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About the Author
Hywel Teifi Edwards (1934–2010) was an author, historian, and broadcaster.
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By Hywel Teifi Edwards
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2016 Literary estate of Hywel Teifi Edwards
All rights reserved.
There is a story that tells of a sixth-century eisteddfod held in Conway at the royal behest of Maelgwn Gwynedd. It was his wish that the assembled bards and minstrels should compete against each other, but first they would have to swim across the river, the minstrels bearing their harps on their backs. Having thus, with characteristic cunning, effectively nullified the opposition, his favourites, the bards, naturally scooped the pot. Such a story deserves to be true. For the purpose of this work it places literature at the heart of the eisteddfod tradition and it points to the shady side of competition which has gleefully preoccupied commentators throughout the ages. Moreover, it encapsulates one truth about the eisteddfod for which proof abounds. It has always provided a lively, occasionally outrageous, context for an appreciation of the arts in Welsh life.
This narrative essay should not be confused with an outline history of an institution which dates (at least) from 1176. It will have most to say about the National Eisteddfod and the factors determining the nature of the literature it has produced from the 1860s down to the present day. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed an explosion of eisteddfod activity at local, regional and national levels, and the effects of that activity have still to be recorded, let alone appreciated. The Victorian Welshman chose to be observed and inspected in the eisteddfod arena. By means of this singular institution he sought recognition and acceptance at home and abroad. For it he created a huge, striving body of literature, often clamant with an anxiety masquerading as self-congratulation, in which his descendants today can find invaluable evidence of the stresses and strains of Welshness during a fateful stage in its evolution.
How the National Eisteddfod came to dominate the Welsh cultural scene during the Victorian heyday, and how a multitude of feeder eisteddfodau afforded thousands of ordinary people a means of self-expression, lies outside the scope of this essay. Likewise, the impact of twentieth-century higher education on standards and the many demands which the continuing and deepening crisis of Welshness has made on the institution throughout this century can only be touched upon here. Suffice it to say that a remarkable story waits to be told and one can only hope that if the Departments of Welsh within our University survive the depredations of Thatcherism, they will give federal thanks by adopting the National Eisteddfod as a prime research project which will give issue to a number of detailed studies. The powers that be, once assured of its strong American connection, would surely be happy to back it! The year 1789 marks the beginning of the modern eisteddfod. Its development as a popular institution, as an agency for quickening a public interest in literature and music, dates from the positive response made by the Gwyneddigion Society in London to the promptings of Thomas Jones, an exciseman from Corwen whose disenchantment with the irregular, beery eisteddfodau of eighteenth-century Wales drove him to action following a dismal meeting in Llangollen in January, 1789, when old Jonathan Hughes (1721–1805) and his son succeeded in attracting two other poets to join with them in another eisteddfod which purported to maintain the tradition intact.
Thomas Jones realized that there was little hope of regeneration from within Wales, given the Anglicized condition of the gentry who alone had the means to promote a serious concern with the arts. But in London there were a number of relatively prosperous Welsh exiles who retained an affection for their homeland, including a minority who took an enthusiastic and informed interest in its culture. The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, established in 1751, followed a rather uneven course before coming to a halt in 1787. In the meantime, a breakaway group of malcontents mostly from north Wales had formed the Gwyneddigion Society in 1770 to foster a more committed approach to the promotion of Welsh culture, and it was to the recorder of this Society, William Owen Pughe (1759–1835), that Thomas Jones addressed his plea for help in 1789, thereby inaugurating a new era in the history of the eisteddfod.
Before proceeding further let us remind ourselves that the noun 'eisteddfod' derives from the verb 'eistedd' (to sit) and literally means a 'sitting together', a session (probably competitive from its inception) of bards and minstrels intent on exercising and advancing their particular crafts in the presence of a distinguished patron. It must surely have evolved within the bardic system that fostered a tradition of praise poetry composed by professionally trained bards long before 1176 when Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, as we are told in Brut y Tywysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes), held an eisteddfod at Cardigan Castle at Christmastide. What few details the Brut offers encourage the view that it could not have been the first of its kind, but this essay affords no room for further speculation.
It is necessary, however, to recount briefly what happened in three eisteddfodau held at Carmarthen, circa 1450 and Caerwys in 1523 and 1567. These tell us a great deal about the contemporary concerns of the Welsh bards and the 'official' response to them, a response that was to greatly influence the conception which eighteenth-century eisteddfodwyr had of the way a revived institution should serve poetry.
The Carmarthen eisteddfod, which according to one chronicler lasted for three months(!), was presided over by Gruffudd ap Nicolas (fl. 1425–56), the most powerful uchelwr in south Wales by the middle of the century and himself, in all probability, a competent bard who was driven not only by a wish to emulate Lord Rhys, but by a desire to strengthen and enhance the tradition with which he identified. Put simply, he sought through the eisteddfod to secure the status of the professional bards and, in keeping with what had happened in England during the previous century, to protect them from the trespass of hacks and impostors who inflicted themselves on the populace to their cost. That perennial urge to reform and regulate, which still shows no sign of abating, dominated the Carmarthen eisteddfod, and the labours of one man in particular were to determine the cut of strict-metre poetry down to this century.
The 'Cadair Arian' (Silver Chair) said to have been fashioned by Gruffudd ap Nicolas himself, was won by a bard who came from Hanmer, in Flintshire. Dafydd ab Edmwnt (fl. 1450–97) was an uchelwr who did not depend on patronage. He was in every other respect a professional bard who was highly regarded by his fellows and who, after the Carmarthen eisteddfod, was to be hailed as a reforming defender of the bardic tradition.
Far more important than his winning cywydd in praise of the Trinity was his revision and winnowing of the strict metres and the cynganeddion, – the source materials of those core subjects taught to students in the bardic schools. The traditional knowledge imparted in them was incorporated in the 'Grammars' of the chief bards (Gramadegaur Penceirddiaid), standard textbooks bearing the imprint of two fourteenth-century ecclesiasts, Einion Offeiriad from Gwynedd and Dafydd Ddu Athro from Hiraddug. It was Dafydd ab Edmwnt's purpose to maintain the integrity of the bardic tradition by making more complex and intricate those rules and metrical devices which were intended in the first place to safeguard a hermetic art by keeping the uninitiated in their proper place – on the outside.
Without going into detail it can be said that he reinforced a predilection for rhetorical display and technical difficulty which had long characterized Welsh poetry. The changes he made, as contained in the 'Grammar' compiled by his disciple, Gutun Owain, were to confront Welsh poets with fear-induced constraints for generations to come, and an increasingly mechanical application of his criteria was to bedevil strict-metre poetry from the seventeenth century onwards as the tradition which had given rise to them disintegrated. From the literary upsurge of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth, poets and critics would have much to say about Dafydd ab Edmwnt's reforms, but it would take a John Morris-Jones (1864–1929) to make the debate bear fruit. Nevertheless, ab Edmwnt retained his hold on the Chair competition in this century as well and from 1938–64 the National Eisteddfod specifically asked for an awdl that would be a compound of as many of the revised strict metres as the poet chose to use. Dafydd ab Edmwnt is truly synonymous with that concern for past practice which is a constant in the eisteddfod story.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, however, the decline in the bardic tradition was well advanced. Loss of patronage coupled with the threat posed by an increasing army of vagabonds and bunglers clearly underlined the need for something to be done. The professionals would have to reassert their authority. Without official recognition of their skills they would find themselves face to face with a hostile society tired of being imposed upon by dubious vagrants and sturdy beggars that the law now required should be put to honest work. The famous Caerwys eisteddfodau of 1523 and 1567 were got up with the active support of the famous Mostyn family to licence genuine bards and minstrels. It was as if a clinic was being provided for the examination of ailing professionals from which no one whose fitness was in doubt would emerge with a clean bill of health.
The proclamation of the 1523 eisteddfod emphasized that its prime purpose was to regulate and correct bardic practices in accordance with the Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan, a king of Gwynedd (c. 1055–1137) reputed to have supported an eisteddfod in Caerwys in his own day. What most mattered was that the standard of excellence of past and aspiring graduates should be fully confirmed. It is no longer accepted that the Statute bearing his name was the work of Gruffudd ap Cynan. It probably dates from the early sixteenth century, Gruffudd ap Cynan's name having been appropriated to give the Statute the authoritative stamp of a historical figure who, it was believed, reformed the bardic system in Wales along the lines of the Irish tradition with which he had familiarized himself during his exile in Dublin.
What matters to us now is the way in which the Statute reflects the crisis to which it addressed itself, laying great stress on the competence of the bards and minstrels, loudly proclaiming their rights as a privileged fraternity and insisting on a code of conduct that would at all times be consonant with the nobility of their calling. Drunkenness, womanizing and gambling were even then singled out for censure, long before the Nonconformist thumpers of nineteenth-century Wales got the bit between their teeth. Put simply, the Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan crystallized the rationale of the bardic system at a time when the old order seemed more and more at risk. It reaffirmed the canons of classical praise poetry which demanded that the bard celebrate in elevated language the orderliness of a God-centred world.
None the less, by 1567 further restorative action was required and the second Caerwys eisteddfod was held 'by the commission of the grace of the queen and her councillors', – councillors being members of the Council of Wales and the Marches. No less a person than William Salesbury sent its promoters a copy of Gruffudd ap Cynan's Statute, urging them to alter or revise as they saw it befitting or unbefitting to the present age. The 1567 eisteddfod was meant to confirm the Statute together with the resolutions of the 1523 eisteddfod, and since a number of the gentlemen who supported it were Justices of the Peace they were well placed to tackle all those sturdy and idle vagabonds who might presume to appear before them in the guise of true bards. Should they fail to qualify for the appropriate 'degrees' that testified to a bard's fitness for his role they would be put to some honest work. Like today's abusers of the Social Security system they were to be called to account and penalized, whereas the genuine practitioners, who had been much discouraged to travail in the exercise and practice of their knowledges and also not a little hindered in their livings and preferments, would be encouraged and their worth recognized.
It is regrettable that what poetry was produced for these early eisteddfodau is lost to us, neither have we anything in the way of criticism to learn from. But we need not doubt its conservatism. It would most certainly be rooted in standard practice. Originality would mean no more than permutating stock devices and timeworn motifs, images and symbols within structures that proved very resistant to change. The kind of enlightened criticism that could have given the bards a more adventurous role was kept at arm's length. Welsh humanists, whose minds and imaginations had been enlivened by Renaissance learning, longed to confront the bardic system with the challenge of a new world, to make it more accessible to modern influences.
William Salesbury (c. 1520–84), Sion Dafydd Rhys (1534–c. 1619) and Gruffudd Robert (c. 1532–98) are notable examples of humanist scholars who lamented the 'closed shop' mentality of the bards. Their obsessive defence of trade secrets immured them in a past that denied them a meaningful future. Furthermore, their unquestioning perpetuation of praise poetry distanced them from that concern with the truth about life which lay at the heart of the 'new learning'. Their praise was often too easily bought, a charge which Sion Tudur (c. 1522–1602), echoing the famous Sion Cent (c. 1400–30/45), was to make in a cywydd addressed to his fellow-bards.
In a notable exchange of cywyddau which lasted for seven years (1580–87/8) between Wiliam Cynwal, a professional bard and Edmwnd Prys, a former university man, then Archdeacon of Merioneth, Prys tried unavailingly to win Cynwal over to the humanist standpoint. He wanted the bards 'I roi gwir ar y gorau' (To put forth truth at its best). Cynwal in reply taunted him with his ignorance of the bardic tradition and his defective verse, 'Byr d'addysg ar brydyddiaeth' (Your bardic education falls short). And that was that. The professional bard, content with his lot, was determined to go his own way and that convergence of literary interests which could have resulted in a new flowering of Welsh poetry was forestalled.
In 1701 an eisteddfod was held at Machynlleth To begin to renew, and put in order the Eisteddfod of Bards (as they were in old times), to reprimand false 'cynghanedd', to explain the difficult and intricate things, and to confirm what is correct in the art of poetry in the Welsh language. There followed, throughout the century, a number of 'Eisteddfodau'r Almanaciau', so called because they were advertised in the cheap and popular almanacks that circulated widely at that time. They never amounted to much, hardly ever attracted more than a fistful of poets and minstrels, and produced at best a clutch of commonplace, extempore englynion and cywyddau in praise of local worthies that owed more to the beery atmosphere in which they were composed than to genuine inspiration and craft.
Their promoters, however, fervently hoped that they would serve to revive the fortunes of Welsh literature. They were seen by them as being in direct descent from the Caerwys eisteddfodau, and one man in particular, Sion Rhydderch (1673–1735), poet and printer, was much concerned to ensure their success. In 1728 he published a 'Grammar' which restated the ideals of the past, based quite obviously on the Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan. The poets of the day were to reject those debased forms of poetry which the mastercraftsmen of old had rejected, there being no rules to govern them. They should confine themselves to the twenty-four strict metres and entrust their art to the adjudication of an acknowledged master, or masters – for Sion Rhydderch was prepared to countenance a juridical bench of twelve!
But there was to be no return to former glories. In 1734, shortly before his death, he journeyed to Dolgellau and found there some half a dozen poets and all the signs of apathy and dejection. Harking back to what seemed to him, in comparison, the splendour of the 1567 eisteddfod he concluded that he was labouring in vain. He would no more trouble himself with eisteddfodau ... unless some others may feel like restarting and setting up the thing. And if it will be like that, if I am alive and well, I shall not be hindered from coming to that. Fifty-five years later, Thomas Jones approached the Gwyneddigion and the eisteddfod took off on a course undreamt of by Siôn Rhydderch.
Thomas Jones added his voice to that of Jonathan Hughes who had asked the Gwyneddigion for their patronage, some small present out of goodwill to those who are trying to crawl after their mother tongue ... The Gwyneddigion saw fit to respond positively but, and it is a significant but in view of the eisteddfod's subsequent development, their offer of support was not unconditional. The Society claimed the right in future to proclaim the eisteddfod, together with the subject of the main competition which they alone would set, a year in advance. Poems would be submitted pseudonymously, the adjudicators would decide on their merits and then forward them, together with their adjudications, in a sealed package to the eisteddfod. The adjudicators would be fit men for their task and should consider purity of Language and regular composition of the Poems to be among their chief merits. They should meet to give an impartial adjudication, and in the event of any disagreement the Gwyneddigion would undertake to resolve it. On the first day of the eisteddfod the name of the victorious poet would be announced and with due regard to his status as pencerdd he would not compete with the other poets in the composition of impromptu verse.
Excerpted from The Eisteddfod by Hywel Teifi Edwards. Copyright © 2016 Literary estate of Hywel Teifi Edwards. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents
The Eisteddfod 1
Hywel Teifi Edwards: Select Bibliography 83