Week 450: The Collier, by Vernon Watkins

This ballad by Vernon Watkins (1906-1967) interweaves memories of an idyllic childhood with the grim reckoning demanded by adulthood in the form of a life down the coal-pit, culminating in a mine disaster, while at the same time working in allusions to the biblical story of Joseph. I think it is one of his best pieces, a poem in which he seems to find his own voice, more so than in much of his work, which is a little too heavily influencd by his lifelong devotion to W.B.Yeats. If I have reservations it’s about a certain detachment from reality in the poem’s ending. In ‘Station Island’ Seamus Heaney has the ghost of his cousin, victim of a sectarian killing during the Troubles, reproach the poet for romanticising his death in his earlier poem ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’: ‘for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew/the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio/and saccharined my death with morning dew’. By the same token Watkins could be accused of saccharining the choking claustrophobic death of miners in a pit disaster. All the same, one has to admire the skill with which he handles the ballad form, in a way somewhat reminiscent of that other modern master of the ballad, Charles Causley.

The Collier

When I was born on Amman hill
A dark bird crossed the sun.
Sharp on the floor the shadow fell;
I was the youngest son.

And when I went to the County School
I worked in a shaft of light.
In the wood of the desk I cut my name:
Dai for Dynamite.

The tall black hills my brothers stood;
Their lessons all were done.
From the door of the school when I ran out
They frowned to watch me run.

The slow grey bells they rang a chime
Surly with grief or age.
Clever or clumsy, lad or lout,
All would look for a wage.

I learnt the valley flowers’ names
And the rough bark knew my knees.
I brought home trout from the river
And spotted eggs from the trees.

A coloured coat I was given to wear
Where the lights of the rough land shone.
Still jealous of my favour
The tall black hills looked on.

They dipped my coat in the blood of a kid
And they cast me down a pit,
And although I crossed with strangers,
There was no way up from it.

Soon as I went from the County School
I worked in a shaft. Said Jim,
‘You will get your chain of gold, my lad,
But not for a likely time.’

And one said, ‘Jack was not raised up
When the wind blew out the light
Though he interpreted their dreams
And guessed their fears by night.’

And Tom, he shivered his leper’s lamp
For the stain that round him grew;
And I heard mouths pray in the after-damp
When the picks would not break through.

They changed words there in the darkness
And still through my head they run,
And white on my limbs is the linen sheet
And gold on my neck the sun.

Vernon Watkins

Week 449: Cilmeri, by Gerallt Lloyd Owen

Cilmeri is a small village in mid-Wales, not far from the town of Llanfair ym Muallt (Builth Wells), and it was here on December 11th, 1282 that the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales, Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, popularly known as Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn our Last Lord) was killed in a minor skirmish with King Edward I of England’s soldiers. After that Wales was never again a fully sovereign state. For many Welsh people, especially those who would like to see the country become an independent nation once more, this is still a matter of raw grief and the name of the place a rallying cry, as evidenced in these sparse englynion by one of the leading modern Welsh-language poets, Gerallt Lloyd Owen (1944-2014). I think that most English people have by now more or less come to terms with the rather unfortunate result of the Battle of Hastings (spoiler alert: we lost). The Welsh are made of sterner stuff and do not roll over so easily!

The fairly literal translation that follows is my own. The formal sound-patterns (cynghanedd) of the Welsh are lacking, of course.

Cilmeri

Fin nos fan hyn
Lladdwyd Llywelyn.
Fyth nid anghofiwn hyn.

Y nant a welaf fan hyn
A welodd Llywelyn,
Camodd ar y cerrig hyn.

Fin nos, fan hyn
O’r golwg nesâi’r gelyn.
Fe wnaed y cyfan fan hyn.

Rwyf fi’n awr fan hyn
Lle bu’i wallt ar welltyn,
A dafnau o’i waed fan hyn.

Fan hyn yw ein cof ni,
Fan hyn sy’n anadl inni,
Fan hyn gynnau fu’n geni.

Gerallt Lloyd Owen

Cilmeri

Here at the edge of night
They slew Llywelyn.
Never shall we forget.

The stream that I see here
Llywelyn saw.
He stepped upon this stone.

Here at the edge of night
The enemy drew near
Unseen. All happened here.

Here where I am now
Blood-bespattered grass
Cradled his head once.

Here is our memory.
Here, the air we breathe.
Here, just now, our birth.

And no mention of Llywelyn would be complete without a reference to the very fine elegy for him written at the time by Gruffudd ab Yr Ynad Coch, a poet who saw well what a disaster this was for Wales. A full translation by Anthony Conran can be found in the Penguin Book of Welsh Verse. Just as a taster, here are some famous lines from it, in my own translation:

Oni welwch chi hynt y gwynt a’r glaw?
Oni welwch goed derw’n ymdaro?
Oni welwch chi’r môr yn parlysu’r tir?
Oni welwch chi’r gwir yn ymgreinio?
Oni welwch chi’r haul yn yr awyr yn hwylio?
Oni welwch chi’r sêr wedi syrthio?
Oni chredwch chi yn Nuw, ddynion gwirion?
Oni welwch chi’r byd wedi darfod?

Do you not see the way of the wind and rain?
Do you not see oak trees clashing together?
Do you not see the sea assaulting the land?
Do you not see truth laid low?
Do you not see the sun forsaking the sky?
Do you not see that the stars have fallen?
Do you not believe in God, o foolish men?
Do you not see that the world has ended?