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How the Welsh developed their own form of poetry

How the Welsh developed their own form of poetry

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A world without poetry would be a dire thing indeed. From Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle Do not go gentle into that good night to Shakespeare’s famous love sonnet parody, Sonnet 130, the forms of these writings, just as much as the words and phrases, have become a large part of literary history and culture.

As well-known as these intricate styles may be, over many centuries the people of Wales developed a unique set of patterns all of their own. Unlike most English language forms, these focus on the sounds produced within a line and the echoes left after, rather than just on the words themselves.

In total, there are 24 Welsh poetic forms and four metres. The forms have a tendency to be quite short – an Englyn Milwr, for example, was a form used by soldiers to send short messages home during World War I. Sometimes referred to as a British haiku, every verse is composed of three lines, each seven syllables long, all of which rhyme with each other. Though the expressive lines do lend it certain similarities to the Japanese style, the Englyn has a very Welsh identity. Rhyme is an integral aspect of Welsh poetic forms and so, unlike the haiku, each of a verse’s three lines is monorhymed, that is they end in the same rhyme.

Harmonious lines

To create and maintain harmony within a line, strict Welsh metres, known as “cynghanedd”, are used. The cynghanedd have more in common with music than traditional poetry, and like a piece of music it is made up of more than just one note. In fact, in order to fully appreciate a line of cynghanedd you should read it aloud and listen to the layers of sounds that roll off the tongue.

They achieve this lyrical metre by practising something called “consonantal harmony”. This is unique to Wales because the language effortlessly uses cynghanedd in everyday life: consonantal repetition is part of the landscape of the Welsh language.

A line of cynghanedd is written with an invisible break or caesura in the middle that divides the line, for instance: X X X | X X X X. The cynghanedd is traditionally made up of seven syllables, so here “X” represents each syllable in a line.

Welsh is a heavily syllabic language with the stress usually falling on the penultimate syllable. Take this line from Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas for example, where the “th” and “s” make up the harmony:

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

As Welsh can be a tricky language to master, this example is included despite the fact that Thomas’s knowledge of the cynghanned is debatable. Still, the line is a strong if unintentional example of the metre. A true Welsh language cynghanned example for comparison would be the following, from Dic Jones’s poem Cefn Gwlad:

“I fyw yn glos wrth gefn gwlad”

Translated into English, the line reads, “To live close to nature”, which doesn’t have quite the same effect.

There are four types of cynghanedd or metres: lusg (echoing harmony), draws (bridging harmony), sain (sonorous harmony) and groes (criss-cross harmony). Although they achieve the metre in different ways, their principles are basically the same: the consonants that appear in the first part of the line must appear in the same order in the second, as shown above.

History through verse

These forms remain widely popular in Wales, but to understand why such complexity is necessary, it is important to understand where the poetic forms and metres originate from: they are intrinsically intertwined with the Welsh language. As Welsh developed so did they, coming into their own particularly during the 12th century.

Poets who had mastered the cynghanedd during this century were hailed as “pencerdds”, chiefs-of-song. It would take approximately nine years to master the forms and metres required. In recognition of his position, the pencerdd was granted a special chair in the royal court. There were other poetic positions within the royal household, too, such as bardd teulu – poet to the household – an officer of the court tasked with the duty of performing his work to the queen. The lowest position was that of the musician, the cerddor.

All of these roles had one very important function: they were chroniclers and archivists. It was their responsibility to ensure that the great feats of the king and all his battles were remembered and recited long after he had passed. Reading and writing was enjoyed by a privileged few which made passing down stories a tricky profession. The repetition of sounds in the cynghanedd ensured the poetry was memorable.

Continuing cynghanedd

The way that the metre forms each poem connects it almost exclusively to the Welsh language: it would be very difficult to recreate the same harmony and balance between a line’s consonants in English or any other language in exactly the same way.

Welsh poetic forms and metres are grandiloquent, challenging and dense, which is great for praising a king and narrating stories. Modern poetry has moved beyond this form-led poetry to a more open style – after all, not many want to read a poem where they can guess the next rhyme – but these poetic forms and metre still have their place in the country. Each year, the words and lines of these poems are brought to life at the National Eisteddfod music and poetry festival, which remains a large part of Welsh culture.

The modern expectations of English poetry have changed, but the centuries-old Welsh poems emphasise that their writing is an ancient craft, and can bring life to the tales of times long ago in a way no other tongue ever could.