Grave elegies: three and a half centuries of Welsh poetic tradition

From Kelten
Published: 20 June 2019
Grave elegies: three and a half centuries of Welsh poetic tradition
Guto Rhys
Title (NL): Grafdichten: drieëneenhalve eeuw Welshe, dichterlijke traditie
Abstract (NL):

Al sinds de zeventiende eeuw schrijven Welshmen metrische gedichten (englynion) op grafstenen, ter nagedachtenis aan overledenen. Veel van deze grafschriften zijn echter nog altijd niet gedocumenteerd en dreigen door weer en wind te verweren. Nieuwe initiatieven, waaronder een levendige facebookgroep (Englyn Bedd) pogen hier verandering in te brengen. In dit artikel schetst Guto Rhys aan de hand van voorbeelden de ontwikkeling van deze poëtische traditie door de eeuwen heen. Hierbij wordt duidelijk dat hoewel de metrische vorm dezelfde bleef, de thematiek van generatie op generatie verandert en dat de deze grafschriften zodoende tot op de dag van vandaag een weerslag geven van de culturele geschiedenis van Wales.

Since at least the middle of the seventeenth century elegiac, strict meter poems have been carved on Welsh grave monuments. The preferred meter is the englyn unodl union, a thirty-syllabled stanza composed on the demanding cynghanedd (literally ‘harmony’) system. This is a strict system based mainly on close alliteration between two halves of a line, and internal rhyme. An englyn is conventionally arranged in four lines of 10, 6, 7, 7 syllables and its layout (see the examples below) is usually immediately recognisable on gravestones.

The precise origin of this type of stanza is unknown, but originally it was presumably meant to be sung and would have been accompanied by some instrument such as a harp or a crwth. There are secure examples from the Poets of the Princes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and less certain ones from the Hengerdd, the debated Old Welsh compositions. Here, englynion almost always occurred in chains, or (later on) in larger compositions composed of several different types of meters. There are some examples of the meter standing alone from the fourteenth century, but these englynion are usually reserved for lighter themes. Precisely how and why they became employed as stand-alone stanzas for grave elegies in the early modern period is a matter for further research.

There has been a good amount of scholarly work on aspects of the tradition. For example, there are two early collections which contain many englynion bedd (grave englynion), one from 1883 and one from 1903 and a number of discussions in journals and newspapers, up to the present day. A great many occur also in the vast corpus of newspapers and poetry publications published over the past two and a half centuries. It was a competition, a collection of englynion bedd, in the 1977 National Eisteddfod, held in Wrecsam, which reignited scholarly interest in this ongoing tradition. It was one of the most popular competitions ever, with close to a hundred entries, containing some 7500 englynion in total. These are now held in the National Library in Aberystwyth. The winning collection was published as Llais y Meini, and at present we have a total of ten printed volumes. Nevertheless, only a few regions have been thoroughly surveyed, and many thousands of englynion remain uncollected, often flaking in rural graveyards or under attack from moss, lichen and ivy in the cemeteries of industrial towns. There are several personal collections which have not been published – I have some 3500 from North Wales for example. Based on such knowledge and the fruits of the energetic Facebook group Englyn Bedd one can estimate a total worldwide of well over 20,000. In the following discussion I will provide a selective overview of the development of this tradition.

The earliest inscribed englynion (17th-century)

Before progressing to discussing the grave elegies themselves there is one non-elegaic englyn carved on stone to which attention must be drawn. As far as is currently known this is the first englyn to have been inscribed on stone. It was composed by Rhisiart Phylip (died 1641), one of the most notable of the last representatives of the bardic order. It adorns a plaque on the wall of the family home in Nancol (Gwynedd) and has been given the title ‘Man and his Home’. The date 1593 is clearly visible.

               WEDI ITH GAEL YN bAROd
               WELE YN HENdRE Waylod
               Byddi di AM’FI Heb Fod

A tentative translation might be:

               I planted, I dressed well a thick covering about you
               Having got you ready.
               See in Hendre Waelod,

               That you will be, while I am not.

It serves to demonstrate that, by this time, the notion of carving a single englyn onto stone had emerged.

The first known surviving inscribed elegiac englyn is inside the (former) church of Llanfihangel-ar-Elái (Michaelston-super-Ely, Glamorgan) which bears the date 1658. The church is now a private residence and I am now attempting to ascertain the status and safety of this important inscription.

Professor John Rhys of Oxford offered the following translation in 1889, but much remains to be resolved regarding this perplexing englyn.

               To [our] grief for countrymen to pursue from our part,
               No mystery between us [is] the mark:
               Richard is – here we have put him-

               To be without noise, [both] he and his father John.

There are several englynion ascribed in later collections and journals to the late seventeenth century, but we have yet to verify that these actually adorned graves, as opposed to only figuring on the pages of books. A number of these, such as those purportedly from 1664-1709 in Llansilin, seem authentic but are nowhere to be seen in the churchyard. They may be buried under turf, or could well have succumbed to the weather or human intervention. For the next surviving example we move a little to the north, to Aberhonddu (Brecon, southern Powys), and again the survival is due to being inside a church. This is dated to 1681.

This bas relief is transcribed, but interpreting it is far more challenging due mainly to the perplexing orthography.

               DYMAER LLE DEHE DIWIOL;
               DAN ARGRAPH

One might hazard something vaguely along the lines of the following, but several issues are yet to be resolved.

               Here is the Godly, ideal place
               Under an inscription
               Rests the noble body
               Ioan ? ? virtuous pure gift
               Heavenly ability we leave after you.

First flourishing (late 18th- early 19th-century)

There are perhaps a dozen known englynion before about 1750, and it is quite conceivable that others remain to be brought to our attention, but I will move on from such beginnings. Suffice to say that we may suspect that these mostly anonymous early englynion represent the dying embers of the old professional, bardic order. They therefore belong to the very dusk of the medieval poetic order, when the great nobility had abandoned the Welsh language and professional poets were no longer welcomed at their courts. The tradition was, for a while, preserved by the lesser gentry. But by about 1700 the poetic craft is maintained only by non-professional enthusiasts, and is composed largely of praise or dire warnings.

From about 1750 englynion become more common and by this time the craft is maintained largely by the literary-minded Anglican clergy. Notable poets are individuals such as Dafydd Ddu Eryri (1759-1822) who spawned a good number of productive englynwyr (englyn writers) whose works are commonly found in north-west Wales. Up to about 1830 there is limited publishing and few journals in Welsh and there is no easy medium for poets to interact or to share ideas. The themes are fairly restricted and it is only with the growth of publishing and the movement of people and ideas associated with the coming of the trains in the mid-nineteenth century that we see the blossoming of the englyn tradition. We then see quite a preponderance of popular englynion occurring at one and the same time in many areas of Wales, often with errors or modifications. One of the most common is the following by Robert ap Gwilym Ddu (1766-1850).

               Yr Iôn, pan ddelo’r ennyd – ar ddiwedd
                                      O’r ddaear a’n cyfyd;
               Bydd dorau beddau y byd,
                              Ar un gair yn agoryd.

               The Lord, when the time comes – at the end
                                      From the earth will raise us.
               The doors of the graves of the world
                          On one word will open.

Popular patterns include a paladr (the first two lines) praising the individual and an esgyll (the final two lines on the cywydd meter) promising resurrection. Common also are warning englynion, urging man, or woman, to bear in mind that their days on earth are numbered.

               Gwel waeled saled fy seler:
               Ysdyr} I osdwng dy falchder.
               A chofia ddyn iach ofer,
               Nad oes i fyw Ond oes fer.
                                             Huw Morus 

               See how wretched, how mean is my cellar
               A reason to lessen your pride.
               And remember healthy, vain man,
               That there is but a short span for life.

The following presents an even more pessimistic and terminal vision:

               Pob glan, pob oedran, bydrant: pob einioes
                                             Pob annwyd ddiflanant:
                              Pob lliw, llun, pob un, pawb ant,
                              Pob graddau pawb gorweddant.

               Every virtuous (person), every age do rot: every life
                                             Every nature, disappear.
                              Every colour, every form, everyone goes
                              Every grade, everyone lies down.

In this period it is clear that only notables of some sort are recorded on the prestigious and demanding englyn meter. In fact, even gravestones themselves only became common during the eighteenth century. An interesting example is the grave of John Ystumllun (?-1786), a prominent former slave who had settled and married in north Wales (Ynyscynhaearn, Gwynedd).

               Yn India gynna’m ganwyd – a nghamrau
               Yng Nghymru’m bedyddiwyd;
               Wele’r fan dan lechan lwyd
               Du oeraidd y’m daearwyd
                                                            Dafydd Siôn Siâms (1743-1831)

               In India (sic.) was I earlier born – and my journey
               In Wales was I baptised;
               See the place under a grey slate,
               Black and cold, I was interred.

Englynion also made their appearance outside of Wales, for in this period much of the focus of Welsh literature relocated to London, where rich and affluent exiled Welshmen of an antiquarian bent formed societies like the Cymmrodorion whose aim was to preserve, investigate, publicise and promote the recently rediscovered medieval literary riches of Wales. One of the foremost was Owain Myfyr (1741-1814) compiler of the TheMyvyrian Archaiology of Wales, a sumptuous collection of medieval Welsh material. He was buried at All Hallows church (London), but the impressive gravestone has now been relocated to his home village of Llanfihangel-Glyn-Myfyr. Two englynion, of no great literary merit, typical of the period and composed by his friend Gwallter Mechain were inscribed on it.

               Ochini byth! Och Awen bêr Collwyd
               Y calla’n ei Amser!
               Bwrdd a Nawdd y Beirdd a’u ner
               Pawl a gem eppil Gomer.
               Ynad y gan enaid Gwynedd ei chalon
               Dymchwelwyd o’i orsedd:
               Owain fwyn, mae yn ei fedd.
               Enwog wr yma Gorwedd.

               Woe to us forever! Woe to sweet Muse – Was lost
               The wisest of his Time!
               The Table and Patron of the Bards, and their lord,
               Pillar and gem of the descendants of Gomer.
               The Justice of song and soul of Gwynedd – her heart,
               He was toppled from his throne:
               Gentle Owain, he is in his grave.

To end this segment on an intriguing note, there is an englyn from this period that occurs more than once. It records a murder, but I have not yet definitively pinned down either the poet or the date of original composition. This example is from 1825 and is in the church of Llanddeiniolen (Gwynedd).

                Nid penyd clefyd a’m cloes, nid ingol
                Nod angau dolurloes,
                Na henaint aeth â’m heinioes,
                Dyn a fu yn dwyn fy oes.

                It was not the penalty of sickness which locked me – nor
                the excruciating
                Mark (?) of agonising death.
                Nor was it old age that took my existence,
                It was man who stole my life.

Religious impetus and boom (mid-19th century)

The early nineteenth century sees ground shaking cultural changes in Wales with the rapid growth of Nonconformity with its emphasis on literacy and Biblical exegesis. An attendant growth in the publishing of books and journals, and the rediscovery of the wealth of medieval Welsh poetry gave stimulus to the poetic tradition. As such, the craft moves increasingly into the sphere of these new religious sects, and englynion lose their social exclusivity, becoming common on the graves of humble quarrymen, farmers, miners, mariners, midwives and so on. Books on poetry or grammar are published, which include descriptions of cynghanedd meters, enabling those outside or on the margins of the more traditional poetic circles to master the craft. Numerically, the peak is reached about 1875-1876 and strict meter poetry reaches a somewhat cult status in Welsh culture, the ability to compose a good englyn being seen as one of the most prestigious achievements of a cultured Welshman. Nonetheless, I know of no englynion composed by women until the late twentieth century.

Although much of the production of about 1840-1910 is pedestrian, functional, intellectually thin and of little poetic creativity, from about 1850 onwards – in particular due to the works of Ceiriog (1832-1887) – a fresh seam of Romanticism is introduced into the tradition and many englynion show stunning use of imagery, mastery of the form and, increasingly, insights into the personality of the deceased. Also, the growth of the Eisteddfod movement gave poets both local and national prominence. A glimpse into the originality of Ceiriog may be seen in the englyn he composed for his own grave monument.

                                       CARAI FYW’N NATURIOL.
                             CARAI GERDD YN ANGERDDOL
                             DYMA’I LWCH A DIM LOL.

                He loved musical words – he loved bards
                                       He loved living naturally.
                              He loved music passionately,
                              Here’s his dust and no nonsense.

It is a respite from the often dreary repetitiveness of a part of the produce of the period with its emphasis on morality and the resurrection. As John Morris Jones commented regarding the related awdl meter, most of the compositions were merely exercises in the production of cynghanedd, entirely devoid of true poetry. And much the same can be said for a good part of the englyn tradition. Nevertheless, it did serve an important social function in giving consolation, and dignifying death and it provides an invaluable insight into centuries of thinking on theology, death, society, personality, grief, work and so on.

The highest known example, located at some 9200 feet (about 2,8 kilometres), lies in Russell Gulch in the Idaho Rockies. The englyn, on an impressive pillar, commemorates Owen Jones (died 1853), a miner originally from Môn (Anglesey) who died after an illness resulting from the explosion of a stick of dynamite in his hand. This is one of the great many englynion in the United States, where in the nineteenth century there were hundreds of Welsh language chapels, and a weekly journal called Y Drych. So far only a few dozen of these have been uploaded to the Facebook group, and most lie unrecognised in untended or abandoned graveyards.

               O afiachus wael fuchedd – o afael
               Pob gofid a llygredd,
               Aeth at ei Dad i wlad y wledd
               Y nwyfiant a’r tangnefedd.

               From a wretched, feeble like – from the grasp
               Of every affliction and corruption,
               He went to his Father to the land of feast,
               Passion and peace.

At about this period the occasional rather morbid englynion goes out of fashion, the following, also from 1853, is one of the last.

               Ei lygad oedd fad, oedd fyw – a siriol
                                      Fel seren oleufyw;
                             Gwelw yn awr yn y glyn yw,
                             Bore-fwyd i bryf ydyw.

               His eye was good, was alive – and cheerful
                                       Like a livid bright star;
                              Pale now in the valley it is,
                              Breakfast for a worm is it.

New themes (late 19th-century)

From 1875 in Penmachno we have an englyn by Ioan Glan Lledr to his parents, displaying the more personal approach which is by now common.

               O dan hon mae ‘Nhad yn huno, - a Mam
                                      ‘R un modd yn gorphwyso,
                              Ac yn fuan tan ‘r un to

                              Finnau geir; ‘r wyf yn gwyro.

               Underneath this my Father slumbers, - and Mother
                                       Similarly is resting.
                              And soon under the same roof,
                              Will I be, I am stooping.

When he died in 1897 and was buried in the same grave a cywydd couplet was added.

               Gwyrais,: wyf yma’n gorwedd,
               Teulu ŷm mewn tawel hedd.

               I stooped: I lie here
               We are a family in silent peace.

While it is not an englyn the following is a good example of the occasional less gloomy poetry which dots the gravestones of the second half of the nineteenth century. This is the grave of Twm Carnabwth (d. 1876, Mynachlog-ddu), one of the leaders of the Rebecca Riots, in which men disguised themselves in women’s clothes in order to destroy the hated toll-gates.

               Nid oes neb ond Duw yn gwybod
               Beth a ddigwydd mewn diwornod
               Wrth gyrchu bresych at fy nginio
               Daeth angau i fy ngardd i’m taro.

               Nobody but God knows
               What may happen in a day
               While fetching cabbage for my dinner
               Death came to my garden to strike me.

Those familiar with standard literary Welsh will have noticed the dialectal forms diwornod (diwrnod) and fy nginio (fy nghinio). Such poems are often composed by local poets for local audiences and it is not unusual to find dialectal forms, especially in the early period, and these have already started to be mined as evidence for localised and diachronic language variation.

Thoughtful imagery also starts to become common at this time as Welsh poetry is enriched by new thinking and outside influences. There is a slow move away from somewhat repetitive and faceless writing with issues like death, personality, love and loss being investigated in a deeper and less superficial manner.

An example of the impact of Romanticism is the following, the fourth englyn of four on the grave of William Hughes in Llanrwst (1870), composed by the prolific Trebor Mai.

               I’w fedd anrhydedd fyddo, - sidanwellt
                                             Ymestynwch trosto,
                              Awelon dewch i wylo
                              I’r fan wael er ei fwyn o.

               To his grave may there be honour, - silken grass,
                                             Extend it over it,
                              Breezes come to weep
                              To the wretched place for his sake.

However, this period is also the highpoint of formulaic, functional englynion, often characterised with the rhyme -edd giving access to monosyllables such as bedd (grave), hedd (peace) and finally unaccented polysyllables (required for the meter) such as diwedd (end), and a good number of abstract nouns such as gwirionedd (truth). These poems are of little literary value, but the social function undertaken by providing the deceased and his, and often her, family with the prestige of a metrically challenging composition should not be underestimated. An example is the following from Trawsfynydd (1881).

               Ei rodiad a’i anrhydedd – a erys,
                                             Arwr y gwirionedd;
                              Enw da hwn a’i duedd
                              Wnaiff i fyd hoffi ei fedd.
                                                            Dewi Havhesp
               His conduct and his honour – remain,
                                             Hero of the truth;
                              His good name and tendency
                              Will make the world like his grave.

Personal touches (late 19th-century)

Professions quite often figure prominently in the poems, regularly with some play on the role. This englyn, from Nant Peris, is to a 33 year old surgeon who died in 1880.

               Lliaws gynt fu yn llesgau – wellhai ef
                                      O’u holl anhwylderau:
                              Och, ei hun ni fedrai iachau;
                              Ni ddiengodd o ŵydd angau.

               Multitudes who previously languished – he cured
                                      From all their ailments.
                              Och, he himself he could not heal,
                              He escaped not from the presence of death.

Many englynion are genuinely touching and reflect heartfelt grief and true love and loss, such as the following from Llanengan (Gwynedd, 1893).

               Ni ddêl enaid ffyddlonach – i Lŷn fyth,
                                             Na chalon fawr burach,
                              Orweddodd neb llareiddiach
                              Yn nhywod bedd na ’nhaid bach.

               No more faithful soul will come – to Llŷn ever
                                             Nor a purer heart.
                              No one gentler ever laid down
                              In the sand of the grave than my dear grandfather.

There are many englynion to deaths in industrial accidents. Also in Llanengan (Gwynedd) we have the grave of a young man (John Evans) who died in the catastrophic mining disaster (1894) at the Albion colliery in Pontypridd (Glamorganshire) when 229 men and boys were killed. Many of the workers were Northwalians who had migrated in search of work.

               O’r pwll glo’n deffro gan dân, - bro ddu bell,
                                             I bridd Bwlch Llanengan
                              Fe’i dygwyd; gyrrwyd y gân
                              Yn elorgerdd alargan.

               From the coalpit waking with fire – of a far black land,
                                             To the soil of Bwlch Llanengan
                              He was taken; the song was driven
                              To a bier-poem of a grief-song.

The subjects vary greatly, one example being the epitaph of a notable astronomer, John Jones, y Seryddwr, from Bangor who died in 1898. From about the middle of the nineteenth century another strict meter poem, known as a hir-a-thoddaid becomes quite common as well.

               Yn wylaidd-ddiwyd fe welodd Ioan,
               Werth oes o gynydd wrth ddysgu’i hunan.
               Ymrôdd i ddeall a chwilio allan
               Enfawr oleuadau’r nwyfre lydan;
               Cofiodd uwchlaw y cyfan – fod yn rhaid
               Rhoi hyder enaid ar awdur anian.

               Modestly, diligently did Ioan see,
               An age’s worth of progress while teaching himself.
               He dedicated himself to comprehending and discovering
               The immense lights of the broad firmament.
               He remembered above all – that one must
               Place the trust of the soul in the author of nature.

One of my favourites, is one that lies in the graveyard of my own village, Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (Anglesey). It was composed by Sir John Morris-Jones, the first professor of Welsh at the new University of Bangor, in 1905, to his five-year old nephew. It is unpretentious, well-expressed, concise, sincere and moving.

               Ai Einion mewn gwirionedd – a roddir
                                      Heddiw mewn dyfnfedd?
                              Oer wyf, ac nid yw ryfedd,
                              A’m nai bach yma’n y bedd.

                Is it truly Einion – who is placed
                                      Today in the deep grave?
                               I am cold, and no wonder,
                              With my little nephew here in the grave.

Patagonian englynion

In 1865 a Welsh-speaking colony (Y Wladfa) was founded in Patagonia, drawing in a variety of settlers. One of these, the Captain W. E. Rogers (1827-1909), had fought in the Crimean war and his headstone lists his participation in the battles of Alma, Sebastopol and Inkerman, and an existing englyn was inscribed on his impressive white gravestone in the Gaiman.

               Er cryfder corff pêr, purwyn, - er bonedd
                                      Arbenig ei wreiddyn,
                              Ac er mawl ac aur melyn
                              Bedd yw anedd diwedd dyn.

                Despite the strength of a sweet, pure-white body,
                                - despite the special nobility
                                       Of his descent,
                               And despite praise and yellow gold
                               The grave is the last habitation of man.

Indeed, there is a book of these epitaphs containing some 60 'Argentinian' englynion and many more free meter poems.[1]

Tragedy and war (early 20th-century)

From 1912, in Llanfwrog in Anglesey we have the grave of two anonymous men whose bodies were washed up on the shore one day.

               Gwŷr yrrwyd i’n gororau – yn waelion
                                       Ar elor y tonnau,
                              Iôr ei hun ŵyr eu henwau:
                              Daw ryw ddydd i godi’r ddau.
                                                                           Gwilym Berw

               Men who were driven to our borders – wretchedly
                                        On the bier of the waves,
                              God himself knows their names;
                              He will come one day to raise the two.

Most renowned poets, such as the tragic Hedd Wyn, composed elegiac englynion for family and friends. This gifted poet was himself a war casualty, killed near Ypres in 1917. He had submitted a strict-meter awdl to the National Eisteddfod some weeks earlier, but was dead before he could claim his bardic chair, which was draped in black in a ceremony presided over by the British prime-minister David Lloyd George. One of Hedd Wyn’s most moving elegies, composed to a baby who died at nine weeks, is in the graveyard of the church of his own home village, Trawsfynydd.

               Yntau fu farw’n blentyn, - ond yn awr
                                     Hyd y nef ddiderfyn
                              Llawer angel gwallt-felyn
                              Oeda i weld Tegid Wyn.

               He did die as a child, - but now
                                      To infinite heaven
                              Many a golden-haired angel
                              Dallies to see Tegid Wyn.

There are a dozen or two englynion composed to the dead of the First World War, placed above empty graves in Wales. A well-known example is by the celebrated poet R. Williams Parry, to two brothers whose grave is in Llanfihangel-y-pennant (1917 & 1918).

               Nid fan hon y dwfn hunant, - dros y môr
                                      Dyrys, maith gorffwysant:
                              Ond eu cofio’n gyson gânt
                              Ar y mynor ym Mhennant.

               It is not here that they sleep deeply – over the sea,
                                       Intricate and vast do they repose;
                              But remembered constantly will they be
                              On the marble in Pennant.

An englyn milwr (soldier’s englyn) also adorns the white marble grave of a Welsh soldier who died in the Battle of Beersheba (1917) in Palestine.

                               Hwyliodd yn wyn o Walia

                               Drwy y drin, wron da,
                               I’w hir saib yn Beersheba.

                               Innocent he sailed from Gwalia

                               Through the battle, noble hero,
                               To his long rest in Beersheba.

Another war casualty was Captain Hugh Jones of Surrey House in Borth, near Aberystwyth, whose cargo ship carrying much needed Spanish ore to Britain, was sunk off Bilbao a few weeks before the end of the war. Some searching on the internet enabled the reconstruction of much of the historical context and provided photographs of his ship, the Heathpark, and a photograph of the U-boat captain who fired the deadly torpedo. The body of this captain stayed on the sea for three days before being found by Basque fishermen and it is now in a military graveyard near Bilbao. The englyn is in his home village, one noted for its captains and seamen.

               Ar y don er brad creulonedd – gelyn
                                             Yn gwylio’i gelanedd
                              Yn naear ‘Spaen erys bedd,
                              Hir wiria ei arwredd.

               On the wave despite the treachery of cruelty – an enemy
                                             Watching his corpse.
                              In the land of Spain a grave remains.
                              Long will his heroism last.

Secularisation (mid-20th century)

The calamity of the Great War and the loss of so many of the Welsh youth caused many to question their faith, and simplistic references to God and the Resurrection quite suddenly become far less prominent. The after years of the war usher in a period of increasing secularisation in Welsh society, a change which is reflected in the themes of the englynion, with emphasis on aspects of the personality of the individual emerging. The following is by the first modernist Welsh writer, the renowned (Sir) T. H. Parry-Williams, which he composed to one of his brightest pupils (Ceinewydd / Newquay, 1933).

               Ym myd gwybod bu’n rhodio -  yn fore’n
                                      Fyfyriwr diflino, -
                              ‘Roedd dysg yn ei ruddwaed o,
                              Dysg yn ei fryd a’i osgo.

               In the world of learning he strode – early
                                             A tireless student.
                              There was learning in his scarlet blood,
                              Learning in his mind and bearing.

Perhaps the most famous subject of an englyn bedd is the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945), composed by his nephew, the solicitor, archdruid and notable poet W. R. P. George.

               Y maen garw, a maen ei goron, - yw bedd
                                             Gŵr i’w bobl fu’n wron;
                              Dyfrliw hardd yw Dwyfor lon,
                              Anwesa’r bedd yn gyson.

               The rough stone, and the stone of his crown – is the grave
                                             Of a man who was a hero to his people;
                              Merry Dwyfor [the adjacent river] is a beautiful watercolour,
                              That continuously embraces the grave.

There are sometimes references to political or social activism, especially in the industrial areas of Wales. The following is from Macpela cemetery in Penygroes, which attests over a hundred englynion and is a veritable anthology of religious and poetic thought. This englyn is for Robert Williams (O.B.E. and Justice of the Peace, 1966).

               Chwarelwyr a’u chwerw helynt – a garodd
                                             Bu’n llyw gwrol iddynt.
                              Gwenodd ar her pob cerrynt,
                              Brawd i’r gwan mewn brwydrau gynt.

               Quarrymen and their bitter strife – he loved
                                             He was a valiant leader to them.
                              He smiled at the challenge of every course,
                              A brother to the weak in past battles.

Individualisation (late 20th-century onwards)

The poetry from the closing decades of the twentieth century onwards has seen an increasing emphasis on the individual, their personalities and their interests. The following is by the chaired bard Elwyn Edwards and is in Bala (around 2000).

               Ei gysur fu llafurio – ’n ei ardd ir,
                                             Cerddoriaeth a chrwydro.
                              Câi fwyniant o’u cyfuno,
                              Hyn oedd ei fyd iddo fo.

               His solace was labouring – in his verdant garden,
                                             Music and wandering.
                              He drew pleasure from combining them,
                              This was for him his world.

In Morfa Nefyn is a work composed by Myrddin ap Dafydd, chaired bard and current archdruid, to his friend who died at 41 years old, in 2005.

               Disgynnodd gwalch ar fwyalchen gynnar,
                                             Aeth y gân o’r heulwen,
                              Ond daw o gysgod ywen
                              Iolo i’w gofio â gwên.

               A hawk descended on an early blackbird,
                                             The song went from the sunshine,
                              But from the shadow of a yew
                              Iolo will come, remembered with a smile.

On the grave of the eminent poet and novelist T. Llew Jones (2009) is an englyn by one of the great poets of the twentieth century, Dic Jones.

               Yma rhwng galar a gwên – yn erw’r hiraeth
                                             Nad yw’n gorffen
                              Wylo’n ddistaw mae’r awen
                              Uwch olion llwch eilun llên.

               Here between grief and a smile – in the acre
                                             Of the longing that ends not
                              The muse is silently weeping
                              Above the remains of the dust of an icon of literature.

A prominent young poet (Peredur Glyn) composed the following to his uncle, a lawyer (Llangwyfan, Anglesey, 2014).

               Un â gwefr yn ei gyfraith; - un siriol
                                             a’n cysurodd ganwaith;
                              un cyfiawn; un iawn ei iaith;
                              un hael; un na chawn eilwaith.

               Dafydd, ein capten pennaf, - a’n hwyliodd
                                             drwy’r treialon garwaf;
                              yna, yn hedd pnawn o haf,
                              hwyliodd I’w achos olaf.

               One thrilled by his law; - a cheerful man
                                             who consoled us a hundred times;
                              a just man; one correct in his language;
                              a generous man; never his like will we see again.

               Dafydd, our foremost captain, - sailed us
                                             through the roughest trials;
                              then, one summer afternoon,
                              he sailed to his last case.

Final words

Considering that this tradition could be considered rather gloomy, I’d like to close with one composition that breaks the mould, an englyn to a much-loved workshop dog of the famous Portmeirion estate in Gwynedd, composed by the chaired bard Twm Morys.

               Gwenai drwy ddannedd gwynion - a llodrau
                                             Pob lleidr yn gyrbibion.
                              Ond meddal oedd ei galon
                              Hogyn bach o gi'n y bôn.

               He smiled through teeth of white – and the trousers
                                             Of any thief would be in tatters.
                              But soft was his heart
                              A little lad of a dog basically.

What I hope to have shown here is that this veritable, living, and often vibrant, tradition is a mirror of the history of the Welsh-speaking community over some three and a half centuries. It is a varied tradition full of emotion and social comment. At present, a number of scholars hope to obtain funding to preserve this vast corpus and also to preserve the necessary contextual information which is rapidly being lost. The intention is to photograph and transcribe all of these poems and digitise the information on a dedicated website. If readers know of any englynion in the countries they visit we would appreciate a photograph. Also, if you happen to be in Wales please do pop into the churchyard and snap away with your smartphone and upload pics to Englyn Bedd on Facebook.


Williams, C. and M.W. De Hughes, Er Serchog Gof - Casgliad o Fynwentydd Y Wladfa (1997).

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