Gwilym ap Dafydd Essay - Critical Essays

Dafydd, Gwilym ap


Dafydd ap Gwilym c. 1320-c. 1380

Medieval Welsh poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Dafydd's poetry from 1978 through 1995.

Dafydd ap Gwilym is recognized as one of the most innovative European poets of the Middle Ages. His refined and erudite verse introduced a unique brand of poetry into the turbulent society of Wales during the aftermath of its loss of independence. While drawing on the contemporary elements of bardic poetry, his themes of love and nature embedded in original metric forms was a revolutionary technique. Though his work is relatively obscure outside of Wales today, largely due to difficulties in translation, Dafydd is still recognized as a radical poet of great significance in his era.

Biographical Information

Much of the information known regarding the life of Dafydd ap Gwilym has been inferred from his own poetic writings and those of his contemporaries. Verifiable historical data is scarce from this period, but it is estimated that Dafydd was born circa 1320 at Brogynin in Wales. A few years later, he and his parents moved to nearby Llanbadarn Fawr, Aberystwyth. His father, Gwilym Gam ap Gwilym, traced his ancestry to Gwynfardd Dyfed, who is reputed to have sired numerous families in southwest Wales. Dafydd came from a family of fair wealth that included several high government officials under the English crown. As such, he was a self-described member of the “clêr,” or peripatetic intellectuals of affluent families, never possessing nor needing a steady occupation. He appears to have traveled extensively throughout Wales and Anglesey visiting friends throughout his life; however, only one poem, centered in Chester, indicates he ever journeyed beyond the borders of the country. Much of his work suggests he generally remained near Aberystwyth for the greater part of his life, very close to where he spent his childhood. Dafydd was known to have been closely acquainted with contemporary poets Gruffudd ab Adda, Madog Benfras, and Gruffudd Gryg, among others. However it was his uncle, Llywelyn ap Gwilym, who is credited as having the greatest influence on Dafydd's development as a writer. The constable of Newcastle Emlyn, Llywelyn was responsible for his early education as well as his introduction to traditional bardic work and romantic Anglo-Norman poetry—the amalgamation of which comprised Dafydd's later work and gained him his infamy. Dafydd died around 1380 and was buried at Strata Florida monastery, near Pontrhydfendigaid. Though the building itself is now in ruins, a slate memorial remains there, dedicated to the native poet.

Major Works

Dafydd ap Gwilym is best known for his utilization of cywydd, or a contemporaneous form of metric poetry consisting of couplets of seven-syllabled lines, rhyming asymmetrically. As one of the greatest proponents of what was a newly-developed style, he played a vital role in its rapid evolution into a popular and accepted form of praise-poetry, gaining timeless esteem. Dafydd generally tailored his own cywyddau to thirty to sixty lines, almost always focusing on his two passions: love and nature. These themes have become synonymous with his work, appearing most often together in scenarios of romantic affairs taking place in idealistic woodland settings. His characteristic plot entails his building a shelter of leaves or branches to which he retreats with his lover—generally the golden-haired Morfudd or the dark-haired Dyddgu—as a haven from the conventions of society. In these poems, it is very difficult to distinguish to what extent Dafydd is speaking of reality or his imagination, as it is believed that much of his work was fantasies on his own love life. However, ultimately it is the forest setting itself which is his true focus. Dafydd often invented “love-messengers” in the form of various woodland animals or natural forces, in which he incorporated the stylistic technique of dyfalu, or a protracted depiction of an entity through an extended string of similes or comparisons, also closely linked to the development of cywydd. Through these heralds, Dafydd was able to fully convey his ardor for nature and exploit his creative imagery. In one of his most famous poems, “The Wind,” thirty of the poem's thirty-five lines are devoted to the personification of the title “character” while persuading it to fly faster to the poet's mistress. Dafydd's contribution to cywydd and dyfalu was a true revolution in fourteenth-century Welsh poetry, inspiring contemporaneous poets to rise to a new level of imagination and style.

Critical Reception

Dafydd's critical reception in his own time may only be deduced from elegies composed for him by his contemporaries, such as Gruffudd Gryg, Iolo Goch, and Madog Benfras. His work was initially condemned for its departure from traditional verse and its introduction of irrelevant and inappropriate personal sentiments. However, following a lengthy heated written debate among his contemporaries, Dafydd was finally recognized as the master of a new love poetry, deemed an “architect of words” and an “architect of song.” Today, Dafydd's work has not been widely acclaimed outside of Wales primarily due to difficulty in translation. Alteration of the metric flow of the poetry as well as loss of meaning through inexact phrasing has caused the English version to dull the brilliance of the original text, written over six centuries ago. However, those modern critics who have successfully analyzed Dafydd's writing have extolled it for its considerable ingenuity and comparative importance in the historical development of European poetry, especially in the areas of love poetry, informal addresses to fellow poets, and objective verse.

Principal Works

Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym (edited by Owen Jones, William Owen, and Edward Williams) 1789

Cywyddau Dafydd ap Gwilym a'i Gyfoeswyr (edited by Ifor Williams and Thomas Roberts) 1914; revised edition 1935

Gwaith Dafydd ap Gwilym (edited by Thomas Parry) 1952; revised edition 1979

The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse [contributor] (edited by Thomas Parry) 1962

Fifty Poems (translated by H. I. Bell and David Bell) 1942

A Celtic Miscellany [contributor] (translated by K. Jackson) 1951

The Burning Tree (translated by Gwyn Williams) 1956

Medieval Welsh Lyrics [contributor] (translated by J. P. Clancy) 1965

The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse [contributor] (translated by A. Conran) 1967

The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English [contributor] (edited by Gwyn Jones) 1977

Twenty-five Poems by Dafydd ap Gwilym (translated by Nigel Heseltine) 1982

Dafydd ap Gwilym: A Selection of Poems (translated by Rachel Bromwich) 1985

House of Leaves (translated by Rachel Bromwich) 1993

Dafydd ap Gwilym: His Poems (translated by Gwyn Thomas) 2001


Helen Fulton (essay date May 1978)

SOURCE: Fulton, Helen. “The Love Poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym.” Aumla, no. 49 (May 1978): 22-37.

[In the following essay, Fulton compares and contrasts the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym to that of Chaucer, suggesting that while both are creative yet traditionalist, Dafydd distinguishes himself with his unique praise-poetry of love and nature.]

In retrospect, the literary scene in fourteenth century Britain seems dominated by the figure of Chaucer. His poetry marked a new phase in the native tradition, reviving it with new blood from France, and establishing the English language finally as a major literary medium. But in another part of Britain, a poet writing in a...

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Rachel Bromwich (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Bromwich, Rachel. “The Earlier Cywyddwyr: Poets Contemporary with Dafydd ap Gwilym.” In A Guide to Welsh Literature, pp. 144-60. Wales: Christopher Davies Ltd., 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Bromwich analyzes the metre of the works of Dafydd and his contemporaries, and its societal and artistic implications.]

The following lively fragment describing a horse is quoted in each of the four early versions of the Bardic Grammar as an example of the metre cywydd deuair hirion, which was to become the increasingly favoured medium of fourteenth-century poets:


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Stephen Knight (essay date March 1981)

SOURCE: Knight, Stephen. “Welsh Poetic's Well-Shaped Art.” Journal of European Studies 11, no. 41 (March 1981): 18-28.

[In the following essay, Knight highlights the key attributes of Dafydd's work within the context of various translations and their ensuing repercussions.]

This paper discusses problems and possibilities in translating a poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym, widely regarded as the greatest Welsh poet. The wit and beauty of Dafydd's themes and the subtlety of his poetic form make his work both fascinating and difficult to translate—impossible to translate, in the opinion of some Welsh poets and critics. Various attempts have been made in the past, however,...

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David Johnston (essay date summer 1983)

SOURCE: Johnston, David. “The Serenade and the Image of the House in the Poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym.” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies no. 5 (summer 1983): 1-19.

[In the following essay, Johnston comments on the significance of the house and its prominence in Dafydd's narrative serenades.]

A serenade is a poem addressed by a lover to his beloved as he stands outside her house begging to be let in. Dafydd ap Gwilym's work contains only one example of the genre, “Dan y Bargod” (89).1 There are however a number of poems describing Dafydd's nocturnal visits to the girl's house in the past tense, which might be called narrative serenades. I shall discuss...

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Katharine T. Loesch (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Loesch, Katharine T. “Welsh Bardic Poetry and Performance in the Middle Ages.” In Performance of Literature in Historical Perspectives, pp. 185-90. Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Loesch provides a rough background of Dafydd and illustrates some of his most famous verses.]

Dafydd ap Gwilym still stands as the greatest poet that ever wrote in Welsh and as one of the greatest of medieval poets. He lived from about 1320 to about 1380 and is said to be buried under the great spreading yew that still grows among the ruins of Strata Florida, the Cistercian Abbey where many of the princes and nobles of the south of...

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Helen Fulton (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Fulton, Helen. “Living the Good Life: A Medieval Fantasy.” The Anglo-Welsh Review 80 (1985): 76-85.

[In the following essay, Fulton correlates Dafydd with Colin Muset, a thirteenth-century French poet and musician, citing similarities in their themes of the “good life” and their functionality in addressing social inequalities.]

Dafydd ap Gwilym and Colin Muset are two poets distanced in place and time. Colin Muset was singing in eastern France in the first half of the thirteenth century, while Dafydd was a Welsh bard composing in the second half of the fourteenth century.

The work of the two poets is comparable, however, in two...

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Helen Fulton (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Fulton, Helen. “Dafydd ap Gwilym and Intertextuality.” Leeds Studies in English 20 (1989): 65-86.

[In the following essay, Fulton explores the concept of intertextuality, or the idea that writings refer only to each other and not directly to reality, and how it operates in Dafydd's work.]

One of the unique aspects of Early English Literature and Language studies at the University of Sydney under the professorship of Leslie Rogers has been the promotion of modern English courses—including grammar and semiotics—alongside more traditional courses in Old and Middle English.1 Such a combination has encouraged the practice of looking at medieval...

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Morgan T. Davies (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Davies, Morgan T. “‘Aed i'r coed i dorri cof’: Dafydd ap Gwilym and the Metaphorics of Carpentry.” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, no. 30 (1995): 67-86.

[In the following essay, Davies traces the use of carpentry as a metaphor in various genres of literature, centering his argument around the way Dafydd ap Gwilym may have been influenced to use such a metaphor in his own works.]

In the first cywydd of his ymryson with Gruffudd Gryg, Dafydd ap Gwilym responds to Gruffudd's opening attack with various countercharges of his own. Among the more substantive of these is his accusation that Gruffudd is derivative, a plagiarist, a poet who can...

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Further Reading


Bromwich, Rachel. “Dafydd ap Gwilym.” In A Guide to Welsh Literature, edited by A. O. H. Jarman and Gwilym Rees Hughes, pp. 112-43. Wales: Christopher Davies Ltd., 1979.

Provides a lengthy background on Dafydd's life and work.


Breeze, Andrew. “‘Bear the Bell’ in Dafydd ap Gwilym and Troilus and Criseyde.Notes and Queries 237, no. 4 (December 1992): 441-43.

Discusses the metaphor “Bear the Bell,” found in both Troilus and Criseyde and Dafydd's work.

———. “Dafydd ap Gwilym's ‘The Clock’ and Foliot...

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