Gwerful Mechain (c. 1460–c. 1502) is considered to be one of the first female Welsh poets. She wrote about female sexuality and the domestic issues of medieval women.
Her parents were Gwenhwyfar and Hywel Fychan from Mechain (a medieval cantref or land division), in Powys, northeast Wales. Her father was of noble birth. She had at least four siblings. She married John ap Llewelyn Fychan, and they had a daughter called Mawd (‘ap’ is a patronymic meaning ‘son of’. To say ‘daughter of’ one would use ‘ferch’).
Another medieval Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, had a famous poem called Cywydd y Gal or Ode to the Penis. About a century later, Gwerful Mechain penned a response, Cywydd y Cerdor, otherwise known as Ode to the Vagina. Strictly speaking the more accurate translation of cerdor is vulva, however most translators have felt that this doesn’t capture the original’s intent, preferring to translate it as vagina. Recent modern translations have used c***. The more reticent have chosen ‘pubic hair’, or as we see below, ‘genitals’.
The Cywydd is a traditional form of Welsh poetry, that uses a unique metre and rhyme scheme, consisting of seven-syllable lines, arranged in rhyming couplets.
Gwerful Mechain’s poetry has been recently translated by Katie Gramich in her 2018 anthology of The Works of Gwerful Mechain, she says,
Her work has, I believe, been deliberately suppressed by male Welsh scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries because it contains erotic and indecent poetry.
- The original Welsh is here.
- Katie Gramich’s translation can be found at the bottom of this PDF – Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry.
The Female Genitals Every foolish drunken poet, boorish vanity without ceasing, (never may I warrant it, I of great noble stock,) has always declaimed fruitless praise in song of the girls of the lands all day long, certain gift, most incompletely, by God the Father: praising the hair, gown of fine love, and every such living girl, and lower down praising merrily the brows above the eyes; praising also, lovely shape, the smoothness of the soft breasts, and the beauty's arms, bright drape, she deserved honour, and the girl's hands. Then with his finest wizardry before night he did sing, he pays homage to God's greatness, fruitless eulogy with his tongue: leaving the middle without praise and the place where children are conceived, and the warm quim, clear excellence, tender and fat, bright fervent broken circle, where I loved, in perfect health, the quim below the smock. You are a body of boundless strength, a faultless court of fat's plumage. I declare, the quim is fair, circle of broad-edged lips, it is a valley longer than a spoon or a hand, a ditch to hold a penis two hands long; cunt there by the swelling arse, song's table with its double in red. And the bright saints, men of the church, when they get the chance, perfect gift, don't fail, highest blessing, by Beuno, to give it a good feel. For this reason, thorough rebuke, all you proud poets, let songs to the quim circulate without fail to gain reward. Sultan of an ode, it is silk, little seam, curtain on a fine bright cunt, flaps in a place of greeting, the sour grove, it is full of love, very proud forest, faultless gift, tender frieze, fur of a fine pair of testicles, a girl's thick grove, circle of precious greeting, lovely bush, God save it.
Translation: Dafydd Johnston
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.