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How ancient poetry could help Wales understand its modern cultural identity


What does it mean to be Welsh today? Is it being born in Wales, having Welsh family, or simply a matter of living there? It can be hard for a person of any culture to specifically define what makes up their identity but, for the Welsh – who have hundreds of years as well as multiple layers of culture to work through – it can be particularly tricky.

One defining aspect of Welsh culture that all would agree on is the country’s strong relationship with its literature. Wales’s rolling, lyrical language is one that has lent itself well to song and poetry for centuries – so much so that it has become interwoven with the people’s identity, whether they realise it or not.

Historians can point to a lot of the events that have made the country what it is today. But defining what has led to the contemporary Welsh cultural identity is not quite so simple. So, to explore this idea, I am using Welsh poetic forms and metre.

Poetry has been at the heart of Welsh culture since medieval times, with the earliest known examples dating back to the fifth and sixth century. Poets of the medieval period earned their respect in blood and words – and the Welsh writers Aneirin and Taliesin were no different. Their poetry chiefly depicted glory and defeat in battle, as they followed their royal patron to war.

Take, for example this line from from Marwnad Owain ab Urien, by Taliesin, which roughly translates to, “The wide host of England sleeps with the light in their eyes”.

Cysgid Lloegr llydan nifer
a lleufer yn eu llygaid.

Now, Wales is going through a less embattled time, but the lasting legacy of the 24 Welsh poetic forms still connects the country to the past. A line of cynghanedd, for example, – a poetic metre unique to Welsh which uses the language’s consonantal repetition and syllabic stress – is a living history, and not just in terms of the words that are set to it.

Translating metre

Each of the Welsh poetic forms and metre is notoriously difficult to write in the English language – in fact many believe that writing these forms and metre in English is almost impossible to accomplish well or accurately. They would have a sound argument, but accuracy is not the most important thing here. Rather, it is engagement with the learning of the craft and the characteristics of Welsh poetic forms and metre which identify them as Welsh.

Anglo-Welsh poetry is an established part of Welsh poetic history and includes contributions from English poets as well as international writers who have settled in Wales. Lynette Roberts, for example, was an Argentinian poet who used Welsh poetic forms and metre in her poetry. Perhaps one of the more well known examples of Welsh poetics in the English language, is Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill:

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Like the poets who have used cynghanedd in English poems, I strongly believe that it is possible to use variations of Welsh poetic forms and metre to create poetry in the English language, and that it is important that we start encouraging more English poems using cynghanedd.

The craft of Welsh poetic forms and metre has the potential to take the listener on a journey through the history, landscape, culture and mythology of Wales. By using it in English poems, it is possible to redefine a contemporary national Welsh poetic voice that can be used in several languages. It is not about developing a singular poetic voice that is considered to be Welsh, but giving poets a lens which links them to the country’s collective roots through which they can focus their experiences of Welsh cultural identity.

Exploring Welsh cultural identity using this type of poetry could potentially facilitate a new, national conversation about cultural identity. By promoting the forms and metre, we can begin to address the cultural disengagement and isolation which exists within certain individuals and groups who live in Wales. It could help to create a platform where different perspectives could contribute to a discussion on cultural identity that is more in keeping with a modern, multicultural Wales.

These kinds of discussions have the potential to challenge our ideas of cultural identity by nurturing roots outside of the Welsh language in order to embrace those who exist on its borders. By melding modern Welsh culture with the ancient traditions of rhyme and verse, Wales can embrace its changing national identity while still honouring its past.

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