in verse # 10 : aged in charcoal

Rolfe Humphries’s fine poem, “Winter, Old Style,” with which he illustrates the Welsh meter rhupunt, ends with these lines:

The trees are bowed in the bare wood; there is no shade in any vale.                                    The reeds are dry and a loud crying howls outside the horse’s stall.

The light is short.  Sorrow and hurt harry the heart with inward war.                                     So an old man does what he can, stares through the pane at night’s black square.[i]

Note how assonance echoes in these lines, and how the rhymes slant.  Perhaps because I am an old man, “Winter, Old Style” calls to mind another poem on the same theme, “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” which begins:

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him                                                                              Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,                                                                      That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.[ii]

Though the meter of this poem is the iambic pentameter we call “blank verse” — because the lines don’t rhyme — notice how much internal alliteration and rhyme fills these lines.  But you have to look to notice; this is a fine example of Robert Frost’s ability to make blank verse seem as natural as a speaking voice.  Neither of these instances of verse is natural speech.  Each of the poems is a highly artificial construct from the materials of natural speech, words and rhythm and meaning, and neither sounds like the plain speech  of this verse:

I step outside to get a clear view                                                                                                      of this night’s first stars, but something                                                                                       urgent and full of an ancient, inexplicable pain                                                                              is aloft in the darkness of the hemlocks.[iii]

Those are the first lines of Tess Gallagher’s “To Whom Can I Open My Heart?”  They show clearly how far American verse has moved into the idiosyncratic and personal voice, how far we have moved from the tradition Robert Frost preferred to the “free verse” of his day — to say nothing of Rolfe Humphries’ use of Welsh meters.  And his lines quoted above, since they are examples of rhupunt, can each be printed as a single stanza, thus:

The trees are bowed                                                                                                                         In the bare wood;                                                                                                                                There is no shade                                                                                                                                In any vale.

The reeds are dry                                                                                                                              And a loud crying                                                                                                                                 Howls outside                                                                                                                                  The horse’s stall.

The light is short.                                                                                                                       Sorrow and hurt                                                                                                                           Harry the heart                                                                                                                                With inward war.

So an old man                                                                                                                                   Does what he can,                                                                                                                       Stares through the pane                                                                                                                  At night’s black square.

That is, in fact, how Humphries prints them in Green armor on green ground.  He is working from the definition of rhupunt given by Gwyn Williams (who lists rhupunt as the first of “the Awdl measures”):

The rhupunt is a line of three, four or five sections of four syllables each.  The first two, three or four sections rhyme with each other, whilst the final section carries the main rhyme.  The rhupunt is as old as Welsh poetry and occurs in the Black Book of Carmarthen and in Aneirin’s Gododdin.  A rhupunt may be written out as one line or each of its divisions may be taken as a line.[iv]

This structure is clearer in the latter case, as Humphries has printed it.  I find the single long line manageable as a reading unit, and in some ways prefer it, because it flows better off my tongue.

“Awdl,” as I mentioned earlier, is related to the Greek-derived “ode,” and these measures seem to me to be designed to aid the memory in producing a long poem.  None of these awdl measures are simple.  The next one Williams lists seems fiendishly simple:  cyhydedd fer or short equivalence.  Williams defines it as “a rhymed couplet of eight-syllable lines, which occurs in the Gododdin and in the Book of Taliesin.  In the twelfth century poetry long sequences of these couplets have the same rhyme.”  This is the meter with which Humphries opens Green armor on green ground.  I introduced this measure in an earlier post, and invite you to return to it.  It is indeed a line well-suited to a longer poem.  But the next meter, byr a thoddaid, shows a little of the Welsh perversity in this regard, as Williams explains it:

 This measure is a combination of the cyhydedd fer with the toddaid byr.  The toddaid byr is a couplet also of sixteen syllables, but divided into lines of ten and six syllables.  One, two or three syllables come after the main rhyme in the first line and these syllables must be linked by alliteration or assonance with the first syllables of the second line.  When the toddaid byr is mingled with the cyhydedd fer the effect is to give variety to the eight-syllable couplet by a break in the rhythm (238).

 It’s easier to show than to explain.  Humphries calls his poem, fittingly, “The Labyrinth.”  Here are the first two stanzas:

Dark is this maze wherein I err.                                                                                                    No Theseus I; no comforter,                                                                                                           No Ariadne at my side, to hold                                                                                                       Her golden skein as guide.

Dark is this maze; I cannot see                                                                                                    The sword held out in front of me.                                                                                                    I have no shield; my other arm must find                                                                                       The blind way through this harm.

To many of you, I suspect that Williams’ statement that “the effect is to give variety to the eight-syllable couplet by a break in the rhythm” will seem inaccurate.  I have a feeling that you, like me, are bedazzled by the variety in such skillful application of cyhydedd fer as Marvell makes in “To his coy mistress,” and are happy to follow the poem without a break in the rhythm.  We are, after all, talking about Welsh poetic meters, and about an older, oral tradition codified near the end of its life.  The Black Book of Carmarthen mentioned above by Williams, “thought to be the earliest surviving manuscript written entirely or substantially in Welsh,”[v] was written around 1250, when the threat to Welsh independence from the Norman invaders had already resulted in Carmarthen being fortified by William fitz Baldwin, a Norman lord.  The courtly life of the Welsh poet was in danger in the Norman keep.

The next of these awdl measures is clogyrnach.  “Once more” Williams says “a couplet of the cyhydedd fer is taken and to it is added something rather like a long rhupunt except that here the sections  measure 5, 5, 3 and 3 syllables, the first three sections rhyming and the fourth carrying the main rhyme of the couplet.”  And once more Humphries provides a wonderful example of what seems a daunting description, in his poem “The Lore of Pryderi” (26-27).  Here are the first two stanzas:

Follow the feather down the air,                                                                                                 Save fernseed from the maidenhair,                                                                                             Study on the tide                                                                                                                        Straws that drift and slide                                                                                                           Down the wide ocean stair.

Or to the darker forest  go,                                                                                                           Step quietly, but sure, but slow,                                                                                                        Find on rock the pale                                                                                                                    Silver track of snail,                                                                                                                         Seek the frail print of doe.

The Pryderi of this poem is Pryderi fab Pwyll, one of the prominent figures in Welsh mythology, described, according to Wikipedia, by Jeffrey Gantz as “bold and enterprising, but brash to the point of foolishness.”[vi]  And yet the lore Humphries imputes to him seems to come from a more subdued student of the natural world.  Perhaps he was brash because he had learned to look with care at the world around him.  Humphries’ next character, illustrating cyhydedd naw ban, may seem loutish rather than brash, but once again the form he was formed for is suitable for a long exposition:  “a nine-syllable line which is usually arranged into groups of couplets and, as in Meilyr’s Elegy on Gruffudd ap Cynan, these stanzas run for lengthy sequences without a new rhyme.”

This new character is “Wmffre the Sweep,” and the poem is indeed an elegy — for a poet whose name would have been pronounced something like “Oomphrie.”  Here is the first stanza:

Wmffre the Sweep was mad as a mink,                                                                                        Covered with cinders, blacker than ink,                                                                                   Didn’t mind darkness, didn’t mind stink;                                                                                         Light was his loathing, light made him blink                                                                           Coming through crevice, cranny or chink.                                                                                Drank through his whiskers, dust in his drink.

Wmffre the Sweep is not a poet, by any stretch of the imagination — until, overcome by a vision of “Ninety-nine angels, harnessed in light … Wmffre the Sweep was inspired to write.”  The poem is remarkable for the contrast of Wmffre with the typical bard, and for the fact that this wretch, “Shoveled, like all men, under the sod, Left a great poem, praise of his God.”

No such luck in Humphries’ hands for the subject of his next exemplar, the form cyhydedd hir.  As Williams describes it:

This is a line of nineteen syllables which, for convenience of writing or printing, may be divided into ten and nine, or into sections of five, five, five and four or five, five and nine syllables.  The first three sections rhyme together and the fourth carries the main rhyme.  Sir John Morris-Jones says that the form was not used alone until the thirteenth century.  In the Black Book of Carmarthen the first poem ends with a gwawdodyn byr followed by five couplets of cyhydedd hir, and the form also occurs in the Gododdin (239-40).

Here is the first stanza of what Humphries makes of this form, under the title “Dafydd ap Gwilym Hates Dyddgu’s Husband” (Dafydd being the Welsh form of David, and Dafydd ap Gwilym one of the greatest of Welsh poets):

‘Tis sorrow and pain,                                                                                                                      ‘Tis endless chagrin                                                                                                                         For Dafydd to gain                                                                                                                           His dark-haired girl.                                                                                                                       Her house is a gaol,                                                                                                                              Her turnkey a vile                                                                                                                         Sour, yellow-eyed, pale                                                                                                                 Odious churl.

The range of feeling, experience and emotion that Humphries gets out of his poems in these forms belies their difficulty — or perhaps suggests that they are even harder than we might at first feel.  Leslie Norris once told my class in poetry:  “It’s pretty hard to break your heart in faultless terza rima.”  And knowing Leslie, he probably realized that Robert Frost had done just that, in “Acquainted with the Night.”  But hold on, I hear you say, isn’t that the job of the poet, no matter what form she chooses for the task?

Your turn.


[i] 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, pp. 23-24.

[ii] Frost, Robert.  Collected poems, prose, & plays. – New York : Library of America, 1995, p. 105.

[iii] Gallagher, Tess.  Midnight lantern : new & selected poems.  Minneapolis : Graywolf, 2011, p. 187.

[iv] from his 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. 5.

[v] Wikipedia, “Black Book of Carmarthen” accessed 27 October 2011.

[vi] Wikipedia, “Pryderi” accessed 27 October 2011.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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6 Responses to in verse # 10 : aged in charcoal

  1. My father-in-law writes limericks for any and all occasion, so I recognized the limerick rhyme scheme (that’s what it’s called, right?) if not the limerick rhythm in your clogyrnach example. I don’t know if there is any connection other than coincidence (or co-inky-dink, as Harlow might put it?), but I just wanted to show that I was paying attention.

    What mystifies me is that all these kinds of Welsh poetry follow patterns that someone could come along later and codify. Or were these patterns planned out by the poets in the first place, and taught at some Hogwarts School of Bardry (or whatever it might be called)?

    I, for one, would really appreciate a post sometime about how poets or historians or poetry pattern codifiers understand these poetry patterns to have come into being. Did some unknown bard or other invent each one, and they came into fashion in the long-distant Welsh past because they were so cool? And does anyone have any idea about which ones came first, and which ones (as it appears from the combinations you’ve shown us) were elaborations on earlier patterns, and so on and so forth?

    My mind is boggled by all the different patterns. It’s probably similar to reading a novel that starts by introducing all 50 characters. I’d like some kind of score card, please?

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Yeah, there is a great resemblance between clogyrnach and limerick. The main difference between the two is the internal rhyming in the former, and the fact that the syllable-count of the lines does not take rhythm into account — whereas the limerick relies heavily on rhythm for comic effect. It also selects a comic subject, whereas the Welsh forms are suited and used for every kind of content.

      The origins of the 24 “official” Welsh meters are covered in the sixth of these posts, “verse control,” and subsequent posts — but they bear repeating here. Gwyn Williams says of these forms: “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” (in his An introduction to Welsh poetry, from the beginnings to the Sixteenth Century.) So these forms had evolved over eight centuries — centuries of turmoil, of conflict within Wales, and with the Anglo-Saxons, the Norse, the Normans and other raiders and invaders. These forms are the ones chosen by two poets — Einion Offeiriad and Dafydd Ddu Athro — as representing the best of what I still believe was an oral art, only written down as the institution of bard began to fail, and as Welsh kings began to lose their sovereignty, as I mentioned in post nine, “for batter or for verse?”

      You are essentially correct — some bard or other invented each one, and they were kept in circulation through repetition and re-use because they were cool. Williams does say that some of them, like rhupunt and cyhydedd fer, go back as far as the earliest collections, but I’m not sure how you could date the origins of an oral form. So I can’t provide more of a scorecard than Williams offers, but you can buy used copies of his book, either the original London edition or the American reprint I’m using.

  2. My weakness as a poet is understanding rhyme and meter. Yet somehow I do it. It’s scary… I don’t know exactly how but it comes out with a discernable pattern to some, even though I feel I’m writing in “free verse,” and I notice alliterations sometimes only after a fifth or sixth rewrite.
    Honestly, I think we as humans have an imbued sence of flow–not just in metre, but flows of consonants and vowels that string well together, that go well off the tongue. And sometimes, as a poet, simply allowing that subconscious tendency to come through will make a great start to a poem.

    I love having things pinned down, though. Reading your descriptions of these Welsch forms makes me want to try one myself.

  3. Dennis Clark says:

    Hi, Sarah! Thanks for reading the blog, and commenting. I have to agree with you, and in fact that was one of the ideas touched on lightly in an earlier post, the first, “in the beginning,” and the second, “reading allowed” (though I keep returning to the notion that we have an inborn ability to recite verse, and I will doubtless return to it in a later post.

    By all means try out these forms. They’re devilishly difficult to do well. I hope every reader will try them.

  4. I wonder if that sense of the flow of vowels, at least, has something to do with a point Steven Pinker made in his book THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, in which he said that we tend to put series of vowel sounds in an order that is more or less front to back of the mouth, as in “tic, tac. toe” and “sing, sang, sung.”

    It would be interesting to see if it actually works that way in poetry, and if so, if there are deliberate “jarring” experiences created in a poem when the poet chooses to use a different order for the vowels.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      I’m not sure about Pinker’s point, but “toe tactic” brings some interesting images to mind, as in “one, two, three, four, let’s have a toe war.”

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