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Yr Hen Iaith part twenty five: Love in the Woods: Dafydd ap Gwilym (2)

15 Oct 2023 7 minute read
Song thrush. Photo by Lubos Houska on Pixabay

Jerry Hunter

Continuing our series of articles to accompany the podcast series Yr Hen Iaith. This is episode twenty five.

Gwell yw ystafell a dyf.
‘Better is a room which grows.’

This line from Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem Y Deildy (‘The Leaf-House’) encapsulates a charged view of the woods in a manner which is as beautiful as it is concise. The male poet meets his lover out in the world of nature, away from the physical, moral and legal confines of human society.

Having left buildings built by man, the woods where he is free to love are described metaphorically as a building, and he states that a ‘house’ () made of ‘leaves’ (dail) is ‘better’ (gwell) than those human constructions left behind.

If he is a poet fleeing the prying eyes of other men, the birds inhabiting the ‘leaf-house’ are turned into poets who not only accept what he and his lover are doing there, but welcome them and serenade them.

Yno y cawn yn y coed
Clywed siarad gan adar,
Clerwyr coed, claerwawr a’u câr . . . .

‘There in the trees we can
Hear the speech of birds,
Wandering bards of the woods, gentle dawn loves them . . .

Dafydd says specifically that the winged bards of the woods sing cywyddau, deepening the imagined kindred between poet and bird, for the poem in which he says this is a cywydd. (See the last instalment in this series for more about that form.)

Indeed, all of Dafydd’s love and nature poetry uses the cywydd metre (except for a few short englynion).

Taken together, much of this work provides different glimpses of the oed yn y coed, the ‘tryst’ of lovers ‘in the woods’.


By the way, we should perhaps talk about the poet’s persona instead of the ‘real Dafydd ap Gwilym’. This means that we should view the lover who describes his amorous adventures (and misadventures!) for us in this poetry as a literary construct, a fictional character created by the poet Dafydd ap Gwilym.

This persona or character might be based very closely on Dafydd’s own personality and life experiences, but it is also very likely that the voice we hear in these cywyddau is highly fictionalized.

In other words, he’s surely taken a lot of poetic license. Similarly, while Dafydd names some lovers in his poems (Morfudd, Dyddgu), and while some of them might be based in part on real women, it is best to take them as literary constructs as well.

Readers who have been working their way through medieval Welsh poetry will be struck be the fresh uniqueness of Dafydd’s love and nature poetry.

However, this artistic genius has built new things out of old materials. Themes from the age-old praise tradition are reworked and applied in startingly fresh contexts.


As Dafydd’s persona seeks to meet his lovers in the woods, he prefers good weather and thus praises the month of May as the beginning of his favourite season.

In an entire cywydd to Mis Mai, ‘May’, he personifies the month, turning into a bardic patron to whom he sings praise:

Harddwas teg a’m anrhegai
hylaw ŵr mawr hael yw’r Mai.
Anfones ym iawn fwnai.

‘A fair lad gave me gifts,
May is an obliging and generous great man.
He gave me proper money.’

The combination of Dafydd’s eye for detail and his unbounded imagination produces wonderful things.

As May is a patron rewarding the poet with ‘money’, so he says the new leaves on the trees (glas defyll, ‘green slivers’) as ffloringod, ‘florins’ (a kind of coin minted since at least the middle of the 13th century).

Just as he loves May, so he dreads the coming of November (mis Tachwedd), and a cywydd comparing and contrasting the two months opens with a couplet often quoted by this bard’s many fans:

Hawddamor, glwysgor glasgoed
Fis Mai haf, canys mau hoed,
Cadarn farchog, serchog sâl,
Cadwynwyrdd feistr coed anial
Cyfaill cariad ac adar.

‘Greetings, fair choir of the green wood,
Summer’s month of May, this is what I long for,
A powerful knight, a lover’s recompense,
Green-bound master of wild woods,
Friend of lover and of birds.’

Like the ‘leaf-house’, he sees the newly green boughs as forming a church’s ‘choir’ in the woods, a living constructing created by May, a month then personified as a ‘knight’ triumphantly reconquering the woods from the desolate grip of winter.

The first line is a beautiful (and, as already suggested, oft-quoted) example of Dafydd’s artistry. The cynghanedd internal line ornamentation mandatory in the Welsh strict metres is divided into four types; this is cynghanedd sain, with the line divided into three parts, the ends of the first two linked by internal rhyme and the beginning of the second and third parts linked by alliteration.

(1) Hawddamor     (2) glwysgor    (3) glasgoed.

Poetry simply doesn’t get any more musical than that.

Love messenger

A kind of poem which emerged during Dafydd’s lifetime and which would remain popular for three centuries is the cywydd llatai. The llatai is a ‘love messenger’, usually an animal (and often a bird), but sometimes another part of nature’s realm (the wind, for example).

The llatai is personified and can talk, and the poet addresses it/him/her, praising the would-be messenger in an attempt to persuade it/her/him to take a message to his lover (and, it is often suggested, bring her back to him).

In a cywydd addressed to a talking ‘thrush’ (bronfraith), Dafydd praises the bird’s song in a way which gives it the power of human s

Pregethwr maith pob ieithoedd,
Pendefig ar goedwig oedd.

‘A clever preacher of all languages,
He was the lord of the woodland.’ (It is a ‘he’ because this is a ceiliog, a ‘cock’ or male bird.)

Not only having the power of human speech, the thrush is described as a master linguist:

Saith ugeiniaith a ganai (‘seven score languages he would sing’). Again using his poetic imagination to transform the woods into a building, the bird is described as ieithydd ar frig planwydd plas (‘a linguist atop a mansion’s planted trees’).

He is also ystiwart llys dyrys dail (‘Steward of a court [made of] dense woods’); if the trees are imagined as nature’s version of a human building, a lord’s ‘court’, then the linguistically gifted bird is that court’s ‘steward’, and officer who ensures that everything there works as it should.

Medieval law

The medieval Welsh laws sometimes referred to as Cyfraith Hywel Dda described the bardd teulu or ‘household’ as one of the Welsh king’s court officers (swyddogion). The pencerdd or ‘chief poet’ would begin by praising God and the lord who owns the court, but the bardd teulu had important functions as well.

One of which, according to the medieval law texts, was to entertain the queen when she so desired.

It has been postulated by scholars that the kinds of unrecorded poetry which these household bards sang to entertain Welsh queens in the period before the conquest might have been similar in some ways to the love and nature poetry which Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd composed (see episode 21 in this series) in the 12th century.

And it has been suggested that these lost poems might also have contained the seeds of themes later developed and, indeed, canonized by Dafydd ap Gwilym in the 14th century.

Dafydd was a uniquely talented poet who created a large body of astoundingly original verse, but he did that using many aspects of the Welsh bardic tradition which had preceded his time.

Further reading:

Thomas Parry, Gwaith Dafydd ap Gwilym
Dafydd ap
Rachel Bromwich, Tradition and Innovation in the Poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym (1967)
Huw M. Edwards, Dafydd ap Gwilym: Influences and Analogues (1996).

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