The poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym and Imaddadin Nesimi

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on November 28, 2010 at 6:14 AM

I was very privileged to be invited by the Gruntlers International Arts Group in conjunction with Azerbaijan House to compliment an evening’s tribute to the poet Imaddadin Nesimi by introducing the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, a 14th century Welsh poet. The event took place in November 2010 at Pushkin House, Bloomsbury Square, which is the centre of Russian cultural activities in London before a large cosmopolitan audience graced by the Ambassador of Azerbaijan. Dafydd ap Gwilym was for a brief time a contemporary of Nesimi though, of course, they would never have met living in different continents and it’s unlikely they would have known about each other.


Both were contemporaries of Chaucer of course and wrote in a century which absolutely boomed poetry with the verse of Petrach, Dante and Boccaccio; but it has to be said that Dafydd’s poetry has more in common with Chaucer and Boccaccio than Nesimi. What Dafydd does have in common with Nesimi, however, is that he too was an itinerant, little is known of his life other than what can be gleaned from his verse, he wrote in a strict meter and became his nation’s iconic poet.


Nesimi was an early Sufi poet and mystic of the Ottoman Empire. He wrote in Turkish, Arabic and Persian. It is believed that he took his name from the village of Nesim near Baghdad. Dafydd’s immediate genealogy is well known, however, and he seems to have come from a well-to-do family (Dafydd ap Gwylim translating to David son of William). In his poetry Nesimi expressed the belief that God was at the centre of all creation and that it was the purpose of human life to subjugate the concept of self in order to become as one with God. This was considered to be blasphemous and Nesimi was executed by being flayed alive at Aleppo. His tomb there has become a place of pilgrimage.


Unlike Nesimi Dafydd was no mystic though he certainly wrote devotional poetry. His religious beliefs seem to be conventionally Christian. He is, however, better known for his bawdy, earthy subject matter. I happen to live very close to his birthplace. You can still visit its ruins in my village of Penrhyncoch, near Aberystwyth - you just have to follow the signs. And he’s traditionally buried under a Yew Tree close to the ruins of Strata Florida Cistercian Abbey some 12 miles south of where I live. Dafydd ap Gwylim is considered to be the finest of all Welsh poets and there is no doubt that his blend of a bardic tradition with a more radical approach lifted Welsh poetry into the mainstream of European literature. He is considered to be one of the finest of all Medieval poets.


Like Nesimi very little is known of his life apart from the local references in his verse. He appears to have been a minstrel or troubadour but rarely travelled outside of Wales. His verse, steeped in the oral tradition, would have been memorised and recited to the accompaniment of a lute. Nothing survives which was actually written down by Dafydd. He brought to the poetic formalities of the time a flamboyant, vernacular style and a new levity. But it's mainly because he avoided the usual topics such as courtly love and legend, and wrote about pretty much anything that he is stands out from other poets of that time. For example as a nature poet he treats his species of birds and seasons in an easy and ironic manner. You might expect his poem about an owl, Y Dylluan, for instance written in the Middle Ages to be either romantic, mythic or idyllic. A eulogy on wisdom perhaps. Dafydd’s owl was clearly a pain in the arse, preventing him from sleep.


Many of his poems were addressed to the love of his life, Morfydd, who inconveniently for him just happened to be married to a local Aberystwyth merchant. It didn’t seem to put him off much and the dalliance apparently went on for years. The raven-haired Dyddgu was another of his long time loves. He also wrote about the girls of Llanbadarn parish who refused to go to bed with him and there’s even an ode to his penis which got him into a lot of trouble – his penis, that is, not the poem.


Although innovative and radical in his subject matter Dafydd wrote in a strict meter which is almost impossible to replicate in English. His poems are called Cywydds and, like Nesimi’s Ghazals, consist of rhyming couplets with each line limited to 7 or 8 syllables only; and within these very short lines there would be other poetic devices grouped under the heading Cynghaneddau, such as alliteration, internal and assonant rhyme, maybe all three in one line. He also used the device of asides – little two or three word phrases commenting on the narrative. He may have inserted these on occasions when he struggled for a rhyme. They’re difficult to deal with in transcription. In any event most translations shy away from any attempt to stick to the strict meter and end up as loose paraphrases.


Nesimi’s ghazals consist of between five and twenty-five self-contained couplets in so much as each couplet is a poem in itself. There are no enjambments and each couplet line shares the same meter. The second line of each, called the Sher, usually ends with the repetition of a refrain or rhyme, known as a Radif. The first couplet of each ghazal rhymes and the same rhyme, or refrain, is continued in the second lines of each succeeding couplet as in aa, ba,ca, da, etc.


One telling difference which posterity may address is that during the evening we were shown a short film about the life of Nesimi. To my knowledge no such film about Dafydd exists. Come on, you Welsh film makers!

Here, by way of a taster, is one of my transcriptions of perhaps the best known of Dafydd’s light verse. I have tried, as well as the English language will permit, to replicate the original meter and poetic devices.



Trouble at Inn

I came to my chosen city

with my fare valet with me.

Lavish spending, good tuck,

Being proud since boyhood I took

Lodgings, reputably fine,

Popular, and drank some wine.

A fair lean wench I espied

In the house, a comely maid

And I fell for the slim dear one

The colour of the dawn sun.

I bought a roast (not to boast)

For me and her with wine that cost.

Young men love to rove a treat

So I called the lass to my seat

And we ate a meal of great taste,

Better than any wedding feast.

Bold and gallant, I whispered

Two powerful magical words.

And after the ice had been thawed

By whispers (t’was a close call)

And love being not idle, I made

A date to meet this feisty maid,

This dark-browed damsel when,

The company to sleep had gone.


All turned in, how pityful,

Except myself and the girl.

I sought out skilfully

The girl's bed; but oh calamity!

As I fell over I called out,

Very angry, it was poor sport.

Cos I didn’t jump well I hit

My shin loudly, my poor limb,

On the edge, (t’was the ostler’s bungle),

Of an idiot stool, above my ankle.

Being to eager is bad

With no easy jump and the repeated

Treachery of crashing about,

The table gave my head a clout

Where a bowl and resounding

Brass pan had stood there lingering.

The table fell, a stout piece,

The double trestle, the whole place.

The pan behind me clattered,

Heard a long way ahead.

The basin thundered (crass I was)

And the dogs barked after me.

Easier it was to rise awry,

A fool’s jest, than quickly.

I got up (what a palaver)

From the floor, Wales for ever!

And near the high walls there stunk

Three English men in one bunk

Fretting about their haversacks,

Hickin and Jenkin and Jack.

The drunken one among them

Hissed to the two in high dudgeon,

‘There’s a Taff, set on skulduggery

Roaming in here most archly,

He'll rob us, if we let him,

Take care, stay clear of ‘im.'

The landlord aroused everyone

With the grievous tale he spun.

All nine of them searched without

For me making bold about

While I, in ugly bruises

Kept silent in the darkness.

I prayed, not in a loud way,

But in secret like one in dismay

And by the might of intense prayer

In Jesus’s faithful care,

I got back, what a sleepless muddle!

To my lair without further trouble.

I had escaped, thanks to the saints,

And I beg the Lord for forgiveness.

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