As I’m sure most of you will know, the Welsh, when they emigrated to the United States, brought with them their language and their culture, and very often built chapels in order to maintain them. If you look around the graveyards you will quite often find brief four-lined stanzas, commemorating the deceased. Unbeknown to most, this represents a tradition stretching back in to the Middle Ages and quite possibly further, into the mists of early Celtic poetry.
These little poems may look quite innocuous but, in fact, they are composed on one of the most demanding metrical systems of the world, a craft which can often take years to master. Each line of this 30-syllable stanza is composed of closely alliterating or rhyming phrases, and this is simply a summary of the most basic rules of cynghanedd (harmony). These aren’t strict rules meant to pretentiously elevate the poem to some idealised level of complexity – they are all about playing with sound so that a piece appeals not only to the mind but to the ear as well. It is only the better poets who master this. This meter is commonly known as an englyn , with englynion as the plural. Our earliest good examples are from about the twelfth century, where they formed parts of a much longer poem, an awdl . By the fourteenth century at least these englynion were being used as independent poems, often for lighter issues than the elegy and praise of the great court poets.
In 1654, in the middle of the Cromwellian interregnum we our first known example on a gravestone, from Llanigon in south-east Wales, very close to the English border, composed to a young student of the law at London. This tradition grows slowly for the next centuries, as the traditional poetic order declined and the was maintained by the lesser gentry, priests and other enthusiasts. Nevertheless the tradition is unbroken. About the 1830s, with the growth of chapels, increase in literacy the proliferation of Welsh journals and newspapers and books the number appearing on graves increases dramatically. The content is quite often a stark warning about the briefness of life, a statement of the hope for resurrection but quite often we find poems to important figures or ones commemorating murders or deaths in battle, tragic accidents, midwives, surgeons, a British prime-minister and so on.
One could confidently estimate that we have at least 25,000 of these with great numbers not having been recorded from large parts of Wales. We have many in England too, especially in Liverpool which sported an immensely Welsh-speaking community a little over a century ago. There are many on the graves of the war-dead, especially from the First World War, in Belgium, France and Palestine for example. More relevant is that we know of many from the United States but it seems that few have been recorded and we are rapidly losing the local knowledge about the deceased and the poets, as the language has receded and the stones are deteriorating with time. We desperately need to find volunteers willing to search the graveyards where the Welsh were buried, record the inscriptions and ask for further information.
The earliest known to me is from 1852, dedicated to the 23 year-old Mary Thomas, 1852 and is in Paddy’s Run (Ohio). The poet is her father.
Tiroedd a moroedd mawrion – a deithiais,
Nes deuthum at estron,
I geisio hawl o’r gŵys hon
I orwedd gyda’i feirwon.
Vast lands and seas did I travel
Until I came to a foreign land.
To seek my rights from this furrow
To lie with its deceased.
The highest known englyn in the world is from Russel Gulch (at 9,150 feet) in the Colorado Rockies. Owen Jones died in 1856 at 56 years. Many coalminers had emigrated, having the necessary skills to work in the industry. Owen died from complications after a ball of dynamite exploded in his hand, blowing off one of them and many fingers from the other.
O afiachus wael fuchedd – o afael
Pob gofid a llygredd,
Aeth at ei Dad i wlad y wledd
Y nwyfiant a’r tangnefedd.
From an unhealthy poor life – from the grasp
Of every misery and corruption,
He went to his Father to the land of the feast
Of passion and peace.
There is a shorter couplet, to John Tyson, 1857 (52), in Slateville (Pennsylvania). This is where many north-walian slate quarrymen emigrated.
Dirymwyd edau’r einioes
Yn grwn gan yr hwn a’i rhoes.
Life’s thread was undone
Completely by he who gave it.
Sometimes, the deceased is commemorated on the family grave in Wales, such as Barbara Owens, Tre’rgarth, 1859 (22), Eglwys y Santes Fair; MW.
Er marw yn nhir Amerig – ac aros
Mewn goror bellenig
Byr hanes Barbara unig,
Huna draw, y fan hon drig.
Despite dying in the land of America – and tarrying
In a faraway land,
Brief was the life of lonely Barbara
Far away she slumbers, but here she lives.
The inscriptions are largely in Welsh, something which might present a challenge to the survival of local knowledge. The following is to Henry Williams in Slateville, from Nant y Graean by Bangor. He died in an accident on January 4 th , 1868.
Y gwir Oracl ef a garai – gair Iôn,
Yn gywir gyhoeddai,
Ac i’w fedd mewn hedd ydd ai
A dir ei ofn a derfynai.
The true Oracle he loved – the word of the Lord
Correctly he would announce,
And to his grave in peace he went
And the hardship of his fear ended.
The following is to a noted poet, preacher and writer, Richard Foulkes Edwards (Rhisiart Ddu o Wynedd), 1836- 1870 (34) Oskosh, Wisconsin. He was originally from north-east Wales and had won the chair in the 1864 Eisteddfod in Llandudno. This is the one attended by the great English poet Mathew Arnold, who so fervently wished to see the end of the Welsh language and culture.
Mawr gwyn fu rhoi mor gynnar – weinidog
O nodwedd mor lachar,
At feirwon mewn estron âr,
Y Bardd Du i bridd daear.
Great was the grievance of placing so young – a minister
Of shining qualities.
To the dead in a foreign field
The Black Poet to the soil of the earth.
I guro, daeth llaw trugaredd – at ddôr
Risiart Ddu o Wynedd;
Am hyny’r sant, o bant bedd,
Waredir i anrhydedd.
Llonydd yw’r bardd a’r llenor – a dyn Duw
O dan dalp o farmor;
Bydd gwae dwfn i’r bedd gae dôr
A throi dros y fath drysor.
Eos Glan Twrch
The hand of mercy came to beat upon the door
Of Richard the Black from Gwynedd.
For that the saint from the valley of death,
Will be saved to glory.
Motionless is the bard and writer – a man of God
Under a slab of marble;
Great, deep woe that the grave closed a door,
And turned over such a treasure.
I have yet to ascertain where the following is located, the details not having been noted in the online site. Margaret Williams, 1875, 58 years old.
Fy mhriod hynod sy’n huno – yma
Wiw mwyach ei cheisio.
Ataf ni ddychwel eto
Gwael ei grym mewn gwely gro.
My remarkable spouse sleeps here
Futile now is to seek her.
Never again will she return to me
Feeble is her strength in a bed of shale.
Another commemorated in Wales is Thomas J. Williams, 1908 (34) in the graveyard of the church of Llanfihangel-y-pennant; He was buried in Boulder, Colorado.
Pell o’i wlad yn Colorado – hunodd
Tom heinyf ei osgo;
Ond, o unfryd ei hen fro,
Cu hafan, car ei gofio.
Far from his country in Colorado – he fell asleep
Tom the vigorous his bearing.
But with one voice in his old land
A fair haven, will remember him.
Occasionally the englynion are noted in Welsh journals. We need to search Y Drych, at some point. The following occurs in Y Gwladgarwr (The Patriot, 1839), but states that the poem is on the gravestone. Gabriel Davies, Cincinnati, Ohio:
I'w gorph gwan wele'r anedd , - ac obry
Mae Gabriel yn gorwedd ;
Trueni troi o Wynedd
I chwilio byd , a chael bedd.
See the abode of his feeble body – but above
Does Gabriel like;
Tragic was turning from Gwynedd
To explore the world but to find a grave .
These are but a brief selection of the dozens currently known to us, but works in journals and comments from the United States indicate that we may have a far larger corpus of important poetry waiting to be recorded. If anyone can help in visiting graveyards and just asking around this would be hugely appreciated. It is already late to be embarking on this work, but hopefully not too late. Please do snap away with your smartphones and take pictures of the gravestones, the chapels and the cemeteries. All information is important. There is an urgency to this work. You can either contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or otherwise upload photos and comments to the Facebook group Englyn Bedd . In advance I’d like to say diolch yn fawr .
Dr Guto Rhys