But watching them fly now over the house to swoop low across the back field for insects is to watch the teeming life of Midsummer grow to fullness as the year matures. Along the edge of that field, behind the back garden, the abundance of insects is clear. The bramble flowers are alive with soldier beetles clambering over them and apparently mating even as they feed on the nectar. In the sunshine after rain butterflies of many hues feed on the flowers too, and on the garden buddleia.
Summer deepens and stretches towards an autumn that yet remains far away when the swallows will gather and sit on the wires before following the last of summer southwards. Those in the garage may have another brood before then, or perhaps they have left it too late. One way or the other, life will go on whatever happens to us or to them.
In the Foreword to The Burning Tree, his collection of early Welsh poems and parallel text translations (*), Gwyn Williams argues that the structural patterns of cynghanedd and other features of Welsh literature are distinguishable from literature in English in the same way that Celtic art forms, with their interwoven patterns, are different from artistic practices based on a clear linear form and consecutive presentation. Where there is no no single centre of focus, but rather a number of juxtaposed focal points, what happens in a corner is as important as what happens between the corners. So any sense of a ‘centre’ is spatially dispersed. Often, themes or images are linked in ways which might appear to be incongruous, but in fact reflect a different way of seeing things in relation to each other. This, Gwyn Williams maintains, “distinguishes Dafydd ap Gwilym from Chaucer, John Donne from Ben Jonson, Dylan Thomas from W H Auden”. It is a distinction that arises from “a different view of composition” from that usually found in writing in English based on precepts taken from Greek and Latin. But, he says, the early Welsh poets “were not trying to write poems that would read like Greek temples or Gothic cathedrals but, rather, like stone circles or the contour-following rings of the forts from which they fought, with hidden ways slipping from one to another.”
For a modern example in English he cites the prologue to Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems which is constructed of 52 lines of verse with a returning rhyme scheme radiating backwards and forwards from a rhyming couplet at its centre. Dylan Thomas wrote this apparently spontaneously under a late deadline pressure after failing to meet the publisher’s request for the expected prose prologue. Gwyn Williams finds the technique to be most consciously adopted in modern practice in English in the work of David Jones (whose long poem The Anathemata can be seen as structured in just that contoured way with ‘hidden’ links between spatially remote sections - see my post on his work HERE). Gwyn Williams also suggests that such effects can be observed in David Jones’ visual art, in which “a dimension is created which is unachievable in the classical convention”.
|David Jones : Vexilla Regis, Pencil & Watercolour|
As if to return the compliment of this praise for his work, David Jones is known to have used Gwyn Williams’ book in his own studies of early Welsh poetry. His copy of it, now housed with the rest of his books in an archive in The National Library of Wales (**), contains annotations to aid his own interpretation of the medieval Welsh texts, in particular of the Marwnad for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd which David Jones used for his painted inscription beginning Cara Wallia Derelicta:
Many years after the publication of that book, Gwyn Williams approached me to ask if I would be interested in publishing an article by him in The Anglo-Welsh Review, a journal of which I was then the editor. The article was entitled ‘The Paganism of Welsh Poetry’ (***) and it in he develops further his view of the distinctiveness of poetry in Welsh, this time in its subject matter rather than its formal structure. It may be a surprising assertion to some, given the amount of religious poetry that exists in Welsh, and the prevalence of the chapel in the social life of Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But his contention is that the spirit of Welsh poetry remained essentially pagan through the medieval period and beyond to the present. He cites “the delight in flowers, in birds, in the sea in its many moods, in wine and dancing, in love and sex, in the glory of the world…”. He sees a perceived closeness to Annwn, the Other World, as being more apparent than a perception of Heaven or Hell, and a sense of it being present in the natural world, and of being able to inhabit it without going to a place of formal worship. Dafydd ap Gwilym, he reminds us, often uses the language of the Church to celebrate a delight in nature as in his ‘Woodland Mass’. He finds the same emphasis in the urge to transcend time, asserting “what we have been conditioned to think of as past and even future is with us now, in this present redistribution of the human elements and in this marvellous world about us, a world our Welsh poets have spectacularly glorified.”
Like a slip-knot, a diversion in an interlaced design, a hidden corner of a landscape, a diverted path between those contour-following rings, time also slips, stills, falls through a barely-perceived gap, so that past and future are present in Annwn and here with us in the shared insight of the awenydd’s craft of shaping.
(*) The Burning Tree : Poems from the First Thousand Years of Welsh Verse, Selected and translated by Gwyn Williams (Faber, 1956)
(**) I spent many days browsing these often annotated books while a post-graduate student working on David Jones.
(***) ‘The Paganism of Welsh Poetry’ by Gwyn Williams The Anglo-Welsh Review No. 75, 1984, pp.70-80.
|A Slave Hung from a Gallows|
©Victoria & Albert Museum
Political dissent was a dangerous business at this time following the French Revolution as the authorities in Britain feared a similar uprising and suspects were often arrested for sedition for propagating revolutionary ideas. Although Iolo was careful to omit, on advice from Johnson, some anti-royalist sentiments he had penned, some of the more conservative London-Welsh attendees at the Gorsedd were clearly dismayed when Iolo read out potentially seditious verse as part of the ceremony:
Come Liberty with all thy sons attend
We’ll raise to thee the manly verse,
The deeds inspired by thee rehearse.
Iolo was clear, as was William Blake, that ‘Bardism’ was a medium not only of druidic expression, but also of the creed of Liberty. Part of that creed, for the radicals of this time, was the opposition to slavery and the support of William Wilberforce’s campaign to have it abolished. Verse in praise of Wilberforce was therefore also read out by Iolo as part of his address to those assembled for the Gorsedd. Other radicals that Iolo fraternised with in London at this time included the young poet S.T. Coleridge. Iolo met him again some years later when returning to Wales from another stay in London. He walked the whole way and so stopped off to rest in Bristol where he stayed with a friend. While there Iolo attended an anti slavery rally which was addressed by Coleridge and they renewed their acquaintance. At this time sugar was one of many commodities being made widely available in Britain and much of it came from slave plantations in the West Indies. One piece of advice given to the audience in the anti-slavery rally was to boycott the produce of slavery, perhaps the earliest example of the ‘fair trade’ principle.
Later, when Iolo was the proprietor of a short-lived shop in Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan he made a point of selling sugar that was, as he advertised it “untouched by human gore”. His customers, however, preferred to buy their sugar elsewhere, and without this guarantee, because it was cheaper. Iolo responded by displaying part of one of his English poems:
Behold on Afric’s beach alone,
Yon sire that weeps with bitter moan:
She, that his life once truly bless’d
Is torn forever from his breast,
And scourged, where British Monarchs reign,
Calls for his aid, but calls in vain.
But his verse had little effect, the shop failed and he was bankrupt.
His verse in Welsh was another matter. It’s effects, one way and another, have been far-reaching. Whatever the limits of Bardism in English, Barddas encompasses all that Iolo could have hoped for it. He did not live to see that, but slavery was abolished in his lifetime.
Why go by road when there are other ways?
Like snickets that run between houses
and behind gardens, sneaking through
where it seems there is no way
but to go round.
You can’t take the car
if you go that way and though it seems
like you’re trespassing on someone’s private space,
still, you have to show your face as you go.
So no furtive creeping to your inquisitive walking
but a sense of traversing light and shadow
in what’s not an anonymous place, though it is
if you don’t belong there.
Just move on through, and when you get to where
you’re going, you’ll know you’ve been somewhere.
|Granny's Bonnets (Aquilegia)|
...ran out of the undergrowth
where garden runs to wildness,
then scuttled back again.
For weeks the parent sang
from the branches of an oak,
spelled out an arc of protection
around the nest, hidden here below
in a tangle of ivy, under Granny’s Bonnets
and a spiny quince by the garden path.
It was a song that held the spring
of the year in every quavering note,
releasing the summer so this chick
discovers the world awaiting each new life
finding a way through the bushes and briars
out into the open and endless sky.