram’ encouraged by the cywydd metre which creates ‘terse and effective statement’ and by the englyn (11). Bell compares the cywydd with Pope’s heroic couplet.

In terms of temperament, Welsh writers do not necessarily manifest ‘a [stereotypical Celtic] gentle and wistful melancholy’ according to Bell. In medieval times, the Welsh people were apparently, ‘warlike, buoyant, gay and sensuous’ (another rather distasteful stereotype!) (12). Bell notes that in modern times, Methodist and Calvinist influences and an Iberian section of the population (!) may have contributed to a class of poet, ‘sprung from a poor peasantry, often winning such education as they had in the teeth of difficulties and during a life of ill-health and privation’ (another stereotype) (12).

Bell is more at home in talking about Hiraeth, which is often a theme of Welsh poetry. Hiraeth refers to a ‘longing for home’, a desire that can never be truly fulfilled because it quests ‘for dead friends, vanished youth, the peace of Heaven, some satisfaction which life can never give’ (13). Bell links the loss of Hiraeth to the spirit of the Celts and again, he tends towards speculation:

When this note of wistfulness is united with the delicacy of conception and the power of bare, direct, seeming-effortless and yet infinitely significant expression which are characteristic gifts of Welsh poetry the resulting verses are at times quite heartrending in their perfect simplicity. […] The Celts are eternal children of a later age, and in some of the Welsh poems we have a feeling that the author is looking with unacquainted eyes at a new world, coming for the first time, and with wondering incomprehension, into the presence of sorrow and death. (15)

This is rather whimsical but it was written in 1936 when views about the Celts and the Welsh were certainly less progressive. It does seem rather like positive discrimination or stereotyping. There is also the very telling description of the Welsh as children. As the academic Susan Bassnett has shown, all too often English imperialism has figured the Scottish, Irish and Welsh as feral and helpless children in need of England’s adult guidance.

Bell, H.I. The Development of Welsh Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936.

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