Goodreads: The Works of Gwerful Mechain
Age Category: Adult
Gwerful Mechain is the only Welsh female poet from the late middle ages whose poems have survived as a substantial body of work. One of the most immediately striking characteristics of her poetry is the easy coexistence in her oeuvre of devotional and erotic works. Even to those who may be familiar with the bawdiness of Chaucer or Boccaccio, Gwerful’s work is remarkably direct. Yet, as the introduction discusses, some coexistence of the erotic and the religious was not entirely untypical of medieval literary production in Wales; overall, indeed, one of the most important characteristics of Gwerful’s work is its position in the mainstream of medieval Welsh poetry. Her themes and techniques do not mark her as a marginal or isolated figure, participating in some putative female sub-culture; on the contrary, she engages in poetic dialogues with her male contemporaries, using the same forms, tropes, and vocabulary as they do, and jousting with them verbally as their equal. At the same time, she often speaks with a female voice, taking her peers to task for their male arrogance.
All of Gwerful’s known work is included here-as are several poems of uncertain authorship, and a number of other works that help to fill in the historical and literary context.
A unique feature of the volume is the provision, for each work of medieval Welsh poetry included, of two different translations. The first, a literal translation, is presented in facing page format opposite the original Welsh; a second, freer translation, with rhyme patterns approximating those of the original, follows.
After I learned that there was a semi-famous female Welsh poet from the Middle Ages, I knew I had to track down Gwerful Mechain’s work. She is perhaps most noted for her poem celebrating her, um, lady parts, but she fascinated me because of how she wrote both erotic and religious poetry. It was her frank enjoyment of her sexuality that apparently led to her being erased from the canon, since her poems proved embarrassing to later, more prudish generations. (We should probably acknowledge here that male writers like Chaucer managed to live on, even if the more risqué parts of their writings were sometimes excised by later editors.) But that coexistence of the earthly and the heavenly is part of the Middle Ages, and many writers at that time apparently saw no reason to be ashamed of it. Mechain is a true poet of her time!
And, as the book takes pains to note, Mechain’s work is not part of any female sub-culture. She was part of a number of Welsh writers who exchanged poems with each other. They apparently saw her as an equal. Sometimes our understanding of the past is a little more simplistic than what actually happened. Though female, Mechain, in her own day, was an active agent, a known poet. People collected her works and many were copied down for us to discover later. (Other poems in this collection are only suspected to be by Mechain, their authorship not definitively recorded.)
Part of what makes Mechain’s work so interesting is her female perspective on things–a perspective she shares in response to some of the sexist writings of her day. In one poem, Mechain pokes fun at the trope of the jealous husband by pretending to criticize wives who will not share their spouses with other women. In another, she defends a woman who was being attacked by a male poet (the woman’s one-time lover)–Mechain even goes as far to allude to the allegation that the man had raped the woman. And her famous poem to her female anatomy? A response to a male poet’s celebration of his, shall we say, member. But also a response to the male poets who celebrated every part of a woman’s body except, as Mechain playfully says, the most important part. Mechain was working within the poetic culture of her day, but also challenging and subverting it.
This Broadview anthology notes that the poetic form in which Mechain usually worked was extremely complicated–one that is perhaps not easily replicated outside of the Welsh Mechain wrote in. To give readers some idea of the spirit of the poem, one freer translation is provided, along with a more literal translation. (The original Welsh version is also given.) How well the translations work I cannot say, not being able to read Welsh. However, I still found that Mechain’s voice seemed to come through. Her intelligence. Her liveliness. Her wit.
That so few of Mechain’s poems remain is a shame. I loved the sheer breadth of them, from a reflection on Christ’s death on the cross to her exchanges with another Welsh poet thought to be her lover. Mechain never holds herself back, imbuing her poetry with raw emotion that sings out even today. Anyone interested in writings from the Middle Ages should not overlook Gwerful Mechain.