A Welsh, English, Bilingual Dichotomy and The Welsh Poet, Writer and Dramatist, Gwyneth Lewis

A brief literary history depicting the plight faced by the native Welsh, during, and on through the after-math of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. Interweaving ’The Book of Anerin’ by the 6th century Brythonic poet, Anerin, with the shap-shifting 6th century poet, bard, Talisiein, and the early 9th or 10th century Welsh englyn-poems, ’The songs of Heledd’. Taliesin’s re-appearance in Lady Charlotte Guest’s ’Mabinogion’ in the mid 19th century brings forth the importance of poetry in Welsh culture, and through a recent translation of Taliesin’s poetry, ’The Book of Taliesin’, we are introduced to the Welsh poet, writer and dramatist Gwyneth Lewis. The Welsh/English bilingual dichotomy that Gwyneth Lewis calls ’her mother and mother in law tongues’ is where we conclude with a synopsis of her poem ’from WELSH ESPIONAGE’.

Wales has a long and rich literary tradition dating back to the ‘Llyfr Aneirin’ (The Book of Aneirin). This late 13th century manuscript of Old and Middle Welsh poetry is credited to the late 6th century Brythonic poet, Aneirin. A unique text, possibly the earliest surviving Welsh literature in existence, and often referred to as “the incomplete book” or “long poem”, is believed to have been written in Wales between 1250-1300.

In Ifor Williams’s interpretation of the Llyfr Aneirin in 1929 he suggests, that in around 590-600, Mynyddawg Mwynfawr, the Brythonic king of Manaw Gododdin, sent a chosen group of 300 warriors mounted on horseback to stand off against the Angles at the key location of Catraeth. However, they were met with overwhelming force, and nearly all were killed in battle. [1]

Counterpart to that, and roughly in the second half of the 6th century we find the shape-shifting Welsh bard and poet Taliesin, perhaps a mythical figure, first mentioned in written accounts of the late 7th century. A large body of prophetic poems included in the Mabinogion have been ascribed to him. [2]

We continue to see the importance of poetry in Welsh culture, emerging in the early 9th or 10th century in a variety of Welsh englyn-poems. ‘Englynion’ is the oldest recorded Welsh metrical form, evidenced in the collection named ‘Canu Heledd’ (The songs of Heledd) this particular work is uncommon in the medieval Welsh poetry genre for being “set in the mouth of a female character” the main character and narrator ‘Heledd’. She is presented as both lamenting and blaming herself for the passing of the early 7th century King Cynddylan, leading to the succession of the kingdom and its court in Powys to the Anglo-Saxons. It is thought that Heledd’s character might be a restorative representation of a Celtic conception of the land being embodied by a goddess. [3]

In ‘The Book Of Taliesin,’ translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams, they elaborate on a pre-existing notion, that the essence of the shape-shifting, poet, bard Taliesin appears in as many inspirational guises or awen, as he does poetic works thereafter, further highlighting the status of poets within Welsh culture. [4] This notion continues beyond Lady Charlotte Guest’s addition of works either of, or accredited to his name in her ‘Mabinogion’ (1838-45). These additions assured the legend of Taliesin’s birth to become a key contributory factor for English writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to tap in to important ‘Celtic’ literary and poetic foundations. [5]

“Wales is an open book with open borders, two and many more languages. English language Wales at one time had to assert itself in its place in the national rain.” [6]

Gwyneth Lewis

The Welsh poet, writer, and dramatist Gwyneth Lewis, was born into a Welsh-speaking family in Cardiff in 1959. After finishing at Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen bilingual school in pontypridd she went on to study English at Girton College in Cambridge and through successive studies of creative writing at Columbia and Harvard, she later received a D. Phil. in English from the University of Oxford, for her thesis on eighteenth century literary forgery. The subject matter of her thesis being the trickster forger, “poet and collector of ill repute” Iolo Morganwg (1747-1846). In his hay-day Iolo Morganwg was reputed to have been an expert collector of Medieval Welsh literature, however following his death it come to light that several of the manuscripts were forgeries, the most noteworthy being a number of the Third Series of Welsh Triads. Nonetheless his impact on Welsh culture prevailed thereby carrying the day and establishing the secret society the Gorsedd, it was through this secret society that Iolo Morganwg was successful in consolidating the 18th century Eisteddfod revival. [7]

The Eisteddfod is an annual Welsh music, dance, visual arts and literature festival. The event is held at a different location in Wales each year, and to gain an Eisteddfod award is a prestigious accolade for any Welsh writer. Gwenyth Lewis has won Eisteddfod awards for her works in both English and in Welsh, including: The Prose Medal at the Urdd National Eisteddfod in Barry in 1977 and in Builth Wells in 1978.’ In 2005 she was made the first National Poet of Wales, and in 2012 out of 32 entries for a cycle of poems on the subject Ynys, meaning island, she won the Eisteddfod crown. [8]

Landmark Celtic Inscription

Reputed to be the worlds biggest poem. The words of Gwyneth Lewis can be seen lit up in stained glass lettering, on the front of the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff bay. The Millennium centre is a cultural building often used as a performance venue for song. Her poem is written in both Welsh and English, the languages that she calls her ’mother and stepmother tongues’.

According to Lewis:

“the words suggest that the dome of the building is Ceridwen’s inverted cauldron, as if the gifts of awen were spilling over into the work of resident artistic companies". [9]

Lewis also says:

“It was important to me that the English words on the building should not simply be a translation of the Welsh, that they should have their own message.” [10]
The Milenium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Wales.
The Milenium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Wales.
Here we can see Gwyneth Lewis’s words illuminating the frontage of The Millenium Centre in both Welsh and English.
Credits Photograph from google images, credit Matthew Horwood Photography,
JPEG - 192.1 KiB

The translation into English reads:

“Truth is as clear as glass forged in the fires of inspiration” [11]

A Bilingual Dichotomy

“For me, language isn’t just a matter of words, it’s an invitation to another place.” [12]

From Gwyneth Lewis’s very first 1977 poetry collection written in Welsh, to her first poetry collection, Parables and Faxes 1995 written in English, she has consistently and ever increasingly focused her poetry on the cultural interconnectivity between Welsh and English. To the present day, her work is being widely published in both languages. More recently a bulk of her work has grown specifically attentive to the interwoven relationship between Welsh/English bilingualism, culture, environment and identity.

“I was brought up speaking Welsh in Cardiff, in south Wales. Until I was 18, I didn’t speak very much English at all. Even though I had classed myself as an early bilingual, there’s always a primary language, and always a second language. I think that must be hard-wired into the brain.” [13]

The Poems

There exists within much of Lewis’s work a recurrent theme of the Welsh language. Highlighted by her use of the traditional ‘cywydd’ a Welsh verse form featuring rhyming couplets evident in the line breaks of from ’Welsh Espionage’ taken from Lewis’s 1995 collection (Parables & Faxes). The central theme of the poem offers an insight into the prevailing cultural bilingual clash between the Welsh and English languages. [14]

Here, what Lewis refers to as the ‘mother tongue’ Welsh, and her ‘mother in law tongue’ English being ‘his’, immediately draws our attention to the bilingual dichotomy right from the opening line of the poem. From there in we are drawn to conclude, that just as their linguistic history suggests, the same is being re-lived through the poem. The Welsh and English languages are represented in disguise, as body parts that are scrambling for authority…

Welsh was the mother tongue, English was his.
He taught her the body by fetishist quiz,
father and daughter on the bottom stair:
‘Dy benelin tw elbow, dy walt di yw hair,
chin yw dy ên di, head yw dy ben.’
She promptly forgot, made him do it again.
Then he folded her dwrn, and calling it fist,
held it to show her knuckles and wrist.
‘Let’s keep it from Mam, as a special surprise.
Lips are gwefusau, llygaid are eyes.’
Each part he touched in their special game
thrilled as she whispered its English name.
The mother was livid when she was told.
‘We agreed, no English till four years old!’
She listened upstairs, her head in a whirl.
Was it such a bad thing to be Daddy’s girl?
© Gwyneth Lewis

See link for video [16]

Italics are often used in poetry to define text of a different language. [17] Within the poem ’from Welsh Espionage’, the italics shift from English to Welsh demonstrating role reversal. The teaching is instructed through English and a potent mediation of Welsh. The bilingual dichotomy is validated through anxiety and guilt.

To conclude with a quote from Gwyneth Lewis:

“I suspect that this sinister suggestion was a way for me to explore the discomfort I felt at being born between two cultures. Early on I had an acute sense of the cultural clash between the social values tied up in both languages. I suppose, that in some way, I still feel guilty about being Daddy’s girl and writing in English at all. (59)" [18]


[1Link to The Book of Anerin https://www.medieval.eu/book-aneirin/

[5Link to Lady Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5160/5160-h/5160-h.htm

[6(STEVENS, M, 2007, pp.iii)

[7Link to Eisteddfod Wales https://eisteddfod.wales/about-us

[9(LEWIS, G, WILLIAMS, R, 2020, pp.xvii)

[12Gwyneth Lewis in the Guardian article: Caught between two cultures. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/nov/18/familyandrelationships.family1

[15from WELSH ESPIONAGE, Gwyneth Lewis in (STEVENS, M, 2007, pp.780)

[18Gwyneth Lewis in (WILLIAMS, N, 2003, pp.7)

Published 10 May 2022
  • by I am studying my first year of the Celtic Masters (modern option) at UBO. My degree is in Creative Expressive Therapies specialising in music.
(Edited 16 October 2023)


Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion: The great medieval tales, A New Translation, Oxford, Oxford Universities, 2002, pp.xxvi-xxiv,

Lewis, Gwyneth, Parables and Faxes, Newcastle upon Tyne United Kingdom, Bloodaxe Books, 1995

Taliesin, Translated by Lewis, Gwyneth and Williams, Ronan. The Book of Taliesin: Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain, UK, Penguin Classics, 2020, pp.xvii, xxxvi

Stephens, Meic, ed. POETRY 1900-2000: One Hundred Poets From Wales, Cardigan, Parthion, 2007, pp.iii, 780

Online Bibliography:

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Cynthia Havan, Welsh poet at Stanford: Small languages make a big difference, news.stanford.edu
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Williams, Nerys, Gwyneth Lewis: Blasphemy, taboo and testing bilingualism, researchrepository.ucd.ie Poetry Wales, 2003, pp.7 site accessed 02/03/2022