Flourishing in Wales between the lives of Dante and Chaucer, Dafydd ap Gwilyn overturned the conventions of courtly love, while bestowing immortality on his delight and torment, Morfydd.
Ironic, self-mocking, intricate, his poems satirize the European inheritance from Catullus, Ovid, and the troubadours, in complex patterns of alliteration and rhyme (called in Welsh cynghanedd), whose rules he did much to codify. As with the poems of François Villon in the next century, only the bare shadow of his sardonic brilliance can be caught in English.
Yesterday (Thursday, my drinking day)
was a red-letter mark in the calendar.
I recovered my faith in women. Worn
wafer-thin with love, I was invited
to a love-tryst in the green cathedral,
a meeting made at my girl's choosing.
No man alive, under blaze of heaven,
knew of my pact with the shapely girl.
At sun's rising that Thursday morning
I leapt from bed brim full of laughter
and set my course to the small cottage
where the slim one was expecting me.
But now like a thief on the empty moor
a mist came creeping, a black cortege,
a parchment scroll, rain's manuscript,
clotted curds, a slippery hindrance,
a tin colander starting to rust through,
a fowling net on the swarthy soil.
A dark gate blocking a narrow path,
a winnowing sieve tossed up carelessly,
a monk's grey cowl shading the land,
darkening every vale and hollow,
a thorn fence bestriding the sky,
a purple bruise on the fogbound hill.
It was like wool, a thin veil of fleece
flimsy as smoke, a straw bonnet,
a hedge of rain barring my progress,
a coat of armour, a storm to soak me,
blinding my eyes so I was lost utterly,
a coarse cloak thrown over the county.
Then it was a castle right in my path,
hall of the fairy king, wind's territory,
a pair of fat cheeks chewing the earth,
torchbearers searching a pitchy sky
for its three pallid constellations,
a poet's blindfold, a bard's penalty.
A length of expensive cambric
thrown over the heavens, a halter
of spidery gossamer, French fabric,
on the moorland, fairies' realm,
a filmy breath of piebald smoke,
forest mist on a May morning.
Film on the eyes, a barking kennel,
ointment smeared on Hell's witches,
sodden dew become oddly sinister,
a discarded suit of damp chain-mail.
I'd sooner walk the pitch dark heath
than navigate this mist at noon.
At midnight stars light up the sky,
candles aflame in a dark chancel,
but this morning (bitter memory)
no moon, no stars, only a mist,
a prison door slammed behind me,
this mist, a misery past endurance.
Thus was my path curdled by clouds
leaving a stupefied stone-blind lover
stood stock-still, bereft of the sight
of Morfydd's elegant arching brows.
Paul Merchant lives in Oregon, where he is director of the William Stafford archives. One of his collections of poetry, Bone from a Stag's Heart, was a 1988 (British) Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His poetry collection Some Business of Affinity, containing more ample translations from Catullus, Dafydd ap Gwilyn, and Yannis Ritsos, will be published in 2006 by Five Seasons Press in England. The complete Ritsos Monochords will appear in early 2006 from Trask House Press in Portland, OR.