in verse # 11 : last of the awdl

To me, turkey has always meant dark meat — the leg and the thigh.  This may be because of an association I made early on between dark meat and the dark lady of the sonnets.  I had no idea who the dark lady was, nor how the lady was dark, nor yet how dark the lady was.  I really didn’t know what a sonnet was, for that matter.  But since dark meat was clearly darker than the meat of the far drier breast we were served — the so-called white meat — I concluded that the dark lady must be darker than another, hypothetical, light lady of the sonnets.  At that time I didn’t know about the fair youth of the sonnets, or I might have made the association with the dork laddy of the sonnets.

But there is an even more interesting connection here between poetry and fowl.  “The South Mexican Wild Turkey,” as Wikipedia says, “is considered the nominate subspecies, and the only one that is not found in the United States or Canada.  The Aztecs domesticated the southern Mexican subspecies, M. g. gallopavo, giving rise to the domestic turkey.  The Spaniards brought this tamed subspecies back to Europe with them in the mid-16th century”, or about the time Elizabeth ascended to the English throne and Shakespeare was born; “from Spain it spread to France and later Britain as a farmyard animal, usually becoming the centerpiece of a feast for the well-to-do.  By 1620 it was common enough so that Pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts could bring turkeys with them from England, unaware that it had a larger close relative already occupying the forests of Massachusetts.”[i]  Talk about coals to Newcastle!  I did not know any of that until I consulted Wikipedia to determine whether, as I recalled, wild turkeys mate for life and work for a living, which is why Benjamin Franklin preferred them to bald eagles as the national bird.  Wikipedia informs me that “[m]ales are polygamous, mating with as many hens as they can.”[ii]   A very American thing to do, and for all I know, done for life as well.  But Franklin apparently never actually expressed a preference, merely a snide opinion about the unsuitability of a balding, thieving bird to serve as our national mascot.

And as for its common name in English, the turkey is named for the country Turkey; it was known originally in England as the turkey fowl, on the assumption that it had been discovered in a part of Asia that had been reached by sailing east around the globe.  And Turkey is in Asia, and this bird looks like a type of guinea fowl already being sold into Europe from Turkey.[iii]  And, finally, the Welsh name for turkey comes out of English:  “In Welsh, it is called twrci, a corruption of the English word”[iv] — although from what I know of Welsh orthography (also thanks to Wikipedia), that would be pronounced about the same as the English word, a borrowing rather than a corruption.  It helps me occasionally to learn something this different from what I thought I knew because it reminds me that what I think I know is often far more stodgy and pedestrian than the wild, undomesticated truth.  It also reminds me of how baroque is cultural transmission, how unexpectedly one culture can wash over or through another and change it, in ways subtle and overt.

I have pursued my discussion of Welsh prosody largely because I believe it has affected the practice of verse in English, and especially in America, in ways unacknowledged by most of us.  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.”[v]  The key words for me are “evolved” and “practice.”  These are not forms dictated by some Welsh Academy of Poetics (although there are elements of that, as we shall see); these are forms that were used by poets in a largely oral culture where performance was a treasured art, not a distraction — the equivalent of opera in Italian culture.  But because Wales was a conquered backwater by the time of Shakespeare, and despite the fact that the Tudors were originally Welsh, it was the prosody of the conquerors, the French, with its backward look at Greek poetics, which Shakespeare used:  iambic pentameter, in the sonnets and in the plays.

In the descriptions that follow, note how many of the last six of the official measures are composites of earlier measures.  Let me again quote Williams in presenting these last six, with clarification, when needed, and when noted, from Rolfe Humphries:

“19.  Toddaid.  The short toddaid of sixteen syllables has already been referred to in the byr a thoddaid section.  The toddaid proper is of nineteen syllables divided into ten and nine, the main rhyme occurring one, two or three syllables before the end of the first line, which in turn rhymes with the middle of the second line.”  If that seems a little hard to follow, here is how Humphries describes it:  “Quatrains, alternating between ten-syllable and nine-syllable lines.  A syllable towards the end of the first line rhymes into the middle of the second, and the same effect is reproduced in lines three and four.  Lines two and four rhyme with each other.”[vi]  And here is a part of Humphries’ attempt at the form, again on a Welsh theme, “The Tylwyth Teg”[vii]:

The Tylwyth Teg are not above stealing                                                                                    The corn they love, or churns, or rings,                                                                                        Or feathers, or veils, or leather harness—                                                                                Light-fingered they are at taking things.

On a market-day they may come to town.                                                                                  It’s a rule of thumb that trade is good                                                                                      Whenever they do, but one thing for sure,                                                                                 And no use being misunderstood, …

As Williams adds, “The toddaid was generally used with other forms, particularly the nine-syllable couplet and the cyhydedd hir.”  This seems to me essential for maintaining variety in an oral competition, and for giving the bards something to play with, while giving the hearers, the audience, something to measure the performance against.

“20.  Gwawdodyn.  An old practice of mingling the nine-syllable couplet with the toddaid or cyhydedd hir was regularized in the fourteenth century into a four-line form known as the gwawdodyn.”  And once again, Humphries clarifies this explanation, both in his exposition and in his example:  “This form begins with the nine-syllable couplet, Cyhydedd naw ban …  then goes on with either Toddaid or Cyhydedd hir.  In my example, the stanzas alternate in the employment of the latter two types in lines three and four.  Lines two and four rhyme with each other.”  And here are two stanzas from Humphries’ “Llanelly Cottage” showing that alternation:

A light-capped sea, and a bird-bright shore —                                                                   Whatever else was I looking for,                                                                                                   With sun at my back, blue sky above me?                                                                                       A dark-haired girl by an open door.

A dark-haired girl in a scarlet dress,                                                                                             An invitation from loveliness:                                                                                                       Will you touch me deep, will you share my sleep,                                                                    Will you come, or keep me comfortless?

In this poem, the traveler narrates in both cyhydedd naw ban and toddaid, and the girl speaks in cyhydedd hir.  You can enjoy the poem without knowing the details of the versifying, but it does no harm to your understanding to know those details.  If you were Welsh, you would find such variation delightful.

“21.  Gwawdodyn hir.  If more than one couplet preceded the toddaid[,]the stanza so formed was known as a long gwawdodyn.”  And again, Humphries clarifies by restating the definition:  “This is the same as above, except that the stanza begins with two nine-line couplets, before breaking into Toddaid or Cyhydedd hir.”  A single stanza of Humphries’ “The runes of Arholfan Cymro” will do to illustrate this composite measure.  Can you tell which form he uses in the final two lines?

Cloud over hill, cloud over hollow:                                                                                             Why do you wait beside your window?                                                                                       The south wind sighs, a sound of sorrow.                                                                                      From far away the faint horns echo.                                                                                             The hours are long, the daylight slow to leave.                                                                          For the moment, grieve in the shadow.

Williams offers some historical perspective in describing the next of the official measures:  “Hir a thoddaid.  Einion  [who laid down the rules of the official measures] and Dafydd Ddu Athro [who edited his work] are both accredited with the invention of this measure which is an extension of the gwawdodyn.   The hir a thoddaid is a stanza of ten-syllable lines followed by a toddaid….  This is one of the most frequently employed awdl measures today and at the National Eisteddfod a prize is annually offered for a poem (usually on someone’s death) in this measure.”  Again Humphries clarifies the description a little, while simplifying it:  “A ten-syllable quatrain followed by a Toddaid.”  Perhaps this combination of a stable start and a variation at the end explain why this stanza has survived in competition.  In his poem “The Sons of St. David,” (who was a Welsh bishop, and the patron saint of Wales[viii]), Humphries plays off a line or lines from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, act III, scene 1:  “Lie still, ye thief, and hear the lady sing in Welsh,”[ix] as in the following stanzas:

Lie still, ye thief, and hear the lady sing                                                                                          In her own language, the confederates’ tongue                                                                         Old Llywarch used, and Heledd, for their longing—                                                                   Blossom on branch, and osprey on the wing,                                                                                And Olwen’s footprint in the morning mist.                                                                                Lie still, ye thief; listen to the song.

Lie still, and listen, for the Cymri know                                                                              Measures of mirth and melodies of sorrow,                                                                                 The dragon’s track, drawn red across the snow,                                                                    White hawthorn, golden pear, the darker shadow                                                                          A girl’s hair makes above the pillow’s mound.                                                                    Hearken to the sound, and its echo.

These stanzas are not sequential in the poem, but are the first and third of four.  They do, however, illustrate the difference between a ten-syllable Welsh line and an iambic pentameter line, and how much more flexible the former is.  They capture both “measures of mirth and melodies of sorrow.”

In explaining the next measure, Williams again offers a historical context for the meter:  “Cyrch a chwta.  This stanza, again thought to be an invention of Einion Offeiriad [he who laid down the rules of the official measures], consists of six seven-syllable lines followed by an awdl gywydd couplet.  It has never been much used and, as Sir John Morris-Jones says (Cerdd Dafod, p. 344) the best specimen is the eighteenth century Goronwy Owen’s stanza on the Welsh language,” which I do not reproduce here.  When Williams says “it has never been used much,” that might be because these measures were supposed to be the best ones used by generations of poets, but this one may have been invented by the codifier, somewhat like Peter Schickele including one of his own compositions amongst those he uncovered from P.D.Q. Bach.  The awdl gywydd couplet is described by Humphries thus:  “[a] quatrain of seven-syllable lines, lines two and four rhyming, lines one and three rhyming into the third, fourth, or fifth syllable of lines two and four.”[x]  He illustrates the entire cyrch a chwta in these first stanzas of his “Aberdovey Music:”

The bells of Aberdovey                                                                                                             Sound from a buried city                                                                                                          Sunken far under the sea,                                                                                                           Heard when the nights are stormy                                                                                              And carried inland, faintly,                                                                                                             As far as Montgomery.                                                                                                         Hearken!  Music of the lost                                                                                                           Haunts that coast, all shadowy.

And there could be voices there,                                                                                                  Leagues and fathoms down, a choir                                                                                            Whose intoning reaches far                                                                                                           Out along that lonely shore                                                                                                              Up to ghostly cloud and air,                                                                                                  Cadences profound and pure,                                                                                                  Solemn choral, when the bell                                                                                                        Has tolled the knell of the hour.

In introducing the 24th measure, Williams indicates the rhyme scheme somewhat strangely when he says “Tawddgyrch cadwynog differs only slightly from two lines of rhupunt hir.  The rhyme scheme of the sections, instead of being b, b, b, a; c, c, c, a, is now b, c, c, a; b, c, c, a.  Several modifications and elaborations were introduced into the measure after its invention in the fourteenth century,” which seems to be his way of indicating that the main rhyme, “a,” comes in the last line of the stanza.  Humphries says “The scheme is like that of a Rhupunt, except that the rhymes appear in A, B, B, C, order.”  It may be that Williams is using a Welsh notation and Humphries an American; or the difference may be between poet and scholar.  In the next post, I will report on what the two men say about Welsh rhyme and cynghanedd, or harmony.  But first Humphries’ take on this form, as illustrated by the first stanzas of “Oak:”

It is lonely.                                                                                                                                           In these short days                                                                                                                Without her praise                                                                                                                               I, too, grow less.

The Druids’ tree                                                                                                                                  Is far more wise                                                                                                                                 In the mean ways                                                                                                                               Of wintriness, …

The reader may have noticed how often Humphries’ poems take an elegiac turn, as here.  Williams asserts that “The reader will have noticed that in the specimens given in sections 22, 23 and 24, each line begins with the same consonant [in the Welsh].  This device, originally perhaps an aid to memory, is known in Welsh as cymeriad.  Another form of cymeriad is to repeat the last word of one stanza in the first few words of the next.  When such a chain is made complete by the last word of the poem repeating one of the first, the stanza sequence was known as cyngogion.”  It is not surprising that cymeriad should be an aid to memory if these forms arise from an oral culture.  The full range of such poetic devices, beginning with the oldest of them, rhyme, will be the subject of the next, and twelfth, of these posts.

But hold on, I hear you saying; haven’t we had our fill of this Welsh turkey?

Your turn.

[i], accessed 26 November 2011.

[ii] Ibid.

[v] Williams, Gwyn.  An introduction to Welsh poetry, from the beginnings to the Sixteenth Century.  Freeport, N.Y.  : Books for Libraries Press, 1970 [Reprint; originally published London : Faber & Faber, 1954] p. 232.

[vi] In his 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, p. 71.

[vii] “The Tylwyth Teg (Welsh: “the Fair Folk”) is the common term in Wales for fairies” says Wikipedia, under that heading, as accessed 27 November 2011.

[viii], accessed 27 November 2011.

[ix] A line printed as prose in Complete Pelican Shakespeare : the histories and non-dramatic poetry / general editor, Alfred Harbage. – Harmondsworth, England ; Penguin, c1981; and as verse in The complete plays : Histories I / William Shakespeare. – Edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. – London : Folio Society, 1997 — which makes the line numbering a bit dicey, but it is right around line 231.

[x] Op. cit., p. 70.

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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4 Responses to in verse # 11 : last of the awdl

  1. Jonathan Langford says:


    I hope that when you’ve finished this particular part of the discussion, you’ll include specific examples of American verse that you feel show evidence of Welsh influences.

    On a different note: Are you saying that the turkeys of the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving was actually descendants of their imported, domesticated turkeys, and not wild turkeys at all? That such a strange thing might be… Imagine if somehow they had become known as “the Welsh fowl” instead of the Turkish fowl!

    • Dennis Clark says:

      I hope I can show the specific examples of verse in English, if not American verse, influenced by Welsh poetics. In the next discussion, on rhyme and cynghanedd, you should see a definite influence.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      And, yes, it would appear — IF Wikipedia is to be trusted (and that particular paragraph has no source note) — that the Pilgrims brought turkeys to Turkastle. But, since the unsuspecting Native Americans helped the Pilgrims prepare that feast, they could have eaten the wild fowl rather than, or in addition to, the domestic bird. I have found no other reliable source.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      If you look at the list of national names for the turkey referenced in the end notes, you’ll see that the name is most often composed from some exotic Asian country — since the Americas were thought to be the butt-end of Asia at the time. And, sadly, Wales is in the West, not the exotic East.

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