Dafydd ap Gwilym is generally recognized as Wales's greatest medieval poet. The handful of datable references in Dafydd's work all refer to events in or close to the 1340s, so it is likely that he flourished then. It is uncertain when he died, though many believe he died of the plague around 1350. He may have been the son of Gwilym Gam and was possibly descended from minor gentry in mid-Wales. His home is usually named as Brogynin, near the modern village of Penrhyn-Coch. He also had links to Dyfed in southwest Wales, and his uncle, Llywelyn ap Gwilym, was the steward in the castle at Newcastle Emlyn. Dafydd wrote a heartfelt elegy following Llywelyn's murder, in which he names his uncle his "tutor." There is no evidence that Llywe-lyn ap Gwilym was a poet himself, but his court was likely to have been a cosmopolitan place and probably had an influence on Dafydd. Dafydd's main patron was Ifor Hael, a wealthy landowner for whom he composed several poems. Most of Dafydd's corpus, however, comprises love poetry, nature poetry, or some combination thereof.
More than 400 poems are attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym in various manuscripts, but it is uncertain how many of these he actually composed, as his popularity meant that poems written by others would be attributed to him in order to achieve greater circulation. Modern scholarship suggests that 154 of these poems are his work, while 177 are considered apocrypha. Dafydd's popularity stems from the fact that as well as being an accomplished poet in the strict Welsh meters, there is a complexity in his vision, and his personality is central to his work. He wrote mainly in the cywydd form, making it widely recognizable and popular.
Dafydd is often described as a love poet. He also wrote poems on nature and intertwined the two themes: He is at his best describing love trysts in the glade or sending a bird as a messenger to his love. This was a new development in the traditional Welsh poetic tradition, and Dafydd may have been influenced by newer themes found on the continent; indeed, his poetry is often compared to that of the troubadours in Aquitaine. He also refers to Ovid as a poet of love. It is uncertain, however, how he was influenced by these poets, as there is no evidence that Dafydd ap Gwilym visited the Continent—or even England.
As a poet of nature, Dafydd appeared to be particularly interested in birds. He often personalized them, and in several poems he chose them as love messengers. For instance, in "The Gull" ("Yr Wylan"), Dafydd uses a guessing-game technique at the start of the poem to describe the gull; in fact, the bulk of the poem is descriptive, and the message itself is a brief afterthought. Dafydd's contribution to the genre was to put the love messenger before the message, or even before the girl. His love poetry was often directed toward his various girlfriends. He had two main loves in Ceredi-gion (today's Cardiganshire): Morfudd, who was married and often difficult to pin down, and Dyddgu, a noblewoman whom he appeared to worship from a
distance. Morfudd, described as fair-haired and temperamental, features in over 35 poems that reflect different stages of her life. Dafydd's poem about her old age is especially masterful and moving.
Nature also features prominently in Dafydd's poetry, usually in combination with love or religion, and only rarely on its own. In Dafydd's work, nature is used to enhance his experiences of love or, occasionally, to hinder him in his pursuit of love trysts. Sometimes this has led to his being termed a "summer poet." However, Dafydd's poetry is wide-ranging and masterful on many levels, and it is paradoxical in nature: part of the native Welsh tradition, yet seemingly influenced by foreign ideas; comprised of experimental poetic forms, yet reflective of the traditional meters; lighthearted and humorous, yet insightful and astute. A nature poet in love with love, Dafydd ap Gwilym is very difficult to pin down, and perhaps this is part of his enduring charm. See also "Trouble in a Tavern."
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