in verse # 12 : notes upon the staff

When I was quite young, I thought “certain” was a verb.  I was sure of this because I could think of no other reason that a choir of angels would tell a coven of shepherds that there was no well between them and the manger where the baby Jesus slumbered.  I could well imagine a clutch of shepherds — man and boy, old and young, fit and decrepit — stumbling across the rocky pastures and open fields surrounding Bethlehem and falling into wells.  I knew from Primary stories that the Holy Land was rife with wells, and figured that the greatest fear a shepherd might have was stumbling into one of those open pits in a mid-winter’s night that was so deep.  Had I asked my dad, who had some experience of sheep, he might have reassured me with the observation that the shepherds would more likely have stumbled over their sheep than into a well.  But the picture I had in mind was so clear that I didn’t think to ask.

When I encountered Gwyn Williams’ description of cynghanedd — pronounced, as I surmise, rather like “King Hanneth”[i] — I was tempted to call this post “rudimentary forms of complex alliteration and internal rhyme” because I was late with it (Christmas was already past), but since ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny I thought better of it.  It is the virtue of rhyme, rhythm and the voice, whether singing, reading or reciting, that gives poetry its power; without those elements of verse I would never have tried to puzzle out, as a four- or five-year-old, why an angel should tell a shepherd “No well” — let alone why a multitude of them should sing it.

I ended my last post with Williams’s comments on cymeriad, that it was “originally perhaps an aid to memory.”  He goes on to say, of the codifier of these Welsh forms:

  Einion Offeiriad’s description of the twenty-four measures concludes with prose triads setting forth the virtues and faults to be observed in poetry and poets.  These pieces of traditional teaching, grouped into threes to aid the memory, go beyond technical considerations into morality, as in the triad:  Tri pheth a dyly prydyd eu gochel:  llynna, gwragedda a chlerwryaeth.  Three things a poet should avoid, drunkenness, womanizing and wandering minstrelsy.

Again the reminder that these verse forms arose in an oral art, perhaps as aids to oral composition, in a culture that valued poetry.  So I was not surprised to read, at the end of Williams’ fairly technical and rather lengthy presentation of cynghanedd, this note:

The brief summary made above is of the forms of cynghanedd established in the fourteenth century and followed ever since.  All the examples I have given are from the fourteenth century or later, but rudimentary forms of complex alliteration and internal rhyme are to be found in the oldest Welsh Poetry and Sir John Morris-Jones in Cerdd Dafod gives many examples from the Four Ancient Books.

I asserted in my last contribution that I would begin this post with a discussion of rhyme and then consider cynghanedd, but I lied — this internal, interlocking harmony is more important to Welsh poetry than rhyme, although it is in rhyme that Welsh poetry has most affected English poetry.  So I will move from the ideal to the real worlds in this discussion.

Let me here turn to my other muse for Welsh verse, Rolfe Humphries.  He gives a true summary of cynghanedd, and I will quote him at length, followed with clarification and examples from Williams’s treatment.  Humphries in his turn says “I follow the explanation given by A. S. D. Smith (Caradar) in the Third Part of Welsh Made Easy, without, however, going into the complications of rising and falling rhythms, so-called.”[ii]  When Humphries has to simplify like that, I know that the topic is not simple.  So I begin quoting his entire summary:                                                                                                                       Cynghanedd.  Harmony, Interlocking.                                                                                             [I like that short definition of the term]

  1.  Cynghanedd Draws.  In this form of cynghanedd, alliteration is required only at the beginning and end of the line, the middle portion being by-passed.  “A cat may look at a king.”  Or, “he rode to the city of Rome.”
  2. Cynghanedd Groes.  Here, all the first half of the line must alliterate with all the second half.  “On a settee in a City.”
  3. Cynghanedd Sain.  Two words within the line must rhyme, and the second of them alliterate, but not rhyme, with the last word.  “In a park, in the dark, I dare.”
  4. Cynghanedd Lusg.  The last syllable of some word in the earlier part of the line must rhyme with the next to the last syllable of the last word, which must be a word of two or more syllables with the accent on the next to the last syllable.  “Begin to sing in winter.”[iii]

I want to discuss these four kinds of harmony, but first a note on Welsh pronunciation.

In discussing stress in Welsh speech, Williams says that “Welsh is closer to English than to French in being a highly stressed language….  Stress in Welsh is regular and with very few exceptions occurs on the last syllable but one of the word,”[iv] which would tie cynghanedd lusg as defined by Humphries, and presumably by Smith, into the main rhyme scheme of the poem.  Williams explains it somewhat differently:

A line of cynghanedd lusg ends in a word of more than one syllable and the penultimate syllable in that word rhymes with the last syllable in the first half of the line.  The following example comes from Goronwy Owen’s Cywydd i Fon.

Poed it hedd pan oweddwyf.

This too is effective enough in English and an example would be:—

A saint in an old painting.[v]

Working backwards, Williams agrees with what Humphries says of cynghanedd sain but explains that

the line is divided into three sections, the first two rhyming with each other, whilst the second and third are linked according to the above rules of consonantal harmony [repeated below].  This time there are four possible arrangements of accent in the second and third sections of the line, both ending in a stressed syllable, or both ending in an unstressed syllable, or the second ending in a stressed syllable with the third unstressed, or the second ending in an unstressed syllable with the third stressed.

That business of stressed and unstressed syllables is what I think Humphries meant when he said he was not going into “the complications of rising and falling rhythms” in his summary.  Williams again gives examples in English and Welsh

In the following example from Gutyn Owain the fourth possible arrangement occurs.

Llygaid a ddywaid i ddoeth

Cynghanedd sain is easier than cynghanedd gytsain to attempt in English and was much used by G. M. Hopkins.  An example in English would be:—

The road with its load of lads.

Humphries, too, points out Hopkins’ “many instances” of cynghanedd, commenting that “the poem called Inversnaid, in particular, might well repay the reader who is interested in studying these effects.”[vi]  It is worth quoting the entire poem, which describes a waterfall, here:

This darksome burn, horseback brown,                                                                                          His rollrock highroad roaring down,                                                                                                 In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam                                                                                    Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth                                                                                             Turns and twindles over the broth                                                                                                   Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,                                                                                              It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew                                                                                             Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,                                                         Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,                                                                                                 And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft                                                                                            Of wet and of wildness?  Let them be left,                                                                                       O let them be left, wildness and wet;                                                                                              Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

I have often wondered why Hopkins felt compelled to mark the stresses, like those in the second stanza, because he is not working in iambic meter.  I would have had an easier time with his poems in college without the marking of stress that way, had I learned to read him aloud.  And while you can see that he is practicing alliteration, it seems to me much clearer that he draws on Welsh than on Anglo-Saxon verse in his use of it.

While Humphries above gives four divisions of cynghanedd, Williams gives but three, and explains the first far differently.  He says “The word cynghanedd means harmony and in poetry it is a means of giving pattern to a line by the echoing of sounds, consonantal and vowel.  There are three main divisions of cynghanedd:— Cynghanedd GytsainCynghanedd Sain, and Cynghanedd Lusg.”  He goes on to parse them this way:

Cynghanedd Gytsain consists of multiple alliteration.                                                          Cynghanedd Sain has alliteration and rhyme within the line.                                    Cynghanedd Lusg has internal rhyme only.

Finally, he adds:  “Each of these kinds is sub-divided according to the position of the recurring sounds within the line and to the accented or unaccented nature of the syllable at the internal pause and at the end of the line.”[vii]

Humphries’s first two kinds, cynghanedd groes and cynghanedd draws, are subtypes of cynghanedd gytsain according to Williams.  He defines the former first by saying “the same consonants appear in the same order before the main stress in each half of the line,” and gives only a Welsh line as his example:  “Troes dilyw tros y dalaith.”  The repetition is of t, r, s and d, which all alliterate, in the same order, thus matching Humphries’s description.  Williams includes a discussion of stresses which I take to be part of the “rising and falling rhythms” that Humphries side-steps to keep his discussion clear.  So it is in the latter form, cynghanedd draws, that the descriptions most diverge.

As opposed to Humphries’s description, wherein “alliteration is required only at the beginning and end of the line, the middle portion being by-passed,” Williams states that cynghanedd draws “differs from cynghanedd groes only in that the two sets of consonants are separated by consonants which are not repeated,” i.e. we are still dealing with sets of consonants, and alliteration in a specific order.  Again, his example is only in Welsh, but you can pick out the four syllables t, r, s and t in “Tristach yw Cymru trostyn,” which is a more complex alliteration that either “A cat may look at a king” or “he rode to the city of Rome,” Humphries’ examples.  Williams makes it almost like using consonants to rhyme.

There is a fun game one can play with that kind of rhyme, involving what linguists call minimum contrastive pairs, which can result in something like this:

Last but not least on our list of the lost                                                                                         We find lust has been loosed, but now, laced with liquor                                                             We look for relief from a loused-up religion                                                                              That promised release for the lowest of lice.

I have never found one set of syllables that will allow all 23 vowels of Received Pronunciation in British English, or even all 20 recognized in American English (according to the American heritage dictionary[viii]), let alone the additional two recognized in foreign words.  Pit, pat, put, pot, pate, etc., is another nice sequence, but also incomplete.

Of what we normally call rhyme, in English and most European languages, i.e. a correspondence between vowel sounds, Williams draws an immediate distinction:  “Rhyme is as old as poetry in Welsh and all three Welsh forms of rhyme are to be found in Aneirin’s Gododdin[ix]” (one of the earliest Welsh epics, dating from the 6th century[x]).  Of course there are three forms of rhyme; this is Welsh verse, after all.  Williams adds helpfully

Such rhyme most often occurs at the end of the line, but internal rhyme has been noted above in the cynghanedd sain and cynghanedd lusg.  Cross-rhyming too has been noted in the englyn, toddaid and awdl gywydd measures, where the syllable at the end of one line rhymes with the one in the middle of the next.[xi]

So rhyme features not only in cynghanedd, but in the 24 official forms.  It is worth quoting Williams at length to help English speakers understand these kinds of half-rhyme, because I believe that they represent the major influence of Welsh poetry on English, and Williams explains them clearly.  He says:

In addition to the familiar kind of rhyme there are two kinds of half-rhyme in Welsh.  In the first, known as proest, the final vowel or consonant only in a word corresponds to that in another.  The consonant may be the same and the vowel before it different, the only requirement being that the vowels in half-rhyming syllables shall be of the same kind, for a long vowel may not correspond to a short one.  Thus in English mode would half-rhyme with speed but not with bid.

Diphthongs for this purpose are divided into two groups, ae, oe, wy, ei, ai, and aw, ew, iw, yw, uw.  Thus llwyn half-rhymes with drain but not with dewn.

Similar vowels at the ends of words are considered to half-rhyme without any correspondency of consonants, thus lliw-draw, tre-tŷ.  Thus in English toy would half-rhyme with way and too with see.[xii]

The major difference between the two languages in regards to diphthongs is that those of the Welsh are always represented by two letters, those that represent the two sounds of the diphthong.  English uses other graphemic means to represent the two sounds, as in hate and pate where a “silent” e is added to indicate a difference from hat and pat.

That, whilst straight-forward enough, demonstrates again the patterns developed to aid memory in oral performance.  The third kind of rhyme Williams explains this way:

Another kind of half-rhyme is where the vowel in the final syllables of two words is the same but the consonants differ.  This is sometimes today known in Welsh as odl wyddelig, Irish rhyme, though since it occurs in Gododdin it can hardly be of mediæval importation from Ireland.  Examples of such half-rhyming from the Gododdin are med-offer, esgar-haual, enwawc-gwirawt.[xiii]

This would result in such rhymes in my English as “the coat on its peg / wears a rain-water glaze” (or, in a more standard American dialect, “the coat on its peg / looks a bit like a head”).  We always made the assumption, when I was studying Chaucer and Shakespeare, that those poets employed full rhyme, as Dryden and Pope did.  But can we be certain of that?

In any case, I arrive at the end of this exploration with a poem for you, an attempt at gwawdodyn in Humphries’ mode.

I know not a man

In the end it all come down to this:                                                                                                 her knocked up, folks cast down, himself pissed,                                                                           a legion of angels who could not salve                                                                                            wounds that have no lips to share a kiss,

injuries with claws to close a fist,                                                                                                    choke a heart, immobilize a wrist,                                                                                            scritch “Forgive?  For what?  Give it some thought:                                                                  brat’s in the pot!”  He could not have missed.

Up against that he might almost miss                                                                                              her words in a whisper in that house:                                                                                               I choose you — but in this I had no choice,                                                                                    only a voice to ratify bliss.

Still, he’d put her away like a vice —                                                                                              till his sleep was ground down fine as grist,                                                                                      grumbled by the word “Son, ain’t you heard —                                                                             no kid’s a bastard — so take your wife.”


But hold on, I hear you say.  Isn’t Christmas past this Christmas present?

Your turn.

[i] Williams notes that the letter y “represents three vowel sounds [in Welsh], possibly four:”  a short vowel much like the i in tin; a schwa much like the y in myrtle; and a long diphthong like the ea in dean.  This is laid out for all to see in his section “The pronunciation of Welsh” at the end of 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. 261-265.

[ii] 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. 72.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Op. cit., p. 264.

[v] Ibid., p. 245.

[vi] Op. cit., p. 72.

[vii] Op. cit., pp. 243-244.

[viii] The American heritage college dictionary. – 4th ed. – Boston ; New York : Houghton Mifflin, c2004; p. xxviii.

[ix] Op. cit., p. 246.

[x] Ibid., pp. 19-20.

[xi] Ibid., p 246.

[xii] Ibid., pp. 246-247.

[xiii]  Ibid.

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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3 Responses to in verse # 12 : notes upon the staff

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    As always, I feel like I’m missing much here because of my own unfamiliarity with Welsh and Welsh verse. However, I think I followed more of it than I sometimes do. The real-world English examples were particularly helpful in that regard.

    This discussion makes me realize (in part) how inattentive a reader I am of poetry, and how much poets do that in all likelihood I only dimly sense in my reading. But then, I suppose that poetic devices such as alliteration and internal rhyme can affect us to some extent even when we aren’t fully conscious of them. Still, it seems to me that more than any other literary medium — possibly more than any other artistic medium — a proper appreciation of poetry depends on education and esthetic training. Being aware of what the poet is doing increases a poem’s impact, in my experience.

    I can’t help but wonder about the effect of having a canonical body of such well-established poetic forms on a poetic tradition. Maybe English verse forms are as canonical as Welsh, and I’m just not as aware of it — just as we tend to become more aware of grammar when we study a foreign language. Still, it seems to me that it must in some ways be tremendously freeing, to know that your audience will know what you’re up to.

    • Dennis says:

      As always, a thoughtful comment. I appreciate your careful reading of the post. I find these forms difficult to work with, because they are new, whereas I can just about count out a sonnet in my sleep, because I’ve attempted so many of them. In English, there is no canonical body of such forms; we are always borrowing from classical Greece or from Latin forms, or from Italian forms (the sonnet) or French forms (the sestina); the only English form may be the limerick, and its name suggests an Irish origin.

  2. Pingback: in verse # 13 : free verse, and bound | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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