On the Gleefully Indecent Poems of a Medieval Welsh Feminist Poet
Gwerful Mechain, Author of Classics Like "Poem to the Vagina" and "Poem to the Penis"
I labored under the illusion that I was well-versed in literary works about the cunt, especially after writing my university dissertation on that topic. (I titled an academic paper “See You Next Tuesday.” No, I’m not kidding.) But Gwerful Mechain, the title of whose most infamous poem is sometimes translated to “Cunt,” was a name I’d never come across. Perhaps it was because she was a woman; perhaps because she wrote in Welsh; perhaps because she was alive in the 15th century. Medieval literature is so dreary, right?
Or, perhaps it was because, according to Katie Gramich, the editor and translator of The Works of Gwerful Mechain, a recently released collection of her extant (and a handful of assumed) poems, “Her work has, I believe, been deliberately suppressed by male Welsh scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries because it contains erotic and indecent poetry.”
Suppression of women’s voices? Feels relevant.
But Mechain’s relevance goes beyond a legacy of patriarchal repression. In fact, her body of work not only eschews the idea of Wales being a country of male poets, it’s dominated by what Gramich calls “playfully erotic poems about the female body and sexual desire,” as well as sharp retorts to male contemporaries, such as Dafydd Llwyd (presumed by some to be her lover). As such, her joyful, bawdy, whip-sharp poetry means Mechain strikes me, and others, as a medieval poet for the modern age.
Little is known about Gwerful Mechain’s life (roughly 1460 to 1502), although her poetic output places her as a contemporary of both her aforementioned likely-lover Dafydd Llwyd and Llewyln ap Gutyn, with whom she volleyed verses. Meanwhile, her family tree is only tenuously fleshed out. According to Gramich’s introduction, 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 called Mawd. Luckily, her personal life is the least interesting thing about Gwerful Mechain, a poet whose work is strikingly current.
Nowadays, a quick Google of her name leads you to several titillating-titled translations of what’s easily her most notorious poem: “Cywydd y cedor.” Or, to non-Welsh speakers, “Poem to the vagina.” While “‘vulva’ would be a slightly more accurate translation… I rejected that because [it] for me at least, has a slightly clinical ring to it,” Gramich tells me. Other translations of Mechain’s most infamous poem have taken a different tack; Jon Stone really let loose, calling it, simply, “Cunt”—Gramich notes that some manuscripts do have the title “Cywydd y gont,” or “Poem to the cunt”—while Dafydd Johnston buttoned it right back up again with the sexlessly precise “The Female Genitals.”
Title aside, the “Poem to the vagina” hype is understandable. It is a masterful piece of writing, one which Gramich believes “shows off her skill at ‘dyfalu’ (thinking up ingenious metaphors to describe something) extremely well.” For my part, “Poem to the vagina” provides a holistic introduction to Mechain’s poetic approach; not only is it thought to be a retort to male contemporaries (specifically, Dafydd ap Gwilym’s “Poem to the penis”), the more liberal of Gramich’s translations—the collected works contains both a rhymed, free translation and a literal one—demonstrates how it overtly engages and celebrates “you female body, you’re strong and fair / A faultless fleshy court plumed with hair,” while also expressing a general disdain for men’s opinions. In frustration that will be familiar to so many people with vaginas, Mechain bemoans men for “ignoring the best bit, silly sod … The place I love, the place I bless / The hidden quim beneath the dress.” Quite.The phrase “common-or-garden dick” in a medieval poem? Yes, please.
Even so, despite Gramich’s remark that unlike the seemingly “tortured and long-winded” Victorians, there is a freshness and vigor about medieval poetry, from Gwerful Mechain to Chaucer, which [with their humor and inventiveness] is very appealing to a modern palate,” medieval-period poetry can be a tough sell. After all, in mainstream circles, medieval lit is rarely considered cool; rarely conceptualized as relevant; rarely something most readers would be even remotely interested in reading.
Mechain upends that. Far from being a yawn-inducing medieval poetess whose work has been dredged up from the depths, Tomos Owen, a Cardiff University colleague of Gramich, considers her “a fascinating writer to think of nowadays: so much of her work seems relevant in a world of #MeToo, for instance.” (Gramich agrees.)
That’s perhaps most apparent in “To her husband for beating her,” a four-line, strict metre englyn curse against domestic abusers which reads, in Gramich’s free verse translation:
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.
But while her poems, which Gramich believes “undoubtedly have a serious feminist undertone and purpose,” hold a not-insignificant amount of relevance today (which begs the only slightly facetious question: are women’s rights still on a par with the Middle Ages?), it’s Mechain’s gleeful delight in the female body which, to me, feels freshest, most appealing of all. Take “To jealous wives,” in which she talks about “the love of good, big cocks … All these Mr Bigs are after me, desperate for a lay”; or the erotic “A lad beside the bush,” a concise expression of sexual desire. Of course, much of this owes to Gramich’s excellent eye for a great free verse translation. The phrase “common-or-garden dick” in a medieval poem? Yes, please.
Paradoxically, though, Mechain’s style was often intensely conventional and her poetry regularly religious. “She wasn’t an outsider in her own day,” says Gramich. Rather, she “was very much part of the mainstream and adept at the (very complicated) demands of strict metre poetry. Prowess in established forms is really a sine qua non of female poets working in a patriarchal culture.”
Because if Mechain was anything, she was overtly talented, “confident in her own craft and opinions.” Not only was she entirely capable of mastering the poetic conventions of the day—as Gramich is careful to note in her introduction “when she wished to write conventionally and “correctly,” she was perfectly able to do so”—she “enthusiastically” undermined them too.
The Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, in her 2018 mini Twitter thread on Mechain, perhaps summed her up most succinctly: “suffice to say she was not shy.” Even that seems like an understatement.