Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Sunday, 27 March 2011

True Poetry and Ecology: The White Goddess Revisited

The first time I came across mention of Brigit, goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft, was in Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess, which I happened upon in the library of the six-form college I went to. This book was to have a huge influence in shaping my subsequent life and my spine still tingles reading the sentence “My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry – ‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of ‘the uninprovable original, not a synthetic substitute’.”

Graves’ thesis was that ‘true poetry’ is that which is loyal to the Theme, namely the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year. This God fights with his rival, his twin or other self, for the love of the Three-fold Goddess, “their mother, bride and layer-out”. The God of the Waxing Year becomes the God of the Waning Year, is beaten by his rival/twin and dies but is reborn as his other self. This theme was borrowed from The Golden Bough by the Scottish anthropologist, James Frazer, and adapted by Graves to express his own personal mythology in which the Goddess is the Muse and the poet is the God of the Waxing Year. All true poetry expresses some part of this story (which Graves believed was a fundamental part of our psychic inheritance) or evokes the presence of the Goddess when “owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall, and a distant barking of dogs is heard; or when a peal of bells in frosty weather suddenly announces the birth of the New Year”.

In the Golden Bough this cycle represented the religious beliefs of fertility cults, in which the god mated with the earth goddess, died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring. Graves lived on the north-west coast of the island of Mallorca where life was still ruled by the old agricultural cycle and he commented that what he wrote would read “very perversely and irrelevantly” to people who were attuned to a more industrial way of life. He had an instinctive mistrust for the growth of industry in the West and its associated values:

“…we have come to be governed, in practice, by the unholy triumdivate of Pluto, god of wealth, Apollo, god of science, and Mercury, god of thieves. To make matters worse, dissension and jealousy rage openly between these three, with Mercury and Pluto black-guarding each other, while Apollo wields the atomic bomb as if it were a thunderbolt…”

According to Graves, the function of true poetry is the religious invocation of the Muse; its use is “the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites”. He saw this as having been once a warning to man that he must “keep in harmony with the living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house” but in his day (he was writing in 1960), the warning had been ignored so that the “prime emblems” of poetry were being dishonoured. Nowadays, he said, “serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill… the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman is reckoned as ‘auxiliary state personnel’. Money “will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-obsessed poet.”

In the last chapter of the book he talks about the suppressed desire of Western people for the return of the goddess and foretells ecological disaster if it is postponed, for the longer it is:

"… and therefore the more exhausted by man’s irreligious improvidence the natural resources of the soil and sea become, the less merciful will her five-fold mask be, and the narrower the scope of action that she grants to whichever demi-god she chooses to take as her temporary consort in godhead."

True poet that he is, he placates her with a poem, the last stanza of which warns:

At dawn you shall appear,
A gaunt, red-wattled crane,
She whom they know too well for fear,
Lunging your beak down like a spear
To fetch them home again.


To me the White Goddess is an extraordinary book, filled with power and inspiration. A lot of the scholarship has been shown to be flawed and Robert Graves’ intuitions and theories have given rise to some popular misconceptions which have become part of neo-pagan lore – such as the ogham tree calendar and the image of a triple moon-goddess, maiden, mother and crone, as a basic goddess underlying all European – and therefore Celtic - goddesses. It is not taken seriously by scholars and has become discredited now among many Celtic pagans, particularly Reconstructionists. To be fair to Graves, he himself said that he didn’t trust his historical intuitions any further than they could be accurately checked. (He appealed for feedback from Celtic scholars but was disappointed not to receive any.)

Robert Graves burial place in the churchyard in Deià (Click to see detail)

However it has been a hugely influential book, perhaps, as a single source, the most important for encouraging the return of the goddess and bringing the treasures of Welsh and Irish mythological and poetic sources to a generation hungry for their sacred insights and practices. The book was double-edged in propagating misconceptions about Celtic texts but at the same time encouraging many to learn more, promoting Celtic studies, and I would argue that its legacy is positive rather than negative in this respect. Alexei Kondratiev, rather to my surprise, agreed with me and I notice that in his book The Apple Branch, he concurs with Graves’ intuition that the thirteen lines of Irish Song of Amergin relates to the thirteen moons of the lunar year and the imagery of each line describes some attribute of the different moons.

So as well as giving credence and form to my perception of nature and the land as sacred, The White Goddess was the first book to introduce me to an ecological awareness as well as to Irish and Welsh mythology in general and Brigit in particular. The book also enhanced my perception of poetry as a magical language.

After six-form college I went on to university to read English and, having taken the poetry module, wrote a dissertation on ‘The White Goddess in the Poetry of Robert Graves'. I decided to hitch-hike to the island of Mallorca where he lived to visit him in the summer break before my final year and talk to him about it. He was away in London when I arrived but I eventually came across him at the post office and we went back to his study, talked about the dissertation and he showed me his latest poems – a wonderful encounter. I visited many times subsequently but that first meeting as the proverbial snotty-nosed undergraduate was, of course, the most precious.

I fell in love with the village of Deià where he lived: its turquoise-blue sea, mountains rosy in the evening light, the tinkling of bells as the sheep wandered among the olive groves on the hillside going down to the cove, the church perched on the hill at the top of the village which Robert believed was originally the site of a temple to Diana… it seemed like paradise to a girl raised on the flat lands of East Yorkshire, knowing only the great North Sea which was completely different in character to the Mediterranean, being cold and grey and inhospitable.

The hilltop church at Deià

I wasn’t the only person to be attracted to the village by Robert and The White Goddess – I remember in particular an American girl arriving on the rickety bus from Palma one afternoon. As she came down the steps of the rickety old bus, her small brown suitcase fell open and the contents spilled out onto the road – there among her jumbled clothes was the small Everyman copy of the Mabinogion, identical to the one I had at home. I returned to the village after finishing at university and lived there for a few years before going back to England to join my partner in London and have a child. I visited rarely and haven’t been back for over 20 years although I still sometimes dream about it. After a few years in London - not being a city girl - I moved to Wales, inspired again by The White Goddess, and have been here ever since.

Women and poetry

Graves’ Theme is, as I have said, a personal theme which is suited to a hetero-sexual male and leaves rather open to question the role of the woman poet. Woman is not a poet, he declared at one point, “she is either a Muse or she is nothing”! But then he seemed to relent and said that this didn’t mean a woman shouldn’t write poems but that she should write as a woman, “not as if she were an honorary man”. Although good advice this still meant, for him, writing as he thought a woman should be: “A woman who concerns herself with poetry should…either be a silent Muse… or she should be the Muse in a complete sense: she should be in turn Arianrhod, Blodeuedd and the Old Sow of Maenawr Penardd who eats her farrow…She should be the visible moon: impartial, loving, severe, wise”. He thought that domesticity was anathema to the poet and the Muse and that the White Goddess was always ‘the other woman’. As for motherhood: "...if a woman-poet can get a healthy child in exchange for the gift of poetry, why not?" So his view of the Goddess and the woman poet might be said to be rather prescriptive!
Naturally, for all his vision and insight, he couldn’t totally escape being a product of his time, his upbringing and his experiences. He was gracious enough to recognise that one’s relationship with the Goddess was none of his business and for me, what is important is his recognition that the marginalisation and exclusion of the feminine was a cause of great harm and danger to us and the ecosystem of which we are a part, his weaving together of mythology and poetry and his understanding of the magical nature of poetry:

“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than-coincidences, into a living entity – a poem that goes about on its own (for centuries after the author’s death, perhaps) affecting readers with its stored magic…the source of poetry’s creative power is not scientific intelligence, but inspiration…”

So I celebrate The White Goddess and think it deserves more credit than it gets these days. It is perhaps not the best book to read if you want an introduction to Celtic Studies or Celtic Reconstructionism but if you want to explore mythology, poetry and many ancient Irish and Welsh texts in the company of someone with an extensive knowledge of them, a formidable intelligence, poetic vision and iconoclastic ideas, then I recommend it thoroughly.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

March and Dewi Sant

from The Verses of the Months

The month of March, great is the pride of birds,
bitter is the cold wind over the end of the ploughed field;

Mis Mawrth, mawr rhyfic adar,
chwerw oerwynt ar ben talar;
Welsh, c 15th century

Dewi Sant

Mosaic in Westminster Abbey

March 1st, the day of his death, is the feast day of St David or Dewi Sant - the patron saint of Wales. Tradition states that his birth was foretold to his father, Sant, by an angel while he was out hunting one day. The angel prophesied that he would find a stag, a salmon and a hive of bees by the river Teifi. He was told to take these to Maucannus’ monastery where they would be kept for David. In the Latin lives, the interpretation of this is that they signify David’s power over ancient serpents, his wisdom and his abstinence. Linked with this is the story that Patrick wanted to settle in Glyn Rhosyn but was told by an angel that he must, in the words of a cywydd by Ieuan ap Rhydderch, “leave the land which was kept by holy God for blessed Dewi” (gadu’r tir a gadwyd/ O Dduw lân I Ddewi lwyd). Patrick departed in tears but was given the care of Ireland instead.

No-one is sure how David came to be patron saint of Wales but it is recorded in his Lives that he was chosen as the chief saint at the Synod of Brefi. This Synod was attended by the great and good, religious and secular, and it was decided that each of the clergy would preach in turn and the one who could be heard by everybody would become the chief and would be made archbishop. David didn’t attend at first, but after repeated messages and the threat of fasting, he went. None of the others had been able to be heard by the crowd, in spite of standing on a pile of garments. David merely stood upon a handkerchief (or perhaps a shroud) belonging to a young boy he had raised from the dead and the land rose under him, forming the hill in Llanddewi Brefi where the church now stands. He was renowned as a preacher and being raised up, everyone could hear him. A dove sat on his shoulder while he preached at the Synod and doves had taught him his books. Not surprisingly, the Dove is one of his symbols.

In the Armes Prydein or the Prophecy of Britain, an early 10th century Welsh poem from the Book of Taliesin, David is the only saint to be named. The poem relates how the Brythonic people allied themselves with the Scots, Irish and Dublin Vikings and, under the Welsh leaders Cadwallon and Cadwaladr, vanquished the Anglo-Saxons from Britain. The author is thought to have been a member of one of St David’s monasteries so this may be why David is given such prominence. Possibly this poem helped to place him in a leading position in Wales.

Leeks are another symbol of St David and have been associated with Wales since at least the time of Henry VIII. There is a tradition that David told the Welsh soldiers to wear a leek in their hats when they fought a battle against the Saxons and were victorious. Another tradition says that the Black Prince gave them to the Welsh soldiers to wear at the battle of Crécy. (I am sure that I have read an account, possibly in a herbal or medical text, that leeks worn in battle would make the warrior invisible or impervious to injury. As yet I’ve been unable to locate it but if I have remembered correctly, it might explain this use of them. I’ll keep searching.)

When he decides where to settle in Wales, David has an encounter with a prince called Boya which is somewhat reminiscent of Patrick’s confrontation with the druids at Tara in Ireland. It is said that David lit a fire and the smoke encircled the whole of the island, extending even to Ireland. Lighting a fire in this way was a recognised way of staking a claim to land. The Welsh laws call the right to dwell on inherited land dadannudd, the uncovering of the fire, and into comparatively recent times, someone who could build a house overnight, a tŷ unos, and light a fire in it making smoke rise out of the chimney by dawn, would have the right to the land. In Ireland too, the lighting of a fire on the land was a prerequisite to claiming ownership of it.

A new mosaic of St David, by Welsh artist Ifor Davies, at Westminster Cathedral was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI when he visited the UK in September. The stone at the bottom of the mosaic is from Llanddewi Brefi, the spot where the miracle of the rising of the land is supposed to have happened.

The Pope, who had been unable to visit Wales, blessed the mosaic with water from the holy well of St Non, David’s mother, and had this to say about St David:

Saint David was one of the greatest saints of the 6th century, that golden age of saints and missionaries in these isles, and he was thus a founder of the Christian culture which lies at the root of modern Europe. David's preaching was simple yet profound: his dying words to his monks were, 'Be joyful, keep the faith and do the little things'. It is the little things that reveal our love for the one who loved us first and that bind people into a community of faith, love and service. May Saint David's message, in all its simplicity and richness, continue to resound in Wales today, drawing the hearts of its people to renewed love for Christ and his Church.
He ended with a few words of Welsh: Bendith Duw ar bobol Cymru! God bless the people of Wales!

Germaine Greer, writing about the mosaic in the Guardian, was not happy. She lamented that church art is now “feeble, derivative and kitsch” and thought that people “who are capable of the heroic acts of faith required of today's Catholics should not be mocked by being fed such meretricious pap.” I won’t comment on the art (except to say that I’m a sucker for things that sparkle!) but it’s nice to see a young St David with a contemporary face.

There’s a rather lovely Green Man carving in St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, under one of the choir seats.

And to end, as I've mentioned before, there's a picture of Dewi as a boy with St Non, his mother, in the double window in the church of Llansantffraed in Llanon, alongside Ffraed. (Click on any of these pictures to enlarge them.)