Transcribed from the 1873 Houlston & Sons edition, by David Price, email
THE POETRY OF WALES.
JOHN JENKINS, Esq.
"I offer you a bouquet of culled flowers, I did not grow, only collect
and arrange them." - PAR LE SEIGNEUR DE MONTAIGNE.
LONDON: HOULSTON & SONS, PATERNOSTER SQUARE
LLANIDLOES: JOHN PRYSE.
[_Cheap Edition_. - _All Rights Reserved_.]
The Editor of this little Collection ventures to think it may in some
measure supply a want which he has heard mentioned, not only in the
Principality, but in England also. Some of the Editor's English
friends - themselves being eminent in literature - have said to him, "We
have often heard that there is much of value in your literature and of
beauty in your poetry. Why does not some one of your literati translate
them into English, and furnish us with the means of judging for
ourselves? We possess translated specimens of the literature, and
especially the poetry of almost every other nation and people, and should
feel greater interest in reading those of the aborigines of this country,
with whom we have so much in common." It was to gratify this wish that
the Editor was induced to give his services in the present undertaking,
from which he has received and will receive no pecuniary benefit; and his
sole recompense will be the satisfaction of having attempted to extend
and perpetuate some of the treasures and beauties of the literature of
his native country.
The literature of a people always reflects their character. You may
discover in the prose and poetry of a nation its social condition, and in
their different phases its political progress. The age of Homer was the
heroic, in which the Greeks excelled in martial exploits; that of Virgil
found the Romans an intellectual and gallant race; the genius of Chaucer,
Spencer and Sidney revelled in the feudal halls and enchanted vistas of
the middle ages; Shakespeare delineated the British mind in its grave and
comic moods; Milton reflected the sober aspect and spiritual aspirations
of the Puritanical era; while at later periods Pope, Goldsmith and Cowper
pourtrayed the softer features of an advanced civilization and milder
Following the same rule, the history of Wales is its literature. First
came the odes and triads, in which the bards recited the valour,
conquests and hospitality of their chieftains, and the gentleness, beauty
and virtue of their brides. This was the age of Aneurin, of Taliesin and
Llywarch Hen. Next came the period of love and romance, wherein were
celebrated the refined courtship and gay bridals of gallant knights and
lovely maids. This was the age of Dafydd ap Gwilym, of Hywel ap Einion
and Rhys Goch. In later times appeared the moral songs and religious
hymns of the Welsh Puritans, wherein was conspicuous above all others
William Williams of Pantycelyn, aptly denominated "The Sweet Psalmist of
The Principality, like every other country, has had and has its orators,
its philosophers and historians; and, much as they are prized by its
native race, we venture to predict that the productions of none will
outlive the language in which their prose is spoken and writ. Not that
there is wanting either eloquence or grandeur or force in their orations
and essays, depth or originality in their philosophical theories, or
truthfulness, research or learning in their historic lore; but that
neither the graces of the first, the novelty of the next, or the fidelity
of the last will in our opinion justify a translation into more widely
spoken tongues, and be read with profit and interest by a people whose
libraries are filled with all that is most charming in literature, most
profound in philosophy and most new and advanced in science and art.
Our evil prophecy of its prose does not however extend to the poetry of
Wales, for like all other branches of the Celtic race, the ancient
Britons have cultivated national song and music with a love, skill and
devotion which have produced poems and airs well deserving of extensive
circulation, long life and lasting fame. The poetic fire has inspired
the nation from the most primitive times, for we find that an order of
the Druidical priests were bards who composed their metres among
aboriginal temples and spreading groves of oak. The bard was an
important member of the royal household, for the court was not complete
without the Bard President, the Chief of Song, and the Domestic Bard. The
laws of Hywel the Good, King or Prince of Wales in the tenth century,
"If there should be fighting, the bard shall sing 'The Monarchy of
Britain' in front of the battle."
"The Bard President shall sit at the Royal Table."
"When a bard shall ask a gift of a prince, let him sing one piece;
when he asks of a baron, let him sing three pieces."
"His land shall be free, and he shall have a horse in attendance from
"The Chief of Song shall begin the singing in the common hall."
"He shall be next but one to the patron of the family."
"He shall have a harp from the king, and a gold ring from the queen
when his office is secured to him. The harp he shall never part
"When a song is called for, the Bard President should begin; the first
song shall be addressed to God, the next to the king. The Domestic
Bard shall sing to the queen and royal household."
The bard therefore in ancient times performed important functions. In
peace he delighted his lord with songs of chivalry, love and friendship.
In war he accompanied his prince to battle, and recited the might and
prowess of his leader and the martial virtue of his hosts. No court or
hall was complete without the presence of the bard, who enlivened the
feast with his minstrelsy and song. We also see that the Welsh bard,
like the primitive poets of Greece, and the troubadours of southern
France, sang his verses to the harp, whose dulcet strings have always
sent forth the national melodies. The chief bards were attached to the
courts and castles of their princes and chieftains; but a multitude of
inferior minstrels wandered the country singing to their harps, and were
in those primitive times received with open arms and welcome hospitality
in the houses of the gentry, and whither soever they went. Even within
living memory the English tourist has often met in the lonely dells and
among the mountain passes of Wales the wayworn minstrel, with harp strung
to his shoulders, ever ready to delight the traveller with the bewitching
notes of his lyre and song. But the modern bard of Wales is the
counterpart of his Scottish brother, of whom Scott wrote: -
"The way was long, the wind was cold,
The minstrel was infirm and old;
His withered cheeks and tresses gray
Seemed to have known a better day;
The harp, his sole remaining joy,
Was carried by an orphan boy.
* * * * *
No more on prancing palfry borne,
He carolled light as lark at morn;
No longer courted and caress'd,
High placed in hall, a welcome guest,
He poured to lord and lady gay
The unpremeditated lay."
Nor will the modern visitor to the castles and halls of the Principality,
not to mention its principal hotels, often miss the dulcet strains of the
The song and minstrelsy of Wales have from the earliest period of its
history been nurtured by its eisteddfodau. It is ascertained that the
Prince Bleddyn ap Kynfyn held an eisteddfod in A.D. 1070, which was
attended by the bards and chief literati of the time. This eisteddfod
made rules for the better government of the bardic order. This annual
assemblage of princes, bards and literati has been regularly held through
the intervening centuries to the present time. Within living memory
royalty has graced this national gathering of the ancient British race.
The ceremonies attendant upon this national institution are well known.
The president or chief, followed by the various grades of the bardic
order, walk in procession (_gorymdaith_) to the place appointed, where
twelve stones are laid in a circle, with one in the centre, to form a
_gorsedd_ or throne. When the whole order is assembled, the chief of
bards ascends the _gorsedd_, and from his laurel and flower-bedecked
chair opens the session, by repeating aloud the mottoes of the order,
viz.: "_Y gwir yn erbyn y byd_, _yn ngwyneb haul a llygad goleuni_," or
"The truth against the world, in the face of the sun and the eye of
light," meaning that the proceedings, judgments and awards of the order
are guided by unswerving truth, and conducted in an open forum beneath
the eyes of the public. Then follow verses laudatory of the president.
Poetical compositions, some of a very high order, are then rehearsed or
read, interspersed with singing and lyric music. The greater part of the
poets and musical performers compete for prizes on given subjects, which
are announced beforehand on large placards throughout the Principality.
The subjects for competition are for the most part patriotic, but
religion and loyalty are supreme throughout the eisteddfod. The
successful competitors are crowned or decorated by the fair hands of lady
patronesses, who distribute the prizes. This yearly gathering of the
rank, beauty, wealth and talent of the Principality, to commemorate their
nationality and foster native genius, edified and delighted by the gems
of Welsh oratory, music and song, cannot but be a laudable institution as
well as pleasant recreation. Some of the foremost English journals, who
devote columns of their best narrative talent to record a horse race, a
Scottish highland wrestle, or hideous prize fight with all their
accompaniments of vice and brutality, may surely well spare the ridicule
and contempt with which they visit the pleasant Welsh eisteddfod. Their
shafts, howsoever they may irritate for the time, ought surely not to
lower the Welshman's estimate of his eisteddfod, seeing the antiquity of
its origin, the praiseworthiness of its objects, the good it has done,
the talent it has developed, - as witness, a Brinley Richards and Edith
Wynne, - and the delight it affords to his country people. Enveloped in
the panoply of patriotism, truth and goodness, he may well defy the
harmless darts of angry criticism and invective, emanating from writers
who are foreign in blood, language, sympathy and taste. When the Greeks
delighted in their olympic games of running for a laurel crown, the
Romans witnessed with savage pleasure the deadly contentions of their
gladiators, the Spaniards gazed with joy on their bloody bull fights, and
the English crowded to look at the horse race or prize fight, the Cymry
met peaceably in the recesses of their beautiful valleys and mountains to
rehearse the praises of religion and virtue, to sing the merits of
beauty, truth and goodness, and all heightened by the melodious strains
of their national lyre.
It is often asked, what is poetry? Prose, we assume to be a simple or
connected narrative of ordinary facts or common circumstances. Poetry,
on the other hand, is a grouping of great, grand or beautiful objects in
nature, or of fierce, fine or lofty passions, or beautiful sentiments, or
pretty ideas of the human heart or mind, and all these premises expressed
in suitable or becoming language. Poetry is most indulged in the infancy
of society when nature is a sealed book, and the uneducated mind fills
creation with all sorts of beings and phantoms. There is then wide scope
for the rude imagination to wander at will through the unknown universe,
and to people it with every description of mythical beings and
superstitious objects. Poetry is most powerful in the infancy of
civilization, and enjoys a license of idea and language which would shock
the taste of more advanced times. The Hindustani poetry as furnished by
Sir William Jones, that of the Persian Hafiz, the early ballads of the
Arabians, Moors and Spaniards, the poems of Ossian, besides the primitive
Saxon ballads, and the triads of Wales, all indicate the extravagant
imagery and rude license of poetry in the early ages of society. The
history of those several nations also attests the magical influence of
their early poetry upon the peoples. We find that Tallifer the Norman
trouvere, who accompanied William to the invasion of England, went before
his hosts at Hastings, reciting the Norman prowess and might, and flung
himself upon the Saxon phalanx where he met his doom. We read that the
example of the trouvere aroused the Norman hosts to an enthusiasm which
precipitated them upon the Saxon ranks with unwonted courage and frenzy.
We also find that the Welsh bard always accompanied his prince to battle,
and rehearsed in song the ancient valour and conquests of the chieftain
and army in front of the enemy.
The progress of philosophy and science dissipates the myths and spectres
of the poetical creation, just as the advance of a July sun dispels the
mist and cloud which hung over the earlier hours of day and veiled the
mountains and valleys from the eye of man. Poetry becomes now shorn of
its greatest extravangancies and wildest flights, instead of soaring with
the eagle to the extremities of space, it flies like the falcon within
human sight. In lieu of a Homer, a Shakespeare and a Milton, we have a
Pope, a Thomson and a Campbell.
The poetry of Wales may be classified into six parts, viz.: the sublime,
the beautiful, the patriotic, the humourous, the sentimental and
religious. Much of the poetry of the Principality consists of the first
class, and is specially dedicated to description and praise of the
Supreme Being, the universe and man. As the great objects of creation,
like the sun and moon, the planetary world and stars first attract the
attention of man and always enlist his deepest feelings, so they furnish
the great themes for the poetry of all nations, more especially in its
ruder stages. The Welsh poet is no exception to the rule. On the
contrary, he indulges in the highest flights of imagination, and borrows
the grandest imagery and choicest description to set forth the Most High
and his wonderful works. No translation can convey to the English reader
the interest and effect which this class of poetry has and produces upon
the Welsh mind, simply because their trains of thought are so entirely
different. The power and expressiveness of the Welsh language, which
cannot be transferred into any English words, also add materially to the
effect of this class of poetry upon the native mind. The Cymric is
unquestionably an original language, and possesses a force and expression
entirely unknown to any of the derivative tongues. The finer parts of
scripture, as the Book of Job and the Psalms, are immeasurably more
impressive in the Welsh than English language. The native of the
Principality, who from a long residence in the metropolis or other parts
of England, and extensive acquaintance with its people, followed often by
mercantile success, so as almost to become Anglicised, no sooner returns
to his native hills, either for a visit or residence, and upon the
Sabbath morn enters the old parish church or chapel to hear the bible
read in the native tongue, than he feels a transport of delight and joy,
to which his heart has been foreign since he crossed the border, mayhap
in youth. Much of this may be owing to a cause similar to that which
fires the Swiss soldier on foreign service when he hears the chant of his
own mountain "_Rans des vaches_." Something may doubtless be laid to the
account of early association; but, we think, more is justly due to the
great impressiveness and power of his native tongue. The poems, original
and translated, contained in the first part of the ensuing collection,
may convey to the English reader some idea of this class of Welsh poetry.
The love of the beautiful is natural to man, but of all nations the
Greeks entertained the best ideals and cultivated the faculty to the
highest perfection. Their temples have formed models of architectural
beauty for all nations, and the grace and elegance of their statuary have
found students among every people. Much of this taste for the beautiful
mingled with their poetry, which is kin sister to the imitative arts. In
recent times the Italians have inherited the faculty of beauty, and
introduced it into their fine cathedrals and capitols, as well as their
statuary. The French also have displayed the highest ideals of beauty in
their manufactures and fine arts. The Spaniards have introduced into
their poetry some of the inimitable grace and beauty of their Alhambra.
The Latin races appear in modern times to have been pre-distinguished in
the fine arts. Much of the taste for beauty is inherent in the Celtic
races, and this element is very perceptible in the poetry of the Cymric
branch, as will appear from the illustrations contained in the second
part of this collection.
Patriotism, or love of country, is characteristic of all nations, and
manifests itself in their poetical effusions, more especially of the
earlier date. It is but natural that man should feel a profound
attachment to the land of his fathers, to the valley where he spent the
early and happier years of his life, to the hills which bounded that
plain, to the church or chapel where he worshipped in youth, and in whose
cemetery rest the ashes of his kin, to the language of his childhood, its
literature, history and traditions, and more especially to the kind
family, neighbours and friends who watched over his infancy, and
entertained his maturer years. This attachment, which is no other than
patriotism, is only deepened by his removal into a distant land, and
among a strange people. Perhaps no people in modern times have
cultivated their patriotic songs more ardently or even more successfully
than the Scotch; though probably most of this may be owing to their great
minstrel Scott, who transformed their rude ballads into immortal song.
Moore did a similar, though smaller, service for the Irish branch of the
Celtic race. And we most truly think that a Welsh Scott or Moore is only
wanting to marry the lays of Wales to undying verse. The third part of
this collection will contain some of the most spirited of the patriotic
poems of Wales.
Humour is inherent in every people, and is more or less characteristic of
every nation. Cervantes among the Spaniards, the Abbate Casti among the
Italians, Jean Paul Richter among the Germans, Voltaire among the French,
Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, and Dr. John Wolcot among the
English, Jonathan Swift among the Irish, and Robert Burns among the
Scotch, have introduced humorous writing into the literature of their
respective countries with more or less of success. Nor was it possible
that a people so lively, so susceptible of contrast, and possessed of so
keen a sense of the ridiculous in manners and conversation as the Welsh,
should not spice their literature with examples of humorous writing. We
shall furnish in the fourth part of this collection a few specimens from
the writings of some of the humorists of Wales.
Sentiment, which may be defined as the emotion of the human heart, mixes
freely in verse and sentimental poetry, forms a considerable portion of
the lays of every country. There is in this particular no distinction
between the early and modern history of nations, for sentiment enters the
metrical effusions of every period alike. Pathos and taste appear to be
the foster mothers of this quality, which is a distinguishing trait of
the poetry of Wales, as shown by the examples furnished in the fifth part
of this collection.
If any trait be more distinctive of the Welshman than another, it is his
love for his bible, his chapel and church, and this has furnished the
richest store of spiritual song. The hymnists of Wales are many; but
distinguished beyond and above every other, is the celebrated Williams of
Pantycelyn, whose hymns are sung in every chapel and cottage throughout
the Principality, and are now as refreshing to the religious tastes and
emotions of the people as at their first appearance; and, from their
intrinsic beauty and warmth, they are not likely to be lost so long as
the Welsh language remains a spoken or written tongue. The sixth part of
this collection will furnish the reader with an insight into the
transcendent merit and fervour of this prince of religious song.
PART I. THE SUBLIME.
King of the mighty hills! thy crown of snow
Thou rearest in the clouds, as if to mock
The littleness of human things below;
The tempest cannot harm thee, and the shock
Of the deep thunder falls upon thy head
As the light footfalls of an infant's tread.
The livid lightning's all destroying flame
Has flashed upon thee harmlessly, the rage
Of savage storms have left thee still the same;
Thou art imperishable! Age after age
Thou hast endured; aye, and for evermore
Thy form shall be as changeless as before.
The works of man shall perish and decay,
Cities shall crumble down to dust, and all
Their "gorgeous palaces" shall pass away;
Even their lofty monuments shall fall;
And a few scattered stones be all to tell
The place where once they stood, - where since they fell!
Yet, even time has not the power to shiver
One single fragment from thee; thou shalt be
A monument that shall exist for ever!
While the vast world endures in its immensity,
The eternal snows that gather on thy brow
Shall diadem thy crest, as they do now.
Thy head is wrapt in mists, yet still thou gleam'st,
At intervals, from out the clouds, that are
A glorious canopy, in which thou seem'st
To shroud thy many beauties; now afar
Thou glitterest in the sun, and dost unfold
Thy giant form, in robes of burning gold.
And, when the red day dawned upon thee, oh! how bright
Thy mighty form appeared! a thousand dies
Shed o'er thee all the brilliance of their light,
Catching their hues from the o'er-arching skies,
That seemed to play around thee, like a dress
Sporting around some form of loveliness.
And when the silver moonbeams on thee threw
Their calm and tranquil light, thou seem'st to be
A thing so wildly beautiful to view,
So wrapt in strange unearthly mystery,
That the mind feels an awful sense of fear
When gazing on thy form, so wild and drear.
The poet loves to gaze upon thee when
No living soul is near, and all are gone
Wooing their couches for soft sleep; for then
The poet feels that he is _least_ alone, -
Holding communion with the mighty dead,
Whose viewless shadows flit around thy head.
Say, does the spirit of some warrior bard,
With unseen form, float on the misty air,
As if intent thy sacred heights to guard?
Or does he breathe his mournful murmurs there,
As if returned to earth, once more to dwell
On the dear spot he ever lov'd so well.
Perhaps some Druid form, in awful guise,
With words of wond'rous import, there may range,
Making aloud mysterious sacrifice,
With gestures incommunicably strange,
Praying to the gods he worshipped, to restore
His dear lov'd Cymru to her days of yore.
Or does thy harp, oh, Hoel! sound its strings,
With chords of fire proclaim thy country's praise;
And he of "Flowing Song's" wild murmurings
Breathe forth the music of his warrior lays;
And Davydd, Caradoc - a glorious band -
Tune their wild harps to praise their mountain land?
Thou stand'st immovable, and firmly fixed
As Cambria's sons in battle, when they met
The Roman legions, and their weapons mixed,
And clash'd as bravely as they can do yet.
The Saxon, Dane, and Norman, knew them well,
And found them - as they are - invincible!
Majestic Snowdon! proudly dost thou stand,
Like a tall giant ready for the fray,
The guardian bulwark of thy mountain land;
Old as the world thou art! As I survey
Thy lofty altitude, strange feelings rise,
Of the unutterable mind's wild sympathies.
Thou hast seen many changes, yet hast stood
Unaltered to the last, remained the same
Even in the wildness of thy solitude,
Even in thy savage grandeur; and thy name
Acts as a spell on Cambria's sons, that brings
Their heart's best blood to flow in rapid springs.
And must I be the only one to sing
Thy dear loved name? and must the task be mine,
To the insensate mind thy name to bring?
Oh! how I grieve to think, when songs divine
Have echoed to thy praises night and day,
I can but offer thee so poor a lay.