Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry

Katie Gramich
Cardiff University

Resources - Links


Welsh feminist press Honno:

It is a Welsh feminist newspaper, which was established in 1986 by a group on women in Wales. The aims of this newspaper was to publish books by women, with genre range from fiction, poetry, children’s books and autobiographical writing to reprints of classic titles in English and Welsh. Janet Thomas is the English language titles translator, and Gwenllïan Dafydd, is the Welsh language titles curator.

Gwerful Mechain:

Gwerful Mechain, is the most famous female Welsh-language poet of the Middle Age. She lived in Mechain, in Powys during the 1400s. Unfortunately very little is known about her life, but she’s the author of many important writing of her period. She wrote in the traditional strict metres, and her subjects were often a celebration of religion and sex, sometimes within the same poem. Today she is remembered for her most famous part of her work, her erotic poetry “Cywydd y Cedor” ("Ode to the Pubic Hair), a poem praising the vulva. Therefore, it is important to recognize that this is only one aspect of her work, she also composed religious “Cywyddau” and vaticinatory “Englynion” and was engaged in discourse poetry with poets such as Dafydd Llwyd of Mathafarn, Ieuan Dyfi and Llywelyn ap Gutun. Today some of her work is included in Dafydd Johnston, Medieval Welsh Erotic Poetry (Seren, 1998).
Bardic tradition of strict metre verse:

In early Welsh history, professional men of learning were organized in caste system, under various descriptions: draio (the Gaelic equivalent of 'druid'), fili, later file (poet-seer), breitheamh ('brehon', or lawgiver) and seanchaidh (historian-antiquarian). These terms possibly denoted various offices or duties of the highest orders in the professional hierarchy. This two class distinctions, resulted in a strong system of patronage for the filí while the lower levels of bards depended on what they could earn on a daily basis, the bard occupied a lower position. The filidh (plural of fili), were specialized in a particular form of poetry, which was linked to the vestiges of pagan religion. However, the bairds (plural of bard), had an honour-price only half that of a fili, and could claim nothing on the grounds of his status as a man of learning. The original function of the bard was to compose eulogy, his craft, bairdne (bardic verse) contrasting with the filidecht (sanchas poetry) of the fili. From about 1200 to 1650, the composers of the fili class used a highly elaborate and subtle metric system and a standard language (classical Gaelic). Poets were taught in schools, and it is believed that the period of training was seven years. This poetry comprises religious, love and Ossianic verse, which era known in English as “Bardic verse” its composers called themselves filidh, not baird; they knew that the word bard had connotations of low rank.


Source: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/mapimages/europe/wales/wales.gif

Flag of Wales

Source: http://www.enchantedlearning.com/europe/wales/flag/Flagbig.GIF

Wales is one of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. It is placed in the south-west of England. During the Roman occupation, the area was divided into many tribes, of which the Silures in the south-east and the Ordovices in the central and north-west areas were the largest and most powerful. Today, there are a lot of beautiful building of this roman period, for exemple, the legionary fortress at Caerleon (Isca), whose magnificent amphitheatre is the best preserved in Britain. In the 4th century, during the Roman occuoation, Christianity was introduced in this land, and after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Wales was divided into many kingdoms. In 1066, the country was conquered by Normans, and only in 1282 the king of Normans, Edward I of England, defeated Llywelyn the Last, Wales's last independent Prince. During this norman occupation many castles were built to mantein Wales under control. The best known are at Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy, and Harlech. In 1535, King Henry VIII of England, essued the Laws in Wales Act 1535, with whom wales was legally annexed to the England reign. In 20th century, an indipendent movement was led by Plaid Cymru, seeking greater autonomy for the region from England. In 1955, the term England and Wales became common for describing the area to which English law applied, and Cardiff was proclaimed as capital. In 1962 the Welsh Language Society was formed in response to fears that the language may soon die out. Nationalism grew and in the years leading up to the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969, these groups were responsible for a number of bomb blasts. In 1969, the Wales and Berwick Act 1746 was repealed for Wales, and a legal definition of Wales, and the boundary with England was stated. Today Wales is a bilingual country, the two official languages are English and Welsh. English is spoken by almost all people in Wales, but Welsh is also spoken by the 20.5% of the population. The Welsh Language Act 1993 and the Government of Wales Act 1998, provide that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on a basis of equality.
Canu Heledd (Heledd’s song):
Heledd's Lament, is probably the most famous of a set of poems written by “Anonymous”, of the 9th century in Wales. The term heledd, mean “salt pit” in welsh language, and it is a name that speaks of a taste of tears and sorrow. Very little is known about Heledd, we know only that she was one of nine sisters to Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn who also had twelve brothers. Cynddylan was known as "oppressor of the Cadelling", the family of Cadell Ddernllwy, who was the king of Powys. Cynddylan himself was King of Dogfeiling, and historical accounts tell that Cynddylan probably helped his brother Eluan usurp the Powys throne. Heledd’s poems are all in a woman voice, but is debated whether they were actually written by a woman. In ancient Wales there were not a lot of woman poet, but it is not impossible thst Heledd herself may have been the author.
Here is Heledd's Lament, "Eagle of Pengwern", written for her brother Cynddylan, mourning hisdeath and the destruction of their home.

"Eagle of Pengwern"

Eagle of Pengwern, grey-crested, tonight
Its shriek is high,
Eager for the flesh I love.

Eagle of Pengwern, grey-crested, tonight
Its call is high,
Eager for Cynddylan's flesh.

Eagle of Pengwern, it called far tonight,
It kept watch on men's blood;
Trenn shall be called a luckless town.

Eagle of Pengwern, it calls far tonight,
It feasts on men's blood;
Trenn shall be called a shining town.

Welsh Nonconformist:

The term Non-conformist was used in England after the issue of the Act of Uniformity, in 1662, to indicate an English subject belonging to a non-Christian church or any non-Anglican church. The term is also applied retrospectively to earlier English Protestants (such as Puritans) who violated the Act of Uniformity 1559, typically by practicing or advocating radical, sometimes separatist, dissent with respect to the established church. There were a lot of congregations which were considered Non-conformist like, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, at the time of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Later other groups formed they were also considered nonconformists. These included Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, and members of the Salvation Army, Calvinistic Methodist Church, Protestant Christian denomination, closely allied to Presbyterianism, which originated in Wales between 1735-36 with the evangelistic preaching of Howell Harris, Daniel Rowlands, and others. The Welsh Calvinistic Methodists also held their own vigorously and grew in numbers; Thomas Charles of Bala a leader of wide influence in religious and educational work. In 1811 they separated from the Established Church and set up a new church, Presbyterian in polity. Later, theological schools were founded at Bala and at Trevecca, and the church was formally guaranteed autonomy in 1933.

Source: http://www.data-wales.co.uk/view4.htm

This old chapel in Llanvaches was built on the site of the first Nonconformist outpost in Wales. The original building was established in 1639, as a Congregationalist chapel. The first Welsh Baptist chapel was at Ilston in Glamorgan and dates from 1649. The 1660 restoration of the monarchy in England was followed by religious intolerance and a severe regime lasted until the 1689 Toleration Act. The Quaker was another Non-conformist movement, established in 1668 and several writers have pointed out that Quakerism had an appeal to the Welsh landowning class of the time.

Ann Griffiths:

Source: http://www.caerdydd.ac.uk/resources/1326.1388.WELSH-pic1.jpg

This woman is regarded as one of the most important female figures in the history off Welsh literature. She lived during the 18th century religious revival in Wales, and is remembered for her literary production composed by Hymns and letters. She was born in 1776 at Dolwar-fach near Meifod in a farmhouse called Dolwar Fach. Her mother died when she was only 17 years old, and she took over the domestic running of the farm. Although she was brought up in the Anglican Church, Ann followed her brother to the Methodist movement after hearing the Rev. Benjamin Jones of Pwllheli preach in Llanfyllin in 1796. Dolwar Fach, in fact, in 1798 had become one of the main Methodist preaching centres and was officially declared as a place of worship in 1803. Ann married Thomas Griffiths, a farmer from the parish of Meifod and a Methodist Elder, and they made their home at Dolwar-fach in the parish of Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa, Montgomeryshire. They had also a daugther in july 1805, but she died two week later her birth. Ann herself died shortly afterwards, in 1805 when she was only 29 years old and was buried on 12 August 1805 at Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa. Her literary production includes 70 hymns and eight letters all showing her vision and her awareness of the human and spiritual experience. Of the eight letters that have survived, seven are copies of letters sent to leading Methodist preacher John Hughes of Pontrobert between 1800 and 1804, the eighth is from the same period but is the only surviving letter written by Ann herself. Among the finest and best known of her hymns are "Er mai cwbl groes I nature..", " O! am gael ffydd I edrych...", "Dymer baball y cyfamod...", and "Wele'n sefyll rhwng y myrtwydd...". Her longest hymn, "Rhyfedd, rhyfedd gan angylion..", has been described as one of the greatest religious poems in any European language.

Felicia Hemans:

Source: http://www.hobby-o.com/hemanssmall.jpg

Felicia Dorothea Hemans was an important British poet. She was born in Liverpool, her father's business soon brought the family to Denbighshire in North Wales, where she spent her youth. Her first poems, dedicated to the Prince of Wales, were published in Liverpool in 1808, when she was only fifteen, and attracted the attention of Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1812 she published "The domestic affections", and in this same year she married to Captain Alfred Hemans, an Irish army officer some years older than herself. They had five sons, but in six years they separated. Marriage had not, however, prevented her from continuing her literary career, with several volumes of poetry being published in the period after 1816. In 1819 was published "Tales and historic scenes”, and later she composed an elegy to Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, daughter and sole heir of the Prince of Wales, who had died in childbirth in 1817. In 1819, she won a competition for a poem on a Scottish historical theme, and this gained her the appreciation of the Scottish public. She produced also "The Vespers of Palermo". Afterwards, she wrote regularly for the Edinburgh Review. Another collection of poems, "Welsh melodies", included translations of Welsh poems, evidence that Felicia Hemans had a certain amount of knowledge of the language. In 1825, her brother got married and she with her son, was forced to move to Rhyllon, another house only a short distance away, from the latter. Two years later, her mother died and she visited the Lake district, where she worked with Wordsworth. From 1831 onwards, she lived in Dublin, where her younger brother had settled, and her poetic output continued. Her major collections, including "The forest sanctuary" (1825), "Records of woman" and "Songs of the affections" (1830) were immensely popular, especially with female readers. In this period she was a well-known literary figure. When she died of dropsy, in 1835, Wordsworth composed memorial verses in her honour. Felicia Hemans is now remembered chiefly for her poem, "Casabianca”.

Germaine Greer:

Source: http://www.dundee.ac.uk/pressreleases/photos/contactfeb05/p3_Greer%20.jpg

Germaine Greer is an Australian academic writer who is regarded as one of the most significant femenist voice of the 20th century. Recently retired as professor of English literature at the University of Warwick in England, and the author of several highly acclaimed books, like “The Female Eunuch” which became an international bestseller when it was published in 1970. She was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1939, growing up in the bayside suburb of Mentone. After attending a convent, Star of the Sea College, in Melbourne, she won a teaching scholarship in 1956 and enrolled at the University of Melbourne, where she graduated. Than, the moved to Sydney, where she became involved with the Sydney Push, a group of intellectual left-wing anarchists who practised non-monogamy. Using the nom de plume Rose Blight, she wrote a gardening column for the satirical magazine Private Eye, and as Dr. G, became a regular contributor to the underground London OZ magazine. In 1968, she married an Australian journalist Paul du Feu, but the marriage lasted only three weeks, and ended in divorce in 1973. Following her 1970 success with “The Female Eunuch”, in 1972 she visited many city in the world to promote her book. Afterwards she brought a house in Italy, wrote a column for The Sunday Times, then spent the next few years traveling through Africa and Asia.

University of Wales:

Source: http://www.cardiff.world-guides.com/cardiff_university.html

The University of Wales enjoys a distinctive identity as a federal University. It is the degree-awarding authority for its member institutions and exists to support their academic activities. The University enjoys close links with other higher education institutions in Wales and across the UK, and it is an important awarding body for institutions overseas. The University of Wales is committed to helping fulfil the educational and economic needs of Wales and to supporting its linguistic, cultural and national heritage. The University was founded on 30 November 1893 and John Viriamu Jones was the first Principal of the University College in Cardiff. The University that was the product of the vastly increased need for educational opportunity, brought together three existing Colleges: the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth which was opened 1872, the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, opened in 1883, and the University College of North Wales, in Bangor, opened in 1884.

Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan:

Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan is a specialist in Welsh manuscripts, scribal activity and visual image, and she work at the National library of Wales. Her interests are also on research and publication of medieval translations/adaptations and continental influence on Welsh literary tradition as well as Welsh Arthurian traditions. Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan is now Head of Manuscripts Unit, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.


Cywydd, or Cywydd deuair hirion, is one of the important the most importantmetrical element in Welsh traditional poetry. It was the favourite meter of the Poets of the Nobility, the poets working from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and it is still used today.Cywydd consists of a series of seven-syllabled lines in rhyming couplets, with all lines written in cynghanedd. One of the lines must finish with a stressed syllable, while the other must finish with an unstressed syllable.

Telyn Egryn:

Telyn Egryn is the first ever printed book by a woman in Welsh. It is a collection of poetry and it was first published in 1850. Very little is known about the history of Elen Egryn, we know that she brught up in a little village called Llanegryn, near Tywyn, in Meirionethshire. She lived and worked in Liverpool, before returning to live in Machynlleth. As was characteristic of most Welsh women writers of the time, Elen Egryn lacked the confidence and the support needed to become as successful and well-known as their male counterparts, but this volume is a very significant milestone in the history of Welsh women's literature.

National Library of Wales:

Source: http://www.ranjit.com/gallery/wales/Wales_Aberystwyth_National_Library_5

The national library of Wales is located in Aberystwyth, and it is a legal deposit library entitled to receive a copy of every published work from the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland and houses over 4 million printed volumes. It includes the first book printed in Welsh in 1546 “Yny lhyvyr hwnn” , the first complete translation of the Bible which dates 1588, and many other rare books. The Library also contains The Welsh Political Archive and The National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, and it also keeps maps, , photographs, paintings, and periodicals and newspapers. Recently many of the most important books have been digitalized and they are now available to view on the library’s website.

Dafydd ap Gwilym:

Source: http://pmsa.cch.kcl.ac.uk/images/nrpAH/AHCARDIFF0033.jpg

Dafydd ap Gwilym is considered the most important Welsh poet of the history of wales and amongst the great poets of Europe in the Middle Age. It is believed that he was born at Brogynin, Penrhyn-coch, Ceredigion. His father, Gwilym Gam, and mother, Ardudfyl, were both from noble families, and traditions tells that he died in 1350, a possible victim of the Black Death, and he was buried within the precinct of the Cistercian Strata Florida Abbey, Ceredigion. About one hundred and fifty of his poems have survived, and his principles themes were love and nature. He was an innovative poet who was responsible for popularising the metre known as "cywydd" and first to use it for praise. His poetry was probably influenced by ideas of courtly love of the troubador poetry of Provençal. He was always the subject of his poetry which is full of his own feelings and experiences. His main theme is love, and many of his poems are addressed to women, but particularly to two of them, Morfudd and Dyddgu. Amongst his major poems there are “Morfudd fel yr haul” (Morfudd like the sun), a poem to the wife of an Aberystwyth merchant that seems to have had a long affair with Dafydd, and whom he addressed in many poems; “Merched Llanbadarn” (The girls of Llanbadarn), “Trafferth mewn tafarn” (Trouble in a tavern) and “Cywydd y ga”l (A poem in praise of the penis), a risqué piece of pure medieval erotica.

Stephen Knight:

Stephen Knight was born on September 26th, 1951, at Hainault, Essex. He attended West Hatch Technical High School, at nearby Chigwell. Among his most known works there are “The Brotherhood” and “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution”. Stephen Knight also wrote the books “Cruelly Murdered”, “Requiem at Rogano” and “The Killing of Justice Godfrey”. He struggled with epilepsy for much of his life and was discovered to have a brain tumour in 1980 while taking part in the documentary TV programme Horizon. The tumour was removed but returned in 1984. Knight died in 1985.


Welsh feminist press Honno: http://www.wifp.org/DWM/publishers.html

Gwerful Mechain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwerfyl_Mechain



Bardic tradition of strict metre verse:



Wales: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wales

‘Canu Heledd’ (Heledd’s song): http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Post/153641

Welsh Nonconformist: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Nonconformism



Ann Griffiths: http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/mid/halloffame/arts/ann_griffiths.shtml


Felicia Hemans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felicia_D._Hemans

Germaine Greer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germaine_Greer

University of Wales: http://www.wales.ac.uk/newpages/external/e9.asp

Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan:


Cywydd: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cywydd

Telyn Egryn: http://freespace.virgin.net/post.honno/hons004.htm

National library of Wales: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Library_of_Wales

afydd ap Gwilym: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dafydd_ap_Gwilym

Stephen Knight: http://www.casebook.org/authors/obituaries/knight.html