Saturday, 3 July 2010


The supreme genius of the English language proclaimed that " the lunatic, the lover and the poet of imagination all compact", and it is clearly difficult to define a poet or bard, versifier or rhymster. The Poet Laureate has been described as a mere " Versifier Royal " and his office has included such notables in their own way as Alfred Tennyson, Alfred Austin, C.Day-Lewis and John Betjeman. Not only are we in difficulty in defining a poet, but doubly so in the term "Welsh poet" - be he again prydydd, bardd or rhigywr. The world at large generally assumes that Dylan Thomas was a Welsh poet- after all he was Welsh and he was a poet. So were Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, Vernon Watkins, Alun Lewis and even Edward Thomas, but they chose to write in English - their medium and their message was English, and thus they were essentially English poets and were virtually outside the Welsh literary and poetic tradition. I know that the Scots would hardly consider Robert Burns to be a Sassenach poet ( he did write in English)- perhaps they would compromise by calling him a Lallans poet, or more non-committally in the meaningless term, a British Poet. And then again was Yeats an Irish poet, when his fame as a poet rests on his English poetry but who was of a mixed French-Irish ancestry? There is no difficulty about calling Richard Wilson a Welsh painter or Alan Ramsey a Scots painter or Benjamin Britten an English composer, but when the medium of artistic expression is the spoken or written word in a language, then we must surely confine the term "Welsh poet" to those who use the medium of the Welsh lanuage.
That language is one of the oldest languages of Western Europe, and the earliest examples of its poetry date from the sixth century; it is truly remarkable that those ancient sixth century epics are comprehensible to the educated Welshman of today.Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic, dates from the eighth century but is basically Germanicand noe reads like a foreign tongue. If English literature, as we know it,began with Chaucher, then Welsh literature in comparison is of hallowed antiquity indeed. At least over the fourteen centuries of its tenacious if nowtenuous existence, Welsh poetry - apart from its inherent artistic values and beauty- abounds with social commentaries, reflecting the political and cultural evolution of Wales in the manner of all national literatures. And even more so in Wales, since the poet here has always enjoyed the sympathy and the acclaim of his fellow countrymen to a far greater extent than in England. He in turn has been everready with the judgements, praises and castigations that have been expected of him.
The internal evidence of some poetic compositions sheds light on the poets' own infirmities, and their incidence. We know, from the format of their paintings, that Cezanne, Renoir, Pisarro and Degas were all myopic, that El Greco was a stigmatic, and that John Constable was partially colou-blind. The ebb and flow of William Cowper's and John Clare's poetic geniuses indicate their manic-depressive state- episodic melancholia was a common eighteenth century affliction. Some of their contemporaries in eighteenth century Wales followed the same clinical fashion, Lewis Morris and Ieuan Fardd, both suffered from hypochondria, "the spleen". William Thomas (Islwyn), the poet of Gwent, followed suit in the nineteenth century and with him a whole corpus of mid-Victorian Welsh versifiers, obsessed with death, in the manner of John Donne, and generally referred to as the "Cemetery School". The fashionable addiction to laundenham in the early nineteenth century influenced the poetry of Coleridge and the prose of De Quincey; it also kindled the fervid imagination of Iolo Morganwg, the 'onlie begetter' of the Gorsedd of the Bards at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Again, the physical infirmaties of the bards, may have contributed to their inspiraiotn; it is conceivable that Byron's talipes equinvarus influenced his political and poetic heroics, that Pope's spinal deformity contributed to his waspish epigrammatic quips. In Wales we are historically fortunate in that the character and the physical peculiarites of the bards were often evident in their names and epithets; to distinguish all the Joneses and Thomases of today we must have Jones the Milk and Thomas the Tax, and they have their poetic counterparts for Gruffydd Gryg, the sixteenth century Welsh poet was evidently 'cryg', a stammerer. Presumably both the 'Gwargam' and Daffydd Gam had congenital kyphosis. Llefored Wynepglaw had the flat face of Lupus, syphilis or leprosy; Ithel Grach presumably suffered fronm an exfoliative disease, possibly psoriasis.
But we must turn to the poems themselves-the vast majority of them in systemised alliterative verse, 'cynghanedd', that has characterised Welsh poetry from the beginning-for the eclectic facts of interest to the medical historian The earliset of these, in general, would only excite the military medical historian, referring as they do to the nasty, brutish, and short lives of the peasantry in tribal society. The Anglo-Saxon 'maldon' poem of the tenth century, the French 'Chanson de Roland' of the eleventh century, and the Icelandic sagas, all have common ground with the early Welsh epics of Aneurin and Taliesin and others of similar vintage. Deaths in battle are commonplace, entrails hang festooned on gorse bushes, 'Angeu a gawsant a mynych goddiant' (Death they have suffered and frequent pain). Heads cut off by the hundred ('Vi a leddis cant pen'.) But among these insistent sanguinary pageants the occasional gem such as the picture of ageing, which must have been an uncommon experience in those days, in the llywarchy Hen poems of about the seventh century. In a picture reminiscent of a Durer engraving, an old man admits 'wyf cefngrwm, wyf trwm, wyf truan'. ( I am bent, heavy and wretched) and his @pedwar prif casethau' (his four great hates) are 'pas, henaint, haint a hoed'(a cough, old age, disease and longing). His back is bent like his old wooden crook('baglan bren'). He is the Lear of Shakespeare.
A sequence of stanzas in this poem are recited by a 'claf' of Abercuarwg ( The sick man of Abercuawg.) One writer has suggested that he was a leper - at least his affliction appears to have kept him from the battlefield - perhaps the only blessing of his dreaded leprosy. The prevading belligerence of the pre-Norman Welsh canbe surmised from the fact that the Chronicles of the Princes. 'Brut y Tywysogion, record that between 949 and 1046 no less than 35 Welsh rulers died by violence, a further four being blinded. One entry for 1043 records that Hywel ab Owain,hing of Glamorgan, died in his old age, ademise so uncommon apparently as to deserve a special mention in this record of the monastic scribe.
But it was not warand pillage and the occasional catastrophic harvest in that very vulnerable society of early mediavel Wales that decimated lord and labourer alike ( gwych a gwachul). Always menacingly poised was the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, pestilence. And Welsh poetry throughout the period of the Princes and right up to modern times was elonquent in lamentation and despair on the depredations of the traditional epidemics.
The true nature of these epidemics is often a matter of conjecture and conroversy. Professor Shrewsbury has questioned the nature of the Plague of the Phillisines, hitherto generally accepted as a classical visitation of bubonic-pneumonic plaque. ( It seems indeed that nothing is sacred). Since contemporary descriptions of the ancient epidemics are notoriously imprecise and unspecific, and speculation on thei nature is inevitable, a gentle academic jousting is enjoyed by all. Allusions in Welsh literature to pestlential disease are likewise frustratingly vaque, poetically bedecked perhaps, but clinically bare. Time and again the medical historian in this field is much like the clinician trying to sort out the symptoms of a patient who just will not stop talking. There are several instances in Welsh mediaeval poetry, in the 'cywyddau' of the poets of the princes and the later schools, where the manifestations of disease as presented are so protean and so obscurantly verbose that the affliction could be anything in the spectrum between devastating plaque and mass hysteria, However some @cywyddau' leave no doubt about the diagnosis and this is particularly and poignantly true when the poet himself is the immediate eye witness of the cataclysm, when his own family was threatened, and when his own children died in consequence.
There were episodic outbreaks of bubonic plaque in Wales throughout the fifteenth century- in the wake of the mid-fourteenth European pandemics; those episodes of @haint y nodau' ( the infection of the lymph-nodes') are vividly recorded in the 'cywyddau' of those Welsh poets who suffered personal tragedies. Ieuan Getin ap Iuean Lleision - although some manuscripts ascribe the authorship to Llywellyn Fychan ap Llywelyn Foelrhon- lost five children from the disease, firstly one Ifan, then another Ifan nine years later at the same time as the deaths of Dafydd, Morfudd and Dyddgu. There is little doubt what killed them; their father bewailed the 'swllt mewn cyswllt cesail'- 'the deadly shilling in the depth of the armpit'; glands like little onions here and there, as dangerous as hot embers, inch-long harbingers of death'. And then the haemorrhagic black rash, 'seeded like black peas, spread like sea-coal'. 'Galar oedd im eu gweld' he cried, ' I grieved to see them'.
Similar outbraks no doubt caused the deaths of the ten children of Gwilym ap Sefnyn, a north Wales poet of the mid-fifteenth century. Dafydd Llwyd o Fathafarn, of mid-Wales, about 1440-1450 described the death from the plaque of the girl he loved in a memorable 'cywydd', uniquely combining the poet's lament with a remarkable clinical objectivity. 'Ysgrifen chwarren a'i chwys yn llywio dan ei llewys, A hefyd i gyd ei gwar dimeiau fel mod mwyar'. ' The graphic gland, the trailing sweat, under her sleeve, Mites like berries around the nape of her neck'. The rash he described as 'powdered ermine on a lovely white skin'. as ' brown pepper and ink on white paper'. These English paraphrases are mundane compared with the Welsh original, but even these make us ruefully aware that the phraseology of our current medical textbooks is pretty insipid and humdrum.

Wearer of plaque mask

Dafydd Nanmor, another north Walian,descibed an epidemic with similar clinical features in 1448, and Tudor Aled, later in the fifteenth century, descibed how a nobleman of Flintshire and his family died of 'the black rash' ('Y Frech Ddu'0. In the sixteenth century Gruffydd ab Ieuan ap Llywellyn Fychan, of St Asaph, again in 'cywydd' form, described a Denbighshire outbreak of bubonic plaque- either the 1535 or the 1557 visitation to Shropshire and the other Border counties-@Gwenwyn yw'r bel lle y delo; Saeth y farwolaeth ye fo'- 'The bubo is poison wherever it comes; It is the arrow of death'. The threnody of Ieuan ap Madoc ap Dafydd about his fellow poet Syr Dafydd Trefor in the fifteeth century ' Gwae o'r nod ddyfod a'i ddwyn' ('Woe that the bubo wrested him away') certainly refers to bubonic plaque. It seems that Robin Ddu ap Siencyn Bledrudd O Fin, Gruffud Dwnn, Rhisiart ap Rhys, Lewis Morgannwg, and Ieuan ap Rhys ap Llywellyn, all fifteenth or early sixteenth century poets, were aware of the decimations of bubonic plaque. There is no doubt therefore that in the golden era of Welsh 'cynghanned @ poetry, the ubiquitious plaque often fired the poetic imagination.
Smallpox likewise; the Welsh poet often remarked on the pockmarked faces of so many of his countrymen. Tudor Aled, at the turn of the sixteenth century, when smallpox was commonplace , described the arms of a buckler-shield- perforated as if by smallpox- ('A'i freichiau oll o'r Frech Wen'0. Many of the popular lyric and ballads of the eighteenth century Wales referred to the 'frech wen', its deadlines and its disfigurements. One of the peasant bards of the 1730's, Cadwaladr Roberts of Pennant Melangell, bewailed his own fate in verse after an attack of smallpox and more particularly of his damaged matrimonial prospects, obviously pock-marked and very repugnant to the pretty maidens; thus, only hags for him for ever more! No doubt he was voicing the fears of many of his kind before the advent of variolation and vaccination.
The bards were naturally reluctant to record their venereal vicissitudes, and later-day academics still more reluctant to give them light of day.However Dafydd Llwyd o Fatarn, the author of the moving elegy to his lady who died of the plaque, himself contracted gonorrhoea, and waxed just as elonquently about that infection, apparently widespread at that time, about 1450. He admits though, as a loyal Welshman, that the infection was acquired in England. One or two of the rumbustious, if not Rabelaisian, Welsh poets of the eighteenth century, Lewis Morris and Thomas Edwards ( Twm o'r Nant) did imply that venereal infection was quite prevalent. In fact, a bardic and bucolic colleaque of Twm o'r Nant, Dafydd Samwell, an alcholic and a laudenum addict, naval surgeon and no mean poet himself, accompanied James Cook to the Pacific and there witnessed the death of his Captain.
In the immediate pre-industrial period of British history, several Welsh poets, particularly the ballad-mongers, recorded many of the more significent socio-medical events. The late 1720's were notorious years of death in many parts of Wales. Deaths were commonplace with the rural parish records providing a clear teatimony for the ravages of famine and of famine fever, typhus. One ballad writer of Bodedern, Anglesey, signally described the morbid years of 1728-29 in that locality. Again in the year 1740-42 typus and bloody flux added havoc to the general destitution, a morbid combination well known to the rustic poets of the prriod in Wales. Commentaries in verse, for popular edification, on similar catastrophies continued well into the twentieth century, being evocative and not only on the sociomedical milieu of expanding industrial south Wales, but also recording such visitations as the four major cholera epidemics between 1832 and 1866 and the typhoid outbreaks of the 1870's.
But onr of the foremost causes of death in nineteenth century Wales was tuberculosis, and to the Victorian Welsh poet this was manna for the muse. During the middle years ofthe 19th century some 3,000 people, mostly young, were dying annually of phthisis in Wales and the mortality rate here fell some 25 years after it had started to fall in England in the 1850's. As many of the deaths occurred in children and since the diseease was so widely morbid both in rural Wales and in the industrial south and noth-east many of the vernacular poets of the period testified, often from harrowing personal experience, to the banes and perils of consumption. J.R.Pryce (Golyddan), a medical apprentice, died of T.B in 1862 when the disease wasat its zenith of morbidity in Wales.
He was an introspective romantic and had modelled his poetry and his life on Keats. His Gwenonwy, who figures in his epic poem to Death, is directlly comparable to 'La Belle Dame...' but Golyddan was essentially a Victorian who was overwhelmed with the idea of death, at a time when death was commonplace, and in that respect was no different from Tennyson, Rossetti and other English contemporaries.
Welsh ballads of the late 17th century referred to the malevolent consumption; some poets of that perod list the clinical signs of disease in a way that leaves no doubt about its nature. Robert ap Gwilym Ddu, one of the most distinquished of the strict metre poets in Wales in the 19th century described the death of his only daughter from tuberculosis in 1834 in a 'cywydd' of the classical mould. There seems no doubt that she died of pneumonic phthisisis. The heavy debilitating and deadly cough, the drenching sweats, the toxic flush are all noted meticulously by the grieving father. The poetic form are the same, the familiar tradition was thesame, as in medieval Wales, but the disease now was pneumonic phtissis and not pneumonic plaque.
A little later, Elis Wyn, another poet of Gwyfrai, a notorious black spot for T.B until now, saw his sister die of the disease, as he must have seen many others. He noted the lassitude, the pallor, the weakening voice, the beady brow of the advanced T.B, patient. Between 1840 and 1880 a whole array of young Welsh poets died of T.B.; the deaths of so many promising young men is a stark reminder of social conditions in the towns and villages of mid-Victorian Wales.
This however was the last of the great pestilences, those catastrophies that caused the poet in Wales to voice the fears of the peasant. It is symptomatic of our history and of our nation that the Welsh poet of today, as our current Eisteddfodau confirm, is now concerned with the modern plaques of biological, chemical and cultural pollution. In this he is again a mirror of his generation; he may only protest plaintively about the growth of the subtopian Sahara but he is one of the breed that Shelley once caled 'the unacknowledged legislators of the World'.

Glyn Penrhyn Jones
to the 9th British Congress on the history of Medicine
at Swansea on 7th September, 1973.
He suffered an untimely death shortly afterwards.


  1. Very interesting to read this adaptation of a paper given by my grandfather, who died before I was born. What a shame that I was never able to discuss and debate some of these issues with him, especially what constitutes a 'Welsh poet'! I'm sure that we would both have enjoyed that. Thanks for posting this, Sara Penrhyn

  2. Wow, always thought it was a very interesting article, my father himself was a G.P who found the article for me, knowing of my interest in poetry. He himself sadly did not not share my love.
    I am glad you liked the fact that I'd posted your grandfathers words, they are most enlightening and am glad that you found it.