“All early Welsh poetry is rhymed. The word awdl, used for the work of a chief bard, is the same as odl meaning rhyme, and an awdl was rhymed speech” as Gwynn Williams informs us[i]. This is an old, old word in Indo-European languages, cognate with “ode” in English, which comes, already singing, into our language from the Greek. But the hypothetical (and reconstructed) Indo-European root for both the Welsh and Greek, “wed-2,” means simply “to speak.” Out of this connection come our English words ode, comedy, epode, hymnody, melody, monody, parody, rhapsody and tragedy (the infamous “goat song”)[ii]. The Welsh would be a much older word than any of those English derivations through French and Latin, but even so it carries the same sense as the Greek of speech heightened, made better, made more interesting.
This is exactly what happened to the verb I first encountered among my hippie friends, “rap,” as I pointed out in my last post. It started out meaning “to speak” and now means, if not “to sing” then, at least, “to chant in rhymed lines.” Of it, the American Heritage dictionary says, in a note to this particular meaning:
The word is probably a development ultimately of rap meaning “to hit.” It shows up in the early 1900s in the extended meaning “to express orally,” as used by so notable a figure as Winston Churchill in 1933. Over the next few decades it came to mean “to discuss or debate informally,” a meaning that was well established in the African-American community by the late 1960s. A decade later the word was applied to an evolving style of music characterized by, among other things, beat-driven rhymes of an often improvisatory nature.
A quick consultation of the Wikipedia entry for “rapping” suggests a derivation from the noun “repartee,” attributed to Webster’s third new international dictionary, unabridged, an attribution I cannot check tonight, since the library is closed and that is one dictionary I don’t own (but published at about the same time, in 2002, as my American Heritage dictionary). But my Random House dictionary of the English language, Second edition, unabridged, [iii] which gives as its 8th definition for the verb: “to talk or discuss, esp. freely, openly, or volubly; chat” and as its 9th (and newest) definition “to talk rhythmically to the beat of rap music” (and labeling both usages “Slang”), suggests that these senses of the word are “perh. of distinct orig., though the hypothesis that it is a shortening of repartee is questionable.”
Many of the most vivid words in our language share that kind of obscure origin. Few also refer to a specific verse form. To my ear a rap is often performed in a couplet, each line consisting of four stressed syllables. Many of the earliest and best were improvised. This is true of the Welsh poems I have been subtly alluding to. Williams says “The twenty-four measures permitted to the official poet, established in the fourteenth century and modified in the fifteenth, were a regularisation of forms which had been evolved through the practice of poets from at least as far back as the sixth century”[iv]. Our recording technologies are far better than the parchment and quill available that long ago; we can’t know as much about the performance techniques of those Welsh poets who evolved the forms. But I’m willing to wager that the performances were improvisatory, and that the forms helped the poets remember the poems as they developed them, as the Anglo-Saxon poets apparently did with their stress-based prosody. The first of the forms I discussed, back in my 5th post, is called cyhydedd fer, which Rolfe Humphries describes as “a rhymed couplet of 8-syllable lines, well-known to us from Marvell, Herrick, and many others”[v]. But when I got my copy of Humphries’ source, Gwyn Williams’ book, I found that Williams had an organization to the forms that Humphries had modified, bringing up cyhydedd fer from 14th in the list to 1st, because “For my ancestors” is such a marvelous poem, one well worth opening a book with. Outside of that, Humphries follows Williams’ order in listing the forms, but does not explain that order. Here is how Williams lists the first 8 of these 24 forms, with some of his notes:
Group A. Englynion
1. Englyn penfyr (short-ended englyn) [discussed in my post 6, verse control]. 2. Englyn milwr (the soldier’s englyn) [discussed in post 6, verse control]. The two above englyn forms are to be found in the earliest recorded Welsh poetry, the Juvencus englynion. They are traditionally associated with the primitive Britain and were out of fashion by the twelfth century.
3. Englyn unodl union (the straight one-rhymed englyn) [discussed in post 6, verse control]. This englyn consists of four lines of ten, six, seven and seven syllables respectively, with one main rhyme…. This has remained until today by far the most popular of englyn forms; indeed it is rare for any other kind of englyn to be written today….
4. Englyn unodl crwca (the crooked one-rhymed englyn) [discussed in 006, verse control].
5. Englyn cyrch [discussed below]. In this four-line stanza the first, second and fourth lines rhyme, whilst the third line rhymes with the middle of the fourth line. It is the linking of two couplets, the first a cywydd deuair hirion, the second an awdl gywydd.
The next three forms (6, 7, and 8 ) [also discussed below] are the englynion proest or half-rhymed englyn, which follow the rules of proest rhyming to be explained in the section on rhyme. All three forms consist of four seven-syllable lines.
6. Englyn proest dalgron. This has rhymes formed of vowels of the same length or such vowels followed by a consonant or by the vowel w. Short-vowel half-rhymes would be gwiwder, mynor, galar; dolur; long vowel half-rhymes, llên, gwin, tân, cwn.
7. In the Englyn lleddfbroest the rhymes must be the four diphthongs ae, oe, wy and ei, to which the modern spelling of Welsh has added ai.
8. Englyn proest gadwynog. The word cadwyn means chain and here the rhymes occur alternatively. Each line half-rhymes with the next and rhymes fully with the next but one.[vi]
So I must apologize for not having done more study before launching on this venture. The 5th form, englyn cyrch, should have been presented with 1st through 4th forms. Williams describes it as “the linking of two couplets” (one of many combinations in these 24 meters). Humphries describes it as “a four-line, seven-syllable stanza. Lines one, two, and four rhyme, and line three rhymes into the middle of line 4.”[vii] Two stanzas from his poem “The lament of Llywarch Hen” illustrate this stanza in English:
Ere my back was bent, I led Men in war; that is ended. Straight and tough, my spear was good Sure to draw first blood, bright red.
Wooden staff, now I have no Smooth white arm for my pillow. Not one slender one, or sly, Waits to watch where I might go.
Note that the rhyme falls often on an unaccented syllable in English. That might seem to be more typical of the next three, and last of the eight, englynion. Each of these I will present with Humphries’s comments on the line and rhyme.
Englyn proest dalgron: “Four lines, seven syllables to the line, off-rhyming on vowels or diphthongs. The quantity of the rhymed syllables must be the same, either all long, or all short.” Bear in mind that these are verse forms invented by the equivalent of rappers, long before the codifiers came along. Here are the first two stanzas of Humphries’s poem “Merioneth”:
In that sweet, mild western air Castle stones are russet fire, Wind goes gentle, water clear, A minute is a quarter hour.
Golden broom on mountainside, Golden gorse along the road, Rowan, oak, and alder shade Lower ground with globe of cloud.
Again, the rhymes are not full rhymes like lead, head, said, and dead (all of which would be short syllables, as opposed to lead, heed, seed, and deed).
Englyn lleddfbroest: “Four lines, seven syllables to the line. The rhymes must be the four diphthongs ae, oe, wy, ei. Impossible to reproduce in English, so I have had to make do with what diphthongs our language has at its disposal.” Here are the middle two stanzas of Humphries’s poem “Benison”:
Be the weather fair or foul, Sleep together, sleep a while. Angels at the vestibule Wait with honey, wine and oil,
For the wakeners to use In fulfillment of their vows On their pilgrimage to joys Pleasanter than Paradise.
Note that the rhyming is not with a single diphthong, but with different diphthongs in each line. The diphthongs rhyme the way vowels alliterate in Anglo-Saxon prosody. Any vowel alliterates with any other.
Englyn proest gadwynog: “Also four lines, seven syllables. Lines one and three rhyme; lines two and four off-rhyme with one and three, and with each other.” If you’ve ever noticed how many off-rhymes, or half-rhymes, there are in our hymns, you might examine them for Welsh verse forms next Sunday. But for today, here are stanzas from Humphries’s “A chain-charm for a lady”:
Water-bulrush, water-willow From the margin of the hollow Shade thy bed and shape thy pillow, Time be slow and apple-mellow.
If the sun to cloud hath gone Take the shadow for thy gain; Wait thy moment; soon the lawn Glows and goldens, very soon.
I swear I sing this rhyme-scheme every Sunday.
As you can see, the description of the stanzas is far more forbidding than the stanzas themselves. Williams does in fact comment that some of his examples in Welsh are not the best of poems. Of Cyrch a chwta (which you will meet later), he says “It has never been much used, and … the best specimen is in the eighteenth century Goronwy Owen’s stanza on the Welsh language”[viii] (which he then quotes). Perhaps if neither love nor valor can inspire the best verse, it might be wise to let the form die. But hold on, I hear you say; wouldn’t such wisdom doom much of contemporary verse?
[i] from Gwyn Williams, An introduction to Welsh poetry, from the beginnings to the sixteenth century (Freeport, N. Y. : Books for Libraries Press, 1970) [reprinted from edition published London : Faber & Faber, 1953], p. 232.
[ii] The American Heritage® dictionary of the English language, 4th ed. (Boston : Houghton Mifflin , c2002).
[iii] The Random House dictionary of the English language. Second edition, unabridged / Stuart Berg Flexner, editor in chief ; Leonore Crary Hauck, managing editor. New York : Random House, c1987.
[v] Humphries, Rolfe. Green armor on green ground : poems in the twenty-four official Welsh meters, and some, in free meters, on Welsh themes. – [New York] : Scribner’s, 1956.
[vi] Williams, pp. 232-235.
[vii] This, and the following three descriptions, all come from Humphries, p. 70.
[viii] Williams, p. 241.