Image from BL Egerton MS 3028, fol. 25r, appears by permission of the British Library

Medieval Welsh Poetry

 

 

Siân Echard, University of British Columbia

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“There are two strands, or three. A fascination that Welsh names had for me, even if only seen on coal-trucks, from childhood is another; though people only gave me books that were incomprehensible to a child when I asked for information. I did not learn any Welsh till I was an undergraduate, and found in it an abiding linguistic-aesthetic satisfaction.”

“The ‘Sindarin’, a Grey-elven language, is in fact constructed deliberately to resemble Welsh phonologically and to have a relation to High-elven similar to that existing between British (properly so-called, sc. the Celtic languages spoken in this island at the time of the Roman Invasion) and Latin.” [J.R.R. Tolkien]

Tolkien had a lifelong fascination with Welsh (among many languages), and so our syllabus includes examples of medieval Welsh prose and poetry. This page offers a brief introduction to Welsh poetic forms, along with links to texts and translations of the poems on the syllabus. It also points you towards some further online resources for the study of medieval Welsh.

 

In early Welsh poetry, lines are reckoned not by syllables but by feet. Accent becomes important in the system of cynghanedd (outlined further below), but this system was not fully developed until the 14th century.

There are three principal early verse forms. The earliest is the awdl/ odl (plural awdlei/ odlei), defined by the number of syllables in the line. It may or may not have rhyme and/ or alliteration.

The cywydd, sometimes seen as a branch of the awdl, is a non-stanzaic form which usually has 7 syllables in a line. There are 2 common rhyme patterns. One is the couplet, in which couplet rhymes must alternate between masculine and feminine (stressed and unstressed). The other is a variation, in which odd-numbered lines rhyme with the middle of even-numbered lines, and even-numbered lines rhyme with each other.

The englyn (plural englynion) is still the most popular Welsh metre. It was the preferred form in the early Middle Ages, and had two main types: englyn milwr (3 lines of equal length, usually 7 syllables; normally with end-rhyme); and englyn penfyr (3 lines of 9-11, 5-6, and 7 syllables; usually the end of the second and third lines rhyme with 3 syllables back from the end of the first line).

Rhyme could be ordinary, or half-rhyme, proest. In this latter form of rhyme, the final consonant is identical and preceding vowels are of the same class. Sometimes, Irish rhyme was used: the vowels are the same, and consonants must be of the same class.

The form called cynghanedd, from the word for “a chiming,” has several variations, all involving internal repetitions of some kind.

Cynghanedd groes (cross): consonants of the first part of the line are repeated in the second:

Teg edrydr tuag adref

Cynghanedd draws (traversing) : the line is in two parts, and each consonant in the first part must be answered by the same consonants in the same order in the second part; the vowels should differ:

gwae fi na bawn dan gefyn bedd

Cynghanedd lusg (trailing): this form uses internal rhyme: the last syllable of the first part rhymes with the penultimate syllable of the line:

Caphen y gras o asur

Cynghanedd sain (sonorous): the line is in 3 parts, with the last syllable of the first part rhyming with the last of the second part, and the second part alliterating to the third:

Ny bydd gynlun hun a haint

Welsh poetry sometimes uses cymeriad (cf English stanza-linking), the repetition of a significant word or words from the last line of an englyn in the first line of the next. Another form of this kind of linking was to repeat a first line, often with a verb form, subject to ornamental variation.

 
Read Stafell Gynddylan Read Diffaith Aelwyd Rheged
Read selections from Y Gododdin Remember our Welsh Triads page
See The Black Book of Carmarthen, a manuscript dating to around 1250 but preserving many poems relating to the heroes of Britain in the Dark Ages See The Book of Taliesin, a collection of some of the oldest poems in Welsh: the manuscript dates to the early 14th century, but the material includes poems in praise of Urien Rheged and his son Owain ab Urien, figures of the 6th century
See The Red Book of Hergest, the most comprehensive collection of medieval Welsh poetry and prose See The Hendregadredd Manuscript, the earliest collection of the works of the Welsh court poets, called the Gogynfeirdd, who worked from the early 12th to the 14th centuries
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