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Y Gynghanedd  /З: gΛŋˈhaneδ/ – The Sound of Welsh
Aled Llion, Katolicki Universytet Lubelski


This is a representation of a presentation given in the ‘New Directions’ conference at Pu³awy. While the presentation relied heavily on music and recitation to convey its theme, this paper attempts differently to introduce the reader very generally to some aspects of modern Welsh literature, and certain political or ideological implications therein. It will thus provide a certain insight into part of what is – as long as the term has any valid meaning – ‘British Culture’.

One always expects to come across a degree of retrospection in the corners of cultural production, but it may be considered unlikely – especially in any ‘post-post-modern’ British Isles – to find the present vitally and consciously wrapped in the clothes of the past, of the long past; of the Middle Ages. It is convenient, if perhaps exclusive, to use the term ‘medievalism’ to label such a prominent and especially vital aspect of contemporary Welsh culture. Certainly, writers have long used, and referred to, themes from distant centuries (naturally, perhaps, hopes of autonomy or independence often thrived on visions pre-1282, before Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s headless body became an emblem for Wales’ own situation), but at least equally interesting is how not merely the content, but the form, of much modern literary production borrows consciously from models which are up to, and over, a thousand years old. Central to all this – to a cultural, historical, traditional and political vision – is sound, the sounds of the Welsh language. Surprisingly, perhaps, we shall use a recent pop song, Y Sŵn (‘The Sound’) from the Album Gedon by Bob Delyn a’r Ebillion,[1] to further elucidate these ideas.

Awn ni o ma i le uchel,                               /ˈaƱni: ˈɔ:ma ˈi:le: ˈi:χel/

We will go from here to a high place,

Draw i ffridd yr adar ffraeth; /ˈdrawi: ˈfri:δ Λrˈadar fraıθ/

Over to the field of the gay birds;

Rhown ein dwylo ar hen delyn,                    /ˈrhɔƱneın ˈdujlɔ ˈarhen ˈdelın/

We will place our hands on an old harp,

Efo clustiau llym rhwng y trum a’r traeth;     /evɔˈklıstje ɬım ˈrhuŋΛ ˈtrıma:r traıθ/

With sharp ears between the ridge and the beach;

Wnawn ni ddisgwyl,                                   /ˈnaƱni: ˈδısgujl/

We will await,

Disgwyl am y sŵn.                                     /ˈdısgujl ˈamΛ su:n/

Await the sound.

The first six lines quoted above explicitly exemplify an appeal to four aspects of identity sought by those who wait: tradition and music, both symbolised by the harp (a potent national symbol for the Welsh as well as the Irish and Breton peoples); the natural surroundings, and thus the locality (of Wales, or of any smaller area with which one may identify) and of course y sŵn itself. Just what y sŵn is may be interpreted variously, and in the context of the song it may be seen to represent an almost intangible presence underlying nationhood and identity. While asking just how the sound might come, the song appeals to Welsh industrial, literary and religious history, utilising the focal points of the puritanical influence of Methodism; Wales’ central rôle in the Industrial Revolution; and the opposition between the sensuous love poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1340-70), and the censorious verse of Siôn Cent (fl. 1400-30):

Ella daw fel cri’r pregethwyr,

Mewn hetiau duon a ‘sgidiau bach du:

Llosgwch y crwth, rhowch heibio’r ddawns; 

‘Dach chi’n gw’bod bod hi’n bechod treulio’r Sul yn chwara’. [...]

[Perhaps it will come as the cry of the preachers, / in black hats and small black shoes: / burn the crooth, put away the dance- / you know it’s a sin to play on Sunday.]


Ella daw fel llais dyn haearn [...]

[Perhaps it will come like the voice of an iron man]


Ella daw’n chwardd fel Dafydd ap Gwilym

Ym mreichiau’r morynion clws o hyd.

Ella daw fel cwyn Siôn Cent,

Yn bwrw ei sen am ben y byd.[2]

[Perhaps it will come laughing, like Dafydd ap Gwilym / always in the arms of beautiful maids. / Perhaps it will come like the complaint of Siôn Cent, / levelling his ire at the world]


Further, as suggested earlier, perhaps the sound is precisely the sound of the language, an essential aspect of Welsh nationhood and identity. Additional to the four explicit references mentioned above, which clearly affirm the rôle of our past in Wales’ present, is a fifth presence, implicitly taking us back to the time of Dafydd ap Gwilym and beyond.

The Welsh language emerged out of Brythonic in around the sixth century, following the fall of Latin as the major language of insular authority; and the earliest surviving poetry of Britain, itself composed in Welsh in the region which is now Southern Scotland and Northern England, dates from a time not far removed from this.[3] This stress-based poetry shared the common European embellishments of rhyme and alliteration, but soon developed into syllabic poetry with a unique complexity of form which, due to the strictures of the legally-sanctioned bardic order, was strictly regularised and standardised among the professional poets. Tony Conran comments that,

[t]he strict metres are the pride of Welsh poetry: even now they exert a fascination which is difficult for a foreigner to understand.... In a language as filigree as Welsh rules are not mere vanity, extravagance of spirit or denial of nature for the sake of arid artifice. They are the birthright of poetry, a mode of being human, a sharpening of the mind. Prosody, in Welsh, to some extent took the place of the play of ideas in more intellectually orientated cultures.[4]

Fundamental to the strict metres of poetry is cynghanedd, a word which literally means ‘harmony’, and which refers to the way in which sounds are utilised within a line of poetry, providing an alternative metrical pattern to effectively offset over-emphasis of the main rhyme. Y Sŵn exemplifies each of the four different kinds of cynghanedd in its first four lines:

i)   Awn ni o ma i le uchel
                i           i    /i/

Cyghanedd Lusg consists of internal rhyme, the penultimate syllable rhyming with a previous syllable. In this particular case, the rhyme is double.


ii)         Rhown ein d:WYlo / ar hen d:Elyn
rh      n       d        l   /   r h  n d    l

Cynghanedd Groes sees the consonants before the caesura being entirely echoed after the caesura. Also, the main stressed vowels on either side (capitalised) must be of different classes.


iii)        Draw i ffr:Idd / yr adar ffr:AEth
dr         ffr        /        d r  ffr

Cynghanedd Draws is similar to Groes, but some consonants are left unanswered in the middle.


iv) Efo clustiau llym / rhwng y tr:Um / a’r tr:AEth
                          ym /                      um /
                                            /       tr        /        tr

Cynghanedd Sain incorporates internal rhyme and consonant patterning: the line is in three, and part one rhymes with part two, while part two forms cynghanedd with part three. Notice that main vowels are again of different qualities.

Thus a pop song composed in the late twentieth century follows rules laid down for the composition of court poetry during the period of Welsh independence. This is perhaps the deepest level of traditional reference possible above the level of the language itself; and since it is arguable that cynghanedd is enabled – or, at least, greatly facilitated – by the grammar of Welsh (Welsh word-initial consonants undergo semantically-dependent mutation such that, for example, the word cân (‘song’) may become gân, chân or nghân: thus giving the poet far greater freedom than may be inferred) as well as its sonic properties (vowels in Welsh are much more consistently clear than, for example, English or Irish), it can seem that cynghanedd, as poetry, emphasises the patterns of sound and rhythm which are the essence of Welsh, which are of the language and which are the language itself.

This essential connection, no less than the simple beauty of sound which results from its practice, is partly responsible for the conscious use by modern nationalist poets of cynghanedd and the strict metres, the form being seen as itself a useful and potent “medium of political propaganda”,[5] in the spirit of which Ceri Wyn Jones sang, in his poem entitled Y Gynghanedd[6] (itself written in the strict cywydd metre, and thus, naturally, utilising cynghanedd):

Hi yw cell ein rhyddid caeth,           /hi: ıu keɬ eın ˈrhΛδıd kaıθ/
Hi boen ein hannibyniaeth.  /hi: b
ɔın eın hani:ˈbΛnjaıθ/
[it is the cell of our captive freedom, / it is the pain of our independence]

Since the Welsh language has been under distinct and wilful threat since at least the time of Wales’ political incorporation into England in 1536, and suffered almost terminal decline during the earlier part of this century, it is unsurprising that it has frequently been politicised and symbolised. Following a steady growth in nationalist awareness through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the fight for the language assumed renewed vigour following Saunders Lewis’ 1962 radio broadcast, Tynged yr Iaith (‘The Fate of the Language’) which called for the adoption of revolutionary political means to safeguard the language. The direct result of Lewis’ speech was the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (‘The Welsh Language Society’), a non-violent direct action protest group whose activities have preceded – almost without exception – subsequent improvements in the status of Welsh, including the legalising of Welsh road-signs; the establishment of a Welsh language TV station, and in 1993, the passing of the Welsh Language Act, which almost succeeded in giving Welsh full equality with English.

Accompanying the huge surge in national consciousness and action came a renewal of interest in the traditional poetic forms; it is claimed that more poets in Wales today practise the strict metres than at any point in the past. Barddas, the bi-monthly magazine of the strict-metre poetry society, has the second greatest circulation of any poetry magazine in Britain (and that for a ‘minority’ art-form in a minority tongue, with a possible circulation of less than one percent of that of English-language journals in Britain).[7] And while Talwrn y Beirdd, a weekly poetry competition in the spirit of the old ymrysonau (bardic fights, reputedly even to the death) has moved from radio to television, Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (‘The National Eisteddfod of Wales’), the annual festival of arts, has as its climaxes the ceremonies of the crowning and chairing of the best poets in free verse and the strict metres respectively. Around the country, smaller eisteddfodau see chairs being given to poets of lesser fame (the chair represents a tradition dating to the competition between poets for the politically-supreme chair at the side of the prince at court), and poetry in performance is also increasing in popularity: it is almost as common to see bards gigging in Welsh towns as musicians (frequently, of course – as we have seen from the example of Twm Morys, aka Bob Delyn, and is true for a large number of contemporary performers – poets are also musicians, and the arts are combined).

This is far from claiming that poetry has a solely political function in Wales. The point is arguable of course, whether any activity in a language under threat can be without political implication, and it may thus be reassuring to some that even the support of the stream of thought which might be labelled Welsh Nationalism is far from asserting the dark racism threatened by extremists of other cultures (no person has died at the hands of the distinctly pacifist Welsh brand of nationalism since the revolt of Owain Glyndŵr which reached its peak in 1406). Nationalism aside, the arts – and even strict metre poetry – have perhaps their most important manifestations at the most local of levels and for the purposes of local and personal expression. Welsh gravestones are frequently adorned with an englyn (a complex four-line stanza involving full cynghanedd  in each line), composed by a bardd gwlad (literally ‘country poet’), one of the many unprofessional practitioners of the tradition, whose poems are also to be found in abundance in the local newspapers and newsletters; and classes in cynghanedd are held throughout Wales, featuring on some of the more interesting secondary school curricula. To quote Ceri Wyn Jones again,[8]

hi gyfoes, hi oes a aeth                  /hi: ˈgΛvɔıs, hi:ˈɔıs a: ˈaıθ/
hi’r nwyf er ei hynafiaeth     /hi:r
ˈnujv eri: hΛˈnavjaıθ/
[it is contemporary, it is an age which has passed / it is the passion despite its antiquity]

Welsh, by far the healthiest and most vigorous of the surviving Celtic languages, was shown by the 1991 census to be spoken by some 20% of the population of Wales as a whole (c.500,000). In some regions, the percentage rises to over 80%, and indeed, the majority of the geographical area of Wales has percentages of speakers considerably higher than that of the national average. Due to the increase in Welsh-medium education since 1991, it is to be expected that the number will rise by the time of the next census in 2001. However, there are many pressing factors which complicate the situation far beyond the appraisal of numbers, and the future of Welsh (and thus of cynghanedd), as of all lesser-used languages, remains uncertain in the long term. Many observers are especially interested in the effect which the recent establishment of the National Assembly in Cardiff may have on the language, fearing a result similar to that experienced when the Republic of Ireland attained independence from Britain, to the obvious detriment of the native tongue. It is perhaps ironic that liberty, so long craved, may in the long run be detrimental; and here, once again, cynghanedd provides a metaphor. Although experiments have been performed in other languages (Gerard Manley Hopkins is the most notable English poet to have been heavily influenced by Welsh poetics; but contemporary Welsh poets have created interesting bilingual and English strict verse), it remains intrinsic to, and inseparable from Welsh. Almost certainly the strict rules would – as Hopkins found – have to be slackened for export; and the ‘imprisoned’ metres (‘mesurau caeth’ in Welsh) would on liberation to a wider audience risk being less Welsh, with y sŵn being another, no matter how long awaited, and from however high.

[1] Available on Sain Records.

[2] Of these lines, this is the only one to contain strict cynghanedd, it being Cynghanedd Sain; touches of cynghanedd, however, and simpler poetic devices such as alliteration and rhyme, etc., are present throughout. (see below for an explanation of cynghanedd).

[3] See for an excellent introduction, Tony Conran, Welsh Verse (Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1992).

[4] Tony Conran, op. cit.,  p. 312.

[5] Dafydd Johnston in Dafydd Johnston (ed.), Modern Poetry in Translation 7 (London: King’s College London, 1995), Introduction.

[6] ll 9-10, from Cywyddau Cyhoeddus 1 ed. Iwan Llwyd and Myrddin ap Dafydd (Cyhoeddiadau Barddas, 1994), p. 16

[7] See T. Gerald Hunter, The genealogy of the cell angel: contemporary Welsh political poetry, p. 71, in Comparative Criticism, 19 (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 71-96. Hunter takes the figures from an editorial by John Rowlands in Taliesin, 94 (Summer, 1996), p. 4, noting, while making the case for the vitality of contemporary Welsh literature, that Taliesin, the literary magazine of the Welsh Academy, has a circulation which compares favourably with that achieved by F. R. Leavis’s Scrutiny.

[8] Y Gynghanedd, in Cywyddau Cyhoeddus 1

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