Archer
The Archery Library
Old Archery Books, Articles and Prints
home - about - books - articles - prints faq - news - contact - search
   
Home > Books > Book of archery > Section IV: Welsh Archery
Section IV
Welsh Archery
Part 2 of 4

We have very erroneous ideas, or rather no idea at all, as to what extent civilization prevailed among the ancient Welsh. Generally speaking, my Saxon countrymen conceive them to have been little better than a nation of cannibals, and their language is rather less understood than the Sanscrit or the Chinese. Yet, whilst England, in common with the rest of Europe, was sunk in the darkest ignorance, there flourished in Wales succession of men of genius, whose compositions, in my estimation, were scarcely surpassed during the brightest epoch of lyric poetry in Greece. Foremost amongst these stands Davyth ap Gwilym, the archer bard, an equally ardent votary of Apollo in his two-fold capacity as god of the bow and the lyre. Of his enthusiasm for the latter I shall hereafter present my readers with some pleasing instances. And if splendid original imagery united to the most harmonious versification exalt their possessor to the highest walks of poetry, the following passages alone will be amply sufficient to confirm the pretensions of one at least of Cambria's early bards.

TO SUMMER

And wilt thou, then, obey my power,
Thou summer, in thy brightest hour?
To her[15] thy glorious hues unfold,
In one rich embassy of gold!
Her morns with bliss and splendour bright,
And fondly kiss her mansions white;
Fling wealth and verdure o'er her bow'rs,
And for her gather all thy flow'rs.
Oh ! lavish blossoms with thy hand
On all the forests of the land,
And let thy gifts, like floods descending,
O'er every hill and glen be blending;
Let orchard, garden, vine express
Thy fulness and thy fruitfulness.
Around the land of beauty fling
The costly traces of thy wing!
And thus, 'mid all thy radiant flowers,
Thy thick'ning leaves and glassy bowers,
The poet's task shall be to glean
   Roses and flowers that softly bloom,
   (The jewels of the forest's gloom
I And trefoils wove in pavement green,
With sad humility to grace His golden Ivor's resting-place.

MAY.

Many a poet in his lay
   Told me May would come again;
Truly sang the bards, for May
   Yesterday began to reign!
She is like a bounteous lord,
   Gold enough she gives to me;
Gold --such as we poets hoard--
'Florins' of the mead and tree,
Hazel flowers, and 'fleurs de lis.'
Underneath her leafy wings
I am safe from treason's stings.
I am full of wrath with May
That she will not always stay!
Maidens never hear of love,
But when she has plumed the grove.
Giver of the gift of song
To the poet's heart and tongue,
May ! majestic child of heaven,
To the earth in glory given!
Verdant hills, days long and clear,
Come when she is hov'ring near.
Stars, ye cannot journey on
Joyously when she is gone!
Ye are not so glossy bright,
Blackbirds, when she takes her flight.
Sweetest art thou, nightingale;
Poet, thou canst tell thy tale
With a lighter heart, when
May Rules with all her bright array.[16]

Davyth ap Gwilym flourished about the middle of the thirteenth century. Gifted with an unlucky taste and talent for satirical composition, he embroiled himself with his relatives at an early period of life, and, quitting their protection, sought refuge in the castle of Ivor, surnamed Hael, or "the Generous," where he was received with affectionate kindness. His characteristic pursuits at the court of the chieftain, who resided at Basaleg in Monmouthshire, are aptly described in the following lines:--

Honours great for me are stored,
   If I live, from Ivor's hand;
   Hound and huntsman at command,
Daily banquet at his board.
Princely baron I at the game
With his piercing shafts to aim,
And to let his falcons fly
On the breezes of the sky.[17]

Besides being an elegant poet and minstrel, for he played admirably upon the harp, his national instrument, he may be regarded as the very beau ideal of a man of fashion in that age. According to a tradition current in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, he was tall, slender, and wore his fair yellow hair flowing in ringlets upon his shoulder.[18] His dress was equally foppish, in conformity with the practice of the age in which he lived.

Thus accomplished, and connected by the ties of birth with many an ancient family, he spent his time very pleasantly, as he himself tells, us, in strolling from the court of one chieftain to that of another, happier than his entertainers, though they enjoyed the possession of a mansion in every district of Wales, as he fancied he might secure the affections of every beauteous, maid. Here, however, as in many an ardent youthful aspiration besides, and notwithstanding his great bodily and mental endowments, anticipation seems either to have outrun the cold realities of success, or, else, poor Gwilym, like greater heroes, found

Increase of appetite to grow with what it fed on.

He became utterly dissatisfied with his progress in these love passages, and then, as usual, poured forth his chagrin in melodious verse.

The archer who aims at the target his blow,
Shakes the dust from his arrow, the dust from his bow;[19]
And ne'er shall he loose forth his brave shaft in vain,
If he aim but aright, if he shoot but with pain.'
But, poor bard! if one maiden but fall to thy lot,
In a thousand, alas! 'tis a mere random shot.

Gwilym was an enthusiastic, and therefore a skilful, archer; and an allusion to this accomplishment furnishes us with a curious illustration of the manners of his age. It appears that to possess a costly bow of foreign wood, was as indispensable to the modish equipment of a young and handsome Welsh gallant five centuries ago, as a polished steel-hilled rapier to the modern visitant at court. "Yesterday," says he, "I was in anxious mood and ardent expectation, beneath a shadowy tree, with the gold and jewel upon my broe[20], waiting the arrival of Gwenllian." Whilst thus engaged, there appears in the distance, what he elsewhere styles "a harsh-voiced, dog-hating, poultryeating fox." He then adds, "I aimed between my hands[21] with a valuable yew bow, which came from abroad, intending to send a keen arrow from the forest, dark headed, to dye his hair with blood. I drew--oh, unlucky shot! it passed by his head altogether; alas! my bow is splintered into a thousand pieces."[22]

From another passage contained in his works, it appears that the Welsh bow was sometimes adorned with gilding, a practice nowhere alluded to by the writers of our own country.[23] Animadverting upon the fashion of young women overloading themselves with ornaments, which appears to have been very prevalent in the fourteenth century, he signifies that real beauty has no occasion for them, and that they are assumed only to conceal some glaring defect.

"The yew bow," says he, "which is so unsound, that it will presently break in two halves, is covered with gold on the back; and then, appearing an undamaged article, is sold at a high price." I have here rendered the words literally from the Welsh; he afterwards pursues the same sentiment, in the following beautiful strain of poetry, translated by Maelog:--

Would the pure lustre of the warlike mail,
That hangs on yon white wall[24] with glimmerings pale,
Gleam brightly thus, if muffled and concealed
In the long tabard--that with many a shield
And many a rich emblazonry is dyed
By painter's hand, and all diversified
With rare devices? On the brow of snow,
E'en thus, no diadem fresh glory can bestow!

This bard is inexhaustible in his allusions to an accomplishment in which he excelled as much as he did in poetry. He instructs us that the Welsh archer shot at flying game with the confidence and dexterity that distinguishes a modern sportsman. When lamenting the ill success which had attended his addresses to his mistress, he compares himself to a man standing on the beach "with a yew bow;[25] in his hand," and shooting at the sea-gulls; who neither recovers his shafts, nor gains possession of the objects at which he aims. "My poetic strains," says Davyth ap Gwilym, "are all sent forth in vain; as well might I discharge an arrow at the stars. In the original Welsh, this sentiment, as well as the following lines, addressed to the sea gull, are distinguished by great felicity of expression:--

Bird, that dwellest on the spray,
White as yon moon's calm array,
Dust thy beauty ne'er may stain,
Sunbeam gauntlet[26] of the main!
Wilt thou, lily of the sea,
Draw near, and, hand in hand with me,
To the beauteous maiden's home--
Nun that dwellest in the foam,
With thy glossy figure climb
Round her castle walls sublime?

Even in the most trifling matters he introduces allusions to the bow, so as to make them highly picturesque. When addressing the roebuck, which he despatches with a letter to the object of his affections, he tells the animal not to allow any obstacle to impede his course, nor to fear

The grinded[27] arrow.

Sending the skylark on a similar errand, the poet admonishes his messenger, should he be exposed to the archer's aim, to turn his flight above his hand, whilst the arrow passes by."[28]

Sentinel of the dawning light,
Reveller of the spring!
How sweetly, nobly, wild thy flight--
Thy boundless journeying.
Far from thy brethren of the woods, alone,
A hermit chorister before God's throne!
O wilt thou climb yon heavens for me,
Yon starry turret's height,
Thou interlude of melody,
'Twixt darkness and the light!
And find --Heaven's blessing on thy pinions rest!--
My lady love --the moonlight of the West!
No woodland caroller art thou,
Far from the archer's eye;
Thy course is o'er the mountain's brow,
Thy music in the sky!
Then fearless be thy flight, and strong,
Thou earthly denizen of angel song.[29]

After he had fallen into the sear and yellow leaf, the poet evinces, the same predilection for the manly pursuits of his early youth. With a natural pleasing satisfaction, he alludes to the period when he could rapidly ascend the hill, leap, swim the torrent--literally "the eye of the pool,"--and shoot with the bow Indeed, if the following passage, from one of his latest poems, be received as a faithful picture of his mental condition towards the close of life, we can hardly conceive a more melancholy contrast to that bold and vivacious spirit which had previously animated this most distinguished of our old Welsh bards.

Youth has fled, and, like a dart,
Grief is planted in my heart;
All the joy of life is gone,
Strengthen me, thou Secret One.[30]
     *      *      *
In the grove no more I coat
On the cuckoo, and the note
Of the nightingale -- no more
Pine for the maiden I adore--
For the kiss and murm'ring voice
Of the lady of my choice!
Age's pangs are on my brow,
(Love is not my sickness now!)
Love and all his joys are o'er,
E'en his memory I deplore!
All my strength like chaff is sear;
Death is threateningly near!
Near is the impending doom--
Earth, and darkness, and the tomb.
Christ, my thoughts-- my footsteps lead!
Amen--no other guide I need.

The "History of the Gwydir Family," alluding to the style of living, and amusements, common to persons of rank and fortune, in Wales, during the reign of Edward IV., says it was the fashion of those days for gentlemen and their retainers to assemble daily, to shoot matches and masteries. There was then no individual of any note in the country, who not a cellar well stocked with wine, which was sold for his profit. Thither came his friends to meet him.[31] They spent the day in wrestling, shooting, throwing the sledge, and other feats of activity.

Even in times of peace and apparent security, the Welsh chieftain never laid aside his bow. One Jevan ap Robert was returning on horseback from Chirkland, to his residence, near Galt-y-morfa-hir, by moonlight. Unconscious of present danger, he rode onwards, chatting carelessly with his men. Suddenly, an arrow lighted amongst them, from the hill side, which was then clothed with wood. They immediately halted, and, drawing their bows, shot all seven together towards the spot where they conceived the archer to be secreted. On searching the wood, it was discovered that one of their random arrows had killed their assailant, who proved to be the third brother of a family with whom Jevan ap Robert was at deadly feud. The whistling of the shaft, as it flew through the air, and the direction in which the feathers pointed after alighting on the ground, may have indicated the spot whence the archer aimed, yet, even with this assistance, it is most extraordinary they should have killed him.

That the inhabitants of a country like ancient Wales should have gone continually armed, cannot be a matter of surprise. A man's person and property were liable to continual aggression, and he naturally carried with him those weapons in the use of which he felt the greatest confidence. But when sent to court the Muses, within "academic bowers and learned halls," it is reasonable to suppose the formidable bow and shafts might be laid aside. Not so, however, in our English universities, where the young Welshman retained them as pertinaciously as when traversing the wildest glen of his native land.

Whilst Cardinal Otho was holding a synod at Oxford, he lodged in the Abbey of Osney. One day, a number of students thronged about the gates of that edifice, and commenced an affray with the legate's men, who vainly endeavoured to repel them with their staves. It so happened, that a poor Irish scholar made good his entry into the Abbot's kitchen, and approaching the dresser, besought the cook, for God's sake, to give him something to satisfy his craving hunger But the brutal fellow, whose pampered stomach prevented his feeling for the distresses of another, in a great fury took up a ladle full of hot broth, and cast it into the Irishman's face. Seeing this, a Welsh scholar, who stood by, exclaimed, "What, mean we to suffer this villany?" Then seizing an arrow, he set it in his bow, which he had caught up at the beginning of the fray, and drawing it to the head, let fly at the cook, and slew him outright.[32]

The portraiture of an accomplished bowman has been so admirably sketched by one of their early writers, that its insertion here becomes a matter of course. Aware, however, that a Welshman of the fourteenth century, speaking only his native language, would in the nineteenth be scarcely intelligible to one English reader of a thousand, it is requisite somebody should act as his interpreted.[33] This task has been undertaken by one well qualified, who has the pleasure of introducing to their acquaintance Iolo Goch, "Iolo the Red," bard of the chieftain Glendower.

I will first state, by way of prologue, that a considerable degree of jealous enmity existed between the chieftains, as well as people, of the two divisions of Wales.[34] When Dafydd ab Owen Gwynedd, prince of the north, had honourably received some fugitives from the south, his courtiers insinuated that such an act of condescension was too great towards the subjects of a rival, who would not show the least respect to any of his; whereupon Dafydd swore a great oath, that he would not rest until satisfied whether the Lord Rhys of South Wales would not honourably receive an envoy sent from his court. Some time elapsed before he could meet with a person qualified for, or willing to undertake a mission so delicate; and at length Gwgan the Bard was fixed upon as his messenger. But Gwgan then dwelt in Powysland, and the exact place of his retreat was unknown. As a preliminary step, therefore, Dafydd ap Owen despatched a shrewd active fellow called y Paun Bach, to make the necessary inquiries. On arriving in Powysland, it was speedily ascertained that Caer Einion, Gwgan's abode, lay in a sequestered valley bordered by a forest. Towards the close of a summer's day, y Paun Bach entered this lonely spot; and as he rode slowly forwards, the sounds of music broke upon his ear. He halted to listen. It was a harp, whose sweetness, and the style of modulation, told that his errand was accomplished. On reaching the snow-white cottage, where on a fragment of rock the minstrel reclined with his harp, Dafyd's messenger, desirous of opening a conversation, demanded, with a bold ruffling air, where he could put up his horse.

Gwgan, laying down the harp, replied in a similar strain:--

"Turn him loose into the forest," said the bard, "where some night prowler will save ye the trouble of catching him again, for he'll take a spring upon his back, and give him such a heel-stab (sawer frath) as will send him to Nictref beyond Seis nictref."[35]

"But," replies the other, "suppose I were in yonder sloping wood opposite, and in my hand a bow of red yew ready bent, with a tough tight string, and a straight round shaft with a well rounded nock, having long slender feathers of a green silk fastening[36], and a sharp-edged steel head, heavy and thick' and an inch wide[37], of a green blue temper, that would draw blood out of a weathercock. And with my foot to a hillock, and my back to an oak, and the wind to my back, and the sun towards my side; and the girl I love best, hard by, looking at me; and I conscious of her being there ;--I would shoot him such a shot, so strong and far drawn, so low and sharp, that it would be no better there were between him and me a breast-plate and a Milan hauberk, than a whisp of fern, a kiln rug, or a herring net!"

Copyright © 1998 - 2017 | Disclaimer | Privacy Policy