"Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn't it?"
Hedd Wyn, 2017
On this day 100 years ago, the Welsh poet Ellis Humphrey Evans, better known by his bardic name Hedd Wyn, was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele in World War I. He is known by few outside of Wales, but within the country and in particular among Welsh speakers, he is widely recognised. While Hedd Wyn’s death is no more tragic than any of the other 31,000 Allied soldiers who fell that day, or indeed the deaths of the thousands in the German lines, Hedd Wyn’s story and his work have become an important part of Wales’ wider cultural heritage.
It’s a cliché to describe Wales as a land of bards and the importance of poetry may be overemphasised in conversations on Welsh national identity. However, it is almost certainly given greater prestige as an art form than in other parts of the UK; central to this is the eisteddfod, a cultural tradition that is said to have begun in the 12th century court of The Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, but in the modern tradition goes back to the late 18th century. Hedd Wyn’s story is tied to the National Eisteddfod of 1917; an eisteddfod is a festival of literature, music and performance in which the top prize goes to the best poet, or bardd in Welsh. The prize is a chair, which at the many smaller town and community eisteddfodau is usually symbolic and given in the form of a trophy, but at the National Eisteddfod it is an ornately carved fully sized wooden chair.
After a brief training period at a camp near Liverpool, he was sent to Flanders as a private in the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers; he arrived at the front in early June. During that month he finished work on his entry to that year’s National Eisteddfod Chair, the subject for which was Yr Arwr (The Hero) and it was sent along with a collection of other poems back to Wales.
On July 31st Allied forces launched an offensive that would become known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Hedd Wyn was among the among the first to attack and the first to fall; he was killed at Pilckem Ridge, aged 30 years old. His death was witnessed by Private Simon Jones, a member of his company, who recalled it in 1975:
“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.”
In September the National Eisteddfod was held at Birkenhead. In the main pavilion the adjudicator announced that the winning poet with the nom-de-plume of ‘Fleur-de-lis’ fully deserved to win, but nobody came forward to claim the prize. The audience were informed that the winner was Private E. H. Evans - Hedd Wyn - and that he had been killed in action just six weeks earlier. Solemnly, the empty chair was covered with a black cloth. Hedd Wyn’s body is buried at the Artillery Wood Cemetery near Boezinge and the words Y Prifardd Hedd Wyn (The Chief Bard) were later added to his gravestone.
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.
While it was Hedd Wyn's poem Yr Arwr that won him the chair, his best known work is perhaps the much shorter but no less powerful Rhyfel, which simply means War.
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.
The blog was created by Dan Harris, who grew up in a small town in west Wales. The first LEGO scene is by Dan and the second by James Pegrum. We will be posting more blogs on the First World War over the coming year.
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