Week 439: Ty’r Ysgol, by T.H.Parry-Williams

Some Welsh poetry can seem a bit strained, as can of course some English poetry, but this sonnet by T.H. Parry-Williams (1887-1975; see also week 284) has a very natural feel to it. In it he describes how, perhaps against all reason, he still keeps on his parents’ house, the schoolhouse in the village of Rhyd-Ddu in Caernarfonshire, long after the death of those parents.

It’s a poem that makes me feel slightly guilty. Before she died I took my sister on a drive to see the bungalow we had grown up in, but we wouldn’t have recognised the place: garage at the side, new porch, new windows, the front garden paved over, the trees at the back cut down. I remembered my father entertaining the rather unrealistic hope that one day after his death one of his children would live there. ‘Dad, let’s face it, it’s not exactly a stately home’. I should have been kinder: coming from a poor background, to own his own home had been the great dream of his life. And maybe, with its damp walls and worm-eaten furniture, my parents’ 1920s bungalow may have had more in common with a stately home than I thought. This poem is about an attempt to keep the past unchanged, in a spirit of more deference to the dead than I am afraid my siblings and I could manage.

The translation that follows is my own.

Ty’r Ysgol

Mae’r cyrn yn mygu er pob awel groes,
A rhywun yno weithiau’n‘sgubo’r llawr
Ac agor y ffenestri, er nad oes
Neb yno’n byw ar ôl y chwalfa fawr;
Dim ond am fis o wyliau, mwy neu lai,
Yn Awst, er mwyn cael seibiant bach o’r dre
A throi o gwmpas dipyn, nes bod rhai
Yn synnu’n gweld yn symud hyd y lle;
A phawb yn holi beth sy’n peri o hyd
I ni, sydd wedi colli tad a mam,
Gadw’r hen le, a ninnau hyd y byd,-
Ond felly y mae-hi, ac ni wn pam,
Onid rhag ofn i’r ddau sydd yn y gro
Synhwyro rywsut fod y drws ynghlo.

T.H. Parry-Willliams


The chimneys smoke in spite of adverse winds,
And someone now and then will sweep the floor
And open windows, although no one since
The great dispersal lives there any more;
Only in August, for a month or so,
We come back for a break from life in town,
And stroll about, till those who see us stare
As in surprise that we should still come down,
Wondering what brings us back, and why
We who lost both our parents long ago
Should keep the old place on, a world away,
But so it is, and why I do not know,
Unless for fear those dead ones should at last
Sense somehow that the door is now shut fast.

Week 438: ‘Tarry, delight’ by A.E.Housman

Another of those lapidary Housman poems that I find slip so easily into the memory. In case anyone has forgotten the story, the youth Leander fell in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, and would swim across the Hellespont every night to spend time with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

I particularly associate this poem with the early days of my marriage, when for the first seven weeks I had to live away on a residential training course, just coming home on a Friday evening and going back Sunday night. I remember quoting its lines to my wife one Sunday as I prepared to depart. She, who has always felt that self-dramatization in poets is not a tendency to be encouraged, suggested that a fifteen mile bike ride on a pleasant autumn evening was not quite the equivalent of swimming the Hellespont at night. I suppose she had a point.

Poem XV (from ‘More Poems’)

Tarry, delight, so seldom met,
So sure to perish, tarry still;
Forbear to cease or languish yet,
Though soon you must and will.

By Sestos town, in Hero’s tower,
On Hero’s heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
And sputters as it dies.

Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
Between two continents complain
The seas he swam from earth to earth
And he must swim again.


Week 437: From ‘Waterlog’, by Roger Deakin

Looking back over the years I seem to have been very diffident about expressing my enthusiasm for other writers’ work by actually writing to tell them of it, having sent a mere five such missives in sixty years. I don’t know why this should be – I imagine most authors quite like getting fan letters. I know I do, though admittedly at the rate of about one per year the volume in my case has not been such as to prove unduly burdensome. And on the occasions I have nerved myself, I have always received a perfectly courteous response – back in the early sixties J.R.R.Tolkien, for example, sent his young fan a charming handwritten reply which a few years ago raised £400 for a children’s charity. The last such letter I sent was to the nature-writer Roger Deakin (1943-2006), having fallen in love with his delightful book ‘Waterlog’, which is quite unlike anything else I have ever read: basically an account of his wild swimming adventures in rivers, lakes, seas and waterholes the length and breadth of the British Isles, yet also much more than that: a kind of sensual paean to nature studded with fascinating facts, anecdotes and literary asides. I’ve never been much inclined to follow Roger’s more extreme natatory feats – certainly I remember with great pleasure a swim in a Norwegian fjord after a long hot day’s walk, and a dip in an alder-fringed pool coming back down from a summer scramble up Cader Idris, but the idea of an early season plunge like Roger’s into some freezing wind-whipped mountain tarn is less appealing. But here is Roger in the hills above Porthmadog in Wales.

‘Water was gushing and surging up through a moraine of massive boulders, then sliding down a forty-five degree slab of rock, black where it was wet and purple where it was dry. Lying back against the sloping rock I let the water flood over me, then swam against the current in a substantial pool lower down. Water rushed about everywhere, and amongst the remains of a settlement I found a spring inside a kind of stone temple covered in ferns. I went down to drink from it, and felt its atmosphere and power.


‘I climbed into the river where it ran on through a miniature ravine full of the bright, rich pinks of heather, bracken, stonecrop, thyme, gorse and the little yellow tormentil. I followed it through a ladder of waterfalls and pool, some of them deep enough to swim, interspersed with straight, high-speed runs between great slabs of rock. Here and there the stream would bend sharply to the left or right  and the water would climb up the rock wall and spout into thin air like an eel standing on its tail. Then it merged with another stream, running down an almost parallel ravine, and I slid, scrambled, waded, swam, plunged and surfed through it all until I was delivered into a deep, circling pool. A little further on, a solitary sycamore stood sentinel over a sheep-nibbled lawn of buttercups and daisies by a waterfall and another pool, long and deep, between black slabs of rock, where I swam against the stream and hovered in the clear black water. Here I made my camp, hanging my towel to dry in the sycamore branches. I made delicious tea with the river water, devoured bread, goats’ cheese and pennywort leaves, and fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the song of the waterfall, of Minnehaha, Laughing Water, the bride of Hiawatha, watched over by the dark shapes of menhirs on the hilltops.’

Roger Deakin

Week 436: Iris by Night, by Robert Frost

There are innumerable poems of love, not so many of friendship, and I think that this one, with its perfect closing image, is among the best of them. In the summer of 1914 a group of poets gathered around Dymock in the Gloucestershire countryside, among them being Robert Frost, newly arrived from America, and Edward Thomas, then known only as a reviewer and a writer of prose. Frost and Thomas took many walks together, discussing poetry, and it is these as much as anything that seem to have catalysed Thomas’s wonderful late flowering as a poet. We can date the walk described in this poem precisely, to August 6th, 1914, a night of full moon.

‘From all division time or foe can bring’ – yes, in the platonic realm of poetry, but one has to wonder: would that friendship would have lasted so well in practice, if Thomas had survived? It is tempting to believe so, but I have doubts. Frost went back to the States after the outbreak of war, and proved an unsatisfactory correspondent by letter. There was also the fact that he did not get on well with Edward’s wife Helen, who found him bossy and given to offensive remarks; indeed they later had quite a falling out over Helen’s accounts of her marriage in the two volumes ‘As It Was’ and ‘World Without End’ (lately republished in one volume entitled ‘Under Storm’s Wing’), which Frost felt portrayed his friend in too unmanly a light. I can see his point in a way, yet I have always found those accounts interesting and in places very moving.

No, that summer was the golden time of their friendship, and as Frost observes in another fine poem (see week 134), ‘nothing gold can stay’.

Iris by Night

One misty evening, one another’s guide,
We two were groping down a Malvern side
The last wet fields and dripping hedges home.
There came a moment of confusing lights,
Such as according to belief in Rome
Were seen of old at Memphis on the heights
Before the fragments of a former sun
Could concentrate anew and rise as one.
Light was a paste of pigment in our eyes.
And then there was a moon and then a scene
So watery as to seem submarine;
In which we two stood saturated, drowned.
The clover-mingled rowan on the ground
Had taken all the water it could as dew,
And still the air was saturated too,
Its airy pressure turned to water weight.
Then a small rainbow like a trellis gate,
A very small moon-made prismatic bow,
Stood closely over us through which to go.
And then we were vouchsafed a miracle
That never yet to other two befell
And I alone of us have lived to tell.
A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went
(To keep the pots of gold from being found),
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-colored ends
And gathered them together in a ring.
And we stood in it softly circled round
From all division time or foe can bring
In a relation of elected friends.

Robert Frost