Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Gwerful Mechain—National Poetry Month 2020

Gwerful Mechain, celebrant of Medieval sex/
And now for something extremely different, old, and according to some very, very wicked.  On the other had some folks who have discovered the work of Gwerful Mechain, a 15th Century Medieval woman poet who wrote in Welsh see her as a fiery feminist-way-before-her-time and defiant sexual libertine, an accomplishment few ever pulled offVictoria Claflin Woodhull comes to mind.
Little is known about Mechain’s life, roughly 1460 to 1502.  Her family connections are sketchy, not surprising for a time that biographers must rely on often incomplete church records, tax rolls, and hints in surviving work. According to Katie Gramich, the editor and translator of the recently published collection of her extant and assumed poems The Works of Gwerful Mechain, she was “the daughter of Hywel Fychan from Mechain in Powys”—a region in northeast Wales—and a woman named Gwenhwyfar; had at least four siblings; and, with her husband John ap Llewelyn Fychan, had a daughter named Mawd.

Katie Gramich's The Works of Gwerful Mechain
Beginning as a young goodwife Mechain was confidently sharing private correspondence and verse with the leading Welsh poet of the day—Dafydd Llwyd and Llewyln ap Gutyn.  Scholars assume that Llwyd was her lover.
It may be a stretch, as one scholar has, to compare her to the #MeToo movement.  But there is the evidence of her terse, four line curse.
To her husband for beating her
A dagger through your heart’s stone—on a slant
To reach your breast bone:
May your knees break, your hands shrivel
And your sword plunge in your guts to make you snivel.

—Gwerful Mechain
Mechain’s most famous verse was titled in Welsh Cywydd y cedor which has been translated at Poem to a Cunt, Poem to a Vagina, or The Female Genitals depending on the embarrassment or prudery of the translator. She also wrote, for sake of even-handed observation, Dafydd ap Gwilym’s  or the Poem to the Penis.

A manuscript illumination of the sexual position we call today reverse cowgirl.
Poem to a Cunt
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 prick 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.

—Gwerful Mechain

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. Dafydd Ap Gwilym brought me to this poem. Can't say I love the translation. It's a valiant effort but doesn't quite capture the vigor that one feels is in the original.