This 2022 edition of Remembrance Day poetry is actually the third, and not the second in the series as advertised above. This is because when the 2020 edition, which was the first, was posted there had been no decision to adopt the ‘Eleventh Hour… ‘ as a series title. You will find the 2020 Remembrance Day poetry under the title Carnage and Aftermath.
This issue features the work of two guest poets. First we have Eric Bowen’s ironic repartee to WWI poet Herbert Asquith’s 1912 The Volunteer. Then follows Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams)’ translation from the Welsh of WWI poet Hedd Wyn’s 1917 Rhyfel / War.
The notes which accompany the poems are, this time, accompanied by one or two diversions – slightly picturesque, perhaps, Shakespearean and otherwise – which I trust will be found acceptable. One thing led to another, and the path strayed a little from the entirely solemn.
Herbert Asquith’s poem The Volunteer
Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.
And now those waiting dreams are satisfied.
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.
‘The Volunteer’ Revisited
And in his final hour, twixt life and death
He contemplates the folly of his dream
How duped, he spent his courage, strength, and breath
In serving some conceited prince’s scheme.
And falling thus, he sees too late of how
The glories of our mighty nations rise:
Not through the wars, the mindless battles now,
But builders’ hands with guidance of the wise;
How humble word on word, and brick on brick
Together raise our cities to their height;
One single entry in his ledger thick
Adds more to life than any bullet’s flight.
Hedd Wyn’s poem Rhyfel
Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar goll ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.
Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.
Mae’r hen delynnau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.
To live with turmoil is my fate;
God’s far away – His voice is still,
and men, of low and high estate
impose their own nefarious will.
On sensing God no longer near
men lost no time in starting war;
the sound of battle’s in our ears;
it casts its shadow on the poor.
Harps that would once have soothed the mind
hang, silent, in the willow copse;
and young men’s cries now haunt the wind;
blood mingles with rain’s teardrops.
Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams)
Herbert Asquith (1881-1947) was the son of British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, whose office extended into the war years 1915-16, after which he was succeeded by David Lloyd George (* he knew my father. In fact, a popular song was composed to celebrate the friendship, with lyrics, though, which are exceptionally difficult to master). A captain in the Royal Artillery, Herbert Jr. served on the Western Front throughout the war years. Among his war poems are Nightfall and After the Salvo. The poem which appears here, however, was written some years before the start of the war, in 1912, when young Asquith was, like his protagonist in his poem, working among ledgers in the drab surroundings of a City law office. The poem tells us nothing of the reality of war; the hecatomb of which no-one had an inkling was yet to come – the carnage on such a vast scale, the barbed-wire forests, the vicious chatter of machine guns, the rats’ life in the trenches, the cadaver-littered craters, the mad, suicidal forward hurl through mud, bullets and blood to gain mere yards… the mind of the time was more geared to past, smaller-scale colonial escapades. Sword and lance, though the military scene was undergoing change, were still held in esteem. No, the poem tells us only of cavalry and lances, the glorious satisfaction of dying for companions and country, and as ever for the Englishman, the looking back, through minds inebriated by that fine Shakespearean account, to the field at Agincourt. Which the French, with wistful nods, were won’t to call ‘The Picardy Affair’.
Ah, Shakespeare… Did you mention the Welsh archer companies in your play, Wil? I don’t recall. Never mind. I know you had trouble with the old unvoiced alveolar lateral fricative, though, gave up trying to say ‘Llywelyn’ and decided on ‘Sue-Ellen’ or something of the sort, instead. 🙂 Something else I should mention about Wil, too, and that’s, surprising as it may seem to literary aficionados and especially to his admirers, that he actually had a problem with his feet. We’ve all heard of those smallest metrical units, the iambus, trochee, dactyl, etc., the ‘feet’ which give poetry its rhythm. Well, not those. I’ll tell you. It’s like this: When Shakespeare Wil took up his quill, okay, he gave us all a treat. But no-one knows that his greatest foe lay at his very feet – that the famous bard (his work unmarred) was plagued by sweatsome piggies; that there issued an odour that would bowl folk over from his littlies to his biggies. But genius perturbed will oft ungird divine poetic beauty – so he flourished his quill, did Shakespeare Wil, and did his bardic duty, and he penned those words you’ve so often heard, sublime, immortal, sweet: that toes, by any other name, would – truly – smell like feet. Well, that’s enough lambasting of Wil – Wil ‘Dallas’ Shakespeare. that is. Treat it as payback for all his lampooning caricatures of Glyndwr and Llywelyn by means of which he exploited for his audience the typical view of the English toward the Welsh during his day. We must also ask ourselves whether it’s changed much. Whatever, here’s to genuine, harmless, friendly banter; may it never be misconstrued.
To be serious, though… ! And to get back to Asquith. What is expressed in this poem is no more than naive romanticism, naive patriotism. But we must ask ourselves this: Was Asquith expressing his own thoughts, or projecting the thoughts of his young clerk-wannabe-cavalryman? Or both? Living, and sharing with his readers the young clerk’s dream of glory, but aware, and in his way warning, that death around the corner was always a reality? Do his lines contain the sense that tragedy underlies all the heroic romanticism? If this can be seen to be so, then the poet who wrote The Volunteer – not the volunteer himself – and the poet who has provided this alternative ending can be said to agree. Eric Bowen’s revisitation of the poem and his version of the young clerk-cavalryman’s dying thoughts give us an insight into this. Stylistically, the revisit echoes the elevated style of the original poem, using the same iambic pentameter, a similar rhyme-scheme, and the inversions of yesteryear as in ‘city grey’/ ‘ledger thick’ almost never used in poetry today unless for archaic effect.
Excursus: Eric wrote this rejoinder to Herbert Asquith’s poem as an answer to a challenge – a humorous jab with which he was presented when The Volunteer was sent to him online by a mutual friend of us both. This was Sergeant-Major Williams (not the Sergeant-Major Williams of ‘Oh, dear. How sad. Never mind’ fame, but another who came pretty darn close). This was CSM (Company Sergeant-Major) Gareth Williams, RWF (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) which was also my old regiment – and stick around, dear reader, as there’ll be more about this famous regiment, the 23rd Regiment of Foot, to come. Gareth, a native of Ynys Môn, served in Afghanistan and stayed on for a number of tours of duty when he took up a senior position on contract with an organization with responsibility for internal security in the country; much to do with processing intel, it seemed to me. In those days, if you’d ever wish for a pleasant walkabout in Kabul, Gareth would provide you with an AK-47-toting escort. But should you joke with him about his being ‘Sergeant-Major Williams’ he would shrug and say ‘No. There was only ever one Sergeant-Major Williams’. Gareth exited Afghanistan not long before the ensuing deluge, the callous and disastrous debacle, the desertion of the invaded country’s people when after 20 years of destruction the word among the victors had morphed into ‘Let’s make a deal and get the hell out of here!’ and the country was simply ditched and handed back to its former masters. A matter of hardly months later he was in Germany, in partnership with his former RWF Company Commander, recruiting volunteers, it seems, for what was apparently to be the next upcoming ‘show’. Don’t tell me that these things happen all of a sudden and nobody knows anything about them – well, except for the passive, patriotic populace, which, just as in 1914, lives on the daily diet of what is deemed fit for it. In that respect we’re back to the xenophobic atmosphere of the prelude to WWI, with protracted tensions being manufactured and the orchestrated equivalents of Archdukes being assassinated. Wars between major powers don’t begin spontaneously; they have to be instigated before they erupt. And the instruments of instigation are posturing and provocation; and the driving force behind these is the ‘King of the Castle’ mentality. Look back to what preceded the events of 1914; then look at more recent history. And be prepared to beat the drum slowly, again and again and again and again.
What this leads on to, though, is that I once almost – almost I say – met up with the real Sergeant-Major Williams – Welsh actor Windsor Davies, and it came about like this: At the time we lived in Essex, England, about 18 miles north of London. I was the Secretary of a small branch of Plaid Cymru which had been formed there, and used to fairly regularly attend meetings in London, where I had a good friend in John ap Rhys. Once, John came down to visit us in Tyddewi for a few days, and we did a lot of canvassing for Plaid in Fishguard. John then wanted to do some more in Carmarthen, but with everything arranged I had to opt out at the last moment due to feeling ‘under the weather’, so John went on his own to meet other friends of his in Carmarthen. Then on the way back he and one other – I can’t remember how – got stranded on the way to Llandeilo, and ended up in the evening at Llangadog, where they made their way to the Black Lion (pretty sure it was the Black Lion; that’s the one I remember from Llangadog, main street, and it’s only a small place). And what a story he had to tell when I saw him… one that made me green with envy and cursing that I’d not accompanied him to Carmarthen that day. Because the Black Lion was chock-a-block full of a merry band – there, going full belt that evening were actors Windsor Davies, Ray Smith, Philip Madoc and all the crew who had been filming the TV series of Richard Vaughan’s Moulded in Earth. So that places us in the summer of 1965. Ray we both knew well as he had been our Chairman at Plaid’s Rhanbarth Llundain, Philip Madoc I had been out with once to an Essex pub when we had both gone to see the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir perform locally (strange thing is that Philip’s address (he lived at the time in another town in Essex) and mine were almost identical; mine was 67 (Something) Croft – I won’t give the exact name as the house is no longer ours – and his was 67 (Something else) Croft, and the ‘Something’ and the ‘Something else’ were both of one syllable with the same vowel sound, like, say, ‘Stile’ and ‘Fyle’, the only real difference being the name of the town; extraordinary, I thought). Yes, those two were there, and then to top it all, Windsor ‘Sergeant-Major Williams’ Davies! And I had missed out on this happy meeting; what joyous company that would have been; I could have cried. Anyway, to some nowadays those names will not mean very much; but to those of us of a certain age they will be still remembered. All appeared in dozens of TV series and films. I remember Ray mostly as burly prize-fighter Dai Bando in How Green was my Valley; Philip Madoc mostly for his lead role in The Life and Times of David Lloyd George; and who could forget Windsor Davies as the magnificent, flamboyant Sergeant-Major Williams in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum!’ Well, that’s the standard meandering extra-poetry excursion familiar to my regular readers done with.
Hedd Wyn (1887-1917) was the bardic name of Ellis Humphrey Evans, a native of Trawsfynydd, Meirionydd, Wales, and the first of eleven children of a farming family.. He started writing poetry at an early age, and by early manhood had become an accomplished poet, composing in Welsh but with a set interest in English Romantic poetry. He competed with much success in local eisteddfodau and on a national level, winning bardic chairs and being placed second at the 1916 National Eisteddfod. The onset of the Great War interrupted all this. At first there was in Wales no interest, as Robert Graves tells us in his wartime memories Goodbye to All That, of enlisting in support of any war effort; in rural, pacifist Wales of the 19th century leading into the 20th it was an alien notion. But as events in Europe intensified the pressure on all of Welsh society became greater; conscription was introduced; the chapels, around which Welsh communities were largely based, were persuaded to rally their congregations in answer to the call; things changed dramatically. Hedd Wyn’s (he is most usually known by his bardic name, which means ‘Blessed Peace’) young friends were conscripted into the British Army, and news began to reach home of their deaths. Hedd Wyn wrote a number of poems related to this. Congregations and communities were divided between pacifism and ‘patriotism’. Farming communities suffered as sons of military age were taken from their families and occupations to serve in the war. Although farming was a reserved occupation due to its importance to the ‘national’ economy, eventually the Evans family received notice from the War Office that they must provide one of their males of the requisite age, and this lot fell upon young brother Robert. Hedd Wyn, now approaching 30, made the decision to volunteer to serve in the ranks in order to spare his younger sibling.
So in February 1917 Hedd Wyn joined his regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, to undergo basic infantry training. February… in March, barely weeks later and a very raw recruit, he was temporarily released, as were many others, on government orders to return to the important work on their home farms. It was during this almost two-month period that he worked on a poem, Yr Arwr, ‘The Hero’ which he intended to submit as his entry to the upcoming National Eisteddfod. Weeks later, in June, he found himself with his battalion, the 15th RWF, in France, and on the way to the front in Belgium. It was from a village in northern France that he posted the final draft of his entry to the National Eisteddfod, signing it, possibly under the influence of his French surroundings, under the nom-de-plume ‘Fleur-de-Lys’. By the end of July his battalion had reached the Ypres Salient in Belgium, and on the last day of that month, during the first hours of the first day of the bloody battle of Passchendaele, he was killed.
In September, six weeks after his death, the National Eisteddfod was held. According to ceremony, the name of the author of the winning entry was called, and the recipient was expected to claim the honour by standing up. The name called out by the Archdruid was ‘Fleur-de-Lys’. No-one stood up, of course. The name was called three times. Then it was solemnly announced that ‘Fleur-de-Lys’ was in fact Hedd Wyn – Ellis Evans of Yr Ysgwrn. The chair was ordered draped in black and given the name Y Gadair Ddu, ‘The Black Chair’. It was removed to his home at Yr Ysgwrn, where it stands and may be viewed by visitors today.
Everything happened very quickly for Hedd Wyn – his war experience was compressed into a short period between June, 1917, when he joined his battalion in France, and July, when he was killed in Belgium. It’s said that he worked on his copy of Yr Arwr while in France before posting it home, but he wrote no poetry during his short time in the trenches preceding his death During the early stages of the war, while he was home on the farm and war was beginning to affect people’s lives and news came of the death of young men he knew, he had been moved to write some verse on the conflict, the most well-known being Rhyfel, ‘War’ (a translation of which appears above by Jenni Wyn). His most ambitious work, Yr Arwr, the one which won him the National Eisteddfod chair, has a classical, highly literary theme favoured in the day.
He is well remembered. A bronze statue of him stands in his home village of Trawsfynydd. Much has been written about him in Wales in both Welsh and English. In 1992 a Welsh-language biopic, Hedd Wyn, which during the next year went on to capture a host of awards, was released. The film was based on a screenplay by Alan Llwyd, Welsh poet and translator. It’s an excellent production dealing with the ultranationalism of the state, the jingoism of the influenced segments of the public, and, naturally, there’s a love story too. It’s a moving story well told on film, well worth watching, and highly recommended.
Other Welsh-language poets of WWI
Among these were Albert Cynan Evans-Jones, Thomas Hughes Jones, Saunders Lewis, and Robert Williams Parry (who wrote Englynion coffa Hedd Wyn in memory of Hedd Wyn.
English-language poets of WWI of Welsh descent or with connections with Wales
These are of course more well-known. Among them were Robert Graves (RWF), David Jones (RWF) ‘Dai Greatcoat’ who was on the same section of the line at Passchendaele as Hedd Wyn, Wyn Griffith (RWF), Siegfried Sassoon (RWF), and Wilfred Owen (What? Not RWF, Wilfred? With an ancestral name like that and a native of a Welsh-speaking border town? An honorary ‘RWF’after his name for this man is a must. In Wales, he’s very much regarded as one of us).
Eric Bowen is a 67 year old American living in the majestically scenic North-west, between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. and in the shadow of the volcanic cone of Koma Kulshan (Mount Baker). His father’s stories about the family’s Welsh roots led him to join the Puget Sound Welsh Association and later to journey to Wales to find his ancestral village in Gower and attend the National Eisteddfod that year in Porthmadog. This visit led to his involvement in the campaign for the Welsh Assembly in the 1990s and three more extended trips to Wales.
Eric is thoroughly fluent in Welsh. He composes poetry in the language, and has put together a considerable repertoire of Welsh folk songs. The nearby Lhaqtemish Nation have invited Eric to perform at their Te-Ti-Sen cultural centre to give talks on Welsh songs and poetry, his Welsh heritage, and the question of unrepresented nations and minority languages.
His wife Sally shares his enthusiasm for both Welsh song and poetry and for long hikes in the surrounding Cascade Mountains. His daughters Rhiannon and Serena share his great enthusiasm for linguistics.
Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams) has appeared as a guest poet on The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion a number of times. A native of Maestêg in the western Valleys, she lived for long years in Aberystwyth, Wales, and in later years and at present, a village in the English Midlands.
Jenni writes in both Welsh and English. She has published two volumes of verse, Perhaps One Day (Rowanvale Books, 2017), and Striped Scarves and Coal Dust (R. Haigh & Sons, 2019), both with fine line drawings by illustrator Cathy Knight. Jenni has produced a prolific amount of poetry, and is a regular contributor to poetry journals.
Most recently, and most fittingly for this issue of The Ig-Og, Jenni provided the literal translation from Hedd Wyn’s original Welsh for Michael Dante’s book adaptation of Hedd Wyn’s winning Eisteddfod ode, The Hero (Amazon, 2022). The whole of Jenni’s word-for-word translation appears in the book, along with her translations of seven other of Hedd Wyn’s poems. Like the families of all small communities scattered throughout Wales, Jenni has relatives who fell in The Great War, and has honoured them by a number of visits to their graves in France. She has also made the journey and paid tribute at Hedd Wyn’s resting place at the Artillery Wood Cemetery, Boezinge, Belgium.