Hedd Wyn was born at Penlan, Trawsfynydd in 1887, the eldest of eleven children born to Evan and Mary Evans. Later in his childhood the family moved to his father’s old home of Yr Ysgwrn, a small hill farm a mile out of the village, and it was here that Hedd Wyn lived and worked for most of his life. He began writing poetry at an early age winning his first chair at Bala in 1907, followed by chairs at Pwllheli (1913), Llanuwchllyn (1913 and 1915) and Pontardawe (1915).
Being a conscientious objector, Hedd Wyn had not enlisted during the early years of the War. Conscription into the British Army began in 1916 but agricultural workers had partial protection from conscription as food production was an essential part of the war effort. However, where the authorities felt that a farm had more than enough labour, they would conscript those who were deemed surplus. Such was the fate of Hedd Wyn’s younger brother Robert, who was called up in early 1917. Not wanting his brother sent to the front, reluctantly Hedd Wyn volunteered.
“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.”
Following his death, Hedd Wyn's works were anthologised in a book compiled in his home town of Trawsfynydd, Cerddi'r Bugail. He has inspired a mountain of poetry and prose eulogising him and a 1992 Oscar nominated film about his life.
Writing on her excellent War Poetry blog, Behind their Lines, Connie Ruzich eloquently describes the poem’s key themes: “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”. The poem is also deeply political; in its second line the word teyrn, which is usually translated as ‘King’ or 'Lord', is actually more closely related to the word for tyrant, and as Ruzich puts it “...in a world gone wrong, the burdens of death and suffering fall disproportionately upon the poor, and song itself has been silenced”.
While translated poetry almost always loses some of its meaning and can also end up gaining meaning that doesn't exist in the original language, a good translation has been made by former National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke. Clarke's work delicately balances literal translation with poetic style and the result, which admittedly loses some of the original's power, is the best this Welsh speaker has read.
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
Translation by Gillian Clarke
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.