Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 86

Birth and Early Years of Ab Gwilym — Morfudd — Relic of Druidism — The Men of Glamorgan — Legend of Ab Gwilym — Ab Gwilym as a Writer — Wonderful Variety — Objects of Nature — Gruffydd Gryg.

DAFYDD AB GWILYM was born about the year 1320, at a place called Bro Gynnin in the county of Cardigan. Though born in wedlock he was not conceived legitimately. His mother being discovered by her parents to be pregnant, was turned out of doors by them, whereupon she went to her lover, who married her, though in so doing he acted contrary to the advice of his relations. After a little time, however, a general reconciliation took place. The parents of Ab Gwilym, though highly connected, do not appear to have possessed much property. The boy was educated by his mother’s brother Llewelyn ab Gwilym Fychan, a chief of Cardiganshire; but his principal patron in after life was Ifor, a cousin of his father, surnamed Hael, or the bountiful, a chieftain of Glamorganshire. This person received him within his house, made him his steward and tutor to his daughter. With this young lady Ab Gwilym speedily fell in love, and the damsel returned his passion. Ifor, however, not approving of the connection, sent his daughter to Anglesey, and eventually caused her to take the veil in a nunnery of that island. Dafydd pursued her, but not being able to obtain an interview, he returned to his patron, who gave him a kind reception. Under Ifor’s roof he cultivated poetry with great assiduity and wonderful success. Whilst very young, being taunted with the circumstances of his birth by a brother bard called Rhys Meigan, he retorted in an ode so venomously bitter that his adversary, after hearing it, fell down and expired. Shortly after this event he was made head bard of Glamorgan by universal acclamation.

After a stay of some time with Ifor, he returned to his native county and lived at Bro Gynnin. Here he fell in love with a young lady of birth called Dyddgu, who did not favour his addresses. He did not break his heart, however, on her account, but speedily bestowed it on the fair Morfudd, whom he first saw at Rhosyr in Anglesey, to which place both had gone on a religious account. The lady after some demur consented to become his wife. Her parents refusing to sanction the union, their hands were joined beneath the greenwood tree by one Madawg Benfras, a bard, and a great friend of Ab Gwilym. The joining of people’s hands by bards, which was probably a relic of Druidism, had long been practised in Wales, and marriages of this kind were generally considered valid, and seldom set aside. The ecclesiastical law, however, did not recognise these poetical marriages, and the parents of Morfudd by appealing to the law soon severed the union. After confining the lady for a short time, they bestowed her hand in legal fashion upon a chieftain of the neighbourhood, very rich but rather old, and with a hump on his back, on account which he was nicknamed bow-back, or little hump-back. Morfudd, however, who passed her time in rather a dull manner with this person, which would not have been the case had she done her duty by endeavouring to make the poor man comfortable, and by visiting the sick and needy around her, was soon induced by the bard to elope with him. The lovers fled to Glamorgan, where Ifor Hael, not much to his own credit, received them with open arms, probably forgetting how he had immured his OWN daughter in a convent, rather than bestow her on Ab Gwilym. Having a hunting-lodge in a forest on the banks of the lovely Taf, he allotted it to the fugitives as a residence. Ecclesiastical law, however, as strong in Wild Wales as in other parts of Europe, soon followed them into Glamorgan, and, very properly, separated them. The lady was restored to her husband, and Ab Gwilym fined to a very high amount. Not being able to pay the fine, he was cast into prison; but then the men of Glamorgan arose to a man, swearing that their head bard should not remain in prison. “Then pay his fine!” said the ecclesiastical law, or rather the ecclesiastical lawyer. “So we will!” said the men of Glamorgan, and so they did. Every man put his hand into his pocket; the amount was soon raised, the fine paid, and the bard set free.

Ab Gwilym did not forget this kindness of the men of Glamorgan, and, to requite it, wrote an address to the sun, in which he requests that luminary to visit Glamorgan, to bless it, and to keep it from harm. The piece concludes with some noble lines somewhat to this effect

“If every strand oppression strong Should arm against the son of song, The weary wight would find, I ween, A welcome in Glamorgan green.”

Some time after his release he meditated a second elopement with Morfudd, and even induced her to consent to go off with him. A friend, to whom he disclosed what he was thinking of doing, asking him whether he would venture a second time to take such a step, “I will,” said the bard, “in the name of God and the men of Glamorgan.” No second elopement, however, took place, the bard probably thinking, as has been well observed, that neither God nor the men of Glamorgan would help him a second time out of such an affair. He did not attain to any advanced age, but died when about sixty, some twenty years before the rising of Glendower. Some time before his death his mind fortunately took a decidedly religious turn.

He is said to have been eminently handsome in his youth, tall, slender, with yellow hair falling in ringlets down his shoulders. He is likewise said to have been a great libertine. The following story is told of him:-

“In a certain neighbourhood he had a great many mistresses, some married and others not. Once upon a time, in the month of June he made a secret appointment with each of his lady-loves, the place and hour of meeting being the same for all; each was to meet him at the same hour beneath a mighty oak which stood in the midst of a forest glade. Some time before the appointed hour he went, and climbing up the oak, hid himself amidst the dense foliage of its boughs. When the hour arrived he observed all the nymphs tripping to the place of appointment; all came, to the number of twenty-four — not one stayed away. For some time they remained beneath the oak staring at each other. At length an explanation ensued, and it appeared that they had all come to meet Ab Gwilym.

“‘Oh, the treacherous monster!’ cried they with one accord; ‘only let him show himself and we will tear him to pieces.’

“‘Will you?’ said Ab Gwilym from the oak; ‘here I am; let her who has been most wanton with me make the first attack upon me!’

“The females remained for some time speechless; all of a sudden, however, their anger kindled, not against the bard, but against each other. From harsh and taunting words they soon came to actions: hair was torn off, faces were scratched, blood flowed from cheek and nose. Whilst the tumult was at its fiercest Ab Gwilym slipped away.”

The writer merely repeats this story, and he repeats it as concisely as possible, in order to have an opportunity of saying that he does not believe one particle of it. If he believed it, he would forthwith burn the most cherished volume of the small collection of books from which he derives delight and recreation, namely, that which contains the songs of Ab Gwilym, for he would have nothing in his possession belonging to such a heartless scoundrel as Ab Gwilym must have been had he got up the scene above described. Any common man who would expose to each other and the world a number of hapless, trusting females who had favoured him with their affections, and from the top of a tree would feast his eyes upon their agonies of shame and rage, would deserve to be — emasculated. Had Ab Gwilym been so dead to every feeling of gratitude and honour as to play the part which the story makes him play, he would have deserved not only to be emasculated, but to be scourged with harp-strings in every market-town in Wales, and to be dismissed from the service of the Muse. But the writer repeats that he does not believe one tittle of the story, though Ab Gwilym’s biographer, the learned and celebrated William Owen, not only seems to believe it, but rather chuckles over it. It is the opinion of the writer that the story is of Italian origin, and that it formed part of one of the many rascally novels brought over to England after the marriage of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the third son of Edward the Third, with Violante, daughter of Galeazzo, Duke of Milan.

Dafydd Ab Gwilym has been in general considered as a songster who never employed his muse on any subject save that of love, and there can be no doubt that by far the greater number of his pieces are devoted more or less to the subject of love. But to consider him merely in the light of an amatory poet would be wrong. He has written poems of wonderful power on almost every conceivable subject. Ab Gwilym has been styled the Welsh Ovid, and with great justice, but not merely because like the Roman he wrote admirably on love. The Roman was not merely an amatory poet: let the shade of Pythagoras say whether the poet who embodied in immortal verse the oldest, the most wonderful, and at the same time the most humane, of all philosophy was a mere amatory poet. Let the shade of blind Homer be called up to say whether the bard who composed the tremendous line —

“Surgit ad hos clypei dominus septemplicis Ajax” —

equal to any save ONE of his own, was a mere amatory songster. Yet, diversified as the genius of the Roman was, there is no species of poetry in which he shone in which the Welshman may not be said to display equal merit. Ab Gwilym, then, has been fairly styled the Welsh Ovid. But he was something more — and here let there be no sneers about Welsh: the Welsh are equal in genius, intellect and learning to any people under the sun, and speak a language older than Greek, and which is one of the immediate parents of the Greek. He was something more than the Welsh Ovid: he was the Welsh Horace, and wrote light, agreeable, sportive pieces, equal to any things of the kind composed by Horace in his best moods. But he was something more: he was the Welsh Martial, and wrote pieces equal in pungency to those of the great Roman epigrammatist, — perhaps more than equal, for we never heard that any of Martial’s epigrams killed anybody, whereas Ab Gwilym’s piece of vituperation on Rhys Meigan — pity that poets should be so virulent — caused the Welshman to fall down dead. But he was yet something more: he could, if he pleased, be a Tyrtaeus; he was no fighter — where was there ever a poet that was? — but he wrote an ode on a sword, the only warlike piece that he ever wrote, the best poem on the subject ever written in any language. Finally, he was something more: he was what not one of the great Latin poets was, a Christian; that is, in his latter days, when he began to feel the vanity of all human pursuits, when his nerves began to be unstrung, his hair to fall off, and his teeth to drop out, and he then composed sacred pieces entitling him to rank with — we were going to say Caedmon; had we done so we should have done wrong; no uninspired poet ever handled sacred subjects like the grand Saxon Skald — but which entitle him to be called a great religious poet, inferior to none but the protege of Hilda.

Before ceasing to speak of Ab Gwilym, it will be necessary to state that his amatory pieces, which constitute more than one-half of his productions, must be divided into two classes: the purely amatory and those only partly devoted to love. His poems to Dyddgu and the daughter of Ifor Hael are productions very different from those addressed to Morfudd. There can be no doubt that he had a sincere affection for the two first; there is no levity in the cowydds which he addressed to them, and he seldom introduces any other objects than those of his love. But in his cowydds addressed to Morfudd is there no levity? Is Morfudd ever prominent? His cowydds to that woman abound with humorous levity, and for the most part have far less to do with her than with natural objects — the snow, the mist, the trees of the forest, the birds of the air, and the fishes of the stream. His first piece to Morfudd is full of levity quite inconsistent with true love. It states how, after seeing her for the first time at Rhosyr in Anglesey, and falling in love with her, he sends her a present of wine by the hands of a servant, which present she refuses, casting the wine contemptuously over the head of the valet. This commencement promises little in the way of true passion, so that we are not disappointed when we read a little farther on that the bard is dead and buried, all on account of love, and that Morfudd makes a pilgrimage to Mynyw to seek for pardon for killing him, nor when we find him begging the popish image to convey a message to her. Then presently we almost lose sight of Morfudd amidst birds, animals and trees, and we are not sorry that we do; for though Ab Gwilym is mighty in humour, great in describing the emotions of love and the beauties of the lovely, he is greatest of all in describing objects of nature; indeed in describing them he has no equal, and the writer has no hesitation in saying that in many of his cowydds in which he describes various objects of nature, by which he sends messages to Morfudd, he shows himself a far greater poet than Ovid appears in any one of his Metamorphoses. There are many poets who attempt to describe natural objects without being intimately acquainted with them, but Ab Gwilym was not one of these. No one was better acquainted with nature; he was a stroller, and there is every probability that during the greater part of the summer he had no other roof than the foliage, and that the voices of birds and animals were more familiar to his ears than was the voice of man. During the summer months, indeed, in the early part of his life, he was, if we may credit him, generally lying perdue in the woodland or mountain recesses near the habitation of his mistress, before or after her marriage, awaiting her secret visits, made whenever she could escape the vigilance of her parents, or the watchful of her husband, and during her absence he had nothing better to do than to observe objects of nature and describe them. His ode to the Fox, one of the most admirable of his pieces, was composed on one of these occasions.

Want of space prevents the writer from saying as much as he could wish about the genius of this wonderful man, the greatest of his country’s songsters, well calculated by nature to do honour to the most polished age and the most widely-spoken language. The bards his contemporaries, and those who succeeded him for several hundred years, were perfectly convinced of his superiority, not only over themselves, but over all the poets of the past; and one, and a mighty one, old Iolo the bard of Glendower, went so far as to insinuate that after Ab Gwilym it would be of little avail for any one to make verses —

“Aed lle mae’r eang dangneff, Ac aed y gerdd gydag ef.”

“To Heaven’s high peace let him depart, And with him go the minstrel art.”

He was buried at Ystrad Flur, and a yew tree was planted over his grave, to which Gruffydd Gryg, a brother bard, who was at one time his enemy, but eventually became one of the most ardent of his admirers, addressed an ode, of part of which the following is a paraphrase:-

“Thou noble tree, who shelt’rest kind The dead man’s house from winter’s wind; May lightnings never lay thee low; Nor archer cut from thee his bow, Nor Crispin peel thee pegs to frame; But may thou ever bloom the same, A noble tree the grave to guard Of Cambria’s most illustrious bard!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50