Dafydd ap Gwilym was the son of Gwilym Gam ap Gwilym ab Einion Fawr o'r Tywyn ap Gwilym ap Gwrwared ap Gwilym ap Gwrwared Gerdd Gymell ap Cuhelyn Fardd. His mother's name was Ardudful, and it is possible that the Llywelyn ap Gwilym ap Rhys ap Llywelyn ab Ednyfed Fychan whom the poet referred to as his uncle was a brother of hers. Dafydd's ancestors were prosperous noblemen who had served Norman lords in south-west Wales, and the Fitzmartin family in the lordship of Cemais in particular, since the twelfth century, and some of the names suggest that they were patrons of poets and were even skilled in the craft of poetry themselves.
Dafydd was a native of the parish of Llanbadarn Fawr in north Ceredigion, and according to tradition he was born in a house called Brogynin near Penrhyn-coch. Some of his poems display detailed knowledge of that region, and in one he depicts himself eyeing up the girls in the parish church. He had family links with south Ceredigion as well, and it is possible that he spent a period in fosterage in the home of his uncle, Llywelyn ap Gwilym, a man of considerable influence who was constable of Newcastle Emlyn. In a passionate elegy to Llywelyn when he was murdered Dafydd referred to him as a poet and a master of language, and Dafydd may have been taught the craft of poetry by him. Another place where Dafydd could have received some education is the Abbey of Strata Florida. There is a strong tradition that Dafydd ap Gwilym's grave is under one of the yew trees in the cemetry at Strata Florida, but the main evidence for that tradition is a poem by his fellow-bard Gruffudd Gryg addressed to the yew tree, and it must be borne in mind that the poets of that period were in the habit of singing mock-elegies when the subject was still alive. Another place which lays claim to Dafydd's grave, although on much weaker grounds, is Talley Abbey in Carmarthenshire.
Dafydd ap Gwilym's praise poems show that he had patrons in several regions of Wales and that he used to travel the length and breadth of the country. His love poetry would certainly have been in demand, and it is perfectly possible that he earned his living as a professional poet like many of his contemporaries. His most important patrons in Ceredigion were the family of Glyn Aeron, a court which was a focus for innovative literary activity in this period. Dafydd composed an elegy to Angharad, the wife of Ieuan Llwyd, and a mock-elegy to their son Rhydderch. And in a book which belonged to the family, the Hendregadredd Manuscript (a collection of poems by the Poets of the Princes probably made at Strata Florida), a copy of Dafydd's poem in celebration of the Rood at Carmarthen is preserved. It is very possible that this is in the poet's own hand, and here we find the fullest form of his name, Dafydd Llwyd fab Gwilym Gam.
Dafydd visited patrons in Gwynedd as well, as shown by his poems to the Dean of Bangor and in praise of the town of Newborough in Anglesey. One of his comic poems is located in Newborough too, and another tells how he was transfixed by the sight of a beautiful girl in Bangor Cathedral. But his most famous patron was a nobleman from Glamorgan, Ifor ap Llywelyn of Basaleg, the man to whom Dafydd gave the name 'Ifor Hael' (Ifor the Generous). In seven highly inventive poems to Ifor Dafydd depicts a very special friendship between the two, and Ifor Hael came to represent the ideal patron for later poets.
There is very little evidence on which to date Dafydd ap Gwilym's life. The few dateable references in his poems all belong to the 1340s. We have Iolo Goch's statement in his elegy to Dafydd that his life was not long, and the depictions of an aging poet in a few of Dafydd's poems do not necessarily contradict this, since they can be explained as the product of tongue-in-cheek comedy or vivid imagination. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that Dafydd died about 1350, and to place the date of his birth around 1315, as R. Geraint Gruffydd proposed. But it must be admitted that he could have lived until about 1360 or even later.
Dafydd ap Gwilym was one of a number of poets composing in the new cywydd metre in the second quarter of the 14th century. His most prominent contemporaries were Madog Benfras, Gruffudd Gryg, Gruffudd ab Adda, Iorwerth ab y Cyriog and Iolo Goch. Although these poets all display the same creativity in the field of love and nature poetry, Dafydd's surviving corpus of almost 150 poems is far greater than that of any of his colleagues, and it appears that he was mainly responsible for popularising the cywydd metre, and perhaps also for adapting it as a medium for eulogy in the four cywyddau he addressed to Ifor Hael. Several playful poetic exchanges indicate close friendships between these poets, but a more serious bardic contention took place between Dafydd and Gruffudd Gryg in which the Anglesey poet criticized Dafydd's excessive use of the exaggerated tropes of courtly love. Despite Gruffudd Gryg's traditionalist standpoint on this topic, European literary conventions were perfectly well-known in Wales by the 14th century, as is shown by the creative use which Dafydd ap Gwilym made of them.
Although he composed some praise poems and a small amount of sophisticated religious verse, Dafydd ap Gwilym's primary subject was sexual love. Since the woodland setting was a popular ideal in love literature, the natural world is also given a great deal of attention as a backdrop to his exploits. He celebrates summer as the season for love-making and the house of leaves ('deildy') as the perfect location for lovers' trysts. Amongst his most attractive pieces are the llatai poems in which a creature is sent as a love-messenger, and described in elaborate detail by means of the technique known as 'dyfalu', a series of imaginative comparisons which give a striking display of the poet's powers of observation and invention. But the natural world also interferes with love-making sometimes, and Dafydd vents his anger against hindrances such as fog and a full moon and complains about the miseries of winter. Duality was essential to his vision of life, and one of his great gifts as a poet was his ability to find inspiration in negative subjects. His awareness of the brevity of life and the fragility of beauty inspired some of his most poignant poems such as 'Yr Adfail' ('The Ruin'). And although his love poetry celebrated the joys of extra-marital sex, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his consistent claim that carnal love was blessed by God.
Most of Dafydd's poems are presented in the first person and in dramatic modes, conveying a strong impression of the poet's personality, but it would be a mistake to assume that their contents all derive from personal experience. A number of different personas can be identified in his work, and he can be seen to play particular roles for the entertainment of his audience, such as the wily seducer who succeeds in stealing the Jealous Husband's young wife, and on the other hand the devoted but accident-prone lover whose schemes all fail miserably. One of the chief characteristics of his work is the humour at his own expense in comic escapades such as 'Trafferth mewn Tafarn' (Trouble at an Inn), probably his most famous poem.
The subjects of the poems are often anonymous girls, and some were surely imaginary characters based on literary stereotypes. But Dafydd addressed two girls in particular who are definitely known to have existed. One was Dyddgu, the daughter of a nobleman called Ieuan ap Gruffudd ap Llywelyn of Tywyn near Cardigan, who is the subject of nine of Dafydd's poems. Dyddgu is portrayed as the distant and unattainable aristocratic beauty typical of courtly love literature. The other was Morfudd, who features in almost forty of Dafydd's poems, which depict a tempestuous relationship lasting a number of years, both before and after Morfudd married and had children. Her husband is referred to by his nickname, y Bwa Bach (the Little Crooked One), and instances of that name in contemporary documents show him to have been a merchant in the town of Aberystwyth. Morfudd resembles the lascivious burgess wives seen in the French fabliaux, but the fact that she and Dyddgu correspond to known literary types does not make these poems any less passionately felt. Indeed, their power perhaps derives from the very combination of literary ideals and real experience which they contain.
Dafydd ap Gwilym is regarded by many as Wales's greatest poet of any age, on account of his metrical craftsmanship, his richly expressive language, the fertility of his imagination and the breadth and intensity of his engagement with human experience. As a result of his special status in the Welsh poetic tradition many poems were mistakenly attributed to him over the following centuries, and it is now very difficult to distinguish between his genuine work and that of his contemporaries who possessed similar poetic gifts. The earliest printed collection of his work, Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym (1789), contains a substantial number of inauthentic poems, as well as fanciful stories about Dafydd's life, and it was not until the publication of the critical edition by Thomas Parry in 1952 that it was possible to get a clear view of the extent of his poetic achievement.
Published date: 2018-01-17
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He was probably born at Brogynin in the parish of Llanbadarn Fawr, Ceredigion, son of Gwilym Gam ap Gwilym ab Einion, and thus a member of one of the most influential families in South Wales in the 14th century. His forbears had been king's men for generations. The original home of the family was Cemais in Pembrokeshire, where they are known to have been settled since the beginning of the 12th century. About 1195 Gwilym ap Gwrwared is recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis as having incurred the wrath of God by attacking Giraldus's possessions. A grandson and namesake of this Gwilym, and great-great-grandfather of the poet, was constable of Cemais in 1241. In 1244 he was on the side of the English in their attack on Maredudd ab Owain of Ceredigion, and for his services was granted lands in that region. By 1252 he was King's Bailiff in the district around Llanbadarn Fawr, and was appointed constable of Cardigan Castle in 1260. The name of his son Einion occurs as witness to a deed in 1275. A son of this Einion, Gwilym, the poet's grandfather, was a tenant of the king in Emlyn in 1302. Another prominent member of the family was Llywelyn ap Gwilym, Dafydd's uncle, who was constable of Newcastle Emlyn in 1343. These facts explain why Dafydd, though born at Brogynin, is called by later bards 'nightingale of Dyfed' and 'bard of Teifi's banks'. It is probable that he spent much of his time, and perhaps made his home, in Emlyn with his uncle, Llywelyn ap Gwilym.
Nothing is known of Dafydd himself apart from the very few facts which can be gathered from his poems. It appears that he had visited all parts of Wales : he knew Gruffudd Gryg of Anglesey and Madog Benfras of Maelor. He sang to Newborough in Anglesey, visited the cathedral at Bangor, and eulogized the dean, Hywel ap Goronwy. Men and women of noble birth in Ceredigion were also the subjects of eulogies by him. It has been generally supposed that Dafydd's chief patron was Ifor ap Llywelyn, or Ifor Hael, of Bassaleg (now in Monmouthshire). As the result of recent researches, however, it has been suggested that the poems to Ifor, although attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym in all the manuscript sources, are the work of another poet, Dafydd Morgannwg. Dafydd ap Gwilym was buried at Strata Florida, and the yew tree growing over his grave was the subject of a cywydd by Gruffudd Gryg.
Like many another nobleman of the time, Dafydd had completely mastered the art of the Welsh bards, and the craftsmanship of his poems links him with the highly skilled bardic tradition which had been evolved during the time of the Poets of the Princes. In his awdlau there are some extremely complicated syntactical formations. Most of his works are in the cywydd metre, which was the popular vehicle of the poets of the 14th century, but even here the involved style of the Poets of the Princes is evident in all the well authenticated poems. They contain all the compound expressions, the parentheses, the archaic grammatical constructions and vocabulary which were at the time regarded as indispensable to a competent and dignified poetic style. It is true that he wrote some simpler poems, with loose cynghanedd, but in all the poems which are metrically highly developed he employs the traditional mode of expression. A large number of cywyddau have been wrongly attributed to Dafydd, and many such were included in Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym, 1789, but even when all these have been eliminated there still remains a sound core of fine poems.
Dafydd is remarkable in his age for the large number of poems which he wrote about nature and about love. In this respect he far exceeded all his contemporaries, not only in amount but also in inspiration. It has been shown that he was influenced by the popular poetry of other countries, with which he probably became acquainted through sojourning among the mixed company which gathered in the towns, such as Newborough and Newcastle Emlyn. But Dafydd soars far above all influences. His view of the world around him is that of a true poet, and it is the true poet's sensibility which gives expression to it all in concrete images. His conception of the unity of the poem as the ordered production of a single mood is not matched in the works of any other Welsh poet until the present time. To communicate his vision he had the skill of one who was supreme master of the Welsh language, its vocabulary, and its terseness of idiom, and also of all the strict metrical rules of his time.
Published date: 1959
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