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 ‘zigzag‘. ‘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!


Poems in remembrance of those sacrificed in The Great War.


Perhaps you could ‘remember us’
Without your fancy threads?
If you had come here yesterday,
You’d find us just as dead
Remember we were torn apart
And one half left behind
Though some came home with broken bones,
And some with broken minds

And our graves, they measure miles
And our graves are dungeons deep
And the speeches of the living
Grate our ears and kill our sleep

For grief needs no occasion
And tears don’t fall on cue,
Though some would have it otherwise;
Yes, we remember you!
Remember that you wasted
What was never yours to take,
So, do not dare to tell us
That we ‘did this for your sake’

And our graves, they measure miles
And our graves are dungeons deep,
And we have no need or want of you:

Be gone, and let us sleep! (1) 

Steffan Balsom

(From ‘The East Wind and the Crow’)

1915: On the Eve of his Departure

Since first we met
– these long years, now –
our love has never been in doubt.
So let us use this night’s hours well –
be glad, while they are ours.
The separate ways that we must walk
in days to come will seem so long
to both of us. Tomorrow we must say goodbye
and neither of us knows
when we shall meet again.
You sigh. Now come, hold tight my hand.
We know, whatever times might lie ahead,
both you and I will shed some tears!
But, look… let’s try to find some pleasure
in every coming week, or month – or year,
remembering our happiest hours.
One day, one carefree, blissful day,
we’ll be, once more, together!
Till then, we know that always we’ll
mean everything to each other.


Lashes lie
on cheeks; lips quiver…
and she weeps.

Dafydd Hughes Lewis

From: ‘Journeys in Time’ / ‘Distillations’)

Note on Remembrance:

I probably ought to include an explanatory note, namely this one, since the poem touches on a sensitive subject. The suggestion of this poem is not that we should not mark the occasion of the many and often most inexplicable wars of history, but rather that I aways feel like there is a certain arrogance in the assumption that the Glorious Dead would welcome our traipsing all over their churchyards and monuments. I can imagine them being a little more territorial than this, and either bored or angered by such ‘celebrations’. (Steffan)

The East Wind and the Crow
is the title of guest poet Steffan Balsom’s 2019 book, published by Austin Macauley. This remarkable collection of poems and essays was previously reviewed, under the book’s title, in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion. Steffan has appeared as a guest poet on two other occasions, notably with the publication of excerpts from his superb metrical version of the 6th century AD Btythonic/Welsh poem Y Gododdin. It can be found in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under the heading Strife on the Borders.

Note on 1915: On the Eve of his Departure:

The poem is adapted from the Chinese of 1st century BCE Su-Wu’s On a Soldier’s Parting from his Wife. My translation of the original poem, rendered in a matching archaic style, is as follows:

Since we took our vows, and wed,
our love has never suffered doubt.
So let us use this night’s hours well;
rejoice, and take delight – while they are ours.
The road that I must tread, I mind myself, is long,
and rising to view the stations of the sky
I see the starry host already fading.
I must away; I cannot tarry.
My place awaits me at the line of battle.
I know not when we’ll meet again.
You sigh. Now come, hold tight my hand.
In the days ahead I know that you will cry.
Yet strive to find, come Spring, some pleasure
         in its flowers;
forget not, then, our joyous hours,
but know that if I live – I will return.
And if I die – I think of you eternally.

General Su-Wu (140-60 BCE) was Deputy Commander of Han Dynasty Emperor Wu-ti’s Imperial Guard. His departure from China was not so much military as diplomatic; he was chosen to lead a mission to the chanyu (ruler) of the Hsiung-nu, the northern steppe nomads, with whom there was at the time a temporary détente in an otherwise constant state of hostilities. (For a fuller discussion on the relations between the Chinese Empire and the Hsiung-nu, see the previous article To the Captain of the Huns in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion). The mission went drastically wrong, and Su-Wu was kept prisoner, along with the surviving members of his mission, for some nineteen years. He was made to serve – like Patrick while in captivity in Ireland – as a shepherd, in the faraway region of Lake Baikal. (And sorry to spoil the sentiments of the poem – from the evidence of another Chinese general who after defeat in battle had defected to the Hsiung-nu, Su-Wu had taken a Hsiung-nu wife who bore him children, and Su-Wu learned that the wife he had left behind in China had re-married). On the accession of a new Emperor, Su-Wu’s return was negotiated, and he was honoured with a high position at court. His story (worth pursuing in detail)  was afterward used, as a sort of propaganda, as an example of loyalty the the Emperor.

Note on News: 

This features among my ‘Haikuesque’ three-liners which come under the collective title Distillations – a term borrowed from Clark Ashton Smith, who assisted Japanese master Kenneth Yasuda in his superlative study of traditional Japanese Haiku and its development in the West, and which persuaded Smith to experiment further with the form. My ‘distillations’ do not follow the (still very popular in English-language Haiku) syllable-count of the traditional Japanese form, but do conform to some of its more important (and for best effect very necessary) conventions. The purpose of these three-line poems is conciseness – to achieve a condensation of words which express in as minimal terms as possible the basic essence of a subject.

Final note on remembering the fallen:

If we wear a poppy on this day, let us remember that it is not for the over-proud, squabbling monarchies and aristocracies of Europe, nor for their submissive, misguided governments, nor their subservient, incompetent, callous generals, nor for their zealous, onward-goading pulpiteers, nor for their gangs of avaricious profiteers, nor for those of their kind who today offer false homage, and who have in the past continued – and today still continue – to justify, uphold, celebrate and promote war; but for the millions of poor, ill-used young men who were dragooned into slaughter on such a vast scale under the vile pretext that it was ‘for God and country’.

Addendum: Last year’s remembrance poems can be found in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under the title The Angels of Mons.

Manifestations of the Muse (3)

Island of Lesbos, Greece, July 18, 2017

Today I saw my Queen, Tiye,
walking down the street. She wore
a lacy-fresh white top, and
a pair of grey-black jeans. Her hair
was neatly brushed and tied,
her features ebony.
Such finely noble lineaments;
aesthetic eyes held high –
her every movement gracile
as beside the silent Nile. But her thoughts
were on her future, now. She did not
notice me – though heaven knows
I worshipped her, and strove
to catch her eye – I’d have followed her
until the end, but could only stand, perplexed.
And, sad, in her hand, that
travel bag, with all that she possessed.
I caught my breath; I stared at her; I tried
to stem the tears. She passed,
true-souled and proud, my Queen,
in a line of refugees. 

(From ‘Journeys in Time’)

Note: Tiye (c.1398 BCE-1338 BCE) was, all those three thousand and six hundred years ago, Queen of Egypt. She was the daughter of a highly-placed court official and a noblewoman who was possibly of royal descent. She became the Great Royal Wife (i.e., a pharaoh’s principal wife) of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1), and attained a position of great power in Egypt, equalling that of her husband; her name is to be found authoritatively in diplomatic communications with kingdoms both subject to Egypt and outside its wide sphere of influence. Additionally, she was identified with the major goddess Hathor, consort of the Sky God Horus and the Sun God Ra; temples were raised in her honour. She was mother of Pharaoh Akhnaton (2), and the power behind her son’s throne. She was also the grandmother of Tutankhamen. Her mummified remains have been identified by DNA from a comparison of a lock of hair found in the tomb of her grandson Tutankhamen and one cut from the still long, flowing black hair of the female named ‘The Elder Lady’ laid to rest in another royal location; the match was perfect. At the time of her death she was about 40-50 years old, and just 4’9” tall.

My first ‘meeting’ with Tiye was in 1973, when I came across a picture of her face in a book I had bought. I became straightaway, at that very moment, her devotee. I cut out the picture (the book is long gone) intending to have it framed and hung upon my wall, but that – for a long time due to my ineptness with drills and plugs – was not to be. For years – decades – I carried this picture around with me amongst my belongings, laid carefully between two stout pieces of specially cut cardboard and kept in place by a strong elastic band. Now and then I would steal a look at Tiye within. But when I looked for it, not so many years ago, the picture was not to be found. It had, I believe, been mistaken for paper rubbish (along with a sheaf of notes containing my personalized form of notation for playing the Guqin, the ancient Chinese zither) by my Filipina cleaning-lady (3) I have often thought back on that vexatious and totally unwarranted fate…

Let me, anyway, tell you about this picture. It was of a wonderfully detailed head of Tiye – with almond-shaped eyes, long, closely-braided hair beneath a diadem bearing her name, and the fullest of lips, exquisitely down-turned at the edges. The one small damage was to part of her nose, which is chipped; to me, her features appear negroid. And it is obviously an image taken from real-life. It was found in the Temple of Hathor (her divine namesake) and the protective goddess of the Turquoise Mountain at Serabit el-Khadim in faraway Sinai.

I have seen other part-profile pictures of this head, in which these facial features are nicely shown – but none of them match my lost picture, which was taken from a very slightly different angle  and in a different light, displaying every single lineament superbly. I have never since seen the like of it. (There are many other representations of this Queen, some stylistic, in reliefs and statues which by no means do her justice – but one or two others are nearer the mark with suggestions of that from-real-life down-turned mouth. There have also been facial reconstructions from her mummified remains – I’ve never had too much faith in any historical facial reconstructions –  but think that the Serabit el-Khadim portrait head, as a portrait from real-life, is unmistakably the genuine representation of Tiye.

And what was I doing there on the island of Lesbos on July 18, 2017? Well, I was not; but were the sight not so sad, I would have liked to have been. I caught the scene on a news item. We all know of the destabilization which wars – shameful wars – have brought upon the countries of the Middle East and the fermented, tumultuous  movements which have rocked North Africa, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of their peoples. Lesbos (remember its overcrowded Moria camp?) was a major initial destination of refuge for many poor, fleeing thousands. And among the crowds in a sunlit street on Lesbos (4) I homed in immediately on one person – a beautiful African woman dressed as described in the poem, who for me stood apart from all others; a woman with skin (as Lafcadio tells us of the former slave girls of Martinique) ‘the colour of ripe fruit’; a woman beautiful in her proud carriage, her sure walk, her facial and bodily features. My mind sprang straight away to Tiye,  whose features this woman’s so much resembled – but alive, and destitute in our own 21st century. I hope that she, fugitive queen, was able to find a future that was kind to her.

(1) Ancient Egyptian personal names… in the case of Amenhotep I’ve always preferred Amenophis, the more assuasive Greek form.

(2) Akhnaton (first known as Amenophis IV) famed for his religious reformation in which the Sun God Ra (Amon Ra) was installed as Egypt’s predominant deity (one cannot but help thinking of his mother Tiye’s influence, here). Akhnaton’s queen was the celebrated Nefertiti, and their son the now world-renowned Tutankhamen.

(3) Why me? Thomas Carlyle must have asked the same question when the sole manuscript for his monumental work on the French Revolution, which he had loaned to John Stuart Mill for a preview, was binned by Mills’ maid, and never retrieved. Poor Carlyle! However do you recover from a thing like that? But he did, and started all over again from scratch. I trust he’d retained fairly full notes on his work, but still…  I’m reminded of T.E. Lawrence, too, who left the only manuscript of his The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a seat in the Waiting Room of Reading Railway Station. Gone. Lost. He also began all over again.

(4) The term ‘lesbian’ derives from this island. It was the home of the famed 6th century BCE poet Sappho and her school of female adherents.

Spectral Surfaces: Two Perspectives

Forest Pool

Silent, deep. Morose
black water. Movement… none.
Part paved with leaves.

Pool in Darkness

Surface of grey-green,
spread before me, featureless.
Obscure and spectral mistiness;
no sense of distance – measureless.

But at the precise second the lights went out
I managed to smack the black
into the corner pocket.

(From ‘Distillations’ / ‘Epigrams’)

Another two very short, and not exactly spectacular, ‘interim’ pieces while something more substantial is being prepared. The first is from my collection ‘Distillations’ – minimal, haikuesque three-line poems.

An appeal, too. Every now and then I receive notifications from viewers who have come across my website and are following ‘The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion’, being informed each time a new poem is posted. Quite often these viewers – some of whom are fellow-writers – run their own websites, and I do look up each one. But my computer skills are even more minimal than my three-liners, with the result that I am not able to respond, as I would like, with a proper appreciation of their sites – although please be assured that I do read what I see there with interest. Most recently I received such a notification, and read some heartfelt poetry, from Sonam Tsering, a Tibetan exile. Thank you, Sonam, and others who have made contact in this way; I’ll do my best to find out how I can keep abreast of your work.

A Word to All Interferers

The Age of Expansion

Those were the days.
When Empires sought new ports for trade
with back-up from their big brigades.
When soldiers with their rifle butts
forced entry into native huts.

who cared how many wars were fought
in countries of the lesser sort?

(FF >>)

The system still works admirably.
It’s called ‘Enforced Democracy’.

                                                       To the Editorial and Typographic Tribes

                                                     Someone meddled with my work  –
                                                     and if I ever catch the twerp
                                                     who left that semi-colon out
                                                     and turned one sentence round-about,
                                                     I’ll deal his coracles a kick so great
                                                     that if, in later years, he should relate
                                                     the story to his children (vile!)
                                                     he’ll dribble when he tries to smile.

Note: I dislike interferers of every shape and size. Really. From the rulers of the world’s earliest empires to the person who – yes, I remember you! – about nine years ago and without my permission, assuming that my vision was being jeopardized, picked up my glasses and removed the tiny little sticker which gave the magnification (I have several pairs of glasses of different magnifications which are used for different things, and the little labels tell me which to use for what).

Anyway, the first poem, The Age of Expansion, is concerned with interferers of the global variety, from the power-seeking encroachers of the Bronze Age right up to the instigators of the petroleum wars of this century and the tail-end of the last, with its emphasis on the latter phase of good ol’ colonialism from the 18th century on. And Lord knows how many unspeakable atrocities have been committed in the name of Empire and all that word entails over the thousands of years which have intervened. It goes on still.

The second poem is of a personal nature, and refers to a particular instance, viz., to a good many years ago when my good friend John Edwards, Llanelli’s historian, asked me to contribute a chapter to Tinopolis, his forthcoming history of the steel and tinplate industries in the area. He gave me only ten days to complete it, but ‘The Unsung Dynasty’ was ready and despatched (by snail-mail back then) from Hsin-Chu to Sosban on time. John liked it, and told me that not a single word would be changed – but not so; for when I looked at the book, I noticed two small changes, one involving a semi-colon and the other a missing word which had the effect of changing the original meaning of a sentence. I asked John about this, and he was surprised. What had happened was that he had sent the whole bundle of contributions, the whole lot, for editing, to Harry Davies (good old Harry Davies, in his mid-eighties I think at that time, childhood friend and classmate of my mother at Old Road School, which three Hughes generations including myself had attended; he lived just around the corner from us; he must have thought it his duty to find something to edit in my copy). Harry was a journalist for several local newspapers, and for twenty years, between 1958 and 1978 wrote a series of highly interesting and informative articles for the South Wales Evening Post under the title ‘Looking Around Llanelli’; these were published in book form in 1987 as Looking around Llanelli with Harry Davies. It’s a book I’ve just fished off my shelves, as I’ve often done over the years. It’s illustrated with the fine line drawings of Vernon Hurford, and these drawings have captured old Llanelli as we will never see it again after the alien ‘developers’ tore the guts out of the old town, ‘accidentally’, in the process, bulldozing historic buildings which should have been allowed to stand. I remember visiting Vernon at his art shop just off the Capel Zion end of Stepney Street, and still have a couple of his prints, and precious they are. The poem is not directed specifically at Harry, of course, as its title implies – and Harry was swiftly forgiven. Anyway, all this brought to mind what Dunsany had to say about the sometimes intentional, sometimes thoughtless and accidental infringements of editors and printers in his 1934 If I were Dictator:

‘’Misprints … will be permitted to the extent of one in every five thousand words, provided they make nonsense, but misprints that make sense are to be punished by death. Judges will not however inflict this penalty unless the printer has been thinking, instead of doing his work, or unless an intention aforethought is proved against him of deliberately attempting to improve the original. Commas, once written … are to be considered treasures of State, and a printer who shall remove any of them shall be punished as for burglary, and as though he had stolen from the Treasury. Any printers adding  a comma … shall be regarded as taking part unlawfully in affairs of State, which when proved shall constitute treason … Should he print a greater stop, such as a semi-colon, this also shall be held to be treason; while, should he print a lesser stop [where there was originally a greater one], he shall be proceeded against as though he had stolen a diamond of State and substituted a smaller diamond. The bodies of persons executed… ‘

Well, we get the picture, and no need to go on!

(From ‘Musings on the Merry-go-Round : A Medley of Verse for us Riders of the Earth’)

Dialogues without Words (3)

She, Passing By
(From the French of Charles Baudelaire)

Around me the deafening roar of the street.
Tall, slim, dressed for mourning, yet a goddess in grief,
this woman passed by, with dignified hand
upholding, for balance, the hem of her dress,

nimbly and stately; that calf – sculpturesque.
And I drank, shakingly, nervous fool that I am,
some tempest-born heaven, there in her gaze;
the communion that spellbinds, the ardour that slays.

One flash of lightning… followed by night! Ah, fugitive beauty,
under that glance I was, headlong – alive!
But… shall I not see you, ever, again?

Some place, far away, all too late, maybe never?
For where the other one went, neither could tell …
Oh, you I might have loved – and you knew it well!

From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’

Note: Perhaps more than many of Baudelaire’s poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, this captures the ‘fleeting, ephemeral experience of life’ in the great hive of mid-19th century Paris.

Here is an encounter as brief as the one described in The Bridge not Crossed (Dialogues without Words 1) and sharing, certainly in the case of the male in this poem, something of the timidity of both players in the Japanese one. Here is an intimacy that was there for seconds and lost in as many; and there is the suggestion of real, if not realised, intimacy in the exchanged glances.

Baudelaire does not tell us the hour in which this swift brush between the two is set. I imagined it to be at night, in keeping with the element of the macabre which runs through his collection; but there is no reason at all why it should not have taken place in bright daylight. For the same reason, I first imagined the female character to be looming and dominant, advancing like a piece of animated statuary, something of a Morrigan, but again (I have revised this conception of her) she is better viewed simply as a lady of some self-assurance – she has experienced loss, and the time for recovery has come. There are certainly two distinct personalities; the woman is not shy of giving a scouting glance; the man appears hesitant and indecisive. For him these are explosive, bewildering seconds, during which  the intention of the look he receives does not register straight away … he seems unable, or is never prepared on the instant, to read and grasp the meaning of such signs. Whatever, in those seconds he realizes that all is lost – the sight of the black-stockinged calf, the knowing look, have done nothing but root him to the spot, and all he can do is follow her retreating figure with pleading eyes. Pursue her? No. He has the underlying passions, but lacks the force of character.

But let’s move from explosive moments to quieter ones. This is not really a dialogue, but a tranquil transference of the most secret and silent thoughts as one human being observes another, and a scene which I find quietly captivating. The observer is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who is possibly best known for his children’s book Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince, which has been translated into many languages, including Welsh. Saint-Exupéry pioneered the French Air Mail service during the 1920s and 1930s and the scene takes place after he has just landed, alone, in Chile’s Punta Arenas, ‘a town born of the chance presence of a little mud between the timeless lava and the austral ice’, and the most isolated and most southerly habitation the world:

‘I landed in the peace of evening. Punta Arenas! I leaned against a fountain and looked at the girls in the square. Standing there within a couple of feet of their grace, I felt more poignantly than ever the human mystery… A girl’s reverie isolates her from me, and how shall I enter into it? What can one know of a girl who passes, walking with slow steps homeward, eyes lowered, smiling to herself… ‘ .

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1943) served as a pilot in the French Air Force, mainly in North Africa, from 1921 to 1923, after which he flew for the Air Mail Service in North Africa – often flying over hostile territory held by the independent tribes, once crash-landing and almost dying of thirst –  and Argentina. He was a pilot during World War II (his account of this he relates in his Flight to Arras). When Germany occupied France he escaped to the USA, returning to North Africa in 1943 as a reconnaissance pilot for the US forces. It was on one such flight that he disappeared; it is thought that he was shot down by a German fighter plane. The quotation above is from his 1939 classic Terre des Hommes, translated in the same year as Wind, Sand and Stars. 

The Rustle of the Turned Page

To all the books I’ve never read,
I offer my condolences,
whether resting on my shelves
or in the sea of libraries
beyond my ken – all ologies
and ographies, and osophies
that ever were, all stories that have
ever caused a smile to spread,
or made a reader shed a tear.
All kinds. The beautiful with gilt decor,
hand-tooled, or marbled, rubric red,
great folios, and Teeny Teds, in cowhide,
calfskin – take your pick. Poor casualties, too,
with broken spines and guts adrift, or
eaten up by worm and fish may join
the line. God bless them all, I say.
And perhaps some contra-world exists
whereThe Giggles of Young Werther
sits upon its shelf next to, let’s say,
The Selfie – yes! – of Dorian Grey;
where lazy readers will be forced for weeks
upon the rack to read each single, tiny fact;
where those who turn down corners
of their pages face torment foul
throughout the ages. Verily, I’ll drink to that!

From ‘Musings on the Merry-go-Round: A Medley of Verse for us Riders of the Earth’


1. The title of the poem is from E.F. Benson (1867-1940), taken from a line in Chapter XIV of his 1916 WWI novel Michael, although I’m more acquainted with his short stories in the supernatural genre. Benson was one of the pre-eminent writers of ghost stories in the early years of the 20th century (and the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less!).

‘Teeny Teds’: Teeny Ted from Turnip Town is said to be the world’s smallest reproduction of a printed book.

‘The Giggles of Young Werther’: A parodied reference to Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther / The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774 (revised,1787), written when he was just 24, a first novel which shot him to fame and for which much of his life he was to be most remembered. Written at a time when he was in an unsettled state of mind, the book is a semi-autobiographical version of his unhappy love affair with Charlotte Buff, at the time engaged to his friend Johann Kestner (note that the names Werther and Goethe rhyme; we might just as well say ‘The Sorrows of Young Goethe’). It’s a story of unrequited love which developed, on Werther’s part, into an obsession. Werther most certainly emerges as a sorrowful figure, but at the same time one for whom real sympathy is not easy to marshal. It’s a short work – a ‘slim volume’ – but readers will most likely still find it slow going due to the heaviness of the central character’s emotional involvement. This sketch, as with others which appear below, is deliberately sparse so as to give no ‘spoilers’ for anyone who hasn’t read the novel but who might wish to do so. And my ‘Giggles’, I must here confess, turned out to be around two hundred and thirty years too late; at the time of writing the poem I had no idea that I had been up-staged in Goethe’s own lifetime by Friedrich Nicolai’s 1775 parody‘Die Freuden des jungen Werther / The Joys of Young Werther.

‘The Selfie of Dorian Grey’: Oscar Wilde’s widely popular The Picture of Dorian Grey, of course, should need no introduction.


2.  Books can evoke a variety of emotions, not only through their content, but, as all true bibliophiles know, through their very touch – the handling and feeling of them. Even in these days of mass production and the loss of quality in paper and in binding, it is still possible to find a newly published book that is well made and feels good to hold. With old books – going back to the early 20th century, at least – it was always the case; they were made for the looking-at, for the weighing in the hand, for their easy opening and closing. Then, apart from the book itself, there is the matter of ownership. I remember what my life-long partner said to me in our first year of marriage, when I had bought a new book (not much money to buy books, in those days) and was in the act of signing it as belonging to me and no-one else: ‘ ‘Who’, she said, ‘will remember who Dafydd Hughes Lewis was, a hundred years from now?’ An image of Y Melin Trefin flicked through my mind, the old mill still standing there but the miller… no more. I never signed that book, and I have never signed another one since, not a single one of all my seven thousand. I have a fair number of books which have been signed, though, some by celebrated writers whose names are familiar to all – and more by persons unknown. When I pick up a book signed by a well-known author long gone, I feel a warm glow about the kidneys, and it occurs to me. ‘Just think, this book was actually part of his/her library; s/he would have held this very book in the hand, just as I’m holding it now… ‘. But the feeling of opening an old book owned long ago by some unknown reader and regarding the original owner’s signature there is quite different, and somewhat sad. ‘Who was this person?’ runs through the mind – who was J.J. Millidge, June, 1859? Who was Inez Haskins, Private Library No.420, undated, but c.1920? Or John Jones, Trofarth School, Bettws, Abergele, 1893? There are many more. But the most thought-provoking, and saddest of all among such books on my shelves is the small octavo volume with marbled boards, gilt leather-backed and cornered. truly beautiful little book (when they knew how to make beautiful books), the one which bears, on the fly-leaf, the inscription ‘Edith W. Cushman from Grandmother 25th Dec.,1876’. This lovely copy of de la Motte Fouqué’s enchanting tales was bought, probably in New York, as young Edith’s Christmas Day gift from her unnamed grandmother. God bless you, Edith, and God bless, Gran – your well-chosen Christmas present is in good hands. I remember, too, when browsing through Blackwell’s famous Broad Street bookshop in Oxford, in the days when Oxford had, sadly, ceased for some years to be a treasury of rare and antiquarian bookshops and Blackwell’s second-hand section was about the only place worth looking any more, coming across shelf upon shelf of books on Scotland, mostly about its literature, history and archaeology, all signed with the same name. This had obviously been the proud collection of some Oxford-based Scottish bibliophile and possibly scholar, whose relatives, faced with the problem of what to do with the books, had decided upon Blackwell’s as the best course. So, I wonder, what is going to happen to my own library with its more than ample scattering of titles on the literature and history of Wales? Here, In Far Formosa? I mean, there are not too many English-language second-hand bookshops here, and it’s not as though I hear too many people around me singing ‘Who is Sylvia? What is she?’ or ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ any more. Humpphh…   

But back to books which make us feel glad, and to some personal favourites, some well-known and others a probably a bit off the beaten track, which I’d like to share as a little nourishment in these peculiar stay-at-home days. They are grouped in couples due to a certain similarity they share. And they all have something further in common in that they are participants in a similar theme, which is the strange, the uncanny, the atmospheric, the preternatural – not of E.F. Benson’s ‘spooky stories’, nor of the outright Gothic, nor anything to do with ‘ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night’, but of an unearthliness which must be classed, each in its own way, as more subtly unsettling, or more magical, or more miraculous. It’s no easy task for a writer to project such ideas successfully. Each one of the six who follow does so masterfully.


3. The first two have enjoyed immense popularity, and must surely be considered as among the very best novels of the 20th century – yet I know of avid readers who have never managed to feast their eyes on them. I’m talking about Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both are Titans of the imagination. Their unbelievable, inexhaustible expansiveness is such that no plot summary could do either of them justice, and both defy genre categorization (‘magical realism’ had to be invented specifically for them).They are dazzling, stupendous, incomparable, unsurpassable masterpieces.

One hot Spring evening,The Master and Margarita tells us, Woland, a gentleman known by other names, arrives in Moscow with an unusual band of disciples which includes a clownish valet, a demonic black cat with human attributes, a beautiful naked witch and an ill-boding assassin. Throughout the story these wreak utter havoc in the city, a despoliation sometimes comic, but with it, pitiful and alarming. Their mischief, fed upon and aggravated by Moscow’s haplessly responsive citizens, also alternately melds and contrasts with the other principal situations presented by the story. One, which has been visited many times in literature, is the role into which Pontus Pilate finds himself thrust in the trial of Jesus – and we are transported from 20th century Moscow to 1st century Jerusalem. Another is the Faustian theme, highlighted particularly in a re-enactment of Goethe’s Classical / Walpurgisnacht scene from Book 2 of his Faust, where we find ourselves catapulted through the vast inky blacknesses of space to be set down again as guestsat a weird Underworld extravaganza. Yet another is the quiet thread of human self-examination and spirituality which runs through the telling, and the deep love and peace which, despite all the hectic shifting of events and that which controls them, is brought into the lives of two unhappy people – and this is the crux of it all. 

Set in the remote settlement of Macondo in the mountains and jungles of Colombia. One Hundred Years of Solitude tells of seven generations of the Buendia family whose ancestor, José Arcadio Buendia, founded the township after experiencing a dream. Undisturbed by the outside world, Macondo dreams itself away in its solitude, its only visitors a band of Gypsies which passes through each year, bringing with them practices and knowledge which are magical and mysterious to the townspeople. Wonders and miracles permeate throughout all Macondo’s and the Buendia family’s years, along with the inevitable loves and hates, gains and losses, joys and sorrows; but despite its isolation it is drawn into larger events which affect it from beyond its perimeter. Change does come, and Macondo and its inhabitants are eventually exposed to modernity and an influx of visitors who sometimes enrich and sometimes blight its existence. It is difficult to remark on more than a small number of the characters in a family with such complicated relationships and in which so many are larger than life and enigmatic, but the Buendias cannot be left without naming some of the more fascinating among them: Outstanding is its long-lived first matriarch, Ursula Iguarán, whose wisdom and fortitude are an exemplary guide through so many of its generations. Then there is Colonel Aureliano Buendia, energetic warrior and quiescent goldsmith, a massive character lionized for his many feats in the long war against outside Government forces. And – Oh! From where in Heaven’s name could the utter naked marvel of Remedios the Beauty have sprung? She is too lovely a creature and too much a stranger in the world into which she was born …  There are many, many more deserving of mention, each one contributing to the kaleidoscopic mesh of life with its fortunes and vicissitudes, triumphs and tragedies, which haunt the Buendia clan and their Macondo.

It’s worth looking at the lives of these two writers, and comparing the situations in which they wrote:

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) was a Ukraine-born writer, playwright and physician who struggled throughout his career to get his plays staged and his writing published. Under the heavy, censorious atmosphere of the Soviet system he was thwarted at every turn, and in 1929 government censors stopped publication of all his work. He had started work on The Master and Margarita in 1928, and continued working on it for many years. In the 1930s, with all odds against him – it was only the intervention of Stalin, a great admirer of one of his plays, which saved him from arrest, and possible execution, many times – depressed, and in poor health, seeing no future as a writer in the midst of such widespread literary repression, he still had hopes for what he called his ‘sunset’ novel. He believed it was worthy, and in his last years told his wife, who was devoted to him, that it deserved being kept in secure and secret storage. During the final phases of his illness he was visited by staunch friends, and passed away in their and his wife’s company.It was not until 1967 that The Master and Margarita  was fully published in book form, in Paris, after being smuggled out of Russia (by his widow?). The novel, with others of his works, is certainly a criticism of the political repression of the Soviet system. In 2005, in the more relaxed Russia we know today, it was made into an immensely popular television series.

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) was born in the small town of Aracataca, Colombia. He was a journalist, novelist, and short-story writer whose works achieved worldwide acclaim and commercial success. One Hundred Years of Solitude  was published in 1967, and in 1982 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. His 2002 autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, tells us much about his earlier days: his poverty as a young journalist in a literary backwater where aspiring writers were eager, but found it almost impossible, to get their hands on popular English-language works like those of Faulkner and Hemingway; the ever-present undercurrent of political strife which was wont to erupt into violence. But most of all it informs us of how his younger years living with his grandparents in remote, mountainous  Aracataca (the model for the novel’s Macondo) shaped his imagination and work (reading the autobiography is in many parts very much like reading his famous novel all over again). The hero-Colonel Aureliano Buendia was modeled on his grandfather, also a Colonel who had played a part in the same war against the Government. In Aracataca, as in Macondo, there was a free and easy attitude to life, but it was accompanied by hardship all around. Márquez’ leftist political views as an established writer and journalist led to his being denied entry to the USA until President Clinton, who had read and enjoyed his great novel, lifted the ban. In the years following the literary fame brought by One Hundred Years of Solitude, Márquez, with his family, lived for many years in Barcelona, Catalunya, later settling and ending his days in Mexico City.

What a difference in the literary environment of these two writers! Bulgakov, under Moscow’s northern skies, struggling to be heard but  forever frustrated by having to suffer his work being constantly under the surveillance and dictates of harsh Government censors: and Márquez, in warm and verdant Colombia, excitedly experimenting with styles among the open journalistic ‘café’ fraternity of Barranquilla and Bogotá. Bulgakov, unable to see his best work published during his lifetime; Márquez, receiving literary accolades and world fame during his. And the great coincidence of these two masterpieces of literature, each one so suffused with a daring, spellbinding similarity, the one twenty-seven long years after its author’s demise and the other fresh off the writer’s pen, being published in the very same year. It is as though Mikhail Bulgakov’s ghost had made a timely appearance, announcing ‘Magical Realism? Is it time? Yes, here I am’.


4. The second couplet of titles are Leo Perutz’ Der Schwedischer Reiter / The Swedish Cavalier (1936) and Nachts unter der Steinernen Brücke / By Night under the Stone Bridge (1952).

The Swedish Cavalier begins with the childhood memories of an 18th century lady, Maria Christine, and her troubled recollections of receiving secret, nightly visits from her father, officially announced killed in the Swedish wars. That is our introduction to the mystery – the story proper then takes place before her birth, in the winter of 1701, with two unlikely companions whom fate has thrown together struggling against the cold of an open, windswept (Pomeranian? It doesn’t say; that’s my guess) landscape toward the sanctuary of a derelict mill. One is a young nobleman who has deserted from the Swedish army; the other, a seasoned thief. Both are fleeing the gallows. From that point on, the story boils over into a fascinating, fast-paced tale of deceit, sacrifice, love, betrayal, and redemption.

By Night under the Stone Bridge is a series of closely linked, richly detailed short stories set in the 16th century Prague of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, his court full of scheming sycophants, his treasury empty, and himself paranoid. The story centres around the Emperor, an immensely wealthy Jew, Meisl, his beautiful young wife Esther and the Great Rabbi Loew whose task it is, in the midst of other, interlinked events told by many voices, to sever an illicit and mysterious love tryst which takes place each night under the Stone Bridge. Main themes are survival, gain, love, and pain in the time immediately preceding the destruction of Prague and Bohemia in the catastrophic Thirty Years War.

Leo Perutz (1882-1957) was a writer and mathematician born in Prague during the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Drafted into the armies which played out the horrific conflict which followed the collapse of the Dual Monarchy, he was invalided from the Eastern Front with a bullet-pierced lung. He lived on in Austria, the small rump-state of the Empire, until the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, when he escaped to Palestine. For the rest of his life he split his time between the nascent Israel and his earlier semi-homeland of Austria. 

Perutz published eleven books which, although championed by writers of such stature as Jorge Luis Borge and Italo Calvino, remained largely unknown in the English-language world. His ‘rediscovery’ in Europe and the English-speaking world did not occur until the 1980s and 1990s, but seems to have faded since. What can be said of the style and content of his work? Well, he was a master of narrative whose work was a blend of history and fantastical surrealism which, defying a slotting into any genre, could easily be said to be a precursor of the yet-to-be-coined ‘magical realism’; and the same, I venture, could be said of  other authors and works, such as Anatole France’s 1890 The Revolt of the Angels, Hermann Hesse’s 1946 The Glass Bead Game, Jean Ray’s 1943 Malpertuis, perhaps Charles Maturin’s 1820 Melmoth the Wanderer, (or is that too Gothic? The line can be fine), and certainly Jan Potocki’s ?1815 amazingly layered The Manuscript found in Saragossa (fun trivia fact: ‘Saragossa’ < ‘Caesaraugusta’). I’m sure there are others which could be added to the list, which would give ‘magical realism’  a long literary tradition before its recognized ‘coming of age’ with the modern giants Bulgakov and Márquez.


5. In the third couplet of novels we move away from the borders of magical realism to, as mentioned above, an unearthliness which is more subtly unsettling. Here are Yukio Mishima’s Haru no Yuki / Spring Snow and Kobo Abé’s Suna no Onna /The Woman in the Dunes. Mishima’s book is actually the first of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy and is further developed in Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel. The latter three take the story ‘where it is going’, with a decided change of emphasis which ventures far beyond the initial volume’s outset; but Spring Snow  is a self-contained, tragedy-tinged love story in itself and can most certainly be appreciated on its own. Mishima features a rich prose style in tune with the complexity of characters and events. Abé’s The Woman in the Dunes, in contrast, is told in a simple, straightforward fashion which matches its starkness.

Spring Snow covers some fifteen months from the end of Autumn, 1912, to the end of Winter,1914, and is set in the years of the Meiji Restoration, a period which saw Japan emerge (on being coerced, initially, by the gunboat diplomacy of the United States of America, then in its earlier stages of seeking a world-wide role) from its feudal, isolationist past into an era of interaction with the outside world and in particular with ‘The Great Powers of the West’. It was an age of great transformation which saw the line between the old aristocracies and the new administrative, industrialist and merchant classes dim, changes which brought about significant tensions in a society so long steeped in tradition, Samurai overlordship, and Emperor worship. The story opens with the friendship of Kiyoaki Matsugae and Shigekuni Honda, the sons of two rich provincial families which typify the dichotomous values of that transitional Japan; both are students at an elite school. During a boating outing by both on an artificial lake on his family estate, Kiyoaki accidentally meets up with an old childhood friend, a girl, Ayakura Satoko, who is now a beautiful young woman – and a member of the high aristocracy. The reserved and shy Kiyoaki is indifferent at first, while Satoko is interested and responsive; she has a ‘crush’ on him. Their subsequent relationship is up and down due to Kiyoaki’s acted-out disinterest, but eventually has to face up to great adversity as, at a crucial stage in her life, he realizes he truly loves her; their relationship develops into a strong and secretive one. The sensible and self-assured Honda is his friend’s conscience and confessor throughout. And here it is best to stop, so as not to reveal more of the complexities of this love relationship and the destinies it has in store.

Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) was an author, poet and playwright whose output was prodigious (34 novels, 50 plays, 25 short story collections, plus many essays). He is one of the most important post-war prose stylists of the Japanese language and one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century, considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963, ’64, ’65, and ’68. He was also one of the most complex and controversial. He was descended from the very highest level of Japan’s old-time aristocracy through his grandmother, who had a most considerable influence over his early life. At twelve years of age he was returned to his father, a strict disciplinarian. From six years old he attended an elite school, among the student body of which were counted members of the Imperial family and descendants of the old nobility; his studies included much European literature together with Classical Japanese. His relationships and some tragic personal incidents during his youth and young manhood during the dark days of Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII deeply affected and inspired his later writing. From 1946 on he achieved much success for his stories and novels. There was talk of the possibility of his marriage to Michiko Shoda, who was later to marry Crown Prince Akihito and who, on Akihito’s accession to the Imperial throne upon his father Hirohito’s death, became Empress Michiko. It was Mishima’s political activities which marked him as controversial. He had all his life stood for the traditions and spirit of Japan, and in his thirties, firmly committed to ethnic nationalism, deeply disappointed with intrusive, imported materialism and Japan’s post-war policies, he formed the Tatenokai, an unarmed militia, with the idea of restoring the spirit of Japan’s eroded culture. His organization was regarded with cautious tolerability by the military. On November 25, 1970, he and four of his inner circle visited the Headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self Defense Force in Tokyo, and upon being admitted to the Commandant’s office took him hostage and had him assemble the garrison in the parade ground below. Mishima then stood on the balcony to address the assembled soldiers, urging them that the time had come to overthrow Japan’s constitution of submission.The assembled soldiers were dumbfounded; they were aware of Mishima’s celebrated status and his militant Tatenokai, but were not prepared for anything like this, which amounted to open incitement to a coup. The stunned silence turned to murmurs, then open jeering, which was before long drowned by the sound of helicopters circling overhead (summoned by alerted staff inside the building). Upon this, Mishima called out loudly, three times: ‘Long live the Emperor!’ returned to the Commandant’s office, apologized to that officer, knelt down and committed seppuku – ritual suicide by disembowelment. Those who know anything about seppuku will be aware that it is a ritual which must be quite carefully prepared – and it obviously had been. It seems that Mishima knew his harangue would not succeed, and had deliberately engineered his own death. The idea of dying young can be traced in a number of his works. He had posted the perhaps hurried final volume of the tetralogy which began with Spring Snow to his publisher on the morning of that, his last day.

Kobo Abé’s Suna no Onna / The Woman in the Dunes was first published in 1962. It is a strange, bleak tale, a haunting masterpiece starkly told. It begins with city schoolteacher and keen amateur entomologist Niki Jumpei’s three-day excursion to a remote coastal area of Japan – an area which is a vast desert of sand dunes; he is in search of a previously unrecorded species of ‘Tiger Beetle’, and hopes that by finding one it will be named after him and his name published in field manuals. Late on the afternoon of the first day he lies down for a rest and dozes off. He awakes upon the presence of a man standing over him – a villager who informs Niki that he has missed the last bus. Stranded in such a remote location and with evening approaching, he agrees with the villager’s suggestion that he could be locally accommodated by one of them. Following a small party of villagers, he is lowered by rope-ladder to the bottom of a great sand-bowl in which stands a ramshackle hut, it’s sole resident a young widow. She cooks him a meal, after which he requests a bath to rid himself of sand grains. The woman asks, apologetically, if he would mind putting it off until ‘the day after tomorrow’. ‘But I won’t be here the day after tomorrow’, says her guest, with a laugh. From that first meeting, however, their fates are intertwined, and the man’s sojourn with her is to be a long one. Throughout the story, the woman remains unnamed. She is a small, slight person, quiet and passive, with a gentle gracefulness of form and manner. Through all the tension which ensues after that first night’s lodging,, she chooses silence and acquiescence. Excluded are two incidents where she is prepared to physically fight the man, first when her native common sense in the face of danger opposes his foolhardy willfulness and then when her sense of morality, when it is severely threatened, erupts to the fore. In her passivity she is both more sensitive and stronger than the man. Without giving away a situation which is characterized by compulsion, frustration, struggle and acceptance, with small intervals of quiet desire and its fulfillment, in this story the woman is all of primitive existence. She is ‘the force of the feminine: flesh and sex, mother and home’. All is told in simple, evocative prose. In 1964 Abé’s tale was made into a film, beautifully directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and nominated for two Academy Awards.The part of ‘the woman’ is supremely played by Kyõko Kishida – I cannot imagine better casting. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film which has so faithfully followed a book – in fact I saw the film first, and a question which remained, for me, at its very end, concerning the woman, made me most eager to get hold of the book to see if it was resolved there. I will not say here whether it was or not. Perhaps other readers and film-viewers will be faced with the same question, or it maybe that intuition will have already answered the question for them. But this is a story where it doesn’t matter whether you have read the book first or seen the film. I strongly recommend both. For those who would like to watch the film, it’s freely available on YouTube by going to Suna no Onna – full movie. Black and white, with excellent English subtitles. It’s long – just under two-and-a-half hours; but well worth it. And while we are talking about Japanese movies with an unsettling quality, with a similar remote setting but quite at the other end of the scale for its unquietness is Onibaba, (1964) a highly atmospheric historical, supernatural drama set in the volatile 14th century, and also easily available on YouTube by typing in the Japanese title to get it in black and white with good English subtitles… Quite the horror story, though – the complete opposite to our slowly unfolding, quietly suspenseful The Woman in the Dunes.

Kobo Abé (1924-1993) had an unsettled upbringing. He happened to be born in Tokyo where his father was on temporary secondment to pursue a degree in his profession as doctor of medicine, but returned  shortly to Mukden (present-day Shenyang), Manchuria, north-east China. Manchuria was at that time not at all the stablest of environments, being from 1932 to 1945 a puppet pseudo-state of imperialist Japan – ‘Manchukuo’, the ‘Empire of Manchuria’ ostensibly presided over by the unfortunate Pu Yi, the young last Emperor of China’s last dynasty, the Ch’ing / Qin, but whose rulership was always under the strictest Japanese control. (Some of us might recall the award-winning 1987 film,The Last Emperor, with its captivating musical score updated from the traditional Chinese, which tells Pu Yi’s tragic tale). It must have ben an uncertain, uneasy life in Manchukuo, with strife of one kind and another never far away, and this unsettledness during his early years, he later said on interview, contributed to the ‘lack of place’ evident in his writing. In 1943, young Abê attended Tokyo Imperial University, but returned  to Manchuria at the end of 1944; this was a particularly bad time, which saw a joint Mongolian-Soviet invasion, and a time during which his father died of typhus, his son returning to Tokyo with his father’s ashes. Abé again took up his studies at the University, where and when he started writing short stories, graduating in 1948. In the meantime he had married Machi Yamada, an artist and stage-director. Together, they lived in a bombed-out area of Tokyo, in an old, disused army barracks. Abé sold pickles and charcoal on the streets in order for the two to live. In the postwar years he joined the Communist Party (Manchuria had ben a hotbed of Communism – it’s been said that ‘almost all of the University graduates from Japan who arrived in Manchukuo in the late 1930s were ‘largely left-wing Socialists and Communists’ ‘). Abé had a long, rough ride with The Party due to his overt criticism, and was eventually, to his satisfaction, expelled. His career gradually prospered, but it was not until the publication of The Woman in the Dunes that he won worldwide recognition.


One short poem, and eleven pages of notes… I hope it was worthwhile, and that I’ve introduced a few viewers to some new stories which they will enjoy.


Strife on the Borders

A translation from the Classical Chinese
by Dafydd Hughes Lewis


A Metric Translation of Aneirin’s Gododdin
by Steffan Balsom


A Cathayan Catraeth

‘Hymn to the Fallen’
(Attributed to Ch’u Yuan (late 4th century-early 3rd century BCE).
From the anthology Chiuge / ‘The Nine Songs’).

The poem has its origin in the state of Chu along southern China’s Yangtze River during the tumultuous Warring States Period (c.475 – 221 BCE). The Chu state bordered four of the six other states striving to secure their positions or suzerainty; along with the state of Ch’in to its west, Chu was one of the largest and more powerful of the seven. The poet would have been at work during the reign of King Huai (329-299 BCE), one of the last rulers of Chu before it fell to neighboring Ch’in, which went on to engulf all the other states and form the first unified Chinese Empire. Above, it says that the poem is ‘attributed’ to Ch’u Yuan: this is because while in long exile from the Chu court he is said to have travelled the state’s territory collecting whatever existing folk-tales, poems and songs he could find; so he was very much their editor than their composer, although his individual input is clearly evident in the longest and most studied in the collection. The picture of both Ch’u Yuan and his anthology is also complicated by the impressions of these works as they were considered under the later intellectual climate of the Han, and their provenance and their ritualistic nature has proved problematic to scholars both ancient and modern. ’Hymn to the Fallen’, though fitting nicely by its title and content into the ‘Warring States’ background, seems something of an anomaly among the others in ‘The Nine Songs’, which are essentially shamanistic. Howsoever, by itself it stands as a striking portrayal of the shock of battle, and as a ‘collected’ item, may well refer to some considerably earlier conflict.

With trusty spears held by us,
coats of rhino hide upon us,
with our chariot axles touching
our short-sword blades did meet them.
Their standards blocked the sunlight
as they rolled like clouds among us;
with their arrows falling thickly
their warriors pressed toward us.
Our line was torn asunder
and they broke our ranks completely – 
now my left-hand horse falls, slaughtered;
my right one too falls wounded.
Wheels lock around their bodies,
and my chariot stops, immobile,
so on high I raise jade drumsticks
and beat the drum-roll loudly.
But Heaven’s Powers are wrathful,
and the gods decree us fallen – 
all our men lie dead about us;
the plain is strewn with corpses.
They went, but found no ingress;
ventured forth without returning.
And the plain is wide and empty,
and the way back home so lengthy.
Their long-swords lie beside them
and their bows are still gripped firmly.
Though their heads were cloven from them,
they never could be daunted.
They fought the battle bravely,
still are warriors, though death took them;
to the end were proud and steadfast,
and never knew dishonour.
Their bodies perished fighting
but their spirits live on, deathless – 
they will lead the ghost battalions
as captains and as heroes.

Note: Line 2. Rhinoceros hide armour is known to have been used by armies of earlier and later periods – from the Bronze Age chariot-driving warrior elite of the Shang (c.1600-1050 BCE) to at least the formidable Han (206 BCE-220 CE). Its later rarity, due to cooler climatic conditions and habitat destruction as well as hunting to extinction, is thought to be connected by way of folk-memory with the mythical Chinese ‘unicorn’ – the ch’i-lin.

The metre I’ve chosen for this poem is the strident one of Thomas Love Peacock’s well-known ‘The War Song of Dinas Vawr’ which we all learned at school back in the day. Remember? ‘The mountain sheep are sweeter, / But the valley sheep are fatter; / We therefore deemed it meeter / To carry off the latter’. And further on, more in line with the battle-spirit with which we are concerned:

‘We made a mighty sally,
To furnish our carousing.
Fierce warriors rushed to meet us;
We met them, and o’erthrew them:’

Which serves to bring us closer, also, to the Welsh / Catraeth connection. What of this ‘Catraeth’, then? What is it? Why the heading ‘A Cathayan Catraeth’? Well, in answer, it is the name of a battle fought a world away from China’s state of Chu, but one which holds out a remarkable comparison.

In the case of Cathayan Chu, a great battle is fought, but its name is not given; That may be through the vagaries of transmission or transcription over time; we do not know. Catraeth, on the other hand, is a name which has survived such vagaries – if only by the merest chance. With  a thousand years or more between their respective compositions, the similarities of the poems’ coming into being and their content may still be marked – as of course, may their differences. Their greatest similarity lies in the fact that both were born of a period of great contention, with a patchwork of kingdoms or states striving to establish, or re-establish, or protect, their territorial sovereignty; in the ‘do or die, death before dishonour’ spirit evident in all their words; and in the tribute they pay to those fallen. Their main difference lies in the brevity of the one (the Chinese has just 36 lines) and the completeness of the other (the Brythonic / Welsh has over 100 verses). In the Chinese poem, the fallen warriors are nameless, as is the time and location; in the Brythonic / Welsh poem, we know where and when the conflict took place; a great number of its heroes are named, along with a description of their deeds. And ‘Catraeth’ is a name which should be held firm in the mind of every Welsh person the world over who purposes to be conversant with their country’s history and literature. For anyone, anywhere, to whom the word ‘Catraeth’ has no meaning, here is an outline of what gave rise to that heroic conflict.

The setting is Northern Britain at around the year 600 CE; that is, about one hundred and fifty years after the Roman withdrawal from the island and during a prolonged period of jostling for ascendancy between rival native and invader ‘successor states’. In the south-east, the two richest  and most populated of the Roman Provinces have been overrun by Saxon invaders from the European mainland, and the heartland of what was to become ‘England’ established there (a region referred to in Welsh as ‘Lloegr’, or ‘Loegria’ as a sort of Latinisation. It remains very much the English heartland to this day). Further afield, in the north and west, lay at least two other Provinces, and these, unlike those of the south-east, were always subject to Roman military rule (The location and nomenclature of these Provinces which together formed the Diocese of Britannia is in some respects uncertain and a subject of dispute among historians of the period. It’s a picture somewhat too complicated and a little beyond our scope to thoroughly look at here, and is best left to be dealt with more fully at another time). Anyway, in the west lay the post-Roman patchwork of Celtic / Brythonic kingdoms comprising what is today Wales, together with the ‘West Country’, while to the north lay all the country east and west of the Pennine chain, and beyond that the region of present-day Lowland Scotland. These are all regions which had been at some time subject to a Roman military presence; they were ‘The Frontier’. The country each side of the Pennines (the large territory of former pre-Roman ‘Brigantia’ had been swallowed whole into the Provincial pattern, while  the Celtic / Brythonic tribal entities occupying the now Lowland Scotland (‘the land between the Walls’, i.e., the well-known Hadrian’s Wall and the more northerly and lesser-known Antonine Wall) had become, over a long period of interaction with the Imperial order, consolidated into a well-defined group of kingdoms. (This pattern of consolidation had always been a feature of Roman cross-frontier influence resulting, for example, in the merging of such 1st century BCE Germanic tribes as the Cherusci, Chauci, and others to emerge later as larger groupings under other names – which is precisely how the Saxones first appeared on the scene).

So what we have, on the whole, is a patchwork of Saxon-held kingdoms in the south-east, a patchwork of Brythonic kingdoms in the west, a patchwork of Brythonic kingdoms ‘between the Walls’, and a large, Brythonic populated cross-Pennine region. It should be added that the borders and extent of all these kingdoms was fluctuational and is still sparsely understood. And now, into this, enter the Anglians. These were the northern arm of those previously-mentioned Saxons, and were, like them, transmarine intruders greedy for the leftovers of Empire who made their appearance, at around the same time, up along the north-eastern seaboard of Roman-vacated Britain, taking over Brythonic Deifr and Brynaich and establishing their two kingdoms of ‘Deira’ and ‘Bernicia’. The Anglian push northwards into Lowland Scotland and inland into the territory east of the Pennines brought them on a collision course with the Gododdin, the easternmost of the Brythonic peoples between the Walls, whose authority reached south into allied Brythonic territory. In this inland region lay the town of Catraeth, which these Bernician Anglians had taken forcibly for their own. The do-or-die mission of a Brythonic army to retake that town – the story of the Battle for Catraeth – is the subject of the epic poem which follows below. ‘The Gododdin’ of Aneirin is one of the earliest and most celebrated of all Welsh poems, Here it is fully introduced, in its received Middle Welsh text, with an English metrical translation, lists, capsule biographies, and notes, by poet and essayist Steffan Balsom. Steffan’s first anthology, The East Wind and the Crow (Austin Macaulay) was published in 2019. He is a multi-linguist with specialist knowledge of the Celtic languages; the excerpts of his metric paraphrase / translation of Aneirin’s Gododdin  are in some cases published here for the first time.


The following few paragraphs are taken from my introduction to the Gododdin:

These verses are my attempt at a metric translation (more strictly, metric paraphrase) of the ancient Welsh poem, Gododdin (from Llyfr Aneirin, the Book of Aneirin, NLW Cardiff MS 2. 81). For anyone who is unfamiliar with the poem, I will give a very brief outline of the subject matter with which it deals. Just over a hundred verses, it is an elegy for (ostensibly) six or seven hundred Brythonic (British Celtic or ‘Ancient British’) warriors, led by the Gododdin of what is today Lothian, who gave their lives in an unsuccessful effort (circa 600 A.D.) to wrest control of the town of Catraeth (Brythonic Cataractonion – generally, though not unanimously, identified with modern Catterick, north Yorkshire), back from the invading ‘English’ or Angles (specifically, the Anglic kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, modern Durham and Northumberland).

From these few and carefully circumscribed facts, it is immediately clear that this poem speaks of a formative time in the history of this island. I have referred to the Gododdin as an ancient Welsh poem, one of the oldest of all, and yet the reader may be surprised by the setting, and some of the terminology I am using here. Is it, s/he might ask, a Welsh poem or an ‘Ancient British’ poem, and when was Yorkshire ever part of Wales?! 

The shortest possible answer would be, to the first question, it is both, and to the second, Yorkshire was never part of Wales, but it was once Welsh (Brythonic), along with the rest of this island – and was still on the front line in 600 A.D. The north of England was still not solidly English (Saxon) when the Normans arrived, although by then the ‘Old North’, that is the Celtic/Brythonic North, was (politically) lost forever.

To those conversant with Welsh history, I apologise for such obvious statements; to the general reader, I must explain myself more clearly.

The terms ‘Brythonic’ (or ‘Brittonic’), ‘Gallo-Brythonic’, ‘Ancient British’, ‘British Celtic’ (or ‘Romano-Celtic’) and ‘(early) Welsh/Pictish’ are essentially synonymous. ‘Welsh’ (Welisc) is the name the invading Anglo-Saxons (early ‘English’ raiders and settlers) gave to all Celtic-speaking inhabitants of this island – initially, therefore, the whole population. (Other Teutonic tribes gave similar names to other Celtic or ‘Roman’/Latin peoples they encountered – for instance, the Walloons of Belgium)1. Whilst it is well enough known that the Welsh and Cornish (the West Welsh as they were sometimes called) tend to consider themselves the only truly indigenous population of Britain, it is not always remembered what a slow and incremental process was the ‘conquest’ of what we today call England.

Here, I present a few stanzas (from the 103 which comprise the text):

1 (I)

A man for strength, a youth in years,
Valour on the field of tears,
Long-maned mounts and cavaliers:
A fair-formed youth among them steers

A broad-brimmed shield
his crupper bears,
Swift and slight the racing mares,
Gold about his waist he wears:
His blade new-made, the grave he dares

Hateful was his martial fate,
His praise in verse inviolate:
His life bled out before he married,
Sooner food for crows than buried

Ywain, friend of highest worth,
A sin he should lay in the earth
I wonder such a deed were done:
Slain was Marro’s only son

(I: Original Text)

G redyf gwr oed gwas
gwrhyt am dias.
meirch mwth myngvras.
a dan vordwyt megyrwas.
ysgwyt ysgauyn lledan
ar bedrein mein vuan.
kledyuawr glas glan
ethy eur aphan.
ny bi ef a vi
cas e rof a thi.
Gwell gwneif a thi
ar wawt dy uoli.
kynt y waet e lawr
nogyt y neithyawr.
kynt y vwyt y vrein
noc y argyurein.
ku kyueillt ewein.
kwl y uot a dan vrein.
marth ym pa vro
llad vn mab marro.

15 (XV)

For Catraeth’s lands, as often told,
Our greatest died and ne’er grew old:

Through endless wars, defending lands
That else fell in Godebog’s hands
Trailing biers bore trunks bled dry,
Our loathsome fate – betrothed to die

Tudfwlch swore, and Cyfwlch Hir,
And we drank poison bright and clear,
By candlelight it tasted well:
The finest curses brewed in hell!

(XV: Original Text)

O vreithyell gatraeth pan adrodir.
maon dychiorant eu hoet bu hir.
edyrn diedyrn amygyn dir.
a meibyon godebawc gwerin enwir.
dyforthynt lynwyssawr gelorawr hir.
bu tru a dynghetven anghen gywir.
a dyngwt y dutvwlch a chyvwlch hir.
ket yvem ved gloyw wrth leu babir
ket vei da e vlas y gas bu hir.

30 (XXX)

When Caradog flew to war
The wild wood boar slew thirty
Or a bull in battle, war-hosts wasting,
Shredding foes, bare hands assisting

Ywain Ab Eulad will testify
Nor Gwrien nor Gwynn deny
At Catt’rick what catastrophe
He caused Bryn Hyddwn’s loss to be:

He cradled once the shining mead,
But Gwriad and Gwrien and Gwynn
Were left in loss and need

(XXX: Original Text)

P an gryssyei garadawc y gat;
mal baed coet trychwn trychyat.
tarw bedin en trin gomynyat;
ef llithyei wydgwn oe anghat.
ys vyn tyst ewein vab eulat.
a gwryen. A gwynn a gwryat.
o gatraeth o gymynyat.
o vrynn hydwn cynn caffat.
gwedy med gloew ar anghat
ny weles vrun e dat.

55 (LV A)

Gododdin, for thy sake I sing
From the valleys to Trum Essyd2
Money he valued – as nothing
From Dwywai’s son his valour springs

Nor came such things of mean advice:
The fires blazed from dusk till dawn,
Then torches gave the paths their sight
So pilgrims, even those
who wore the purple,
Might yet see the light

Slain at last, our dearest one,
Lain to rest, our finest son,
And yet not so, he has no choice:
Aneirin lives through this his voice!

(LV A: Original Text)

G ododin gomynaf dy blegyt.
tynoeu dra thrumein drum essyth.
gwas chwant y aryant heb emwyt.
o gussyl mab dwywei dy wrhyt.
nyt oed gynghor wann. wael y rac tan veithin.
o lychwr y lychwr luch bin.
luch dor y borfor beryerin.
llad gwaws. gwan maws mur trin
anysgarat vu y nat ac aneirin.

An outstanding feature of Aneirin’s Gododdin is the cumulative effect of the verses, each one (asides from a small amount of extraneous material, which was later added by successive generations of monks, who re-copied the manuscripts) being an elegy for warriors the poet had known personally. I have often described the text itself, therefore, as ‘a sonic churchyard’. ‘Churchyard’ because it is a series of tributes to the fallen, and ‘sonic’ because – asides from the beauty of the words themselves, which we may appreciate as fully today as we might have done in 600 A.D. – it was originally sung to the accompaniment of the crwth (a type of harp or lyre). There is something to be gained, therefore, from taking the verses one by one, and noting the recurrence of Aneirin’s comrades in some of the later Welsh literature. (Not least since ‘later Welsh literature’ equates to almost ‘all Welsh literature’ – and of course, for that matter, all British literature).

As discussed in the end-notes to my own translation:

In a few cases, the characters named in the Gododdin are known from other sources: the Welsh Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydain, from the White Book of Rhydderch, Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, and Red Book of Hergest, Llyfr Coch Hergest), the ‘Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’, (Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain, again found in the Red and White Books), the ‘Lineage of the Men of the North’ (Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, from the manuscript known as Peniarth MS. 45, now in the National Library of Wales), the Mabinogion (again from the Red and White Books) etc.

The following are the warriors described in the poem (1-103), and some further notes on their later occurrences in Welsh literature and mythology (taken one by one below).

Warriors Named:

1. Ywain Ab Marro (I) (Ywain [LXII], Ywain Ab Eulad [XXX])

2. MadogII (II) (XXXI) (LXIX) (Madog Elfed, [XCVI])

3. CadfannanIII (III) (XLII) (LXII)

4. Mab Ysgyrran (‘Sgyrran’s son’) (IV)

5. Hyfaidd Hir (V)

6. Mab Bodgad (‘Bodgad’s son’) (VI)

7. Rheithfyw (VII)

9. Mab Cian (‘Cian’s son’) (IX)

10. Mynyddog MwynfawrX (X) (XI) (XXXI) (XXXII) (XLI) (LX) (LXI) (LXVI) (LXVIII) (LXXVII) (C)

12. Gorau (XII)

13. Tudfwlch Ab Cilydd (XIII)

14. Erthgi (XIV)

15. Cyfwlch, ‘Cyfwlch Hir’ (XV)

16. Blaen (XVI)

17. Gwrfelling (XVII)

18. CynonXVIII Fab ClydnoXXI, Cynri, Cynrain (XVIII). Cynon: (XVIII) (XII) (XXI) (XXXIV) (XXXVI) (XXXVII) (LXVI) (XCVII)

19. Cydwal Ab Syfno, Athrwys/Arthwys, Affrai (XIX)

20. Breichiol (XX)

21. Aeron (XXI)

22. Llifiau (XXII)

23. Graid Fab Hoywgir (XXIII)

24. Buddfan Fab Bleiddfan (XXIV)

25. Gwenabwy Fab Gwên (XXV) (Gwenabwy, [XLIII])

26. Cadlew, Marchlew (XXVI)

27. Isag Ab Gwyddnau (XXVII)

28. Ceredig (XXVIII)

30. Caradog, Ywain Ab Eulad, Gwriad, Gwrien, Gwên (XXX)

31. Pyll, Ieuan, Gwgan, Gwion, Cynfan, Peredur, Gwawrddur, Aeddan (XXXI). (Gwawrddur, [CII]).

32. Gwlgod Gododdin (Gwlyged Gododdin) (XXXII)

33. Rhufon Hir (XXXIII)

34. MorienXXXIV Fab FferogXXXV, Gwid Fab Peithan (XXXIV). Morien: (XXXIV) (XXXV) (XLIII) (LIV).

38. ElffinXXXVIII Fab Bodduadaf XL (XXXVIII) (XXXIX A) (XL)

43. Gwydien, and Bradwen (XLIII). Bradwen is also mentioned in (XLIV).

45. Cynhafal (XLV)

46. Rhydderch (XLVI)

47. Cyni/Cynau XLVII Fab Llywarch XLIX* The two verses concerning Cyni/Cynau Fab Llywarch appear to have an extrinsic origin, being as I.W. picturesquely puts it ‘stray sheep from the Llywarch Hen cycle’. As with the verse concerning Dyfnwal Frych/Domhnall Breac and Nwython/Nechtán (see below), it may either be that there was indeed an (unrelated) Cyni/Cynau present, or the verses may simply be here through association, since Llywarch was said (probably much later) to have lost all of his sons at Catraeth. There is a contradiction within a contradiction, in this regard, because the second of the two verses dealing with Cynau have him rescuing Aneirin from a dungeon, presumably some time after the battle – in which, according to the Llywarch poems, he had died! (Aneirin himself, not to be out-done, describes his own funeral in verse 55 [LV A]). (XLVII) (XLIX).

50. Senyllt, Heilyn (L)

51. Grugyn (LI)

52. Rhys Frych (LII)

53. Cynwal (LIII)

54. Addonwy (LIV)

55. (Deiniol) Mab Dwywai*. Not among the army: Saint Deiniol is mentioned here as an ancestor of Aneirin (LV).

56. Morial (LVI)

57. Eidol Ynial (‘Eidol the Wild’) (LVII)

63. Merin Ap Madian (LXIII)

64. Cibno (LXIV), Cibno Fab Gwengad (CIII)

65. Gwaednerth Ab Llywri (LXV)

67. Cynddylig Aeron (LXVII), (LXXX)

68. Merch Eudaf Hir (LXVIII)

72. Ywain (LXXII)

74. Cadafwy Gwynedd (LXXIV)

75. Fflamddur (LXXV)

76. Blaenwyd (LXXVI)

78. Moried (LXXVIII)

79. Nwython, Dyfnwal Brych*. This verse is anomalous here, though, since Dyfnwal Brych/Domhnall Breac was a King of Dal Ríada who died in 642. It may have been included because of the reference to Nwython/Nechtán, and Naif Ab Nwython in verse (XCVIII). (LXXIX).

81. Mab Ceidio (LXXXI)

83. Tafloyw (LXXXIII)

84. Gorwylam (LXXXIV)

85. Geraint (of Argoed) (LXXXV)

86. Eiddef (LXXXVI)

87. Garthwys Hir (of Rhufoniog) (LXXXVII)

88. Gwair Hir Ab Fferfach (LXXXVIII)

92. Bleiddig Ab Eli (XCII)

96. Madog Elfed (XCVI)

98. Naif Ab Nwython (XCVIII)

99. Bufon (XCIX)

100. Urfai Ab Golystan (C)

101. Edar (CI)

(1). Ywain Ab Marro – Ewein/Ywein, or Owain in modern Welsh orthography, for which I have compromised on Ywain in the translation. Ywain Ab Marro was a horseman in the north-Brythonic forces. All we can surmise from the text is that he was a young man, approaching marriageable age and fell in battle ‘before his altar-vows were said’ (nogyt y neithiawr). There are at least two Ywains mentioned in the text: Ywain Ab Marro, verse (I), and Ywain Ab Eulad, verse 30 (XXX). Verse 62 (LXII) also refers to an individual named Ywain, who is likely to be one of these two. (It is possible, though unlikely, that the other Ywain is Owain Ab Urien: Owain Ab Urien died in battle circa 595 A.D., probably a few years before the Battle of Catraeth).

(2). Madog/Madog Elfed (Madog of Elmet, West Yorkshire). Madog is mentioned in three verses, and a Madog Elfed is mentioned in verse 94 (XCVI). Madog Elfed would likely have been among the Gododdin’s most important local allies, assuming the attack was indeed against the ford at Catterick, North Yorkshire. He would have been able to organise reinforcements and supply lines during a battle which, according to verse 103 (CIII), lasted at least three days.

(3). Cadfannan. His rank is uncertain, although Caeawc cynhorawc (‘torqued and foremost’) suggests that this was a fighter who had made a name for himself in previous campaigns. The name recurs in later verses. (42 [XLII] and 62 [LXII]).

(10). Mynyddog Mwynfawr. Ostensibly, the Chieftain of the Gododdin, although entirely unknown from other sources. Almost all we can gather from the poem is that the Gododdin were sent to war ar neges Mynyddog Mwynfawr, ‘at the behest of Mynyddog Mwynfawr’. Mynyddog is mentioned in eleven different verses.

Aneirin, incidentally, may have been a descendant of Pabo Post Prydain, through Deiniol and Dwywai, cf. verse (LV A). Interestingly, Irish sources say that Pabo’s son (Sawyl Pen Uchel, Gaelicised as Samhuel Ceann-Íseal) married Deichter, the daughter of a king of Ulster named Muireadach Muindearg, a name which could quite easily be garbled into something like Mynyddog Mwynfawr.

Conceivably, a Cymricised form of the name Muireadach arose, and was handed down, because of the dynastic ties of Brythonic York (Efrog) and Gaelic Ulster? A remote but nicely pan-Celtic possibility.

There is also the reference to a Morgan Mwynfawr in the ‘Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’, which is strongly associated with the Old North. Morgan Mwynfawr’s Chariot was said to convey its passengers to any destination instantaneously. Morgan Mwynfawr’s Chariot (Car Mynyddog Mwynfawr)is immediately followed in the lists by Clydno Eiddyn’s Halter (Cebystr Clydno Eiddyn, see below). Obviously, it is difficult to know what to make of all this (!) The reference to a chariot is interesting in itself. This was of course the ancient Brythonic and Gaulish way of fighting. War-chariots are not mentioned in the Gododdin, however, only cavalry. It seems likely that the war-chariot became obsolete in the middle and later first millennium, since its use in battle suited the (lost) lowlands. The chariot of a Chieftain of the North, magical or otherwise, might well be a suitable object for nostalgia therefore. (It also happens that Brythonic Efrog coincides partly with the territory of the earlier Parisiī tribe, and a high concentration of chariot-burials).

(18). Cynon Ab Clydno. Mentioned more often than anyone except Mynyddog (eight verses in total). Cynon was apparently the son of Clydno Eiddyn, cited in Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Peniarth MS. 45) and the Welsh Triads. Clydno Eiddyn is remembered, perhaps oddly given his honorific, not as a King of Lothian but of neighbouring Strathclyde, and a descendant of Coel Hen. Whilst Clydno later acquired mythological assets, specifically a magical halter, Cebystr Clydno Eiddyn (the peculiarity of which was that Clydno could find, harnessed in it, any horse he had need of), Cynon Ab Clydno turns up in the Mabinogion tale of ‘Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain’, wherein we find him swapping tales with Arthur and Cei, and Owain Ab Urien. We find him very much at home, for that matter, since they are all relaxing and – what else? – drinking mead! Cynon goes on to recite one of the more memorable tales of (even) the Mabinogion, concerning a forest which is home to a black giant, wielding an iron club, by means of which he controls the wild animals, and a knight in black armour, summoned by means of pouring water onto a stone. The Black Knight’s appearance is accompanied by a storm of thunder and hail so powerful that it cuts the flesh, stopping only at the bone.

The story of the Black Knight is remarkably similar to a Breton tradition concerning Barenton in Brekilien/Brocéliande (or Paimpont). The Mabinogion tale is also similar to Chretien De Troyes’ Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, which also locates the magical spring in Brocéliande. As for which came first, we will probably never know. Either way, Cynon Ab Clydno of the Gododdin found his way into the highest echelons of later Brythonic legend and its Anglicised and Latinised/Francised retellings.

(25). Gwenabwy Fab Gwên. We gather from verse 25 (XXV) that Gwenabwy owned substantial lands (in Lothian?), which he left unattended while on campaign (probably meaning that his tenants also left their lands to fight). The reference to ei lys, ‘his court’, strongly suggests that Gwenabwy was not merely a land-owner but a Chieftain.Little more can be gleaned from verse 43 (XLIII), only that Gwenabwy was ‘as good as’ (or slew) twelve men. (The same line in the B text is more modest in its claims, stating merely that Gwenabwy was deheueg, ‘dextrous, skilful’).

(32). Gwlgod (or Gwlgawd or Gwlyged) Gododdin. All the poem itself tells us is that ‘Gwlgod Gododdin was swift in opposition’ and ‘Mynyddog’s feast made him famous’. Somehow, between Gwlgod’s brief mention in the Gododdin and the early second millennium A.D., he became a legendary figure. He – or more precisely his drinking horn – is the subject of one of Culhwch’s quests in the Mabinogion tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. It may be significant that Gwlgod’s name-check in the Gododdin is in the context of the year-long feasting before the battle, since the magical object attributed to him in the Culhwch story is a self-replenishing mead-horn, Corn Gwlgawd Gododdin.

(34). Morien Fab Fferog. Morien is referenced in four verses. We gather from the text that Morien was the son of Fferog, and a descendant of Caradog: 35 (XXXV). Verse 34 (XXXIV) describes Morien’s hall (and hearth) as the most generous the Gododdin knew. 35 (XXXV) refers to him as mynawg, ‘chieftain’, and clearly places him amongst the leaders of the Gododdin’s cavalry: fer y law faglei fowys varchawc, ‘his fierce hand set fire to fleeing horsemen’ (presumably figurative: ‘…made them flee as if set on fire’). 43 (XLIII A) tells us, rather cryptically, that: amuc moryen/ gwenwawt mirdyn. a chyvrannv penn/ prif eg weryt. ac an nerth ac am hen, ‘Morien fulfilled/ The prophesy of Myrddin, and strew the heads/ Of [Anglic] chieftains upon the earth, strong and ancient alike’. Finally, 54 (LIV A) which is for Bradwen, mentions Morien in passing: wenn heli bratwen. gwnelut. lladut. llosgut./ no moryen ny waeth wnelut., ‘As he did, so did Bradwen. You slew, and burned/ You did no less (‘no worse’) than Morien’. The mention of fire once again is intriguing: whilst it seems unlikely that Morien actually set horses on fire (!), as verse 35 (XXXV) suggests, the repeated allusions – ‘fire/hearth… set ablaze… burned’ – do suggest that Morien used fire as a weapon of war. There are a handful of (oblique) references elsewhere to the use of fire, e.g. 70 (LXX A): bu bwlch bu twlch tandde, ‘there was a breach [and then] there was a house on fire’.

(38). Elffin Fab Bodduadaf. Elffin is mentioned in three verses. It is clear that he was among the cavalry, from the phrase arderchauc varchauc, ‘excellent horseman’. Otherwise, the three consecutive verses are fairly formulaic: ‘wall of warfare, bull of battle… worthy of his mead’ et cetera. In the third of the three, we learn his full name, Elffin Fab Bodduadaf. His father’s name, Bodduadaf, seems to signify either ‘Hand of Victory’ (bodd/budd+adaf)or ‘Claw-Hand’ (boddw+adaf).

(67). Cynddylig Aeron. Cynddylig (of Ayrshire?) Aeron is unlikely to refer to the river Aeron in Ceredigion, since the Gododdin’s Walian-Welsh allies (so to speak) were the men of Gwynedd (geographically, Gwynedd and Clwyd), not, as far as we know, Deheubarth (the south-west), Powys or Glywysing (Gwent/Glamorgan). Aeron probably refers to the river Ayr in Strathclyde, and the surrounding or adjacent regions: perhaps the part of Strathclyde north of the Ayr? In 67 (LXVII), it is not entirely clear whether Aeron is to be taken with Cynddylig, or means ‘the men of Aeron/Ayrshire’. In 80 (LXXX), however, it is certainly being used as an honorific: Cynddylig Aeron, cynnan lew, ‘Cynddylig Aeron, thunderous, bold’… His host or battalion is described as ‘huge’ (goruawr y lu), from which it seems self-evident that Cynddylig was an experienced war-leader and was in command of one of the army’s largest divisions. The terms llogell in 67 (LXVII) and more especially lleithig in 80 (LXXX), ‘hall’ and ‘(lordly) seat, throne’ also leave little doubt that Cynddylig was a Chieftain as well as a war-leader.


1 Voltaire once gave a rather surprising title to an essay in which he addresses the French people – Discourse Aux Welches! Here he is using the word very much as a fifth century Saxon or Frank seems to have used it – any kind of Celtic or Latin people.

2 tynoeu: tyno, ‘valley, hollow’ cf. (Middle) Breton tnou. dra thrumein trum essyth: trum is ‘ridge’ so it seems fair to take this as the name of a high hill or mountain. Trumain, if valid, is simply unknown. It could be an adjective on the same basis as milain (‘beastly’: mil ‘beast’+ain), so trum+ain ‘spiky, having many ridges’. Essyth almost has to be Esyd to chime with blegyd, ymwyd (emwyt) and (g)wrhyd (wrhyt). ‘The valleys of (very) ridge-b­­acked Trum Essyd’ or ‘[from] the valleys to ridge-backed Trum Essyd’.
‘Dwywai’s son’, incidentally, is Saint Deiniol, regarded (along with his two brothers) as the founder of Bangor-Is-Coed abbey, whose father was Dunawd and his mother, Dwywai. This may mean Aneirin had a royal connection, since Dunawd was the son of Pabo Post Prydain, a ‘prince of the North’ in the mid-400s, i.e. probably the kingdom of Efrog (Celtic York), or a tributary kingdom of Efrog, before its disintegration.

Dylan’s Day

The Boat-house

Have you been to the boat-house
there in Laugharne?
It’s dark there now,
and closed.
Someone (not Dylan)
left crunched-up paper
(not Dylan’s) on the floor;
and someone too (not Dylan)
stood a big brown bottle
(not Dylan’s) on the desk.

But above the place
the leaves of Wales still celebrate;
and down below,
in every slapping son of a wave
there still abides a story.

Note: Today, May 14, apparently, is ‘International Dylan’s Day’. I visited his writing cabin in the early ‘90s. It was a fine summer’s day; the waters of the estuary were coruscating in silver, and the other side dawdling in browns and greys. The cabin rested in the shade, and I peeped in through the glass-topped door (was it glass-topped when Dylan busied himself in there, I wondered?) His desk was there, his chair thrust back as though he had just vacated it… but it was a tourist-arranged poet’s den, calculated to have them murmur of the great man, ‘Look. There’s the bottle he used to swig from as he wrote, still there… and look how he scrunched up the bits of poetry he was dissatisfied with, and chucked them on the floor!’ etc., etc. Nice for the visitors’ imaginations, of course … Still, it was good to have seen the place. And what a place to be given in which to write! Sylvan, tranquil, water-lapped… So for me, on that day, two things were juxtaposed – the beautiful location together with its association with the poet and his work; and how it had been bothersomely improvised. This is what I’ve tried to portray, and am happy to end on the positive side. It was a peaceful place enfolded in its past of quiet, green Welsh centuries.

I’ve used the phrase ‘son of a wave’ with purpose, not only with reference to the wavelets which lapped below the cabin, but to apply to Dylan himself. It’s a term which suits him well, I feel. It comes from the Fourth tale of the Pedr Keinc y Mabinogi / ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’, ‘Math vab Mathonwy’, where the birth of ‘Dylan eil Tôn’ / Dylan son of a Wave’ is described. Dylan was the son of Gwydion and Arianrhod and the separated twin of the hero of the story, Lleu Llawgyffes. He was quickly baptized, upon which he immediately escaped into the sea. There is a close parallel to this story in Irish mythology (indeed, many aspects of ‘Math vab Mathonwy’ find their origin in earlier Irish counterparts). Here is Dylan’s birth, baptism, and escape to the sea as described in the White Book version, first in that text’s Middle Welsh, then in English translation:

‘“Ie,” heb y mab Mathonwy, “mi a baraf vedydyaw hwnn … sef enw a baraf arnaw, Dylan.” Bedydyaw a wnaethpwyt y mab, ac ual y bedydwyt, y mor a gyrchwys, ac yn y lle y gyt ac y doeth yr mor, anyan y mor a gauas, a chystal y nouyei ar pysg goreu yn y mor. Ac o achaws hynny y gelwit ef Dylan Eilton… ‘

‘ “Yes,” said the son of Mathonwy, “I will have this child baptized… and the name I will give him is Dylan.” The boy was baptized, and as he had been baptized, he went to the sea, and straightway, as soon as he came into the sea, he received the sea’s nature, and as well did he swim as the best fish in the sea. And for that reason, he was called Dylan-like-a-Wave… ‘

Text and translation are those of W.J.Gruffydd, who did much pioneering work on the Four Branches. His source for what appears above was the Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch / ‘The White Book of Rhydderch’, which contains the earliest version of the story. I apologise for not providing more detailed information for those readers who might be unfamiliar with these early mediaeval Welsh tales, but am in something of a hurry to get this post out as close to ‘International Dylan’s Day’ as possible. I bought my copy of W.J. Gruffydd’s Math vab Mathonwy in a small bookshop in one of Cardiff’s arcades way back in the ‘70s. It was priced at two pounds, and I remember complaining to my brother-in-law, David Harries, who was with me at the time, that I thought it was a bit overpriced (I had not much money with which to buy books in those days). I no longer think it overpriced – it’s the 1928 First Edition, and is Ex Libris J. Llywelyn-Williams, a Welsh historian whom I greatly admire; his signature is on the fly-leaf.

Song of the Shulamite Maid

O come –
I am the rose upon the hillside,
that blushes in
the dawn’s unshaken dew;
an exquisite and rare rose of the hillside –
and I wait for you.
I am the flower of the mountain;
I open in
the morning’s heady air.
A flower lying silk-soft on the mountain –
I await you there.
Yes, come –
I am the lily of the valley.
Cool grasses are
my satin and my lace.
A delicate and subtly-fashioned lily –
behold my face.

Girl of the dream,
what beauty gleams
through portals of the night?
What do I see?
Who can this be,
thrust boldly on my sight?

I am that dark-skinned maiden
who journeys from afar,
from fabled Taprobané
and palm-fringed Malabar,
where the warm-kissed winds of green Malay
bring the sandal-scent from far away,
where Tamarind and Tamãla stand,
and silent Jumna parts the land
where Krishna loved me long ago.
I came by Ophir and Dilmun
with apes and peacocks, jewels, gold;
by Sheba with the camel’s bell,
amongst rich merchandise of old.
And I sang with the sea and the sand.

Your eyes are bright
as stars at night
beneath your long dark lashes.
Your flashing smile
of pearl beguiles.
No earthly gemstone matches.
Jet-black your hair
and braided there
fine threads of precious metal;
and in and out
and round about
there peeps the jasmine petal.

I am that brown-skinned dancing-girl
who sways beneath the moon
to lute and flute and tambourine
and the tamtam’s throbbing tune,
and my golden burnished bangles flash
and the shell-strings of my necklets clash,
and the white beads on my breasts beat time
to the silver bells of my anklets’ chime.
And I dance with the panther’s grace.

All up and down
that body brown
your trappings swing and part …
such limbs that flow
perturb me so…
oh, you shall have my heart!
Entwine me in those milk-warm limbs,
and you shall have my heart.

Because my bangles clash and shine
and my breast-beads chatter blithely,
and my teak-dark circled rosebuds show
as the beads dance gaily row by row,
and the sapphires at my forehead laugh
as my ear-rings gleam like the moon’s bright half
and the coin-strings jingle at my thighs,
I offer loving lightly?

You draw – you fire
a youth’s desire
to hold you and love you long.
Let my longing be healed,
and your girdle yield –
for the promise is in your song!

Oh, ingenuous youth,
you are far from the truth.
And you say that you give me your heart!
You are captured by charms,
by sweet moments in arms –
to discover, to love, and to part.
Could I sing of mere pleasure
when love is a treasure –
a gift that is golden and true?
I echo the song of my mothers,
dance the dance that our womenfolk knew.
I would untie my hair and my girdle too –
but for love that is faithful and long.
Slumber, fair youth. Search deep for love’s truth.
And remember the Shulamite’s song.

From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’

NOTE: Properly, the maid is ‘The Shulemite’ (i.e, ‘The Girl from Shulem’), but it is also spelled with an ‘a’ rather than an ‘e’, which I personally find appealing. The maid of the poem is the female protagonist in the Shir ha Shirim, (Sir Hasirim) the ‘Song of Solomon’ / ‘Song of Songs’ / ‘Canticle of Canticles’ which appears in the ‘Old Testament’. (It is alluded to elsewhere in ‘The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion’ in the poem ‘Canticle’ which appears in the August-October 2020 section).

Much has been written about the ‘Song of Songs’, and no doubt it is familiar to many. It has been viewed in many lights. In the Jewish canon, it is represented as God’s love for Israel; in the Christian canon, as the love between God and the Christian Church. Traditionally it has been ascribed to Israel’s King Solomon, and likely the principal reason for its inclusion in the Jewish canon. In more recent times, allegorical and theological interpretations have largely given way to a humanistic view.The immense authority of the two great religions has doubtlessly played a large part in the centuries-long persistence of an allegorical / theological interpretation; obviously, there would have been ‘consequences’ during many hundreds of years for those who might assert a carnal rather than a religiously devotional explanation for the song’s content.

It is a beautiful, mystical poem of male-female love and separation, rife with feeling. It is an expression of mutual adoration and fidelity. Yes, there is a good deal of sensuous imagery, and the physical aspects of love are expressed with frankness – but there is no suffusion of eroticism; in the whole poem there are only two places where descriptions we would today call ‘explicit’ occur (at V: 4,5, and 6 [seven lines]; and VII: 3 [two lines] ). I gave away my King James Version and my Standard Revised Version of the Bible some years ago to two people who had more immediate use for them than myself, so cannot make a comparison of the relevant sections as they appear in those easily accessible sources; I have, though, compared two scholarly line-by-line translations (the exhaustive 1977 study by Marvin Pope [which supports the human interpretation] and Irving Stone’s equally exhaustive translation of the Tanakh, the twenty-four books of the Jewish Bible [which favours the allegorical interpretation], and the sole Bible I now possess. For line-by-line translations, both are remarkably unlike! Even literal translations are subject to a little colour here and there, as all translators know.

There are parallels and precedents to the Shir ha Shirim in other literatures. Egyptian love-songs c.1300 BC describe feminine physical beauty in comparable terms; earlier than these, Sumerian and Babylonian accounts parallel it in this and other respects. Comparisons with early Syrian wedding songs are attested in Arabic poetry. Included in various forms in these sources are descriptions of love relationships, marriage rites, and funeral banquets. Indeed, from the earliest times in the Near East, the evidence is that religious practice involved amatory, libertine celebration. All precede, and form a pointed ancestry for the Shir ha Shirim – a substratum in the form of a widespread cultic precedent. The ‘Song’ presents, in human terms, all the appearance of an unabashed exultation of impassioned, sensual love, and in literary terms, an echo of the sacral marriage rites of the fertility regions of the ancient Near East. On quite another level, a much later work than the ‘Song’ is also often cited as a literary parallel; this is the Sanskrit Gita Govinda, the ‘Indian Song of Songs’.

Now I had both the ‘Songs of Songs’ and the ‘Gita Govinda’, in mind, along with related subject matter I had at various times come across, when I wrote this poem, but looking back, what surprised me was how the memory of certain parts of each of these works had vividly captured my imagination and remained planted in my mind. In the opening, for example, the ‘Song of Songs’ has: 

I am the crocus of the plain.
the lotus of the valley

and the Shulamite Maid sings:

I am the rose upon the hillside … and
I am the lily of the valley


I know where Krishna tarries in the early days of Spring,
When every wind from warm Malay brings fragrance on its wing

And the Shuamite Maid sings:

where the warm-kissed winds of green Malay
bring the sandal-scent from far away

Inevitable, I suppose, that such crossings should occur when the spirit and the flow of both poems had for long years been carried around in the mind. And the structure of my poem, too, can be equated with both the interstated male-female voices of the “Song of Songs’, and the changes in the metrical pace of the ‘Gita Govinda’.

In the third stanza are a good few words which might need explanation – Taprobané, Malabar, Jumna, Krishna, Ophir, Dilmun, Sheba…  Some of which will, of course, be familiar; but I will go ahead and deal with them anyway, as it may be worthwhile. Taprobané, Malabar, Ophir, Dilmun, and Sheba go together (we can leave Jumna and Krishna out for the moment, but there will be lots to say about them further down).

Taprobané (or sometimes Taprobana) is an ancient name for Ceylon / Sri Lanka.

Malabar is a city on the west coast of India.

Ophir was an ancient city or region the location of which is uncertain and still disputed. Main contenders are India / Sri Lanka, or the Somalia region of East Africa (for which there is further clarification below).

Dilmun (pronounced ‘Dilmoon’ (but for some reason my keyboard refuses to place a macron directly above a ‘u’) is an ancient port city which has been firmly identified – it is probably the name of the whole country – with the island of Bahrein in the Persian Gulf.

Sheba (a name familiar to all, I trust, from the visit of its famous Queen to the court of the Biblical King Solomon, and subject to as much discussion as ‘his’ song) is an alternative for ‘Saba’, an ancient and influential state in southern Arabia’s Yemen. She is mentioned also in the Quran, and is named an Arabic Balkis / Bilqis  in the Islamic world.

These places are named as they were important staging points on the great trade routes, the great spice routes of antiquity between Arabia and India (it was from India that the Shulamite Maid, in the poem, says she came).

The coastlines of the whole Arabian peninsula were in general respects favourable to the development of sailing. What is most notable, though, is that its long southern coast, from Yemen in the west to Oman in the east, was because of its distinctively moister climate and therefore relative fertility substantially different to the arid Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts and to the inland region which lay to its north – the immense, waterless Rub al Khali, ‘The Empty Quarter’ which comprises the southern third of the great Arabian Desert.The Romans described this difference nicely; there was the vast, inland Arabia Deserta, and there was the southern, coastal, Arabia Felix (‘Fortunate’ / ‘Happy’ / ‘Fertile’ Arabia). The latter sat happily astride access to both maritime and overland routes between east and west – and even more happily, it sat in a region which favoured the growth of a priceless natural product insatiably desired in the ancient world – the resins, gums, and spices from which incense was made. The demand for aromatics, to relieve the odours of that world or, supplementarily, to provide a festive sweetness, was in ceaseless demand; it was used daily in countless homes, at wedding celebrations, at religious ceremonies; for fumigating, for creating a pleasurable celebratory atmosphere, in the practice of embalming, in medicine. Incense was imported by the ton by all the kingdoms and empires of the ancient world. We have all heard of frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense was in demand more than any of the others; frankincense was superlative among all incenses, and regarded as sacred. And it came almost exclusively from sheltered valleys in one small area of the Dhofar region of western Oman, where there grew a certain kind of tree. When the bark of this tree was sliced, its oozings were collected and hardened; that was frankincense.

With such natural wealth in demand and a geographical position which invited trade, it was inevitable that coastal southern Arabia would become an emporium. At some early, as yet undetermined stage, its tribal groups consolidated, in what is a normative process, into larger units which were to become states – a series of them which either warred, or allied, or amalgamated, and rose and fell over a period of thousands of years – Saba, Ma’in, Awsam, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Himyar…  One of the most influential was Saba, in the west , best known to most by its other name of ‘Sheba’. Saba‘s sway extended across the very narrow strait of Bab el Mandeb into Ethiopia, with which historically there had always been much intercourse. From the third to the first millennium BC Egyptian records show a succession of trading expeditions sailing the length of the Red Sea to the land of Punt, the location of which is still debated, but which evidence to date places on the Somalia coast down through Eritrea and Ethiopia, with the across-the-strait Sabaean kingdom possibly figuring in the equation. It is evident, then, that Egypt retained a long, early commerce with the African regions associated with Saba, if not with peninsular Saba itself. But the earliest definite evidence we have of direct contact with Saba is found in the Bible’s first book of Kings and second Chronicles, which describes the Queen of Sheba’s famous visit to the court of Israel’s King Solomon, bringing with her as gifts spices, gold, and precious stones: ‘There has never again been such a large quantity of spices as that which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon’ (1 Kings 10:10). In close proximity to the queen’s visit is a description of the Phoenician King Hiram’s and Solomon’s joint expeditions to Ophir, and the rich cargoes they brought back to Solomon’s court. Equally, in the east too, from the third millennium BC,  Sumerian and Akkadian records tell of maritime relations between Mesopotamia and Dilmun and Magan (Oman). By the beginning of the first millennium BC, then, the wealth and importance of the kingdoms of southern Arabia were well established.

It is notable that Sheba’s queen travelled on land, by camel caravan. The Red Sea passage was a perilous one for its extensive reefs, islands harboring pirates, and being flanked by hundreds of miles by waterless desert, and because of this a caravan route – that used by the queen – ran along the entire western shore of the peninsula to link up with the powerful countries to the north. It was one of the great arterial routes connected by oases where food and water could be obtained, and by cities where, apart from these provisions, tribute would be exacted for permission to travel onward (Petra, the famous ‘Rose-red City Old as Time’ in Nabataea, was one such place). Another great route ran from Saba eastward to the Dhofar region, where passage would usually continue by sea into the Persian Gulf. It was the control of these roads which was the cause of conflict between the various polities through which they passed. Whatever, these polities prospered greatly from what they were able to offer in trade to the great powers of Egypt in the west, and Mesopotamia in the east.

Before the geographical advantage of a position which fostered trade and the natural advantage of a moister climate which fostered its unique products could be utilized to the full, however, there were difficulties to be overcome. Seagoing ships could not be had for the region’s lack of timber to build them. This had to be procured via the contacts established with the aforementioned powerful kingdoms – and eventually with India. When a direct sailing route across the Indian Ocean was opened is unknown; an early northern, coastal route, part of the Dilmun-Oman trade link already mentioned, had extended to India; as part of Alexander’s expansion his admiral Nearchus had coasted Persia as far as the Indus and returned, and following this, commerce along this northern coastal route took place as far as the River Nerbudda in north-west India. When the south Arabian states had acquired ships strong enough, however, they were able to brave the strength of the monsoon winds which they knew blew east toward India in the summer months and west toward Africa in the winter. And this knowledge, upon which they built up a great monopoly of trade between east and west they kept as a closely guarded secret, adding all the rich cargoes brought back from the Orient to their incense trade with the western world; for a thousand years and more they prospered enormously. It was a secret which could not be kept, of course, try as they might to keep suppliers and consumers of this coveted market apart – in Saba’s case by attempting to restrict other shipping from passing through the narrow Bab el Mandeb strait. And indeed, from c.120 / 110 BC and thereafter are recorded regular voyages from Egypt to India under the direction of the Ptolemies, the Greek rulers of Egypt, and it is likely that about this time harnessing the monsoon wind for the outward, summer, journey was discovered by a Greek (Hippalus) allowing a straight course to be set from the mouth of the Red Sea to Malabar. Finally, during the first half of the first century of the Christian era we hear of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,(‘Navigational Aid to the Indian Ocean’) a detailed handbook of the coasts, ports, products, sailing conditions, etc., for both sides of the Indian Ocean compiled by a Greek of (now Roman) Egypt for the use of pilots and merchants who wished to trade there. The direct way to the luxuries of the Orient, then, was no longer a trade secret of the south Arabian states, and thereafter they fell into a centuries’ long decline.

Leaving the Shulamite’s literary origins and our sketch of the spice routes with which the poem connects her, we move on to ‘The Indian Song of Songs’ and the two terms in the third stanza so far not discussed – ‘Krishna’ and ‘Jumna’. ‘Krishna’ will be a familiar name, but perhaps not a great deal else about him will be familiar. He is the incarnation of Vishnu, one of the three principal deities in the Hindu pantheon, and a god in his own right, presiding over compassion and love. He is an important character in Sanskrit literature, and is shown there in diverse roles, with the advantage of being both human and divine. In the Gita Govinda ‘The Song of Govind’, a delightful pastoral idyll composed c.1150 AD by the poet Jayadeva and set along the banks of the Jumna – the great river which winds through the forests of northern India – an earthly Krishna makes his entrance obsessed with sensuous pleasures. He has a predilection for the gopis, female cowherds or milkmaids, and wastes all his affections upon them. (The tenth chapter of the Bhagavita Purana, upon which Jayadeva based his poem, is replete with the ultra-amorous antics of these gopis). But there is a counterbalance, for he finds a strangely favoured one among them in Rãdhã, and it is she, as the essence of moral beauty as well as physical loveliness, who liberates him from his distractions. The two are to experience an unhappy separation, but eventually find each other again to be united in spiritual happiness. Here, from the first Sarga (Canto) of the poem, is how Krishna was wont to while away the days:

Krishna, made for heavenly things,
‘Mid those woodland singers sings;
With those dancers dances featly,
Gives back soft embraces sweetly;
Smiles on that one, toys with this,
Glance for glance and kiss for kiss;
Meets the merry damsels fairly,
Plays the round of folly rarely,
Lapped with milk-warm spring-time weather,
He and those brown girls together.

And this is how, later, as the milkmaids line up one by one to embrace and kiss Krishna, Rãdhã influences him:

And all among those damsels free and bold
Touched Krishna with a soft mouth, kind and cold;
And like the others, leaning on his breast,
Unlike the others, left there Love’s unrest;
And like the others, joining in his song,
Unlike the others, made him silent long.

And thus she leaves him in the first inexplicable and mysterious shock of a love that is true. 

Jayadeva’s versification is melodious – indeed, the poem was composed as a play to be put to music. There is much variety in its measure, and the variation of metre in the two translated stanzas above reflect this nicely. This metric variation I have also made use of in my poem, and in this respect it is more akin to the stride of the ‘Gita’ than to the Biblical ‘Song’. What I have done, perhaps a little unwittingly, for I cannot remember the distance in time between reading the ‘Gita’ and the ‘Song’ and my composition of the poem, is to strongly compare the fascinating grace of Rãdhã with that of the Shulamite, and to bring her from her vast luxuriant forests, by way of sea and sand and the camel’s bell, to a new and faraway home. There is no doubt that the two are kindred spirits. Both are alluringly lovely; both are chaste. 

There have been some recent translations of the ‘Gita’ I understand. How truly poetic they may be I don’t know, as the tendency in the translation of such classical works has for some time been to simplify, and modernise, and to adopt free verse. The one I have used and quoted from is Edwin Arnold’s fine metrical translation of 1875. I have it in a lovely little 1880 1st American edition of his collected poems. Inside the cover is the bookseller’s slip which says ‘Original terra cotta cloth, gilt. Fine copy’. And a fine, tight copy it was when I received it, but alas! No more! When I took it down from the bookshelf to make the above quotes, after it had stood there for a couple of years without being used, I discovered that my great but tiny enemies, the book-devouring insects, had been at work upon the inside of the spine, part of which, along with a section of some dozen pages, have loosened from the rest. I hate that. Taiwan’s climate, with its high humidity and what goes with it, is not kind to books. Equally sadly, Edwin does not provide us with that revealing tenth Sarga; omitted, he apologises in his Preface, ‘in order to comply with the canons of Western propriety’.

Sadder still, the Jumna, or Jamuna as it is now known, is today one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Emerging crystal clear from a Himalayan glacier, its course has been ravaged by the results of upstream deforestation and downstream industrial and household pollution. Almost 60% of New Delhi’s municipal and household refuse is dumped into it daily.

The Cargoes

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedar wood, and sweet white wine.

Who remembers these words, from John Masefield’s poem ‘Cargoes’? They’re still in my mind, and Masefield’s poem was standard reading when I attended Primary school. These days, they’re probably not so well-known. Masefield was a bit mixed up regarding history and geography – but there, it wasn’t his intention to be historically and geographically correct, but to give a rich poetic picture of trade with the Orient. (The quinquireme was one of the very largest of Greek warships, not a cargo vessel, and although the arms of the Tigris-Euphrates acted as a convenient extension of the Persian Gulf trade route, one would not have been found at Nineveh on the Tigris; then there’s sailing home to ‘Palestine’). But for a nine-year-old schoolboy, Masefield’s was a captivating, influential picture. The still important elements in his poem are Ophir, ivory, apes and peacocks, and sandalwood (we can leave out the cedar wood and the wine, both of which were plentiful in the eastern Mediterranean).

Masefield got the contents of his cargoes directly from the accounts in the Biblical book of Kings already mentioned, and this is worth a closer look, as the words ‘apes and peacocks’, the mention of ‘sandalwood’ and the location of ‘Ophir’ have all been the subject of some scholarly dispute.

Firstly, ’apes and peacocks’. The joint expeditions of the Phoenician King Hiram and Solomon have already been mentioned, and it is from these that we get apes and peacocks figuring in the cargoes. In 1 Kings 10:22 we are told ‘For the king had a Tarshish fleet [a ‘Tarshish ship’ was a large seafaring vessel of Phoenician design named for the Phoenician colony of Tarshish in the Western Mediterranean] in the sea with Hiram’s fleet; once in three years the Tarshish fleet would arrive, carrying gold, silver, ivory, and monkeys and peacocks’ (this is from the Tanakh; doubtless the King James and some other versions of the Bible would have ‘apes and peacocks’). In another version (I don’t recall which) I have seen ‘apes and baboons’, and this latter description probably follows what W. F. Allbright pointed out in the mid-1920s,  that the terms for ‘apes and peacocks’ taken from Ophir are the same Egyptian words for two types of monkeys taken from ‘the Land of Punt’, and that the rendering ‘peacock’ derives from an inaccuracy based on the disputed location of Ophir. (Allbright, a capable scholar, was Chief Archaeologist in ‘Indiana’ Phillips’ celebrated expedition to South Arabia, and there will be more to follow on this in a future – hopefully the next – post). The mention of Ophir and Punt, too, bring us to the dispute over the location of Ophir. As stated near the beginning, the main contenders for Ophir are India, Sri Lanka, and the long Somali coast of East Africa. The very early Egyptian expeditions to Punt have been noted, and if Ophir is to be located in East Africa it is likely that Hiram’s interest in the same region was to circumvent an Egyptian monopoly. Further, Ophir has been equated with Punt – Ophir said to be the Hebrew name for Somalia and the neighboring coasts and Punt being the Egyptian name for the same region.

A complication in the Ophir-Somalia theory is presented in 1 Kings 10:11, where we read: ‘In addition, Hiram’s fleet, which had carried gold from Ophir, also brought a large amount of ‘almog-trees’ and precious stones from Ophir, and this brings us to the third point of discussion in Masefield’s Biblically-extracted description of the cargoes brought from Ophir – sandalwood. What were ‘almog-trees’? Almug or Algum wood is said by some authorities to be red sandalwood – ‘fine, close-grained, prized for its colour, fragrance, durability, and texture’ and native to the mountains of Malabar; and Malabar, as we know, is undisputedly in India. Irving Stone, in his monumental translation of the Tanakh, defines almog-wood as a ‘branching, tree-like coral’. So … what is what? Is almog/algum wood red sandalwood, or a type of spreading coral? And is Ophir on India’s Malabar coast, or on East Africa’s Somalia coast? Can anything be gleaned from the use Solomon made of the wood? 1 Kings 10:12 says: ‘The king made the almog-trees into a walkway for the Temple of Hashem’; and 2 Chronicles 9:11 that ‘The king made the almog-wood into pathways for the Temple of Hashem and the palace of the king, and into harps and lyres for the singers’. Not a great deal to go on. Sandalwood would make a good stairway; a tree-coral would make a decorative inlay for whatever wood was used. A possible clue on Ophir’s location might lie in the 1 Kings 10:22 statement that ‘once in three years the Tarshish fleet would arrive’. Some point out that the three years indicate the duration of the trip out to and return from Ophir, and that such a length of time must indicate that it lies in far-off India. On the other hand it could refer to the frequency of the voyages, and that they took place on a scheduled three-year interval; it might take a month or so to reach and do business down the coast of East Africa, and as long to make the return voyage, and to embark on the enterprise at three-year intervals would probably be sufficient.


‘Arabia’ is used above in very much a geographical sense in that it refers specifically to the great land mass of the Arabian Peninsula. ‘South Arabia’ with reference to its ancient kingdoms and polities does not imply an ‘Arab’ ethnicity, simply because that would be anachronistic and misleading. In the time-spectrum dealt with – from c.3000BCE to c.150CE – there was no well-defined, dominant Arabian ethnicity. The Peninsula housed a diverse conglomeration of peoples, languages, and religions, and if distinctions are to be made then a primary one would be between the sedentary and the nomadic. On the coasts of the Peninsula were the cities and oasis towns, which flourished on trade; in the vast, inhospitable interior were the nomadic tribes and clans, neither unified nor homogenous, which traded with them and which relied on the raising of livestock supplemented by raiding expeditions. It was these nomads who inhabited the north and centre of the Peninsula who would eventually form the nucleus of Arab ethnicity. The nomadic peoples had arrived from the north, where they still occupied the wilderness of the Syrian Desert which thrust, with undemarcated boundaries, between the great civilizations of that ancient world. To what extent their eastern and western more settled coastal neighbours were ethnically related has not been thoroughly determined. Research for the east suggests a very early population-flow from West Eurasian and South Asian sources. In the west, apart from the ancient and long-resident Thamudaei people of the Tihamah, the Red Sea coastal plain along which the Queen of Sheba travelled to visit Solomon and which later became the Hejaz, the pilgrim route through Mecca and Medina, there is scant information; but an ‘Arab’ affiliation for both eastern and western coastal regions over a long period of time appears to be generally accepted On this Red Sea side, communication was with Egypt and the Levant; on the Persian Gulf side, with Persia and Mesopotamia; but between, two trade-routes emanating from Mecca (always an important staging post) crossed the vast expanse of desert to the Persian and Mesopotamian regions and must have served, by way of its interactions, toward an eventually coalescent ‘Arab’ identity. The South, though busily connected with the ancient civilizations, was by virtue of its outlying position, and its enterprises in other, wider directions, more self-contained. Certainly it was to be for long scarcely influenced by the Arabian heartland to the north.

Today, the terms ‘Arab’, ‘Arabic’, and ‘Arabian’ have a totally different meaning; we talk of ‘The Arab World’, and by this we mean at the centre Islamic Saudi Arabia and surrounding it over a great expanse east and west all the ‘Arab’ countries of the Middle East, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, and many more which could be added to the list. These, of course, are the legacy of the great Arab Islamic conquests which began in the early 7th century CE. – outside the scope of this account – which totally transformed those countries. But in our earlier time-frame, there is no possibility of describing the complex ethnic quilt of the Levant and the Middle East nor the populations of south-west Asia, nor the Nubians of the Sudan, nor the Cushite Somalis, nor the Berbers of North Africa, as Arabs. This great, forceful, missionary movement of conquest had from its inception several decades before also radically transformed its very hub, unifying, as it did, the diverse populations of the Peninsula itself.

The evidence is that the gene-flow for South Arabia came from East Africa. A combination of linguistic, artistic and archaeological evidence informs us that Neolithic settlement in both Yemen and Oman originated there; the ceramics found at the sites in both regions have a generic resemblance to contemporary wares in North-East Africa, and strongly indicate an early cultural network which spanned the Bab el Mandeb strait (a distance of less than twenty miles). It was during the localized Bronze Age, though, during the centuries on each side of 1000 BCE, after the Neolithic groups had gradually settled into larger communities, that the various states of the long southern coast properly emerged.. Agriculture appeared toward the end of the Neolithic, and during the Bronze, from c.800 BCE, written inscriptions (related to Canaanite) appeared in this South Arabian civilization. The states / polities / kingdoms, as has been said, rose and fell – Saba, Ma’in, Awsam, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Himyar. Saba was for a long time a foremost power, but became embroiled in difficult relations with an aspiring and ascendant Himyar, upheavals which lasted for several hundreds of years until Himyar emerged on top, uniting all of the south-west and controlling in addition much of the Red Sea coast from its base in the western mountains. Saba’s decline was accelerated, too, by the growing Nabataean control of the trade route to its north, and the robust Roman presence in the Red Sea following Rome’s conquest of Syria and Egypt. It was during the Himyaritic ascendancy that the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea made its appearance, a factor which has already been noted as an episode in the loosening of South Arabia’s hold on the great trade routes.

To bring the story to its conclusion, and stepping momentarily outside our time-frame, Himyar, which had converted to Judaism c.380CE, was with Byzantine aid (we are now at the stage of Justinian’s nicely-executed but fairly short-lived reconquista) successfully invaded by the Christian Axumite Kingdom in Ethiopia in the early 520s CE. Axum ruled Yemen until the mid-570s CE when it was ousted by a Sassanid (Persian) army (the eastern regions had been allied to the Sassanid Empire for some time). So at that date the whole of South Arabia became a dominion, and later (in 597) a Province, of Persia.This lasted until the late 620s or early 630s CE when this Persian government of South Arabia, or rather its remnant abandoned and isolated through the collapse of the mother country, was forced to cast in its lot with a formidable Islamic presence which had during the preceding years assumed control from the Meccan front. South Arabia now found itself at the threshold of the Greater Arab World: Yemen and Oman, the western and eastern portions of long-lived ‘Fortunate Arabia’ had become culturally and linguistically absorbed within it.

Reverie in Blue

An Anterior Life
(From the French of Charles Baudelaire)

For long I lived within vast vaulted halls
which ocean suns lit with a thousand flames,
and in which great pillars, majestic, straight and tall
were changed at eventide into basaltic caves.

Sea-surges swept reflections of the skies
to combine them in a grave, mysterious way;
in an all-embracing consonance rich music played
while sunset hues were imaged in my eyes.

It was there I lived, in that voluptuous calm,
at the centre of a blue and splendid haze;
and naked slaves replete with sweetest scents

refreshed my brow with the fronded leaves of palms –
their one and only task to deeply delve
the secret grief that languished in my self.

From ‘Journeys in Time’