The Triads of Poetic Craft

Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid* (‘The Grammars of the Chief Bards’) are a family of texts found in various manuscripts from about the 14th to the 16th centuries, although its quite likely the basic material they contain is much older. They would have been used as teaching tools in the bardic schools and reference works for those wealthy enough to have copies made. At one time, much of this material would have been memorised and transmitted orally.

These bardic grammars contain, as one would imagine, the basic rules of Welsh grammar. They also contain long sequences of triads on poetic craft known as the trioedd cerdd. The bards were very fond of the three-fold form. We find it not only in the structure of prose tales, but in the oldest kinds of poetry – the three-line englyn remains one of the most popular types of stanza to this day. The story triads (edited by Rachel Bromwich in Trioedd Ynys Prydein) were once valued sources of knowledge in Welsh medieval culture.

The triads of poetic craft are a little window onto the life of the court bards. They reveal how a guild of poets taught and practiced their oral craft of poetry. As expected, we find the different aspects of performance to be very important to them. They also continue to be sound advice to anyone wishing to take up poetry, and the performance of poetry in particular. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

Three things that make a poem strong:
depth of meaning, regularity of Welsh, and excellence of imagination.

Three things that make a poem weak:
vulgar imagination, shallow meaning, and a lack of Welsh.

Three things a poem likes:
clear declamation, skilful construction, and the authority of the bard.

Three things a poem does not like:
feeble declamation, vulgar imagination, and the dishonour of the bard.

Three things that make awen for a bard:
genius, and practice, and art.

Three things that impoverish a bard’s awen:
drunkenness, lustfulness, and criticism.

Three essentials for a bard:
liveliness of speech when declaiming a poem, and meditating upon poetic art to ensure it is not faulty, and the boldness of his answer to what he is asked.

Three things that make a bard consistent:
the telling of tales, and poetry, and the old poetry (hengerdd).

Three things that give honour to a bard:
dress, authority, and boldness.

Three things that cause a bard to be loved and praised:
generosity, making merry, and praising good men.

Three things that cause a bard to be hated:
miserliness, insipidness, and satirising good men.

* The standard edition is by G.J. Williams, Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid (UWP 1934). These are my translations.

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