Session 99: Ystafell 3
Barddoniaeth Gymraeg ganoloesol / Medieval Welsh poetry

Sponsored by: CSANA

Chair: Cathryn Charnell-White

Constructing enigma in Early Welsh gnomic poetry

Joseph Shack
Harvard University

Medieval gnomic poetry, comprised of short, seemingly simplistic universal statements, remains a contentious subject, with nearly as many theories regarding its function, meaning, and structure as there are articles and monographs on the subject. Although formative works by Jackson and Higley have contributed much to our understanding of the genre, concentrated studies on the medieval Welsh reflex of the tradition encompass only a small subset of such scholarship, and much work remains to be done. By examining the lexical ambiguity and specific syntactic structures deployed in two key gnomic poems, the Bidiau and Llym Awel, this paper will examine the ways in which medieval Welsh poets cultivated the opacity that characterizes the gnomic genre. Despite the seemingly straightforward statements that such poems convey, ambiguity and complication seethe just below the surface of their respective texts. For example, the form of bot used in gnomes such as, 'Bit avwy unbenn a bit lew' (Bidiau I), can function as a consuetudinal present verb, a future, and imperative, producing three possible meanings and communicating various tenses and aspects within an economically-constructed line. Similarly, the lack of a complementary copula in, 'Oer [guely] lluch rac brythuch gaeaw' (Llym Awel) conveys an ineffable timelessness that gestures toward a universalizing ethos. My paper will argue that such constructions were intentionally deployed by the poets who composed them, and by means of lexical, structural, and semantic ambiguities, medieval Welsh gnomic poetry might be viewed as cultivating an intentionally opaque or enigmatic aesthetic.

Productive ambiguity in the Poetry of the Princes

Catherine McKenna
Harvard University

Since the publication in 1930 of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, modern and postmodern literary criticism has been interested in questions of ambiguity, plurisignation, polysemy, and other conceptualizations of simultaneous multiple meaning in literature. This kind of approach lends itself particularly well to the study of Barddoniaeth y Tywysogion, There is nothing anachronistic about the notion that twelfth-century poets were capable of the conscious use of creative ambiguity, as the phenomenon of polysemy was well recognized in that period by writers such as John of Salisbury. 

Several aspects of the syntax employed by the Poets of the Princes in their verse—the pre-position of dependent genitives, the adjectival use of substantives, the neologistic formation of compounds, the preference for verbal nouns rather than conjugated verb forms—are famously difficult to decode with anything like unequivocal certainty. This paper will argue that productive ambiguity is fundamental to the art of the Beirdd y Tywysogion, and not merely a by-product of the metrical demands of their craft.  It will be suggested that readers and critics need to concentrate their efforts more on reading their poems, and less on paraphrase and translation, necessary as these exercises may be. Passages from the poetry of Cynddelw will constitute most of the evidence offered, although the techniques under discussion are by no means unique to him. 

Ar drywydd y tawddgyrch cadwynog, tour de force y beirdd
In pursuit of the tawddgyrch cadwynog, the poets’ tour de force

Ann Parry Owen
Canolfan Uwchefrydiau Cymreig a Cheltaidd

Niwlog iawn yw ein gwybodaethamaddysg a chydberthynas y beirdd yng Nghymru’r Oesoedd Canol. Er y gallwn gysylltu ambell fardd ag athro barddol penodol, yn anaml y ceir prawf sicr o’r fath berthynas. Gan mai ystrydeb gan y beirdd yw cyfeirio at gyd-fardd, yn enwedig un hŷn, fel athro, ni allwn roi gormod o goel ar eu geiriau eu hunain. Nid yw natur a chynnwys yr addysg farddol yn eglur ychwaith, ac yn sicr nid yw’r gramadegau barddol sydd wedi goroesi yn cynnig ‘addysg gyflawn’ i brentis o fardd, nac yn rhoi i ni ddisgrifiad cyflawn o’u crefft.

Mewn gwirionedd ceir llawer gwell syniad am ‘reolau’ tybiedig cerdd dafod drwy astudio arferion y beirdd eu hunain yn eu cerddi, a defnyddio’r dystiolaeth honno i atgynhyrchu’r rheolau, neu eu gramadeg os mynnir, fel y gwnaeth John Morris Jones i raddau helaeth yn achos ei ddisgrifiad o’r mesurau a’r gynghanedd yn Cerdd Dafod (1925).

Bwriad y papur hwn yw gweld beth (os unrhyw beth) y gallwn ei ddysgu am addysg a chydberthynas y beirdd drwy gyfyngu ein sylw i un nodwedd benodol, sef y tawddgyrch cadwynog, tour de force y beirdd, a dilyn hynt a datblygiad y mesur hwnnw yn eu canu ar hyd y cenedlaethau, o ddechrau’r 14g (pan ddyfeisiwyd ef gan Einion Offeiriad) hyd hanner cyntaf yr 16g.


Our knowledge about the education and inter-relationships of medieval Welsh poets is very unclear. Although we can associate some poets with particular poetic teachers, those relationships can rarely be proven, especially as a poet would often refer to a fellow poet, especially an older one, as his teacher (athro). The nature and content of apoet’seducation is also unclear, and we can be certain that the surviving bardic grammars do not offer a ‘complete education’ for an apprentice poet, nor do they provide us with a comprehensive description of the bardic craft.

A much better idea of the ‘poetic rules’ can be achieved by studying the poets’ own practices in their poems and then using that evidence to reproduce their poetic grammar, as John Morris Jones did as regards the description of metres and cynghanedd in his Cerdd Dafod (1925).

The aim of this paper is to see what we can learn (if anything) about the education and inter-relationships of the poets by focussing on one particular feature, namely the tawddgyrch cadwynog metre, the poets’ tour de force, and by following its development from the beginning of the fourteenth century (when it was devised by Einion Offeiriad) until the first half of the sixteenth century.