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.
What is striking is the way that the chief characters simultaneously inhabit the personas of gods, shamans, bards and ordinary human beings. This too is reminiscent of, for instance, Rhiannon in the medieval Welsh tales riding magically across the landscape from the Otherworld and then continuing to live here as if she were a human character while also appearing in another tale in the cycle with magical birds that can sing people into an enchanted state. The main character in The Kalevala is Väinämöinen who is first met as an agent of the Creation, helping to put the sky in place and shape the world as we know it. But he continues to inhabit that creation as a human being, sometimes with enhanced powers but at other times as a vulnerable person with all-too-human weaknesses. He is a bard who can use his songs as powerful spells, turning aside the songs of a young rival and consigning him into a swamp with his own songs. He is a shaman who journeys to Tuonela, the Land of the Dead, to gather spells from another powerful shaman who has died. He also travels there to get the words he needs to create a boat to go to woo the daughter of The Mistress of Northland, though when he goes to her his friend, the younger Smith God Ilmarinen, is the preferred suitor and he must stand meekly aside.
When the focus then turns to Ilmarinen, the Smith is given apparently impossible tasks to fulfil, consonant with the international folklore motif of the wooing of the 'Giant's Daughter' or the 'Magician's Daughter' also contained in the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch's wooing of Olwen. But it is not, as there, the father that sets the tasks but the mother, The Mistress of Northland, and it is now Ilmarinen who must travel to Tuonela to fulfil one of these tasks. Having done so the narrative continues to treat the wedding and subsequent events as if they are the domestic arrangements of ordinary humans, incorporating elements of the folklore wisdom of rural life in Finland. This shifting of the signifier backwards and forwards from mundane through heroic to divine activities occurs quite naturally as the narrative progresses and Bosley’s verse translation (using a short seven-syllable line as a base, but varying from five to nine syllables where required) is always fully engaged with these shifts of significance and evocative in its expression of them at all levels.
In Väinämöinen’s bardic prowess and his claims to having been present at the Creation, there are echoes of Taliesin’s boasts, but also hints as to the possible origin of his bardic identity as a divine figure. Similarly, in his journeys to the Netherworld to get what he wants, in particular to regain words and songs that “should not be hidden” we might also think of the claims of Taliesin or other bards for the source of the Awen. If Arthur and his warriors raid Annwn for loot, Taliesin might have had other ideas about what the cauldron would yield, and it is no coincidence that he is also present at the other cauldron quest to Ireland related in the Second Mabinogi. As for raids on the Otherworld, The Kalevala has a raid on what appears to be Lapland in the North to capture a mysterious object called the Sampo which The Mistress of Northland has hidden in a mountain. Northland, or Lapland, seems to function here both as a rival territory and as an Otherworld location, but separate from Tuonela, the Netherworld. This parallels the way that ‘Lochlann’ in Irish stories can variously function as a name for Orkney, Scandinavia or as an Otherworld place, or as the ‘Old North’ in Welsh tales is often a location for Otherworld encounters. Similarly the expedition to Ireland in the Second Mabinogi in some ways parallels the raid on the Otherworld in ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ in The Book of Taliesin. But The Kalevala raid is not entirely an attempt to loot someone else’s treasure as one of the raiders is Ilmarinen who, earlier in the cycle, had created the Sampo in exchange for being able to woo the daughter of The Mistress of Northland, though she at that time rejected his advances. Here, again, Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen seek to free what has been hidden, regaining an object removed from the world that should have a use in the world.
Looking for parallels across different mythologies we should not ignore the differences that make each set of stories culturally specific. The fact that we can identify international folklore motifs in stories from different cultures is certainly signficant, and when we encounter them they often resonate both because they are essentially the same story and because of their distinct differences. We recognise the characters in The Kalevala as gods not so much because of who they are but by what they do. Falling into mythological patterns of behaviour which are recognisable across cultures is one of the clues. But characters in folk tales often also do this without obvious signs of divinity. What makes the characters in Bosley’s translation so obviously divine and yet so characteristically human is a mode of presentation that unselfconsciously allows them to be themselves in a particular landscape and yet transcend that particularity by their enactment of divine themes.
These gods are not remote. They can be lived with, admired, disapproved of, sympathised with, just as people we know in our own lives. Yet they remain larger than life and so can speak to us from another culture and also illuminate our own. At the end of The Kalevala there is an account of the coming of a new god, announcing the arrival of christianity (though churches are mentioned in the preceding chapters) as if to say ‘the time of these gods it at an end’. Väinämöinen bows out after the son of a virgin who had become pregnant by eating a cowberry banishes him, declaring as he goes:
Just let the time pass
one day go, another come
and again I’ll be needed
looked for and longed for
to fix a new Sampo, to
make new music
He leaves behind him the Kantele, the source of music which he had created. But he leaves the world he had helped to create. The folklore sources suggest that acknowledgment of the old gods had run concurrently with christianity for some time before this. There are several references to “The Great Bear”, the constellation that dominates the northern skies, as if it were of cultic significance. ‘God, keeper of heaven’ is often invoked as the source of storm clouds as when the trickster figure Lemminkäinen asks him to whip up a storm so he can escape his pursuers after killing The Master of Northland. One of the set formulas of this epic is that things can be tried three times and the attempt to effect things by spells - spoken words of power - generally proceed by first addressing a local spirit, then a demon and finally ‘The Thunderer, the Old Man, the One in the Sky’. The implication is that there is a final resort to an ultimate God figure, but one who can told what to do if the right words are used. He seems to function as one of the multiple identities and levels of existence that are encompassed in these stories. But when he baptizes the son of the virgin who had eaten the cowberry everything changes, things become set and the old world passes. Yet still lives in this epic.