What is a Cywydd?

An examination of the history, form and use of Cywydd; an ancient style of Welsh poetry.

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The Cywydd is one of the traditional forms of Welsh poetry, built upon a unique metre and rhyme scheme.

History

The twenty-four forms of Welsh poetry, called Y Pedwar Mesur ar Hugain in Welsh, developed as Middle Welsh emerged as a language in the 12th Century, though they were compiled and redefined at least once in the Late Middle Ages. Though we consider these forms to be ‘traditional,’ the accepted list does omit several older forms such as the Englyn Milwr.

Many of these forms were not used by professional poets, instead existing for occasional poems to prove the poet’s skill. In Celtic culture, the poet was awarded special status and training took at least nine years, thus the importance on the skill and craft.

The Cywydd is perhaps the most important of the forms, emerging in the 14th Century. It was highly favoured by the Poets of the Nobility (Cywyddwyr) and often used to praise the land-owning patrons. The patrons were rulers of the small kingdoms that made up Wales until 1282, as well as Normans who had integrated themselves into Welsh nobility. Before 1282, there were no shortage of courts that a professional poet or bard might find employment within, however as the kingdoms unified, the shortage of courts led to more focus on glorifying leaders, hoping to curry favour.

In an effort to ensure the continued quality of poetry—and thus the patronage of nobility—the poets organised themselves into a guild at the Caerwys eisteddfod of 1523. The eisteddfod (gathering of poets akin to a modern literary festival) evolved from earlier tournaments, in which apprentice poets and musicians would compete for a seat of honour in the households of noblemen. This practice could be seen as an ancient forebearer of the contemporary slam movement. However, at the eisteddfod of 1523, the guild developed a ranking system and began assigning grades to ensure certain levels of patronage according to rank and status. This meant that a poet would have to demonstrate mastery of certain forms in order to work for high-ranking officials, conveying titles such as ‘Bard of The King’s War Band.’

Though there exists a number of anonymous poems from this time, there are many poets whose work survives with credit. Dafydd ap Gwilym—believed to be the originator of the Cywydd—is often considered to be the greatest poet working in this era, though, as both his parents belonged to noble families, he was not a member of the guild of professional poets. Dafydd was an important innovative figure at the time, inserting himself into his work at a time when this was not the norm. By its nature as praise, many poems of the time focused solely on the many qualities of the patron, whilst Dafydd would talk about how great he thought they were. Though the difference is subtle, it nonetheless was key in poetry evolving from a social tradition into one where the poet’s own experiences and vision are at the centre. Dafydd would also write many poems about his lovers and nature, influenced by the troubadours of Provençal.

Women are notably absent from much of the existing work of the guild—membership was strictly reserved for men—however we do know that several women mastered the craft. Unfortunately, only one female poet’s work survives in great quantity, that of Gwerful Mechain. Gwerful was also from a noble house, enabling her to devote time to the study of poetry. Though she would write about religion extensively, it is her erotic work that is best known, critiquing male poets for celebrating so many parts of a woman yet ignoring ‘the middle,’ particularly in her poem Cywydd y Cedor (‘Poem to the Vagina’).

The Cywydd remained popular until the 17th Century, shortly after the introduction of the Bible into Welsh. As it had done when introduced in English, the Bible had a strong stabilising effect on the Welsh language and much of Welsh poetry began to shift toward the Christian tradition, resulting in a decline of the traditional forms in favour of hymns.

Form

Much of Welsh poetry uses Cynghanedd—a complex system of stresses, alteration and internal rhyme—the study of which justified the lengthy training process of the Welsh poets. There are four types of Cynghanedd, and within those forms, countless variations.

  1. Cynghanedd Groes (Cross Harmony): The consonants in the first half of a line repeat in the second half.
  2. Cynghanedd Draws (Partial Cross Harmony): The consonants in the first half of a line are repeated, however one or more consonants at the beginning of the second half of the line do not repeat.
  3. Cynghanedd Sain (Sound Harmony): A line is divided into three parts. The first part rhymes with the second part, and one or more consonants from the second part are repeated in the third part.
  4. Cynghanedd Lusg (Drag Harmony): The final syllable of the first part of a line rhymes with the penultimate syllable of the line.

The Cywydd consists of seven-syllable lines, arranged in rhyming couplets. There is no set requirement as to how many couplets are needed for a Cywydd, though typically ten or more are used. In rare cases, a Cywydd can be over a hundred lines long.

Within each couplet, a stressed syllable in one line must rhyme with an unstressed syllable in the other. This rhyme may differ across further couplets and a strict pattern is not essential, though many sub-forms of Cywydd exist with fixed rhyming patterns, such as the Cywydd Deuair Hirion, the most common form of Cywydd.

Cywydd Deuair Hirion

In a Cywydd Deuair Hirion, each line must contain seven syllables and follow an alternating-stressed end-rhyme scheme.

x x x x x x A
x x x x x X a

In this example, the letter X represents each syllable, with A representing the rhyming syllable. Capitals must be stressed syllables, whereas lowercase can be stressed or unstressed, though the lowercase a indicates the rhyme must be an unstressed syllable.

The form of rhyming is known as wrenched rhyme and is considered imperfect rhyme in English.

Cywydd Deuair Fyrion

This rare form uses four syllables per line, and uses wrenched rhyme again in its couplets. Traditionally, the stresses remain consistent throughout.

x x x A
x x x a
x x x B
x x x b

Again, X represents a syllable and A or B the relevant rhyme. Lowercase x indicates either stressed or unstressed, whereas a capital rhyme is stressed and lowercase unstressed.

Cywydd Llosgyrnog

Unlike many forms of Cywydd, there is a fixed length to a Cywydd Llosgyrnog. They are strictly sestets (six lined poems) and feature a complex, interlocking rhyme scheme. The first couplet has eight syllables. This is followed by a seven-syllable line, featuring a cross-rhyme with the first couplet on either the third or fourth syllable. Another couplet follows with eight syllables and a new rhyme, followed by a final line of seven syllables with a cross-rhyme again on the third or fourth syllable and a final rhyme coupled with the previous cross-rhyming line.

x x x x x x x a
x x x x x x x a
x x a x x x b
x x x x x x x c
x x x x x x x c
x x c x x x b

In this example, X represents a syllable and other letters are the rhymes. All syllables can be stressed or unstressed, as per the poet’s preference.

Awdl Gywydd

This form combines the Cywydd with another Welsh form, the Awdl. Each line features seven syllables and is arranged in stanzas of four lines (quatrains).

x x x x x x a
x x a x x x b
x x x x x x c
x x c x x x b

The cross-rhyme can fall on either the third of fourth syllable, as with the Cywydd Llosgyrnog

Use

The Cywydd began as a form to praise the patrons who supported Welsh poets and bards, however it always maintained a secondary use for satirical purpose, often in private competitions between poets. As with much of Welsh writing, nature themes are appreciated with a sense of wonder and awe.

Welsh poetry is a complex affair and is more suited for the advanced poet. Its use of strict rules led to its original fall from style, though the challenge has attracted writers and led to revivals in both the 18th and 19th Century.

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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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