Saturday, January 3, 2009

Dafydd ap Gwilym: Poems (ed./tr. Rachel Bromwich): Book Review

Alexander Theroux in a recent L.A. Times critique of Burton Raffel's unnecessary rendering of Chaucer into contemporary English reminded me about the nearly exact contemporary across the island, Dafydd ap Gwilym. He's considered the equal of Chaucer's own versifying best, but far less accessible due to the intricacies of medieval Welsh metrics, the exceedingly alliterative and rhythmic demands of that musical language, and the inability to carry these heard harmonies into English. Still, I instantly ordered, mid-November from a seller in the book-laden Hay-on-Wye, an affordable copy of his work. I wanted a bilingual edition, so I could, as with Dante or Ovid, at least pretend I could gain an insight fleetingly into the original. Six weeks later, it arrived yesterday.

I had enjoyed Rolfe Humphries' 1969 "Nine Thorny Thickets" as a sample of Dafydd's love lyrics, and that American poet did attempt as the title shows to replicate the effects of the source. Gwyn Thomas, last month, had his own translations published, and I reckon these will be admirable. However, the sight of the Welsh facing the English in Bromwich's selections does have its own merits. The organization into topics departs from the standard 1952 edition by Thomas Parry (he gives a brief preface); Bromwich explains in her introduction how "I have arranged the poems according to subject matter, to bring out certain comparisons and resemblances;" these comprise about a third of the poet's accepted canon. (Richard M. Loomis & Dafydd Johnston translated all the originals without the Welsh text in 1982.)

Her introduction briskly surveys the little we know of his life, the metrics, the poetic craft, and the challenges of translation itself. Bromwich brought Dafydd to the attention of scholars earlier last century, and her familiarity with the author shows. She follows the example pioneered by Kuno Meyer with Irish medieval verse, in giving prose equivalents; she cites as one forerunner for her own project the versions from various languages given in Kenneth Jackson's "A Celtic Miscellany."

The fifty-six entries (cross-referenced with Williams' differently numbered originals) cover in turn love's seasons; various lovers the poet addressed; birds and animals; nature's messengers of love; love's frustrations; addresses to his friends; and meditations, a recantation, and a concluding prayer. The element of precision and incision characterizes his tightly wound, firmly grasped style.

Since I lack facility with the Welsh, I cannot give an complete estimate of Bromwich's success or failure to convey Dafydd ap Gwilym's intricacies. From what I can gather, nonetheless, this appears a valuable answer to the problem that other editions have: they lack both languages. The book's well-designed, with a readable typeface, handy size, and line references are keyed to endnotes. Leafing through the selections, the degree of compression into couplets of the Welsh does find an accessible echo in her line readings into serviceable English. She strives more for equivalents than eloquence, and her edition's geared both to somebody like myself with little knowledge of Welsh, and to the reader needing to learn more about this rarely noted (even in passing as with Theroux's review) writer who evades the attention of many of those who claim wider knowledge of medieval texts.

(All but paragraph one posted to Amazon US today.)


Bo said...

It's a fine book and this is a fine and gracious review. You might be interested in googling the Dafydd ap Gwilym project at Swansea which has re-edited all these poems for the first time since Parry, and put it all online, with translations. You might also like Mererid Hopwood's 'Singing in Chains', which is a guide to the mesurau caeth, the 'strict metres', if you haven't already got it.

Fionnchú said...

Here's the site: Poems at Dafydd ap Gwaith Dafydd ap Gwilym. I appreciate Bo's encouragement and the reminder of the edition; I had archived the URL a while ago but then forgot about it!

Ivan Alsace said...

Gracias, muchas gracias