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Welsh History Review


Vol. 17, nos. 1-4 1994-95

The poets of the Welsh Princes. Book review.

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THE POETS OF THE WELSH PRINCES. By J. E. Caerwyn Williams. University of Wales
Press, Cardiff, 1994. Pp. 85. £ 4.95.
Following the publication in 1764 of Evan Evans's Some Specimens of the Poetry of
the Ancient Welsh Bards, and of the Myvyrian Archaiology in the first decade of the last
century, it could have been expected that by the end of the twentieth century all the
surviving texts of early Welsh poetry would have been edited and published. So formi-
dable was this range of literary peaks, however, and so few the equipped climbers, that
some remain in process of conquest. No task has proved more intractable than the study
of the Gogynfeirdd, the poets who proclaimed the praise of the Welsh lords and princes
of the period 1100-1284, and their successors of the immediate post-Conquest period.
In this revised version of Professor Caerwyn Williams's standard study (originally
published in 1978), thirty-four men (including two princes) are listed as pre-Conquest
Gogynfeirdd. Although their printed but unedited works only fill a few hundred
columns of the Myvyrian Archaiology, the linguistic, textual and historical difficulties
they present are great. The lexical work of John Lloyd Jones, the detailed study of
Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr by D. Myrddin Lloyd and the careful editions of many indi-
vidual poems by Jean Vendryes still left the mass of the poetry awaiting its editor. By the
1960s it was plain that this was a task beyond one person, and only the creation of the
Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies made the task feasible. It was surely no
accident, with Professor Williams as the original Director of the Centre, that its first
project was an all-out editorial assault on the Gogynfeirdd.
Until all seven volumes have appeared, it must remain a nice point as to whether
historians will have as much to gain from the work as they will have contributed.
Eulogy breeds scepticism; those of us who have made forays into the field are well
aware of the difficulty, for example, of distinguishing between various kinds of poetic
claim. The statement that an individual is 'lord' of a certain district may have been a
fact at the time it was made, it may reflect a past fact no longer true, an unfulfilled claim
as of right, or propaganda. If the poem could be dated, we might know what validity the
claim has; if we knew the validity of the claim we might be able to date the poem. It can
be shown that levels of language are significant; for example, the claim to be llyw
(guide, leader) of a district may be fairly vague, while the term brenin, and especially
the rare but significant phrase brenin Cymru (king of Wales) are more carefully used,
even though they may not correspond with contemporary fact.
Professor Williams's short book remains a sure guide in this difficult field. In revis-
ing its text he has added poems and expanded quotations, and given a more detailed
discussion of love-poetry; there is now a list of the poets, and an updated bibliography.
He sets the poetry in the context of Welsh and European literature and culture, and
defines its relationship with the surviving Welsh poetry of the earlier heroic age, with
the benefit of a lifetime's reading in several languages and many cultures. He reminds us
that there are as many differences as similarities between the poets themselves, and
discusses the different genres-eulogy, love and nature poetry, religious works-with
ease and clarity. One may venture to disagree with occasional details; although some
poets certainly fought alongside their patrons, the examples cited on p. 34 are perhaps
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