A few weeks ago my 15-year old son was given an assignment in English – to write about what it meant to be Welsh. He asked my father how my father would answer the question, and he also asked me.
I wasn’t able to give a simple answer, but amongst the many things I said was that if one were to read R. S. Thomas‘ poem “Welsh Landscape“, or T. H. Parry-Williams‘ poem “Hon“, being Welsh means one can understand and identify with what the poets are trying to say in these poems. One poem I forgot to mention at the time was this one, “Fy Ngwlad” (My Country), a poem by Gerallt Lloyd Owen. I showed it to my son yesterday, and I thought I would share it here.
“Fy Ngwlad” was written in 1969, and was meant to be a wake-up call to Welsh people, during a year when many Welsh people felt our identity was being insulted by the investiture of the Queen’s eldest son Charles as “Prince of Wales”. The naming of the eldest son of the English monarch as “Prince of Wales” is a tradition that goes back to Edward I, who was the English king who killed the last native prince of Wales, Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn the Last), in 1282, essentially defeating Wales and ending Wales’ existence as an independent country. The poem is one in a volume of poetry entitled “Cerddi’r Cywilydd” (Poems of the Shame).
The opening lines, which are available here, are:
Wylit, wylit, Lywelyn,
Wylit waed pe gwelit hyn.
Ein calon gan estron ŵr,
Ein coron gan goncwerwr,
A gwerin o ffafrgarwyr
Llariaidd eu gwên lle’r oedd gwŷr.
My translation of these lines are:
You would cry, you would cry, Llywelyn,
You would cry blood if you saw this.
Our hearts in the hands of a foreign man,
Our crown in the hands of a conquerer,
And a peasant-folk of favour givers
Meek their smile, where men used to be.
The poem is in a form of poetry known as “cywydd“. A “cywydd” is a poem with rhyming couplets, and you can see that in the 6 lines I have quoted above. But, a “cywydd” is a lot more than that, it is also written in “cynghanedd“, which is a very ancient (dating back to the 6th Century at least), strict form of poetry which is unique to Wales. There are many types of cynghanedd, but a line of cynghanedd must be 7 syllables, and follow certain other rules.
For example, the cynghanedd in the first line
Wylit, Wylit, Lywelyn
is an example of a “cynghanedd sain“. In this type of cynghanedd, the line naturally breaks into three parts, and the end of the first part rhymes with the end of the second part. In addition, the consonants in the second part match the consonants in the third part – so in this line the “l” in “wylit” is matched by the “l” in “Lywelyn” (“w” and “y” are vowels in Welsh, and it is not necessary to match the consonants in the last syllable of any part of the line).
Ein coron gan goncwerwr
is a different type of cynghanedd. This is an example of a “cynghanedd draws“. In this type of cynghanedd, the line breaks naturally into 2 parts, which in this line is after the word “coron”. The consonants in the first part of the line are “n c r” and they are matched by the “n c r” in the word “goncwerwr”, with the consonants “g n” in the word “gan” and the “g” at the beginning of “goncwerwr” being skipped over (hence the name of this type of cynghanedd – draws, which means “across”, one can go across or skip over these consonants).
The last one I will explain (otherwise I will be here all day) is the line
Llariaidd eu gwên lle’r oedd gwŷr.
This line breaks naturally after the word “gwên”. The consonants in the first half are “Ll r dd g w” (one can “ignore the last consonant “n” as it is in the last syllable of the word at the end of the first part of the line). The consonants in the 2nd half of the line, which are “ll r dd g w” match those in the first half! This type of cynghanedd is called “cynghanedd groes“.
As I said above, cynghanedd is an ancient form of strict Welsh meter, and to win the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod one must write a poem which is written entirely in cynghanedd. Some people seem to be able to dream in cynghanedd, and often the poems which win the Chair in the Eisteddfod are hundreds of lines of cynghanedd long.
I am yet to compose a single cynghanedd with which I am happy…..