April 12, 2016

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Poetry Friday: Introducing the Englyn

Writerly Friends, this week I started a third grade poetry residency. Third graders have a lot of questions about what it's like to have the job of "Poet."

This week's Poetry Friday host
is Julie Larios at The Drift Record.
Waft on over there to find
more poetry posts.

"Is it hard being a poet?" the third graders ask.

I ask how many of them play instruments, or sing, or play sports. Hands fill the air.

I ask how many of them practice. Most hands stay up.

"Poets practice their skills, just like when you do drills for soccer, or play scales on the piano," I tell them.

One of my favorite poetry drills is trying new forms. Last month, when we were doing the Pantone Poetry Project, Mike Ratcliffe shared an englyn -- a form poem from Wales. I asked Mike to come back today and tell us more about this poetic form.

Ready for a great history lesson, poets?

Englynion:  Short Form Poems from Wales

by Michael Ratcliffe

When most of us think of short poems with rules governing form and number of syllables, we likely think of Japanese forms, such as haiku and tanka. Welsh poetry has its own short form in the englyn (pronounced “ehn-glin;” plural englynion).

There are eight types of englynion, which you can read about at

The most commonly used is the englyn unodl union (“ehn-glin i-no-duhl in-yon”)—the straight, one-rhyme englyn. This consists of four lines of ten, six, seven, and seven syllables, respectively. The seventh, eighth, or ninth syllable of the first line introduces the primary rhyme, which then appears at the end of each successive line. In addition, the end of the first line should rhyme or alliterate with words in the first half of the second line.

To illustrate, here is the englyn I wrote for Laura’s Pantone Poetry Project:

Morning sky, porcelain blue—new March snow—
we know winter’s not through.
Spring awaits daffodil’s cue
to return with Beltaine’s hue.

Englynion were one of the three categories of poems that the Welsh bard was expected to learn and master, cywyddau (pronounced “cuh-wuh-thah,” consisting of a series of rhymed couplets) and awdlau (odes) being the other two.

These three categories encompassed 24 metrical forms, each with rules specifying the number of lines, syllables per line, end rhymes, internal rhyming, and alliteration. Welsh poetry’s rules relating to internal rhyming, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and accent within a line are known as cynghanedd (cuhn-gha-neth—the double “d” in Welsh sounds like the “th” in “the” or “then”).

As with other Celtic cultures, poets occupied a high position within Welsh society. No self-respecting “Great Man” in Welsh society (at least until the 17th century when the nobility became more Anglicized) would be without his household bard to compose elegies, maintain the genealogy, and entertain. Poets were part of the professional class, generally drawn from the upper levels of society. The training of a professional poet in Wales took years and required development of skill in the 24 metrical forms.

My englyn above, while adhering to the basic rules, does not display cynghanedd throughout. A better example is the following by Howell Elvet Lewis, Gobaith Dibrofiad (Life’s Morning). Lewis uses “ai” for the internal rhymes.  The fourth line provides a nice example of alliteration with the near “mirror image” sounds in blodau (Welsh for “flower”) and bladur (“blade”), the use of “d” throughout the line, and the “y” (“the” in Welsh) preceding blade and bladur.


Bore oes—O! mor brysur—gwibia
Gobaith ar ei antur:
Canai lai pe gwelai gur
Y blodau dan y bladur

Life’s morning—O, how quickly fleets
Hope on its adventure:
It would sing less if it saw the pain
Of the flower beneath the scythe.

(The Welsh original of this poem, as well as the poem below, is from the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse; English translations from the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English.  For a guide to pronouncing Welsh, see

Unlike haiku, there are relatively few examples of englynion written in English. Some have suggested that this is due to the difficulties of transferring the rules of cynghanedd, developed as they were for writing in Welsh, to English.

Or, perhaps it is due to the relative inaccessibility of Welsh to English speakers and readers, as well as the historical lack of interaction between the two cultures’ literary traditions stemming, in part, from English attempts to relegate Welsh to second class status, and Welsh nationalists’ use of the language to set themselves apart from the English.

We’ll end with an englyn by Walter Davies (1761-1849; wrote under the bardic name Gwallter Mechain).

Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain) (1761–1849)
Walter Davies, by Hugh Hughes, @1830
As with haiku, an englyn may offer a seemingly simple image from which the reader may derive deeper meaning. Davies’ englyn may simply be about nightfall over the mountainous region of North Wales, known in Welsh as Eryri (Snowdonia in English).

Dolwyddelan Castle
(built by Llywellyn the Great,
Prince of Gwynedd and North Wal
But, because Eryri was the stronghold of the last native princes of Wales, perhaps the nightfall, the mists veiling the mountains, the sun sinking into a bed of brine, speaks of the conquest of Wales by England and a culture quietly in a remote region. Or, perhaps that’s just my Welsh heritage pushing me to read more into the poem than is really there.


Y nos dywell yn distewi—caddug
Yn cuddio Eryri,
Yr Haul yng ngwely’r heli,
A’r lloer yn ariannu’r lei.

Silence brought by the dark night: Eryri’s
Mountains veiled by mist:
The sun in the bed of brine,
The moon silvering the water.

Mike at Caernarfon Castle
Michael Ratcliffe is a geographer whose academic studies in the history and geography of Wales led him to delve into the country's rich poetic tradition.  Michael also is a poet; his work has appeared most recently in Commonthought Magazine and forthcoming in Deep South Magazine.  He can be found on-line at  He lives in North Laurel, MD with his wife and three sons.

Here is a short performance of Celtic music, introduced with the recitation of an englyn.


Diane Mayr said...

Thank you for this lesson on englyn Michael and Laura!

Julie said...

Fascinating history AND poetry lesson (and language lesson, too!)Thanks! And isn't the idea of a geographer/poet just wonderful?

Linda B said...

"how quickly fleets"-Oh the sorrow that must have been when they were overtaken. That picture of Dolwyddelan Castle-so beautiful. Thanks for the lesson, Michael and for bringing it all together, Laura.

Tara said...

Wow, what a lot I've learned about poetry, language, and history! Also fun to try to pronounce correctly.

GatheringBooks said...

This is the first that I've heard of englyn - wow. What a fascinating history indeed, thank you for sharing all that. The video clip was wonderful too. Beautiful.

Michael Ratcliffe said...

Diolch yn fawr! Thanks very much for all the great comments. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post.

Tabatha said...

Are there any historical fiction with Welsh bards as main characters in it? Seems like the POV would be interesting. To me, anyway! Thanks for sharing the englyn with us.

Michael Ratcliffe said...


I did a quick search and found several listed on the following site: Scroll to the section on Medieval Wales and Cornwall and look for the books by Alan Fisk, G.R. Grove, and Susan Mayse.

Also, "Griffri, a 12th Century Welsh Bard," by Christopher Meredith.

John James' novel "Men Went to Cattraeth" (1969) uses the poet, Aneirin's, poem "Y Gododdin" as a source. Aneirin narrates the novel. For more about Aneirin's poem, see my blog post at (part of my month long series last year on Welsh and Irish poetry).

Author Amok said...

Thanks for posting that follow-up information, Michael. I have to work up some courage to try this form. It helps that all of the poems you shared have such inner beauty.

Tabatha said...

Thank you, Michael! I am copying and pasting that info to save.

Doraine said...

Thank you for this lesson. I'm copying and saving, too, for practice later. One of my favorite mystery series is the Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. They are set on the border of England and Wales in the 1100's. Love the history.

Mary Lee said...


Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

Love this post, Laura - thanks to you & Michael for sharing the information about this form. I definitely need to try working on it!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Thanks Laura and Michael for this fascinating foray into poetry form and Celtic culture. It was a treat to read and learn something new today.

Enjoy your residency, Laura. That too sounds like a treat!