Posts Tagged ‘Welsh poetry’

Today I thought I would suspend my usual Friday post of the countdown of the 100 greatest songwriters as determined by Rolling Stone Magazine and post, instead, a poem by one of my favourite Welsh-language poets – Waldo Williams. The poem I have chosen has been in the news a bit this week as BBC Wales have used an English translation of it in their trailer for tomorrow’s (Saturday’s) big rugby showdown between England and Wales.

As anyone who knows anything about Wales will tell you, we are big on rugby. It has become our religion. We get pretty excited about any rugby international, but when it is against England (the old enemy), and by beating England we can both scupper their chances of a Grand Slam and put us in a position to win the 6 Nations Championship, then the excitement goes into overdrive.

But, more about the rugby later in this blogpost, first Waldo Williams and the poem.

Who was Waldo Williams?

I feel a bit of a connection with Waldo Williams as he was born in Haverfordwest where I grew up. Then, at 7 years of age, he moved with his family to Mynachlog Ddu in the Preseli mountains, a place where some of my ancestors on my paternal grandfather’s side of the family also lived. He spoke only English before he moved to Mynachlog Ddu; his father was a Welsh speaker but his mother spoke only English. As Mynachlog Ddu was (and still is) a Welsh-speaking community he quickly became fluent in Welsh; but apparently always spoke to his sister in English as that is the language in which they had started their relationship.


Waldo Williams (1904-1971) was a Welsh poet, anti-war campaigner and political activist who grew up in Mynachlog Ddu, Pembrokeshire

After graduating in English from the University College of of Wales, Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University) he became a teacher, and went on to become headmaster of the local school in Maenclochog (near Mynachlog Ddu). He became a Quaker in the 1950s, and during the Korean War he refused to pay his taxes as a protest against the war. For this refusal, he was sent to prison several times.

As a teenager I  had a poster of one of Waldo’s poems on my bedroom wall, a beautiful poem called Cofio, which I will have to blog about in the future. I also included two lines from his poem Preseli at the beginning of my PhD thesis back in 1992. These lines are

Mur fy mebyd, Foel Drigarn, Carn Gyfrwy, Tal Fynydd

Wrth fy nghefn ym mhob annibyniaeth barn

which I translated as

The Wall of my youth, Bare Three Cairns, Saddle Cairn, Tall Mountain,

Behind me in all my independence of opinion

(Foel Drigarn, Carn Gyfrwy and Tal Fynydd are three mountains one can see from Mynachlog Ddu). The same words are on the memorial stone to Waldo, which stands overlooking these three mountains of his youth. I quoted these lines at the start of my Thesis as it summed up, for me, what growing up in the rugged countryside of Pembrokeshire engenders in its people; an independence of opinion and a preparedness to choose the path less followed.


The memorial stone to Waldo, which stands overlooking the three mountains mentioned in the lines of his poem

Pa Beth yw Dyn?

Pa Beth yw Dyn? was published in Waldo’s only book of poetry, Dail Pren (The Leaves of the Tree), which came out in 1956.

Beth yw byw? Cael neuadd fawr
Rhwng cyfyng furiau
Beth yw adnabod? Cael un gwraidd
Dan y canghennau.

Beth yw credu? Gwarchod tref
Nes dyfod derbyn.
Beth yw maddau? Cael ffordd trwy’r drain
At ochr hen elyn.

Beth yw canu? Cael o’r creu
Ei hen athrylith.
Beth yw gweithio ond gwneud cân
O’r coed a’r gwenith?

Beth yw trefnu teyrnas? Crefft
Sydd eto’n cropian
A’i harfogi? Rhoi’r cyllyll
Yn llaw’r baban.

Beth yw bod yn genedl? Dawn
Yn nwfn y galon.
Beth yw gwladgarwch? Cadw ty
Mewn cwmwl tystion.

Beth yw’r byd i’r nerthol mawr?
Cylch yn treiglo.
Beth yw’r byd i blant y llawr?
Crud yn siglo.

Dr. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has done a translation of this poem, and it is his translation which is used in the BBC Wales trailer for tomorrow’s match. His translation reads

What is living? The broad hall found
between narrow walls.
What is acknowledging? Finding the one root
under the branches’ tangle.

What is believing? Watching at home
till the time arrives for welcome.
What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns
to stand alongside your old enemy.

What is singing? The ancient gifted breath
drawn in creating.
What is labour but making songs
from the wood and the wheat?

What is it to govern kingdoms? A skill
still crawling on all fours.
And arming kingdoms? A knife placed
in a baby’s fist.

What is it to be a people? A gift
lodged in the heart’s deep folds.
What is love of country? Keeping house
among a cloud of witnesses.

What is the world to the wealthy and strong? A wheel,
turning and turning.
What is the world to earth’s little ones? A cradle,
rocking and rocking.

This is an alternative translation by Tony Conran

To live, what is it? It’s having
A great hall between cramped walls.
To know another, what’s that? Having
The same root under the branches

To believe, what is it? Guarding a town
Until acceptance comes.
Forgiveness, what’s that? A way through thorns
To an old enemy’s side.

Singing, what is that? The ancient
Genius of the creation.
What’s work but making a song
Of the trees and the wheat?

To rule a kingdom, what’s that? A craft
That is crawling still.
And to arm it? You put a knife
In a baby’s hand.

Being a nation, what is it? A gift
In the depths of the heart.
Patriotism, what’s that? Keeping house
In a cloud of witnesses.

What’s the world to the strong?
Hoop a-rolling.
To the children of earth, what is it?
A cradle rocking.

The England v Wales BBC Trailer

Now, finally, tomorrow’s (Saturday’s) big rugby match between England and Wales. It is the fourth weekend of the 2016 6 Nations, and as things stand England and Wales are the only two undefeated sides. England have 3 wins from 3, and Wales have 2 wins and a draw from 3. The winner at Twickenham tomorrow is almost certainly going to win the 2016 Championship, so the stakes could not be higher.

Wales and England have played each other 127 times. Remarkably, both sides are incredibly even; England have won 58 times and Wales have won 57 times, with 12 matches drawn. Wales have beaten England more times since 2008, and the last time we played (at Twickenham) was when we helped dump England out of the  World Cup.

Wales v England results since 2008
Year Venue Competition Score Winner
2015 Twickenham 2015 Rugby World Cup 25-28 Wales
2015 Cardiff 2015 6 Nations 16-21 England
2014 Twickenham 2014 6 Nations 29-18 England
2013 Cardiff 2013 6 Nations 30-3 Wales
2012 Twickenham 2012 6 Nations 12-19 Wales
2011 Cardiff 2011 World Cup Warm Up Match 19-9 Wales
2011 Twickenham 2011 World Cup Warm Up Match 23-19 England
2011 Cardiff 2011 6 Nations 19-26 England
2010 Twickenham 2010 6 Nations 30-17 England
2009 Cardiff 2009 6 Nations 23-15 Wales
2008 Twickenham 2008 6 Nations 19-26 Wales

As this table shows, since 2008 Wales and England have played 11 times. Wales have won 6 times, England have won 5 times, and there have been no draws. It couldn’t be much closer!

Hopefully, with Wales having beaten England the last time they played, and it having been at Twickenham, Wales will have the edge tomorrow. I cannot wait for the match. And, to get you in the mood, here is the BBC Wales trailer, with Rowan Williams’ translation of Pa Beth Yw Dyn? read by Welsh actress Erin Richards…..


Erin Richards reading Waldo Williams’ poem Pa Beth Yw Dyn? (What is Man?), as translated by Rowan Williams

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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).

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.

The chairing of the bard

The chairing of the bard at the National Eisteddfod

I am yet to compose a single cynghanedd with which I am happy…..

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