The Rich Soil Of Welsh Poetry

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When the last truckload of coal reaches Cardiff, when the last black diamond is dug out of the earth of Glamorgan, there will be men then digging gems of pure brilliants from the inexhaustible mines of the literature and language of Wales.... - David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister

Today is St. David's Day in Wales, a holiday that celebrates the Welsh patron saint known as ``Dewi Sant.'' Patriotic Welshmen and women wear a wild leek - national emblem of Wales - in their buttonhole to remember their hero.

In this essay and the poem at left, two expatriate Welshmen - Godfrey John who lives in Canada, and Donald Mainwaring who lives in the United States - write of the fertile traditions and language of their homeland.

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IF there's a secret to ``lyrical living,'' the Welsh have found it. The roots go deep. Deep into the rich soil of Welsh poetry.

Wales is not so much a state of mind as the resonance of hungry hearts. In this land of song, it is the ear rather than the eye that channels feeling. From bard to coal miner, from chorus to conversation, words are the tangibles of experience; words are the shaping of ideas that sound.

The secret is ``Cynghanedd.''

Cynghanedd (pronounced ``kun-g'an-eth'') is a remarkable language structure. It means harmony. Dating from the 6th century, Cynghanedd has sprung its startling beauty off the Welsh tongue. Like exploring the echo chambers of words. Through the unique interplay of consonants and vowels, of rhymes and half rhymes, a lovely litany is created in a dialogue of nature with the heart. The lyrical warmth of Cynghanedd spills across communication into life itself.

While Cynghanedd, in all its sweet intricacy, has long been floating on the Welsh hearing, its influence has been felt in the English language. Listen to the way Dylan Thomas is giving us a hint of its effect as his fisherbird goes searching mournfully. In three lines, the relentlessness of that search is felt through the careful echoing of Thomas' vowels. Here the short e's and a's tap hauntingly on the ear:

... The elegiac fisherbird stabs and paddles In the pebbly dab-filled Shallow and sedge ...

In the Welsh tongue, Cynghanedd has a variety of forms. The most concise and epigrammatic is called the ``englyn.'' An englyn is only four lines long - with alliteration and assonance interweaving colorfully throughout. The englyn's brief flow of sound holds the ear with both its subtlety and its simplicity. One rule of this literary device demands that the closing couplet feature a stressed end syllable that, in turn, must rhyme or half rhyme with an unstressed end syllable.

And what is all this doing to the message? Those four lines must move without descending into literary exercise or mere description. They must be wings for a paradox, a truth....

Here's an example in current Welsh. It's the work of Alan Llwyd, contemporary master of the englyn form, writing about the ambivalence of his feelings for Wales, his mother country:

``Fy ing enfawr, fy ngwynfyd, fy mhryder, Fy mhradwys hyfryd; Ei charu'r wyf yn chwerw hefyd, A'i chasau'n serchus o hyd.''

Translation, someone! Let's turn to Anglo-Welsh novelist, Jan Morris. And this is what we have:

``My great agony, my bliss - my anxiety, My lovely paradise; I love her bitterly, too, And I hate her affectionately always.''

Of course, in the demands of translation, we lose much of the beauty of the Cynghanedd shafting and shading through the original Welsh.

Recently, I've been interested to see whether the englyn can survive in the English language. I'm not sure. The real test, of course, is to compose one's own englyn!

So the other night, I reached back across winter with the first Christmas in mind, seeking out a message for all seasons. With the relish of an obsessive ``puzzle-solver,'' I came up with the following verse. It's one sentence in four lines. The numbers in each line identify corresponding word echoes in the stressed syllables within the poem. Here we go:

Bethlehem englyn

Beneath the sheathing shadows, the warm breathing of cattle in the stall - in the sibilant night the light in a manger baby's cries steals down the centuries....

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