Yr Hen Iaith part twenty seven: female poets heard at very long last
Continuing our series of articles to accompany the podcast series Yr Hen Iaith. This is episode twenty seven.
One of the most exciting developments in Welsh scholarship during the past quarter century has been the attention given to poetry composed by women; a large body of work which was previously ignored or censored has been brought to light.
Until recently, these female poets were almost invisible in the literary landscape drawn by male scholars, editors and educators.
The way in which this landscape was drawn can be illustrated by taking a brief glance at Sir Thomas Parry’s 1962 anthology, The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse.
This is a literary canon if ever there was one – an authoritative volume by an extremely respected scholar published by a renowned academic press – and it influenced the perception of Welsh literary history for decades.
This book contains more than 500 pages of Welsh-language poetry, covering about a thousand years of literary history (as the earliest poetry is taken by Parry to be from the 6th century).
Yet, despite using so many pages to cover so many centuries’ worth of verse, only one female poet is included, Ann Griffiths.
There is the poetry attributed to the medieval princess Heledd (see episode 10 in this series), and there is some free-metre poetry from the early modern period cast in female voices, yet these works are anonymous.
Ann Griffiths is the only poet included who was definitely a woman. Given her status as the author of some of Welsh Methodism’s most popular hymns, she simply had to be included; the dominance of religious culture trumped sexism in this one case.
Otherwise, this vast volume is a desert when it comes to Welsh womens’ voices.
Two very different anthologies were published during the early years of this century, both presenting large and varied selections of poetry by Welsh women – Welsh Womens’ Poetry 1450-2001, edited by Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan (2003) and Beirdd Ceridwen – Blodeugerdd Barddas o Ganu Menywod hyd tua 1880, edited by Cathryn Charnell-White (2005).
A publication at the very start of the millennium led the way, Gwaith Gwerful Mechain ac eraill (2001), an edition by N. A. Howells of poetry by Gwerful Mechain (and a few ‘others’, eraill). This poet lived during the second half of the 15th century and was from Mechain in Powys, as her name tells us.
When Gwerful Mechain is mentioned, she is often described as a composer of ‘erotic verse’. While she did compose poetry foregrounding and celebrating women’s sexuality, this is no means the sum-total of her creative output.
While this poetry is striking and memorable, the fact that she has sometimes only been seen in this light (by those who chose to see her at all) is a tendency which in itself suggests a sexist pigeonholing.
Nobody describes Dafydd ap Gwilym primarily a composer of ‘erotic verse’, even though he did write explicitly about sex.
One of the most masterful of Gwerful’s surviving poems is a cywydd about the passion of Jesus on the cross, yet she has not been described as ‘primarily a religious poet’.
The opening lines of this poem use visual imagery leading us to ‘see’ Jesus on the cross with a mediation on the significance of that sacrifice:
Goreudduw gwiw a rodded
Ar bren croes i brynu Cred,
I weled, gweithred nid gau,
O luoedd Ei welïau;
Gwaed ar dâl gwedi’r cur.
Drud oedd Ei galon drwydoll
A gïau Duw i gyd oll.
‘Good, supreme God placed
On the wood of the cross to redeem Christendom,
For hosts to see
His wounds – an act not false.’
It’s worth considering the kind of iconography which fifteen-century Welsh worshipers would’ve seen weekly in their local church, a wooden image of Jesus on the cross painted so as to emphasize the wounds on his body and focus mediation on His suffering.
Female suffering is also foregrounded in this powerful cywydd, as Gwerful leads us to consider the state of Jesus’ mother Mary (Mair) as she witnessed his death:
Oer oedd i Fair, arwydd fu,
Wrth aros Ei ferthyru,
Yr hwn a fu’n rhoi’i einioes
I brynu Cred ar bren croes.
‘It was a cold thing for Mary
While waiting for His martyrdom – it was a sign –
He who gave his life
To redeem Christendom on the wood of the cross.’
With the simple words wrth aros, the poet describes in a masterfully concise manner the mother watching her son’s slow death, waiting for the end to come.
While this cywydd focusses on the death central to the Christian metanarrative, other poems attributed to Gwerful Mechain focus on aspects of what we take to be her own life.
In one englyn she curses her husband, suggesting a desire for revenge following domestic abuse:
Dager drwy goler dy galon – ar osgo
I asgwrn dy ddwyfron;
Dy lin a dyr, dy law’n don,
A’th gleddau i’th goluddion.
‘[May] a dagger [go] through your heart’s band on a slant
Into your breastbone;
Your knee will break, your hand shattered,
And your sword into your bowels.’
Given the compact nature of this strict-metre form, it’s worth noting that both the dager and the cleddau are mentioned; the man’s weapons of war are turned upon himself in the curse’s vengeful imagination.
The woman’s words are her weapons, and the multiple injuries describe coalesce in the thorough destruction of the male body.
Another poem, Cywydd y Gont (‘Cywydd to the Vagina’), begins as an address to the fraternity of male poets. Since the age of Dafydd ap Gwilym, male poets had been using the cywydd form to compose love poetry.
In Gwerful’s composition we find a female voice answering more than a century’s worth of masculine voices, criticizing the way in which all of those love poems present the male gaze.
The first lines state that ‘All sorts of poets’ (pob rhyw brydydd) have ‘always’ (erioed) ‘made plain’ their ‘praise’ (moliant) for women.
The word noethi is translated here as ‘made plain’; it literally means ‘to bear’ or ‘to undress’, a playful and pointed way of saying that she is fully aware of the intentions driving the gaze of male poets.
She then says that their praise for women is anghwbl, ‘incomplete’, illustrating her point by describing the clichés found in love poetry by men: Moli gwallt, cwnsallt ceinserch (‘Praising hair, mantle of fair love’), praising Yr aeliau uwch yr olwg (‘the brows above the eyes’), Foelder dwyfron feddaldew (‘The bareness of the soft-fat breasts’), moli gwen (‘praising a smile’) a dwylaw bun (‘and a woman’s hands’).
This builds up to Gwerful’s central point, the fact that these male poets shy away from describing one part of a woman’s body:
Gado’r canol heb foliant
A’r plas lle’r enillir plant.
‘Leaving the middle without praise,
And the mansion where children are won.’
The female body
Her description of the female body rings with pride and triumph; the verb used to describe conceiving children, ennill, means ‘to win’ or ‘to achieve victory’.
The word plas is a manor house, mansion or palace; in other words, it is a space connected with wealth, status and fame.
Gwerful Mechain also used the cywydd form to conduct ymrysonau or bardic debates with male poets. As the role of the praise poet was confined to men, it is perhaps no surprise that no surviving cywyddau praising patrons are attributed to her.
However, as the ymryson was a practice central to bardic culture during the period of the cywydd, it is clear that Gwerful successfully earned a foothold in that particular bardic space.
Given the confidence, skill and originality characterizing other verse by her, one wonders if she might not have succeeded in being accepted as a praise poet as well, had she chosen to compose that kind of poetry.
Perhaps she was content to leave that more formulaic verse to men and use her bardic talents for more original endeavours.
Gwaith Gwerful Mechain ac eraill, ed. N. A. Howells (2001).
Katie Gramich (ed. and trans.), The Works of Gwerful Mechain (2018).
Welsh Womens’ Poetry 1450-2001, edited by Katie Gramich a Catherine Brennan (2003).
Cathryn Charnell-White, Beirdd Ceridwedn – Blodeugerdd Barddas o Ganu Menywod hyd tua 1880 (2005).
Catch up with all the previous episodes in this series here
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