Alternative interpretations of ‘dwfn’ in Gogynfeirdd poetry, part 2

Sometimes in Gogynfeirdd poetry the word dwfn is used to describe awen, the sacred breath of bardic inspiration; when dwfn is used as an adjective in this way modern editors usually give it the meaning ‘profound’. But as in the previous post, it mustn’t be forgotten that dwfn also means ‘deep’. For example, in a poem by Cynddelw we find the following line:

Yn ail awen ddofn o ddwfn gofiain, . . .

. . . which modern editors interpret as meaning

[The patron] is a reflection of the profound awen of profound thoughts, . . .

. . . but could quite as easily be interpreted as meaning

[The patron] is a reflection of the deep awen of deep thoughts, . . .

So what’s the real difference between these two interpretations?

First of all we need to unpack the line a little. As with most heroic poetry, the Gogynfeirdd almost always depicted their patrons as the perfect, ideal hero; in fact any personal characteristics were largely ignored in favour of more general, heroic ones. The patron became a vehicle for the heroic ideals that the bardic tradition wished to promote.

This means that the awen of the Gogynfeirdd was that of heroic poetry – a worthy patron inspired them to express the heroic ideals that were so central to their way of life. It was this particular awen that the patron was reflecting in this instance.

But what does ‘deep’ mean in this context? Why is the patron a reflection of deep awen? There is the surface meaning of ‘profound’, but once again here we have a suggestion of this otherworldly dwfn, a hint of Annwfn. One thing that we can assume from the above quote is that Cynddelw believed this deeper dimension of inspiration was the space in which the perfect heroic ideal was found, a concept not a million miles away from a symbolic interpretation of the first branch of the Mabinogi.

In the third part of the line (‘. . . of deep thoughts’) there is a clear association made between this otherworldly dwfn and ‘deep’ thoughts. Its easy to associate deep inspiration with deep thinking and again ‘profound’ fits nicely as a surface meaning. But carrying through the subtext of this otherworldly dwfn, Cynddelw may also be suggesting this deeper dimension to be at least partly synonymous with the mind.

All this can either be taken as purely metaphorical or as a suggestion of the kind of metaphysical framework Cynddelw worked in as a chief bard. In another of his poems, Cynddelw states that his song, his awen, comes from this deep place:

. . . canwyf o ddwfn, o ddofn awen, . . .

. . . I sing from the depth, from the deep awen, . . .

Again, what is being stressed here is the accessibility of this deep space. Annwfn may not be so otherworldly as to be inaccessible. Awen connects this surface realm with the ideal depths of reality, providing the bard not only with a source of inspiration but, in the context of praise singing, also a source of wisdom and judgment.

Cynddelw’s multilayered use of dwfn, not only as an adjective and a noun but also as a concept, fits in with what we already know about the Welsh bardic tradition’s conception of divine inspiration. Cynddelw suggests that Annwfn and the synonymous dwfn offers a deepening of this world’s perspectives, and that awen arises from this place carrying with it the impressions of ideal forms.

In the next few posts I’ll examine the work of other Gogynfeirdd poets to further expand our understanding of what they meant by Annwfn, dwfn and awen.


Welsh musician and some kind of an academic.

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Greg - January 4, 2014

Thinking about Dwfn as a noun as well as an adjective is a useful approach here. And thinking of profound thought as giving access to The Deep is also enlightening.

So Taliesin in e.g. ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ has ‘o dyfynwedyd gwawt’ which Marged Haycock gives as ‘profound speaker’ but presumably could be something like ‘words/song brought out of the Deep’?

The same poem also has the line ‘adwfyn dyfyd’ glossed as ‘a profound one shall come’ but discussed in a note with a suggestion of ‘shallow’ rather than profound from one interpreter. Thinking here also of ‘Annwfn’ the a-prefix it seems can be either an intensifier or a negative. So Annwfyn becomes ‘not world’ in one possible construction (I think by A O H Jarman) but also balanced against ‘very deep’. Of course in the Otherworld you can have it both ways!

    welshmythology - January 14, 2014

    You beat me to it, Greg! in the next posts I’m having a look at examples such as those in Angar Kyfundawt.

    There have been a few etymological ideas about the early meanings of an-, annwfn etc over the years. I think its also clear that Annwfn meant slightly different things at different times. Dafydd ap Gwilym’s use f.e. referring to the underworld and the otherworld (‘In praise of Summer’ and ‘The fox’ I think) shows how the concept was developing in his time. I think the way Cynddelw uses it has more dwfn associations in the affirmative, as in ‘very deep’ or even ‘in-world’ as noted by Sioned Davies.

    I’ve never found that the negative interpretation (non-world) worked for me particularly having found that Cynddelw and Prydydd y Moch use annwfn / dwfn to suggest a deepening as opposed to a negating.

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