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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)

W J Gruffydd : Poet, Literary Critic, Mythographer

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:

Gwerful Fychan

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).


  1. I didn't know Gruffydd was a poet. I was intrigued by his representation of the poor man being attuned to 'the murmur of bees in the vineyards of Arawn' and 'the choir of Rhiannon’s birds' suggesting he saw them as connected with one another and with Caer Siddi. I wonder whether there are more associations between them I haven't come across in the folk memory of Wales?...

    1. I think there were various associations in the folk memory, as evidenced by variant references in the later medieval bards and other literary sources, but how much has now survived in the folk memory even of such figures as Gwerful Fychan, which Gruffydd would have known at the end of the nineteenth century, is debatable. His association of Arawn and Rhiannon's Birds was probably as much to do with personal intuition and poetic expression as anything specific that he knew apart from the literary sources.

  2. Gruffydd sounds like he was an affable man, and the goals he had for his scholarship were laudable. Your description of him reminds me of my beloved hero Gerard Murphy.

    The wistfulness of his sampled poetry are pleasant to read - they don't come off as overly earnest or angst-y despite there apparent subject matter, which as a simpleton I find to my liking. His writing has the ring of genuineness about it that's more difficult to master in my humble opinion; or perhaps I'm just naturally deceitful, lol. (But no in all seriousness I also try to be forthright, it builds character.)


What do you think?