Bullskull and Lionheart

Three episodes, selected and condensed from
Bullskull and Lionheart: the Fellowship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu
A rendition in metrical verse of the first part of
The Epic of Gilgamesh


Little need be said by way of introduction to the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, renowned as it is for its 4,000 years of existence as the world’s oldest known surviving example of epic poetry. The focus, I think, need only be on aspects of the three selections which appear below.

My aim, when setting out on Gilgamesh as a poetry project, was to give a rendering not of the whole epic, but only its first half, which has always appealed to me to be of greater interest than the second. (The second half is, of course, very relevant to the literary intention of the whole; but the story does fall quite naturally into two parts – the earlier relationship between two main protagonists and, with the severance of that relationship, the tale’s continuation by the remaining party). So my overall aim was to render, in metrical verse, the tale of The Fellowship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and this I completed in 2,110 lines of the chosen metre. What appears below is a very small selection from this, covering three quite self-contained episodes of the story; they are themselves heavily condensed and compressed to focus on the more relevant points – and simplified, omitting and substituting, for example, many names of Mesopotamian deities; so this is very much a partial presentation, a glimpse intended for a general audience – but intended, still, to give a concise view of these few selected events together with some flavour and atmosphere.

To refresh readers’ memory and set the scene, Gilgamesh, immensely physically strong, despotic ruler of the city of Uruk and especially resented and feared for his bullying, bride-stealing habits (his very own anticipation of the mediaeval jus primae noctis where he would offer to wrestle any prospective husband for the right of being first to bed the bride) has aroused the animosity of its citizens. The gods, aware of his grossly tormenting behaviour, decide to punish him by creating an alter-ego who will act as his adversary – a ‘wild man’, Enkidú (stress on the third and final syllable – possessing strength equal to Gilgamesh’s own, but by temperament his very opposite. Gilgamesh hears of him and makes a plan to destroy Enkidu’s life in the world he has always known – to tame and ‘civilize’ him – via the wiles of the most favoured of his temple-maidens: this is the subject of the first section, ‘The Seduction of the Wild Man’. The plan succeeds, but Enkidu retains his great strength and intercepts Gilgamesh in the streets of Uruk in the very act of stealing a man’s bride on their wedding-day. Enkidu, enraged, blocks Gilgamesh’s entry at the doorway of the wedding-party and a fierce fight ensues: this is the subject of the second section, ‘The Contention of the Lion and the Bull’. Following this, the two become staunch friends and embark upon a great adventure together in which they travel over vast stretches of wild terrain to cut down trees of the great cedar forest which is under the guardianship of the monstrous demi-god Humbaba, a terrifying ogre-figure protected by seven powerful ‘auras’ or magical layers: this is the subject of the third section, ‘Seeking the Monster’.

This is where these three excerpts end, so as not to interfere with the whole story for anyone who might not be familiar with the tale in its entirety and who may wish to read of it for themselves. Briefly, though, the two heroes, after being involved together in one other violent encounter, are separated, and it is this separation which also marks the dividing point between the two halves of the original poem.

The notes following these three sections in verse contain (i) information on my approach to tackling the transliteration, (ii) upon the metre chosen to present it, and (iii) points on terms in the body of the poem which may require explanation or clarification. Asterisks are used to denote these.

I’m not sure how this metrical version of The Epic of Gilgamesh will be received by viewers, or how familiar with the epic’s whole path viewers might be. To some it may well be their first introduction to an actual reading of the story; to some its rhythmic motion may be pleasing and suitably different to the usual prose or free verse renditions they might have previously come across; to others it may seem rather dull and old-fashioned. Whichever, it will provide a change. I estimate that I have a nucleus of around twenty or perhaps a few more regular readers of The Ig-Og; four or five I’ve come to know as personal friends by way of their ‘likes’ and comments – comments, no matter how brief, being particularly welcome and a help in gauging the degree of appreciation of the site. After this ‘pilot’, I’m wondering about serializing the whole epic – interspersed with regular poetry, of course, and not in overdose. Let’s see how this post goes, anyway.

1. The Seduction of the Wild Man

There was born in dark and silence,
in a wild and open landscape
– as a sky-bolt out of heaven –
Enkidu*, the hair-clad wild one.
Hair-clad head, like that of woman,
flowing, blowing, like a lion’s,
hair-clad body, like wild cattle,
thickly tufted, thickly matted.
Knows no folk and knows no homeland;
of man and clan he has no notion.
With gazelles is swiftly running;
with gazelles the grass is grazing.
At the water-hole he gathers
with the creatures of the grasslands;
at its muddy edge he jostles;
vies with them to drink the waters.

A stealthy hunter spied this strange one,
under cover of the verdure;
saw him come among the creatures,
drinking with them there together.
Saw the wild man, thickly-muscled,
maned and moving like a lion,
thick of thew and huge of stature,
as a king among wild creatures.
Terror took the hidden watcher,
and his hunter’s heart leapt wildly
to behold this fearsome stranger.
Sorely troubled was the hunter,
sorely vexed by much foreboding;
woe had entered deep inside him
as he homeward took his footsteps,
as he went, subdued and silent,
to the dwelling of his father.

And the youth’s sagacious father
spoke thuswise unto the hunter:
“In Uruk, my son, rules Gilga*,
Gilgamesh the king and fighter,
Gilgamesh, supreme as warrior
unsurpassed by any other.
Seek him out – relate your story,
this mighty long-haired lion-man’s story.
Then this plan put to King Gilga –
ask of him a temple-maiden,
one so shapely and beguiling
no man living could deny her;
for a woman’s way will conquer
any strength a man can offer.
He will give the woman Shamhat,
Shamhat, queen of temple-maidens*.
Take her to the grasslands with you.
When the herds come down to water,
when the wild man comes to drink it,
she must show herself unto him,
show her female’s form unto him.
He will leave the herd to see her,
venture near to see her closely.
Then the herd will all be wary,
they will scent the human on him,
scent all wild things find abhorrent,
and will leave the place without him,
never to abide his presence.

Heeding then his father’s counsel
to Uruk the hunter travelled,
gained an audience with King Gilga.
King and hunter conversed gravely,
and at length the king commanded:
“Take the temple-maiden Shamhat.
Take her to the grasslands with you.
When the herds come down to water,
and she stands where he can see her,
he will come to see her closely.
Every beast will be suspicious,
and will leave the place without him.”

Shamhat and the hunter travelled
straightway back unto the grasslands;
there they sat, two hidden watchers,
till there came the host of creatures
to that place to take the waters,
and with all the milling hundreds,
born to grasslands, running with them,
there came Enkidu among them.
So it was that Shamhat saw him,
saw his shaggy, barbarous body,
knew his rough and savage nature.
‘There! Now, Shamhat!” called the hunter,
“Show yourself, that he may see you!
Hang not back, but let him take you!
Throw your clothes down – let him have you!
Work your woman’s wiles upon him,
let him know how you can wake him!”

Then did Shamhat loose her garments,
take her slander shape from hiding,
show the contours of her body,
show her beauty, rounded, smooth-skinned.
Nor had Enkidu imagined
skin so smooth or form so curving;
near he came to gaze in wonder
at this new, enchanting creature,
at this strange, alluring figure.
And the girl was so entrancing,
soft and scented and enticing
that she took the spirit from him,
and her woman’s ways ensnared him.
Shamhat tossed her clothing from her:
Enkidu was drawn unto her.
Six long days they lay together,
seven long nights enjoyed that pleasure;
lost was Enkidu in wonder,
captive of his ardent lover,
of the grassland creatures thoughtless,
of his brethren beasts regardless.

Till with ardour now abated,
he, arising, took his footsteps
where his fellows drank the waters.
But the creatures raised heads sharply,
sensing something new about him,
scenting what was of his lover,
and, as one, with splash and thunder,
shied away into the outlands,
wheeled and scattered in the grasslands
slowing, halting at a distance,
wary, shunning, gazing backwards.
After them again he started,
but his pace was not as speedy
as before, and was diminished.
He was spent, his strength depleted,
and he knew the herds now shunned him,
and would evermore reject him.
Woman and love’s ways had found him,
Shamhat and her ways had bound him,
altered everything about him –
taken, changed his understanding.

2. The Contention of the Lion and the Bull

Two there were approached each other,
two were in the street advancing
till, expectant, taut and silent,
met the wild man and the tyrant.
Straightway then they came together,
bull to lion, straining fiercely.
Against a doorway now they grappled,
and the doorpost shook and shattered;
now against the walls they thundered,
till the buildings quaked and shuddered*.
Out among the streets they battled,
seizing, feinting, panting, swaying,
each his own advantage seeking.
And the hundreds ranged about them,
fully drawn back from the battle,
gasping, cheering, scarce believing
such a contest was ensuing,
to see this day their king receiving
blow for blow what he was giving.
Out into the squares they drave them,
grunting, gasping, thrusting, lunging;
thick about them dust was rising,
now their reeling bodies hiding;
now the two would split asunder –
moments later, clash together.
Bull to lion they were equal
till, a trick of balance winning,
Gilga lifted up the other
overhead; aloft he held him,
foot and knee firm-placed he gripped him
in the victor’s vice, unmoving.
Thus the victory was signalled –
and the contest reached its ending.
As a wind soughs through the treetops,
living, dying, in but moments,
so a murmur rose and foundered
through the tense, suspense-held hundreds –
rose and faltered, trailed and foundered;
then the watching crowd was silent.
Enkidu, released, plunged downward*,
in Uruk’s white dust lay conquered;
Gilga turned his back to handplay;
thus the fury faded from them.
Enkidu now raised his body
from the dust where he had fallen,
standing there addressed King Gilga,
solemnly addressed the victor.
Warriors two then came together –
this time to embrace each other.
Gilgamesh embraced him closely,
held his eyes, and uttered firmly:
“Never was in all existence
one to match the might of Gilga;
you and I were matched in fighting –
matched as thunder matches lightning.
From the fury of our struggle
there is forged a warrior’s friendship.”

3. Seeking the Monster

Now, when all was silent seeming,
after many miles of travel,
when the forest stood before them,
dim and far stood there before them
as a blanket in the distance
spread on mile and mile of mountain,
as an endless blue-green mantle
thrown across that rugged terrain,
Gilga, kneeling, prayed to Shamash*.

Shamash heard the words of Gilga,
heard those words so solemn spoken,
straightway thundered from the heavens:
“Now the time to stand against him
as he strides without the forest,
as he stalks the forest edges;
let him not return within it –
for he wears not all his auras,
wears not all his seven-fold armour.
Six he doffed to lurk his borders –
clad in one alone he wanders!”

Thankful for these words of Shamash,
steeled, the heroes hurried forward.
But from the forest, there before them,
from the dimness far before them
came a single fearsome bellow
fit to freeze the blood within them;
once and once alone it sounded –
but across the heights redounded,
echoed through the miles of mountain
till it filled the world about them,
till the very vault of heaven
shook with its reverberation.
Thus the guardian of the forest
roared his ire in voice like thunder.

Now must they proceed with caution,
and each other courage offer,
they who traversed mighty mountains,
they who knew the trials of combat;
so did each one tell the other,
to his consort staunchly speaking,
that no tremors should assail them;
they would stride on two together
sounding out like drums to battle,
spurn all fear and march together,
each one guarding well his brother.
Thus they tramped the miles remaining,
building boldness up between them,
till the words between them lessened,
till all talk was hushed, proclaiming
the darkened wall of trees beginning –
the forest edge above them looming.

There they stood, transfixed, together,
side by side, spellbound, they stood there
at the lofty cedars gazing,
at the strong, straight boles arising
as great pillars all about them,
huge and dark and silent standing,
watchers at the forest gateway.
And where the guardian had been walking
broad and well-worn tracks were trodden
twixt the giant stems surrounding,
pathway for the two advancing.
At each side the thorns grew, tangled,
matted thickets, interwoven;
branches webbed a roof above them;
shade and shadow lay about them,
shadowed shapes minutely changing,
dappling all the well-worn pathway.

So the two advanced together
through the silent greenwood shadows,
through the dark heart of the forest
where the sunlight reached but faintly.
Naked weapons now they brandished,
weapons all now at the ready;
swords were from the scabbard taken,
fists clenched close round axe and dagger,
and, with nerves taut, weapons ready,
stole they forward slow and steady.
Words they whispered to each other,
that they might their courage bolster:
“Singly we can not defeat him;
two together we will meet him.
Among the beasts the lion is strongest;
but two fine cubs may last the longest.”
These words whispered to each other –
for each step would take them nearer,
ever closer to the Monster.

(i) The Approach: Transliteration to Rendition

Like most people, I had for a long time known of the discovery of the Gilgamesh tablets, knew the broad theme of the story and its major events, but had never taken time to actually read a full version; when I eventually did, I was immediately captivated by the idea of producing my own poetic version. My first step was to obtain as many versions as I could get hold of as a basis on which to work, and over eighteen months or so had seventeen of these at my disposal, nine of which were scholarly works and eight by other interested writers. By ‘scholarly’ I mean the researches of experts in archaeolinguistics able to work from the original cuneiform of the tablets; by ‘other interested writers’, enthusiasts with no knowledge of cuneiform but with varying degrees of poetic ability who might have based their renditions on both scholarly and non-scholarly works with varying abilities and results. The latter I found to be – although in the main not awfully helpful – useful in some other respects; of these eight (published from 1934 to 2004) one was in prose, and seven in varieties of free verse ranging from ubiquitous ‘chopped up prose’ to decent free rhythms and in one case interesting, innovative verse. For the sake of accuracy – absolutely imperative – the obvious thing to do was to adhere as religiously as possible to what the cuneiform said as the primary source, and dip into the secondary versions according to whatever the occasional, supplementary value their insights and artistry might offer.

This was in the days of buying hold-in-the-hand books. It was becoming possible to do online research, but that was in its infancy, and anyway, I wouldn’t have known how or where to begin. It was also in the days before mass reprints of scarce and rare publications, and it has amazed me how these books I then had to search for diligently and buy at some expense are now readily available as reasonably-priced reprints. My scholarly versions of Gilgamesh ranged from the first, pioneering edition by R. Campbell-Thompson in 1928 to A.R.George’s superb 2003 2-volume critical edition. There is much excellent scholarship from seven others in between, plus two expositional studies on the evolution of the epic, adding up to eleven scholarly sources.

Outside of this scope there are two other works which should be mentioned, neither which have affected my own rendition, but each with an inherent interest of its own. One is actually the very earliest work to tackle Gilgamesh, preceding even Campbell Thompson’s; the other sits at our opposite, modern end. Each one is very different from what we now regard as the textus receptus – but each has its own unique, pleasingly unusual quality. The first is Leonidas Le Cenci Hamilton’s (beat that name if you can!) Ishtar and Izdubar: The Epic of Babylon, of 1884. Hamilton wrote his poem at a time when precious few fragments of the cuneiform tablets had been discovered, using only the available Akkadian information. His Izdubar’ is in fact a literal translation of the ideograph for ‘Gilgamesh’, and the equivalent identities were not realised until many years later when the more detailed Babylonian tablets came to light. To attain continuity, Hamilton found it necessary to use some padding, and this he did by including extra items, such as sacred hymns, in the body of his poem. Written in heroic couplets, I find it delightful reading; its Victorian style and Eastern setting reminds me very much of Edwin Arnold’s Indian Song of Songs, which is discussed elsewhere in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under Song of the Shulamite Maid. Due to the lack of available material, many aspects of Hamilton’s work are quite unlike the Gilgamesh story as we now know it, but credit must be given to him for producing something remarkable in its own right. Credit for the first substantially complete academic version must go to Thompson. The second ’outside the scope’ version of the epic is Derrek Hines’ 2002 Gilgamesh, a shortish, rumbustious retelling with vivid, sometimes startling and sometimes chortle-raising language. Enjoyable. His section on the hunt for the forest guardian he calls ‘The Humbaba Campaign’ bringing us through its imagery right up to the values of the present century (and shades of the ill-advised, illicit Iraq War?) in a style which brings to mind Welsh author and artist David Jones’ method in his epic WWI poem In Parenthesis. Hines writes:

‘New boy stopped a grenade today.
We sluiced what remained from his armour
as you’d pressure-hose mud from a wheel-arch’.


‘The lieutenant bought it twice.
We’d left him two hundred yards to the rear
for morning burial, but a plasma bolt

overshot and fried him, fisting a million volts
down his spine. He arched and crackled
like a rainbow;’

Well, yes, a long way from the cuneiform; but poetry has a way of transforming itself in time. Humbaba and his laser beams. I won’t tell you here what Hines has to say about Shamhat… but from beginning to end it’s all brisk, invigorating stuff, and a completely new take on Gilgamesh.

Anyway, to get back to it, my procedure was, for each prospective line of my poem, to consult, and record one below the other using pencil and paper, each single line of the poem represented in each of the nine scholarly works – with the object of comparing key words, interpretations, variants, and above all ascertaining the sense of each line, and from the comparison derive a line of my own. I would then repeat this with a reading of each of the eight secondary sources (this time without notation, due to the waywardness of some) and incorporate what I found useful as possible alternatives (this procedure I followed throughout the poem, excepting the additional 100-line prologue and around the first 50 lines of the main work, as up to that point I had not really got into the more disciplined stride I was to take with the sources).There is only so much that can be done with a limited number of similar words in a single line, so the problem, as always with transliteration, was to provide as much variation as possible from what had already been arrived at by others whilst retaining all aspects of the original meaning. Enough to work on.

(ii) A Metre for a Metrical Version

I’ve always thought that, to get the real ‘feel’ of it, epic poetry of the past is best expressed in translation by keeping it ‘in sync’ with the spirit of its time – and that the best way of doing this is through metrical verse which gives it that tinge of antiquity, with the archaic. Which is why, despite the present trend by writers, editors and publishers to provide updated modern-language versions I’d prefer to read the prose or poetry of, say, Gwyn and Thomas Jones’ or Charlotte Guest’s versions of The Mabinogion, some of the earlier, late 19th/early 20th century versions of the Icelandic Sagas, or going back a little, the wonderful 16th century language of North’s Plutarch and Chapman’s Homer. Steffan Balsom provides us with a fine metrical version of the Old Welsh epic poem Y Gododdin which fits its spirit beautifully (a metrical version, sorely needed, I feel, had not been done before); excerpts from this appear in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under the title Strife on the Borders. As far as I’ve been able to discover, no metrical version of the Gilgamesh epic has been done, either.

The metre I decided upon – and which you will have seen above – was an easy choice, as for me it has always been a definite favourite. It will have a familiarity to viewers, too, who will have no difficulty in recognizing it as the one Longfellow used for his classic Hiawatha. Now in its structure Hiawatha was modelled entirely on what is today the national epic of Finland, the Kalevala, but which was in Longfellow’s time scarcely known, and its history is an intriguing one; for it was only in the first part of the 19th century that Finnish academics – rather like the Brothers Grimm with their German folk-tales – became interested in peasant folk-music which had been sung by professional singers to the accompaniment of the kantele, the Finnish zither, for no-one knows how many centuries. When the scholars first began to collect these songs they had little success, as due to past attempts by the Church to suppress them – they represented strong, immensely ancient but still living pagan beliefs – the peasantry was suspicious. When it was ascertained that the scholarly collectors were not government or Church agents, an immense wealth of hitherto unknown and scattered folk literature began to be amassed. At the centre of this was the University of Helsingfors, and directing the search, following valuable pioneering work by another scholar, Zacharias Topelius, was a Doctor Lönnrot. Over a period of many years, Lönnrot made up to a dozen lengthy trips into eastern Finland, into Karelia and the extreme north, gathering tens of thousands of examples, often repeated, often differing in their content. And when collating and classifying this mountain of hitherto dispersed material, Lönnrot eventually realized that what he was dealing with were the far-flung parts of a single, continuous story: for untold centuries, the peasantry, unbeknown to them, had been the custodians and continuators of a great, submerged epic unknown to the literary world – and it was unlike any other in European literature. In 1835-1836 Lönnrot published his Old Kalevala, followed by the Kanteletar, and finally, in 1849, the complete Kalevala. It was translated into English by Crawford (1888) and by Kirby (1907). I have both these excellent translations, Kirby’s perhaps being the slightly better of the two, but at 23,000 lines have never been able to succeed in getting through more than about a third of each before having to pass on to something else.

And here we have the happy – the happily astounding – coincidence that at the same time during the early 19th century and at opposite ends of the earth two great masterpieces of literature were suddenly and unexpectedly presented to the world. Each had been discovered, bit by tantalizing bit, from long-buried ruins – the Gilgamesh tablets from shattered physical remains in the desert, the Kalevala stanzas from the fragmented oral trove of the rune-singers. Both were of enormous antiquity; both were concerned with the elemental powers of nature; with supernatural beings who represented them; with magico-mythical qualities. The Kalevala, especially, is built upon the magic of words.

The musical element of language is very evident in Finnish, and so also very evident in the Kalevala and Finnish verse in general; the language is sonorous and flexible, and lends itself to poetry. The metre of the Kalevala is eight-syllable trochaic – i.e., trochaic tetrameter. The trochee is as natural to Finnish poetry as the iamb is to English (strangely enough, I’ve never felt at home with that favourite of English, the very respected and well-known iambic pentameter, and have never sat down to consciously compose anything in that metre. I’ve always found it difficult, and have wondered why that might be. With tetrameter, now, I’ve always been quite naturally comfortable. I remember being absolutely entranced by the flow of Hiawatha upon being introduced to the poem at Primary school. That must have been it!). By another comparison, it’s as natural as the 5 and 7 syllabic pattern in its various combinations is to Japanese poetry. Beyond its being trochaic, there are three other qualities which exemplify the Finnish metre. Firstly, it should be alliterative; secondly, it should be to some extent rhymed; and thirdly, it should throughout feature parallelism. The more important of the three is parallelism – the repetition, or part-echo, of one line in the next; this appears constantly. Rhyme can appear internally or at the ends of lines, and need only be occasional; alliteration may appear anywhere. Here, in the very first few lines of the Proem to the Kalevala, (Crawford’s translation) the three are exemplified together:

‘In my mouth the words are melting,
From my lips the tones are gliding’

In Finnish poetics, all three fall much more naturally and properly into place than they can ever do in English; still, they do, in my experience, have a habit of making unexpected, timely appearances during composition, parallelism being decidedly the more overtly conscious. Viewers will no doubt recognize all three, albeit more haphazardly than in any Finnish piece, in the excerpts above.

Some have considered trochaics unsuitable, or at least unpopular among poets, for verse of any length. Anyone who has appreciated the powerful, sustained, forward flow of the Kalevala, or Longfellow’s copying of the style for that matter, will hardly agree. To me this metre is nimble and vigorous, its variation between time and sound never allowing it to become monotonous. And it is wonderfully versatile, able to treat as equally with emotions as it is with heroics, and indeed as easily with the humorous (as Longfellow’s contemporaries soon showed in parody, notably Lewis Carroll’s Hiawatha’s Photographing. I’ve used it comically in The Game in Cardiff, which can be found elsewhere in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion, and in another which will probably appear soon in an upcoming post).

Notes to the poem:

* Enkidu: The name means ‘lord of the pleasant place’. The ‘pleasant place’ might indicate the lush grasslands which were his home. He appears in the cuneiform sources in three distinct aspects – as servant, as counsellor, and as bosom friend to King Gilgamesh.

* Gilga: The variant spellings of the name ‘Gilgamesh’ are many in the cuneiform sources. Among them, ‘Gilga’ appears to be an attested abbreviation. In many places this short form better suits the metre, and where this is the case I have used it.

* Shamhat, queen of temple-maidens: The etymology of the personal name is strongly associated with superlative feminine bodily beauty. Shamhat was a hierodule, or ‘temple slave’, but more than that, a sexual initiate of the temple, a cultic harlot paid for her favours, which were viewed as a religious rite. She appears to have been superior in her skills. Uruk was well-known as a cultic sanctuary of Ishtar, goddess of sexual love, and it is likely Shamhat was employed at the temple of that goddess.

* till the building quaked and shuddered: Unfortunately there is a considerable lacuna in the cuneiform sources between this line in my rendering and some 29 lines further down, where we reach ‘Enkidu, released, plunged downward’. which is similarly marked with an asterisk. This means that there is no actual description of the fight in the original sources. But in a creative version of the story, no matter how nearly geared to the original, we can’t do without a fight – can we? And if Derrek Hines can reveal to us Humbaba’s lasers and describe this street to-do in these lively terms:

Sudden jostling in the crowd:
the fight is hijacked by the expectations
of spectacle –

… … … … … …

They topple into each other
like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings;
their hearts trapped in the elevators,

their minds locked in the blueprints
of testosterone flesh and muscle

then I think I’m justified in doing a little filling in – which for continuity’s sake, I have.

* Shamash: The Akkadian sun god, twin of Ishtar, goddess of love, and patron of Gilgamesh.



After ‘Bertran de Pontoise’ (1847)

And yes – I loved you
over years, though secret pains and secret fears
that would not rest in heart or mind
lived on and gnawed and made me blind
to all the treasure that I held,
eventually. And in the end
indifference – mad indifference, measured
by what hate and pain? – felled everything
that could have been.

And now – I see you more than gifts of gold. And silvered years
have tempered fears of old.
But unknown fathoms and uncertain days
assault and haunt me still and I would play
the game with them and wrestle them and free
my heart and mind and hope
for what might be.

And oh – I love you
still and strong; with strength that comes
from loss, and hurt and wrong
that scars your heart and mine. I feel
those years of grief again. I seek
your star up in the sky. I live
to touch your clothes or hand; would give
the world that smile of old to share;
caress the softness of your hair.

And yes – I woo you
now as in those younger days,
with golden gifts and glances and again
with proffered hand and walks
and tea for two,
and all I ever dreamed that we might do.
And I’d face the world again if I could find
your heart once more, sweet Roslin, by my side.

(From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’ )

Note: This I rendered into verse from the text of a letter, in a neat cursive hand in ink that had faded to brown, dated August 2, 1847 which was found within the pages of a (1904, if I remember correctly – I should have made a note) copy of the Revue Celtique. The journal belonged to a friend who knew I would be interested, and who had already made a good translation of the letter’s contents; this was very many years ago. There was no indication of the address of the writer, nor of the recipient – simply Pontoise as the location, the date, the salutation to ‘Roslin’ with her name repeated in the final line of the text (the sequence, as well as the emotions, of the letter’s contents has been faithfully adhered to), and the valedictory ‘Bertran’. We have no idea who placed the letter in the journal, nor whether it was actually sent or received; from the lack of addresses, it appears that it was intended to be delivered by hand. But the story which we are allowed a glimpse of here is a poignant one, telling as it does of a once-love keenly remembered, intimating what – we are kept in the dark about exactly what – caused that love to fall apart, and, through a meeting at a considerably later time, holding out hope for a rediscovery of the real strength and depth of the love that was and, although Bertran worries much still, the hope of a reconciliation. We can only hope that Roslin received the letter, and that despite the pain of the years, she and Bertran were once more happily reunited.

What might be made of the time difference between the letter’s penning in 1847 and its appearance in a literary/historical journal some fifty-seven years later must remain a mystery. Pontoise (Roman Pontisara, a major stop on the road north) was a city in north-central France known (certainly in the 19th century) as something of a literary and artistic centre. It’s now incorporated into the north-western suburbs of Paris. I can’t describe the feelings which passed though me when I was handed the letter; a one-hundred-and-fifty year old story of two hearts, folded neatly into a journal found in a second-hand bookshop, brought suddenly back to life. It was a heartfelt encounter with the past that simply could not be allowed to be forgotten.

I’ve been fortunate myself in stumbling across letters placed between the leaves of books, or accidentally bound into rebound volumes, but nothing so touching as Bertran’s plea to the woman he once loved and found again. My finds were quite mundane, but interesting enough – a letter from a person whose name I recognized  as being a subscriber to The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion voicing his pleasure at having his first article as a contributor accepted, handwritten on The Athanaeum, Oxford, headed paper around the time of WWI; and a letter from one scholar to another discussing in positive terms, I’m glad to say, the work of a long-time hero of mine, Welsh historian Rev. A. W. Wade-Evans, from around the 1940s and again discovered in a copy of the Cymmrodorion’s Transactions. A line of this was damaged, it was not nice to find upon later looking at it, by Taiwan’s humidity having melted into it the sealing glue of its envelope. Regrettably both are lost, now, due to our constant moving over the years. But – what! Here’s to Bertran and Roslin!

In Praise of Ale 

A Poetic Treatise on Cervisage, or The Noble Art and Practice of Beer Drinking, in Nine Excursions

being partly naughtily narrated in the merry manner of the
mischievous monk Rabelais, together with an army of asterisks and
endless explanations for which patience is politely pleaded.

1. In Praise of Ale
(Adapted from the French of Charles Baudelaire)

Ale… !
Why, it could transform
a sordid hole into a miracle, a gleaming hall,
and castles would arise
by virtue of its liquid gold
to be revealed in sunsets…
seen, alas, through bleary eyes.

Le vin sait revêtir le plus sordide bouge
D’un luxe miraculeux,
Et fait surgir plus d’un portique fabuleux
Danse l’or de sa vapeur rouge,
Comme un soleil couchant dans un ciel nébuleux.

You’ll note, no doubt, that Baudelaire was writing about wine, and not
beer. The translation and slight adaptation represents the first of Baudelaire’s four stanzas of his poem. This first one deals with the expanding, transforming effect of wine (or beer!) The second brands it as being an opium to the senses. The third and fourth go on to say that these effects of the drink are nothing compared to how the eyes of the woman he is with dizzy and sway him all the way to the Underworld (the two are related, no doubt … ). But the first stanza alone is all that is required, in the spirit of the main title, to extoll the releasing virtues of the golden juice. Upon deciding to include this translation in a once-projected collection of 100+ Welsh-themed poems, though, I dispensed with ‘Ale … !’ as the opening line and replaced it with a more suitable ‘Felinfoel’, somewhat tailoring what followed to fit *.

Felinfoel? Well, that rather intrusive interpolation into M.Baudelaire’s poem needs, with apologies to him, explaining (he would have never heard of the name, of course).  Another reason for explanation is that unless of Welsh nationality or with some close affinity to Wales, it’s unlikely that others who might be looking in on ‘The Ig-Og’ will have heard of it. So, as Teilhard was so fond of saying, ‘Let me explain’. ‘Felinfoel’, here, is short for ‘Felinfoel ale’, known, along with the specific nomenclature reserved for very best brews, simply as ‘Felinfoel’. (‘A pint of Felinfoel, please’; and you would not receive a quizzical look from the bartender.). Felinfoel Ale was the first canned beer to be produced in the British Isles, by the Felinfoel Brewery Co. Ltd., debuting on December 3, 1935 – so we are just a little late to celebrate that anniversary; this followed closely on the first ever successful canning of beer, in the USA in January of that year. Why the Felifoel Brewery? Well, it was chosen for its proximity to the humming steel and tinplate boomtown of Llanelli – ‘Tinopolis’ as it was famously known, and at that time the world’s leading producer of tinplate; the thin sheets were shipped to the Metal Box Company and the finished cans returned to Felinfoel for filling with the magic liquid. The brewery’s top product has always been its tall cans of ‘Double Dragon’ – an elegant can with a deep green background bearing two red dragons intertwined; both heraldic and patriotic! I remember, as an eight or nine-year-old in Llanelli, throwing these Double Dragon cans into the Afon Lliedi, the little river which terminates its journey to the sea after passing through the town – throwing stones at them, following them at a run along the bank when the stream was in full flood in a bid to hit or even sink them *.

The Double Dragon can I used in The Final Call, a poem of a post-Apocalyptic Wales:

It was the last can of Double Dragon in the Universe,
and I sipped it only slowly so that I could savour
each and every drop – each single, golden, godly drop –
perched high upon the blackened carcass of the Stadium,
where below the rows of seats lay scorched, and the sacred turf
where winged feet had sped in generations gone was now bare earth
upthrusted to the sun…

The complete poem has previously appeared in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under its title.

And the double-dragon doesn’t go away. Some years ago I picked up an interesting item in a local Taiwan market – an antique bronze of two Chinese dragons intertwined. It makes good company on the shelf *.

Now Felinfoel itself is a small village, no more, really, than a couple of streets of slate-roofed terraced houses and the famous brewery. I lived there, a long time ago, where the lane leaves the main village to climb steeply and windingly upward past the chapel, crossing the old single-track Mynydd Mawr railway (where a steam locomotive pulling a string of coal-laden trucks passed twice a day) to the little scatter of houses which formed the outpost of Trebuan *. My Hughes ancestors had lived in the village for generations, And hereby hangs the tale …  In the early years of the 1800s there were two water-driven mills in the district – one had a stack, and the other didn’t. The one without the stack was known as Y Felin Foel / ‘The Bald Mill’. Now that was the mill of John Hugh, my 2nd great grandfather – and it is his mill which gave the village its name; the name which was to achieve such fame in the annals of beer-brewing; the name so beloved of the thirsty thousands of the great Welsh south-west. That is my claim to fame.


2. Brewing Beer        
(From the German of Hans Sachs (1568) )

From barley I brew beer that’s better,
with body – mild, and also bitter.
In a vat that’s wide and spacious,
that’s where all my hops will end up.
Boiled full well and left to cool down;
into the barrel – there it goes now!
Settled well and finely flavoured,
left fermenting till it’s savoured.

Der Bierbreuwer

Aus Gersten seid ich gutes Bier
Feist und Tüsch auch bitter monier
In ein Breuwfessel weit und gross
Darein ich denn den Hoffen stosch
Lasch den in Brennten fühlen basch
Damit Full ich darnach die Fasch
Wol gebunden und wol gebicht
Denn giert er und ist zugericht.

Der Bierbreuwer appears in Jost Amman and Hans Sachs’ 1568 work popularly known as the Ständebuch, ‘The Book of Trades’, which illustrates in woodcuts and describes in verse an extensive number of professions, trades and crafts followed in Nuremburg, and is thus a valuable social document for other large German cities in the sixteenth century. Its full title was Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auff Erden, ‘An Exact Description of all Ranks on Earth’, and it goes quite a way toward doing that, from the exalted (the Pope, his Cardinals and the Holy Roman Emperor) to the least (the pin-maker, the thimble-maker and no less than four types of fool). The butcher is there, as is the baker – but not the candlestick-maker, although the lamp-maker, who makes his appearance, more than suffices; quite surprised there is no candle-maker, though, as candles, wax and tallow, were universally used in Europe for centuries to come.  Both Amman and Sachs enjoyed wide reputations – Jost Amman for his skilled artwork, especially.

My translation is from a facsimile copy of the Ständebuch which has been sitting on the bookshelf for a couple of decades, picked up just now and again, usually when I’ve been tempted to tackle another of its poems, but Der Bierbreuwer is the only one so far attempted. I’ve never seen an English translation of the poem; I did before writing this look up the Ständebuch on the Net, and like everything else these days, lo and behold, it was there! (we don’t have to buy books any more, sad to say … in a way) but hmmm … the poems were not there in extenso, and Der Bierbreuwer had escaped the editorial clutches. So my translation had to be made directly from the original print in heavy Gothic letters, along with their peculiarities; my German version, above, also reflects this, coming as it does directly from the original.  Viewers will notice that there are some small differences between sixteenth-century and modern German. I’ve as much as possible retained Hans Sachs’ metre and rhyme scheme.

When we first went to live in Germany, I tried some of that German beer. Mein Gott! Half way through the second glass I felt like marching into Poland.


3. After the Game

Wil and Dai went out ecstatic
carried by the joyous thousands
swirling in that happy river
sweeping through the streets of Cardiff,
drizzly, shining streets of Cardiff.
Then they stopped to have some supper
made of hops and served in tankards,
long and drawn-out frothy supper
held in tankards big and brimming,
brimming with the gold and flowing
soft-as-velvet wonder-water,
fabled patriotic potion
strong as steel and clear as crystal;
tossed it down their throats with vigour
as had mighty men of valour
in the days of yore before them
in the storied Mabinogion.

After the Game is seventeen lines taken from the long poem The Game in Cardiff, which has previously appeared in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion.


4. Crack and Hiss

Hot day. Crack
and hiss. Cool can of beer
opens. Bliss.

5. Seeking Nirvana

The roads to truth are
sadly few. But one goes
straight through Felinfoel.

6. Ancient Ritual (Colliers Arms)

Libation’s poured.
With elbows bent, at each descent
the spirit soars.

7. Pub Wisdom

Wife’s advice? Not nice.
The lads’… well, yes! Golden letters,
sacred text!

8. Drowning in Sorrow

Morose, depressed
– the Colliers Arms is closed!-
retrace your steps.


The Ninth Poem

The ninth poem would have been – would  have been, I say – to use the expression of those latter-day, foot-dragging but nonetheless welcome continuators of the Arthurian Romances, The Verse Perilous * – a cap-fuddling, brain-fogging, giddysome, staggery, peg-diddly, froth-lickety, pint-pushing, brim-battling, jug-glugging, keg-hugging, pitcher-plonking, glass-clashing, beaker-banging, tankard-swilling, flagon-flushing, bottle-bibbing, hop-slobbering, spigot-swigging, cask-guzzling, spittoon-pinging, belch-exploding, gut-heaving, spew-retching, coppish-fumbling, breeches-befouling, wall-splashing, puddle-soled, pocket-roused, crotch-fiddling and filly-famished, randified, lewdy-eyed, candy-goggling, lip-frisky, rut-mongering, frock-stalking, up-skirting, down-blousing, treacle-greedy, futtock-fixed, buttock-bewitched, grope-happy, touch-lusty, barmaid’s-bum-fondling, gallivanting, hallooing, yahooing, whoopeeing, galumphing, bamblusterating, and in the spirit of divers other debauching, hyper-inebriated, Silenusian* rascalities in the manner of the noddle-addled, vision-dizzy, wit-stricken, ruby-nosed and speech-slurred, barrel-besotted, vat-sacking, lager-louting, bouzed-up-to-beggary binge-bishops and piddle-parading, pish-ridden, sloshed, sozzled, soused and sodden samples of rowdy-bowdy tavern-trooping, gob-valiant ale-knights and tosspots, hot-frolickers, hunt-crumpets, coochie-candidates, wink-a-pussies, floozy-traipsers and nymphety-gawkers, stockingtop Toms, cleavage kings, udder-fumblers and melon-squeezers, clamp-snatches, sog-merchants, slot-searchers, crack-trackers and crevice-detectors, top-o’-the-legs tinklers, underbrush-rummaging fanny-fiddlers, shrubbery-grubbing macaroon-milkers, five-finger pastie-pokers, slink-down-the-corridor funnel-fillers, skunk-dipsy biddy-whammers, mutton-struck belly-bumpers, knicker-kissing pudding-plungers, yoni-delvers, minge-biffers, sponge-dippers, fudge-dunkers, butt-humpers, booty thumpers, doggy-drillers, plough-hards, pound-hards, meringue-gobbling sludge-nuzzlers, canyon-yodelers, dangle-waggers, coracle-flashing wick-twitchers, squirtards, cackards and stinkards who teetered, tottered, veered, swayed, cuddy-jigged, lurched and reeled their way with beery braggadocio into the crapulent chronicles of Touraine* and of Clemendy,* an irreverent, heretical, sacrilegious travesty and utter inversion of the miracle at Cana over which – alack, alas and ych-a-fi – in the name of all that is fermented, good Christian men, in these the very throes of this the festive season, would rejoice with neither heart nor soul nor voice, and be mischievous and injurious in the extreme and to the scathe, detriment, undoing, bedevilment, perversion and prostitution of all the noble cerevisian* sentiments insofar and heretofore expressed, and can therefore find no place in such a gently-laudatory treatise as this and would, I’m sure you will agree, sober reader, have been one over the eight.

But what could I do? There they came, tumbling, nay, cascading, nay, vomiting forth from the Colliers! And I think – drink in my words, chaste reader – that all I can do is apologize profusely for their unwanted and ignoble company! I tried, Lord knows, I tried to stem that horrid flow, endeavored indeed to deny you the most wicked vulgarities, but out the many poured, unceasing and unstoppable! Deflect, I did, the utterly unbridled detestabilities of Rebelaisanism …

‘But still – ‘ growled Rebelais, emerging from the shadows
…from tainting your apostolic ears…
‘And yet – ‘ rasped he
… steering hard to port of the unprintably priapic…
‘All the same – ‘
… but, oh my! Deary me and… well, botheration…
‘Even so – ‘ he pressed nastily
… I am left horrified and shocked…
‘And besides – !’ (pushing me hard in the small of the back)

In the midst of this onslaught from the Colliers and now this stream of Cabellian* interjections so menacingly uttered, the thought had occurred to me of summoning the Constable of Adjectives, but all of a sudden and instead found myself peremptorily and roughly seized from behind by the Tankard Marshal, who threatened to have me dragged through the Assizes of Ale. ‘You!’ he thundered, ‘I’ll drag yer through the Assizes of Ale!’. Outnumbered, and held in durance vile! There they stood, the Tankard Marshal, the tall Touranian, backed up rock-solidly by petite Police Officer Priapus*, as always sporting his big badge.
‘And besides – ‘ spat Rabelais, hatefully… but I did not let him finish. Thinking quickly while the burly Marshal had taken a break from snarling chapter and verse of the Law of Soakage into my ear and  temporarily eased his grip to take yet another swig, I wrenched myself free and made a dash for it, skipping nimbly, Jack-wise, over the short policeman’s authority, and with a simultaneous sideways swerve to fully evade the law’s long reach that would have amazed Phil Bennett, ran blindly into the night, followed by the angry shouts of the man from Chinon:

‘Yes, besides!- ‘ he bellowed after me. ‘About the barmaid! Try to be more >>>>>>> explicit!, for >>>>> sake! You forgot ’ >>>> -lofty’! You forgot ’ >>> -smitten’! on the way to her. And when you got to her you didn’t know ‘ >>>> -tickling’! Nor ’ >>>> -thwackng’! Nor ‘ >>>> -bibbling’! Nor ‘ >>>> -shiggling’! And then there’s ‘ >>>>-stoking’!  And ‘ >>>> -flugging’’! And  ‘ >>>> -wobbing’! And what about ‘ >>>> -floshing’? And, ‘ >>>> -gargling’? And how about ‘ >>>> -snorkeling’? Huh? (Here I blushed). ‘And, moron, dunce, it’s plain you don’t know a >>>>>>> sausage about… that thing… I forget what it’s called… You’ve gone and been and mixed me up now, you hwntw *  >>>>>> ! … something to do with those animals with flat tails that build dams on rivers…’  Here he faltered, aware that the little police officer regarded him with a look of puzzlement and was drooping visibly in dismay, but rallying somewhat from his confused lapse of memory, roared further:  ‘Yes, that’s it – something to do with what you Welsh have your women make their hats out of… what’s it called? Something to do with cats, too… Nick my vocabulary, would you? Well, >>>> and >>>> again! >>>> twice!  >>>> thrice! >>>> a hundred times, by >>>>! >>>> to infinity and no returns!  And you too, you >>>>>>> hwntw! I’ll get you for this, Lewis!  Felin- >>>>>>> -foel? I’ll get you!’

And as I fled heedlessly into the dark, another voice joined his. It was Cabell, who, debonair and devil-may-care as ever, had sauntered last out of the Colliers, cigarette in one hand and glass of mineral-water in the other and who, in the refined tones of a southern gentleman (and targettng, though he knew it not, another, fleeing, southern gentleman) called after me – with more than a trace of urbane irony and, I would  fancy, a suggestion of a smile – that he would report me to the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and with the warning that for plagiarism in the shape of the misappropriation and misuse of interjections he would have me appear on the morrow in the law-courts of Richmond-in-Virginia. Lastly, the faint echoes came to me of a heated argument between the tall Touranian and the small policeman; the subject appeared to have taken a horticultural turn, concerning the correct descriptive nomenclature for a certain type of shrubbery (ladies’ gardens being the particular province of Priapus) and the sounds of them scuffling, and the copper threatening the Touranian with his truncheon. Angry cursing then from the drunken Marshal as he tripped over something in the darkness and started kicking it viciously… then pitiful screaming and wailing from the diminutive detective-constable… But by then I had run laughing all the way to Felinfoel.

And that’s it. I apologize. I have no idea what made me stray so far away from my usually staid poetic path. It’s all that Rabelais’ fault, although we haven’t met up for years. I have trodden, I swear, only upon the very margins of naughtiness, despite his urgings to unharness the most horribly indelicate indecencies. Oh, he tried, he urged, continuously, to make me say things at total variance with my gentle nurturing at my Mamgu’s bosom, crass crudities at which the very thought makes me shudder, and which lay not within me. He dug me in the ribs with eyes agleam, whisperng ‘Go on! Go on! Obscenities! Obscenities that will make coy maidens let their pent-up smiles spill forth unbidden, and honest modest matrons demurely avert their eyes to disguise their wakened fantasies!’ But I would not. I’d a good mind to take him by the scruff of the neck and toss him into the street. Yet nevertheless, noble friends, I beg you to give the man a break. The bloke can’t help it. He doesn’t know when to stop. It’s embarrassing. I’ll have a quiet word with him, I promise, although I doubt it will do much good. But anyway, hands up who likes that long sentence? And if you want to know the final score of the game in Cardiff, I’ll tell you. It was Wales 100, England 0.

DISHCLAIMER (or, ‘Where is Sean Connery when you need him?’)

I shwear, temperate reader, upon the egshalted altar of Ceresh, that not a jot nor tittle of what appearsh above wash contrived under the abhorrent affluensh of inchohol. I confesh, indeed, that never, not wunsh, sinsh my coming-of-age (which wash a couple of yearsh ago) have I been in the shlightesht in- ineb- inebri- ineb … drunk. I confesh further that I know very little about that wondroush, magic, heavenly potion known ash cw- cw– whashit called … cwrw da, and nothing, nay, nil and zero even, about the imposhtor wine – Theodoshiush imposhtor too, blydi wine-drinker; shoulda been Magnush Maximush in Con – Con – Consh – Conshtan – … that plashe. Maximush, yesh – coulda played for Walshe … that Sharlsh ‘nother ‘poshtor, damn prinsh ‘pershinator, eyesh like a blydi mandril – and that my shole truck with ale ish nowadaysh and hash been for many yearsh a shmall can of Taiwan Beer or perhapsh a Ki- ki- kirin Ishiban, or maybe an Ash – Asha- Asa … that other Shapaneesh beer (all egshellent brewsh, but <sigh> would that they were Felinfoel) twuysh or thruysh a week ash my … not ash! … I mean to accompany, of coursh, my evening repasht. I don’t like thoshe Yankee beersh mush, but shum o’ thoshe Mecshicun brewsh are firsh-clash. Shurmuns brew good shtuff, too … But Felinfoel’s the besht. Abyshinian beer I don’t like either. No, no, ych-a-fi, tashtes like cat’sh. And I don’t like that Rabelaish bloke any more <sob> He’sh really rude. I’ll cut off hish co- co- communicashunsh… Where’sh my beer … ? Iechyd da, nawr …



Notes to Poems 1 – 8:

* Ale/Felinfoel: Baudelaire chose Poison / ‘Poison’! as the title of his poem, which may refer to the wine or, more fittingly, to those alluring, distracting eyes which threatened to lure him to perdition. It’s a title which doesn’t fit the lure of a ‘Felinfoel’ at all, as we shall see (although I’ve heard it described by certain jealous sons of the south-east – those ones from the wrong side of the mighty Llwchwr, those ones who are not of the Demetae – as ‘Feelingfoul’ (Smile when you say that, Silures… ). More explanation needed for those not ‘in the know’? The river Llwchwr (anglicised to ‘Loughor’) is what may be taken as the dividing line between the territories of the two tribal units which occupied the southern parts of what is now Wales during the period of Roman occupation, and who the Romans termed the Demetae and the Silures. The Romans established a fort – Lucernum – there. (I would play there in my boyhood days). This modest stream today marks the county line between Carmarthenshire in the west and Glamorgan in the east; as in many other places, a jocular rivalry exists.

* Afon Lliedi: The name of this stream from the cherished days of yore was also adapted for the name of the brook in the opening lines of my mediaeval-style My Pallid Queen:

’Twas on the brook Lieti
I first beheld my lady

the first part of which has appeared in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion  as The Lure of the Naiad under the main title Lays of the Armoured Isle (3) posted in the section Aug.-Oct. 2020. It’s a prelude to the whole poem which will feature in Manifestations of the Muse (2), yet to come.

* Dragons intertwined: It may be of interest, too, that the double dragon was the insignia of the Seguntienses, a unit of the Late Roman army whose name is connected with the fort and naval base of Segontium (Welsh Caer Segeint ) near today’s Caernarfon. In Welsh tradition Segontium is strongly connected with the military coup of Magnus Maximus, who took substantial units of the Army of Britain over to Gaul and was recognised as Emperor of the West from 383-388CE. To cut a long story short – and I could include reams from my jottings, over the years, on Mag Max – it was in August of the latter date that, in a bid to become master of the whole Empire, he was defeated by the army of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius on the Save River in Illyricum, from whence he retreated to Aquileia in northern Italy and was there delivered to Theodosius and executed. On this event:

Aquileia ’88

It was raining when we rode into Aquileia,
a grey rain that had preceded us
as we came in through the olive groves;
over that monotony
of coastal plain.
It ran from the tall columns of the town,
down on to the stones.
Our belongings were dampened,
as were our spirits.
No people welcomed us.

Great gods,
this is no place for Eagles!

It was evening when we pressed on
into Illyricum. The rain
was with us still…
We could have turned for home.

In part, the foreboding thoughts of one of Maximus’ following on that fateful retreat; in part, too, my own thoughts as we drove through Aquileia, toward what was Illyricum, a thousand and six hundred years later. It was a depressing day. I’ve said ‘This is no place for Eagles’ in reference to the name of the place (aquila, Latin ‘eagle’) and in reference to the Roman Eagle Standard. But it could just as well be ‘no place for Dragons’, as by that time the dragon had replaced the eagle as Rome’s military standard. As a fascinating postscript to this story, the Notitia Dignitatum (a document relating to the organization of the Later Empire, including all military units and their stations) records among the palatini, the highest-ranking troops in the army and soldiers of the Imperial household, a unit called Seguntienses. These have been proposed to be the former garrison of Segontium, and that they may have well composed the personal guard of Maximus which, upon being withdrawn from Caernarfon, accompanied him on his Continental campaigns, being posted to Illyricum – where they are located in the Notitia – after his collapse. Illyricum, in present-day terms, covers the western Balkans from northern Albania to Croatia.

About the change from eagle to dragon: This can be found in Book XVI, 39 of Ammianus Marcellinus’ history of the Roman Empire in the period AD 96-AD 378, Rerum Gestarum Libri, which is really a continuation of Tacitus and along with Procopius the only surviving long account of events in the later period. In this place Ammianus says: ‘per purpureum signum draiconis summitati hastae longieris aptatum’ /  ‘at the top of a long lance was fixed the figure of a red dragon ‘. It’s believed to have been adopted from Sarmatian practice. This, connected with Magnus Maximus’ Segontium ‘command’, has led to the possibility of an early Draig Goch, and from the interpretation of evidence in history and early Welsh tradition that’s plausible. Maximus appears in the years preceding his bid for the Imperial throne to have been commander of the field army of Britain. But what a pity Ammianus didn’t tell us more about him! He could have. He mentions Maximus’ earlier career under Theodosius the Elder (father of Theodosius I, the Emperor who Maximus finally came up against in the end) in Britain (367-379) and in Mauritania (373-375). Some years afterward he was appointed Comes Britanniarum / Count of the Britains [that is, the constituent Provinces within the Diocese of Britain], the senior British military office, and in 383 led its field army into Gaul and was acclaimed Emperor of the West. Now at this very time, during the 380s, Ammianus was living in Rome where he was busy writing his history until probably the 390s, and must have been well aware of Maximus’ activities – so why didn’t he go ahead and cover Maximus’ later career as rival Emperor? Probably the answer lies in politics, and in being careful about what one said. This Theodosian family, all from Galicia and perhaps elsewhere in Spain , were a powerful aristocratic clique. Count Theodosius the Elder, as already said, was father of Theodosius the Emperor – and Maximus was of the same family. At what remove is not clear, but he was said to have been the nephew of Count Theodosius, and must therefore have been related to his son who became Emperor. It was probably all too close to Ammianus’ own time under the auspices of Theodosius to go writing anything brushing on the affair, which would have still been sensitive ground. Ah, Ammiaus could have told us so much about Maximus, especially of his role in Britain during the lead-up to his revolt, all which has ever since remained murky and has caused modern historians to go scrambling about on their knees in search of clues. His tumble when he had almost reached the top decreed that Maximus should be regarded as a ‘bad lad’, all down the line. Tyrant and usurper, almost routinely accused by an array of insular historians for ‘denuding Britain of its defences’, right up to our sometimes too speculative modern commentators.  But there seem  to have been no inroads into Maximus’ British power-base recorded during the five years he was the recognized ruler of the West; indeed, those appear to have occurred after his downfall and severance of his authority with Britain and the result, rather, of his slayer Theodosius’ preoccupation with his own continental problems after 388. The man was but a hairsbreadth away from replacing Theodosius and becoming sole Emperor. Respect is due to Maximus as both soldier and statesman.

* Outpost of Trebuan: I had no idea, then, back in those days when I was often away from home, that nearby there lived another young chap, who was destined to become one of Wales’ finest ever fly-halves – the dancing, side-stepping, talaria-shod Phil Bennett. (Phil is remembered, too, for his famous pre-game talk to the Welsh XV before playing England on March 5, 1977, which went: ‘Look at what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal. our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you’re playing this afternoon’. We beat them, of course. Well, we had to, after that!

A little vole once wandered into our house at Trebuan. We were able to capture him and keep him prisoner for a short while in a stout cardboard box before releasing him into the garden. But while we were temporarily occupied with something else, the little fellow’s rodent teeth had gnawed right through the box and he had made his own escape. Although in our company for such a short while, we had named him; he was christened ‘Felin’, naturally – ‘Felin Vole’ (a Welsh single ‘f’ is pronounced as a ‘v’).  ‘Velinvole’ incidentally, is the spelling the enumerator used for the village in the 1840 Census.


Notes to Poem 9:

*   The Verse Perilous: The Siege Perilous – the seat at Arthur’s table upon which to sit would be instantaneous death for any but the pure knight, and eventually taken by Galahad, was a late introduction to the romances by Malory, followed by Tennyson. 

*   Silenusian: After Silenus, Roman god of beer who often appeared among those revellers in the retinue of the more well-known wine-god Bacchus, ‘Silenusian’ being the beery equivalent of ‘Bacchanalian’.

*   Touraine: The region of France which is the location of Honoré de Balzac’s very witty, very merry 1837 Contes Drolatiques  / ‘Droll Stories’.  Chinon in Touraine, too, was the birthplace of Rabelais, who will need no introduction.

*   Clemendy: Arthur Machen’s fictitious location of the Manor of Pwllcwrw / ‘Beerpool’ in the town of Usk, Gwent, Wales, featured in his 1886/1928 The Chronicle of Clemendy; another very witty, very merry collection of tales.

*   Cerevisian: ‘Is this a word? I wondered. And If it isn’t, it should be’. I used it anyway. Then later it occurred to me to take a long-neglected dip into ‘Clemendy’, and was pleased to find that Arthur Machen had been doing some similar word-coining and had come up with a noun-form, cervisage, which I then promptly decided to incorporate on the strength of its rather noble connotations into the principal sub-heading for this article, previously lacking the necessary richness. Best explained as ‘beery’ in the context in which it’s used above. It’s related to the words for beer among the Romance languages, which is a good place to begin – cerveza in modern Spanish and Portuguese, for example (and likely something almost identical in Catalan). The French northerners dropped their cervoise in favour of Germanic bier, but in Occitan, the French south, it should still be something like Latin cervisia, which was used in honour of Ceres, Roman goddess of the harvest. All stem from proto-Indo-European of course, and naturally history, long history, steps in along the line with the Roman goddess’ origins rooted in the much earlier Near Eastern Neolithic grain protectress whose name and importance, carried along with the vast Neolithic spread, reached the religions and languages of all Europe, not least the vast Celtic lands. So, according to ‘cerevisian’ linguistics, we have in these territories a string of related words for beer – curmi, koreu, cuirm, cerea, cervisia, cerevisia for instance, among them. In Welsh, it’s cwrw, often spoken of as cwrw da, ‘good beer’, which is likely an ancient reference to ‘real ale’ in the sense of properly brewed barley/wheat beer. So let’s not place too much reliance, as has been done, on the goddess Ceres for the dissemination of ‘Cerevisian’ vocabulary; beer was being brewed in northern Europe long, long before any Romans interfered up there and was already known by cognate names. We should remember too that the Romans were resolute wine drinkers who for a long time were hemmed in by a lot of not-so-friendly beer-drinking neighbor nations. Interestingly, a polished stone artifact from the Gallo-Roman period discovered in north-central France carries the inscription curmi da (I’ll say only little about it just now as I plan to deal with this and similar related artifacts in much more detail in a future post). Although  there is an alternative interpretation of da (earlier Gaulish daga) it would appear here to be a reference to this ‘real ale’ we are talking about, and an expression in vogue for who knows how long. The correspondence between curmi da and cwrw da, both in Celtic languages, is telling. In the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum  there is a reference to a 5th century CE proverb cited by St.Cynon: ‘Cwrw da yw allwed calon’ / ‘Good beer is the key to the heart’ (he seems not to have heard, bless him, of that good old song Mae’r Diawl yn y Casgen Cwrw / ‘There’s the Devil in a Keg of Beer’); then there is the later Latin form cervisa bona. So it seems like a very much fixed expression in continuous use from a very early date, and that the Romans eventually learned something from us beer-drinkers. 

*   Cabellian:  This refers to James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) who shot to great popularity when his 1919 book Jurgen was banned by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which took an all-too-serious view of his waggish innuendo. But Cabell was no faddish, popularity-seeking sensationalist, and after the great fuss died down this was realized by both readers and critics. He was recognized for what he is – a literary artist of the highest degree who wrote in a suave, elegant style whilst exhibiting a supreme natural wit. He was what might be termed the last Virginian gentleman, with a vast knowledge of European literature, history, and mythology, including the Welsh contribution, and an essayist in the best manner of the classical tradition. I’m keeping this short and introductory, as I‘d also like to discuss Cabell further in a forthcoming article. He is without the shadow of a doubt one of my most admired writers; I have twenty-four of his books on my shelves, together with a couple of literary biographies. For the literary addict, it’s best if Jurgen is not read independently as it’s part of the eight-volume core of his extended ‘eikosipentology’ as literary editor Lin Carter coined Cabell’s many-volumed ‘Biography of Manuel’. Should anyone be irresistibly attracted by what has been said so far, however, and cannot wait to rush off and order a copy hopefully in time for a New Year read, Jurgen, as well as a fair number of its sister volumes, is currently available in a nicely-printed paperback from The Wildside Press. I can advise anyone who wishes to read the core set – as there are so many others listed which are not novels but essays, poetry, reminiscences, etc. – of which titles to buy, if they care to just leave a comment on this present item in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion.

*   Priapus:  Member of the Greek Pantheon.

*   Hwntw:   Person from the Welsh south.

Arachne spins

Arachne Spins

High in the Council Chamber
Arachne spins.
Unhurried, pulling slender threads in place
that glint and gleam when a wayward, early,
stabbing beam lights up
her shadowed space.

              Cold front approaches bringing threat of heavy snow
              Woolly jumpers yesterday
£10, today just 5 – Buy now
              Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat – order soon
              Seventy street-sleepers arrested in clampdown
              Glory Party spokesman twitters Belaboured Party members
                            ‘Come and join us; we’re all the same’

High up in the vaulted shadows of her place
Arachne spins.
Industrious, she tightens here, now there,
lightly moving always,
careful with every finely-fashioned string.

              Virulent new strain of plague identified
              Huge crowds expected for New Year shopping spree
              Teachers’, nurses’ 2% pay-rise denied
              Can you answer these 5 questions correctly? 75% will fail!
              7 die, 200 injured in hypermarket blaze

High above the halls where all our leaders
argue, lie, pretend and plead
Arachne spins.
Confident, adjusting each fine fairy thread
with ease.

              Arctic temperatures reach unprecedented highs
              All ladies’ lingerie marked down – buy your bras and panties now!
              Church leaders in sex scandal evade arraignment
              Here are 12 kinds of doughnut. You can only choose one
              Masked raiders storm bank, kill 3
              Huge losses forecast in financial field
              4 more Belaboured Party MPs to become Peers of the Realm

High above those hallowed halls
Arachne spins
She strengthens steadily her silken strands,
labours, silently attentive
to her task
while schoolboy chants and venomed jibes
with echoes ringing side to side criss-cross
the floor below.

              Bank of Inglund Chairman steps down amid accusations
              Get 2 extra pieces of Chocagogo free. – with this coupon
              Record lows for January. Blizzards cut off major rail and road routes
              Archbishop of Banterbury retires, citing ill-health
              Celebs sensational Muckingham Palace extravaganza enthralls TV millions
              Parliament meets in emergency session
              Vocabulary challenge. Write a word that begins with W and ends
                            with Y. Bet you can’t
              4 more species join endangered list

High above that ancient floor
Arachne spins.
Surely, nimbly, dexterously
enlarging her embroidery.
Below, between their troughs the pigs grunt to and fro.
cheap, dishonest hypocrites, their minds
confuse their mouthing with reality.

          Sea-levels rise drastically. Floods engulf south-east. Thousands stranded, drowned
          Crunchy, crackling Cerebix! New! Crisper! 5% more!
          Government steps in, props up huge MounteBank losses
          Furore as former convicted embezzler and rising star in Glory Party to be knighted
          Fantastic prizes! Give our nationwide competition a try! Win today!
          Police and Army 20% pay-rise approved
          Your favourite colour and the last thing you ate is the name of your pet
          Glories force controversial ‘Stop and Search’ Bill through
          Joint Police/Army roadblocks curtail traffic to west and north

High above them all in spectral dark
Arachne spins.
Extends her misty-thin creation into
one single, all-embracing silver ring.
They bicker incessantly below although they know
that all existence is in jeopardy. They scheme,
exacting coin from the selfsame fears of the nation’s families

              Cabinet hopelessly split. Ultimatum looms
              Severe travel restrictions imposed. Curfews in force nationwide
              Monarch abdicates, seeks asylum with European cousins-royal
              Stock Market tumbles.
              Internet communication curbed
              ‘Candy Love’ tops charts for 10th week running
              Minister of Defence reportedly says Welsh and Scottish regiments ‘still safely’
                            posted in Middle East
              Privatised Health Service collapses. Accused bosses abscond abroad
              Rumours of Regional Seat of Government established in north
              Smith excels in 7-goal thriller
             Food shortages hit all major cities. Rioting as thousands take to streets
              The first thing you see on your left is your only weapon against invading
                            space-aliens. What is it?
              Attempted Army coup thwarted. 6 Generals charged in secret court-martial
              Arson and looting widespread; law-enforcers powerless
              Minister’s armoured car fired upon, aides severely wounded
              Irregulars storm arsenal, seize heavy weaponry
              Fleeing Prime Minister apprehended, believed summarily executed by Midlands
                            para-military squad
           Internet down           Internet down           Internet down

High in utter darkness
Arachne spins.
Patient… weaves her covering curtain
and near complete.

              Their tedious squabbling is stilled. The fears of the people
              seized them, too. The last to leave looks up, searches
              with steely, probing eyes, as though suspecting that some doom
              had long been fashioned in the shadows high above…
              And the great oaken, iron-bound doors of that vast, vacated chamber
              clang and shudder shut. No echoes; none. Eerie, silent, all.

High up in her space
Arachne’s spinning stops awhile.
She meditates. She understands. Yes, only a little weaving’s needed now
to make this place, at last, presentable – a fit home for her young.

(From ‘Journeys in Time’)

Modelled on the conversations with The Black Dog in Branch Cabell’s 1934 novel Smirt.

                                            NADOLIG LLAWEN I BAWB!

                                          A HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!


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.