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Yr Hen Iaith part twenty two: The end of the world as we knew it

03 Sep 2023 8 minute read
The Death of Llywelyn. From ‘Flame Bearers of Welsh History’ (1905)

Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch’s elegy for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

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

Jerry Hunter

No Welsh poem is more iconic than Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch’s marwnad (‘elegy’) for Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. When Llywelyn was killed in 1282, his death heralded the end of the Edwardian conquest of Wales. Often referred to as ein llyw olaf, ‘our last leader’, by Welsh speakers, the medieval prince holds a prime place in modern Welsh political imagination as a symbol for national loss.

Enhanced by the protest poetry composed by Gerallt Lloyd Owen during the 1960s (and by the awdl which won him the chair in the 1982 National Eisteddfod), Llywelyn has occupied a unique place in a nexus bringing together political thought, articulations of identity and the Welsh literary tradition.

This powerful emotive engine is also fuelled by several elegies composed around the time of Llywelyn’s death in 1282, the most potent of which is the marwnad by Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch.

When I first met this podcast’s co-presenter, Richard Wyn Jones, he had a poster on his wall with this poem on it. I recognized the text immediately; it was part of the canon of Welsh literature introduced to me while studying English literature in the U.S.A. before coming to Wales to study Welsh.

I was soon to see other copies of that poster around Wales, stuck with blue tack on walls in university halls of residence and hanging, framed, in offices and houses. It is indeed hard to think of a single Welsh literary text which is more iconic.

Powerful

It is not merely the historical significance of this poem which makes it so powerful; while praise poetry by the Poets of the Princes is often strictly bound by generic conventions, this marwnad is arrestingly passionate and personal.

Like other praise poems from the period, this composition is an awdl (a variation of the word odl, ‘rhyme’), and, while most long awdlau are divided into sections, each defined by a separate prifodl or ‘main rhyme’, this elegy uses the same prifodl throught, -aw.

While the sound is of course used as parts of many different words and thus helps convey many different meanings, its repetition also captures the listener’s ears, focusing the mind on that aw sound. It becomes onomatopoeic, imitating the sound of crying.

Stark statement

The opening words establish this crying rhyme with a stark statement describing the terror brought by Llywelyn’s death: Oer galon dan fron o fraw, ‘a cold heart beneath a breast of fear’.  The grief expressed is intensely personal –

Gwae fi o’r clywed fod clywf arnaw ,‘Woe’s me, hearing that he is rent’ (and while ‘woe’s me’ is a good literal translation of gwae fi, it rings in a jarringly cliché way in which the Welsh words do not; perhaps a more poetic translation would be ‘Mine is the anguish’).

This mourning is anchored in a construction of the poet’s own persona, as Gruffydd owns the effects of the death: Ys mau llid wrth Sais am fy nhreisiaw, ‘Mine is anger at an Englishman for despoiling me’.

Great poetry is often personal in a way which invites others into that private sphere, the voice of the poet’s persona speaking for the community as well as for himself, making the reception of the text both personal and communal at the same time. (Think, for example, of some of the most popular hymns by Anne Griffiths and Williams Pantycelyn which express religious experience in a markedly personal – even intimate – way, while also being well suited to communal singing and a congregation’s collective affirmation of faith.)

Gruffydd also foregrounds the national implications of Llywelyn’s loss, stating that there is ‘Many a pitiful cry, as when Camlan took place’ (Llawer llef druan fel pan fu Gamlan).

See the 14th article in this series for a discussion of Camlan, the ‘Arthurian Apocalypse’; this poet draws upon traditional narrative commonly known in Wales at the time in order to equate the end of a very real Welsh political era with the end of that legendary Arthurian world.

As many readers have noted over the years, this poem is overly apocalyptical, as the poet imagines that Llywelyn’s death brings destructive chaos to the natural world:

Poni welwch chwi hynt y gwynt a’r glaw?
Poni welwch chwi’r deri yn ymdaraw?
Poni welwch chwi’r môr yn meirwinaw’r tir?

‘Do you not see the way of the wind and the rain?
Do you not see the oak tress striking together?
Do you not see the sea gnawing away the land?’

Threatened at first by worrying signs, the apocalypse becomes overt:

Poni welwch chwi’r gwir yn ymgweiriaw?
Poni welwch chwi’r sŷr wedi’r syrthiaw?

‘Do you not see the truth preparing itself?
Do you not see that the stars have fallen?’

End times

Like the last book of the New Testament, Revelations, the ‘truth’ (gwir) of the end times is manifest in Llywelyn’s death.

Gruffydd then asks ‘stupid little men’ (dyniadon ynfyd) if they do not thus believe in God, before intensifying the Christian mechanism at work in this part of the poem by directing his grieving complaint directly to the Almighty – Och hyd atat ti, Dduw, ‘A cry to you, God’ – beseeching Him to let ‘sea come [over] land’ (‘môr dros dir’) and asking ‘Why are we left lingering?’ (Pa beth y’n gedir i ohiriaw?).

Apocalyptic

The apocalyptic nature of the poem is crystalized memorably in a line which is spectacularly simple and complex at one and the same time: Poni welwch chwi’r byd wedi’r bydiaw?’.

Here we have the word byd, ‘world’, twice, once as the noun and once as the root of the verb bydiaw (bydio in Modern Welsh). According to Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, this verb can mean ‘to exist’, ‘to live’, ‘to fare’ or ‘to flourish’.

The earliest example cited in that excellent resource is from the late 16th or early 17th century; this example predates GPC’s citation by three centuries and thus might mean something slightly different (and here’s a humble plea to the busy GPC staff to amend that entry!).

While this line could be translated as ‘Do you not see the world after the living’ (or, perhaps, as ‘after life’ or ‘after existence’), we might render it more literally as ‘Do you not see the world after [the end of the state of] being a world’. Y byd wedi’r bydiaw is a profound negation of the state of being.

Given the Christian thinking imbuing many of this poem’s lines, it comes as no surprise to learn that Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch was primarily a religious poet. That, at least, is the conclusion drawn from examining his other surviving poems.

He was ‘the son of the Red Magistrate’ (ab yr Ynad Coch), and belonged to a family known for their expertise in native Welsh law. Gruffydd might have been a practicing legal professional like his father and other relatives, and he might have been a clergyman as well.

Passionate verse

Little is known about the life of the poet, but Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch’s editor, Rhian Andrews, has drawn attention to one intriguing historical fact.

About five years before the campaign which ended in Llywelyn’s death, Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch was given £5 (a large sum in the 13th century) for unspecified services rendered to Edward I.

Did our poet provide information to the English king about Welsh law? Did he help in negotiations between Edward and various Welsh factions and/or religious establishments? Was he a spy? Or did he serve the king of England directly in an extended military or administrative capacity?

We don’t know, but one thing is certain: the man who mourned Llywelyn in such powerfully passionate verse had been rewarded a few years previously by the Anglo-Norman king ultimately responsible for Llywelyn’s death.

Rhian Andrews suggests that guilt helps drive the passion of this poem, and it’s hard not to agree with her. Remembering the combination of personalized grief and apocalyptical tones used to colour this elegy, we might also suggest that Gruffydd places himself in the process negating the world to which he belonged, taking some responsibility for the byd wedi’r bydiaw.

Darllen pellach / further reading:

Rhian M. Andrews (ed.), Gwaith Bleddyn Fardd a beirdd eraill ail hanner y drydedd ganrif ar ddeg (Cardiff, 1996)

Beverley Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd: Prince of Wales (Cardiff, 1998)

Catch up on the previous episodes here.


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Geoffrey Harris
Geoffrey Harris
7 months ago

Brilliant piece, thank you very much for that.

sue.jones davies
sue.jones davies
1 month ago

Wych…mae’r gyfres hon mor addysgiadol a dwi’n mwynhau pob pennod.

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