2 :  The Visions

And out of the night shot visions. Swift and relentless
and merciless they came, and I saw them as one who,
abandoned in the midst of an ugly dream
is suddenly assaulted by its teeming simulacra,
things substantial, and ephemeral, gigantic and infinitesimal –
an infinity of things.

A vast and withered heath I saw, and on the dull periphery thereof
thunder rumbled over-long, as might morose and ponderous thoughts of gods.
And away off I descried Time, tilling and reaping in his fields, a still, salt waste
inundulate, sheer-white with laden dust; yet did he till and reap,
and till and reap without surcease.
From him and his hostile hand did I turn to gaze into another, safer distance
(and ranged behind him had I spied his levies, still as stone? Faintly,
file on file, and white as bone?)

And far, far upon that other vague horizon lay
some vast and sprawling edifice all grey and indistinct, all mist and  cloud-enshrouded,
but huge beyond and spreading outward many a mile,
and many and many a mile, I deemed, it reached into the heavens.
And like it was unto – so was I minded – a windmill
of those ill-affected gods who grumbled hereabouts.
For movement I discerned – so did it seem – as of great and circling sails,
and a muffled groaning strain therefrom;
and with the vagaries of shifting air, methought, there came and went
the wailing and the moaning of a-many human voices,
as of the lamentation of the forest top beneath a gale.
But naught could I see nor hear that fell within my senses‘ satisfaction:
and soon did haze envelop all.
Then did a ghost of a wind arise to moan across the dun-drab grass,
and I bit my lip, for a little dog I saw, running with that wind;
my own little dead dog, whose grave was in my garden.
But where he had been, and where the sere grass shifted last
stood now four walls low and crumbled,
hearth open to the wind and rain, all canopied with moss
and rank with weeds, and woodlouse and snail with dominion over them.
And I knew it at once for the dear farmhouse wherein I had lived
and been loved in time forepast,
and tears flowed hot down my cheeks to see it so,
and how that it was set down unmercifully in this unhallowed place.
And I told myself that sly Time would not delude me with his trickery
and turned to curse him to his face
(albeit knowing his was a face I could not look upon)
but he and his fields were no more there,
and naught but that sullen outer edge of things.
And then it was as though I was myself plucked from where I stood
and lifted up,
and looked down upon the world as from a great height,
but was at one and the same time thrown in and among
and to be part of that which I beheld, yet entered
as one would step into a quiet pool, or through a breeze-blown veil.
And I beheld stupendous things…

I saw the thronged cities of the north,
and the vast and empty deserts of the south.
Poor, naked fishermen I saw, casting nets on a lonely shore;
a ragged line of hump-backed oxen, plodding, plodding in a snow-strewn waste;
pallid salamandine things, blind, and bound by blackness.
Old, old hands, mapped blue with veins, pressed fervently in prayer.
Plumed and painted warriors I saw, stamping dust to drum and sistrum –
Baal-fires burning in their high dark places;
bale-fires ablaze atop great earthen mounds.
I saw a man addressing a multitude:
I saw each of the thousand faces of his listeners.
Vestments pure and virginal I saw, draggled through the mire,
stained unto perdition and cast upon the midden.
Against a mud and wattle wall I saw the face of a boy,
and it was devoured by disease.
I could see – and oh, I was astounded  –
breath on the wind which carried the black jaws of the plague.
Other faces elsewhere there were, countless faces,
blank faces staring, blank faces in crowds
and in tunnels, and in tombs,
and pale as linen sleeves beneath the catafalques of kings.
Ghosts I saw, walking in a crowded market-place,
unseen by all but a lone, mad-yelping cur;
bones espied, deep underground, bones burnished-brown
at rest beside death’s jawless gibe.

And now must I marvel all the more  –
for to me in that moment were the minds of all men made an open book,
and the thoughts of man a chest unlocked.
I beheld the thoughts of hierophants and mystagogues,
and those of they who burned on iron braziers hellebore and aconite,
and their sigils and their cyphers wrote in bile;
yes, even those lofty thoughts of the most renowned among sages,
and those wounded ones of true poets and of madmen,
whose doom it was to ever tread as exiles in the landscapes of mankind.
I read the dreams of indomitable men
who fought with the gods and prevailed, and looked upon
the wreckage of those who prevailed not.
But the snaking deeps of sophists, even at midmost,
were a passing shallow babble.
And baubles and formulae alone upsprouted in the fields of the Sybarites
and of all the carnal
who whiled away their days, equations stiff and dull and petty carousels,
even unto the accomplished and the advertised among them  –
but lo you, ever and anon serpents wriggling thereunder, and blood trickling therethrough.
And oh, even so it was among all the disciples of Mammon,
where worms and raven’s-wine did lie a-bed with cold and dure glitterings.
For those, I saw, would make merchandise of their fellow man’s misfortune,
and suck his blood, and turn it into coin;
who by base art and impudence would rape the lands of every goodly bounty,
and make of it but revenue;
who were both ignorant and scornful of the past,
who lived only to make a pawn of all the present,
and who were heedless of and reckless of the future.
And by such art and impudence and ignorance and greed, I saw,
were better men than they confounded.
Fast following I glimpsed, as by the suddenness of lightning illuminate,
their final fevered minds, those ones who had sought and caught the Devil by the tail,
and not foreseen the price; 
and only then their utter mockery beheld,
for – with bloodied pen cast by and past reprieve – 
they sought them still to ease their debt,
to coax that lord, to bandy words, to fence with him and haggle.
There came to me the thoughts of men who scorned communion with the angels,
and who despised the brotherhood of humankind;
who abused the greater cousinhood of creation.
Those there were, too, of they who did seek that communion;
who did celebrate that brotherhood;
who did cherish that great cousinhood;
but few, few indeed were those of they who sought, and celebrated, and cherished
the sacred, life-shaped trinity thereof,
and shunned were they by the many, and by the crowd discounted.
With ease I gazed into the minds of the arrogant and of the intolerant,
unnumbered and untold,
wherein I found, and penned in flaming majuscules,
fear innate; contempt unbridled; ignorance unbounded –
so that I was wroth and repelled,
and pitied all that was humble in creation.
And as though thought itself were conjuror,
the peoples of the margin I saw, and heard the clarions and the baying
of the thousand-year hunting of them,
saw them subjugated and disinherited, and their laws annulled
for being worthless laws,
and their tongues riven from them for their own well-being,
and the voice of the singer stilled
and the hands of the musician snapped and bleeding;
and because naught of theirs was of any value save their land and their gold
did the scourge of Ascendancy with injustice describe its scarlet runes upon their flesh
and gallows dance to the music of his writ,
and the children of the margin impressed into alien servitude
and scattered among the kingdoms of the masterful.
Laid bare was the hypocritical logic of the torturer
and of those who played dice with the torturer 
– and here was I stung in my heart, for I felt that I had sat among them – 
his savage craft pursued behind his mask of sanctimony
only that the statutes of his own creed
be exalted beyond the narrowness of his demesne
and the articles of his kingdom’s catechism glorified
beyond his bounden borders.
And naked too were the minds of all the Lordly of State
and the thoughts of princes and potentates
and of all the high and mighty ones of the earth,
even unto the greatest and the most revered among them.
And the many were seen to be consummate in cunning –
yes, and to be versed exquisitely in deceit;
their lies to be refined until they bore all the semblance of truth,
and their treaties and decrees all inked in manicon;
that beneath their cloak of honour and integrity
they did with daggers of intrigue and untruth
play at spillikins with nations and with the lives of the people.
And I saw that behind gilded gates Liberty went heavy about her heels,
and that a man might not live to see his sons grow tall when Justice was his neighbour.
That Law was to bind the weak, but to be broken by the strong,
and oftentimes a hempen collar about the neck of the one,
but a cudgel in the hands of the other.
While the thoughts of the meek,
bent by the sweat of their brow, careworn and forspent,
were quiescent and uncomprehending, and it was made plain to my sight
that naught but the clods of the earth would they inherit
and a cold and narrow lodging-place therein.
And I saw again he who had addressed the multitude – and his mind was not of this world.
And now I found that I stood among his listeners,
and marked his countenance and the glory that shone therefrom,
and though they came drifting to me dreamlike,
now clear and distinct, now snatched away as by the turning of the wind,
I stood there rooted and spellbound by the wonder of his words,
and for him there welled within me a great, sad, unfathomable pity.
“But I tell you,” said he, and these his words,
these few and precious it was my privilege to be allowed
as though they were addressed to me alone of all the throng,
have I remembered and held unto my heart over all the many passing years:
“But I tell you,” said he, and laid his eyes upon me then,
“the book of God that men have yet to find,
and the holiest of books, I say, is this –
it is the sun which throws its miracle each day upon the hillside;
the glory on the wing of the butterfly;
the soil which brings forth the matchless beauty of the lily.
Through an understanding of this,
and this above all things,
may we gain at last unto the sight of God.”
But the voice of the multitude grew great about me,
and I could no more hear my teacher’s words,
but was astounded to behold, now that I stood among the many,
that each perceived his message in a different way,
for some there were who shed tears of joy, or raised their arms in adulation,
or prostrated themselves before him,
or pressed forward that they might touch the hem of his robe,
and raised a cry that he was the foretold prophet who would
lead them forth against the world; 
while others gave out great cries of sorrow and beat their flesh and rent their garments,
while some there were that smirked and jested, making light of all his words,
and others still stood sullen or grew wroth or shook their fists,
or left the throng with vexatious eyes and vengeful thoughts,
as though they would seek out the authorities that were, to silence him
and place him under duress to be led away in chains.
Plain and frightful unto me came the thoughts of these,
and fraught with muttered hate were they, which said:
“He abides not by the Law, and he desecrates the Book.”
And now was the clamour of the crowd a tempest,
and its movement a tossing sea wherein I was borne,
whether I willed it or no, hither and thither, and no more could I hope to see
him who spoke those holy words of wisdom.

Then was I alone again, and a quietude, and a sombre greyness gathering.
And awhile was there naught but the grey shadows all about me,
and the memory, yes, and queer echoes of those things I had but now looked upon.
Then did some thing draw my gaze to a point in all the shadows
where darkness, in conventicle, lay darker than all else round about.
And there now sat, in silent sad embrace, a man and maid
so young, scarce entered in the springtide of their youth.
And they, having found one in the other that thing of mystery
which is a fount of great gladness and a fire for all littleness
had come, they and their treasure, to this place of close-sealed darkness
– for they knew that on the morrow’s morn would come upon their world
a fury that knew not love, and that the fury could in no-wise be escaped;
but that there, for the few and precious passing hours,
was a place of blessed sanctuary and of peace,
And softly, and like unto the trickling of harp-strings in the dark
did the thoughts of those twain come to me,
and as a whispered, piteous litany.
And who it was that spake the first and who the second I know not,
but that there was gentle supplication, and like response:

Beloved,lest the world be lost
be by my side.
Should darkness darken more
and nightness burst,
be near me.
Stand with me now, console me,
ungird your strength
unto me.
Be by my side:
be near me.

My loved one,
if the world be lost
then by your side I’ll be.
Should darkness darken more
and nightness burst,
then near you I’ll be.
Stand with you then, console you,
ungird my strength
unto you.
Be by your side,
be near you:
and you with me.

Such, in the midst of mute despair, was the testimony of new-found love.
But for me, as on the morn of the morrow that they did yet await,
did the raging thoughts of those brutal ones who would scoff at love
and who would wrench apart those twain and all of they that live by love,
to ill-use them in body and in spirit,
dash furiously upon me and drave me backward and away,
with naught but vile derision as answer to my implorations
for the lives and the love of that poor maid and youth.
Thus to me were the minds of men an open book and a chest unlocked,
and many another undiscovered and unholy thing made manifest,
unseen beneath, and in wait beyond, the kenning of man’s mind.

But now in the brightness of a five-fold noon
was a great conglomeration of things ineffable thrust upon my sight,
and I must abide in awe:
For Truth I witnessed, Truth raised high on banners,
and trampled underfoot in blood.
I saw its thousand shades, and its impostors,
and its suffering;
saw it twisted and stretched on all the racks of righteousness;
saw it mangled by the cloven tongue of mischief.
And in its name false prophets and the scions thereof
I saw ensconced, effete and diademed.
Faith too there was, flaming and guttering withal,
proclaimed from marble fanes, and cowering in corners;
holding steadfast among the blazing branches;  unflinching beneath the hail of stones.
Imprisoned in dogma;  marching as to war. Tormented and tormenting;
sprung purblind from the seeds of fear and uncertainty;
and a million times betrayed.
The sycophants of holy writ I saw, those authors of pious misquotation
who would burn a man as zealously as swathe in flame his books;
shoulder to shoulder they walked, and their number was legion –
but the cross they bore before them no jot nor tittle holier
than a circled swarth gammadion,
their hymns all horned and cloven-hoofed.
And Good I saw, and Evil,
but where one did end and the other begin I saw not,
so ravelled were they, and entangled as fallen balls of twine
among the kingdoms and the ages of mankind.
For across their span did virtue become vice and wrong be seen as right,
and within themselves were shrouded in the vilest contrarieties:
I observed the machinations of evil in soft voices and flowered gardens.
I saw sarcoma in the hearts of saints.
I saw the flowing tears of Lilith,
and they were not of fire and gall but of the purest milk-chalcedony;
and I knew that these were the tears of all women.
(And oft there came Death in the guise of Beauty,
and crooked marvels made by the left hand of God).
And close upon these things poor hapless Love I saw,
and she was pale and beautiful.
And leading her by the hand there went a scrawny youth,
who leered at her and whispered:  “I shall have my will of you…”
and pressed into her hand three dice.
And this was Chance, assigned by his tutelary goddess
to be Love’s only guide.
Then did that sacred and lovely lady grow paler still.
But now was a thing most foul shown unto me:
For hard by enough to send me staggering aghast
a fearful goat-headed man did I see
of great and sturdy stature, shaggy and snarling,
with eyes of blackest flint that raged disastrously about him,
tramping to and fro, to and fro tramping
in a pit of his own fermenting dung and urine.
Without let did he convulse with glarings and with mutterings,
and a pounding of fists against great straining thews.
His snarling and his grunting were of no earthly speech –
yet did I understand those loathsome words, which said, unerring and repeatedly:
“There will come the day and you will know my name…”
And I blenched, for fear that he might arise,
and march about the world.
But then of a great sudden did I stand enshadowed by a thing as huge and high as Babel
that blotted out all hope of light and sky, and clear it was to me that I stood now
beneath that which I was minded from afar to be the windmill of the gods.
And I stood all mazed at this, and back and back my head did go upon my neck
as that on which I gazed went up and up, as, foot to spire,
would half a score cathedrals passing hazy into clouds.
And lo, it was a great and turning wheel, configured with a witchery to foil imagination,
and as no wheel conceived by Adam’s sons.
For wheel on wheel was built this titan mechaneme
and ring and ring encompassed those within;
and some would spin sustainedly, but others without harmony;
and some spun as the clock does spin, while others circled widdershins,
so manifold, and so divers, the telling thwarts the mind.
But midmost stout and strong was it contrived
built all of oblong beams of wondrous size, dense-grained and hard as stone
and endlong cut from Cyclopean trees.
And iron-shod were these in massy bands, and bolted overthwart
and through and through each one,
and beam and beam traversed and joined and left the eye perplexed.
Yet outward did these timbers minish thinner and more worn,
and midst the great ones of those girdles were there gaps
and broken struts, and rotting wood
ill-patched by slender slats and ties, and hung with rusting hasp and hinge
until the very outer worm-holed rim was ever loose, a-sway,
all frayed and ragged as the torn wings of a butterfly.
And if the mighty pile itself rebelled against the telling,
then that within was verily beyond the fantasies of gods.
For, God-a-mercy, were those wheels a-seething and alive with humankind!
Oh, faces pale and bodies wan! Womankind and man,
as countless as the maggot that infests the flesh corrupt,
inhabited – all swarmed within – the thing!   And wildered is my mind to treat
upon their outward way, such stern articulation seen
within such wanton wheels  –  the one concentric rote ordained
in ancient days gone by – here, stationed strict, of Adam’s rib, was every sort and kind!
Midmost, in motion imperceptible and slow, sat emperors and empresses
and queens beside their kings
(within that firm redoubt, all quiet and sedate;
vast ignorance prevailed therein of the world which spun without).
In noticeable motion next, great ministers and churchmen sat, and magnates of the land
(a-fingering chain and staff were they, and clutching crozier tight;
for they must please those ones above, yet watch proceedings down).
More quickly circling after them, the gownsmen and the knights
(most ill-at-ease – yet courteous. While manoeuvring around
with deep pretence of dignity, their jostling never ceased.)
And on did it articulate in ever faster motion,
through merchant now, and goodman, through giddy populations –
oh, ever with more motion and with greater consternation,
till to loose and rotten rim did the peasant and the pauper,
swept in great gyrations, cling in frantic desperation,
and lacerating air with wails and screams.
And came a grinding and a groaning from the dark of the machine,
and a shaking and a rattling of the strain, and a deep and painful hum
as the sound of stone-shot slung from a hundred kicking catapults-of-war –
and, grief! About that high rondelle fell lizard-birds did glide,
and not of scale or feather made, but slat and plate and cleat,
with ratchet-mounted beak and clanking wing!
They soared, those creatures fashioned of the wheel, they hung, they swooped.
With iron-bolted eye they held each body on the rim.
And well might a lord adjust his chain, and peasant curse his life –
for whiles would those ensorcelled wheels all screech, and slow,
and stop: and in a trice reverse their spin.
Then would the mightiest shudder pass through every thing that spun,
and kings and ministers be toppled from their place
to tumble with much hurt midst common-kind;
and haply would an emperor fall down;  a barefoot boy be cast into a throne;
and practiced climbers from the outer skirts push inward,
and accumulate thus dirt, and some acquire darker stains.
And folk then by the hundred be by heel and foretop flung
and land among stark strangers in the wheel;
and few with kindness be received, with rude suspicion more the rule;
and cuffings, scurvy words and castings-out;  or hiss and gleam
of quick-drawn steel.
And would those who clung to tatters of the great ramshackle rim
be hurled as sacks of grain up through the air…
and some firm-snapped in ratchet-jaws, while more fared stony to the earth.
And when I durst not look on this – for folk there were rained down
that lay all broke and bloodied at my feet – 
I turned abrupt away.
And then I pondered bitterly with palms against my face
how thrice and thrice a thousand years, this witch’s wheel
had held the race of man in thrall – since holy oil had sanctified
the rule of king and priest, men’s daily lives were governed
but by imposition – and a hag’s caprice.  
But, mercy!  Through the mist two figures moved apace,
and the first did lead the other in hot haste to the wheel.
And he that led was lanky, and clumsy in his gait,
and the one he led was light of flank, and in every whit a maid.
And I that watched, her mendicant, must stand and bar the way…
Then slyly did the fickle witch whose charge was that foul wheel
– bitch-tutor to yon lurching youth who led that hallowed lady on – 
draw back all apparitions to the mirk.
So too did the hag Fortuna will that I, as a stone-wrought statue, stand and stare;
and bade me stand and stare distraught.

And still a-daze, must stare at naught –
till from that same obscure space a mighty clamour broke,
and out from it a fleeing company of young and old did pour in wild-eyed terror,
and infants too, and babes in arms!
And, lo! Grey scaly-coated demons, wit-struck among them fled –
the wicked thoughts and deeds of that fine folk, at the apex of their fear
hurled forth incarnate out of them, were these!
And marvellous high above that throng there rolled a raging wall of ash
that rained it down upon them as might spears and darts of Satan
until not a one was fleeing, but all lay beaten into earth.
Whereat that wall did break but as as a wave upon the shore, and as a wave
did spend itself in shallow far-flung ripples; and anon naught seen but
the dumb and umber dust again.
But straightway did another host come by,
both beasts and humankind in strange array together,
as, for want, both predator and prey will gather at a water-hole;
and slow and silently and hopelessly came these.
Behemoth came, bleeding and tuskless; emaciated lion walked with little limping lamb.
Poor beasts of burthen too, all cruel-laden, as ever answering to goad and lash.

And these that came were of all nations, and all kindreds, and all tongues.
Women clutched their poor dead sucklings to their breasts
as others clutched their chattels;
men, recalcitrant, nursed still their rusted weaponry; incorrigible fools
went still with murder in their eyes.
The other eyes told only of the limits of despair.
And all – both man and beast – were scarred, and starved, and spiritless.
As silent, sorry skeletons they went, and went they knew not where.
As wraiths, they faded into ether at their passing,
and far away behind I glimpsed the land that they had made a sterile, burning waste.
And now a long grey catenation came of men with gutted eyes,
one and one, and each with a hold upon the shoulders of his fellow at his front;
thus held firmly each by other were these dismissed the battlefield,
a bleeding, blinded serpent creeping home, and its head was he
that was spared a single eye.
And others I saw who had awaked upon the field those poor sightless ones had left
and knew that they were broken, shattered men and close to death
perceived that an evil angel stood astride them, to inform them, from a gore-stained scroll,
that they had fought and bled and died for naught;
that they were but victims of ambitious and deluded men
whose certitude that they themselves and no man else was right
was so deep-graven in obsessive minds
that their word became for all the land a fixed law and an oracle;
that to such errant ends, and for such blinkered men
their good life’s blood was spilled unjustly and as sacrifice.
And there upon the bloodied field those souls had left
there lay a single huge black feather,
fallen from the clouds up-piled above the carnage
– so roared to me the mantic one who claimed it as his quill –
from the great dark clapping wings of Lucifer.
Carnage. I saw the carnage of unrecorded battles and of wars unsung
that shaped the unknown empires of the world.
Yes, horns I heard, the blare and the echo of them
winding down the immeasurable epochs
to summon men as insects and, as insects,
clash aloft the red pincers of war.
I heard the helpless death-gasps of those who were stricken
by the lightning of adversaries unseen,
and the glee and the gloating of those ones
who could with impunity deal death-strokes from afar.
And it was revealed
that the savage thoughts of conquerors and those ravaged of the dispossessed
were made one and the same
in that they were abandoned with naught but their own weakness as companion,
and their own weakness only to sustain them.
And this it was that brought, now clear, a picture to my mind,
obscured when first I witnessed it – so fast was my mind then whirled
by the sweeping and the churning of that many-peopled wheel  –
as how, hard by the perilled rim had some souls driven by distress
cast by their hopes and with them tossed their wits,
and as men who had bouzed them up to sullenness, were for light cause cursing all,
and threatening, and a-breaking of their neighbours’ bones;
some even to the scathing and the slaying of themselves.
And many a score of these, as in the grip of some infectious craze,
had taken up the pot and brush and painted, wildly,
vast portions near the rim in swathes of stark vermeil,
the hue of anger and of blood, and of violence and war,
so that up against the edge of all there ran a mad-inspired ring of fiery rampant red.
And as I remembered me this
so did I cross myself and cry mutedly in the name of holy Jesu, for I feared
– having but new-seen those utter madnesses of war – 
that a blood-red tide was the fated mark of Man.
But now did the troubled air recede and die,
and a calm settle upon all things, and a dusk to gather round about.
And I knew it to be ordained that I – would I, would I not – 
must bend my steps to follow all they that had passed me by into the ether.

And it seemed to me, then, that I walked a long white road in moonlight,
and at whiles the way would glimmer, now here, now there, with cold shinings,
and its surface shift and softly crack beneath my tread.
And I slowed my gait, and cast about, and saw that my road was
a road of fragments,
and that the fragments were of bone, broken and triturated
with here and there the glint of tooth and of thin and polished flakes,
and the interstices filled with white and finely powdered dust –
and I knew then, that he it was again, and that I walked upon the road of Time,
and that his road was fashioned as were his far-off winnowed fields.
And I sobbed a breath and stayed my steps,
and would, were mine own will master, go no further on that road.
And after a weary while, as I yet stood distressful and perplexed,
it seemed that Time mocked me from within the very dust whereon I stood, saying:
“Wherefore do you tarry so, you Man? I know you who you are.
There is naught for you, even unto the end.
You came without portent;  you made no name; you departed without epitaph.”
And, I fancied it, the dust itself did laugh unpleasantly beneath my feet;
but after a time the voice to say, now in a strangely tired tone and sad:
“Yet a portent will I give unto you;
and even as worse things await than did ever populate the direst of your dreams,
it shall speak louder than those petty things shown you heretofore.
And therein shall you see what is your calling – and who shall see
no carven grammar will there be to mark your passing.”

Then it was that I heard a low murmur gathering, low and afar,
as of some distant tide,
which swelled mightily in the gloom ahead, swelled with ever increasing turbulence
until, in a single moment, as a deafening and unimaginable immensity of resonance
it came rushing and crashing upon me in that place where I had stayed my steps,
rushing and crashing upon me as a great inundation,
and I knew – great God! – I knew that I hearkened unto the discourses of all time
and in all places as a flood!
Heard and understood their subtleties and their obscurities –
discerned even the lost and frantic voices of the dead.
And teeming from these myriad, myriad souls of the present and of the past,
the living and the dead,
there issued great words and little words, distinct and clear each one –
righteous and evil side by side, wiseards words and those of fools,
the ravings of demented souls with the entreaties of the oppressed  –
convoluted though they were in one single, vast discordant strain.
And I heard too in the midst of this
that scream which, it is written, struck the hearts of all men with terror
and caused them to forfeit their courage and their strength,
and their womenfolk to relinquish the unborn of their wombs;
that caused all creatures to abandon their senses,
and trees to shed their leaves and the land to become barren,
and the waters to become bitter and poisoned,
until the uttermost corners of the earth was filled with its pain.
And when I had heard these things
I became fully and completely aware of every wrong, and every loss, and every failure
that had ever visited the world in all its entirety
as though they were being suffered  at that very moment –
and I cried out in terror and in wrath,
cursing the callous god that had let me be party to these things
and held my hands to my ears
and tried to shut tight my eyes.
But there was naught that could blot out that sound,
and my eyes seemed held open as though forced wide by a quillon’s blade;
and so it was that I suffered
every silent and secret cruelty committed
in the closed, secluded places, in the dens of the offscourings of the earth,
and those, too, committed in the respectable places,
in the lands of, and at the hands of, the decent and the godly.
I felt the anguish of each individual happening
in the death-camps of all time;
saw fear heaped up in mountains, and anguish as an ocean; 
grief swelling as does the sea.
And blood. Blood written in the stars,
and starred on sand, and on snow, on the good earth,
and on the hands of the people.
In one fleeting moment of respite
I was able to look upon the dearest and innermost secrets of my heart,
and saw them to be weighed and found wanting,
my dreams and my desires to be illusions,
and counted among the deserts of my days.
And then it was that, for an instant, I beheld again the prophet,
he that had addressed the multitude,
and my heart cried out after him for he was bloodied and he was bound,
forsaken and derided by the crowd, and delivered into the hands of brutal men.
For one mercurial moment too, one winged moment of fearful dismay,
I saw the one that I had erstwhile seen – he that had paced the pit;
but now – God pity! – did he stride throughout the lands
and roar foul imprecations to the firmament, and his clenched fists shake terribly thereat,
and to strike the earth with a great spiked oaken bludgeon
and cause it to tremble with many and mighty concussions,
so that I lost my breath  and fell a-sickened and a-sobbing to the ground.
For in that single blighted moment had my heart been informed
– as had the hearts of all the race of man in seasons long foregone – 
that whenas that evil one had been finally released,
naught in the power of man nor creation was there
that could reverse his furious blind advance,
for that each time his tyrant tree-wrought club did strike the earth
his strength and his violence and his rage were an hundredfold increased.
And in such depths of terror and helplessness did my mind hark back
as to how I fancied me to have sat among the friends of torturers,
and to those demons that had dwelt within the very bodies of that fleeing folk,
and to the savage swathes of red upon the wheel…
and saw that some germ of the cast of the goat-headed one
had ever dwelt endungeoned within us all,
and appointed to be for the most part caged through all the ages,
but that by and by the people were too many
and the miasma pent within them multiplied and overflown
and become a contagion and a deluge that had at the last released the Rampager
whose nature and nourishment and name were known even from the ancient of days.
His name is Hatred – and Ultimate hisepithet.
Strife his nourishment.
His nature, a malady that is born and thrives in no place other but
the dark and sangliant soul of Man.

And then beneath a black, defeated sun
and in a world that fell inward upon itself
I looked upon a vision of Man’s suzerainty at its end,
upon the dying, spiteful groans of the weary, warring giants of his making,
and for them was left no door, and no key,
and the only justice lay in the triumph of oblivion.
But in my afflicted mind was I then borne through the icy skies of night,
until from immeasurably far away there came unto mine ears
only the long-drawn thunder of the avalanche;
and slow and dull within it, and echoing thereafter,
the deep and measured tolling of a mighty iron bell.
Long and very long it tolled, and long and long again.
And whenas that knell had sounded the last hour that there was to be for all my kind
was I allowed a vision of heaven’s blasphemy,
and there beheld the Jealous God decrepit on his throne,
harried by puny vassals, his empery usurped and shared among them
(and these were and are still among the great and the holy ones of the earth),
the god that dwelt in a darkened box, the god that smiled not nor forgave,
the futile, unemployed god, the erroneous god
that was created over-large by little men and, when his usefulness was
perceived to be at an end, was by them cast down.
And on that last day of heaven and of earth,
on that vast landscape of the slain of men and angels
did the wan worm Sarcotroctes – he who makes an economy of all things –
emerge rejoicing and victorious from his halls beneath the soil;
and did write, after his own especial fashion of curlicue and flourish,
a crimson epitaph for Man.
And lastly came one horsed out of a grey world,
and that upon which he rode was paler than the greyness round about.
In silence he came, and upon that field of bones there was no clop of hoof
nor ring of iron shoe.
He spake not, but left he coursed and right, as if surveying that all was
as should be.
No word he spake, but reining, seemed to hold me from beneath the shadow
of his cowl.
He uttered naught, but in my quaking thoughts did say:
“Yea, I am he.
I am he who cometh unto men in the quiet of the night,
and he who cometh unto them in the brightness of the day;
he that visiteth the peasant in his hovel, and entereth unimpeded
into the chamber of the king;
upon the infant in the cradle do I steal, and the infant babe unborn,
as much upon the eldern forward-treading in the vale.  
He who forgetteth no-one.
And whenas I pass, no thing shall be as it was before.

Yet, from the blood-red tide which is his mark, doth man rush forth to greet me.

And meseemed that this was none but Death himself whom I faced
across the field,
but scarce could I tell, so addled in the head was I and close to swooning…
and for that he stood there in the guise and in the very garb
as erstwhile I saw Time.
“Yea,” said he , “for he and I are brethren insomuch as we are one,
and unto eternity will we till and reap and ride the world;
but the race of Man shall we pass by no more – for it is at an end.
And the grass will grow where he, for the blinking of an eyelid,
held over-haughty sway;
and across white deserts will the winds of the ages amuse themselves
with his dust.”
And after I had been held and compelled to gaze on all of this,
and faint and pained unto the depth of me so that blackness upon blackness
swum before my eyes and hell’s flute whistled a long note in my skull,
it seemed – sweet Mercy! – in truth it seemed that I was transported and left
alone and shivering again
in the dark plain of the beginning –
but it was to me as though I stood now, still and dumb as a graven image

on the thin plain of skin that tightened
over the mad pulsations of my own heart.
I knew – merciful God! –
I knew that I had been allowed
for what reason I know not, nor will ever know –
in a place of unleashing where there were no walls and no ward
to keep all conceivable existence in check,
a glimpse of the edge, the borderland, the shadow
of that great, uncommunicable secret thing
which must forever remain unknown to mortal man;
and I was filled with a great and unbearable burden of sadness.

And when after a great while I took courage and opened my eyes,
I saw with joy that a dawn was breaking
among rose and saffron ribands to the east.
I did not dare to move.
But a voice rumbled in my head:
“Go now. Remember what you have seen.”
I walked out into the cold new day,
and at the first guiltless song of a small bird,
wept uncontrollably.
I would not forget.
The simplest things would never be the same again.

There is much in the way of notes which should accompany this poem – but notes take up a lot of time, and they have had a tendency to become rather cumbersome of late, both in the writing and, I fancy, the reading. Suffice to say that there are many references within this poem to ideas found in other works – philosophical, religious, mythological, historical, literary – some of which regular viewers may, in passing, recognise, and to which attention should really be drawn and their relevance discussed. I apologize for not properly going into this at present, but will point quickly to the presence of Jorge Luis Borge [The Aleph], the figure of Lilith, first wife of Adam [the flowing tears of Lilith‘ from my ‘The Tears of Lilith’ previously posted in The Ig-Og, along with ‘Eye Contact in Eden’ and the longer poem ‘Adam and Madam’]; the Roman Goddess Fortuna [and her wheel – ‘Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi’ in Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’]; the 1014 Battle of Clidium [the blinding of Tsar Samuel’s entire Bulgarian army by Byzantine Emperor Basil II]; Lludd a Llefelys, the 6th tale of The Mabinogion [the First and Second Plagues]; Branwen verch Llyr , the 2nd tale of The Mabinogion [the opening of the Forbidden Door]; and fleeting allusions to other things – Gurdjieff’s Law of Reciprocal Maintenance [the ‘sacred trinity’ of Nature’s cousinhood], my’Young Soldier among Torturers’ [previously posted in The Ig-Og], the Marwnad of Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Côch for Llewelyn ein Llyw Olaf [‘Nyt oes na chyngor na chlo nac agor’ and echoed in David Jones’ ‘Cara Wallia Derelicta’] along with other epitomized phases and phrases which must presently go without elucidation, derived from William Morris, Joseph Conrad, William Hope Hodgson, James Joyce, Dunsany, Daniel Corkery, Clark Ashton Smith, Russell Kirk, and I think others. An olla podrida, I know, of briefly alluded-to mixed thoughts and transient references. There is also a lion walking with a lamb, and this as we all know is from the figurative representation / two aspects of Christ we find when ‘you get the Holy Bible in the back of the Book’. Then there is the prophet, the ‘Jesus figure’, although, despite the similarity, not intended to specifically relate to that personage (or what we have left of him after the intervention of time and talk, which allows us, as is true of the evolution of all revolutionary ideologies, not the ‘first edition’ but the ‘revised version’) but to a like visitor who possesses such attributes as sometimes is to be seen in the more authentic ‘Messengers of God’. I have a series of three poems built around this figure which I hope to include in future issues of The Ig-Og. 

The language is archaic to fit the content, although not overly so; many expressions which, centering on and in common use in the 16th and 17th centuries characterize earlier English, have been avoided. Condensed excerpts from The Apocalypse of Gweir  have been published separately as independent poems elsewhere in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion,  (The Angels of Mons, The Encounter with Time and his Brother) and regular viewers may recognise their fuller appearance here.The linear arrangement of the poem has been revised in order to make formatting as a post easier; many continuations of lines which were originally inset now appear left-margin aligned, and while this affects appearance to a degree, it does not really affect the flow of the reading. For any small mis-spacings which might appear I apologize. The poem was written a long time ago, and looking over it now I see that there remain, in the first third or so, one or two sequences the inclusion about which I have at various times since nursed doubt, but which I have, for the time it would take to play about with them, whether substantially revising or deleting and further playing about in order to meld reasonably with following sequences, decided to leave as they originally stood. This is also true of lesser parts of some later sequences.

What is the subject and centre of the Apocalypse? Well, it is a world we know only too well, and the expression of thoughts which may in this age of culmination be possibly found on the edges of many of our minds. And who is ’Gweir’?  If you Google the name you will be left, I think, with a variety of impressions, none of which will be satisfactory. You would do better by punching in ‘The Prisoner Gweir (or Gwair); this will lead you to a lot more. If you are then still interested, and wish to go further into the matter, Gweir as an entity is discussed again in my notes to The Bound God, which appeared earlier in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion. 

The Opening of the Forbidden Door

To return for a moment to what was briefly mentioned above – the story of Branwen in the Mabinogi. In this tale, the seven survivors of the war with the men of Ireland made their way back to Wales and rested themselves in a fine palace on the island of Gwales (pronounced in two separate syllables – Gwâ-les). Here an enchantment was put on them; they forgot all the weary years which had preceded, all the intrigue and misunderstandings which had led to the bloody affair with the men of Ireland, and brought such death and sorrow on both peoples, and passed the time in enjoyment and happiness which lasted, though they did not know it, all of eighty years. However, when they had first arrived at the palace they had found two doors which were open, and a third one closed, with the warning that it was not to be opened; this was the door which faced south toward Cornwall. One day – naturally and of course! – the curiosity of one of the seven overtook him, and he opened the door. ‘And when he looked, they were as conscious of every loss they had ever sustained, and of every kinsman and friend they had missed, and of every evil that had come upon them, as if it were even then it had befallen them… And from that same moment they could not rest… ‘ [Gwyn and Thomas Jones’ translation]. This result has been greatly magnified in The Apocalypse… ‘ to cosmic proportions, as it has in The Third Door, below. If we are looking for literary parallels, we can find them in Pandora and her box and Eve and her apple (always women who are to blame, and this is an axiom to be found throughout Judaeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman and Mediaeval literature); here, and refreshingly, in this mediaeval Welsh story the rabbity culprit is a male.

The Third Door

What lies beyond
Omega Point’s green door
those seven saw.
Minute and vast, present,
past, emergent, cast;
living, dying,
first and last.
Convergent. Fused
in single stark procession –
majestically deciphered,
all and everything
And from that time
they could not rest. 

So, although the subject here is the opening of the third door by one of the seven survivors of the Irish expedition, what met the eye is treated as a traumatic cosmic revelation rather than a return of a mass of bitter personal memories, bringing the experience in line with the totality of The Apocalypse… ‘.

‘Omega Point’ looms large in Tielhard de Chardin’s philosophy as a point in which all existence converges into one; it lies at the precise edge of the end of time, and the centre upon which all the forces of the Universe converge. ‘Omega’ will be recognized as the second part of ‘Alpha and Omega’ (the ‘Beginning and the End‘ as representative of the Christian God) in John’s Revelation (known also, it happens, but not nearly so generally, as The Apocalypse of John); the couplet being taken from the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Related to Alpha is Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew and other Semitic alphabets, and in Jewish symbolism used similarly to represent the oneness of God. The Aleph is the title of a superbly imaginative and disturbing (1945) short story, and if you have not already read it a story not to be missed, by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. In Borges’ story, ‘the Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping, or confusion’. It is this fascinating, astonishing idea which is the basis of the Apocalypse. The ‘green door’ deserves a mention, too, thrown piquantly in as that secret, inaccessible place of which you might have heard from which tantalizing, never-to-be-shared laughter and music emanates; ‘green door’ is also somehow in keeping with the location of the island of Gwales. The line ‘all and everything’ is a reference to George Ivanovich Gurdjieff’s trilogy ‘All and Everything’.  Gurdjieff, already mentioned at the beginning of these notes, was an influential thinker in the early-mid 20th century, and who, as founder of ‘The Fourth Way’ system of inner development is still widely discussed and has many adherents today. His ‘Law of Reciprocal Maintenance’ while it deals with much of an esoteric nature, is also at base a thesis for respect and responsibility for what is above and what is below our human world. Gurdieff himself waxes very peculiar both in method and style, but much has been published to elucidate this. And if you have read Gurdjieff you will also have come across his collaborator, Pyotr Damienovich Ouspensky, and probably Ouspensky’s continuator, Rodney Collin. As astute observers and commentators on humankind’s place in the cosmos, all are worth reading.

The island of Gwales (Ynys Gwales) is identified with Grassholm, the rocky islet sitting so lonely out there in the Celtic Sea, the most westerly point of all Wales except for the wave-washed reef of The Smalls some miles beyond. It’s a high, bare sentinel white with guano from its breeding colony of North Atlantic gannets. But, hmmm… Just enough space on top there, I’d say, to build a small palace…

Now the old stone-built home of my early youth stood high atop a hill and hard by its gaunt grey-white, upthrust cap of dolerite (a ‘carn’, one of a number of such outcrops which dot the peninsula of Dewisland). It stood within a mile or so of the most westerly point in mainland Wales; it stood just 300 yards or so from the clifftop; the nearest building was a ruined Celtic chapel of the 6th/7th century; our nearest neighbours were a community of Irish monks whose small monastery was perched close by the cliff’s very edge. Every morning, when I woke up, through my bedroom window I would see the whole sweep of St. Bride;s (St. Bridget’s) Bay; there, to the south-east, lay the island of Skomer; then a wide stretch of open sea until out there, some nine miles to the south-west and outside the Bay, lay lonely Gwales. I would see it in summer sunshine or under autumn’s cloud-laden skies. Morning and evening, in its changing hues. In the wintertime it was mostly invisible. I used to go out in the fishing boats, then. Mostly we would follow the coast fetching up the lobster-pots (and their mixed company of starfish, spider crabs and sea-urchins), or do some line-fishing (mackerel were plentiful – we would literally catch one a minute; this I remember after bringing up, one day, sixty in exactly an hour). Rarely we would go out to the islands – nearby Ramsey, distant Skomer, and just once, far Grassholm. It was something of a strange feeling, coasting so close beneath that rock which had always appeared so remote as to touch the horizon. (Now, these days, boats go out there crammed with summer sightseers; then, in those days, no-one ventured out to lonely Gwales). And it was there, on that day, as we slowly moved beneath its shadow, that I made a fatal mistake. I thought to myself, ‘Why, we’re beyond St.Anne’s Head and outside the Bay! if I look to the south, way beyond there somewhere will be Cornwall’. A callow youth was I; I had no idea of what this island was identified with; I had not heard a word of the story. And it was that single, innocent, unknowing act which I firmly believe then and there utterly scrambled my brain and left me as I have been ever since and as I am today…

You can find out much more about this stretch of west Wales coast by going to ‘The Farthest Shore’, previously posted in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion.

As to the final stanza of the poem, from the small handful of individuals who had read the poem either in manuscript or in typescript I recall particularly two responses. The first lady said it was ‘stunning’, which naturally pleased me no end and gave me a warm glow about the kidneys for days. The second said ‘Yes, but whose voice was that rumbling in his head?’. To which I was minded to reply: ‘Oh, that was Mickey Mouse’.


I  :  The Summoning

In sleep I trod a pitch-black plain
and nowhere could I seek the sod beneath my feet, nor feel
the air against my cheek,
and near nor far I could not know …
I walked in darkness, all alone.
And monstrous silence reigned.

A plain, I thought – but could not tell;
I trod, I thought, the Waste of Hell
Dimensionless – no touch, no sound,
no breath of wind, no near, no far –
bound by the void, devoid of sight.
A prisoner of the dreadful night.

I cast me down, I hung my head,
and in despair cried out in torrent madness, fell enough
to wake the sleeping dead.
There was no answer to the cry,
nor echo; it remained a stifled prisoner in my head
as I was in the plain.

A plain, I said. How was it then
there was nowhere to keep my body anchored to this place?
I stood athwart a deep!
I stood athwart a gaping maw  –
the blackness of the Pit! And poised upon some slender strand
that spanned the breadth of it!

But trust my steps or trust them not,
I knew that I must pass across.
An aspen voice within me gave
a tremulous command to cross the gulf and cross it now,
or perish on that strand.
As through my veins the dark blood raced
I ventured forward on that space
that hung across black Hell.

A bridge, was it? What bridge is it
that soars in sable space? Invisible, intangible,
across what cursed place?
And as man swims to save his life
and out of sight of land, and knows when mind surrenders hope
he sinks, I walked that strand,
step by wretched step – I thought
the steps would never cease – tremendous darkness piled above
and Sheol down beneath.

Across black Hell I walked, I thought,
I walked across black Hell …
until – God help! – there came some sound,
and glimmer from below unlike to hellfire’s livid red
and groans of tortured souls.
A soft, a gentle luminance,
a murmuring of air… dear God! I caught my breath and cried
as breeze played in my hair!
And I stood still, and stood amazed –
the moon stood in the sky! The silver goddess, sister moon,
and brushed by leaves, went by!
And flowers’ fragrance round about,
and lilies spread around, and any flower I could conceive
lay bright upon the ground!

But I would sacrifice my soul
a million times, and more, to exorcise them from my mind;
they’ll haunt me evermore.
Dimensionless … but now I know
dimensions warped and wild; and stark unhallowed consciousness,
and vast, unfettered time.
I know a truth that no man knows,
a truth he could not bear, revealed to me when first I saw
those flowers growing there.
What I beheld… how can I tell?
It will not suffer rhyme… and Lord, my heart is bursting –
all sanity a lie.

Each blossom was in motion –
a fascinating dance which wreathed within the bloom itself
and I transfixed, entranced
to see each petal moving,
each petal changing shape, and changing size and changing hue
within a moment’s space.
A lily was an orchid,
and then it was a rose, in subtle variations  –
a myriad of them posed
in countless transformations
until I thought I’d seen all flowers’ generations  –
all that had ever been
since the dawning of creation
in bewildering array… but as I stared, astonished,
all passed away… away.
Any I could conceive, I’d thought  – 
but not conceived for me; not in this way, this beauty
that changed too constantly.
They passed from sight. I touched my brow
and asked how it could be that nature’s flowering glory
could cast that spell on me.

The thought had barely come to me
when suddenly and near there came the hum of voices.
Yes, voices! I could hear
their gentle susurration
and laughter pealing through, and out of darkness people came,
and smiling, into view.
They came to me; they stood around.
I was struck dumb to see the loving kin of my lost youth
all crowding close to me,
the ones I loved from years gone by,
and I too youthful then to know how much they’d meant to me
until too late, and when
they’d gone I’d cherished them
and thought if time could bring back treasured old ones from those years
I’d relive everything
so differently, and all my words
be gentle words, and all my thoughts be kind, and all my acts
be generous, and small
or great they’d inculcate the love
that callow youth denied. I held them close.
And helplessly, I cried.

Oh, precious moments, gone from me
when scarcely had they come! For now my loved ones’ voices slurred,
their faces one by one
grew vacant and they shrank from me
into that cursed realm of dark that has no end to it.
God, help me! Overwhelmed
I sought to clutch them close again,
I strove to hold them tight. But one by one they slipped from me
into the awful night.
How can the grief be washed away
that cleaves the very soul? I faltered, shaking, to my knees
and gulped for breath. I knew
no words that could express the loss,
the feeling of such pain I felt when wretched darkness took
my dead kin back again.

The light of moon, of clean, dear moon
shone down on where I grieved. I looked to her to heal my grief,
but Christ! Oh, Christ! The leaves!
And then I knew that I was caught
in some infernal net where time and sense are riotous,
where borders break and let
unknown dimensions wander free
and aeons drift like sand, where death is life in puppetry,
and visions great and grand
in jugglery and argument
with insubstantial things, and lost, apostate splinters flee
the centuries, and fling
the phantoms of forgotten times
with spectres yet to come. And then I knew that I was caught
where naught and all are one.

The leaves roared high and clashed against
the moon, now ashen-grey, and wrapped in ragged cerements
of cloud, she passed away.

The second part
of The Apocalypse of Gweir, entitled The Visions, will shortly appear in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion. 

Part 1, above, was initially inspired by a recurring dream in my young manhood, in
which I walked across a bridge, it seemed only inches wide, invisible, and which could not be distinguished in any way from a black, yawning, limitless abyss below. Some two-thirds of the way through, ‘The Dream of the Dead Kindred’ is an account of another recurring dream experienced in more mature years. The imagery and metre  are both to an extent influenced by my readings of Scottish poet James Thomson (1834-1882): i.e., by his remarkable XXI canto poem The City of Dreadful Night. It is indebted in no small way, too, to William Hope Hodgson’s 1908 tale of cosmic displacement, The House on the Borderland.

Dialogues without Words (5)

The Meeting at Midnight

She slid from under the car at night,
from out of a pool of oil,
Slithering, black, and up she rose,
first wavering, flat, then taking a form
so rounded, so sensuous – and standing
so close! I saw her beneath that
coiled-up hair – her whole naked self
only inches from me. She was all polished jet…
and yet, no, not so. For with every small movement,
the slightest she made – the breath of her breasts,
their quick rise and fall, the fingers that toyed with her thighs,
the flicker of lashes, her balance adjusted –
brought to life a succession of startling hues,
a swirling and ripple through sinews and limbs,
of sapphirine blues, of glowing wine-reds,
pinks of coralline, salmon; there was sulphurine gold –
emerald, smaragdine green of the Nile;
she was rich-veined and shot through with
lustrous designs that leapt, coalesced, and vanished again…
but behind that display, that mosaic in motion,
a fine, lacquered ebon, her midnight, won through.
With her gloss and her gleaming, my emotions spilled over;
I murmured some nonsense, stepped back in confusion.
She advanced! And with coolness, held me with eyes
of a tigress’s topaz, compelling, ablaze; in a moment,
though, softened to saffron and maize.
And a brave, laughing confidence danced in
those eyes, and I know that she noted, content,
my surprise – that they spoke, wide and silent,
that she knew of my kind. Oh! Her lips, fullest carmine,
and the richest of spoils, now an inch from my own!
And I knew, if they kissed mine, in that kiss I would know
the touch and the taste of moist, ancient soils; of a world
scarce connected with the one that I knew. What did she
seek in me? Why had she come? I shivered. I flushed.
And next – on my cheek – heated breath, brushing, light
Then she passed me, black shadow,
and was lost in the night.

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

It wasn’t my intention to post this poem for some little while yet, for some four or five poems and maybe as many months hence, as it seems to me that so many items in my output are concerned with ’the fair sex’ – and I don’t wish to give the readership of The Ig-Og the idea, especially if they have encountered my appraisal of all that is feminine which accompanies the most recent post and are familiar with others which have preceded, that there is some conspicuous preoccupation here. (I am not so inveigled as to realise that ‘There also be women in the world that are but the handsome sepulchres of iniquity’; they undoubtedly are there, but fortunately few, and far from representative of their kind. So although it hasn’t quite happened I wanted, really, to somewhat spread out the poems which follow this theme of the female – which is, in fact, concerned with ‘womankind’, with that unique combination of the intellectual and the visceral in woman, together with the parallel search for/representation of The Eternal Feminine as it appears imprinted upon the European mind, from the untutored to the classical, in mythology, history, and literature. ‘She’ and her ways, along with the related theme of Love, are two things which I confess to have always had a lean understanding and therefore an acute interest; so for this reason, well, yes, it seems likely that at base there is a level of unfeigned preoccupation! The Meeting at Midnight does not, though, adhere nicely to this main theme – it is, unreservedly, an outright celebration of the sheer physical wonder of her, as well as, upon encountering it, the inferred reversal in store for the nympholeptically afflicted soul (inversely, a pitiful blessing it is, too, for those who can receive the gift in no more than self-complacency, a gift looked upon as accepted and commonplace as the ever-recurring miracle of sunrise). So this is an ‘interim’ poem along with its apology, chosen as the kind of ‘undiluted’ item I felt was needed in a hurry just now as a replacement for the poem which, apart from some time-consuming fiddling with its characteristically over-long notes, I already had in hand. It is also the final poem in the Dialogues without Words series.

A Tale of Two Women

It’s my pleasure to introduce to readers of The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion the work of guest poet Emlyn Roberts:

The Shadow of Hope

Pain wrapped its arms around her
and held her close.
She did not cry out,
there were no tears.
She sought for a remnant of herself
from a mind box of her own making.
She stood for a long time in darkness;
she had no permission for light.

She went to the kitchen
just to touch her hope.
Her hidden hope she named it.
He did not know of it
and so could not take it away.
She held it inside her arms
tight against her chest,
seeking comfort from it.

It took an age to mount the stairs
for she knew every creak
that might awaken the beast.
He was sprawled on the bed,
snoring softly,
his reek filling the room
his body a lump in the moonlight,
fat-rolls moving gently.

Holding her breath
she watched until
she could see the merest flutter
where his heart beat
with misbegotten life.
Slowly she took a deep breath,
she raised the knife –

and then her shadow ate her.

Emlyn Roberts

True Story
( News item, Sunday, 16 December 2012 )

There were no presents
at Kadi’s six weddings that night
no settlements for her six divorces
one husband outraged her virginity
the others paid their wedding fees
and waited in eager turn
there were no wedding clothes
only her abused skin
there was no feasting
just the taste of horror
there was no headdress
no water to cleanse
no ring to bind
Kadi did not say yes
she could not say no
her husbands only cared
that it was not rape
for that would have been a sin
Kadi grieved for a blessing
but God’s tears dried
before they could reach her

(The name ‘Kadi’ is fictional)

Emlyn Roberts

These are two ‘dark’ poems from Emlyn Roberts – poems reflecting a grimly shadowed side of humanity with which we might prefer not to occupy our daily thoughts, but which nevertheless exists, often beyond our least suspicion and almost always closely hidden, all around us. We have all come across reports, some sinister beyond belief, which pierce us to the heart when we are suddenly confronted with them; reports which can leave, perhaps for years, perhaps for a lifetime, an indelible picture of base cruelty and suffering on our minds (there is the face of one young woman, pitiful and abused to the point of death, which will never cease to haunt me; I wish I had never seen that poor woman’s face in a photograph or read the report which accompanied it, because I know it will at odd unsuspected moments of day or night come back to me, and come back to me always). Here in two poems we have degradation starkly thrust upon us – the one seeking a final way out of endless desperation, the other surrounding an ill-used, defenceless and unknowing child. And such abominations, sometimes prolonged over many years, are silently and secretly committed and suffered in closed, secluded places, not only in the dens of the offscourings of the earth but in the respectable places, in the lands of and at the hands of the decent and the godly.           

Here, in these poems, we glimpse examples of the deliberate maltreatment of part of no less than half of humankind, and furthermore that half which should be revered as sacred – womankind – as Mother, Sister, Wife and Lover, continuator of the species, the womankind which has so often proven, thanks be, capable of enduring and combating the many anguishes to which she has been unjustly subjected. Woman, fashioned so as to be physically unmatched to man, but by no means otherwise unmatched and substantially superior in the more esoteric realms of thought and in emotive-intuitive attributes, possessing that ‘x-factor’ which has been a long-time mystery to him and which he has striven to understand but failed, and having failed, resorted to his physical advantage. He has been suspicious of her, has even feared her, throughout history allotting her a position of subservience, as all our sacred texts and the majority of our historical literature inform us. What is it that sets her apart? Something ‘God’-given? Something inseminated by Mother Nature into her soul to act as – what? Some kind of safeguard for the species? The peacemaker? It must surely always remain a mystery unsolved. In this respect, that is as far as the species are concerned, man- and womankind could be said to be only one in two distinct ways – wholly complementary by role, but strangely counterposed in nature. What such an augmentation is worth, and given my own mindset – which upon the reading was sent at once into rapid, perhaps idiosyncratic you will say, acceleration – these are nevertheless some implications and associations I personally extrapolate from these two compelling poems. But what do I know about the veriest evils of misogyny? I was raised in quietude and chapelry by two lovely, angelic even, Welsh ladies who enjoyed their youth and young womanhood in the last quarter of the 19th century, as their elegant beauty beneath piled-up Victorian coiffures in their photographs from the 1890s attest.  Wait …  Perhaps that has everything to do with it.      

Emlyn is a native of the Welsh north. Of himself and his work he has this to say: ‘I am an old poet who was once a young poet. I try to make my poetry say something, and to matter’. We see from this that he has been composing poetry for a long time, and as is obvious from the two examples above, writes poetry with a clear message – poetry which speaks to us here in no uncertain terms of the unfathomed and disturbing vagaries which can lie deep within the human condition.

Early Days

The First Time

I cannot even recall the time
the gods first gave a woman unto me.
But this I know –
I was gathered in her arms
and felt such warmth as I had
never known before.
The silky fullness of her breasts;
so new and strange to me.
An undiscovered world of satisfaction –
My face was pressed
so close into that soft, delicious place.
My mouth searched ardently.

And then, I’m sure
my mother must have sung
a lullaby to me.

From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’


The Road

Look back upon the way you’ve come.
Has it been short or long?
Well, never mind.
But think about the things you’ve done,
and what you’ve yet to do.
The secret is, whatever else – be kind.
Remember that we’re all, from the moment we arrive,
just visiting this planet.
And no-one’s getting out of here alive.

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

Dialogues without Words (4)

The Crossing

Our lives crossed in a central aisle,
between tall shelves stocked high with bright commodities.
I smiled at her; she smiled at me, then lowered eyes
demurely, yet in an instant raised and steadied them
to meet my own.
                                               Her skin was velvet, dusky-brown
– her dark-lashed eyes were limpid dreams –
her pupils deep sapphirian blue. Her lips
were cushioned rose. Her hair, sleek burnished ebony,
so black it shone in purple-blue, just like
the starling’s wing. Across her forehead silver coins
were strung, thin hammered things which bore
strange symbols, and from her ears long pendants hung
of yellow gold, with here and there the gleam of jacinth
and of almandine. Bright copper spirals wound about her arms,
with serpent heads and eyes of apple-green and tails
of inlaid lapis lazuli. A rack of bangles, seven, nine or more
jostled at each wrist. Her breasts were bare
beneath a chattering fall of beads, while strings
of silver coins again adorned her hips; she wore some pantaloons
of silken gauze about her legs; her ankles chimed with bells,
these interspersed with tiny sculpted-by-the-waves
white shells.
                                               ‘I name you Pleasure-of-my-life’*, I said to her.
‘Sir’, (oh, and did that whispered voice come straight from Paradise?)
‘let it be so. I name you too by what you are. And you shall be, to me,
Fair Foreigner’. She took me by the hand, and led me, then, away,
to dream with her.
                                               And so we lived, for many a month,
in quiet solitude, far above the city’s thronging crowds.
‘Pleasure-of-my-life’, I’d say, as we lay there side by side,
‘tell me again of your far-off land, how it’s all luxuriant green,
and how its soaring hills, all forested, are clothed in mist,
and how the waves fall languidly upon long shores of dazzling sand.
And of those vari-coloured birds which flash across the shadowed
groves of palms’. ‘Oh yes, my Foreign One’, she’d say, ‘bright flocks
of parrots – blue, yellow, green and red – do wing their way
across wide verdant spaces. And the caramel cat with the apricot eyes
that have centres of onyx, glides through the forest
but is fearful of man. There are monkeys that swing from the trees
by their tails and will swoop to your shoulder and steal from your hand,
or playfully ruffle your hair. Bright silver streams flow down from the hills
into deep, pebbled pools. There I’d bathe, letting water-pearls fall on my limbs
from a hollowed and painted gourd’. ‘Would no man steal a sly-eyed look at you,
Pleasure-of-my-life?’ ‘Oh, no, my Fair-haired Foreign One. My kin and kind?
Refined, all, and reserved’. She smiled at me. ‘Put by such jealousy’.
‘Do others such as I, set foot upon your shores?’ (and this too did i whisper
to her hesitatingly). She pressed on my arm. ‘White sails, afar –
small specks upon the vast blue sea. They ply their way from old Ceram*,
to the land of Sekala*, it’s said, then on to lands no person knows,
where dark men of the coast that has no end – they of the turban
and the scimitar – do dwell, and no fair-skinned ones such as you.
White sails afar, and never here. But our menfolk trade with the outer isles,
so we women wear their beaten gold, their copper, and their shining stones’.
She turned to me and laughed. ‘Now have no fear’.

                                               And so she would regale to me tales of her distant isle,
her far-off land of barefoot boys and girls, of stalls piled with spices,
fish and fruits, lithe sing-song chattering women lightly clad in splendid
coloured silks with strings of silver coins, bangles, beads, and shells and bells
which clashed and chimed from their foreheads to their toes – and of their men
who cherished them. Of the scents of enormous flowers, of the wandering notes
of the flute and the tinkling of the gamelan* which were played beneath the moon
on warm, warm nights. And music, too, was the language spoken there.

                                               And we lived like that for many a year in our quiet solitude,
far above the city’s thronging crowds. And time never left its mark on us, it seemed.
“And tell me, Pleasure-of-my-life’, I said one glorious starlit night, as we lay there side by side, ‘tell me again how you’ll love me till the end of time … and of the children we shall raise, with dusky skins and almond eyes, all lovely barefoot
girls and boys. And I will chart a ship, my love, and take you to your land,
where I feel we have lived for all these years as we’ve lain here side by side.
I feel I’ve lived there all my life – in your distant Ohua-hai”.

                       So I chartered a ship with a Milford* crew
                       and the dread Captain Roberts* escorted us through
                       the Spanish Main – three Spanish galleons of sixty-four guns,
                       two Barbary galleys, a trim Portugee – we left them all behind,
                       with the whole British Navy hot on our heels
                       till we came to the Sea of the Eastern Isles.
                       Then Jonesey the Lookout, riding a spar, sang out aloft
                       that he’d spotted afar her island of Ohua-hai!

                       Two thousand canoes shot out of the bay
                       and lay like a raft round the ship, and as soon
                       as eyes sighted my maiden on deck, ten thousand voices
                       roared to the sky ‘It’s the long-lost princess of Ohua-hai!’

                       We were showered with garlands and rowed to the shore
                       and then there was clamour and oh, we were lauded.
                       There followed a feasting of nine days and nights
                       on succulent fruits and the meat of the boar. There was
                       dancing and laughter – rejoicing galore, till my ship
                       sailed again for the fair land of Wales.

                                               And so we lived for many a year in the quiet of Ohua-hai,
where the palms grow tall and the days are warm and the wavelets spill on the sand.
And though that was a long, long time ago, neither she nor I grew old.
                                               ‘And tell me, Pleasure-of-my-life’, I said on one ancient, starlit
night as we lay there side by side, ‘Tell me again’, I said –

but then she had suddenly passed me by, with that shy girl’s glance
and a smile returned, between shelves stacked high with boxes and brands.

                                               I never saw her again.


* Pleasure-of-my-life:  The name is that of Plazerdemivida, the devoted hand-maiden of the knight Tirant Loblanc, hero of Joanot Martorell and Marti Joan de Galba’s 1490 epic novel of that name written by Martorell and completed, posthumously, by his friend de Galba. Unlike other celebrated works of the Renaissance period (The Decameron, Don Quixote, etc.), Tirant has remained, outside the Catalan world and until fairly recent times, something of an underground classic. The principal reason is that it was written in Catalan at a time when the Catalan language and literature were to enter many hundreds of years of decline; and in modern times, this was prolonged by the outcome and repercussive legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Largely set in the Mediterranean/Byzantine world, the Romance of Tirant is a robust, widely embracing work alluding in fictitious terms to Martorell’s own experiences. (My copy is David H. Rosenthal’s 1984 translation). Cervantes admired Tirant; toward the beginning of Don Quixote, when the barber and the curate are rifling through that knight’s library, extracting, for his own good they thought, all there that in their opinion would too much influence his erratic bahaviour, Cervantes has the curate say: ‘Good-lack-a-day… is ‘Tirante the White’ here? Oh! pray good neighbor, give it me by all means, for I promise myself to find in it a treasure of delight … there is not a better book in the world… ‘ (from Motteux’ 1712 translation; this very early translation has been criticized for inaccuracies, but – got to love that archaic language!).

* Ceram: An island in the Moluccas (the Moluku archipelago, now in eastern Indonesia) known as the Spice Islands to early European seafarers. They became of interest to the Spanish and Portuguese powers in the 16th century because of the great variety of aromatic plants found there, notably nutmeg and cloves. The Moluccas were also known to Arab seafarers as early as the 14th century; in the poem, Pleasure-of-my-life speaks of them as ‘dark men of the coast that has no end – they of the turban and the scimitar’  The ‘coast that has no end’ is the long coastal route between the southern tip of India and the Persian Gulf. I have given her island – ‘Ohua-hai’ – a decidedly South Pacific name, but the real island, as we shall see, is actually at the extreme eastern end of the Lesser Sunda islands now in eastern Indonesia, and on the direct sea-route of the early Arab merchants. (Just off its west coast, incidentally, lies the small island of Komodo, famous for its dragons).

* in the land of Sekala:  ‘Sekala’ is part of Balinese religious belief. Bali, where the Lesser Sundas begin, lies some 300+ miles to the west of the enchanting home of Pleasure-of-my-life, and a principal port of call for the Arab trading fleets. Sekala is the first half of the twin Sekala and Niskala. ‘Sekala’ is what is visible – the rich, colourful, moving world of Balinese pageantry and ritual; ‘Niskala’ is what you do not see – the precepts which underly the rites, and the magic which is implicit in the dance. The tangible and the intangible which are both essential parts of ceremony. These Balinese festivities were known in ‘Ohua-hai’.

* gamelan: Javanese, Balinese and Sundanese percussion (hammered, xylophone-type) instrument. I have a couple of CDs featuring gamelan solos. A gentle, tinkling sound.

* Milford: Milford Haven, the port which lies at the head of the great two-pronged branches of the River Cleddau in west Wales, which broaden to form what is one of the finest harbours in Europe.

* The dread Captain Roberts: Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722) was without doubt the most successful pirate of the entire buccaneering age. Born at Casnewydd Bach in west Wales, and known in Wales as Barti Ddu, or in English, Black Bart, he was introduced to his profession when captured by another Welsh pirate, Hywel Davies, whose crew he immediately joined. Upon Davies’ being killed in an ambush, Roberts, although young, was elected as the new leader and went on to plunder upward of 400 vessels, some of them not merchantmen but well-armed warships. He was a bold and charismatic leader, a strict disciplinarian whose ship’s articles targeted alcohol, gambling, the illicit smuggling of women aboard (for which the penalty was death) and,  as far as I remember from what Thomas History taught us all those years ago, insisted on ‘lights out’ at 9 p.m. On the other hand, he is said to have had a reputation for absolute ruthless savagery toward many of his captives. Roberts is possibly best known to us these days as ‘The Dread Pirate Roberts’ from the wonderful film adaptation of Morgenstern’s book, The Princess Bride. It is in this role that I have co-opted him (or rather his young protégé) as a protective and formidable escort for the poem’s unnamed hero and his Pleasure-of-my-life as they escape – running the Spanish sea-gauntlet and with the whole meddling British Navy hell-bent on preventing them – to the fabulous island of Ohua-Hai. This escape from the Atlantic sea-powers, now that I think of it, might have come to mind from Dunsany’s marvellous (early 1900s) gem A Story of Land and Sea, in which Captain Shard of the bad ship Desperate Lark retired from his romantic profession and, with five northern navies in pursuit, gave them the slip, firing a broadside which was heard, for the first and last time, at Lat. 23 N, Long. 4 E. along with ‘other things unknown to Admiralties’. (It would be edifying to plot out the ship’s position from the given latitude and longitude – or, I’ve just discovered that the whole story is immediately available on the Net by just typing in the story title or Captain Shard’s and his ship’s name). I have a feeling that a composite character including such personages as Shard and most certainly the well-dressed Roberts might have been used to create the now well-known, intriguing, lovable figure of Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.

The story behind the poem:

Originally, this poem along with its ‘essay’ of notes was intended as a sequel to the Song of the Shulamite Maid which has previously appeared inThe Igam-Ogam Mabinogion, with the focus shifted from the south Arabian states to their offshoot in Ethiopia – to include the Kebra Nagast / “The Glory of the Kings’ (the Ethiopian retelling and continuation of the Biblical tale of Solomon and Sheba), Gérard de Nerval’s nicely-constructed novella on the same, The Tale of the Queen of the Morning and Soliman the Prince of the Genii, branching out to my next-door neighbour’s capture (he was a Brit intelligence officer) by Eritrean insurrectionists, with, as we were neighbors in the then West Germany and thus thrown in for good measure, the London Welsh Male Voice Choir’s detention (my cousin Lyn Harry was the choir’s Musical Director) at Berlin’s infamous Checkpoint Charlie. Then there is Malabar, a focal point of South Arabian-Indian trade, which as we shall see enters the story further on. But there is no time for all that now, and I think I can probably find room for these things in connection with another poem. Best, I think, to get on with the more immediate inspiration for The Crossing.

Years ago, of an evening, I used to walk my little dog, Blackie, in the nearby grounds of Old Chiao Tung University. It was a good place to walk – plenty of green, open spaces, lots of shady old banyan trees, some quaint old meandering garden paths, egrets frequenting the pools there, and never too many people around, only a few walkers like myself enjoying the evening air. And among these regular walkers I met some interesting people with whom I shared some long, fascinating chats and made friendships, too. There was Peter the would-be Publisher (poor bloke, an aging bachelor émigré from Hong Kong down on his luck). I’ll skip him for now, but hope to relate his story some other time. The others I cannot leave out here; two couples, both husbands being, funnily enough, professors of Mathematics at the spanking new Chiao-Tung University on the other side of the city, but having accommodation for both faculty and students on this the old campus.

Alex and Irene were from Ukraine, and what names to go with it – Alexis and Irene … why, they could have been a Byzantine Emperor and Empress! Their very names, as soon as uttered, recalled to me the Kievan Rus and its long connection with Byzantium. I don’t know their surname; I probably still have Alex’ card  tucked away somewhere. Alex was sturdily built, and didn’t look at all what I’d call ‘Slavic/Russian; Irene was tall, blonde, and graceful; I think they must have been in their forties. They lived in Kiev, and as far as I could establish were Russian speakers. We talked about many things – the east-west language divide in Ukraine, the  lesser, dialectical north-south one in Wales – I gave them, I hope, a new perspective on Wales’ situation within the ‘Union’ and on the world stage. Taiwan’s position on the international stage, naturally, entered our discussions on politics. At one time I remember mentioning CNN’s dealing with a certain news item. ‘CNN?’ smiled Alex, ‘We are quite used to that kind of brainwashing at home’. We talked of much more – the French Revolution (a lot of the talk was on political history); Gilgamesh (at the time I was in the middle of my metrical rendition of the Epic [for this, see Bullskull and Lionheart in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion]) and, oh, all sorts which intervened. To my surprise, one morning I met up with Alex and a Russian colleague in a little alley very close to where I lived, and was immediately struck by the physical difference between the two so that I could scarce forbear a smile. Something Alex said must have led up to it – he might have remembered that I’d previously said that he didn’t really ‘look’ Russian – but I looked at his tall, gangly friend and said ‘Now you really look like a Russian’. He grinned at me and asked ‘So? What does a real Russian look like?’  I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that he had eyes like ****holes in the snow and a nose like a ski-slope, but remarked with something to the effect that his facial features were ‘really Russian’. (Nay, equitable reader, there is not an ounce of disrespect here; simply that from my own observations there is a fairly prominent ‘Russian’ physiognomy characterized by rather hollow eyes and a long, concave nose; current President Vlad Putin fits this description to a ’T’; others, I’ve noted, don’t come into this category at all). Alex and Irene later moved to new accommodation, outside the old campus but quite nearby – not in the new one on the other side of town; they frequently walked here in the Old University grounds, all the same. And then, when my 17-year-old Blackie died, I didn’t walk there any more, and lost track of that lovely couple. That was a good many years ago, well before the unnecessary tragedy of what is happening now in Ukraine was in the air, although even then there was thunder grumbling in the distance. I often wonder about the two, whether they returned to the Ukraine, or whether Alex continued to renew his University contract here in Taiwan or found a post in some other country. I think that both were happy to live and work here. I pray that if they returned to their home in Kiev, or wherever they are, they are safe today. 

It was the romance of the second couple which directly influenced and inspired this poem. Fairly late one evening – it was already dark – Blackie and I had just entered the Old University grounds through the small side pedestrian gate and walked down the metre or two of sloping concrete path to the area where faculty and students parked their bikes and scooters when I heard a loud voice in an accent that was unmistakable, and there in the darkness came across Michael O’Mahoney (pronounced ‘O-mah-ni’, just as one would call a native of the south Arabian country an Omani, and all the more reason for connecting this poem to the Song of the Shulamite Maid  🙂 ) and with him Lena, his wife, unpacking items from beneath their scooter seat. So I stopped by and said ‘That’s a fine Irish accent I hear!’ Surprised, he turned round, and we had five or six minutes chatting there before walking, the three of us, down the same long path between the banyans at the end of which we were to take our leave. Michael was hearty and garrulous, and Lena quiet. He was from a small village in Co.Tipperary, the name of which eludes me now (could it have been quiet Athroonagh, Dermot? There, under the great flanks of Slieve-na-mona?) I remember that one of the first things I asked him was whether he knew Kevin (Kevin Kavanagh was another Irishman, from Co.Meath, who was at the time on our faculty; he was married to a Filipina, lived not far away, and they had visited me at my apartment). Yes, he knew Kevin. In those ten or twelve minutes we were not able to discuss much, and at the time they were in a hurry, but although she said little, I could see that Lena was an Asian lady, and Michael told me that they took regular evening walks in the park and that we were sure to meet up again. And it was so; once I bumped into them under the lamplight in the company of Alex and Irene. One night, too, after we were caught in a sudden downfall of rain, Michael invited me up to their apartment, where I stayed for several hours – until close on midnight, as it happens – and it was then that I heard the story of their first meeting, and of Lena’s upbringing in, and love for, her island home.

Lena was from the island of Flores, in the Lesser Sunda Islands, and she and Michael had met in the city of Surabaya, Java. Michael had first visited Indonesia several years previously when he had spent a short while on one of the long string of islands off the west coast of Sumatra, where he had gone for the surfing. A few years later he had secured a teaching post at a school in Surabaya. (Interestingly, for me, before accepting our much preferred joint husband-and-wife position in Taiwan I had been shortlisted for a position at a school in Surabaya, and our very best friends when we and they first arrived in Taiwan, Netherlands couple Jules and Ireen Brederode, had just come from there!). But now for the setting of this romance: If we look at a map of Indonesia (take a look), we see to the south the great, long island masses of Sumatra and Java. These are the Greater Sunda Islands. After Java and starting with Bali are a string of smaller islands, and these are the Lesser Sundas, near the end of which, just above the larger island of Timor, we find Flores; after Flores, the Lesser Sundas peter out into the great expanse of ocean. Lena – that was not her proper name; the proper name, a native one, was a little longer, and ‘Lena’ was the diminutive which Michael always used – Lena was born on Flores, and spent her early years there, until she was eight or nine years old. Then her father, the owner of a successful grocery business, decided to up and move to Java’s thriving, sprawling port-metropolis of Surabaya, where he established an even more successful supermarket. It was in an aisle of her father’s supermarket, in which she worked, that Michael first met her (clothed in her saleslady’s / manageress’ uniform, I hasten to add, and not in the spangling, dangling, bangles, bells and beads of the poem). They took up home together, and for a long time there they lived, in one of Surabaya’s skyscraper apartments, high above the thronged hive of the city. When they lived there she spoke always of her childhood on Flores, and after a year or so, Michael took her there.

Flores held a special interest for me, right out there at the end of the Sunda chain. These were the very waters, just east of the island, where Juan Sebastian El Cano, Ferdinand Magellan’s Basque navigator, had limped through in 1522 with the Victoria, the sole remaining ship of the fleet of five and a crew of almost 300 which had originally set out from Spain three years previously. Just imagine, a single, not very seaworthy ship with a crew of just 18, a sorry remnant of the original expedition … but laden with the precious spices taken aboard from the Spice Islands mentioned in the Glossary above, and eventually, miraculously, making it all the way back to Spain. Magellan himself, the Captain-General, was not among them, having been killed in his assault on the natives of the island of Mactan in the Philippines. His own, silly, vainglorious fault, but typical of all western colonizers then and since with superior armaments and inflated egos whose way was perceived to be the only way and to whom all, inferior, others were expected to submit. Magellan’s behaviour in Cebu, the large island next to Mactan, was to make a forceful, one-sided friendship with its ruler, insist that the ruler and all his people became Christians – those who refused would be killed – burn down a village whose inhabitants did not wish to obey, make the rulers and whole population swear obedience to the King of Spain, and launch the foolhardy attack on the neighboring island of Mactan whose people were reluctant to agree to his demands. Among the survivors aboard the Victoria was Antonio Pigafetta, a young Italian volunteer who kept up a day-to-day record of events of what was to be the first circumnavigation of the world. His exceptionally detailed account of this remarkable voyage is well worth reading. (My copy of Pigafetta’s Primo viaggio interno al globo terraqueo is the 1969 Yale University unabridged English translation/edition of R.A. Skelton taken from the French manuscript version, and available at a very reasonable price from Dover Publications).

It was in these very waters, too, that 267 years later another sorry vessel, also with a crew of 18 survivors, limped its way. This was the launch of the now famous HMS Bounty, under the command of its captain (well, with him that makes 19), Lieutenant William Bligh, set adrift on the vast expanse of the Pacific by the mutineers. On June 12, 1789 in the dark of 3 o’clock in the morning, after an incredible voyage of 3,618 nautical miles the Bounty’s launch made landfall at Timor, the large island just to the south-east of Flores. This open-boat voyage over thousands of miles of virtually uncharted waters during which captain and crew suffered severe privation was a tremendous feat of navigation which has its rightful place in the annals of naval history. At the Dutch fort and settlement of Coupang in Timor they received welcome and succour; within a month or so Bligh had purchased (under government bonds and agreement with the Dutch authorities) a schooner which he named HMS Resource, and  on August 20 left on the long journey home. This is what Bligh wrote at the time:

‘From Coupang, we steered NW by W, having a moderate breeze at SE with fair weather.
Saturday the 22nd. At daylight, we saw the island Flores to the northward… Our distance from the coast of Flores was about 10 leagues; and two high mountains bore N 1/2 E and NNW. These two mountains resemble each other in shape, and the westernmost is a volcano. The interior parts of Flores are mountainous and woody: but near the sea-coast is a fine open country… We steered along the south side of Flores, mostly with light winds and hazy weather, so that we did not constantly keep sight of the coast.
On the 12th [i.e., September], in the evening, anchored in Sourabya road… Surabya is one of the most pleasant places I ever saw. It is situated on the banks of a river, and is a mile and a half distant from the sea-shore… ‘

So ends William Bligh’s sojourn in Lena’s home waters, and he and his momentous future need occupy us no more. Neither are we concerned with the ensuing drama of the Bounty mutineers, an epic tale in itselfsave for one episode, which touches in a surprising way on our story’s anchorage in Taiwan:

Of the 16 mutineers who remained on Tahiti (‘Otaheite’ in the contemporary narratives) – 9, with their Tahitian women partners had departed with Fletcher Christian on the Bounty to settle finally on the uncharted Pitcairn Island – a remaining 14, amidst deteriorating relationships with some of the natives and fearful of an Admiralty expedition which might be forthcoming to apprehend them, eventually decided to construct a seaworthy vessel and escape to Dutch-held Batavia (now Djakarta) in the East Indies, whence they hoped to join one of the Europe-bound fleets. A number of these men had played no active part in the mutiny or had been forced to remain on board the Bounty, and were conscious of their innocence. They were able to construct a small schooner – which they named the Resolution after Captain Cook’s ship and by July 6, 1790, were ready to depart but that their native allies (opposed to others who were on less friendly terms) wishing to still secure the protection of the sailors’ armaments, prevented their departure by denying them the material for the construction of sails. And on March 23,1791, the feared Admiralty expedition – the British frigate HMS Pandora under the command of Captan Edward Edwards – arrived. The inhumane treatment of the 14 by Edwards and the fearful, fateful return voyage of the Pandora, though, is a saga which has no further bearing upon this present tale. What is relevant is that the mutineers’ small schooner was commissioned by Edwards as a tender (a vessel to attend a larger ship for communication/transportation). Now she and her crew became lost and adrift in a gale, but reached Samarang in Java, where Edwards later found her, and she was sent as a present to the Governor of Timor. A remarkably sound and swift little vessel, she was afterward used in the sea-otter trade between China and Hawaii. While at Canton, she was purchased by a Captain Broughton whose ship, the Providence, was engaged in a survey of the China coast – and this is where the story comes home! For on May 17, 1797, the Providence was wrecked just to the east of Formosa (Taiwan); Broughton transferred his crew to the schooner, and this sturdy little craft built by the men of the Bounty became the means of saving their lives. The Providence went down when she struck a reef at Miyako-jima, one of the Ryukyu Islands (formerly the Kingdom of Ryukyu which in 1878 became tributary to Japan and later part of Japan proper; I have two or three coins minted in the kingdom). The Ryukyu chain stretches from its largest island of Okinawa in the north to small islands and islets very close to Taiwan (indeed, one or two of which are still claimed by Taiwan and there have in recent years been confrontations at sea with Japanese vessels). The population of the archipelago still retain their native language, and are, from the Okinawans down, physically distinctive from the Japanese. The southernmost grouping of the Ryukyus are the Yaeyamas, the most far-flung outpost of all Japan, and here, just to the south-west of Miyako-jima where the crew of the Providence escaped in the schooner built by the men of the Bounty, lies the island of Ishigaki (Ishigaki-jima; jima = ‘island’; cf ‘Iwo-jima’, the WWII battleground  is probably the most well-known use of the suffix) no distance at all from Taiwan and a favourite, easy-to-get-to holiday spot for my family.

During the few hours I spent with Michael and Lena that night it rained, Lena opened up (as I’ve said, she was of a quiet disposition) and spoke a good deal of her early life on Flores. How they had no umbrellas, and how she walked to the little school, when it rained, holding a banana leaf over her head, and how there was a channel of split bamboo which carried clear mountain water into a pool where she would bathe (this is in the poem). And the jungly mountains and the beaches, of course. She didn’t mention animals (brushing casually on birds, butterflies and flowers, yes), but the caramel cat and the mischievous monkeys I had to make up, as a few other things. The gamelan was played there, yes – I’d mentioned that I had some gamelan music beforehand. She was of very slight build, most petite, and looked, to me, more like a high-school girl than an adult. At her neck she wore a silver cross, so I imagine she was a Christian. But when she went back to Flores with Michael, she was disappointed, as so much had changed, and it was no longer the place she had held for so long in her mind. When Michael’s Taiwan tenure was over, they planned to go to Ireland for some years, and hoped to have a baby there. I don’t know whether they ever did, as when I stopped walking there, as with Alex and Irene, I lost contact with them. It was Michael who introduced me to The Irish band The Chieftains. I’d heard of them several years before, but in those days had gone for a long time without listening to any popular music. He virtually effervesced over their song Coast of Malabar, which both of them loved, and recited some of the words to me. It sounded the sort of tihng I’d enjoy – and previously my brother-in-law, Dai Harries, had spoken of The Chieftains along with his favourite Irish band,The Fureys. Anyway, shortly after, thinking of them and of those few lines from the song I came up with a short poem about this Irishman and his tropical island bride:

From Erin’s mist-clad, windswept shores
from ferned and heathered hill,
from lonely cairn and holy well
and rushing mountain rill

to Flores’ warm-washed, palm-leaved bays:
In lush luxuriant green
– yet far from the emerald of his isle –
he found his dark-eyed queen.

Now in giving Co.Tipperary a coastline I was only doing what Shakespeare did when he gave Bohemia one, and was thinking, furthermore, of the island of Eire and linking it with the island of Flores; and the poem’s title was, anyway, Islands. Again, I don’t know to what degree holy wells feature in Irish history, but in Wales we’ve always been hot on them. Oh, well … Next time I was out for a walk I took a copy of the poem with me (handwritten, in those days of old), and when we met up read it out to them; they loved it – so they said – but no, really, I gave them the poem, which I’m sure, knowing them, they’ll still have. Next thing was to rush out and buy a CD of Coast of Malabar. When I got home and played it and listened to it sung so beautifully and read the lyrics several times over I was captured, and I’m sure that this was the impetus for, eventually, deciding to compose The Crossing. The lyrics are wonderful. Here are two stanzas, close to the end:

“Come to me,” I hear her calling
cross the ocean, wild and far
“Come to me again and love me
On the coast of Malabar

And my thoughts keep ever turning
To that far-off distant shore
And the dark-eyed girl who loved me
But I’ll see her never more”

The really strange thing was that neither Michael nor Lena had the remotest idea of where Malabar was, and I had to enlighten them. They never got to know of The Crossing, either, and so never knew that in that poem I had played around with their destinies, shifting their meeting to a northern hemisphere setitng, deciding that their romance would be the briefest, with not even a single word spoken… well, just as the song makes it brief, I suppose, albeit a little less abruptly. Why did I do this?  Well, The Crossing was written a long time later, and at the time, I had formed the idea of a Dialogues without Words series. Another reason was that I wanted it to fit in also with my series Manifestations of the Muse. The two are fairly related, and sometimes it’s difficult to know in which to place a poem; with some, it feels that a poem could well fit in both. The love in The Crossing could not be allowed to flower, as The Muse, The Goddess, is an unreachable ideal, as is alluded to in a number of other already posted poems. Maifestations of the Muse 1 and 3 (Ceridwen’s Candle and Island of Lesbos have already appeared, but 2, Bella Domna, requires a lot more thought and work, and has been postponed: it’s complicated, dealing as it must with all the currents and influences involved in the long making and shaping of the female apotheosis in poetic beauty … But that’s straying, and this is not the place to touch upon it.

So let’s finish on a less serious note, and return to people-you-know. Mikhail and I-forget-her-name were another Russian couple who for about six months occupied an apartment on the 4th floor here. Mikhail was yet another professor of Mathematics. Now he didn’t look Russian at all. He was shortish, slightly built and quite swarthy, with dark curly hair. She was the complete opposite, being bigger than him by far, bulbous as the outside casing of a matryoshka doll and as good-looking as Nikita Krushchev. Yes, she was the very image of the Russian woman we were presented with during the Cold War, you know the kind of thing I mean – a large, indeterminate bodily outline, a headscarf worn turban-like tied with a two-horned knot at the front, a pair of overalls with a spanner sticking out of the top pocket – a stoker in the boiler-room of the Kursk. Nothing like the WWII cuties in their lustful forage caps. No Sir, during the Cold War there was no cheesecake to be found in Russia, nyet, no sir, no indeedy, not no-how. The couple’s 19-year-old son came to stay with them for a couple of weeks, during which I invited them up. He started snooping around my library, which I hate (well, actually, he wasn’t snooping; he was a nice young fellow, and I had invited him to take a look. I only say ‘snooping’ because if you’re writing something, you have to make it a bit interesting; it’s like the media judiciously lying to everybody; and having arrived beyond middle-life I’m already past the age, anyway, for really athletic fibbing. But seriously, I’m always unnerved when people visit me here and see phalanxes of shelves heavy with books. To deter happy wanderers I have a big notice on my front door to which I invite attention and which says:

Apologies, dear friend, before
you put a foot inside the door.
My many books are here for tending –
and not a single one for lending.

I learned my lesson in October, 1962 when a ‘friend’ borrowed our copy of John Wyndham’s popular futuristic novel The Kraken Wakes (we were into things like ‘triffids’ back then). The book was never returned (I haven’t forgotten, wherever you are) and I have never ever loaned out a single one since, except to a member of my immediate family. It’s a certain breed that asks to ‘borrow’ books. I’ve even learned, with horror, of soulless beings who ‘borrow’ books and go on to lend them out to third parties. It’s quite in order to offer a loan of a book to a trusted friend, of course, provided it’s known that the friend is also a fellow book-lover (but all the same, insist that, before making away with the book, that friend leaves with you his/her passport and one shoe … and as an afterthought, it might well be prudent to have a prepared affidavit at hand, worded most cunningly by a notary-public, for which the friend-borrower must be a signatory. No need to go further than this, though; forget a prescribed number of witnesses and counter-signatories, as this may suggest to the friend-borrower that your trust in him/her is lacking. Although, in these days of the cam-phone it would be just as well and easy enough to photograph the transaction). Oh, no, I’m quite straight about it, so when Mikhail’s son, stopping at a shelf, said that he’d always meant to read the Heimskringla and ventured even further by asking if he could borrow the one which snuggled contentedly amongst its sister volumes, I was forced to give my stock answer, which is: ‘I’m sorry – I never lend books out. But I can tell you where you can buy a copy’. This is simple, straightforward, and always works. No, when it comes to my books I am neither a dupe nor a dope. Oh, yes, beloved bibliophiles, beware the beastly breed of book-borrowers.

To wind up, we cannot really leave the poem without tribute to the one responsible for its very coming into being, and without whom I would never have met Michael and Lena; I speak of my good, long-time pal, Blackie. Now Blackie was of his race the most exceptionally talented, whose abilities amounted to genius, and when I say ‘genius’ I don’t mean merely the kind of intellectual equilibrium with the universe that we find in a Galileo or a Newton, but also the superlatively acute, instantaneous vision of a Shane Williams or a Gareth Bale. Indeed, I cannot emphasize how intelligent Blackie was; and when I say intelligent, I don’t mean the lowly empirical intelligence with which we humans are accustomed to credit our canine cousins when we place three bowls in front of them, the first containing salt, the second sugar, and the third some tasty meat, and – lo and behold! – the dog selects the third. No, I mean something quite different; I mean unique, enormous intelligence. Blackie, for instance, was an accomplished mathematician. This I was proud to demonstrate to all three of those professors of Mathematics mentioned above. In their presence I would say to my pal, ‘Blackie: what is the solution to 9-5+4?’ And Blackie would say nothing. I would test him with even more complicated formulae of the same type, such as 28+2-9+6+15, and Blackie would instantly respond, each and every time, with absolutely the correct answer. The professors were, of course, suitably impressed,  and their wistful smiles, proof of their expert understanding, were a pleasure to behold. Further, Blackie was a notable Latin scholar. It’s true. At a very early age, during his puppyhood, he had simply devoured both Horace’s Odes and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He tried to do this without my knowledge, naturally, but one day I caught him at it. He had, quite on his own initiative, plucked the volumes from the lower shelves. Clever boy; there they were, my copies of the Latin poets, lying on the study floor, and obviously having been treated with great attentiveness … To astonish people, I would say to him, in front of an audience I knew to be highly appreciative of the Classics, ‘Blackie: ‘Hic, Haec, Hoc’ or ‘Is, Ea, Id’ – continue …’ : and Blackie would instantly decline. At that time, unfortunately, we had no Latinist here, as Monseigneur Fahy had passed away some time previously (Monseigneur Fahy was an Irish-American who had been nominated to a bishopric in mainland China, but before he was able to take up his duties as bishop, Mao Tse-tung had beaten him to it, and he was obliged to make his way to Formosa [see Requiem for a Jesuit in ‘The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion’ for these times]. His funeral was an entirely splendid occasion; there were trumpeters there wearing tall, plumed bi-corn hats just like Napoleon’s marshals. The Hsinchu cathedral was packed to capacity; at the back we were sardines, and still more overflowed into the plaza. I do remember, though, that the little scowling Spanish brother who was sexton at the Catholic section of the cemetery – later I would meet him on my walks there with Blackie and discover that despite his ever-stern visage he was, when you got to know him, quite aimable and loquacious – pushed his way in front of me, partly obscuring my view; I said nothing at the time, nor during our subsequent chats – but I don’t forget these things, and if I ever see the bloke again … :/ 🙂 ). The Monseigneur, I know, would have been highly pleased with Blackie’s learning, which, I would go so far as to say, quite surpassed his own, and later, enjoying as we did a most amicable working relationship with the Father Superior of the Diocese it was on my mind that with his Latin and all I might secure for my pal an appointment in the Church. But Blackie had other skills too and was impatient for some real action. He was, for example, fast. Oh, boy, was he fast! How that lad could run, swerving and side-stepping with marvellous dexterity around every conceivable obstacle in his path. It was for this reason that, although a promising career as a prominent ecclesiastic or Latin or mathematics professor beckoned him, we decided on another course, and within a short while my Fidus Achates, being all black and astonishingly, incredibly fast and agile, was snapped up by the New Zealand national XV. (I must say, here, that I had some misgivings about offering my boy to the second-best rugby team in the world, as it might go to their heads, and they might with reinvigorated buoyancy fancy their chances against us, remembering particularly what happened in Llanelli in 1972; but there, the lad was all black and raring for action. And indeed, all was going well until, at the very time he was preparing for his international debut, some interfering, jealous scoundrel (English, I’ve always suspected) surreptitiously decided to rummage through the books, and discovered deeply buried there some obscure rule which stated that no-one with more than two legs was allowed as player on a rugby pitch :/ . Eventually, and to the chagrin and disappointment of rugby followers worldwide – and not only that but around the entire globe – my fleet star’s place on the wing was reluctantly given to Joe Rokokoko.  Poor Blackie.

Now that I think of it, I remember, at one time, not long before his transfer of intellectual abilities to the physical, he became remarkably quiet. Pensive, thoughtful, he was, and as this lasted  for some little while it caused me some worry. This was not too long after his perusal of Horace and Ovid, and I should mention here that following that occasion I found that both Claudian and Pacatus had been pulled out of their places on the bottom shelf and well perused; indeed, Pacatus seemed to have been handled voraciously. This lad’s appetite for the Latin poets was insatiable … Then, like a flash of lightning, it dawned on me – he was working on a book! The little rascal! And he had kept quiet about it all the time! I remembered that he had put his paws up on my desk a couple of times, panting excitedly, thrusting his snout into my papers at the time I was absorbed in Claudian, and suspect, in addition, that he must have heard me talking on the phone to a friend about my opinion of Pacatus (yes, you, Pacatus, you big Theodosius-creep. It’s me, Lewis. Did you think I’d forgotten? Denigrate Magnus Maximus, would you? Well, by Phileironeia Coprocephalos, we’ll discuss this in due course, and we’ll see about that … ! ) [ for this, see In Praise of Ale in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion] ). But I was excited! Was it to be two volumes to astound the academic world, then? The second a specialist study on Late Panegyrics? And all the while – by Vociferus Barcatus! – he had remained totally silent, the crafty devil! Well, I suppose that’s how it must be with all the greats – there they are, quietly working out their majestic themes, all to themselves, all unbeknown to the lesser among us. Then, abruptly, he had aroused himself out of his poetico-mental studies, become all of a sudden alive, and had changed his mind and started racing around the fields at top speed after the rugby ball I had booted ahead of him, thereby launching himself straight into a new regimen of training of an entirely different kind. What a dog. World rugby sensation was nice; I was a bit disappointed about the books, though.

I did compose a poem about this wonderful flat-mate of mine, a long one, too, well over 100 lines, and very funny. Unfortunately this is the only poem that I have ever lost. The original manuscript was stolen one night with a file of other documents when my car was broken into. Luckily, I had shown a photocopy to family members and this photocopy I understand to be still lurking, somewhere, among assorted papers, although several searches have been made and it has not yet been found. But I’ve been assured that it has not been mistakenly thrown away and hope that one day it may be rediscovered and I’ll be able to post it here on ‘The Ig-Og’. Wish me luck.

Graduation Day, Hsinchu International School

Roslin (2) : Thoughts in the Chill Hours

Saint-Sulpice Strikes Three

A sudden fit of coughing
urged me out of sleep.
I tried my best to stem the thing
for fear you would wake.

Oh – how surely the sleeping mind,
in this lonely, captive hour,
and memory, and tricks of time,
conspire to bring you near …

I sigh, and try to grasp, again,
that you’re no longer here.

Saint-Sulpice Strikes Seven

You came to me again last night.
I saw you as you were;
your corn-gold hair that hadn’t changed
in all the passing years.
But when I spoke, as I dearly wished,
and would touch your lovely face – the vision broke,
and I was left in darkness and alone;
but seeking yet … with old regrets
that wouldn’t let me go.

Sounds of Night

There is a scratch-scritch-scratching
in the skirting-board at night.
Downstairs, a chair creaks of its own accord.
My midnight spider tap-tip-taps across
a loosened paper patch  –
six thicknesses that cling and sag
on this old wall …  Then comes
the silent age of night before rebirth.
Another dawn.

Something has scratched incessantly inside me,
gnawing at my soul, for long, long years.
My spirit creaks, contracting like
the old wood of my chairs.
If she would come tap-tapping at
my heart’s scarred wall
from all those distant plains of time gone by,
where memories are hinged,
some precious, some so cursed,
but each one living as it was, still, in my mind –
I would that very instant let her in,
and joyfully be hers.

From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’

For context, see Roslin in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion. The three poems above are intended to represent, as imaginative contemplation and in imitation of the found letter’s style, something of Bertran’s disquieting night-time visitations over the years of long separation.

The Saint-Sulpice mentioned is the great cathedral church of that name in Paris. I chose it simply on a personal whim, as I’ve always had a strong interest in the cathedral itself and in its namesake, St. Sulpice Severus, the first biographer of St. Martin of Tours, who got on so nicely with Magnus Maximus during that Emperor’s rule in the Late Roman West. In the 18th century the cathedral had a dangerously-constructed and therefore short-lived bell-tower, but never a clock. So the ‘Saint-Sulpice Strikes… ‘ of the poems is a continuation of this exercise in artistic licence. I suppose the ‘striking’ to be of a clock, anyway, which fits Bertran’s interrupted sleep very well; but largely on my mind were bells, too, and here I was influenced by Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1891 novel of the decadence, Là-Bas. His story is set contemporaneously, in the late 19th century, and there in the great spaces of the cathedral of Saint-Sulpice he has a fictitious bell-tower, and one Louis Carhaix, an old bell-ringer who loves his bells just as much as Quasimodo ever did. Huysmans’ description of the cold, eerie, and vertiginous spaces within the tower and the tremendous reverberation of the bells is superbly atmospheric. It may be seen, then, that I have domiciled Bertran a few miles to the south-east of Pontoise, where the letter to his Roslin was found.

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!