BOOK REVIEW / Harping on about a nightingale: William Scammell on Dafydd and the golden age of Welsh literature

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The Independent Culture
IF THERE were any justice in the world the great Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym would be as well known as Chaucer and Villon, or Hopkins and Donne. But he wrote in an obscure language six centuries ago. His metres and complex alliterative patterns are untranslatable. No canonical text was established until 1952, by Thomas Parry. Virtually nothing is known about his life, not even the dates of his birth and death (guessed at 1320-1370/80), except what can be inferred from the poems and one or two contemporary allusions, such as a fellow-poet's reference to him as eos Dyfed, 'the nightingale of Dyfed'. He was a pretty good jackdaw too, and a hawk, and a cooing dove with a wicked sense of humour. Had Pound turned his attention to Wales rather than to Provence and the troubadors, he would have loved the poet's bold exuberance, and we might have had some striking versions of the poems to aid our imagination.

Dafydd and the golden age of Welsh literature - two whole centuries before the border ballads - is at last receiving its due in a handsome series by Gomer Press. Dafydd ap Gwilym: Poems (pounds 12.50), translated by Rachel Bromwich, offers about a third of the canon in a dual-language text, complete with scholarly notes and glosses. There are apparently as many rules and conventions as there are in classical Indian rags and dance (the poems were performed to a harp accompaniment), and I suspect that what matters in both cases is not the priestly veneer of aesthetic law but the delicate elaborations and raw emotional force that assaults the listener's ear.

Dafydd wrote love lyrics, nature poems, praise-poems (forerunner, perhaps, of the country-house poem), elegies and flytings galore. He has something of Graves's and Donne's audacity towards women, subverting courtly love with a more impatient variety, chiding a 'frigid lass' or 'Wooing the Nuns': 'bring from the choir some sweet girl to the wood'. If one of the 'darlings' won't come, 'a girl with forehead manifest', he tells his messenger, get the choirmistress, and if she won't come then the Abbess will do.

Like all good medievals Dafydd sees no reason to be po-faced about religion or mealy-mouthed about the facts of life and death. He's a sort of bookish Tom Jones, but one to whom allegory - see 'The Poet and his Shadow' - comes as naturally as carousing. Bromwich offers a serviceable prose crib rather than any attempt to catch the master's elusive spirit. For that difficult enterprise, see Joseph Clancey's excellent translation of 'The Rattle Bag', title-poem of the Faber anthology edited by Heaney and Hughes.

Other titles in the series include Aneirin's Y Gododdin (pounds 14.95), the earliest surviving epic poem in Britain, a sustained elegy for those killed at the battle of Catraeth (Catterick); Hywel Dda: The Law (pounds 15.95), Hywel the Good's codification of legal matters, including some amazing stuff on rape, pillage, adultery, homage, fealty, surety and harlotry; Iolo Goch: Poems (pounds 14.95), another 14th-century poet who left an interesting elegy for Dafydd ('learning was immense in him / and he was tailor of love to a girl / and the harp of a court and its retinue /. . . and pitiful without mitigation / and presumption was the destruction of the man'); and Sir John Wynn's History of the Gwydir Family and Memoirs (pounds 14.95), a linguistically diverting but otherwise tedious exercise in egotistical Tudor genealogy.