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.”