This is an early Robert Graves poem, maybe the first in which he found his true voice, and it remains a favourite of mine, perhaps the more so because I believe the inspiration for it to be the Rhinog country near Harlech in North Wales where I had a fine day’s walking with my eldest son some thirty years ago, taking in the Roman Steps, Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach. It’s pretty rough terrain – boulders, bog and bracken, and that’s just the footpaths – but I was very fit then from running half-marathons, and my son equally fit from fifty-mile hikes with the Venture Scouts, and we covered a lot of ground. Reading the poem brings it all back: the white stars of saxifrage between the slabs of the Steps, the sunlit quietness of the morning, the view north from Rhinog Fawr to the mountains of Snowdonia, only the peaks in mist, the fierce rhythmic climbs to the summits, sweat dripping on every stone, then the glissades down the boulders, like a kind of physical chess, moving from slab to slab, with a cool shower of rain passing over to leave a sweetness in the still air. Ah, those were the days.
Note: Graves was a great reviser of his poems after publication, something that I find a bit annoying especially as I don’t think the changes were always for the better, and slightly different wordings exist, especially in the first verse; not being sure of the chronology, I have stuck with the version I know.
This is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without care.
No mice in the heath run nor no birds cry
For fear of the dark speck that floats in the sky.
He soars and he hovers, rocking on his wings,
He scans his wide parish with a sharp eye,
He catches the trembling of small hidden things,
He tears them in pieces dropping from the sky:
Tenderness and pity the land will deny
Where life is but nourished from water and rock,
A hardy adventure, full of fear and shock.
Time has never journeyed to this lost land,
Crakeberries and heather bloom out of date,
The rocks jut, the streams flow singing on either hand,
Careless if the season be early or late.
The skies wander overhead, now blue, now slate:
Winter would be known by his cold, cutting snow
If June did not borrow his armour also.
Yet this is my country beloved by me best,
The first land that rose from Chaos and the Flood,
Nursing no fat valleys for comfort and rest,
Trampled by no hard hooves, stained with no blood.
Bold immortal country whose hill-tops have stood
Strongholds for the proud gods when on earth they go,
Terror for fat burghers in far plains below.