In the Foreword to The Burning Tree, his collection of early Welsh poems and parallel text translations (*), Gwyn Williams argues that the structural patterns of cynghanedd and other features of Welsh literature are distinguishable from literature in English in the same way that Celtic art forms, with their interwoven patterns, are different from artistic practices based on a clear linear form and consecutive presentation. Where there is no no single centre of focus, but rather a number of juxtaposed focal points, what happens in a corner is as important as what happens between the corners. So any sense of a ‘centre’ is spatially dispersed. Often, themes or images are linked in ways which might appear to be incongruous, but in fact reflect a different way of seeing things in relation to each other. This, Gwyn Williams maintains, “distinguishes Dafydd ap Gwilym from Chaucer, John Donne from Ben Jonson, Dylan Thomas from W H Auden”. It is a distinction that arises from “a different view of composition” from that usually found in writing in English based on precepts taken from Greek and Latin. But, he says, the early Welsh poets “were not trying to write poems that would read like Greek temples or Gothic cathedrals but, rather, like stone circles or the contour-following rings of the forts from which they fought, with hidden ways slipping from one to another.”
For a modern example in English he cites the prologue to Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems which is constructed of 52 lines of verse with a returning rhyme scheme radiating backwards and forwards from a rhyming couplet at its centre. Dylan Thomas wrote this apparently spontaneously under a late deadline pressure after failing to meet the publisher’s request for the expected prose prologue. Gwyn Williams finds the technique to be most consciously adopted in modern practice in English in the work of David Jones (whose long poem The Anathemata can be seen as structured in just that contoured way with ‘hidden’ links between spatially remote sections - see my post on his work HERE). Gwyn Williams also suggests that such effects can be observed in David Jones’ visual art, in which “a dimension is created which is unachievable in the classical convention”.
|David Jones : Vexilla Regis, Pencil & Watercolour|
As if to return the compliment of this praise for his work, David Jones is known to have used Gwyn Williams’ book in his own studies of early Welsh poetry. His copy of it, now housed with the rest of his books in an archive in The National Library of Wales (**), contains annotations to aid his own interpretation of the medieval Welsh texts, in particular of the Marwnad for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd which David Jones used for his painted inscription beginning Cara Wallia Derelicta:
Many years after the publication of that book, Gwyn Williams approached me to ask if I would be interested in publishing an article by him in The Anglo-Welsh Review, a journal of which I was then the editor. The article was entitled ‘The Paganism of Welsh Poetry’ (***) and it in he develops further his view of the distinctiveness of poetry in Welsh, this time in its subject matter rather than its formal structure. It may be a surprising assertion to some, given the amount of religious poetry that exists in Welsh, and the prevalence of the chapel in the social life of Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But his contention is that the spirit of Welsh poetry remained essentially pagan through the medieval period and beyond to the present. He cites “the delight in flowers, in birds, in the sea in its many moods, in wine and dancing, in love and sex, in the glory of the world…”. He sees a perceived closeness to Annwn, the Other World, as being more apparent than a perception of Heaven or Hell, and a sense of it being present in the natural world, and of being able to inhabit it without going to a place of formal worship. Dafydd ap Gwilym, he reminds us, often uses the language of the Church to celebrate a delight in nature as in his ‘Woodland Mass’. He finds the same emphasis in the urge to transcend time, asserting “what we have been conditioned to think of as past and even future is with us now, in this present redistribution of the human elements and in this marvellous world about us, a world our Welsh poets have spectacularly glorified.”
Like a slip-knot, a diversion in an interlaced design, a hidden corner of a landscape, a diverted path between those contour-following rings, time also slips, stills, falls through a barely-perceived gap, so that past and future are present in Annwn and here with us in the shared insight of the awenydd’s craft of shaping.
(*) The Burning Tree : Poems from the First Thousand Years of Welsh Verse, Selected and translated by Gwyn Williams (Faber, 1956)
(**) I spent many days browsing these often annotated books while a post-graduate student working on David Jones.
(***) ‘The Paganism of Welsh Poetry’ by Gwyn Williams The Anglo-Welsh Review No. 75, 1984, pp.70-80.