Gwilym ap Dafydd Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.