Archive for February 2012

‘Cofio’ gan Waldo Williams; ‘Remembering’   1 comment

Un funud fach cyn elo’r haul o’r wybren,

Un funud fwyn cyn delo’r hwyr i’w hynt,

I gofio am y pethau anghofiedig

Ar goll yn awr yn llwch yr amser gynt.

“One short minute before the sun goes from the sky,

One gentle minute before the night starts on its journey,

To remember the forgotten things

Lost now in the dust of times gone by.”

This is the beginning of the poem I learnt to recite for the 1976 Inter-College Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth when I was an undergraduate and Welsh learner at Bangor University. I got ill, lost my voice and never got to perform it in public, but it’s stayed crystal clear in my mind ever since, though I still don’t know what each and every word means, exactly. Neither did I know much about its author until I bought an anthology of Welsh language poetry, with English translations, in May of the following year. Born in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, whose wild and rugged coastline I walked round later that summer,  Waldo Williams (1904-1972) was an interesting personality, and someone I came increasingly to identify with, not just through the landscapes and seascapes which inspired much of his work, but also because he too taught small children, and was a committed pacifist and a Quaker, being imprisoned during the Korean War for refusing to pay income tax. Late in life he received the Arts Council prize for his one-volume collection of poems going back to the 1930’s, Dail Pren (‘Leaves of a Tree’). Published in 1956, they won him an enduring place in Welsh language literature.

His poems reflect both his responses to war and his experience of co-operation amongst the farmers of the Preseli Hills, which he took as the pattern of an ideal social order. These ‘traditionalist’ social ideals, including the Romantic ideal of universal brotherhood, seem in conflict with his ‘modernist’ poetic style. However, his nationalism is creative rather than defensive, revealing his belief in the power of imagination to overcome difficult present realities. This can be seen in his use of imagery and symbolism, giving an unusual force and freshness to his expression of ancient themes, as in Cofio. I well remember my teacher, herself from Dyfed, telling me to be more forceful in my rendition of the final verse and, in particular, the first stanza. ‘Hiraeth’, she told me, is not simply ‘longing’, but ‘heart-felt longing’, not an insipid childish ‘homesickness’, but a mature, adult emotion of  ‘deep yearning’, almost unfathomable, for, in this case, ‘the old forgotten things of the human family’:

Mynych ym mrig yr hwyr, a mi yn unig,

Daw hiraeth am eich ‘nabod chwi bob un,

A oes a’ch deil o hyd mewn Cof a Chalon,

Hen bethau anghofiedig teulu dyn?

“Often in the evening, when I am alone,

A longing comes to know you every one;

Is there anything that can keep you still in the Heart and Memory,

The old forgotten things of the human family?”

The limitations of translation in conveying the force of these words is always apparent to me when I repeat them in the original Welsh verse. It is as if the poet is grabbing each of his ghostly ancestors out of the sea mist and holding onto them with all his might. This is the conflict between Williams as modern man and the ancient bardic themes and traditions which he is confronting in order to make them come alive for a fresh audience.  The Welsh modernism of the post-war period is concerned with these themes of spiritual and national renewal, seeking to follow contemporary trends in European culture, at a time when rural ways of life were declining in Wales, together with the Welsh language. Williams greatest poem is widely judged to be ‘In Two Fields’, Mewn Dau Gae, which is based on a vision of brotherhood which he had whilst working on a neighbour’s farm as a boy. In this way, Welsh modernism took on a distinctive character through its association with religion and nationalism. Emotive words like hwyl (‘deep joy’) and hiraeth have deep spiritual significance, as does hyfrydol, which expresses more than the commonplace use of ‘wonderful’ in English. Significantly, indeed, it is the name of a famous Welsh hymn tune. To end on a lighter note, Williams also wrote a poem about the national flower-emblem of Wales, the daffodil, worn on St David‘s Day. According to Pliny the ‘Asphodel’ grew on the banks of the Acheron and the Elysian fields, delighting the spirits of the dead. This may account for the popularity of the flower on graves, but throughout Wales and England it has become the symbol of new life as Spring approaches, since it usually blooms on or before St David’s Day.  In Wales, they say that if you are the first to find a daffodil in bloom you will have more gold than silver for a year. It is these themes that Williams takes up in his poem, Daffodil:

“Lead on into the field, Lady of March,

Give a greeting, golden girl of cold March,

None but the little white lily will dare

Appear before you, none more pure dare grow.

I pray you, lead after you

The vast generation of the seasonal garden…

Lady of March, lead on into the field.”

The Bards of Wales   Leave a comment

In the period between the death of Llewelyn the Last, the first and last Welsh Prince of Wales, and the Norman Conquest of England, Wales had become prey to both Viking and Saxon incursions. The King of Mercia, Offa, had constructed a dyke, or ditch and bank, along the unofficial boundary between his Kingdom and the Welsh territories, which roughly marks much of the Welsh-English border to this day. After the successful conquest of the nascent English Kingdom by William ‘the Bastard’ of Normandy, his barons had grabbed land in Welsh territories by similar ruthless conquest. They then extended their control up the river valleys so that, by the beginning of the twelfth century, they controlled much of Wales, building castles as they went and mixing and marrying with the Welsh to establish themselves as Norman-Welsh overlords, speaking Norman-French and Welsh, but little or no English. They were, nevertheless, vassals of the Norman-English king.

The only Welsh who were relatively free from Norman rule lived in Gwynedd, the wild, mountainous area around ‘Eryri’ or Snowdonia. They were led by Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, who tried to become independent of the Norman-English king. Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, was determined to bring him to heel and bring the whole of Wales under his control. In 1282, Llewelyn was drawn out of his ‘eagle’s lair’, trapped by Edward’s knights at Cilmeri, and killed. Edward immediately began the task of building a circle of impregnable castles around the north and in 1284 annexed the rest of the west, imposing the Norman shire system on the newly-conquered lands. However, he left the Norman-Welsh lords in charge of their lands, including the ‘Marcher lords’ along the border, not wanting to risk a full-scale rebellion. The northern Welsh suffered further humiliation when, at a public ceremony from the ramparts of his newly-built fortress in Caernarfon, he presented his infant son (later Edward II) to them as ‘Prince of Wales’.

The nineteenth-century Hungarian poet, János Arany, used these incidents to write an allegorical poem called A Walesi Bárdok‘, (‘the Bards of Wales‘). In it, Edward arrives in Montgomery to survey his new territories, but fails to find a warm greeting among the lords. He demands a bard to praise his deeds at the banquet, but is only sung to in the following terms:

“the brave were killed, just as you willed,

or languish in your gaols;                                                                                                         

to hail your name or sing your fame,

you’ll find no bard in Wales”

After executing this bard, he sends out to find a bard who will sing to propose ‘the loyal toast’ on pain of being sent to a similar fate at the stake. All together, five hundred are burnt;

but none would sing to cheer the king,

the loyal toast to raise.

So Edward returns to London, only to find himself haunted by the singing of those he has martyred:

But over drums and piercing fifes, 

beyond the soldiers’ hails,

They swell the song, five hundred strong,

those martyred bards of Wales.

János Arany is, of course, writing for a Hungarian audience, following the brutal suppression by the Austrian Hapsburgs of the 1848-49 Uprising against their rule, in which many Hungarian ‘bards’ were involved and many were martyred. They are remembered on a national holiday in the middle of March. The message of the poem, that ‘you can’t stop us singing’ is a theme I shall be taking up in my next blog,on the Welsh exiles of the 1920s and 30s.

Prayer Book and Persecution, 1662.   Leave a comment


Listening to the Sunday morning service on BBC Radio 4, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, preaching on this the first Sunday in Lent, I was reminded of two great events in Church History which happened 350 years ago this year. The first was referred to in the introit sentence for Lent, taken from the Prayer Book published in 1662, ‘Rend not your garments, but your hearts’. I quoted this in last week’s blog about the Lent Events of last week, some outward signs of which are based on the Old Testament signs of penitence, ‘sackcloth and ashes’. The second, which I was reminded of by broadcasts and discussions throughout last week and again, by Dr Williams’ sermon from the King’s School in Canterbury this morning, referring to ‘God’s Liberty’, is known as ‘the Great Ejectment’ which followed ‘the Act of Uniformity‘ of 1662.

First, a little personal background is perhaps necessary in order to explain my spiritual motivations. I lived and worked in Canterbury until last year, worshipping in two very different Anglican churches and the United Reformed Church in Watling Street. I also attended Evensong at the Cathedral, and walked with my son on the Youth Pilgrimage twice on Easter Monday, a walk led by Rowan Williams along the River Stour into the city, where we sang joyful, vibrant songs accompanied by a rock band. The Pilgrimage started at Chartham, where I lived and worshipped, on opposite sides of the Village Green. Although a Nonconformist, a Baptist by believers’ baptism at the age of fourteen and a Quaker ‘by convincement’ in my twenties, I had, like Rowan Williams, found a home as a student in the disestablished Anglican church in Wales, training for teaching Religious Education at Trinity College, Carmarthen before taking up an appointment at a voluntary-controlled Church of England Secondary School in Lancashire. There I worshipped regularly at the local parish church, until I was told by the rector that if I wished to continue to take communion, I would need to be confirmed by the Bishop. Since I had already given my confession and been received into ‘the church universal’ ten years earlier, I saw no reason for this, and stopped attending. Instead, I found a very open, if small, meeting of Quakers in the town, and having attended Quaker meeting in my early student days in Bangor, again became a ‘refugee’ attender in Lancashire, then moving to Coventry, where I am still in membership, though unable to attend at present, being ‘in exile’ here in Hungary. So, when we went to live in Chartham as a family, we were delighted to be welcomed by the rector and congregation there, who had seen the last Nonconformist ’causes’ in the village close down, and made it clear that everyone living in the village, from whatever Christian ‘tradition’, was welcome to receive communion on equal terms. On this basis, I also became a member of the Parochial Church Council until the rector left and diocesan ‘authority’ was again restored.   From this background, you may begin to understand why I hold strong beliefs about religious liberties in general, the role of the state in this, and the rights of parents to have access to a broad and deep Religious Education for their children within the state-funded system which they support through taxation and, indeed, in the case of Nonconformity, helped to create.

I’ve always been interested in the History of Nonconformity, or ‘Dissent’, going back to the time of the Reformation and the ‘Gunpowder Plot‘. As a History teacher in my second appointment in Coventry, I researched the Catholic Rebellion in the Midlands which accompanied ‘the Plot’, which I discovered was really a plot by the Stuart state in Whitehall against the ‘recusant’ Midland gentry. I also joined the English Civil War re-enactors, ‘the Sealed Knot’ and began to play a ‘Quaker’ corporal in the New Model Army. It was then that I encountered the real chaplains in the Army, Henry Pinnell and Richard Baxter, both of whom had worked for a lasting peace with the King based on a tolerant, national church for all Protestant believers, which would no longer have the monarch as its Head. Charles refused this, and thereby lost his. I played the part of Pinnell in my regiment, much of the part being based on Baxter, about whom we know a lot more.

After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and state, Baxter, as a leading Puritan, continued to work for a broad settlement in the Church of England. However, the restored bishops refused to take the hand of friendship from those, they believed, who had turned them out of their ‘livings’.  They also sincerely believed that the people were being wrongly taught, and persuaded the new King to agree to ‘The Act of Uniformity’, to make everyone conform to a uniform way of worship. The Puritan ministers would need to promise to use the restored Prayer Book and obey their bishops, or they would be expelled from their parishes. The deadline for this was set as St Bartholemew’s Day, August 24th, 1662. Baxter was one among many ministers who could not promise this, not because he couldn’t use the Prayer Book, but because he believed that it was wrong for the state to force people to do anything against their conciences, and so could not accept the Act itself.  Being turned out of their churches also meant losing their homes so that, as Baxter wrote in the autumn of 1662, “hundreds of good ministers with their wives and children had neither home nor bread”. Worse was to follow. Many of the people loved their ministers and tried to help them, following them about, listening to their teaching in private homes and outdoors. A further law was made, this time against the people as well as the ministers, stopping such meetings and imprisoning those attending to prison. This was called ‘The Conventicle (or Meeting) Act’. Prisons soon became full of brave people who defied the Act, especially the Quakers.  Baxter admired them for their courage in the face of persecution, though disagreeing with many of their ideas. They met openly and didn’t resist arrest, continuing their meetings in prison.  Baxter also fell victim to these laws. He couldn’t return to Kidderminster and had to move home nine times in three years, being followed by spies wherever he went, who reported even his visits to the sick, in which he prayed with them. This, the magistrates claimed, was a ‘conventicle’ under the law.  “What a joy would it have been to them” he wrote, “to have found but such an occasion as praying with a dying woman to have laid me up in prison.” Another time he was preaching in the window of a house when he was shot at, but muskets and pistols were not very accurate weapons, so thankfully no-one was hurt by the ‘sniper’s bullet’.

In 1665 the Great Plague came to London. Of course, it was the duty of clergymen to stay with the dying and help the  bereaved families, but so many fled into the country that the silenced nonconformist ministers were needed too badly for anyone to stop them from ministering to the Plague victims. They said that “no obedience to any laws could justify them from neglecting men’s souls and bodies in such want and that it would be a poor excuse to say to God, ‘how I was forbidden by the law’ “.  Despite this, or perhaps because of the popularity they had gained because of it, another Act was passed against them, the Five Mile Act, forbidding them from coming within five miles of any important town or any place where they had once been ministers. Since help from ‘the Parish’ for the jobless could only be obtained from the area which was, or had been, their home, this meant that the nonconformist ministers would be starved out. Some emigrated, and those that stayed either hid in out-of-the-way villages, or lived secretly near their own homes, visiting their wives and children only at night.  Baxter shows how, even by this hard law, God was able bring good out of evil, because many ministers had little to lose by continuing to preach and teach openly rather than see their children starve. So congregations continued to grow and support them, and there were not enough jails to hold the numbers defying the  three Acts of Parliament.

One of those living in prison was John Bunyan, who had been an officer in Cromwell’s Army, and wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which became the second most popular book in England, and one of the most important works of literature in English, because of its influence on the development of the language. It was written during his seven years in Bedford Jail.  Baxter himself, and his family, escaped the Plague, though the churchyard at Acton, six miles from London, “was like a ploughed field with graves”.  The Great Fire of 1666, the next terrible event to strike the City. Everyone knows Pepys’ version of these events, and I’m using a simplified English reader on it in class at present, but Baxter noticed that “those who had money managed to get their carts and carriages and horses to carry away their possessions from the burning houses, but the poor lost almost all they had”.  The only possessions Baxter ever cared much about were his books, perhaps because he, like Bunyan, believed the pen to be ‘mightier than the sword’ or, to put it another way which I was also reminded of last week, ‘books are weapons’ (it’s a pity that those American soldiers who burnt copies of the Qu’uran were not educated enough to understand the symbolic force their act would have). Baxter noted in his diary the huge number of books destroyed in the fire:

“Almost all the booksellers in St Paul’s Churchyard brought their books  into vaults under St Paul’s where it was thought almost impossible that fire should come. But the Church itself being on fire, the exceeeding weight of stones falling down did break into the vault and let in the fire and they could not come near to save the books.”

Many othe libraries were burnt and six miles away at Acton Baxter noticed half-burnt pages blowing past his cottage door. Just as he had had to go to the battlefield at Edgehill to see the destruction for himself, so too with the Fire. Defying the Five Mile Act, on his way to the City he saw “the fields filled with heaps of goods and costly furniture” and at last caught sight of “all the buildings aflame” and “the air as far as could be beheld, so filled with the smoke that the sun shined through it with a colour like blood”.

Baxter thought these events should have stopped the religious quarrels and persecutions, but each side blamed the other for what had happened. The nonconformists, who were among the poor Londoners who suffered most, were one of the groups blamed for starting the fire, perhaps because their ministers had been forced, like Baxter, to leave the City’s churches, and people suspected it was an act of vengeance on their part. This shows how little such people understood the beliefs of the Dissenting congregations, however, who once more were allowed to open their meeting houses to those who needed comfort and shelter, or a place to meet,  having not only lost their houses and possessions but also their places of worship.

Baxter himself was careful not to be seen as setting himself up in competition with the established church, still hoping for a better settlement with it. He continued to preach to family and friends in Acton, and then to growing numbers from surrounding parishes, but he did not preach during church times and, since his house was close to the church, he took people to hear the Vicar after he had preached to them!  However, the Vicar eventually became jealous of Baxter and informed the King that Baxter was breaking the Conventicle Act.  He was visited by the magistrates, but refused to stop preaching and so was imprisoned, but Newgate was too full of Quakers already!  So instead, he was sent to Clerkenwell where he was allowed a room of his own, which his wife could share.  However, he knew that, on release, he would have to leave Acton, because of the Five Mile Act.

I’ll be writing more about his time in and out of prison later in the week. For now, I want to conclude with the points that I raised to begin with. The attempts of the state to impose uniformity in religion through the 1662 Prayer Book seem a very long way away from the tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-faith society we live in today. Yet our society did not emerge out of that one like a butterfly out of a chrysalis as if by magic. It required the courage, self-discipline and sacrifices of men and women like Richard Baxter,  John Bunyan and William Penn, whom I shall also be writing about later. Let me sign off, for now, with this paradox: ‘out of unity, comes diversity; out of diversity comes unity’.

Lent Events: Shrove Tuesday & Ash Wednesday   1 comment

‘Shrove Tuesday’ can’t be fixed as a date on the calendar because Easter Sunday is decided according to the Jewish Feast of the Passover and the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. This is determined by the full moon, so Easter may fall on any date between March 22nd and April 25th. So Lent, or Shrovetide, is variable to the same extent. The penitential season of Lent lasts forty days, not counting Sundays, its length connected to the days spent in the wilderness by Jesus in preparation for his ministry. The Anglo-Saxon word, ‘scrifan’ meant to impose a penance on oneself, and this gives us the verb ‘to shrive’ and the past tense of this yields the adjective ‘Shrove’ for the festival on the eve of Lent. The housewife used up all the meats that were not to be eaten during Lent on the Monday, and on the Tuesday the ‘larder’ had to be cleared of all fats and creams. Traditionally, these were put into pancakes, the eating of which was accompanied by all kinds of games and festivities, many of which survive as communal activities, including village football matches and tugs-of-war. In France, this is ‘Mardi-Gras’, Fat Tuesday; in Germany, ‘Fastendiensteg’; in Hungary, ‘last meat day’. In England, the festival is celebrated in Ashbourne in Derbyshire by a rather violent form of mass football between Uptown and Downtown, which lasts all day. Anyone can join in, and the shop-fronts in the High Streets are boarded up as it usually gets out of hand.

There are also various pancake races, involving the ‘tossing’ of the pancake. The race at Olney in Buckinghamshire is open to women aged eighteen and over who have lived in the village for at least three months. Each competitor wears an apron and bonnet to run from the market square to the church, about a quarter-mile (400 metres) with a pan holding a pancake which must be tossed three times. The winner is kissed by the verger and receives a prayer-book, which the runner-up also gets. The event goes back four centuries to a moment when a housewife, hearing the church bells telling her she was late for worship, rushed off still holding the pan she was cooking pancakes in.

The word ‘Lent’ derives from the same root as ‘length’, signifying the time of year when the days began to grow longer. My favourite ‘sentence’ for Lent is about the inner struggle for purity and light:

‘Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.’

After the fun of Shrove Tuesday, the solemn season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The medieval church had strict rules about fasting and penitence which have changed over time and generally become more relaxed, even for the Catholic priests. My father-in-law was an incense-bearer as a young boy in Hungary and was sent on an errand to the priest’s house during Lent. When he entered he found the priest eating meat, and after that he fell out of love with the church. This was long before Hungary became a Soviet-controlled country. The Hungarian word for Shrove Tuesday, ‘meat-leaving’ shows that at one time no meat could be eaten on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, so this priest was guilty of hypocrisy in the eyes of my father-in-law, who, as an impressionable young boy, expected him to be a better role-model. However, fish could be eaten, as it traditionally was on Fridays throughout the year, so the Fishmongers did a good trade, not just in Dublin’s fair city, but in every Catholic country. That’s why every monastery kept its fish-pond and in Britain, a sea-going nation, cod ‘n’ chips or haddock ‘n’ chips is still a traditional family Friday feast. Many school canteens in Britain still serve fish only on Friday lunch-times, including the International College I worked for last there. It proved very popular with the largely British staff and international students alike, especially since our Spanish chef was such an expert on preparing various fish dishes. However, these rules are no longer so commonly observed in the Anglican and Nonconformist communities, where the emphasis on reflection and meditation is more important than the outward signs, and Lent is seen as a time for a renewal of faith and self-examination in matters of caring for others and missed opportunities. As a Quaker friend wrote to me yesterday, what matters most in the current debate on the role of religion in national life in Britain, is that people of all beliefs, whether professing a faith, or calling themselves ‘humanist’, ‘secularist’ or ‘atheist’, should dig deeper than a ‘shallow materialism’ to examine their consciences.

The actual name for Ash Wednesday, which is the same in Hungarian, ‘Hamasvazószerda’, derives from an ancient custom in which a sinner made public penance by appearing before the congregation wearing only a sack cloth and covered with ashes. The Old Testament prophets were said to do this. The present-day service in the Catholic Church uses ashes from the burning of the palm crosses given out to the congregation the previous Palm Sunday. These ashes are placed in a bowl and, after a blessing and sprinkling with holy water, they are used by the priest to mark a cross with his thumb on the foreheads of those present. As he does this, he repeats the words from the burial service:

Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

If the EU regulations on fishing are the object of hatred by British fishermen today, the fasting regulations imposed by Parliament in 1562 were certainly advantagous for them. Lord Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister, persuaded it to pass a ‘politic ordinance on fish eating’ which made meat-eating on a fast day punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment. Puritans avoided fish diets on principle as a result, as a protest against the ‘superfluous feasting, or gormondizing, or paunch-cramming’ which went on at ‘festivals’. Perhaps this is where the doctrine of ‘everything in moderation’ comes from! In the end, the interests of both the fishermen and the ‘hard-pressed’ congregations were met by allowing a ‘let-up’ in the middle of Lent, through the institution of Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday. This is not to be confused with the American ‘Mother’s Day’ which is fixed in the USA as the second Sunday in May. More on this next week….

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