Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Pure Peace

Cadair Idris, Wales (photo by Steve Rabone)
Few people know of the soldier Ellis Evans; he is better known by his Welsh bardic name, Hedd Wyn. The phrase can be translated to mean white, pure or blessed peace, and it was inspired by the landscape of Evans’ home, the misty valleys of Meirionnydd.

Pilckem Ridge © IWM (Q 5730) 
In early 1917 following the introduction of mandatory military conscription, Ellis Evans reluctantly joined the British army. He left the family farm and his shepherding duties to volunteer in place of a younger brother (he was the oldest of eleven children). Just months after he entered the infantry, his unit - the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers - was sent to the Western Front to join what became known as the Battle of Passchendale. 

Ellis Evans was killed on 31 July 1917* at Pilckem Ridge; on 6 September, 1917, Hedd Wyn was announced as the winner of the Welsh National Eisteddfod’s prestigious poetry chair. When presenters learned that the poet had been killed in Flanders just five weeks earlier, they draped the chair in black.  Since then, the honour has been referred to as The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair.        

Here is Hedd Wyn’s poem “War”:  

Rhyfel (in original Welsh)                                     War (translated by Gillian Clarke)

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O'i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A'i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae'r hen delynau genid gynt,
Ynghrog ar gangau'r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A'u gwaed yn gymysg efo'r glaw
Bitter to live in times like these.
While God declines beyond the seas;
Instead, man, king or peasantry,
Raises his gross authority.

When he thinks God has gone away
Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death's roar.
It shadows the hovels of the poor.

Like the old songs they left behind,
We hung our harps in the willows again.
Ballads of boys blow on the wind,
Their blood is mingled with the rain.

The poem can be heard here, read in Welsh by A.Z. Foreman.                                              

"Independence calls for our bravest men"
Hauntingly, the poem weaves together nature, faith, and war in a lament not only for the dead, but for all who live in a time of war.  In this time of bitterness and woe, God “declines beyond the seas,” or as AZ Foreman’s translation suggests “God is setting like the sun.” And believing that God is irrelevant, absent, or powerless, humans rush to usurp His authority and impose their violent will upon the world. The vision resembles that expressed by W.B. Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”: chaos reigns, “the centre cannot hold,” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”  In Louis Flint Ceci’s translation of the first stanza of Hedd Wynn’s poem, “all authority's absurd /When God himself fades from the scene.”

In a world gone wrong, the burdens of death and suffering fall disproportionately upon the poor, and song itself has been silenced. The Biblical allusion to Psalms 137: 1-4 underpins the lament, and the poem resonates with ancient grief:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song, and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How shall we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land? (KJV)

As during the Israelites’ exile to Babylon, men have been carried away captive and wasted by war. How can a poet’s voice sing in a strange land? Ellis Evans, like others who had been ordered to France, despairs at having left behind the traditional guiding melodies of nature and of faith. In all too short a time, he, too, will hang his silent harp on the willows. The wind sighs with dirges of the dead, and the ballads of boys slain “blow on the wind” as their blood falls like rain. 

During his brief time in France, Hedd Wyn wrote home, “Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn't it?” He had arrived in France in June of 1917 -- he was dead by the end of the next month. Simon Jones, a member of his company who survived, recalled in a 1975 interview,

We started over Canal Bank at Ypres, and he was killed half way across Pilckem. I've heard many say that they were with Hedd Wyn and this and that, well I was with him... I saw him fall and I can say that it was a nosecap shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that... He was going in front of me, and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt... He was dying, of course... There were stretcher bearers coming up behind us, you see. There was nothing – well, you'd be breaking the rules if you went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack.

From the time he was young, Hedd Wyn had written poetry and dreamed of being awarded the National Eisteddfod chair. An anthology of his poetry, Cerddi'r Bugail (The Shepherd's Poems), was published posthumously in 1918, and the words Y Prifardd Hedd Wyn (The Chief Bard, Hedd Wyn) were added to his grave’s headstone.

Resistant to the war, Hedd Wyn most likely would not have wanted to be known as a war poet. His poetry can be found, however, in the cemeteries of the First World War in other men’s epitaphs. Lines from his poem Nid A'n Ango (Not forgotten)“Ei aberth nid a heibio / Ei wyneb annwyl nid a'n ango” (His sacrifice will not be passed over / His dear face will not be forgotten)  appear on at least six graves in Belgium and France, and a line from his poem Beddargraff Milwr o Drawsfynydd (Epitaph for a Soldier from Trawsfynydd) appears on a grave at Erquinghem: Gedy ar ol, oes wen, fer, dlos, anfarwol” (He leaves behind a blessed, short, beautiful, immortal life).*

Ellis Evans (Hedd Wyn) 
* Along with 31,000 Allied soldiers, the Irish poet of the blackbirds, Francis Ledwidge, was also killed that day and he, too, is buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery. Ledwidge’s poem by the same title, “War,” can be read here.

**Thanks to the discussion on The Great War Forum for this information.

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