Monday, 29 August 2011

THE ESSENCE OF WELSH POETRY - Saunders Lewis ( 15/10/1893 - 1/9/85)

During the wars of Napoleon there was a country squire of the name of Lloyd living in the old house of Cwmgloyn, inland a little from Trefdraeth ( or Newport in the English maps) on the north coast of Pembrokeshire.  He was a justice of the peace. His father had been much concerned with the sea, and squire Lloyd had ships built for him at Trefdraeth and at Aberystwyth. One of these, the Hawk, was a fifty ton schooner made from his own woods at Trefdraeth, partly for trade, partly for his pleasure voyages. It was later sunk by the French. At its launching a local poet one Ioan Siencyn, wrote a poem to greet it and its captain, and its squire-owner. After a finely imaged description of the Hawk breasting the sea, the poet visualises squire Lloyd on board, travelling to England and Ireland, but especially visitiing his friends in North and South Wales. There the gentry and local poets come to meet him and one verse describes their welcome to him:

  Around their tables, laden with steaming dishes,
  He shall hear histories of those good men, our anscestors,
  And  cywydd and  englyn  and odes of Taliesin
  And he shall drink his fill of golden barley beer.

That poem was written close to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It speaks simply and naturally of odes of Taliesin and cywydd  and   englyn as part of the pertinent welcome to squire Lloyd of Cwmgloyn. Taliesin was a poet of the sixth century .*  Cywydd  and  englyn  were metrical forms of the Welsh Middle Ages. But for Ioan Siencyn at the very end of the eighteenth century they were all necessary for the proper entertainment of the Welsh squire in any Welsh country house. Poetry was part of the tradition of hospitality.
Now will you imagine with me that a poet of the fifteenth century, some great figure such as Tudor Aled, had been released to revisit Pembrokeshire at the launching of the Hawk, and had listened to the reading  of Ioan Siencyn's verses to squire Lloyd? What would our fifteenth century master have thought or said? He would note with warm approval the occasion of the poem. Just such an event, the completion of a new house or a new ship, had in his time also been  the appropriate moment for a complimentary poem to the head of a family. And Tudor Aled would have relished Ioan Siencyn's development of the image of the Hawk as it was launched on the water:

  Spread now your wings, forget the green woodlands,
  Learn to live mid the mouthing of seas.

When Siencyn calls on Neptune and Triton  to protect the schooner, Tudur Aled would remember that he, in the early sixteenth century was beginning to learn the use of the Greek gods from his fiends in the circle of Cardinal Wolsey; and that when the poet returns to his bird-schooner and describes the Hawk:

 Your wings playing high as the clouds,
 Your breasts cleaving the salt billows,
 Let your beak pierce the waves, your belly furrows them,
 Your rudder scatter them in spray-suds...

the fifteenth-century poet would have recognisec it as just the serious playing with image that was part of the technique of poems inspired by  manual craft in his own day. And as the poem grew to the final eulogy of squire Lloyd and his society, to the reference to Taliesin and talk of the deeds of his forefathers storied over the yellow beer on the laden dining table., Tudor Aled might exclaim: " My art still survives in this last decade of the eighteenth century and the great technique and the old mastery are not all forgotten. This country poet., this Ioan Siencyn, is truly an heir of our ancient discipline; he also sings the immemmorial ideals and the pattern of behaviour of the leaders of the Welsh people, and I recognise him as a poet of the long line that began with Taliesin in the North."
There, I think, we capture something essential in the progress of Welsh poesy. We call it the literary tradition of Wales. It means you cannot pluck a flower of song off a headland of Dyfed in the late eighteenth century without stirring a great Northern star of the sixth cetury. And all the intermediaries are involved. The fourteenth century gave the technique of  dyfalu  or image-making, the sixteenth century brought in the Virgilian echoes, the seventeenth gave the measure. The whole body of Welsh poetry from the sixth century onward has contributed directly yo Ioan Siencyn's verses. And, mark you, the poem I am discussing is an obscure piece of work by a little known poet whose name is in no history of Welsh literature nor in any anthology. It was last published in a forgotten volume at Aberystwyth in 1842. Why do I use it as a peg for this talk? Because it reveals the nature and continuity of the Welsh poetic tradition and because it reveals its quality and creative virtue: for the virtueof that tradition is that it may enable a quite minor poet to write a major poem  . . .

Reprinted from
London and Glasgow

 * Taliesin see

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