When the English antiquary John Aubrey wrote to his Welsh cousin, the poet Henry Vaughan, enquiring about the inspired bards of Wales, in October 1694, he was presumably looking for further examples of what Giraldus Cambrensis referred to in his 12th century account of awenyddion, but what Vaughan gives him is something quite different. The ‘inspired’ shepherd spoken of by Vaughan is no trained bard but an individual who has been struck by divine inspiration. The idea that a god or an inhabitant of some faërie realm can confer poetic gifts is well established in the folklore tradition where it is often the Queen of Faery on horseback, as in the Scottish story of Thomas the Rhymer. Here is part of Vaughan’s reply to Aubrey:
the antient Bards … communicated nothing of their knowledge, butt by way of tradition: which I suppose to be the reason that we have no account left nor any sort of remains, or other monuments of their learning of way of living.As to the later Bards, you shall have a most curious Account of them.This vein of poetrie they called Awen, which in their language signifies rapture, or a poetic furore & (in truth) asmany of them as I have conversed with are (as I may say) gifted or inspired with it. I was told by a very sober, knowing person (now dead) that in his time, there was a young lad fatherless & motherless, soe very poor that he was forced to beg; butt att last was taken up by a rich man, that kept a great stock of sheep upon the mountains not far from the place where I now dwell who cloathed him & sent him into the mountains to keep his sheep. There in Summer time following the sheep & looking to their lambs, he fell into a deep sleep in which he dreamt, that he saw a beautifull young man with a garland of green leafs upon his head, & an hawk uon his fist: with a quiver full of Arrows att his back, coming towards him (whistling several measures or tunes all the way) att last lett the hawk fly att him, which (he dreamt) gott into his mouth & inward parts, & suddenly awaked in a great fear & consternation: butt possessed with such a vein, or gift of poetrie, that he left the sheep & went about the Countrey, making songs upon all occasions, and came to be the most famous Bard in all the Countrey in his time.
This might not tell us much about the ‘ancient bards’ but the identity of the young man in a garland of green leaves with the hawk and arrows is of some interest. It is a remarkably specific and evocative written record of spontaneous inspiration by a god or spirit of nature.