Week 452: Orfeo, trad. arranged by Archie Fisher

This week a good example of the enduring and chameleonic power of story. It all started with the Greek myth of Orpheus, which tells how that matchless singer went down to the Underworld to bring back his lost love Eurydice. At some stage this finds its way into a ballad in Middle Danish and is given a happy ending (in the original story Orpheus cannot resist turning round to look back at Eurydice as they make their way up from Hades, thus breaking a prohibition and losing her again). It then makes its way to Shetland where it appears in a fragmented form in the Norn dialect of those islands. Finally it is taken in hand by the great Scottish folksinger Archie Fisher, who with the help of fellow singer Martin Carthy fills in the gaps and adds a stunning instrumental backing: I think it is his masterwork. Archie notes: ‘The second and fourth lines of each verse are all that remains of what is said to have been its middle Danish origins. Translated they mean “Early greens the wood” and “Where the hart goes yearly”.’

The fairy ride is reminiscent of the ballad ‘Tam Lin’, but the king of the fairies in this poem is less grudging than the vengeful queen in that one.

The word ‘gabber’ is a bit mysterious, but it may be a corrupt form of an old Scots word ‘gamari’, meaning ‘merriment’, and a ‘gabber reel’ is taken to mean ‘a sprightly tune’. Think, perhaps, Steve Earle and Sharon Shannon performing ‘The Galway Girl’…


There lived a king intae the east
Skoven arle grön
There lived a lady in the west
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

The king, he has a-huntin’ gane,
Skoven arle grön
And he left his lady all alane.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘I wish ye’d never gane away
Skoven arle grön
Your lady cold as death doth lay.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

For the King of Fairies wi’ his dert
Skoven arle grön
Has pierced your lady to the hert’
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And he has called his nobles all
Skoven arle grön
Tae waltz her corpse intae the hall.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And he’s set guards three hundred three
Skoven arle grön
To watch her corpse both nicht and day
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

At nicht when they lay fast asleep
Skoven arle grön
Oot o’ the hoos her corpse did sweep
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And the king has gane to the woodward wear
Skoven arle grön
And a band of horsemen him drew near
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And some did ride and some did sing
Skoven arle grön
He spied his lady them amang
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And in yon hill there was a hall
Skoven arle grön
And in went she and the horsemen all
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And after them the king has gaen
Skoven arle grön
But when he cam it was grey stane
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And he took oot his pipes to play
Skoven arle grön
But sair his hert with dule and wae
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

But he has played a gabber reel
Skoven arle grön
That would have made a sick heart heal
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘Now come ye in into oor hall
Skoven arle grön
Now come ye in amongst us all’
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

Now he’s gone in into their hall
Skoven arle grön
And he’s gone in among them all
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And he took oot his pipes to play
Skoven arle grön
But sair his hert with dule and wae
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

And first he played the notes o’ noy
Skoven arle grön
And then he played the notes o’ joy
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘Noo tell to us what will ye hae?
Skoven arle grön
What shall we gi’ you for your play?’
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘What I will hae I will ye tell
Skoven arle grön
And that’s my lady Isabel’
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

‘Ye take your lady and gang hame
Skoven arle grön
And ye be king o’er all your ain’.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

He’s taen his lady and gane hame
Skoven arle grön
And he is king o’er all his ain.
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig

Traditional, arr. Archie Fisher

Week 451: From ‘Hamlet’. by William Shakespeare

This may brand me forever as a literary Philistine, but I confess that I have never been able to work up much enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s comedies, and I can’t help wondering how much we would still be bothering with them were it not for the tragedies, histories and sonnets. I remember a conversation with a classmate at school as we struggled to see the point of ‘Twelfth Night’, mysteriously chosen as a set text suitable for thirteen-year olds.

‘Dave, why are we reading this tosh?’
‘Because the guy wrote “Hamlet”.’
‘Then why aren’t we reading f—–g “Hamlet”?’

Which were my sentiments exactly. So it is necessary to remind myself from time to time of certain things, and it doesn’t take long: a passage like this from Act 1, Scene 1 is enough to do the job. Come back, William, all is forgiven.


It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.


So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.

The cock, the ‘bird of dawning’, has long figured in folklore as symbolizing the powers of light. Tolkien readers will remember how the crowing of a cock marks the arrival of the Rohirrim and the start of the great battle of the Pelennor Fields: ‘Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of of war and wizardry, welcoming only the morning…’.

Finally, it’s a very brave man or a very self-deluded one who will offer one of his own poems as an accompaniment to Shakespeare’s, but just in case there should be any doubt that when it comes to the serious stuff I am as bardolatrous as the next man, I append my own Hamlet-inspired piece….

First Night

I like to think of when your words were new
And came like scalding lava, before they cooled
Into a long familiar fantastic
Or to try, like you, always another image,
Of that long summer when our language bloomed
And you went stumbling like a drunken bee
From wayside herb to blossom-laden bough –
Never such harvest, nor such honeycomb.

But most I like to think of that first night,
The crowd spilling out, to walk by the starlit river
Full of it all: the ghost, the poor drowned girl,
The sword-fight at the end, and quoting lines
That smouldered on, like coals in thatch: and then
That bit about the undiscover’d country,
How did it go, To be or not to be?
Neat, anyway; you’ve got to give him that.

David Sutton

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.


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


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?