Harry Gilonis: Two Poems for John James

Exultation (after Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd [fl. 1140-1170])

White the wave-foam that washes the grave
of Rhufawn Befr, prince of rulers.
I love, now, all that England detests:
north Gwynedd, the groves that fringe the Lliw.
I love the one who can grant me mead;
that spot that the seas reach, contending.
I love its warband’s sturdy buildings –
a warband keen to wage war when bid.
I love its salt-marsh and its mountains,
its fort by the wood, its fine surrounds,
its fields, its waters, its broad valleys,
its white sea-birds and its fair women.
I love the soldiers, their trained stallions;
the woods; those who are steadfast – their homes,
their fields, that are scattered with clover;
a place where honour is triumphant;
its lowlands, held by right of valour.
I love its wild places, its rich ones.
O, by God’s Son, how great a wonder!
Majestic the stags and great the wealth!
I did fine work with a lunging lance
‘twixt troops of Powys and tops of Gwynedd.
On my grey-white mount, in splendid strife,
may I win reprieve from my exile.
I can’t wait for my people to come –
my dream said as much; so God wills it.
White the wave-foam that washes a grave.

White the wave-foam crashing by farmsteads,
white in colour, like the frost when it comes.
I love Meirionydd’s salt-marshes,
where a white arm once was my pillow.
I love a nightingale in a tree,
where two waters meet in a valley.
God of heaven and earth, and Gwynedd,
its so far from Ceri to Carlisle!
Mounting my horse in Maelienydd
I rode from dusk to day, to Rheged.
May I regain them, before my grave —
Tegeingl’s lands, loveliest round here.
Though I travel along with Ovid,
may my God think of me at my death.
White the wave-foam crashing by farmsteads.

I pray to the All-Knowing, Most High,
the most worthy, because He’s a King.
I compose this song in the first place,
a poem of praise, such as Merlin sang.
My poetic art’s in thrall to women
– tardy in bestowing their favours…
above all praise in the country west
from Chester gates to Porthysgewin.

First, that girl for whom praise is paramount,
summer-bright Gwenllian;
next – I am vexed, my mouth not ‘next’ but ‘far’ –
her, with my gold neck-chain.
Gweirfyl, fair, secret, gift I never had
(had by none of my line)
– may I be slain with a two-edged blade,
I got grief from the king’s fosterling’s wife.
For Gwladus, modest, a wife young in years,
the hope of her people,
I will let out a sigh she’ll share;
I praise her as I would the linnet.
My desire, to see her man soon, far from her,
with my sword in my hand;
Lleucu, lucent, sweetheart, smiling —
he will not chortle when he’s hard-pressed!

Things pressing beset, befall me;
longing, alas, is concomitant,
for Nest, fair, fair as apple-blossom;
for Perweur, the core of my sins.
For Generys, who would not gratify me
– may she not stay continent!
Hunydd’ll matter ‘til Judgement Day;
Hawis, my chosen habit.

I had a girl, she was steadfast;
I had two, the greater be their praises;
I had three, I had four, happily.
I had five of them, their white flesh fair;
I had six, without hiding from sin.
At the white fort a white girl paid tribute;
I had seven, persisted at this task.
I had eight, in token of praises sung —
but teeth do well, keep tongue captive!


version by Harry Gilonis

i.m. John James, in gratitude for his Welsh Poems



This poem is an English version of the Gorhoffedd (‘Exultation’) of the 12th-century Welsh poet Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd. John James draws on it for his early sequence The Welsh Poems**. A Gorhoffedd is a loosely-defined thing; I can call to mind only one other example, that by Hywel’s contemporary, Gwalchmai ap Meilyr. Both these poems hop from topic to topic like spit on a griddle, reminding me of the observation by a Welsh literary historian that “Welsh poetry is non-narrative to a high degree. Accounts of events are rarely sustained for very long, never throughout a poem, and allusion to events is far more common than recounting” (Jenny Rowland, ‘Genres’ [1988]). It is easy to see how poetry of this sort would appeal to John James; and he would doubtless also have been taken by a rather … louche sexuality, on fairly prominent display – echoed in his own second Welsh Poem – as also by the aristocracy of temperament (in Hywel’s case, literal: he was a prince of the ruling house of Gwynedd in north Wales).

This isn’t the place for exhaustive analysis of Hywel’s poem, not least as there is no clear consensus on major questions (e.g., whether it is one poem, or an accidental mash-up – I hold to the former view, as my citation of Rowland might suggest). I will, however, supply some information and glosses as to people and places where ‘allusion’ has, over nearly 900 years, slid into obscurantism. (Hywel was not trying to be Geoffrey Hill.)


Rhufawn Befr – a warrior figure from the remote past, even in Hywel’s time (he attends Arthur’s court in the Mabinogion.) He’s associated with north Wales, and is cited here to give glamour, and legitimacy, to Hywel’s poem and himself (the latter of consequence given that, as his poem says, he is in exile – in mysterious circumstances – at the time of its being written).

The river Lliw – probably the Afon Lliw that flows into the Dee (Dyfrdwy) near Lyn Tegid in Gwynedd. Hywel is establishing the breadth of ‘his’ realm and its area of political concern – not least as there have been recent skirmishes with neighbouring Powys (see below).

Powys – then roughly Montgomeryshire and eastern Denbighshire around Wrexham and Oswestry. Hywel’s father, Owain Gwynedd, had annexed chunks of it around 1160, about a decade before my dating of this poem.

Meirionydd – roughly Merionethshire, the southern half of Gwynedd, north of the Dyfi and south of Caernarvonshire.

Ceri (‘Kerry’) – a town on the eastern edge of Powys, near the always-contested border with England. Hywel is setting off to the north.

Carlisle (‘Caer Lliwelydd’) – in antiquarian memory part of the Welsh-speaking kingdoms of the North (see ‘Rheged’ and ‘Merlin’ below); Hywel is, I take it, travelling north in search of political, or military, support.

Maelienydd – an upland region around Llandrindod Wells, then subdivided into minor principalities. It seems an unlikely place to look for help, political or military, and is also to the south of Gwynedd. Hywel’s reported activity I take to be real(istic) but his nomenclature poetic-antiquarian.

Rheged – one of the kingdoms of the North, centred at one time around Carlisle. In genealogical myth (which, as with Rhufawn Befr, may well reflect an almost-vanished historical memory) one of its royal line, Cunedda, came south and founded the royal house of Gwynedd. Hywel could trace his descent back over some twenty generations to Cunedda. Again myth and politics coalesce.

Tegeingl – the very northwest of Wales, adjacent to the Dee. It had fallen into Mercian hands centuries previously, been briefly recaptured by Owain Gwynedd, re-seized by Henry II, and re-recaptured by Hywel’s half-brother Dafydd. Hywel seeks to legitimate a contested claim to this territory.

Ovid – a frequent presence in mediaeval Welsh poetry, but as a poet of love, not exile. First hint of a shift in focus.

Merlin (‘Myrddin’) – thought of as a historical figure, politically active in what is now southern Scotland, then Welsh-speaking. He doesn’t represent mystical Celtic woo-woo, but poetry as adjunct to politics in the key kingdoms of the North.

Chester (‘Caerlleon’, “City of the Legions”) – on the far side of Tegeingl; originally a Roman fortress, captured by the Normans not long after their invasion and still held by the English.

Porthysgewin – now a village in Monmouthshire, formerly a major port. It too was then in Norman hands; its relevance here is as part of a ‘Land’s End-to-John O’Groats’ pairing with Porth Wygyr on the north coast of Anglesey (heart of historic Gwynedd): these were the extremities of historic Wales. I think Hywel is quietly laying claim to suzerainty over that whole terrain; certainly over more realistically contestable Powys (inboard of Chester, hence the revised pairing).

Gwenllian, etc. – none of the women named can be identified specifically, as would doubtless have been Hywel’s tactful-boastful intention. (There’s something of the flavour of Ovid’s Amores here, perhaps? – I’m thinking of II.4 in particular…)

“fosterling” – Welsh royal houses frequently sent children, sometimes illegitimate ones, to be fostered in neighbouring principalities. Ties to fosterlings were quasi-familial; also, under Welsh law illegitimate sons – like Hywel – could readily inherit property, or thrones. Hywel was to die in a dynastic squabble in 1170, shortly after the point when I take this poem to have been written. He left behind him the Gorhoffedd and nine or so other, shorter, poems. Look them up; they’re worth a read.

** Grosseteste, 1967; the first poem in the Welsh Poems sequence was recently reprinted in The Edge of Necessary (see elsewhere on this site). The first two Welsh Poems draw on Hywel’s Gorhoffedd; to read both, or all three, you will need to hunt out John James’s Collected Poems (Salt, 2002; still in print according to their website). NB there’s a bad typo. therein, in the first Welsh Poem, happily corrected in Edge).


According to John James 
it’s important
when a ton of white water
hits your grave
to stay exultant


bolstered by a girl
by a band of friends
by lines of thought
that  and more



This uses a double-quatrain of John James’s 1977 A Theory of Poetry, and adds a stone to the cairn of similar homages gathered in Kelvin Corcoran’s According to John James (Shearsman 2018)



Harry Gilonis is a London–based poet, editor, critic and publisher (the ‘semi-dormant’ Form Books imprint). His books of poetry include Reliefs (1990), walk the line (2000), and eye-blink (2010) and a selected poems, Rough Breathing (Carcanet, 2018) — extracts from a long sequence unHealed, based on the Welsh Canu Heledd, can be found therein, along with other Welsh-related pieces.  A collaboration with Rhys Trimble, NONglyns (very loosely based on englynion by Cynddelw Prydydd Mawr) appeared recently from The Literary Pocket Book in Pontypridd. His pamphlet Isolated in Aber Cuawg, a translation of a 10th-century Welsh poem about medically-required social isolation, appeared early in the Covid pandemic, but somehow didn’t get piled high by the Superdrug tills.  Get the book from Oystercatcher: https://www.oystercatcherpress.com/product/isolated-in-aber-cuawg-by-harry-gilonis — or  read the first half of it on this site: https://glasfrynproject.org.uk/w/6275/harry-gilonis-isolated-in-aber-cuawg



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