Welcome to The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion. By way of explanation, especially to those who might be completely unfamiliar with such a title, the Mabinogion is a renowned collection of mediaeval Welsh tales, while Igam-Ogam is simply Welsh for ‘zig–zag‘. ‘Mabinogi’/’Mabinogion‘ has the meaning of ‘youthful tales’ – and combined with ‘Igam-Ogam’ the intention is to represent what you will discover here as ‘diverse and wandering jottings, young at heart’. They are diverse in the subject matter they cover, and in their varying styles; they are young at heart, I like to think, even though their composer is not exactly a spring chicken.
What will you expect to see on The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion? Well, basically poetry of all kinds —rhymed, unrhymed, metrical and unmetrical, lengthy and brief, descriptive and imaginary, serious and humorous. There is little which employs traditional verse forms—you will find no Petrarchan sonnets, ottava rima, etc.—with many of these I am simply a ‘No-good Boyo’; neither, in the other extreme, will you find that which is deliberately and fashionably obscure. What characterizes much of the poetry shown here is rhythm; for it may be safely said that without rhythm and its attributes there can be no poetry. Subjects are both Welsh and universal, dealing with personal memories and reflections, journeys real and imaginary, the affairs of gods and goddesses, men, women, and love, the fascinations of the natural world and of the Otherworld, and, of course, the Welsh past and present. There are the shorter epigrams and Haiku, and a selection of translations—a handful from the French, and a good many from the Classical Chinese. I embrace archaic language where it is fitting, as well as the occasional slickness found in the modern. There is the playful, and the downright daft.
A little about myself: A good many years ago (perhaps I should say ‘Once upon a time’) my poetry appeared alongside that of R.S. Thomas, Vernon Watkins, Dannie Abse, and other Welsh poets writing in English at that time—Roland Mathias, Harri Webb, John Tripp, Meic Stephens, and others. Outside the Welsh circle I shared pages with poets Thomas Kinsella, Donald Davie… and now I’m mentioning too many names, but will go ahead and say that I was honoured to share publication space with Eugene Ionesco and Vladimir Nabokov. These were heady, happy days which I remember with a sense of satisfaction. But duty called me away from this – there was a young family to care for, and a career to be pursued, and the writing years were all too brief and a long time ago. In the intervening decades, though, I seldom ceased scribbling, and now, with around a thousand poems including the translations, and much else tucked away, I thought it opportune to enter the stage again.
Please see the full poems below in the order they were posted up, or select by name from the menu at the top right. If you like what you see and wish to be informed of new poems as they are posted, simply leave a comment beneath any of the poems. Thank you!
In sleep I trod a pitch-black plain and nowhere could I seek the sod beneath my feet, nor feel the air against my cheek, and near nor far I could not know … I walked in darkness, all alone. And monstrous silence reigned.
A plain, I thought – but could not tell; I trod, I thought, the Waste of Hell Dimensionless – no touch, no sound, no breath of wind, no near, no far – bound by the void, devoid of sight. A prisoner of the dreadful night.
I cast me down, I hung my head, and in despair cried out in torrent madness, fell enough to wake the sleeping dead. There was no answer to the cry, nor echo; it remained a stifled prisoner in my head as I was in the plain.
A plain, I said. How was it then there was nowhere to keep my body anchored to this place? I stood athwart a deep! I stood athwart a gaping maw – the blackness of the Pit! And poised upon some slender strand that spanned the breadth of it!
But trust my steps or trust them not, I knew that I must pass across. An aspen voice within me gave a tremulous command to cross the gulf and cross it now, or perish on that strand. As through my veins the dark blood raced I ventured forward on that space that hung across black Hell.
A bridge, was it? What bridge is it that soars in sable space? Invisible, intangible, across what cursed place? And as man swims to save his life and out of sight of land, and knows when mind surrenders hope he sinks, I walked that strand, step by wretched step – I thought the steps would never cease – tremendous darkness piled above and Sheol down beneath.
Across black Hell I walked, I thought, I walked across black Hell … until – God help! – there came some sound, and glimmer from below unlike to hellfire’s livid red and groans of tortured souls. A soft, a gentle luminance, a murmuring of air… dear God! I caught my breath and cried as breeze played in my hair! And I stood still, and stood amazed – the moon stood in the sky! The silver goddess, sister moon, and brushed by leaves, went by! And flowers’ fragrance round about, and lilies spread around, and any flower I could conceive lay bright upon the ground!
But I would sacrifice my soul a million times, and more, to exorcise them from my mind; they’ll haunt me evermore. Dimensionless … but now I know dimensions warped and wild; and stark unhallowed consciousness, and vast, unfettered time. I know a truth that no man knows, a truth he could not bear, revealed to me when first I saw those flowers growing there. What I beheld… how can I tell? It will not suffer rhyme… and Lord, my heart is bursting – all sanity a lie.
Each blossom was in motion – a fascinating dance which wreathed within the bloom itself and I transfixed, entranced to see each petal moving, each petal changing shape, and changing size and changing hue within a moment’s space. A lily was an orchid, and then it was a rose, in subtle variations – a myriad of them posed in countless transformations until I thought I’d seen all flowers’ generations – all that had ever been since the dawning of creation in bewildering array… but as I stared, astonished, all passed away… away. Any I could conceive, I’d thought – but not conceived for me; not in this way, this beauty that changed too constantly. They passed from sight. I touched my brow and asked how it could be that nature’s flowering glory could cast that spell on me.
The thought had barely come to me when suddenly and near there came the hum of voices. Yes, voices! I could hear their gentle susurration and laughter pealing through, and out of darkness people came, and smiling, into view. They came to me; they stood around. I was struck dumb to see the loving kin of my lost youth all crowding close to me, the ones I loved from years gone by, and I too youthful then to know how much they’d meant to me until too late, and when they’d gone I’d cherished them and thought if time could bring back treasured old ones from those years I’d relive everything so differently, and all my words be gentle words, and all my thoughts be kind, and all my acts be generous, and small or great they’d inculcate the love that callow youth denied. I held them close. And helplessly, I cried.
Oh, precious moments, gone from me when scarcely had they come! For now my loved ones’ voices slurred, their faces one by one grew vacant and they shrank from me into that cursed realm of dark that has no end to it. God, help me! Overwhelmed I sought to clutch them close again, I strove to hold them tight. But one by one they slipped from me into the awful night. How can the grief be washed away that cleaves the very soul? I faltered, shaking, to my knees and gulped for breath. I knew no words that could express the loss, the feeling of such pain I felt when wretched darkness took my dead kin back again.
The light of moon, of clean, dear moon shone down on where I grieved. I looked to her to heal my grief, but Christ! Oh, Christ! The leaves! And then I knew that I was caught in some infernal net where time and sense are riotous, where borders break and let unknown dimensions wander free and aeons drift like sand, where death is life in puppetry, and visions great and grand in jugglery and argument with insubstantial things, and lost, apostate splinters flee the centuries, and fling the phantoms of forgotten times with spectres yet to come. And then I knew that I was caught where naught and all are one.
The leaves roared high and clashed against the moon, now ashen-grey, and wrapped in ragged cerements of cloud, she passed away.
The second part of The Apocalypse of Gweir, entitled The Visions, will shortly appear in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion.
Part 1, above, was initially inspired by a recurring dream in my young manhood, in which I walked across a bridge, it seemed only inches wide, invisible, and which could not be distinguished in any way from a black, yawning, limitless abyss below. Some two-thirds of the way through, ‘The Dream of the Dead Kindred’ is an account of another recurring dream experienced in more mature years. The imagery and metre are both to an extent influenced by my readings of Scottish poet James Thomson (1834-1882): i.e., by his remarkable XXI canto poem The City of Dreadful Night. It is indebted in no small way, too, to William Hope Hodgson’s 1908 tale of cosmic displacement, The House on the Borderland.
She slid from under the car at night, from out of a pool of oil, Slithering, black, and up she rose, first wavering, flat, then taking a form so rounded, so sensuous – and standing so close! I saw her beneath that coiled-up hair – her whole naked self only inches from me. She was all polished jet… and yet, no, not so. For with every small movement, the slightest she made – the breath of her breasts, their quick rise and fall, the fingers that toyed with her thighs, the flicker of lashes, her balance adjusted – brought to life a succession of startling hues, a swirling and ripple through sinews and limbs, of sapphirine blues, of glowing wine-reds, pinks of coralline, salmon; there was sulphurine gold – emerald, smaragdine green of the Nile; she was rich-veined and shot through with lustrous designs that leapt, coalesced, and vanished again… but behind that display, that mosaic in motion, a fine, lacquered ebon, her midnight, won through. With her gloss and her gleaming, my emotions spilled over; I murmured some nonsense, stepped back in confusion. She advanced! And with coolness, held me with eyes of a tigress’s topaz, compelling, ablaze; in a moment, though, softened to saffron and maize. And a brave, laughing confidence danced in those eyes, and I know that she noted, content, my surprise – that they spoke, wide and silent, that she knew of my kind. Oh! Her lips, fullest carmine, and the richest of spoils, now an inch from my own! And I knew, if they kissed mine, in that kiss I would know the touch and the taste of moist, ancient soils; of a world scarce connected with the one that I knew. What did she seek in me? Why had she come? I shivered. I flushed. And next – on my cheek – heated breath, brushing, light… Then she passed me, black shadow, and was lost in the night.
(From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’ )
It wasn’t my intention to post this poem for some little while yet, for some four or five poems and maybe as many months hence, as it seems to me that so many items in my output are concerned with ’the fair sex’ – and I don’t wish to give the readership of The Ig-Og the idea, especially if they have encountered my appraisal of all that is feminine which accompanies the most recent post and are familiar with others which have preceded, that there is some conspicuous preoccupation here. (I am not so inveigled as to realise that ‘There also be women in the world that are but the handsome sepulchres of iniquity’; they undoubtedly are there, but fortunately few, and far from representative of their kind. So although it hasn’t quite happened I wanted, really, to somewhat spread out the poems which follow this theme of the female – which is, in fact, concerned with ‘womankind’, with that unique combination of the intellectual and the visceral in woman, together with the parallel search for/representation of The Eternal Feminine as it appears imprinted upon the European mind, from the untutored to the classical, in mythology, history, and literature. ‘She’ and her ways, along with the related theme of Love, are two things which I confess to have always had a lean understanding and therefore an acute interest; so for this reason, well, yes, it seems likely that at base there is a level of unfeigned preoccupation! The Meeting at Midnight does not, though, adhere nicely to this main theme – it is, unreservedly, an outright celebration of the sheer physical wonder of her, as well as, upon encountering it, the inferred reversal in store for the nympholeptically afflicted soul (inversely, a pitiful blessing it is, too, for those who can receive the gift in no more than self-complacency, a gift looked upon as accepted and commonplace as the ever-recurring miracle of sunrise). So this is an ‘interim’ poem along with its apology, chosen as the kind of ‘undiluted’ item I felt was needed in a hurry just now as a replacement for the poem which, apart from some time-consuming fiddling with its characteristically over-long notes, I already had in hand. It is also the final poem in the Dialogues without Words series.
It’s my pleasure to introduce to readers of The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion the work of guest poet Emlyn Roberts:
The Shadow of Hope
Pain wrapped its arms around her and held her close. She did not cry out, there were no tears. She sought for a remnant of herself from a mind box of her own making. She stood for a long time in darkness; she had no permission for light.
She went to the kitchen just to touch her hope. Her hidden hope she named it. He did not know of it and so could not take it away. She held it inside her arms tight against her chest, seeking comfort from it.
It took an age to mount the stairs for she knew every creak that might awaken the beast. He was sprawled on the bed, snoring softly, his reek filling the room his body a lump in the moonlight, fat-rolls moving gently.
Holding her breath she watched until she could see the merest flutter where his heart beat with misbegotten life. Slowly she took a deep breath, cautiously she raised the knife –
and then her shadow ate her.
True Story ( News item,Sunday, 16 December 2012 )
There were no presents at Kadi’s six weddings that night no settlements for her six divorces one husband outraged her virginity the others paid their wedding fees and waited in eager turn there were no wedding clothes only her abused skin there was no feasting just the taste of horror there was no headdress no water to cleanse no ring to bind Kadi did not say yes she could not say no her husbands only cared that it was not rape for that would have been a sin Kadi grieved for a blessing but God’s tears dried before they could reach her
(The name ‘Kadi’ is fictional)
These are two ‘dark’ poems from Emlyn Roberts – poems reflecting a grimly shadowed side of humanity with which we might prefer not to occupy our daily thoughts, but which nevertheless exists, often beyond our least suspicion and almost always closely hidden, all around us. We have all come across reports, some sinister beyond belief, which pierce us to the heart when we are suddenly confronted with them; reports which can leave, perhaps for years, perhaps for a lifetime, an indelible picture of base cruelty and suffering on our minds (there is the face of one young woman, pitiful and abused to the point of death, which will never cease to haunt me; I wish I had never seen that poor woman’s face in a photograph or read the report which accompanied it, because I know it will at odd unsuspected moments of day or night come back to me, and come back to me always). Here in two poems we have degradation starkly thrust upon us – the one seeking a final way out of endless desperation, the other surrounding an ill-used, defenceless and unknowing child. And such abominations, sometimes prolonged over many years, are silently and secretly committed and suffered in closed, secluded places, not only in the dens of the offscourings of the earth but in the respectable places, in the lands of and at the hands of the decent and the godly.
Here, in these poems, we glimpse examples of the deliberate maltreatment of part of no less than half of humankind, and furthermore that half which should be revered as sacred – womankind – as Mother, Sister, Wife and Lover, continuator of the species, the womankind which has so often proven, thanks be, capable of enduring and combating the many anguishes to which she has been unjustly subjected. Woman, fashioned so as to be physically unmatched to man, but by no means otherwise unmatched and substantially superior in the more esoteric realms of thought and in emotive-intuitive attributes, possessing that ‘x-factor’ which has been a long-time mystery to him and which he has striven to understand but failed, and having failed, resorted to his physical advantage. He has been suspicious of her, has even feared her, throughout history allotting her a position of subservience, as all our sacred texts and the majority of our historical literature inform us. What is it that sets her apart? Something ‘God’-given? Something inseminated by Mother Nature into her soul to act as – what? Some kind of safeguard for the species? The peacemaker? It must surely always remain a mystery unsolved. In this respect, that is as far as the species are concerned, man- and womankind could be said to be only one in two distinct ways – wholly complementary by role, but strangely counterposed in nature. What such an augmentation is worth, and given my own mindset – which upon the reading was sent at once into rapid, perhaps idiosyncratic you will say, acceleration – these are nevertheless some implications and associations I personally extrapolate from these two compelling poems. But what do I know about the veriest evils of misogyny? I was raised in quietude and chapelry by two lovely, angelic even, Welsh ladies who enjoyed their youth and young womanhood in the last quarter of the 19th century, as their elegant beauty beneath piled-up Victorian coiffures in their photographs from the 1890s attest. Wait … Perhaps that has everything to do with it.
Emlyn is a native of the Welsh north. Of himself and his work he has this to say: ‘I am an old poet who was once a young poet. I try to make my poetry say something, and to matter’. We see from this that he has been composing poetry for a long time, and as is obvious from the two examples above, writes poetry with a clear message – poetry which speaks to us here in no uncertain terms of the unfathomed and disturbing vagaries which can lie deep within the human condition.
I cannot even recall the time the gods first gave a woman unto me. But this I know – I was gathered in her arms and felt such warmth as I had never known before. The silky fullness of her breasts; so new and strange to me. An undiscovered world of satisfaction – ecstasy! My face was pressed so close into that soft, delicious place. My mouth searched ardently.
And then, I’m sure my mother must have sung a lullaby to me.
From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’
Look back upon the way you’ve come. Has it been short or long? Well, never mind. But think about the things you’ve done, and what you’ve yet to do. The secret is, whatever else – be kind. Remember that we’re all, from the moment we arrive, just visiting this planet. And no-one’s getting out of here alive.
(From ‘Musings on the Merry-go-Round: A Medley of Verse for us Riders of the Earth’)
The Crossing Our lives crossed in a central aisle, between tall shelves stocked high with bright commodities. I smiled at her; she smiled at me, then lowered eyes demurely, yet in an instant raised and steadied them to meet my own. Her skin was velvet, dusky-brown – her dark-lashed eyes were limpid dreams – her pupils deep sapphirian blue. Her lips were cushioned rose. Her hair, sleek burnished ebony, so black it shone in purple-blue, just like the starling’s wing. Across her forehead silver coins were strung, thin hammered things which bore strange symbols, and from her ears long pendants hung of yellow gold, with here and there the gleam of jacinth and of almandine. Bright copper spirals wound about her arms, with serpent heads and eyes of apple-green and tails of inlaid lapis lazuli. A rack of bangles, seven, nine or more jostled at each wrist. Her breasts were bare beneath a chattering fall of beads, while strings of silver coins again adorned her hips; she wore some pantaloons of silken gauze about her legs; her ankles chimed with bells, these interspersed with tiny sculpted-by-the-waves white shells. ‘I name you Pleasure-of-my-life’*, I said to her. ‘Sir’, (oh, and did that whispered voice come straight from Paradise?) ‘let it be so. I name you too by what you are. And you shall be, to me, Fair Foreigner’. She took me by the hand, and led me, then, away, to dream with her. And so we lived, for many a month, in quiet solitude, far above the city’s thronging crowds. ‘Pleasure-of-my-life’, I’d say, as we lay there side by side, ‘tell me again of your far-off land, how it’s all luxuriant green, and how its soaring hills, all forested, are clothed in mist, and how the waves fall languidly upon long shores of dazzling sand. And of those vari-coloured birds which flash across the shadowed groves of palms’. ‘Oh yes, my Foreign One’, she’d say, ‘bright flocks of parrots – blue, yellow, green and red – do wing their way across wide verdant spaces. And the caramel cat with the apricot eyes that have centres of onyx, glides through the forest but is fearful of man. There are monkeys that swing from the trees by their tails and will swoop to your shoulder and steal from your hand, or playfully ruffle your hair. Bright silver streams flow down from the hills into deep, pebbled pools. There I’d bathe, letting water-pearls fall on my limbs from a hollowed and painted gourd’. ‘Would no man steal a sly-eyed look at you, Pleasure-of-my-life?’ ‘Oh, no, my Fair-haired Foreign One. My kin and kind? Refined, all, and reserved’. She smiled at me. ‘Put by such jealousy’. ‘Do others such as I, set foot upon your shores?’ (and this too did i whisper to her hesitatingly). She pressed on my arm. ‘White sails, afar – small specks upon the vast blue sea. They ply their way from old Ceram*, to the land of Sekala*, it’s said, then on to lands no person knows, where dark men of the coast that has no end – they of the turban and the scimitar – do dwell, and no fair-skinned ones such as you. White sails afar, and never here. But our menfolk trade with the outer isles, so we women wear their beaten gold, their copper, and their shining stones’. She turned to me and laughed. ‘Now have no fear’.
And so she would regale to me tales of her distant isle, her far-off land of barefoot boys and girls, of stalls piled with spices, fish and fruits, lithe sing-song chattering women lightly clad in splendid coloured silks with strings of silver coins, bangles, beads, and shells and bells which clashed and chimed from their foreheads to their toes – and of their men who cherished them. Of the scents of enormous flowers, of the wandering notes of the flute and the tinkling of the gamelan* which were played beneath the moon on warm, warm nights. And music, too, was the language spoken there.
And we lived like that for many a year in our quiet solitude, far above the city’s thronging crowds. And time never left its mark on us, it seemed. “And tell me, Pleasure-of-my-life’, I said one glorious starlit night, as we lay there side by side, ‘tell me again how you’ll love me till the end of time … and of the children we shall raise, with dusky skins and almond eyes, all lovely barefoot girls and boys. And I will chart a ship, my love, and take you to your land, where I feel we have lived for all these years as we’ve lain here side by side. I feel I’ve lived there all my life – in your distant Ohua-hai”.
So I chartered a ship with a Milford* crew and the dread Captain Roberts* escorted us through the Spanish Main – three Spanish galleons of sixty-four guns, two Barbary galleys, a trim Portugee – we left them all behind, with the whole British Navy hot on our heels till we came to the Sea of the Eastern Isles. Then Jonesey the Lookout, riding a spar, sang out aloft that he’d spotted afar her island of Ohua-hai!
Two thousand canoes shot out of the bay and lay like a raft round the ship, and as soon as eyes sighted my maiden on deck, ten thousand voices roared to the sky ‘It’s the long-lost princess of Ohua-hai!’
We were showered with garlands and rowed to the shore and then there was clamour and oh, we were lauded. There followed a feasting of nine days and nights on succulent fruits and the meat of the boar. There was dancing and laughter – rejoicing galore, till my ship sailed again for the fair land of Wales.
And so we lived for many a year in the quiet of Ohua-hai, where the palms grow tall and the days are warm and the wavelets spill on the sand. And though that was a long, long time ago, neither she nor I grew old. ‘And tell me, Pleasure-of-my-life’, I said on one ancient, starlit night as we lay there side by side, ‘Tell me again’, I said –
but then she had suddenly passed me by, with that shy girl’s glance and a smile returned, between shelves stacked high with boxes and brands.
I never saw her again.
* Pleasure-of-my-life: The name is that of Plazerdemivida, the devoted hand-maiden of the knight Tirant Loblanc, hero of Joanot Martorell and Marti Joan de Galba’s 1490 epic novel of that name written by Martorell and completed, posthumously, by his friend de Galba. Unlike other celebrated works of the Renaissance period (The Decameron,Don Quixote, etc.), Tirant has remained, outside the Catalan world and until fairly recent times, something of an underground classic. The principal reason is that it was written in Catalan at a time when the Catalan language and literature were to enter many hundreds of years of decline; and in modern times, this was prolonged by the outcome and repercussive legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Largely set in the Mediterranean/Byzantine world, the Romance of Tirant is a robust, widely embracing work alluding in fictitious terms to Martorell’s own experiences. (My copy is David H. Rosenthal’s 1984 translation). Cervantes admired Tirant; toward the beginning of Don Quixote, when the barber and the curate are rifling through that knight’s library, extracting, for his own good they thought, all there that in their opinion would too much influence his erratic bahaviour, Cervantes has the curate say: ‘Good-lack-a-day… is ‘Tirante the White’ here? Oh! pray good neighbor, give it me by all means, for I promise myself to find in it a treasure of delight … there is not a better book in the world… ‘ (from Motteux’ 1712 translation; this very early translation has been criticized for inaccuracies, but – got to love that archaic language!).
* Ceram: An island in the Moluccas (the Moluku archipelago, now in eastern Indonesia) known as the Spice Islands to early European seafarers. They became of interest to the Spanish and Portuguese powers in the 16th century because of the great variety of aromatic plants found there, notably nutmeg and cloves. The Moluccas were also known to Arab seafarers as early as the 14th century; in the poem, Pleasure-of-my-life speaks of them as ‘dark men of the coast that has no end – they of the turban and the scimitar’ The ‘coast that has no end’ is the long coastal route between the southern tip of India and the Persian Gulf. I have given her island – ‘Ohua-hai’ – a decidedly South Pacific name, but the real island, as we shall see, is actually at the extreme eastern end of the Lesser Sunda islands now in eastern Indonesia, and on the direct sea-route of the early Arab merchants. (Just off its west coast, incidentally, lies the small island of Komodo, famous for its dragons).
* in the land of Sekala: ‘Sekala’ is part of Balinese religious belief. Bali, where the Lesser Sundas begin, lies some 300+ miles to the west of the enchanting home of Pleasure-of-my-life, and a principal port of call for the Arab trading fleets. Sekala is the first half of the twin Sekala and Niskala. ‘Sekala’ is what is visible – the rich, colourful, moving world of Balinese pageantry and ritual; ‘Niskala’ is what you do not see – the precepts which underly the rites, and the magic which is implicit in the dance. The tangible and the intangible which are both essential parts of ceremony. These Balinese festivities were known in ‘Ohua-hai’.
* gamelan: Javanese, Balinese and Sundanese percussion (hammered, xylophone-type) instrument. I have a couple of CDs featuring gamelan solos. A gentle, tinkling sound.
* Milford: Milford Haven, the port which lies at the head of the great two-pronged branches of the River Cleddau in west Wales, which broaden to form what is one of the finest harbours in Europe.
* The dread Captain Roberts: Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722) was without doubt the most successful pirate of the entire buccaneering age. Born at Casnewydd Bach in west Wales, and known in Wales as Barti Ddu, or in English, Black Bart, he was introduced to his profession when captured by another Welsh pirate, Hywel Davies, whose crew he immediately joined. Upon Davies’ being killed in an ambush, Roberts, although young, was elected as the new leader and went on to plunder upward of 400 vessels, some of them not merchantmen but well-armed warships. He was a bold and charismatic leader, a strict disciplinarian whose ship’s articles targeted alcohol, gambling, the illicit smuggling of women aboard (for which the penalty was death) and, as far as I remember from what Thomas History taught us all those years ago, insisted on ‘lights out’ at 9 p.m. On the other hand, he is said to have had a reputation for absolute ruthless savagery toward many of his captives. Roberts is possibly best known to us these days as ‘The Dread Pirate Roberts’ from the wonderful film adaptation of Morgenstern’s book, The Princess Bride. It is in this role that I have co-opted him (or rather his young protégé) as a protective and formidable escort for the poem’s unnamed hero and his Pleasure-of-my-life as they escape – running the Spanish sea-gauntlet and with the whole meddling British Navy hell-bent on preventing them – to the fabulous island of Ohua-Hai. This escape from the Atlantic sea-powers, now that I think of it, might have come to mind from Dunsany’s marvellous (early 1900s) gem A Story of Land and Sea, in which Captain Shard of the bad ship Desperate Lark retired from his romantic profession and, with five northern navies in pursuit, gave them the slip, firing a broadside which was heard, for the first and last time, at Lat. 23 N, Long. 4 E. along with ‘other things unknown to Admiralties’. (It would be edifying to plot out the ship’s position from the given latitude and longitude – or, I’ve just discovered that the whole story is immediately available on the Net by just typing in the story title or Captain Shard’s and his ship’s name). I have a feeling that a composite character including such personages as Shard and most certainly the well-dressed Roberts might have been used to create the now well-known, intriguing, lovable figure of Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.
The story behind the poem:
Originally, this poem along with its ‘essay’ of notes was intended as a sequel to the Song of the Shulamite Maid which has previously appeared inThe Igam-Ogam Mabinogion, with the focus shifted from the south Arabian states to their offshoot in Ethiopia – to include the Kebra Nagast / “The Glory of the Kings’ (the Ethiopian retelling and continuation of the Biblical tale of Solomon and Sheba), Gérard de Nerval’s nicely-constructed novella on the same, The Tale of the Queen of the Morning and Soliman the Prince of the Genii, branching out to my next-door neighbour’s capture (he was a Brit intelligence officer) by Eritrean insurrectionists, with, as we were neighbors in the then West Germany and thus thrown in for good measure, the London Welsh Male Voice Choir’s detention (my cousin Lyn Harry was the choir’s Musical Director) at Berlin’s infamous Checkpoint Charlie. Then there is Malabar, a focal point of South Arabian-Indian trade, which as we shall see enters the story further on. But there is no time for all that now, and I think I can probably find room for these things in connection with another poem. Best, I think, to get on with the more immediate inspiration for The Crossing.
Years ago, of an evening, I used to walk my little dog, Blackie, in the nearby grounds of Old Chiao Tung University. It was a good place to walk – plenty of green, open spaces, lots of shady old banyan trees, some quaint old meandering garden paths, egrets frequenting the pools there, and never too many people around, only a few walkers like myself enjoying the evening air. And among these regular walkers I met some interesting people with whom I shared some long, fascinating chats and made friendships, too. There was Peter the would-be Publisher (poor bloke, an aging bachelor émigré from Hong Kong down on his luck). I’ll skip him for now, but hope to relate his story some other time. The others I cannot leave out here; two couples, both husbands being, funnily enough, professors of Mathematics at the spanking new Chiao-Tung University on the other side of the city, but having accommodation for both faculty and students on this the old campus.
Alex and Irene were from Ukraine, and what names to go with it – Alexis and Irene … why, they could have been a Byzantine Emperor and Empress! Their very names, as soon as uttered, recalled to me the Kievan Rus and its long connection with Byzantium. I don’t know their surname; I probably still have Alex’ card tucked away somewhere. Alex was sturdily built, and didn’t look at all what I’d call ‘Slavic/Russian; Irene was tall, blonde, and graceful; I think they must have been in their forties. They lived in Kiev, and as far as I could establish were Russian speakers. We talked about many things – the east-west language divide in Ukraine, the lesser, dialectical north-south one in Wales – I gave them, I hope, a new perspective on Wales’ situation within the ‘Union’ and on the world stage. Taiwan’s position on the international stage, naturally, entered our discussions on politics. At one time I remember mentioning CNN’s dealing with a certain news item. ‘CNN?’ smiled Alex, ‘We are quite used to that kind of brainwashing at home’. We talked of much more – the French Revolution (a lot of the talk was on political history); Gilgamesh (at the time I was in the middle of my metrical rendition of the Epic [for this, see Bullskull and Lionheart in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion]) and, oh, all sorts which intervened. To my surprise, one morning I met up with Alex and a Russian colleague in a little alley very close to where I lived, and was immediately struck by the physical difference between the two so that I could scarce forbear a smile. Something Alex said must have led up to it – he might have remembered that I’d previously said that he didn’t really ‘look’ Russian – but I looked at his tall, gangly friend and said ‘Now you really look like a Russian’. He grinned at me and asked ‘So? What does a real Russian look like?’ I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that he had eyes like ****holes in the snow and a nose like a ski-slope, but remarked with something to the effect that his facial features were ‘really Russian’. (Nay, equitable reader, there is not an ounce of disrespect here; simply that from my own observations there is a fairly prominent ‘Russian’ physiognomy characterized by rather hollow eyes and a long, concave nose; current President Vlad Putin fits this description to a ’T’; others, I’ve noted, don’t come into this category at all). Alex and Irene later moved to new accommodation, outside the old campus but quite nearby – not in the new one on the other side of town; they frequently walked here in the Old University grounds, all the same. And then, when my 17-year-old Blackie died, I didn’t walk there any more, and lost track of that lovely couple. That was a good many years ago, well before the unnecessary tragedy of what is happening now in Ukraine was in the air, although even then there was thunder grumbling in the distance. I often wonder about the two, whether they returned to the Ukraine, or whether Alex continued to renew his University contract here in Taiwan or found a post in some other country. I think that both were happy to live and work here. I pray that if they returned to their home in Kiev, or wherever they are, they are safe today.
It was the romance of the second couple which directly influenced and inspired this poem. Fairly late one evening – it was already dark – Blackie and I had just entered the Old University grounds through the small side pedestrian gate and walked down the metre or two of sloping concrete path to the area where faculty and students parked their bikes and scooters when I heard a loud voice in an accent that was unmistakable, and there in the darkness came across Michael O’Mahoney (pronounced ‘O-mah-ni’, just as one would call a native of the south Arabian country an Omani, and all the more reason for connecting this poem to the Song of the Shulamite Maid 🙂 ) and with him Lena, his wife, unpacking items from beneath their scooter seat. So I stopped by and said ‘That’s a fine Irish accent I hear!’ Surprised, he turned round, and we had five or six minutes chatting there before walking, the three of us, down the same long path between the banyans at the end of which we were to take our leave. Michael was hearty and garrulous, and Lena quiet. He was from a small village in Co.Tipperary, the name of which eludes me now (could it have been quiet Athroonagh, Dermot? There, under the great flanks of Slieve-na-mona?) I remember that one of the first things I asked him was whether he knew Kevin (Kevin Kavanagh was another Irishman, from Co.Meath, who was at the time on our faculty; he was married to a Filipina, lived not far away, and they had visited me at my apartment). Yes, he knew Kevin. In those ten or twelve minutes we were not able to discuss much, and at the time they were in a hurry, but although she said little, I could see that Lena was an Asian lady, and Michael told me that they took regular evening walks in the park and that we were sure to meet up again. And it was so; once I bumped into them under the lamplight in the company of Alex and Irene. One night, too, after we were caught in a sudden downfall of rain, Michael invited me up to their apartment, where I stayed for several hours – until close on midnight, as it happens – and it was then that I heard the story of their first meeting, and of Lena’s upbringing in, and love for, her island home.
Lena was from the island of Flores, in the Lesser Sunda Islands, and she and Michael had met in the city of Surabaya, Java. Michael had first visited Indonesia several years previously when he had spent a short while on one of the long string of islands off the west coast of Sumatra, where he had gone for the surfing. A few years later he had secured a teaching post at a school in Surabaya. (Interestingly, for me, before accepting our much preferred joint husband-and-wife position in Taiwan I had been shortlisted for a position at a school in Surabaya, and our very best friends when we and they first arrived in Taiwan, Netherlands couple Jules and Ireen Brederode, had just come from there!). But now for the setting of this romance: If we look at a map of Indonesia (take a look), we see to the south the great, long island masses of Sumatra and Java. These are the Greater Sunda Islands. After Java and starting with Bali are a string of smaller islands, and these are the Lesser Sundas, near the end of which, just above the larger island of Timor, we find Flores; after Flores, the Lesser Sundas peter out into the great expanse of ocean. Lena – that was not her proper name; the proper name, a native one, was a little longer, and ‘Lena’ was the diminutive which Michael always used – Lena was born on Flores, and spent her early years there, until she was eight or nine years old. Then her father, the owner of a successful grocery business, decided to up and move to Java’s thriving, sprawling port-metropolis of Surabaya, where he established an even more successful supermarket. It was in an aisle of her father’s supermarket, in which she worked, that Michael first met her (clothed in her saleslady’s / manageress’ uniform, I hasten to add, and not in the spangling, dangling, bangles, bells and beads of the poem). They took up home together, and for a long time there they lived, in one of Surabaya’s skyscraper apartments, high above the thronged hive of the city. When they lived there she spoke always of her childhood on Flores, and after a year or so, Michael took her there.
Flores held a special interest for me, right out there at the end of the Sunda chain. These were the very waters, just east of the island, where Juan Sebastian El Cano, Ferdinand Magellan’s Basque navigator, had limped through in 1522 with the Victoria, the sole remaining ship of the fleet of five and a crew of almost 300 which had originally set out from Spain three years previously. Just imagine, a single, not very seaworthy ship with a crew of just 18, a sorry remnant of the original expedition … but laden with the precious spices taken aboard from the Spice Islands mentioned in the Glossary above, and eventually, miraculously, making it all the way back to Spain. Magellan himself, the Captain-General, was not among them, having been killed in his assault on the natives of the island of Mactan in the Philippines. His own, silly, vainglorious fault, but typical of all western colonizers then and since with superior armaments and inflated egos whose way was perceived to be the only way and to whom all, inferior, others were expected to submit. Magellan’s behaviour in Cebu, the large island next to Mactan, was to make a forceful, one-sided friendship with its ruler, insist that the ruler and all his people became Christians – those who refused would be killed – burn down a village whose inhabitants did not wish to obey, make the rulers and whole population swear obedience to the King of Spain, and launch the foolhardy attack on the neighboring island of Mactan whose people were reluctant to agree to his demands. Among the survivors aboard the Victoria was Antonio Pigafetta, a young Italian volunteer who kept up a day-to-day record of events of what was to be the first circumnavigation of the world. His exceptionally detailed account of this remarkable voyage is well worth reading. (My copy of Pigafetta’s Primo viaggio interno al globo terraqueo is the 1969 Yale University unabridged English translation/edition of R.A. Skelton taken from the French manuscript version, and available at a very reasonable price from Dover Publications).
It was in these very waters, too, that 267 years later another sorry vessel, also with a crew of 18 survivors, limped its way. This was the launch of the now famous HMS Bounty, under the command of its captain (well, with him that makes 19), Lieutenant William Bligh, set adrift on the vast expanse of the Pacific by the mutineers. On June 12, 1789 in the dark of 3 o’clock in the morning, after an incredible voyage of 3,618 nautical miles the Bounty’s launch made landfall at Timor, the large island just to the south-east of Flores. This open-boat voyage over thousands of miles of virtually uncharted waters during which captain and crew suffered severe privation was a tremendous feat of navigation which has its rightful place in the annals of naval history. At the Dutch fort and settlement of Coupang in Timor they received welcome and succour; within a month or so Bligh had purchased (under government bonds and agreement with the Dutch authorities) a schooner which he named HMS Resource, and on August 20 left on the long journey home. This is what Bligh wrote at the time:
‘From Coupang, we steered NW by W, having a moderate breeze at SE with fair weather. Saturday the 22nd. At daylight, we saw the island Flores to the northward… Our distance from the coast of Flores was about 10 leagues; and two high mountains bore N 1/2 E and NNW. These two mountains resemble each other in shape, and the westernmost is a volcano. The interior parts of Flores are mountainous and woody: but near the sea-coast is a fine open country… We steered along the south side of Flores, mostly with light winds and hazy weather, so that we did not constantly keep sight of the coast. On the 12th [i.e., September], in the evening, anchored in Sourabya road… Surabya is one of the most pleasant places I ever saw. It is situated on the banks of a river, and is a mile and a half distant from the sea-shore… ‘
So ends William Bligh’s sojourn in Lena’s home waters, and he and his momentous future need occupy us no more. Neither are we concerned with the ensuing drama of the Bounty mutineers, an epic tale in itself – save for one episode, which touches in a surprising way on our story’s anchorage in Taiwan:
Of the 16 mutineers who remained on Tahiti (‘Otaheite’ in the contemporary narratives) – 9, with their Tahitian women partners had departed with Fletcher Christian on the Bounty to settle finally on the uncharted Pitcairn Island – a remaining 14, amidst deteriorating relationships with some of the natives and fearful of an Admiralty expedition which might be forthcoming to apprehend them, eventually decided to construct a seaworthy vessel and escape to Dutch-held Batavia (now Djakarta) in the East Indies, whence they hoped to join one of the Europe-bound fleets. A number of these men had played no active part in the mutiny or had been forced to remain on board the Bounty, and were conscious of their innocence. They were able to construct a small schooner – which they named the Resolution after Captain Cook’s ship – and by July 6, 1790, were ready to depart but that their native allies (opposed to others who were on less friendly terms) wishing to still secure the protection of the sailors’ armaments, prevented their departure by denying them the material for the construction of sails. And on March 23,1791, the feared Admiralty expedition – the British frigate HMS Pandora under the command of Captan Edward Edwards – arrived. The inhumane treatment of the 14 by Edwards and the fearful, fateful return voyage of the Pandora, though, is a saga which has no further bearing upon this present tale. What is relevant is that the mutineers’ small schooner was commissioned by Edwards as a tender (a vessel to attend a larger ship for communication/transportation). Now she and her crew became lost and adrift in a gale, but reached Samarang in Java, where Edwards later found her, and she was sent as a present to the Governor of Timor. A remarkably sound and swift little vessel, she was afterward used in the sea-otter trade between China and Hawaii. While at Canton, she was purchased by a Captain Broughton whose ship, the Providence, was engaged in a survey of the China coast – and this is where the story comes home! For on May 17, 1797, the Providence was wrecked just to the east of Formosa (Taiwan); Broughton transferred his crew to the schooner, and this sturdy little craft built by the men of the Bounty became the means of saving their lives. The Providence went down when she struck a reef at Miyako-jima, one of the Ryukyu Islands (formerly the Kingdom of Ryukyu which in 1878 became tributary to Japan and later part of Japan proper; I have two or three coins minted in the kingdom). The Ryukyu chain stretches from its largest island of Okinawa in the north to small islands and islets very close to Taiwan (indeed, one or two of which are still claimed by Taiwan and there have in recent years been confrontations at sea with Japanese vessels). The population of the archipelago still retain their native language, and are, from the Okinawans down, physically distinctive from the Japanese. The southernmost grouping of the Ryukyus are the Yaeyamas, the most far-flung outpost of all Japan, and here, just to the south-west of Miyako-jima where the crew of the Providence escaped in the schooner built by the men of the Bounty, lies the island of Ishigaki (Ishigaki-jima; jima = ‘island’; cf ‘Iwo-jima’, the WWII battleground is probably the most well-known use of the suffix) no distance at all from Taiwan and a favourite, easy-to-get-to holiday spot for my family.
During the few hours I spent with Michael and Lena that night it rained, Lena opened up (as I’ve said, she was of a quiet disposition) and spoke a good deal of her early life on Flores. How they had no umbrellas, and how she walked to the little school, when it rained, holding a banana leaf over her head, and how there was a channel of split bamboo which carried clear mountain water into a pool where she would bathe (this is in the poem). And the jungly mountains and the beaches, of course. She didn’t mention animals (brushing casually on birds, butterflies and flowers, yes), but the caramel cat and the mischievous monkeys I had to make up, as a few other things. The gamelan was played there, yes – I’d mentioned that I had some gamelan music beforehand. She was of very slight build, most petite, and looked, to me, more like a high-school girl than an adult. At her neck she wore a silver cross, so I imagine she was a Christian. But when she went back to Flores with Michael, she was disappointed, as so much had changed, and it was no longer the place she had held for so long in her mind. When Michael’s Taiwan tenure was over, they planned to go to Ireland for some years, and hoped to have a baby there. I don’t know whether they ever did, as when I stopped walking there, as with Alex and Irene, I lost contact with them. It was Michael who introduced me to The Irish band The Chieftains. I’d heard of them several years before, but in those days had gone for a long time without listening to any popular music. He virtually effervesced over their song Coast of Malabar, which both of them loved, and recited some of the words to me. It sounded the sort of tihng I’d enjoy – and previously my brother-in-law, Dai Harries, had spoken of The Chieftains along with his favourite Irish band,The Fureys. Anyway, shortly after, thinking of them and of those few lines from the song I came up with a short poem about this Irishman and his tropical island bride:
From Erin’s mist-clad, windswept shores from ferned and heathered hill, from lonely cairn and holy well and rushing mountain rill
to Flores’ warm-washed, palm-leaved bays: In lush luxuriant green – yet far from the emerald of his isle – he found his dark-eyed queen.
Now in giving Co.Tipperary a coastline I was only doing what Shakespeare did when he gave Bohemia one, and was thinking, furthermore, of the island of Eire and linking it with the island of Flores; and the poem’s title was, anyway, Islands. Again, I don’t know to what degree holy wells feature in Irish history, but in Wales we’ve always been hot on them. Oh, well … Next time I was out for a walk I took a copy of the poem with me (handwritten, in those days of old), and when we met up read it out to them; they loved it – so they said – but no, really, I gave them the poem, which I’m sure, knowing them, they’ll still have. Next thing was to rush out and buy a CD of Coast of Malabar. When I got home and played it and listened to it sung so beautifully and read the lyrics several times over I was captured, and I’m sure that this was the impetus for, eventually, deciding to compose The Crossing. The lyrics are wonderful. Here are two stanzas, close to the end:
“Come to me,” I hear her calling cross the ocean, wild and far “Come to me again and love me On the coast of Malabar
And my thoughts keep ever turning To that far-off distant shore And the dark-eyed girl who loved me But I’ll see her never more”
The really strange thing was that neither Michael nor Lena had the remotest idea of where Malabar was, and I had to enlighten them. They never got to know of The Crossing, either, and so never knew that in that poem I had played around with their destinies, shifting their meeting to a northern hemisphere setitng, deciding that their romance would be the briefest, with not even a single word spoken… well, just as the song makes it brief, I suppose, albeit a little less abruptly. Why did I do this? Well, The Crossing was written a long time later, and at the time, I had formed the idea of a Dialogues without Words series. Another reason was that I wanted it to fit in also with my series Manifestations of the Muse. The two are fairly related, and sometimes it’s difficult to know in which to place a poem; with some, it feels that a poem could well fit in both. The love in The Crossing could not be allowed to flower, as The Muse, The Goddess, is an unreachable ideal, as is alluded to in a number of other already posted poems. Maifestations of the Muse 1 and 3 (Ceridwen’s Candle and Island of Lesbos have already appeared, but 2, Bella Domna, requires a lot more thought and work, and has been postponed: it’s complicated, dealing as it must with all the currents and influences involved in the long making and shaping of the female apotheosis in poetic beauty … But that’s straying, and this is not the place to touch upon it.
So let’s finish on a less serious note, and return to people-you-know. Mikhail and I-forget-her-name were another Russian couple who for about six months occupied an apartment on the 4th floor here. Mikhail was yet another professor of Mathematics. Now he didn’t look Russian at all. He was shortish, slightly built and quite swarthy, with dark curly hair. She was the complete opposite, being bigger than him by far, bulbous as the outside casing of a matryoshka doll and as good-looking as Nikita Krushchev. Yes, she was the very image of the Russian woman we were presented with during the Cold War, you know the kind of thing I mean – a large, indeterminate bodily outline, a headscarf worn turban-like tied with a two-horned knot at the front, a pair of overalls with a spanner sticking out of the top pocket – a stoker in the boiler-room of the Kursk. Nothing like the WWII cuties in their lustful forage caps. No Sir, during the Cold War there was no cheesecake to be found in Russia, nyet, no sir, no indeedy, not no-how. The couple’s 19-year-old son came to stay with them for a couple of weeks, during which I invited them up. He started snooping around my library, which I hate (well, actually, he wasn’t snooping; he was a nice young fellow, and I had invited him to take a look. I only say ‘snooping’ because if you’re writing something, you have to make it a bit interesting; it’s like the media judiciously lying to everybody; and having arrived beyond middle-life I’m already past the age, anyway, for really athletic fibbing. But seriously, I’m always unnerved when people visit me here and see phalanxes of shelves heavy with books. To deter happy wanderers I have a big notice on my front door to which I invite attention and which says:
Apologies, dear friend, before you put a foot inside the door. My many books are here for tending – and not a single one for lending.
I learned my lesson in October, 1962 when a ‘friend’ borrowed our copy of John Wyndham’s popular futuristic novel The Kraken Wakes (we were into things like ‘triffids’ back then). The book was never returned (I haven’t forgotten, wherever you are) and I have never ever loaned out a single one since, except to a member of my immediate family. It’s a certain breed that asks to ‘borrow’ books. I’ve even learned, with horror, of soulless beings who ‘borrow’ books and go on to lend them out to third parties. It’s quite in order to offer a loan of a book to a trusted friend, of course, provided it’s known that the friend is also a fellow book-lover (but all the same, insist that, before making away with the book, that friend leaves with you his/her passport and one shoe … and as an afterthought, it might well be prudent to have a prepared affidavit at hand, worded most cunningly by a notary-public, for which the friend-borrower must be a signatory. No need to go further than this, though; forget a prescribed number of witnesses and counter-signatories, as this may suggest to the friend-borrower that your trust in him/her is lacking. Although, in these days of the cam-phone it would be just as well and easy enough to photograph the transaction). Oh, no, I’m quite straight about it, so when Mikhail’s son, stopping at a shelf, said that he’d always meant to read the Heimskringla and ventured even further by asking if he could borrow the one which snuggled contentedly amongst its sister volumes, I was forced to give my stock answer, which is: ‘I’m sorry – I never lend books out. But I can tell you where you can buy a copy’. This is simple, straightforward, and always works. No, when it comes to my books I am neither a dupe nor a dope. Oh, yes, beloved bibliophiles, beware the beastly breed of book-borrowers.
To wind up, we cannot really leave the poem without tribute to the one responsible for its very coming into being, and without whom I would never have met Michael and Lena; I speak of my good, long-time pal, Blackie. Now Blackie was of his race the most exceptionally talented, whose abilities amounted to genius, and when I say ‘genius’ I don’t mean merely the kind of intellectual equilibrium with the universe that we find in a Galileo or a Newton, but also the superlatively acute, instantaneous vision of a Shane Williams or a Gareth Bale. Indeed, I cannot emphasize how intelligent Blackie was; and when I say intelligent, I don’t mean the lowly empirical intelligence with which we humans are accustomed to credit our canine cousins when we place three bowls in front of them, the first containing salt, the second sugar, and the third some tasty meat, and – lo and behold! – the dog selects the third. No, I mean something quite different; I mean unique, enormous intelligence. Blackie, for instance, was an accomplished mathematician. This I was proud to demonstrate to all three of those professors of Mathematics mentioned above. In their presence I would say to my pal, ‘Blackie: what is the solution to 9-5+4?’ And Blackie would say nothing. I would test him with even more complicated formulae of the same type, such as 28+2-9+6+15, and Blackie would instantly respond, each and every time, with absolutely the correct answer. The professors were, of course, suitably impressed, and their wistful smiles, proof of their expert understanding, were a pleasure to behold. Further, Blackie was a notable Latin scholar. It’s true. At a very early age, during his puppyhood, he had simply devoured both Horace’s Odes and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He tried to do this without my knowledge, naturally, but one day I caught him at it. He had, quite on his own initiative, plucked the volumes from the lower shelves. Clever boy; there they were, my copies of the Latin poets, lying on the study floor, and obviously having been treated with great attentiveness … To astonish people, I would say to him, in front of an audience I knew to be highly appreciative of the Classics, ‘Blackie: ‘Hic, Haec, Hoc’ or ‘Is, Ea, Id’ – continue …’ : and Blackie would instantly decline. At that time, unfortunately, we had no Latinist here, as Monseigneur Fahy had passed away some time previously (Monseigneur Fahy was an Irish-American who had been nominated to a bishopric in mainland China, but before he was able to take up his duties as bishop, Mao Tse-tung had beaten him to it, and he was obliged to make his way to Formosa [see Requiem for a Jesuit in ‘The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion’ for these times]. His funeral was an entirely splendid occasion; there were trumpeters there wearing tall, plumed bi-corn hats just like Napoleon’s marshals. The Hsinchu cathedral was packed to capacity; at the back we were sardines, and still more overflowed into the plaza. I do remember, though, that the little scowling Spanish brother who was sexton at the Catholic section of the cemetery – later I would meet him on my walks there with Blackie and discover that despite his ever-stern visage he was, when you got to know him, quite aimable and loquacious – pushed his way in front of me, partly obscuring my view; I said nothing at the time, nor during our subsequent chats – but I don’t forget these things, and if I ever see the bloke again … 🙂 ). The Monseigneur, I know, would have been highly pleased with Blackie’s learning, which, I would go so far as to say, quite surpassed his own, and later, enjoying as we did a most amicable working relationship with the Father Superior of the Diocese it was on my mind that with his Latin and all I might secure for my pal an appointment in the Church. But Blackie had other skills too and was impatient for some real action. He was, for example, fast. Oh, boy, was he fast! How that lad could run, swerving and side-stepping with marvellous dexterity around every conceivable obstacle in his path. It was for this reason that, although a promising career as a prominent ecclesiastic or Latin or mathematics professor beckoned him, we decided on another course, and within a short while my Fidus Achates, being all black and astonishingly, incredibly fast and agile, was snapped up by the New Zealand national XV. (I must say, here, that I had some misgivings about offering my boy to the second-best rugby team in the world, as it might go to their heads, and they might with reinvigorated buoyancy fancy their chances against us, remembering particularly what happened in Llanelli in 1972; but there, the lad was all black and raring for action. And indeed, all was going well until, at the very time he was preparing for his international debut, some interfering, jealous scoundrel (English, I’ve always suspected) surreptitiously decided to rummage through the books, and discovered deeply buried there some obscure rule which stated that no-one with more than two legs was allowed as player on a rugby pitch . Eventually, and to the chagrin and disappointment of rugby followers worldwide – and not only that but around the entire globe – my fleet star’s place on the wing was reluctantly given to Joe Rokokoko. Poor Blackie.
Now that I think of it, I remember, at one time, not long before his transfer of intellectual abilities to the physical, he became remarkably quiet. Pensive, thoughtful, he was, and as this lasted for some little while it caused me some worry. This was not too long after his perusal of Horace and Ovid, and I should mention here that following that occasion I found that both Claudian and Pacatus had been pulled out of their places on the bottom shelf and well perused; indeed, Pacatus seemed to have been handled voraciously. This lad’s appetite for the Latin poets was insatiable … Then, like a flash of lightning, it dawned on me – he was working on a book! The little rascal! And he had kept quiet about it all the time! I remembered that he had put his paws up on my desk a couple of times, panting excitedly, thrusting his snout into my papers at the time I was absorbed in Claudian, and suspect, in addition, that he must have heard me talking on the phone to a friend about my opinion of Pacatus (yes, you, Pacatus, you big Theodosius-creep. It’s me, Lewis. Did you think I’d forgotten? Denigrate Magnus Maximus, would you? Well, by Phileironeia Coprocephalos, we’ll discuss this in due course, and we’ll see about that … ! ) [ for this, see In Praise of Ale in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion] ). But I was excited! Was it to be two volumes to astound the academic world, then? The second a specialist study on Late Panegyrics? And all the while – by Vociferus Barcatus! – he had remained totally silent, the crafty devil! Well, I suppose that’s how it must be with all the greats – there they are, quietly working out their majestic themes, all to themselves, all unbeknown to the lesser among us. Then, abruptly, he had aroused himself out of his poetico-mental studies, become all of a sudden alive, and had changed his mind and started racing around the fields at top speed after the rugby ball I had booted ahead of him, thereby launching himself straight into a new regimen of training of an entirely different kind. What a dog. World rugby sensation was nice; I was a bit disappointed about the books, though.
I did compose a poem about this wonderful flat-mate of mine, a long one, too, well over 100 lines, and very funny. Unfortunately this is the only poem that I have ever lost. The original manuscript was stolen one night with a file of other documents when my car was broken into. Luckily, I had shown a photocopy to family members and this photocopy I understand to be still lurking, somewhere, among assorted papers, although several searches have been made and it has not yet been found. But I’ve been assured that it has not been mistakenly thrown away and hope that one day it may be rediscovered and I’ll be able to post it here on ‘The Ig-Og’. Wish me luck.
A sudden fit of coughing urged me out of sleep. I tried my best to stem the thing for fear you would wake.
Oh – how surely the sleeping mind, in this lonely, captive hour, and memory, and tricks of time, conspire to bring you near …
I sigh, and try to grasp, again, that you’re no longer here.
Saint-Sulpice Strikes Seven
You came to me again last night. I saw you as you were; your corn-gold hair that hadn’t changed in all the passing years. But when I spoke, as I dearly wished, and would touch your lovely face – the vision broke, and I was left in darkness and alone; but seeking yet … with old regrets that wouldn’t let me go.
Sounds of Night
There is a scratch-scritch-scratching in the skirting-board at night. Downstairs, a chair creaks of its own accord. My midnight spider tap-tip-taps across a loosened paper patch – six thicknesses that cling and sag on this old wall … Then comes the silent age of night before rebirth. Another dawn.
Something has scratched incessantly inside me, gnawing at my soul, for long, long years. My spirit creaks, contracting like the old wood of my chairs. If she would come tap-tapping at my heart’s scarred wall from all those distant plains of time gone by, where memories are hinged, some precious, some so cursed, but each one living as it was, still, in my mind – I would that very instant let her in, and joyfully be hers.
From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’
Note: For context, see Roslin in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion. The three poems above are intended to represent, as imaginative contemplation and in imitation of the found letter’s style, something of Bertran’s disquieting night-time visitations over the years of long separation.
The Saint-Sulpice mentioned is the great cathedral church of that name in Paris. I chose it simply on a personal whim, as I’ve always had a strong interest in the cathedral itself and in its namesake, St. Sulpice Severus, the first biographer of St. Martin of Tours, who got on so nicely with Magnus Maximus during that Emperor’s rule in the Late Roman West. In the 18th century the cathedral had a dangerously-constructed and therefore short-lived bell-tower, but never a clock. So the ‘Saint-Sulpice Strikes… ‘ of the poems is a continuation of this exercise in artistic licence. I suppose the ‘striking’ to be of a clock, anyway, which fits Bertran’s interrupted sleep very well; but largely on my mind were bells, too, and here I was influenced by Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1891 novel of the decadence, Là-Bas. His story is set contemporaneously, in the late 19th century, and there in the great spaces of the cathedral of Saint-Sulpice he has a fictitious bell-tower, and one Louis Carhaix, an old bell-ringer who loves his bells just as much as Quasimodo ever did. Huysmans’ description of the cold, eerie, and vertiginous spaces within the tower and the tremendous reverberation of the bells is superbly atmospheric. It may be seen, then, that I have domiciled Bertran a few miles to the south-east of Pontoise, where the letter to his Roslin was found.
Three episodes, selected and condensed from Bullskull and Lionheart: the Fellowship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu A rendition in metrical verse of the first part of The Epic of Gilgamesh
Little need be said by way of introduction to the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, renowned as it is for its 4,000 years of existence as the world’s oldest known surviving example of epic poetry. The focus, I think, need only be on aspects of the three selections which appear below.
My aim, when setting out on Gilgamesh as a poetry project, was to give a rendering not of the whole epic, but only its first half, which has always appealed to me to be of greater interest than the second. (The second half is, of course, very relevant to the literary intention of the whole; but the story does fall quite naturally into two parts – the earlier relationship between two main protagonists and, with the severance of that relationship, the tale’s continuation by the remaining party). So my overall aim was to render, in metrical verse, the tale of The Fellowship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and this I completed in 2,110 lines of the chosen metre. What appears below is a very small selection from this, covering three quite self-contained episodes of the story; they are themselves heavily condensed and compressed to focus on the more relevant points – and simplified, omitting and substituting, for example, many names of Mesopotamian deities; so this is very much a partial presentation, a glimpse intended for a general audience – but intended, still, to give a concise view of these few selected events together with some flavour and atmosphere.
To refresh readers’ memory and set the scene, Gilgamesh, immensely physically strong, despotic ruler of the city of Uruk and especially resented and feared for his bullying, bride-stealing habits (his very own anticipation of the mediaeval jus primae noctis where he would offer to wrestle any prospective husband for the right of being first to bed the bride) has aroused the animosity of its citizens. The gods, aware of his grossly tormenting behaviour, decide to punish him by creating an alter-ego who will act as his adversary – a ‘wild man’, Enkidú (stress on the third and final syllable – possessing strength equal to Gilgamesh’s own, but by temperament his very opposite. Gilgamesh hears of him and makes a plan to destroy Enkidu’s life in the world he has always known – to tame and ‘civilize’ him – via the wiles of the most favoured of his temple-maidens: this is the subject of the first section, ‘The Seduction of the Wild Man’. The plan succeeds, but Enkidu retains his great strength and intercepts Gilgamesh in the streets of Uruk in the very act of stealing a man’s bride on their wedding-day. Enkidu, enraged, blocks Gilgamesh’s entry at the doorway of the wedding-party and a fierce fight ensues: this is the subject of the second section, ‘The Contention of the Lion and the Bull’. Following this, the two become staunch friends and embark upon a great adventure together in which they travel over vast stretches of wild terrain to cut down trees of the great cedar forest which is under the guardianship of the monstrous demi-god Humbaba, a terrifying ogre-figure protected by seven powerful ‘auras’ or magical layers: this is the subject of the third section, ‘Seeking the Monster’.
This is where these three excerpts end, so as not to interfere with the whole story for anyone who might not be familiar with the tale in its entirety and who may wish to read of it for themselves. Briefly, though, the two heroes, after being involved together in one other violent encounter, are separated, and it is this separation which also marks the dividing point between the two halves of the original poem.
The notes following these three sections in verse contain (i) information on my approach to tackling the transliteration, (ii) upon the metre chosen to present it, and (iii) points on terms in the body of the poem which may require explanation or clarification. Asterisks are used to denote these.
I’m not sure how this metrical version of The Epic of Gilgamesh will be received by viewers, or how familiar with the epic’s whole path viewers might be. To some it may well be their first introduction to an actual reading of the story; to some its rhythmic motion may be pleasing and suitably different to the usual prose or free verse renditions they might have previously come across; to others it may seem rather dull and old-fashioned. Whichever, it will provide a change. I estimate that I have a nucleus of around twenty or perhaps a few more regular readers of The Ig-Og; four or five I’ve come to know as personal friends by way of their ‘likes’ and comments – comments, no matter how brief, being particularly welcome and a help in gauging the degree of appreciation of the site. After this ‘pilot’, I’m wondering about serializing the whole epic – interspersed with regular poetry, of course, and not in overdose. Let’s see how this post goes, anyway.
1. The Seduction of the Wild Man
There was born in dark and silence, in a wild and open landscape – as a sky-bolt out of heaven – Enkidu*, the hair-clad wild one. Hair-clad head, like that of woman, flowing, blowing, like a lion’s, hair-clad body, like wild cattle, thickly tufted, thickly matted. Knows no folk and knows no homeland; of man and clan he has no notion. With gazelles is swiftly running; with gazelles the grass is grazing. At the water-hole he gathers with the creatures of the grasslands; at its muddy edge he jostles; vies with them to drink the waters.
A stealthy hunter spied this strange one, under cover of the verdure; saw him come among the creatures, drinking with them there together. Saw the wild man, thickly-muscled, maned and moving like a lion, thick of thew and huge of stature, as a king among wild creatures. Terror took the hidden watcher, and his hunter’s heart leapt wildly to behold this fearsome stranger. Sorely troubled was the hunter, sorely vexed by much foreboding; woe had entered deep inside him as he homeward took his footsteps, as he went, subdued and silent, to the dwelling of his father.
And the youth’s sagacious father spoke thuswise unto the hunter: “In Uruk, my son, rules Gilga*, Gilgamesh the king and fighter, Gilgamesh, supreme as warrior unsurpassed by any other. Seek him out – relate your story, this mighty long-haired lion-man’s story. Then this plan put to King Gilga – ask of him a temple-maiden, one so shapely and beguiling no man living could deny her; for a woman’s way will conquer any strength a man can offer. He will give the woman Shamhat, Shamhat, queen of temple-maidens*. Take her to the grasslands with you. When the herds come down to water, when the wild man comes to drink it, she must show herself unto him, show her female’s form unto him. He will leave the herd to see her, venture near to see her closely. Then the herd will all be wary, they will scent the human on him, scent all wild things find abhorrent, and will leave the place without him, never to abide his presence.
Heeding then his father’s counsel to Uruk the hunter travelled, gained an audience with King Gilga. King and hunter conversed gravely, and at length the king commanded: “Take the temple-maiden Shamhat. Take her to the grasslands with you. When the herds come down to water, and she stands where he can see her, he will come to see her closely. Every beast will be suspicious, and will leave the place without him.”
Shamhat and the hunter travelled straightway back unto the grasslands; there they sat, two hidden watchers, till there came the host of creatures to that place to take the waters, and with all the milling hundreds, born to grasslands, running with them, there came Enkidu among them. So it was that Shamhat saw him, saw his shaggy, barbarous body, knew his rough and savage nature. ‘There! Now, Shamhat!” called the hunter, “Show yourself, that he may see you! Hang not back, but let him take you! Throw your clothes down – let him have you! Work your woman’s wiles upon him, let him know how you can wake him!”
Then did Shamhat loose her garments, take her slander shape from hiding, show the contours of her body, show her beauty, rounded, smooth-skinned. Nor had Enkidu imagined skin so smooth or form so curving; near he came to gaze in wonder at this new, enchanting creature, at this strange, alluring figure. And the girl was so entrancing, soft and scented and enticing that she took the spirit from him, and her woman’s ways ensnared him. Shamhat tossed her clothing from her: Enkidu was drawn unto her. Six long days they lay together, seven long nights enjoyed that pleasure; lost was Enkidu in wonder, captive of his ardent lover, of the grassland creatures thoughtless, of his brethren beasts regardless.
Till with ardour now abated, he, arising, took his footsteps where his fellows drank the waters. But the creatures raised heads sharply, sensing something new about him, scenting what was of his lover, and, as one, with splash and thunder, shied away into the outlands, wheeled and scattered in the grasslands slowing, halting at a distance, wary, shunning, gazing backwards. After them again he started, but his pace was not as speedy as before, and was diminished. He was spent, his strength depleted, and he knew the herds now shunned him, and would evermore reject him. Woman and love’s ways had found him, Shamhat and her ways had bound him, altered everything about him – taken, changed his understanding.
2. The Contention of the Lion and the Bull
Two there were approached each other, two were in the street advancing till, expectant, taut and silent, met the wild man and the tyrant. Straightway then they came together, bull to lion, straining fiercely. Against a doorway now they grappled, and the doorpost shook and shattered; now against the walls they thundered, till the buildings quaked and shuddered*. Out among the streets they battled, seizing, feinting, panting, swaying, each his own advantage seeking. And the hundreds ranged about them, fully drawn back from the battle, gasping, cheering, scarce believing such a contest was ensuing, to see this day their king receiving blow for blow what he was giving. Out into the squares they drave them, grunting, gasping, thrusting, lunging; thick about them dust was rising, now their reeling bodies hiding; now the two would split asunder – moments later, clash together. Bull to lion they were equal till, a trick of balance winning, Gilga lifted up the other overhead; aloft he held him, foot and knee firm-placed he gripped him in the victor’s vice, unmoving. Thus the victory was signalled – and the contest reached its ending. As a wind soughs through the treetops, living, dying, in but moments, so a murmur rose and foundered through the tense, suspense-held hundreds – rose and faltered, trailed and foundered; then the watching crowd was silent. Enkidu, released, plunged downward*, in Uruk’s white dust lay conquered; Gilga turned his back to handplay; thus the fury faded from them. Enkidu now raised his body from the dust where he had fallen, standing there addressed King Gilga, solemnly addressed the victor. Warriors two then came together – this time to embrace each other. Gilgamesh embraced him closely, held his eyes, and uttered firmly: “Never was in all existence one to match the might of Gilga; you and I were matched in fighting – matched as thunder matches lightning. From the fury of our struggle there is forged a warrior’s friendship.”
3. Seeking the Monster
Now, when all was silent seeming, after many miles of travel, when the forest stood before them, dim and far stood there before them as a blanket in the distance spread on mile and mile of mountain, as an endless blue-green mantle thrown across that rugged terrain, Gilga, kneeling, prayed to Shamash*.
Shamash heard the words of Gilga, heard those words so solemn spoken, straightway thundered from the heavens: “Now the time to stand against him as he strides without the forest, as he stalks the forest edges; let him not return within it – for he wears not all his auras, wears not all his seven-fold armour. Six he doffed to lurk his borders – clad in one alone he wanders!”
Thankful for these words of Shamash, steeled, the heroes hurried forward. But from the forest, there before them, from the dimness far before them came a single fearsome bellow fit to freeze the blood within them; once and once alone it sounded – but across the heights redounded, echoed through the miles of mountain till it filled the world about them, till the very vault of heaven shook with its reverberation. Thus the guardian of the forest roared his ire in voice like thunder.
Now must they proceed with caution, and each other courage offer, they who traversed mighty mountains, they who knew the trials of combat; so did each one tell the other, to his consort staunchly speaking, that no tremors should assail them; they would stride on two together sounding out like drums to battle, spurn all fear and march together, each one guarding well his brother. Thus they tramped the miles remaining, building boldness up between them, till the words between them lessened, till all talk was hushed, proclaiming the darkened wall of trees beginning – the forest edge above them looming.
There they stood, transfixed, together, side by side, spellbound, they stood there at the lofty cedars gazing, at the strong, straight boles arising as great pillars all about them, huge and dark and silent standing, watchers at the forest gateway. And where the guardian had been walking broad and well-worn tracks were trodden twixt the giant stems surrounding, pathway for the two advancing. At each side the thorns grew, tangled, matted thickets, interwoven; branches webbed a roof above them; shade and shadow lay about them, shadowed shapes minutely changing, dappling all the well-worn pathway.
So the two advanced together through the silent greenwood shadows, through the dark heart of the forest where the sunlight reached but faintly. Naked weapons now they brandished, weapons all now at the ready; swords were from the scabbard taken, fists clenched close round axe and dagger, and, with nerves taut, weapons ready, stole they forward slow and steady. Words they whispered to each other, that they might their courage bolster: “Singly we can not defeat him; two together we will meet him. Among the beasts the lion is strongest; but two fine cubs may last the longest.” These words whispered to each other – for each step would take them nearer, ever closer to the Monster.
(i) The Approach: Transliteration to Rendition
Like most people, I had for a long time known of the discovery of the Gilgamesh tablets, knew the broad theme of the story and its major events, but had never taken time to actually read a full version; when I eventually did, I was immediately captivated by the idea of producing my own poetic version. My first step was to obtain as many versions as I could get hold of as a basis on which to work, and over eighteen months or so had seventeen of these at my disposal, nine of which were scholarly works and eight by other interested writers. By ‘scholarly’ I mean the researches of experts in archaeolinguistics able to work from the original cuneiform of the tablets; by ‘other interested writers’, enthusiasts with no knowledge of cuneiform but with varying degrees of poetic ability who might have based their renditions on both scholarly and non-scholarly works with varying abilities and results. The latter I found to be – although in the main not awfully helpful – useful in some other respects; of these eight (published from 1934 to 2004) one was in prose, and seven in varieties of free verse ranging from ubiquitous ‘chopped up prose’ to decent free rhythms and in one case interesting, innovative verse. For the sake of accuracy – absolutely imperative – the obvious thing to do was to adhere as religiously as possible to what the cuneiform said as the primary source, and dip into the secondary versions according to whatever the occasional, supplementary value their insights and artistry might offer.
This was in the days of buying hold-in-the-hand books. It was becoming possible to do online research, but that was in its infancy, and anyway, I wouldn’t have known how or where to begin. It was also in the days before mass reprints of scarce and rare publications, and it has amazed me how these books I then had to search for diligently and buy at some expense are now readily available as reasonably-priced reprints. My scholarly versions of Gilgamesh ranged from the first, pioneering edition by R. Campbell-Thompson in 1928 to A.R.George’s superb 2003 2-volume critical edition. There is much excellent scholarship from seven others in between, plus two expositional studies on the evolution of the epic, adding up to eleven scholarly sources.
Outside of this scope there are two other works which should be mentioned, neither which have affected my own rendition, but each with an inherent interest of its own. One is actually the very earliest work to tackle Gilgamesh, preceding even Campbell Thompson’s; the other sits at our opposite, modern end. Each one is very different from what we now regard as the textus receptus – but each has its own unique, pleasingly unusual quality. The first is Leonidas Le Cenci Hamilton’s (beat that name if you can!) Ishtar and Izdubar: The Epic of Babylon, of 1884. Hamilton wrote his poem at a time when precious few fragments of the cuneiform tablets had been discovered, using only the available Akkadian information. His ‘Izdubar’ is in fact a literal translation of the ideograph for ‘Gilgamesh’, and the equivalent identities were not realised until many years later when the more detailed Babylonian tablets came to light. To attain continuity, Hamilton found it necessary to use some padding, and this he did by including extra items, such as sacred hymns, in the body of his poem. Written in heroic couplets, I find it delightful reading; its Victorian style and Eastern setting reminds me very much of Edwin Arnold’s Indian Song of Songs, which is discussed elsewhere in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under Song of the Shulamite Maid. Due to the lack of available material, many aspects of Hamilton’s work are quite unlike the Gilgamesh story as we now know it, but credit must be given to him for producing something remarkable in its own right. Credit for the first substantially complete academic version must go to Thompson. The second ’outside the scope’ version of the epic is Derrek Hines’ 2002 Gilgamesh, a shortish, rumbustious retelling with vivid, sometimes startling and sometimes chortle-raising language. Enjoyable. His section on the hunt for the forest guardian he calls ‘The Humbaba Campaign’ bringing us through its imagery right up to the values of the present century (and shades of the ill-advised, illicit Iraq War?) in a style which brings to mind Welsh author and artist David Jones’ method in his epic WWI poem In Parenthesis. Hines writes:
‘New boy stopped a grenade today. We sluiced what remained from his armour as you’d pressure-hose mud from a wheel-arch’.
‘The lieutenant bought it twice. We’d left him two hundred yards to the rear for morning burial, but a plasma bolt
overshot and fried him, fisting a million volts down his spine. He arched and crackled like a rainbow;’
Well, yes, a long way from the cuneiform; but poetry has a way of transforming itself in time. Humbaba and his laser beams. I won’t tell you here what Hines has to say about Shamhat… but from beginning to end it’s all brisk, invigorating stuff, and a completely new take on Gilgamesh.
Anyway, to get back to it, my procedure was, for each prospective line of my poem, to consult, and record one below the other using pencil and paper, each single line of the poem represented in each of the nine scholarly works – with the object of comparing key words, interpretations, variants, and above all ascertaining the sense of each line, and from the comparison derive a line of my own. I would then repeat this with a reading of each of the eight secondary sources (this time without notation, due to the waywardness of some) and incorporate what I found useful as possible alternatives (this procedure I followed throughout the poem, excepting the additional 100-line prologue and around the first 50 lines of the main work, as up to that point I had not really got into the more disciplined stride I was to take with the sources).There is only so much that can be done with a limited number of similar words in a single line, so the problem, as always with transliteration, was to provide as much variation as possible from what had already been arrived at by others whilst retaining all aspects of the original meaning. Enough to work on.
(ii) A Metre for a Metrical Version
I’ve always thought that, to get the real ‘feel’ of it, epic poetry of the past is best expressed in translation by keeping it ‘in sync’ with the spirit of its time – and that the best way of doing this is through metrical verse which gives it that tinge of antiquity, with the archaic. Which is why, despite the present trend by writers, editors and publishers to provide updated modern-language versions I’d prefer to read the prose or poetry of, say, Gwyn and Thomas Jones’ or Charlotte Guest’s versions of The Mabinogion, some of the earlier, late 19th/early 20th century versions of the Icelandic Sagas, or going back a little, the wonderful 16th century language of North’s Plutarch and Chapman’s Homer. Steffan Balsom provides us with a fine metrical version of the Old Welsh epic poem Y Gododdin which fits its spirit beautifully (a metrical version, sorely needed, I feel, had not been done before); excerpts from this appear in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under the title Strife on the Borders. As far as I’ve been able to discover, no metrical version of the Gilgamesh epic has been done, either.
The metre I decided upon – and which you will have seen above – was an easy choice, as for me it has always been a definite favourite. It will have a familiarity to viewers, too, who will have no difficulty in recognizing it as the one Longfellow used for his classic Hiawatha. Now in its structure Hiawatha was modelled entirely on what is today the national epic of Finland, the Kalevala, but which was in Longfellow’s time scarcely known, and its history is an intriguing one; for it was only in the first part of the 19th century that Finnish academics – rather like the Brothers Grimm with their German folk-tales – became interested in peasant folk-music which had been sung by professional singers to the accompaniment of the kantele, the Finnish zither, for no-one knows how many centuries. When the scholars first began to collect these songs they had little success, as due to past attempts by the Church to suppress them – they represented strong, immensely ancient but still living pagan beliefs – the peasantry was suspicious. When it was ascertained that the scholarly collectors were not government or Church agents, an immense wealth of hitherto unknown and scattered folk literature began to be amassed. At the centre of this was the University of Helsingfors, and directing the search, following valuable pioneering work by another scholar, Zacharias Topelius, was a Doctor Lönnrot. Over a period of many years, Lönnrot made up to a dozen lengthy trips into eastern Finland, into Karelia and the extreme north, gathering tens of thousands of examples, often repeated, often differing in their content. And when collating and classifying this mountain of hitherto dispersed material, Lönnrot eventually realized that what he was dealing with were the far-flung parts of a single, continuous story: for untold centuries, the peasantry, unbeknown to them, had been the custodians and continuators of a great, submerged epic unknown to the literary world – and it was unlike any other in European literature. In 1835-1836 Lönnrot published his Old Kalevala, followed by the Kanteletar, and finally, in 1849, the complete Kalevala. It was translated into English by Crawford (1888) and by Kirby (1907). I have both these excellent translations, Kirby’s perhaps being the slightly better of the two, but at 23,000 lines have never been able to succeed in getting through more than about a third of each before having to pass on to something else.
And here we have the happy – the happily astounding – coincidence that at the same time during the early 19th century and at opposite ends of the earth two great masterpieces of literature were suddenly and unexpectedly presented to the world. Each had been discovered, bit by tantalizing bit, from long-buried ruins – the Gilgamesh tablets from shattered physical remains in the desert, the Kalevala stanzas from the fragmented oral trove of the rune-singers. Both were of enormous antiquity; both were concerned with the elemental powers of nature; with supernatural beings who represented them; with magico-mythical qualities. The Kalevala, especially, is built upon the magic of words.
The musical element of language is very evident in Finnish, and so also very evident in the Kalevala and Finnish verse in general; the language is sonorous and flexible, and lends itself to poetry. The metre of the Kalevala is eight-syllable trochaic – i.e., trochaic tetrameter. The trochee is as natural to Finnish poetry as the iamb is to English (strangely enough, I’ve never felt at home with that favourite of English, the very respected and well-known iambic pentameter, and have never sat down to consciously compose anything in that metre. I’ve always found it difficult, and have wondered why that might be. With tetrameter, now, I’ve always been quite naturally comfortable. I remember being absolutely entranced by the flow of Hiawatha upon being introduced to the poem at Primary school. That must have been it!). By another comparison, it’s as natural as the 5 and 7 syllabic pattern in its various combinations is to Japanese poetry. Beyond its being trochaic, there are three other qualities which exemplify the Finnish metre. Firstly, it should be alliterative; secondly, it should be to some extent rhymed; and thirdly, it should throughout feature parallelism. The more important of the three is parallelism – the repetition, or part-echo, of one line in the next; this appears constantly. Rhyme can appear internally or at the ends of lines, and need only be occasional; alliteration may appear anywhere. Here, in the very first few lines of the Proem to the Kalevala, (Crawford’s translation) the three are exemplified together:
‘In my mouth the words are melting, From my lips the tones are gliding’
In Finnish poetics, all three fall much more naturally and properly into place than they can ever do in English; still, they do, in my experience, have a habit of making unexpected, timely appearances during composition, parallelism being decidedly the more overtly conscious. Viewers will no doubt recognize all three, albeit more haphazardly than in any Finnish piece, in the excerpts above.
Some have considered trochaics unsuitable, or at least unpopular among poets, for verse of any length. Anyone who has appreciated the powerful, sustained, forward flow of the Kalevala, or Longfellow’s copying of the style for that matter, will hardly agree. To me this metre is nimble and vigorous, its variation between time and sound never allowing it to become monotonous. And it is wonderfully versatile, able to treat as equally with emotions as it is with heroics, and indeed as easily with the humorous (as Longfellow’s contemporaries soon showed in parody, notably Lewis Carroll’s Hiawatha’s Photographing. I’ve used it comically in The Game in Cardiff, which can be found elsewhere in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion, and in another which will probably appear soon in an upcoming post).
Notes to the poem:
* Enkidu: The name means ‘lord of the pleasant place’. The ‘pleasant place’ might indicate the lush grasslands which were his home. He appears in the cuneiform sources in three distinct aspects – as servant, as counsellor, and as bosom friend to King Gilgamesh.
* Gilga: The variant spellings of the name ‘Gilgamesh’ are many in the cuneiform sources. Among them, ‘Gilga’ appears to be an attested abbreviation. In many places this short form better suits the metre, and where this is the case I have used it.
* Shamhat, queen of temple-maidens: The etymology of the personal name is strongly associated with superlative feminine bodily beauty. Shamhat was a hierodule, or ‘temple slave’, but more than that, a sexual initiate of the temple, a cultic harlot paid for her favours, which were viewed as a religious rite. She appears to have been superior in her skills. Uruk was well-known as a cultic sanctuary of Ishtar, goddess of sexual love, and it is likely Shamhat was employed at the temple of that goddess.
* till the building quaked and shuddered: Unfortunately there is a considerable lacuna in the cuneiform sources between this line in my rendering and some 29 lines further down, where we reach ‘Enkidu, released, plunged downward’. which is similarly marked with an asterisk. This means that there is no actual description of the fight in the original sources. But in a creative version of the story, no matter how nearly geared to the original, we can’t do without a fight – can we? And if Derrek Hines can reveal to us Humbaba’s lasers and describe this street to-do in these lively terms:
Sudden jostling in the crowd: the fight is hijacked by the expectations of spectacle – paparazzi:
… … … … … …
They topple into each other like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings; their hearts trapped in the elevators, their minds locked in the blueprints of testosterone flesh and muscle
then I think I’m justified in doing a little filling in – which for continuity’s sake, I have.
* Shamash: The Akkadian sun god, twin of Ishtar, goddess of love, and patron of Gilgamesh.
And yes – I loved you over years, though secret pains and secret fears that would not rest in heart or mind lived on and gnawed and made me blind to all the treasure that I held, eventually. And in the end indifference – mad indifference, measured by what hate and pain? – felled everything that could have been.
And now – I see you more than gifts of gold. And silvered years have tempered fears of old. But unknown fathoms and uncertain days assault and haunt me still and I would play the game with them and wrestle them and free my heart and mind and hope for what might be.
And oh – I love you still and strong; with strength that comes from loss, and hurt and wrong that scars your heart and mine. I feel those years of grief again. I seek your star up in the sky. I live to touch your clothes or hand; would give the world that smile of old to share; caress the softness of your hair.
And yes – I woo you now as in those younger days, with golden gifts and glances and again with proffered hand and walks and tea for two, and all I ever dreamed that we might do. And I’d face the world again if I could find your heart once more, sweet Roslin, by my side.
(From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’ )
Note: This I rendered into verse from the text of a letter, in a neat cursive hand in ink that had faded to brown, dated August 2, 1847 which was found within the pages of a (1904, if I remember correctly – I should have made a note) copy of the Revue Celtique. The journal belonged to a friend who knew I would be interested, and who had already made a good translation of the letter’s contents; this was very many years ago. There was no indication of the address of the writer, nor of the recipient – simply Pontoise as the location, the date, the salutation to ‘Roslin’ with her name repeated in the final line of the text (the sequence, as well as the emotions, of the letter’s contents has been faithfully adhered to), and the valedictory ‘Bertran’. We have no idea who placed the letter in the journal, nor whether it was actually sent or received; from the lack of addresses, it appears that it was intended to be delivered by hand. But the story which we are allowed a glimpse of here is a poignant one, telling as it does of a once-love keenly remembered, intimating what – we are kept in the dark about exactly what – caused that love to fall apart, and, through a meeting at a considerably later time, holding out hope for a rediscovery of the real strength and depth of the love that was and, although Bertran worries much still, the hope of a reconciliation. We can only hope that Roslin received the letter, and that despite the pain of the years, she and Bertran were once more happily reunited.
What might be made of the time difference between the letter’s penning in 1847 and its appearance in a literary/historical journal some fifty-seven years later must remain a mystery. Pontoise (Roman Pontisara, a major stop on the road north) was a city in north-central France known (certainly in the 19th century) as something of a literary and artistic centre. It’s now incorporated into the north-western suburbs of Paris. I can’t describe the feelings which passed though me when I was handed the letter; a one-hundred-and-fifty year old story of two hearts, folded neatly into a journal found in a second-hand bookshop, brought suddenly back to life. It was a heartfelt encounter with the past that simply could not be allowed to be forgotten.
I’ve been fortunate myself in stumbling across letters placed between the leaves of books, or accidentally bound into rebound volumes, but nothing so touching as Bertran’s plea to the woman he once loved and found again. My finds were quite mundane, but interesting enough – a letter from a person whose name I recognized as being a subscriber to The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion voicing his pleasure at having his first article as a contributor accepted, handwritten on The Athanaeum, Oxford, headed paper around the time of WWI; and a letter from one scholar to another discussing in positive terms, I’m glad to say, the work of a long-time hero of mine, Welsh historian Rev. A. W. Wade-Evans, from around the 1940s and again discovered in a copy of the Cymmrodorion’s Transactions. A line of this was damaged, it was not nice to find upon later looking at it, by Taiwan’s humidity having melted into it the sealing glue of its envelope. Regrettably both are lost, now, due to our constant moving over the years. But – what! Here’s to Bertran and Roslin!
A Poetic Treatise on Cervisage, or The Noble Art and Practice of Beer Drinking, in Nine Excursions
being partly naughtily narrated in the merry manner of the mischievous monk Rabelais, together with an army of asterisks and endless explanations for which patience is politely pleaded.
1. In Praise of Ale (Adapted from the French of Charles Baudelaire)
Ale… ! Why, it could transform a sordid hole into a miracle, a gleaming hall, and castles would arise by virtue of its liquid gold to be revealed in sunsets… seen, alas, through bleary eyes.
Le vin sait revêtir le plus sordide bouge D’un luxe miraculeux, Et fait surgir plus d’un portique fabuleux Danse l’or de sa vapeur rouge, Comme un soleil couchant dans un ciel nébuleux.
You’ll note, no doubt, that Baudelaire was writing about wine, and not beer. The translation and slight adaptation represents the first of Baudelaire’s four stanzas of his poem. This first one deals with the expanding, transforming effect of wine (or beer!) The second brands it as being an opium to the senses. The third and fourth go on to say that these effects of the drink are nothing compared to how the eyes of the woman he is with dizzy and sway him all the way to the Underworld (the two are related, no doubt … ). But the first stanza alone is all that is required, in the spirit of the main title, to extoll the releasing virtues of the golden juice. Upon deciding to include this translation in a once-projected collection of 100+ Welsh-themed poems, though, I dispensed with ‘Ale … !’ as the opening line and replaced it with a more suitable ‘Felinfoel’, somewhat tailoring what followed to fit *.
Felinfoel? Well, that rather intrusive interpolation into M.Baudelaire’s poem needs, with apologies to him, explaining (he would have never heard of the name, of course). Another reason for explanation is that unless of Welsh nationality or with some close affinity to Wales, it’s unlikely that others who might be looking in on ‘The Ig-Og’ will have heard of it. So, as Teilhard was so fond of saying, ‘Let me explain’. ‘Felinfoel’, here, is short for ‘Felinfoel ale’, known, along with the specific nomenclature reserved for very best brews, simply as ‘Felinfoel’. (‘A pint of Felinfoel, please’; and you would not receive a quizzical look from the bartender.). Felinfoel Ale was the first canned beer to be produced in the British Isles, by the Felinfoel Brewery Co. Ltd., debuting on December 3, 1935 – so we are just a little late to celebrate that anniversary; this followed closely on the first ever successful canning of beer, in the USA in January of that year. Why the Felifoel Brewery? Well, it was chosen for its proximity to the humming steel and tinplate boomtown of Llanelli – ‘Tinopolis’ as it was famously known, and at that time the world’s leading producer of tinplate; the thin sheets were shipped to the Metal Box Company and the finished cans returned to Felinfoel for filling with the magic liquid. The brewery’s top product has always been its tall cans of ‘Double Dragon’ – an elegant can with a deep green background bearing two red dragons intertwined; both heraldic and patriotic! I remember, as an eight or nine-year-old in Llanelli, throwing these Double Dragon cans into the AfonLliedi, the little river which terminates its journey to the sea after passing through the town – throwing stones at them, following them at a run along the bank when the stream was in full flood in a bid to hit or even sink them *.
The Double Dragon can I used in The Final Call, a poem of a post-Apocalyptic Wales:
It was the last can of Double Dragon in the Universe, and I sipped it only slowly so that I could savour each and every drop – each single, golden, godly drop – perched high upon the blackened carcass of the Stadium, where below the rows of seats lay scorched, and the sacred turf where winged feet had sped in generations gone was now bare earth upthrusted to the sun…
The complete poem has previously appeared in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under its title.
And the double-dragon doesn’t go away. Some years ago I picked up an interesting item in a local Taiwan market – an antique bronze of two Chinese dragons intertwined. It makes good company on the shelf *.
Now Felinfoel itself is a small village, no more, really, than a couple of streets of slate-roofed terraced houses and the famous brewery. I lived there, a long time ago, where the lane leaves the main village to climb steeply and windingly upward past the chapel, crossing the old single-track Mynydd Mawr railway (where a steam locomotive pulling a string of coal-laden trucks passed twice a day) to the little scatter of houses which formed the outpost of Trebuan *. My Hughes ancestors had lived in the village for generations, And hereby hangs the tale … In the early years of the 1800s there were two water-driven mills in the district – one had a stack, and the other didn’t. The one without the stack was known as Y Felin Foel / ‘The Bald Mill’. Now that was the mill of John Hugh, my 2nd great grandfather – and it is his mill which gave the village its name; the name which was to achieve such fame in the annals of beer-brewing; the name so beloved of the thirsty thousands of the great Welsh south-west. That is my claim to fame.
2. Brewing Beer (From the German of Hans Sachs (1568) )
From barley I brew beer that’s better, with body – mild, and also bitter. In a vat that’s wide and spacious, that’s where all my hops will end up. Boiled full well and left to cool down; into the barrel – there it goes now! Settled well and finely flavoured, left fermenting till it’s savoured.
Aus Gersten seid ich gutes Bier Feist und Tüsch auch bitter monier In ein Breuwfessel weit und gross Darein ich denn den Hoffen stosch Lasch den in Brennten fühlen basch Damit Full ich darnach die Fasch Wol gebunden und wol gebicht Denn giert er und ist zugericht.
Der Bierbreuwer appears in Jost Amman and Hans Sachs’ 1568 work popularly known as the Ständebuch, ‘The Book of Trades’, which illustrates in woodcuts and describes in verse an extensive number of professions, trades and crafts followed in Nuremburg, and is thus a valuable social document for other large German cities in the sixteenth century. Its full title was Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden, ‘An Exact Description of all Ranks on Earth’, and it goes quite a way toward doing that, from the exalted (the Pope, his Cardinals and the Holy Roman Emperor) to the least (the pin-maker, the thimble-maker and no less than four types of fool). The butcher is there, as is the baker – but not the candlestick-maker, although the lamp-maker, who makes his appearance, more than suffices; quite surprised there is no candle-maker, though, as candles, wax and tallow, were universally used in Europe for centuries to come. Both Amman and Sachs enjoyed wide reputations – Jost Amman for his skilled artwork, especially.
My translation is from a facsimile copy of the Ständebuch which has been sitting on the bookshelf for a couple of decades, picked up just now and again, usually when I’ve been tempted to tackle another of its poems, but Der Bierbreuwer is the only one so far attempted. I’ve never seen an English translation of the poem; I did before writing this look up the Ständebuch on the Net, and like everything else these days, lo and behold, it was there! (we don’t have to buy books any more, sad to say … in a way) but hmmm … the poems were not there inextenso, and Der Bierbreuwer had escaped the editorial clutches. So my translation had to be made directly from the original print in heavy Gothic letters, along with their peculiarities; my German version, above, also reflects this, coming as it does directly from the original. Viewers will notice that there are some small differences between sixteenth-century and modern German. I’ve as much as possible retained Hans Sachs’ metre and rhyme scheme.
When we first went to live in Germany, I tried some of that German beer. Mein Gott! Half way through the second glass I felt like marching into Poland.
3. After the Game
Wil and Dai went out ecstatic carried by the joyous thousands swirling in that happy river sweeping through the streets of Cardiff, drizzly, shining streets of Cardiff. Then they stopped to have some supper made of hops and served in tankards, long and drawn-out frothy supper held in tankards big and brimming, brimming with the gold and flowing soft-as-velvet wonder-water, fabled patriotic potion strong as steel and clear as crystal; tossed it down their throats with vigour as had mighty men of valour in the days of yore before them in the storied Mabinogion.
After the Game is seventeen lines taken from the long poem The Game in Cardiff, which has previously appeared in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion.
4. Crack and Hiss
Hot day. Crack and hiss. Cool can of beer opens. Bliss.
5. Seeking Nirvana
The roads to truth are sadly few. But one goes straight through Felinfoel.
6. Ancient Ritual (Colliers Arms)
Libation’s poured. With elbows bent, at each descent the spirit soars.
7. Pub Wisdom
Wife’s advice? Not nice. The lads’… well, yes! Golden letters, sacred text!
8. Drowning in Sorrow
Morose, depressed – the Colliers Arms is closed!- retrace your steps.
The Ninth Poem
The ninth poem would have been – would have been, I say – to use the expression of those latter-day, foot-dragging but nonetheless welcome continuators of the Arthurian Romances, TheVerse Perilous * – a cap-fuddling, brain-fogging, giddysome, staggery, peg-diddly, froth-lickety, pint-pushing, brim-battling, jug-glugging, keg-hugging, pitcher-plonking, glass-clashing, beaker-banging, tankard-swilling, flagon-flushing, bottle-bibbing, hop-slobbering, spigot-swigging, cask-guzzling, spittoon-pinging, belch-exploding, gut-heaving, spew-retching, coppish-fumbling, breeches-befouling, wall-splashing, puddle-soled, pocket-roused, crotch-fiddling and filly-famished, randified, lewdy-eyed, candy-goggling, lip-frisky, rut-mongering, frock-stalking, up-skirting, down-blousing, treacle-greedy, futtock-fixed, buttock-bewitched, grope-happy, touch-lusty, barmaid’s-bum-fondling, gallivanting, hallooing, yahooing, whoopeeing, galumphing, bamblusterating, and in the spirit of divers other debauching, hyper-inebriated, Silenusian* rascalities in the manner of the noddle-addled, vision-dizzy, wit-stricken, ruby-nosed and speech-slurred, barrel-besotted, vat-sacking, lager-louting, bouzed-up-to-beggary binge-bishops and piddle-parading, pish-ridden, sloshed, sozzled, soused and sodden samples of rowdy-bowdy tavern-trooping, gob-valiant ale-knights and tosspots, hot-frolickers, hunt-crumpets, coochie-candidates, wink-a-pussies, floozy-traipsers and nymphety-gawkers, stockingtop Toms, cleavage kings, udder-fumblers and melon-squeezers, clamp-snatches, sog-merchants, slot-searchers, crack-trackers and crevice-detectors, top-o’-the-legs tinklers, underbrush-rummaging fanny-fiddlers, shrubbery-grubbing macaroon-milkers, five-finger pastie-pokers, slink-down-the-corridor funnel-fillers, skunk-dipsy biddy-whammers, mutton-struck belly-bumpers, knicker-kissing pudding-plungers, yoni-delvers, minge-biffers, sponge-dippers, fudge-dunkers, butt-humpers, booty thumpers, doggy-drillers, plough-hards, pound-hards, meringue-gobbling sludge-nuzzlers, canyon-yodelers, dangle-waggers, coracle-flashing wick-twitchers, squirtards, cackards and stinkards who teetered, tottered, veered, swayed, cuddy-jigged, lurched and reeled their way with beery braggadocio into the crapulent chronicles of Touraine* and of Clemendy,* an irreverent, heretical, sacrilegious travesty and utter inversion of the miracle at Cana over which – alack, alas and ych-a-fi – in the name of all that is fermented, good Christian men, in these the very throes of this the festive season, would rejoice with neither heart nor soul nor voice, and be mischievous and injurious in the extreme and to the scathe, detriment, undoing, bedevilment, perversion and prostitution of all the noble cerevisian* sentiments insofar and heretofore expressed, and can therefore find no place in such a gently-laudatory treatise as this and would, I’m sure you will agree, sober reader, have been one over the eight.
But what could I do? There they came, tumbling, nay, cascading, nay, vomiting forth from the Colliers! And I think – drink in my words, chaste reader – that all I can do is apologize profusely for their unwanted and ignoble company! I tried, Lord knows, I tried to stem that horrid flow, endeavored indeed to deny you the most wicked vulgarities, but out the many poured, unceasing and unstoppable! Deflect, I did, the utterly unbridled detestabilities of Rebelaisanism …
‘But still – ‘ growled Rebelais, emerging from the shadows …from tainting your apostolic ears… ‘And yet – ‘ rasped he … steering hard to port of the unprintably priapic… ‘All the same – ‘ … but, oh my! Deary me and… well, botheration… ‘Even so – ‘ he pressed nastily … I am left horrified and shocked… ‘And besides – !’ (pushing me hard in the small of the back)
In the midst of this onslaught from the Colliers and now this stream of Cabellian* interjections so menacingly uttered, the thought had occurred to me of summoning the Constable of Adjectives, but all of a sudden and instead found myself peremptorily and roughly seized from behind by the Tankard Marshal, who threatened to have me dragged through the Assizes of Ale. ‘You!’ he thundered, ‘I’ll drag yer through the Assizes of Ale!’. Outnumbered, and held in durance vile! There they stood, the Tankard Marshal, the tall Touranian, backed up rock-solidly by petite Police Officer Priapus*, as always sporting his big badge.
‘And besides – ‘ spat Rabelais, hatefully… but I did not let him finish. Thinking quickly while the burly Marshal had taken a break from snarling chapter and verse of the Law of Soakage into my ear and temporarily eased his grip to take yet another swig, I wrenched myself free and made a dash for it, skipping nimbly, Jack-wise, over the short policeman’s authority, and with a simultaneous sideways swerve to fully evade the law’s long reach that would have amazed Phil Bennett, ran blindly into the night, followed by the angry shouts of the man from Chinon:
‘Yes, besides!- ‘ he bellowed after me. ‘About the barmaid! Try to be more >>>>>>> explicit!, for >>>>> sake! You forgot ’ >>>> -lofty’! You forgot ’ >>> -smitten’! on the way to her. And when you got to her you didn’t know ‘ >>>> -tickling’! Nor ’ >>>> -thwackng’! Nor ‘ >>>> -bibbling’! Nor ‘ >>>> -shiggling’! And then there’s ‘ >>>>-stoking’! And ‘ >>>> -flugging’’! And ‘ >>>> -wobbing’! And what about ‘ >>>> -floshing’? And, ‘ >>>> -gargling’? And how about ‘ >>>> -snorkeling’? Huh? (Here I blushed). ‘And, moron, dunce, it’s plain you don’t know a >>>>>>> sausage about… that thing… I forget what it’s called… You’ve gone and been and mixed me up now, you hwntw * >>>>>> ! … something to do with those animals with flat tails that build dams on rivers…’ Here he faltered, aware that the little police officer regarded him with a look of puzzlement and was drooping visibly in dismay, but rallying somewhat from his confused lapse of memory, roared further: ‘Yes, that’s it – something to do with what you Welsh have your women make their hats out of… what’s it called? Something to do with cats, too… Nick my vocabulary, would you? Well, >>>> and >>>> again! >>>> twice! >>>> thrice! >>>> a hundred times, by >>>>! >>>> to infinity and no returns! And you too, you >>>>>>> hwntw! I’ll get you for this, Lewis! Felin- >>>>>>> -foel? I’ll get you!’
And as I fled heedlessly into the dark, another voice joined his. It was Cabell, who, debonair and devil-may-care as ever, had sauntered last out of the Colliers, cigarette in one hand and glass of mineral-water in the other and who, in the refined tones of a southern gentleman (and targettng, though he knew it not, another, fleeing, southern gentleman) called after me – with more than a trace of urbane irony and, I would fancy, a suggestion of a smile – that he would report me to the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and with the warning that for plagiarism in the shape of the misappropriation and misuse of interjections he would have me appear on the morrow in the law-courts of Richmond-in-Virginia. Lastly, the faint echoes came to me of a heated argument between the tall Touranian and the small policeman; the subject appeared to have taken a horticultural turn, concerning the correct descriptive nomenclature for a certain type of shrubbery (ladies’ gardens being the particular province of Priapus) and the sounds of them scuffling, and the copper threatening the Touranian with his truncheon. Angry cursing then from the drunken Marshal as he tripped over something in the darkness and started kicking it viciously… then pitiful screaming and wailing from the diminutive detective-constable… But by then I had run laughing all the way to Felinfoel.
And that’s it. I apologize. I have no idea what made me stray so far away from my usually staid poetic path. It’s all that Rabelais’ fault, although we haven’t met up for years. I have trodden, I swear, only upon the very margins of naughtiness, despite his urgings to unharness the most horribly indelicate indecencies. Oh, he tried, he urged, continuously, to make me say things at total variance with my gentle nurturing at my Mamgu’s bosom, crass crudities at which the very thought makes me shudder, and which lay not within me. He dug me in the ribs with eyes agleam, whisperng ‘Go on! Go on! Obscenities! Obscenities that will make coy maidens let their pent-up smiles spill forth unbidden, and honest modest matrons demurely avert their eyes to disguise their wakened fantasies!’ But I would not. I’d a good mind to take him by the scruff of the neck and toss him into the street. Yet nevertheless, noble friends, I beg you to give the man a break. The bloke can’t help it. He doesn’t know when to stop. It’s embarrassing. I’ll have a quiet word with him, I promise, although I doubt it will do much good. But anyway, hands up who likes that long sentence? And if you want to know the final score of the game in Cardiff, I’ll tell you. It was Wales 100, England 0.
DISHCLAIMER (or, ‘Where is Sean Connery when you need him?’)
I shwear, temperate reader, upon the egshalted altar of Ceresh, that not a jot nor tittle of what appearsh above wash contrived under the abhorrent affluensh of inchohol. I confesh, indeed, that never, not wunsh, sinsh my coming-of-age (which wash a couple of yearsh ago) have I been in the shlightesht in- ineb- inebri- ineb … drunk. I confesh further that I know very little about that wondroush, magic, heavenly potion known ash cw- cw– whashit called … cwrw da, and nothing, nay, nil and zero even, about the imposhtor wine – Theodoshiush imposhtor too, blydi wine-drinker; shoulda been Magnush Maximush in Con – Con – Consh – Conshtan – … that plashe. Maximush, yesh – coulda played for Walshe … that Sharlsh ‘nother ‘poshtor, damn prinsh ‘pershinator, eyesh like a blydi mandril – and that my shole truck with ale ish nowadaysh and hash been for many yearsh a shmall can of Taiwan Beer or perhapsh a Ki- ki- kirin Ishiban, or maybe an Ash – Asha- Asa … that other Shapaneesh beer (all egshellent brewsh, but <sigh> would that they were Felinfoel) twuysh or thruysh a week ash my … not ash! … I mean to accompany, of coursh, my evening repasht. I don’t like thoshe Yankee beersh mush, but shum o’ thoshe Mecshicun brewsh are firsh-clash. Shurmuns brew good shtuff, too … But Felinfoel’s the besht. Abyshinian beer I don’t like either. No, no, ych-a-fi, tashtes like cat’sh. And I don’t like that Rabelaish bloke any more <sob> He’sh really rude. I’ll cut off hish co- co- communicashunsh… Where’sh my beer … ? Iechyd da, nawr …
GYDA DYMUNIADAU GORAU AM Y BLWYDDYN NEWYDD
WITH BEST WISHES FOR THE NEW YEAR
Notes to Poems 1 – 8:
* Ale/Felinfoel: Baudelaire chose Poison / ‘Poison’! as the title of his poem, which may refer to the wine or, more fittingly, to those alluring, distracting eyes which threatened to lure him to perdition. It’s a title which doesn’t fit the lure of a ‘Felinfoel’ at all, as we shall see (although I’ve heard it described by certain jealous sons of the south-east – those ones from the wrong side of the mighty Llwchwr, those ones who are not of the Demetae – as ‘Feelingfoul’ (Smile when you say that, Silures… ). More explanation needed for those not ‘in the know’? The river Llwchwr (anglicised to ‘Loughor’) is what may be taken as the dividing line between the territories of the two tribal units which occupied the southern parts of what is now Wales during the period of Roman occupation, and who the Romans termed the Demetae and the Silures. The Romans established a fort – Lucernum – there. (I would play there in my boyhood days). This modest stream today marks the county line between Carmarthenshire in the west and Glamorgan in the east; as in many other places, a jocular rivalry exists.
* Afon Lliedi: The name of this stream from the cherished days of yore was also adapted for the name of the brook in the opening lines of my mediaeval-style My Pallid Queen:
’Twas on the brook Lieti I first beheld my lady
the first part of which has appeared in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion as The Lure of the Naiad under the main title Lays of the Armoured Isle (3) posted in the section Aug.-Oct. 2020. It’s a prelude to the whole poem which will feature in Manifestations of the Muse (2), yet to come.
* Dragons intertwined: It may be of interest, too, that the double dragon was the insignia of the Seguntienses, a unit of the Late Roman army whose name is connected with the fort and naval base of Segontium (Welsh Caer Segeint ) near today’s Caernarfon. In Welsh tradition Segontium is strongly connected with the military coup of Magnus Maximus, who took substantial units of the Army of Britain over to Gaul and was recognised as Emperor of the West from 383-388CE. To cut a long story short – and I could include reams from my jottings, over the years, on Mag Max – it was in August of the latter date that, in a bid to become master of the whole Empire, he was defeated by the army of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius on the Save River in Illyricum, from whence he retreated to Aquileia in northern Italy and was there delivered to Theodosius and executed. On this event:
It was raining when we rode into Aquileia, a grey rain that had preceded us as we came in through the olive groves; over that monotony of coastal plain. It ran from the tall columns of the town, down on to the stones. Wet. Grey. Our belongings were dampened, as were our spirits. No people welcomed us.
Great gods, this is no place for Eagles!
It was evening when we pressed on into Illyricum. The rain was with us still… We could have turned for home.
In part, the foreboding thoughts of one of Maximus’ following on that fateful retreat; in part, too, my own thoughts as we drove through Aquileia, toward what was Illyricum, a thousand and six hundred years later. It was a depressing day. I’ve said ‘This is no place for Eagles’ in reference to the name of the place (aquila, Latin ‘eagle’) and in reference to the Roman Eagle Standard. But it could just as well be ‘no place for Dragons’, as by that time the dragon had replaced the eagle as Rome’s military standard. As a fascinating postscript to this story, the NotitiaDignitatum (a document relating to the organization of the Later Empire, including all military units and their stations) records among the palatini, the highest-ranking troops in the army and soldiers of the Imperial household, a unit called Seguntienses. These have been proposed to be the former garrison of Segontium, and that they may have well composed the personal guard of Maximus which, upon being withdrawn from Caernarfon, accompanied him on his Continental campaigns, being posted to Illyricum – where they are located in the Notitia – after his collapse. Illyricum, in present-day terms, covers the western Balkans from northern Albania to Croatia.
About the change from eagle to dragon: This can be found in Book XVI, 39 of Ammianus Marcellinus’ history of the Roman Empire in the period AD 96-AD 378, Rerum Gestarum Libri, which is really a continuation of Tacitus and along with Procopius the only surviving long account of events in the later period. In this place Ammianus says: ‘per purpureum signum draiconis summitati hastae longieris aptatum’ / ‘at the top of a long lance was fixed the figure of a red dragon ‘. It’s believed to have been adopted from Sarmatian practice. This, connected with Magnus Maximus’ Segontium ‘command’, has led to the possibility of an early Draig Goch, and from the interpretation of evidence in history and early Welsh tradition that’s plausible. Maximus appears in the years preceding his bid for the Imperial throne to have been commander of the field army of Britain. But what a pity Ammianus didn’t tell us more about him! He could have. He mentions Maximus’ earlier career under Theodosius the Elder (father of Theodosius I, the Emperor who Maximus finally came up against in the end) in Britain (367-379) and in Mauritania (373-375). Some years afterward he was appointed Comes Britanniarum / Count of the Britains [that is, the constituent Provinces within the Diocese of Britain], the senior British military office, and in 383 led its field army into Gaul and was acclaimed Emperor of the West. Now at this very time, during the 380s, Ammianus was living in Rome where he was busy writing his history until probably the 390s, and must have been well aware of Maximus’ activities – so why didn’t he go ahead and cover Maximus’ later career as rival Emperor? Probably the answer lies in politics, and in being careful about what one said. This Theodosian family, all from Galicia and perhaps elsewhere in Spain , were a powerful aristocratic clique. Count Theodosius the Elder, as already said, was father of Theodosius the Emperor – and Maximus was of the same family. At what remove is not clear, but he was said to have been the nephew of Count Theodosius, and must therefore have been related to his son who became Emperor. It was probably all too close to Ammianus’ own time under the auspices of Theodosius to go writing anything brushing on the affair, which would have still been sensitive ground. Ah, Ammiaus could have told us so much about Maximus, especially of his role in Britain during the lead-up to his revolt, all which has ever since remained murky and has caused modern historians to go scrambling about on their knees in search of clues. His tumble when he had almost reached the top decreed that Maximus should be regarded as a ‘bad lad’, all down the line. Tyrant and usurper, almost routinely accused by an array of insular historians for ‘denuding Britain of its defences’, right up to our sometimes too speculative modern commentators. But there seem to have been no inroads into Maximus’ British power-base recorded during the five years he was the recognized ruler of the West; indeed, those appear to have occurred after his downfall and severance of his authority with Britain and the result, rather, of his slayer Theodosius’ preoccupation with his own continental problems after 388. The man was but a hairsbreadth away from replacing Theodosius and becoming sole Emperor. Respect is due to Maximus as both soldier and statesman.
* Outpost of Trebuan: I had no idea, then, back in those days when I was often away from home, that nearby there lived another young chap, who was destined to become one of Wales’ finest ever fly-halves – the dancing, side-stepping, talaria-shod Phil Bennett. (Phil is remembered, too, for his famous pre-game talk to the Welsh XV before playing England on March 5, 1977, which went: ‘Look at what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal. our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you’re playing this afternoon’. We beat them, of course. Well, we had to, after that!
A little vole once wandered into our house at Trebuan. We were able to capture him and keep him prisoner for a short while in a stout cardboard box before releasing him into the garden. But while we were temporarily occupied with something else, the little fellow’s rodent teeth had gnawed right through the box and he had made his own escape. Although in our company for such a short while, we had named him; he was christened ‘Felin’, naturally – ‘Felin Vole’ (a Welsh single ‘f’ is pronounced as a ‘v’). ‘Velinvole’ incidentally, is the spelling the enumerator used for the village in the 1840 Census.
Notes to Poem 9:
* The Verse Perilous: The Siege Perilous – the seat at Arthur’s table upon which to sit would be instantaneous death for any but the pure knight, and eventually taken by Galahad, was a late introduction to the romances by Malory, followed by Tennyson.
* Silenusian: After Silenus, Roman god of beer who often appeared among those revellers in the retinue of the more well-known wine-god Bacchus, ‘Silenusian’ being the beery equivalent of ‘Bacchanalian’.
* Touraine: The region of France which is the location of Honoré de Balzac’s very witty, very merry 1837 Contes Drolatiques / ‘Droll Stories’. Chinon in Touraine, too, was the birthplace of Rabelais, who will need no introduction.
* Clemendy: Arthur Machen’s fictitious location of the Manor of Pwllcwrw / ‘Beerpool’ in the town of Usk, Gwent, Wales, featured in his 1886/1928 The Chronicle of Clemendy; another very witty, very merry collection of tales.
* Cerevisian: ‘Is this a word? I wondered. And If it isn’t, it should be’. I used it anyway. Then later it occurred to me to take a long-neglected dip into ‘Clemendy’, and was pleased to find that Arthur Machen had been doing some similar word-coining and had come up with a noun-form, cervisage, which I then promptly decided to incorporate on the strength of its rather noble connotations into the principal sub-heading for this article, previously lacking the necessary richness. Best explained as ‘beery’ in the context in which it’s used above. It’s related to the words for beer among the Romance languages, which is a good place to begin – cerveza in modern Spanish and Portuguese, for example (and likely something almost identical in Catalan). The French northerners dropped their cervoise in favour of Germanic bier, but in Occitan, the French south, it should still be something like Latin cervisia, which was used in honour of Ceres, Roman goddess of the harvest. All stem from proto-Indo-European of course, and naturally history, long history, steps in along the line with the Roman goddess’ origins rooted in the much earlier Near Eastern Neolithic grain protectress whose name and importance, carried along with the vast Neolithic spread, reached the religions and languages of all Europe, not least the vast Celtic lands. So, according to ‘cerevisian’ linguistics, we have in these territories a string of related words for beer – curmi, koreu, cuirm, cerea, cervisia, cerevisia for instance, among them. In Welsh, it’s cwrw, often spoken of as cwrw da, ‘good beer’, which is likely an ancient reference to ‘real ale’ in the sense of properly brewed barley/wheat beer. So let’s not place too much reliance, as has been done, on the goddess Ceres for the dissemination of ‘Cerevisian’ vocabulary; beer was being brewed in northern Europe long, long before any Romans interfered up there and was already known by cognate names. We should remember too that the Romans were resolute wine drinkers who for a long time were hemmed in by a lot of not-so-friendly beer-drinking neighbor nations. Interestingly, a polished stone artifact from the Gallo-Roman period discovered in north-central France carries the inscription curmi da (I’ll say only little about it just now as I plan to deal with this and similar related artifacts in much more detail in a future post). Although there is an alternative interpretation of da (earlier Gaulish daga) it would appear here to be a reference to this ‘real ale’ we are talking about, and an expression in vogue for who knows how long. The correspondence between curmi da and cwrw da, both in Celtic languages, is telling. In the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum there is a reference to a 5th century CE proverb cited by St.Cynon: ‘Cwrw da yw allwed calon’ / ‘Good beer is the key to the heart’ (he seems not to have heard, bless him, of that good old song Mae’r Diawl yn y Casgen Cwrw / ‘There’s the Devil in a Keg of Beer’); then there is the later Latin form cervisa bona. So it seems like a very much fixed expression in continuous use from a very early date, and that the Romans eventually learned something from us beer-drinkers.
* Cabellian: This refers to James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) who shot to great popularity when his 1919 book Jurgen was banned by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which took an all-too-serious view of his waggish innuendo. But Cabell was no faddish, popularity-seeking sensationalist, and after the great fuss died down this was realized by both readers and critics. He was recognized for what he is – a literary artist of the highest degree who wrote in a suave, elegant style whilst exhibiting a supreme natural wit. He was what might be termed the last Virginian gentleman, with a vast knowledge of European literature, history, and mythology, including the Welsh contribution, and an essayist in the best manner of the classical tradition. I’m keeping this short and introductory, as I‘d also like to discuss Cabell further in a forthcoming article. He is without the shadow of a doubt one of my most admired writers; I have twenty-four of his books on my shelves, together with a couple of literary biographies. For the literary addict, it’s best if Jurgen is not read independently as it’s part of the eight-volume core of his extended ‘eikosipentology’ as literary editor Lin Carter coined Cabell’s many-volumed ‘Biography of Manuel’. Should anyone be irresistibly attracted by what has been said so far, however, and cannot wait to rush off and order a copy hopefully in time for a New Year read, Jurgen, as well as a fair number of its sister volumes, is currently available in a nicely-printed paperback from The Wildside Press. I can advise anyone who wishes to read the core set – as there are so many others listed which are not novels but essays, poetry, reminiscences, etc. – of which titles to buy, if they care to just leave a comment on this present item in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion.