March 07, 2007

The Position of the Poet in Welsh Society

Dafydd ap Gwylim

In his study, An Introduction to Welsh Poetry, Gwyn Williams begins by studying the position of the poet in Welsh society. He suggests that there is a difference between attitudes about poets in England and Wales. He suggests that the English regard the poet as ‘dreamy or fantastic, unpractical and useless’, while in Wales, poets are regarded with’ an attitude of respect’ (1). This is a huge generalisation – many kinds of English poetic traditions exist – but there may be something in the claim that in Wales the poet’s role is primarily to serve the community. Williams tries to explain this by suggesting that the concentration of poets in Wales is larger. These poets may not necessarily be ‘professionals’ but they are poets with a social role in the community nonetheless: ‘A village as little as Ffair Rhos in Cardiganshire today boasts of several poets and a man whose farming is criticised by the agricultural authorities replies in scathing verse which is repeated in bus and tavern’ (1).

Williams traces the roots of Welsh poetry back to the sixth century and the poets Taliesin, Aneurin and also Llywarch Hen. He notes that there were three kinds of poets in the noble household:
• the penkerdd or chief poet, ‘in the immediate entourage of the king or prince’, who would sing to the king, ‘two songs of God and one of princes’ (8);
• the bardd teulu or house (literally ‘family’) poet was, ‘one of twenty-four officers of the court’, who lodged with the king’s doctor, who sang Unbeinyaeth Prydain (‘The Sovereignty of Britain’) on the day of battle, who sang songs to the king and queen, to noblemen and to churls and who dealt with the legal duties of the house (taxes, fines etc.)(8);
• and the cerddor or mistrel-jongleur who was part of the retinue of the king.

However after English law began to overtake Wales (around 1536), no one system applied throughout Wales. Williams explains that poets became, ‘closer to the wandering poets of France’ (11). Women began to be poets too such as Gwerfyl Mechain. In the sixteenth century, Welsh poets would change again into, ‘the gentleman writer of occasional verse’ but by the eighteenth century, it was clear that the Welsh tradition had persisted through Welsh scholars and parsons (13). Williams explains: ‘Some rustic poets still studied the classical metres and not, in this century of antiquarianism, as a rediscovery of the past, but in a direct and in some cases still traceable line of tutelage from the great practitioners of the fourteenth century’ (15).

Williams thinks that the role of the poet in Welsh society today is not so different from the place of the eighteenth century Welsh poet. He paints an idyllic picture of the passion for poetry in Wales:

In the English-speaking South Wales town where I was bred tradesmen and master craftsmen and workmen studied the rules of versification and one of my early memories is of a coal merchant and my father composing englynion before the fire on a winter’s evening. A young man I met recently at a railway station spoke no Welsh himself but, hearing me talk Welsh to my companion, offered to repeat a stanza he had learnt from his father and which I have never seen recorded. A barmaid at Tregaron capped my englyn with another and the country road surveyor had to read the copies I had made of fourteenth century cywyddau at the National Library. When I recited to a friend of mine, headmaster of a West Wales school, the epitaph of a seventeenth century bishop, he repeated it to a bank manager who next morning passed it to a solicitor and a shopkeeper, so that in a day or so it was being told in all its bright paganism all over the little town. (16-17)

Williams concludes that the role of the poet in Welsh tradition has had two strands: ‘the strict conventions of the chief poet and house poet passing on to the priest and scholar’ and ‘the freer tradition of the minstrel and the wandering singer persisting in the work of the village rhymester’, two roles that, ‘have probably never been quite distinct, and they are happily not so today’ (17).

Williams, Gwyn. An Introduction to Welsh Poetry. London: Faber, 1953.

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