A PROJECT has been launched to record a unique aspect of Welsh culture: englynion bedd — literally, “grave elegies” — inscribed on headstones and written in Welsh to a strict and complex metre.
Up to 20,000 are believed to be on graves in churches and chapels across the Principality and around the world, wherever Welsh-speakers have settled. Dr Guto Rhys, a Celtic-languages expert who is leading the project, said: “The vast majority are in Wales, but we have about 60 in the Welsh colony in Patagonia; many in the hundreds of Welsh-speaking chapels in the USA; and in England, where Welsh-speakers moved in droves during the 19th century.
“There are also stray englynion in places as far afield as Palestine, Egypt, and Belgium, usually connected with war casualties. The highest is at some 9000 feet in Russell Gulch, in the Idaho Rockies, where a small group of Welsh miners had formed a congregation in the 19th century.”
The englyn (englynion is its plural form) is a stanza usually arranged in four lines of ten, six, seven, and seven syllables written in cynghanedd, the challenging system of consonantal correspondences and internal rhyme peculiar to Welsh.
The verse form can be traced back to the 12th century, but the earliest recorded headstone dates from 1681, inside St Mary’s, in Brecon, to Peter Evans, a 16-year-old tanner. Dr Rhys said: “The earliest surviving englynion are witnesses to the tail end of the professional bardic order, when the craft was no longer patronised by the great lords, but had fallen into the hands of the lesser gentry and literary minded squirearchy.
“Compositions of the 18th century are usually to worthies such as notable parsons, musicians, or famous poets or playwrights. In the half-century before about 1830, the tradition is dominated by the Anglican parsons of the Welsh literary revival, but, about the middle of the century, a new wave of Romanticism infiltrated Welsh bardic culture.” The style reached a peak in about 1875, and surged again in 1918 with the dead of the Great War and victims of the Spanish-flu epidemic.
Later englynion display an eclectic spread of subjects, from sea captains and scientists to the Welsh politician David Lloyd George, and even one to a dog, Sam, composed in 1991 by his owner, the Welsh writer and bard Twm Morys:
Gwenai drwy ddannedd gwynion — a llodrau
Pob lleidr yn gyrbibion.
Ond meddal oedd ei gal on,
Hogyn bach o gi’n y bôn.
He smiled through white teeth
While the trousers of any thief would be in tatters.
But soft was his heart,
A little lad of a dog in essence.
Dr Rhys fears that many are being lost as headstones deteriorate and chapels close. He is seeking volunteers to survey graveyards, talk to people in the area, and upload images to a Facebook page. He also hopes to secure funding to digitise the catalogue and develop a phone app to help enthusiasts to locate them.