What it actually says on the gravestone of W J Gruffydd (1881-1954) is ‘Athro, Bardd, Llenor’ which indicates that he was a teacher, a poet and a man of letters. Why I have put it slightly differently in my heading will become apparent in what follows. He was initially a teacher, at first in a school and later in a university where he developed a career as a scholar. He published several volumes of poetry. His activities as a man of letters included his long-standing editorship of the Welsh literary journal Y Llenor and he was throughout his life an active player in the literary politics of Wales. But my characterisation of him as a mythographer is based on the perhaps surprising fact that, in his work on the texts of the medieval Welsh tales known as Mabonogi, he chose specifically not to write about them primarily as works of literature, but attempted to look behind the literary texts to reconstruct the mythology contained in the oral tales from which the literary texts were shaped. In his study of the First and Third Mabinogi tales, Rhiannon (1953) he states that his main concern is to reveal the “pure mythology … of the divine beings of the ancient world” rather than their “cultural significance” in the folklore and legend which embodied them and was in turn embodied in the work of literary creation by a single individual which became Y Mabinogi.
It was not only that he wanted to distance the literary text from its sources in oral tales and folklore, but that he also wanted to separate the elements of native lore and legend from the “Universal Myth” which he saw as the ultimate source: the story of the Great Mother and her child who is taken to the Otherworld and is later released. The literary tale, by contrast, has many other aspects, not least the artifice of the single creator who shaped it. But if he attempted a separation of anthropological and literary features in his role as a mythographer, he was also capable of fusing mythic themes into his own literary creations. Here is my translation of his poem ‘Y Tlawd Hwn’ which provides a mythical background to the chief literary aim of presenting an individual whose poverty does not deny him the riches of his visionary gift:
One Poor Man
Because the wind was troubled for a time
And the sound of weeping in the beating of the rain
An insinuating echo of affliction in resounding rhyme
Ringing through his soul again and again,
The heave of the distant ocean on a quiet evening
Affirming intimations from generations before
And the babble of the rivers awakening
The anguish of all the suffering that he bore —
He went, struck dumb, into a silent reverie
As his companions withdrew one by one
Leaving him to dwell in a great mystery
To listen to strange voices all alone.
He perceived beauty while his brothers
Called God’s curse upon foulness of the world,
He refused their pathway to Heaven
For the echo of enchanted pipes, barely heard
And the murmur of bees in the vineyards of Arawn
Heavy under honeyed dew on the valley bed
And hidden nectar of the dwellings that abound
In the golden ramparts of Caer Siddi overhead
Where he could feast in halls before his burial
And listen to the choir of Rhiannon’s birds sweetly
Singing through the entrances of pearl
Out to the oblivion of the eternal sea.
That was written in 1930 when he was nearly 50 years old. It’s form and structure is a development of his early inspiration by the romantic verse of the late nineteenth century. It also reflects his belief in the importance of the sensitive individual, from whatever class, who turns away from the commonplace concerns of the world to nurture an inner life. The same belief can be witnessed in a poem in the full romantic style written when he was a young man. The sonnet ‘Gwerful Fychan’ tells of a young woman in the 15th century whose poems had survived chiefly in the oral memory of North Wales rather than in the written record. Gruffydd’s imagined portrayal of her has as much to do with mythic reconstruction of local legend as it has to do with literary history. In the words of one critic it is based on “common belief rather than facts”[*]. But whatever it tells us about its subject it reveals much about Gruffydd’s idealisation of the gifted individual and the fragile temporality of the riches which come from having such a gift. Here is my translation of the sonnet:
In the spring of her days she saw the freshness
Of the world dancing past; on every crest
There was a crown of roses, and careless tresses
Lay soft and easy on each blessed breast;
On the breezes the scents of musk and wine
And intoxicating perfumes were concealed;
A thousand kisses ripened on lips divine
And every heart the joys of life revealed.
She took up her harp then to declaim
It all in song — her summer burgeoned,
Distilled the sun, the dew, the rain —
In immortal and audacious verse; then turned,
With a tear on her cheek, away from all delight
And walked bereft into the darkness of the night.
The Welsh texts translated from:
W. J. Gruffydd Detholiad o Gerddi. Golygwyd gan Bobi Jones (Caerdydd, 1991)
(*) “y gred cyffredin yn hytach na’r ffaith” ( Bobi Jones in the notes to the volume above).