The wall is old, who knows how old,
and lichen has spread its circles wide
upon each grey stone slab,
and moss has laid its soft green mat
along each upper edge.
Small flowers thrust from cave and crack.
Who laid the stones here, one by one,
a hundred years and more gone by?
They toiled, they chose each single slab;
they held each one, and weighed it
for its handiness; tested it for steadiness of place,
and laid it cradled in the wall;
they sought the next stone from the pile.
And, doubtless, paused to look upon the land
and touched upon the way things were,
while the hawk wheeled high above the hill
and the whitewashed farm looked down,
and spread out their kerchiefs when noontide came
and ate good bread and drank Adam’s ale
from the freshet here, still dashing by;
and knocked their pipes out on the wall;
and thought what thoughts we cannot know
while the sun shone down or the dark wind whined,
and near and far the world worked out
its kind or cruel ways.
The hawk wheels yet above the hill,
and the whitewashed farm looks down.
But they are one with the vanished years,
and the stones that were held
and weighed in their hands
and steadied and laid in their place in the wall
The Field of Stones
Siencyn Blaengarw built this wall
two hundred years ago, from stones
that lay upon his field, and some that lay
within the soil, a foot or more below
in virgin, untouched, unploughed ground.
He cleared them all away.
Small and middle-sized, the most,
but twice or thrice a day a biggish one
that Sioni Gryf, the plough-horse, would pull away
with chains. All these were heaped at the field’s far edge
in a long and ragged pile. And once in a while,
from deep within the soil a monstrous one would raise its head,
a stone so large that Sioni Gryf would toil to drag along.
And one of these had queer marks
in groups along the edge, like scratches
from some giant claws upon its angled sides;
and one, a great flat seven-foot stone
had a long-stemmed cross, it seemed,
with uneven letters of some sort in a
downward roaming line. At this now, Siencyn wondered;
and with Sioni’s strength that flat slab with the carven cross
was lifted out and hauled along, and piled up with the rest.
And when he came to stack the stones when the ploughing
was all done – an hour perhaps of every day
and his sons to help as well – the stones were
tidied up a bit in a rough and ready line.
But after three-score stones, or four, were laid out
in this way, a thought took hold of
Siencyn’s mind; he would ponder much
about each stone, about its shape and size, and how
it would fit in snug and firm with its neighbour
on each side, and with those below
and those above. He sorted by size,
he studied them, weighed and turned them
in his hands, and smiled. He turned then to his boys. From these
stones thrown in a line, they heard, would be built a wall
that was firm and strong, for Blaengarw kin in all the days to come;
a long wall and a fine one that would stand the test of time.
So Siencyn was espoused.
Well the scouting creatures round about
took interest in this thing, and they came
to explore the nooks in the wall, the field-mouse
and the beetle. The lizard too, and the sparrows in droves
and the ants en masse, and the spider.
The grass took root about its foot;
and soon, in the cracks, tiny flowers emerged.
Siencyn, his sons, and Sioni Gryf worked on.
So the stones were laid, the wall, complete. Seasons passed;
the field was ploughed, and ploughed and ploughed again,
and sown, and reaped. Those two great slabs were stood upright
and firmly fixed in place – stout gateposts,
central to the wall, and it made old Siencyn proud
to see them standing there in the world,
after how they had slept in the ground.
He whitewashed their surface. Those parallel lines
stood out starkly in the sun. The cross
looked so fine, with its tapering tail, reaching and reaching down,
its letters crawling along its length in some strange
unworldly rhyme. The vicar, passing by one day,
announced it the Latin tongue, and stuttered upon it
bit by bit, running his fingers over the script, frowning
and pacing around. And time wore on.
And when Siencyn Blaengarw was old and grey
and toiled no more upon the field
and his grandsons worked the place in his stead
and he sat indoors with his long clay pipe
there came two men to the farmhouse door,
well-spoken, learned men. With them the Reverend
Marcus Black, and the end of it was
that the gateposts were sold, and sold for a goodly sum,
with new ones promised to take their place. The scholars smiled
and Siencyn too, though he knew he would miss
that slab scratched with the slanting strokes
and the one with the long-tailed cross incised,
that Sioni Gryf, long gone now, had hauled out from the soil.
And the ceaseless years passed by.
Blaengarw lies in ruins now. The grass and the ferns
thrust strong and tall within its foursquare walls,
its roof collapsed, its timbers home to the woodlouse and the snail.
And its sons gone away to the smoke-stack towns
where the steel was spun and the shafts were sunk
and other sons and daughters would be raised.
A black tarred road now winds close by.
A tractor will rumble along. The smell of petrol
hangs in the air, cigarette-ends lie in the ditch
at the side. And once in a while
a car will stop if the day is fine, and a family
pile out. A blanket is spread in the field close by,
a picnic begins, the kids run about, and stop to look
at the old ruined house, and pass through the gap in the wall,
past the old leaning gateposts covered in moss.
The wall still stands, though tumbled in parts
and choked with brambles and weeds. Little creatures
still live, and insects creep through its tunnels and its caves,
and wild flowers sprout from its cracks to the sun,
and saucers of pale green lichen spread, and moss
caps the silent stones. But nobody knows who Siencyn was,
how he toiled to clear that field, the stones of the field,
in those years now lost – Siencyn and Sioni Gryf.
Note: I’ve always been fascinated by old stone walls, and every time I’ve ever looked at one I’ve not been able to help but think ‘Who were the people who laid these stones, each one in its special, chosen place? How long ago had they lived? Were they young, or old? What were their thoughts as they toiled here? And I have touched their stones with reverence, each individual one laid there in its special place by a hand long gone, while the stone itself ‘lives’ on. Yes, there is something about a wall, and those are words which occurred to me quite unconsciously, I’m sure, from the first line of Robert Frost’s very discerning poem Mending Wall – ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’… this in reference to those natural forces which accompany time – as well as the destructive meddling of humankind – which will cause a wall not to be what it once was. Well that, I suppose, is the inescapable, old, old story.
In ‘The Field of Stones’, the name of the plough-horse, ‘Sioni Gryf’, is in English ‘Strong Johnny’. The ‘queer scratchings’ on the one stone were, of course, in the Ogham script, and would date to the fifth / seventh centuries AD, along with the stone bearing the incised cross and Latin inscription. The two ‘learned men’ would have been early / late 19th century antiquarians, scholars (men like Romilly Allen, who at Whitsuntide, 1889, made the pilgrimage to the remote church near the farmhouse of Llandre, west Carmarthenshire, and found and deciphered the now well-known ‘Carantacus‘ stone, complaining, on the way, of the hotel accommodation at Hendy-gwyn being of a ‘very homely kind’). These made it their business, at that time, to investigate stones of that kind which were found in the Welsh countryside. The punning in the name of the Reverend Marcus Black makes it obvious that he thought he knew his congregation very well indeed.
7 thoughts on “There’s Something about a Wall…”
I share your love of old walls. Also buildings, always wonder what the life of the people who built them must have been like at the time.
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Thank you, Cicymru. Yes, old walls and buildings have a fascination of their own. If walls could only talk …
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Two beautifully descriptive poems Dafydd. Walls and their construction can give us much insight into the past, and yet who really knows the thoughts and feelings of those long lost times as you say. Walls are fascinating, stones a mystery still, each one a chosen one in the hand of the maker. Thank you for sharing them.
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Thank you, Gill. I don’t know when I first started thinking about old walls and their stones and wondering about who had made them. I think it must have been in my boyhood, from the many examples of walls of various kinds both in the town, and outside Llanelli. The 5 acres of my old home in Gog Penfro was surrounded by one, and plenty, too, separating fields round about. Then there was an army endurance course in the north (I was based at Trawsfynydd) which introduced me to a wealth of them, and old, abandoned buildings. I can’t fail to look at one without my thoughts going off on a journey.
The ‘Note’ to the poem, is as it stands, I’ve realised, incomplete. I’ll make the additions just as soon as I can. Thanks again for your supportive comments; they’re very much appreciated.
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There really is something about a wall! Dry stone walls with their moss and lichen have always fascinated me, too and I have admired the skill of those who built them and wondered about their stories. I love the opening line of the first poem, “The wall is old, who knows how old?” so simple, yet such an effective way of leading the reader into the poem. The descriptions in the poem remind me very much of ‘Melin Trefin’.
My Latin, now, is virtually non-existent but the second poem, with its references to old scripts, is fascinating, too, and I can picture Siencyn and Sioni Gryf.
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I stumbled upon this while looking for Frost’s poem, the first line of which I misremembered. So, I read your poem thinking, “Yes, this is the one that I read decades ago” and then got to the end and found out that you had just written it. It was so good that you had me fooled! Or, rather, I had me fooled.
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Yes, the title of my poem does resemble the first line of ‘Mending Wall’ and I must admit that I did have Frost’s poem in mind when thinking about the main title for my couple of ‘wall’ poems. Delighted, of course, that you thought you were reading Frost’s fine poem – makes me feel that perhaps mine is not bad after all! Thank you for your thoughtfulness in making this comment with its nice little story, Graham. My day is now made!