in verse # 13 : free verse, and bound

The observant amongst you will have had cause to wonder at Rolfe Humphries’ use of the term “free meters,” in the subtitle of his Green armor on green ground : poems in the twenty-four official Welsh meters, and some, in free meters, on Welsh themes,[i] especially those of you who have noticed how rigid the 24 official forms can be, once cynghanedd is added in.  So I have cause to answer your wondering awe in Gwyn Williams’s words:

Opinions differ whether the clerwyr, associated etymologically if not otherwise with the continental clerici vagantes, were the third or minstrel order of bards (the other two being the pencerdd and bard teulu or chief poet and house poet), or whether y glêr was a term applied generally to all professional poets.  Loose forms of some of the official metres, the rhupunt and cywydd deuwir fyrion, are said to have been used by the minstrels, and the lowest order of bards must have continued from the fourteenth century onwards to sing in the freer modes which were permissible before the full evolution of cynghanedd in that century.[ii]

That full evolution is summarized in my last post, and Williams goes on to note that “It was in these freer measures that the songs sung by the whole nation had been written…. for lyrics of this sort are as old as poetry, even though in Welsh they were rarely recorded before the sixteenth century.”[iii]

In this regard, recall Einion Offeiriad’s warning of “Three things a poet should avoid, drunkenness, womanizing and wandering minstrelsy.”[iv]  Clearly, being bound to the court or to a great house was preferable with Offeiriad to the horrors of free wandering and free metres.  In the first of his “poems in the free meters,” Humphries takes up an Arthurian theme[v] in “Rhonabwy’s Dream.”  Here are the first two stanzas:

Owain ap Urien,                                                                                                                                  Prince of Rheged,                                                                                                                            Bade his banner                                                                                                                                   Be raised again;                                                                                                                               Rallied his ravens,                                                                                                                         Thrice a hundred,                                                                                                                               A black bane                                                                                                                                       To Arthur’s army.

Owain and Arthur                                                                                                                    Studied each other                                                                                                                         Over the chess-board                                                                                                                        Made all of silver.                                                                                                                  “Owain,” said Arthur,                                                                                                                  “Forbid thy ravens.”                                                                                                                    “Play thy game, Lord!”                                                                                                                 Said Owain.[vi]

I leave it to you to determine which of the official meters this is a freer version of.  May you find joy in revisiting my earlier posts, or even greater joy in reading either Humphries’ book or Williams’.

Williams relates the free meters to both folk tunes and hymn tunes, writing of the former that “Words written to fit these tunes exactly, without complicated descanting, were alone within the scope of ordinary, untrained singers, and they became the literature of the common people….” but adding that “Church music too provided forms of melody which required words in the free measures.”[vii]  And then, given the overall tenor of these posts, makes a surprising observation:  “there is an indubitable English influence on writing in the free measures to be observed in the sixteenth century,” i.e. the Tudor century, before the Stuarts ascended to the throne, the age of Spenser and Shakespeare.  In this regard his comments on the influence of music on English verse are worth quoting at length:

It has been said that, in the lyrical outpouring of Tudor England, the musicians led the way by composing music that required words to match, thereby imposing upon the poets regular and varied forms and the need for mellifluity in diction.  The same airs which charmed such lovely words from Shakespeare and Peele may equally well have evoked lyrics from Welshmen….  In support of the claim of the English origin of some Welsh lyrical forms it has been pointed out that many of the airs popular in Wales from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century have English names….[viii]

Given the history of the two peoples reflected in their languages, it would not be surprising to find that the influence went both ways.  But the “regular and varied forms” Williams references had begun to infiltrate the Anglo-Saxon world in the twelfth century, as a consequence of the Norman Conquest.  Alfred C. Baugh identifies two contrasting works from the latter half of that century, or about 100 years after the Norman Conquest:  the Poema Morale written in “some four hundred lines of vigorous seven-stress verse” wherein “the poet preaches a sermon on the theme, repent before it is too late,” contrasted with Sinners Beware, a poem “remarkable in being written in the six-line stanza aabaab later often found in the romance[,] and shows how far French verse patterns had penetrated into the English verse tradition….”[ix]  I don’t have a copy of either poem, but I would bet that the former is not rhymed at all, and may utilize some alliteration.

The contrast was thrown into high relief in the fourteenth century, a time Baugh characterizes as one of “intense literary activity … an activity that reaches its culmination for most readers today in the great narrative poetry of Chaucer,”[x] who died at the end of that century, on 25 October 1400,[xi] barely missing the birth of the fifteenth century.  But this activity was not limited to the London of Chaucer, nor, like him, attached to its court.  “The widespread distribution of the ferment that was at work,” writes Baugh,[xii] “is indicated perhaps nowhere more plainly than in the emergence about 1350 of the Old English Alliterative Tradition after it had lain hidden for nearly two hundred years.”[xiii]

“But hold on,” I hear you say, “Doesn’t that take us back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?”

Your turn.


[i] [New York] : Scribner’s, 1956.

[ii] From chapter 8, “The sixteenth century ; poetry in the free metres” of his 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. 207.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., p. 242.

[v] In his Appendix B, “The sources of Arthurian legend,” Williams describes the “greater part … than is generally realized” played by Welsh writers and Welsh traditions in the growth of Arthurian legends.

[vi] Green armor on green ground (pp. 45-47) was not the first publication of this poem; Humphries had published it in his collection Forbid thy ravens : didactic and lyrical poems (New York : Scribner’s, 1947) as the last poem (pp. 48-50).

[vii] Op. cit., p. 208.

[viii] Ibid., p. 209.

[ix] A literary history of England / edited by Albert C. Baugh. – 2nd ed. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1967.  From that work’s “Book I, The Middle Ages (to 1500)” by Kemp Malone and Albert C. Baugh, pp. 120-121.  I surmise Baugh’s authorship because Malone was a specialist in Anglo-Saxon literature, although he also specialized in Chaucer.

[x] Ibid., p. 232.

[xi] Ibid., p. 251.

[xii] Or Malone.

[xiii] Op. cit., p. 232.

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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2 Responses to in verse # 13 : free verse, and bound

  1. Tudor = Welsh, right? Owen/Owain Tudor was Henry VII’s grandfather, after all, and pure Welsh. This may not only bring us back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but to the whole legitimacy issue that ended the War of the Roses and put the Tudors in power, whether they should have been or not.

    I may not have much to offer when it comes to poetry and meter, but I’m ready to discuss the history of it all.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Yep, the Tudors were Welsh, and, in one of history’s cruel pranks, the Stuarts were Scottish, or Franco-Scottish, so from Henry VII onward, England was ruled by the non-English subject peoples, or foreigners like the House of Orange or the House of Hanover — until they declared the latter the House of Windsor in the shadow of trench warfare. I can only wish that with the Tudors had come the Welsh bards and poetic tradition. But that would have been too nice of history, now, wouldn’t it?

      Thanks for reading.

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