Schools of Welsh poetry, a sketch
'Schools of Welsh poetry, a sketch', NLW 13098B, pp. 87-90. This essay attempts to classify medieval Welsh poetry into distinct schools. In doing so, Iolo juxtaposes the alleged sophistication of the druidical bards of south Wales with the alleged barbarism of the undruidical poets of north Wales.
It is not improbable but that what remained in manuscript or retained by oral tradition, or rather Bardic tradition, of the most ancient of our Bards, as Taliesin &c, with the various triads, and such fragments as remained of history, might have been collected about the 10th and thence to the 12th century, when a dawn of revival of literature appeared in most countries in Europe, and amongst others, very remarkably in Wales. This may be fairly infer'd from the dissimilarities that appear in the language, versification, style, idiom, modes of thinking &c in the manuscript collections of those ages. In the 'Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin', where pieces of the 6th as well as of the 11th & 12th centuries appear, injudicious collectors, antiquaries, critics &c have not been able to make the proper and necessary distinctions when handling these subjects, amongst other very prominent characteristics of Taliesin are the Druidical mythology & philosophy, frequently blended with the Primitive Christianity. Spurious pieces attributed to Taliesin of the 12th century (obviously so from their language & versification) are stuffed with the depraved popish Christianity of the times, with attempts (doubtless to impose) to interlard them with something of the philosophy & mythology of Taliesin by such as appear to be totally ignorant of the character & true principles of these things. (88)
The 3 schools of Welsh poetry may be termed and described as follows:
1. The Ancient or School of Taliesin, for of what is still more ancient we have very little remaining, and nothing but what may be included under the head, or in the system of the School of Taliesin.
2. The Northwalian, or School of Gruffudd ap Cynan. This seems to have derived most of its distinguishing characteristics from the Scandinavian scalds, owing to the circumstance of Gruffudd ap Cynan having been brought up in the court of a Scandinavian Prince. Compare many of the odes of Gwalchmai &c with that of Regner Lodbrog: the same savage sublimity, the same ferocious grandure, in both. The versifications of this school are chiefly of the heroic kinds, very little of the lyric, if any, properly speaking, and the variety not great. It commenced under Gruffudd ab Cynan in the beginning of the 11th century.
3. The Southwalian. This is in a great measure, (and much more so than that of north Wales, the offspring, and in many things, a continuation of the Ancient or Taliesinian School. The variety of its versification and metres are very great. It seems to delight more in lyrical than in heroical subjects and metres, and all the pastoral, rural or domestic (teuluaidd) poetry appears as of this school, less heroical than the Northwalian, less grand, but more natural. Its subjects are chiefly rural description, love, conviviality, domestic manners, &c, and its deviations from the Ancient School appear to have been derived from the southern parts of Europe thro' the medium of the Norman conquest. (compare Soniais feinwar am garu of D. Gwilym with a scene in Romeo and Juliet.) Dafydd ap Gwilym &c are Bards of this school. In this the cynghanedd received its ultimate polish. After the subjugation of N.W. by Edward the 2nd the North Walian school declined and after Iolo Goch it became nearly extinct, whilst the more civilized School of south Wales extended itself into north Wales. Amongst the characteristics of the S.Walian School we observe the metres, rhythm and manner of the Taliesinian retained and familiarly known as late as the end of the 16th century. All the light lyric or song metres seem to have originated (at least for the most part) in south Wales, and very few are the instances of any such metres, or any such kind of poetry, to be met with in N.Wales previous to the commencement of the 17th century. Even some of the N. Walian writers affirm that the lyric or song metres now so much esteemed amongst then were derived (89) from S.Wales, and first introduced by Hwmffre Dafydd ab Evan about the year 1600. (Sion Philip o Hendre Waelod - Daf. Elis, &c). The cywydd, tho' in some use before D.G., seems to have first acquired its celebrity from his poetry which, excepting a very few pieces, he always wrote in. After him it came into so much esteem, that it was very seldom for nearly two centuries that any other metre was used.
About the year 1500 a school which may be termed new appeared in Wales. Not peculiar to either N. or S.W., its foundation was laid in S.W. by the two Bardic sessions of Carmarthen: the 1st in 1457, the other in 1461. It extended itself all over Wales rapidly, but more conspicuously so in N.W. where it was greatly supported by the bardic congresses that were held at Caerwys. But in this school false refinements were carried to such an extravagant pitch as to overwhelm it, and under them it was crushed to death. About the same time the Bards of Glamorgan in S.W. patronized by the Nevils, Herbets &c, Lords of that district, attempted the revival of the Ancient School, or rather a new school which was to retain all the characteristics and fundamentals of the Ancient or Taliesinian with, in addition to it, the discoveries and improvements of the later schools of north & south Wales. Its principles were undoubtedly good and superior to any thing that had ever previously appeared. But the revolution in Welsh literature that took place in consequence of the Reformation from popery &c, has left this unfostered school in a state of pigmy dwarfishness that is lamentable, for its efforts were certainly very great and highly laudable; judicious, founded on the true reasons and nature of things. Its principles were philosophically just and truly scientific, faithful to the language and its mythologies. It exhibits so complete a system of versification, that the like has never yet been noticed in any other age or language what ever. If it has errors these are the retention of some of the overstrained refinements of the new school that immediately preceded it, of these things it retains a few, not indeed as principles indispensably necessary, but as what may be occasionally allowed the sportings of a fanciful genius, and particularly as exercises of adolescent genius in its state of pupilage & discipline, that superinduce a dexterity that cannot perhaps be otherwise as well and effectually acquired and for this purpose such things may be of some use. (90)
About the 11th century a pretty familiar intercourse took place between the princes of north Wales and the kings of Norway, Denmark &c, especially the Danish Kings of Ireland, of the Isles &c, intermarriages &c. Hence the similarity of manners in north Wales (in some degree) to those of the Scandinavians, castrating &c, putting out of eyes &c. Hence the similarity of images & sentiments in the Northwalian and Scandinavian poetry (see Cynddelw, &c). The barbarous custom of putting out of eyes &c appears first in history (I believe) amongst the Scandinavians, and soon afterwards in north Wales & Powys.
About the same time or soon after the Normans settled in Glamorgan, Pembroke, Cardigan &c, and into these countries they introduced their manners and usages. Amongst other things we observe a similarity of sentiment and imagery between the poetry of that period in Glamorgan and that of the southern parts of Europe, (the Troubadours &c). Gallantry, levity in general, &c and a taste [for] romance. About this time the Mabinogion, a Southwalian production, seems to have been written. This taste continued down to the time of Dafydd ab Gwilym and perhaps till so late as the time of Elizabeth. It also appears to have extended itself into Northwales in something more than a century after the subjugation of that part of Wales to the Crown of England, about the year 1400, or rather 1350. Iolo Goch in north Wales exhibited in his poetry the Scandinavian ferocity, and in south Wales we find in Dafydd ap Gwilym of the same period the gallantry & levity of the Troubadours. We find traces of these two very different characters still remaining. The Christmas carols & May songs of north Wales are solemn and religious, those of South Wales convivial. In short, till of late the poetry of north Wales was barbarously grand, that of south Wales gay and light. Devotional Christmas carols &c songs on religious subjects are to this day the very common amusements of pot-house companions. In south Wales the convivial songs are of the same character as those of England - light songwriting appears as a very ancient thing in south Wales, and a very recent things in north Wales.
[Pursue this idea as far as possible, &c,]