‘Curses and concepts: the lexicon of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poetry’

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On Friday 1 February 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Prof. Dafydd Johnston, who discussed ‘Curses and concepts: the lexicon of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poetry’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dafydd ap Gwilym is widely seen as the finest medieval Welsh poet. He was the most prolific of his contemporaries, with 147 poems of certain authorship. Flourishing in the mid-fourteenth century, his poetry is celebrated for its humour and inventiveness, its celebrations of the beauty of nature and of love. Yet Prof. Johnston also noted his frequent remonstrations of disappointment and despair. Dafydd is notable for employing many loan words from Middle English and French, often being the first to attest to their use, revealing the complex cultural roots of his craft. This richness of vocabulary was the main focus of Prof. Johnston’s lecture.

‘Amlder Cymraeg’, meaning ‘Copious Welsh synonyms’, sums up Dafydd’s varied lexicon. This knowledge was required of Welsh poets at this time. An excerpt from his own poetry exemplifies his approach even more clearly: ‘Yn llawen iawn, yn llawn iaith’, which means ‘Very joyful, abounding in language’.

An example of his extensive vocabulary is found in his use of synonyms of ‘girl’. Among others, ‘merch’, ‘morwyn’, ‘bun’, ‘dyn’, ‘rhiain’, ‘gwen’, ‘meinir’ and ‘meinwen’. He is similarly diverse in his descriptions of beauty, including: ‘disglair’, ‘gloyw’, ‘aur’, ‘euraid’, ‘eiriam’, ‘pefr’, ‘llywy’ and ‘mygr’. The last three stated examples become obsolete after being found in Dafydd’s poetry and there are 88 other examples of words never found again.

Yet this use of the ‘archaic’ contrasts with his willingness to introduce new words. Prof. Johnston commented that Dafydd’s work feels almost like a crossroads, with the old giving way to the new. There are 69 ‘sole attestations’, words that are found only in Dafydd’s work. Furthermore, there are c.300 ‘earliest’ attestations’, these new words found first in Dafydd’s poetry.

Prof. Johnston argued that the size of the surviving corpus results in these remarkable figures but these new words do not necessarily originate with Dafydd. Ultimately, his poetry was intended to be understood, so an entirely new lexicon would have been impossible to comprehend. His use of the colloquial is particularly striking and he uses it particularly when expressing loathing and disgust! An example is: ‘The churlish slobber-chops, hissed to the (other) two’. Frequently, these colloquial terms are found as curses or exclamations at the start of a verse, presumably to draw the audience’s attention.

While Prof. Johnston was reluctant to pinpoint Dafydd as the innovator in poetry at this time, he certainly left it as a strong possibility.

Prof. Johnston edited the ground-breaking website on Dafydd ap Gwilym, the first place to go to discover Dafydd’s poetry!www.dafyddapgwilym.net

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Next Tuesday, 5 February, Kate Mathis will discuss ‘Mourning the Maic Uislenn: Blood, Death and Grief in Longes Mac nUislenn andOidheadh Chloinne hUisneach’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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