Popular wisdom says that ‘Bards’ are those great story-tellers whose tales are embraced by the audience, not only once, but over and over again, for generations. The idea of a Bard conjures up names like Homer, Shakespeare, and perhaps few others. Reality is quite a bit different, though.
Etymology of the word “Bard” shows that it is of Welsh origin, specifically referring to the great Poet/Singer/Musician/Warriors who were responsible for creating and retelling great ballads like the ancient epic ‘Mabinogion’, or the King Arthur legend, which is part of ‘Mabinogion’.
Owing to unique circumstances, it was in ancient Wales that the Bardic tradition first arose. The culture of Wales was such that the early Princes sponsored official court poets (i.e. “Gogynfeirdd”) who shared many of the same privileges as royalty. In fact, in certain ways, Bards were actually viewed as being even superior to the Kings. Tradition had it that the greatest fear among Nobility was the ever-present possibility that they might be satirized for being unkind or ungenerous to the Bards (Poet-Gods). In at least one case, legend tells of a King who died of shame from being scorned by his Bard.
Perhaps the first great Bard was Taliesin. His 6th century poems still exist. The largest number of extant great poems by a Bard are those by Daffyd ap Gwilym (1320-1350), 170 of whose poems still exist. The preponderance of Daffyd’s poems were about Nature and Erotica, filled with a great sense of humor. Yet, it was the Meilyr family of Bards that were the most famous family of Bards that ever lived, being the official court poets of Wales for over a century, and three generations… Meilyr Bryddyd was the first of these, and his religious poems are still known. His son was Gwalchmai, who had at least two sons who were also official Bards of the Princes. Thus, the Meilyr dynasty in Wales established the greatest tradition of factual Bards in human history.
Common lore tells us that Shakespeare was a ‘Bard’, since author of 37 known still-revered plays and several poems and the set of sonnets. Mere casual reference to “The Bard” often elicits thoughts of William Shakespeare (or “Wm Choxpur” as he sometimes wrote, in addition to perhaps 10 other spellings, indicating a possible degree of illiteracy, by today’s standards). “The Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon”, or “The Bard of Avon”, etc. are similar epithets which have frequently been used to describe both “Shaksper” and even Homer (author of “Illiad” and “Odyssey”), has been described as a ‘Bard’.
Yet, if we look to the actual definition of the word “Bard”, we note readily that it is a word from Medieval Welsh. The actual meaning of the word “Bard” encompasses far more than merely being the author of a great text, or set of texts, which survive four, five, or twenty-five centuries. Bards were something altogether different from a mere playwright or author, actually. Much more like troubadours, perhaps. Singularly talented, and not merely limited to authorship, etc. Skilled in performance, battle, song, as well as writing.
I suggest that William Shakespeare is regarded as being the greatest English-speaking ‘Bard-like author’, largely because of his name, which connotes warrior-like characteristics, or acts (i.e. “shaking a spear”). Part of the tradition of the authentic Bards of Wales is that in addition to being poets, performers, singers, composers, scholars and genealogists for Royalty, they also were accomplished warriors who fought in many battles. So confident of his prowess in battle was Gwalchmai ap Meilyr (1130-1180), author of “Gorhoffedd” (i.e. “The Boast”) that he actually wore gold jewelry (a torcque) into battle on behalf of his patron Owain Gwynedd (my 24th great-grandfather, by my calculations).
One might think that, as a Meyler, I would be more closely related to Gwalchmai, but he is actually only a 25th cousin 4 times removed. So, I speak with a degree of relative objectivity, here, being not merely partial to Welsh bards simply because of being related to several. In fact, the other best-known “Gorhoffedd” (a completely different poem) was written by Owain ap Hywel (907-987) who was actually my 29th great-grandfather, although I am much more fond of Gwalchmai’s eloquent poem.
In any case, Thomas Rogers (1540-1611), was my 12th great-uncle, and lived 2 blocks away from William Shakespeare in Stratford. Thomas’ grandson, was John Harvard, whose name is somewhat better recognized. I may not be related to Shakespeare, but I do deeply respect his incredible mastery of the English language, while, at the same time, being somewhat strict on the meaning of the word “Bard”.
I hope I have been fair!
Clearly, William Shakespeare cannot be considered a Bard, unless, perhaps, the pen itself is somehow mightier than the sword.