Week 352: From ‘Paradise Lost’, by John Milton

One of the problems for modern readers with Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is that Satan doesn’t actually seem to be that bad a chap. He is not shown as espousing, still less committing, any of the things that seem particularly evil to us: torture, genocide, child abuse – he doesn’t even run through a cornfield. All he seems to do is encourage a spirit of enquiry in mankind by extending ‘Nullius in verba’, the motto of what was at the time of writing the newly-founded Royal Society, to the word of God, which may seem to the modern mind a perfectly reasonable thing to do, especially when the said word is mediated through such an unreliable vehicle as man. Still, ‘Paradise Lost’ has its impressive moments. I like this passage from Book V where at the time of the rebellion in Heaven the angel Abdiel, possibly having written two speeches the night before, one weighing up the pros of rebellion and one the cons, decides to stick with God:

So spake the Seraph Abdiel, faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only he;
Among innumerable false, unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;
Nor number, nor example, with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind,
Though single. From amidst them forth he passed,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught;
And, with retorted scorn, his back he turned
On those proud towers to swift destruction doomed.

John Milton

Week 351: From ‘Siwan’, by John Saunders Lewis

John Saunders Lewis (1893-1985) was a major figure in 20th Welsh literature. As a man and thinker he was controversial, an imperious intellectual and fiery nationalist whose rather odd blend of Roman Catholicism and Marxism did not appeal to many Welshmen. But that did not stop him being much admired as a poet and particularly as a dramatist, whose plays now form a staple of the Welsh theatre. ‘Siwan’ tells the story of the marriage between Siwan (Joan), an illegitimate daughter of King John, and the much older Llewellyn ap Iorwerth (Llewellyn Fawr, or Llewellyn the Great), the 13th century king of Gwynedd and eventual ruler of all Wales. In this speech Llewellyn reflects on his failure to articulate his love for his young bride, a failure that led to tragedy when Siwan was accused of a dalliance with a young Marcher lord whom Llewellyn then had hanged.

The translation that follows is my own.

Llywelyn: Gwleidyddiaeth oedd ein priodas ni, arglwyddes,
A rhyngom ni ‘roedd bwlch o chwarter canrif.
Wel, dyna’r arfer, mae’n sail i gynghrair
A gytgord gwledydd, cyd-odde, cyd-adeiladu.
Ond pedair blynedd wedyn, pan ddaethost di
Yn wyry i Eryri fel bedwen arian ir,
Fe droes fy nghalon i’n sysyn megis pe gwelswn y Greal;
I mi ‘roedd goleuni lle y troedit.
Ond mygais fy syfrdandod rhag dy ddychryn
A phan deimlais i di yma’n crynu yn fy mreichiau
‘Ddoluriais i monot ti a chusanau trwsgl
Na chwŷs cofleidio erchyll; ymgosbais yn daer
Fel na byddwn ffiaidd gennyt; bûm ara’ a chwrtais a ffurfiol;
A diflannodd dy gryndod; daeth y stafell hon iti’n gartref
A minnau’n rhan, nid rhy anghynnes, o’r dodrefn.
Felly’r addolais i di, fy fflam, o bell ac yn fud,
Gan ymgroesi rhag tresbasu â geiriau anwes;
Ond tynnais di i mewn i fusnes fy mywyd,
Trefnais fy nhŷ a’m tylwyth a’m teyrnas wrth dy gyngor,
A rhoi i’th ymennydd ysblennydd ehangder swydd.
Cofiaf y p’nawn y daethost oddi wrth dy dad
O’th lysgenhadaeth gynta’, ‘roedd fy mywyd I
Mewn perig’ y tro hwnnw. Pymtheg oed oeddit ti
A Dafydd dy fab prin ddeufis. Daethost adre
A’m heinioes i a thywysogaeth Dafydd
Yn ddiogel dan dy wregys. A’r noson honno
Ti a’m coflediodd i. ‘Doedd gen’ i ddim iaith
I ddweud fy llesmair; meistrolais gryndod fy nghorff; –
Ond wedi’r noson honno bûm enbyd i’m gelynion,
Cesglais Geredigion a Phowys a Deheubarth
A’u clymu yng nghoron dy fab, iddo ef yn unig yng Nghymru
Er gwaetha’r ddefod Gymreig, er gwaetha’r rhwyg yn fy nhŷ,
Mynnais gael ei gydnabod gan Frenin Lloegr a’r Pab
A chael gan y Pab gyhoeddi brenhiniaeth ddi-lychwin ei ach:
Hyn oll a bensaerniais, fy nheml ydoedd i ti,
F’addoliad i ti –

Siwan: Llywelyn, ‘wyddwn i ddim, ‘wyddwn i ddim.

Llywelyn: Pa les fyddai iti wybod? ‘Roedd mynydde’r blynydde rhyngom,
Mi ddeallais i hynny hefyd.
Gwleidydd wyf fi, ‘cheisiais i mo’r amhosib,
‘Roedd dy gywirdeb di’n ddigon.


Llywelyn: Lady, our marriage was political.
A quarter century, the gap between us.
Well then, so it goes: on such we base
The counsels and the concords of a country,
Together bear and build. But four years on
When you came to Snowdonia, a virgin,
Like a young silver birch tree in the spring,
My heart turned in me suddenly, as if
I had beheld the Holy Grail: to me
There was a light about you where you walked.
And yet I smothered my bedazzlement
Lest it should frighten you, and when I felt you
All of a tremble, held within my arms,
I did not trouble you with clumsy kisses
Nor sweaty fearful coupling; I held back
Lest you should think me loathsome; I was slow,
Formal, courteous. And so your trembling
Disappeared: this room became your home
And I a part of it, not too unwelcome.
I worshipped you, my flame, afar and mute.
I did not trespass on you with fond words
But shared with you the business of my life,
By your counsel ordering my household,
My family, my realm; I gave your mind
In all its splendour space to operate.
Still I recall the day that you returned
From your first embassy, back from your father.
My life then was in peril. Fifteen years
You were, and your son Dafydd just two months,
And you came home, my life and Dafydd’s kingdom
Safe beneath your girdle. And that night
You lay with me. I did not have the words
To tell my joy; I stilled my body’s trembling,
But from that night I was a holy terror
To all my enemies; I took Deheubarth,
Powys, Ceredigion; I set them
Like jewels in your son’s crown, to be his
Alone in Wales, in despite of Welsh custom
And despite of my own divided house.
Through me the King of England and the Pope
Acknowledged him; I had the Pope proclaim
His spotless lineage; all this I shaped
For you alone; it was my temple to you,
My way of worshipping –

Siwan: Llywelyn, I did not know, I did not know.

Llywelyn: What good would it have done for you to know?
Between us, like a mountain, lay the years.
I understood that too; a politician
I did not ask for the impossible.
Your loyalty was enough.

Week 350: Talking in Bed, by Philip Larkin

Ted Hughes said he liked all of Philip Larkin’s poems (which was generous of him, considering the rubbishing he himself got from Larkin) and he liked him the more the sadder he got.  I guess he may have particularly liked this one then, which has the core of desolation that one finds at the heart of so many Larkin poems, and expresses a sense of alienation and aloneness that strikes me as typically if by no means exclusively mid-twentieth century.

Talking in Bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Philip Larkin

Week 349: The Black Furrow, by George Mackay Brown

It’s no easy thing to capture an authentic flavour of the old ballads, but I think George Mackay Brown manages it in this tale of a fiddler lured away, like Thomas the Rhymer, to elfland. I have an idea that I first heard the poem broadcast as part of a radio play, ‘A Spell for Green Corn’, many years ago.

The Black Furrow

“Darst thu gang b’ the black furrow
This night, thee and they song?”
“Wet me mouth wi’ the Lenten ale,
I’ll go along.”

They spied him near the black furrow
B’ the glim o’ the wolf star.
Slow the dance was in his feet
Dark the fiddle he bore.

There stood three men at the black furrow
And one was clad in grey.
No mortal hand had woven that cloth
B’ the sweet light o’ day.

There stood three men at the black furrow
And one was clad in green.
They’ve ta’en the fiddler b’ the hand
Where he was no more seen.

There stood three men at the black furrow
And one was clad in yellow.
They’ve led the fiddle through the door
Where never a bird could follow.

They’ve put the gowd cup in his hand,
Elfin bread on his tongue.
And there he bade a hunder years,
Him and his lawless song.

“Darst thu gang through the black furrow
On a mirk night, alone?”
“I’d rather sleep wit’ Christian folk,
Under a kirkyard stone.”

George Mackay Brown