Waldo Williams’s world is one that both invites and tests the translator. Because he can create an imaginative world so charged with light and with what I can only call a sense, an unmistakably Christian sense, of ‘wisdom’ embodied – a world charged with moral as well as visual vigour and radiance, charged with expectation of a personal but also a cosmic epiphany – the impulse to recreate is strong. The test comes in the economy of what he writes, an economy that is characteristic of the language itself, with its strong nouns, its ability to deploy various techniques to raise the affective temperature (apostrophe, intensified alliterative patterns) and its essentially concrete register.
The test is thus worth subjecting yourself to, because it challenges things in poetic composition that are deeply dangerous – an avoidance of nouns and an undue reliance on adjectives, a failure to feel the exact ways in which language tightens and loosens its affective intensity, and a surrender to abstraction. These are things, I find, that any translation from Welsh in particular reinforces; but Waldo’s combination of density and luminosity makes him a specially significant partner in the complex engagement of translating, and a specially fruitful presence in the process of composition.
Rowan Williams, on translating ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ (Between Two Fields)
Wall of my boyhood, Moel Drigarn, Carn Gyfrwy, Tal Mynydd, In my mind’s independence ever at my back The lines are from a poem entitled `Preseli`, the names those of the ridge’s summits, the homage to the mountain wall of the poet’s childhood and the underpinning of his every independent thought. `Waldo` is Waldo Williams, who is to my mind the finest poet, and one of the great exemplary figures, of modern Wales. I’d come here in grateful acknowledgement of his art and political example.
I should say at the outset that Waldo Williams deserves the gratitude of all lovers of wild places for it was he, more than anyone, who averted the post-war threat of 16,000 acres of Preseli being commandeered for an artillery range by the Ministry of Defence, with all the prohibition and mindless vandalism that would have ensured. Without his principled, eloquent and spirited opposition, this ancient and beautiful landscape would have become as tawdry and ruined as that of Epynt is today. Imagine Ted Hughes having run the military off Dartmoor, and you might grasp the magnitude of Waldo’s achievement. But this is not what Waldo is chiefly remembered for.
There is about him a sense of benignly committed and altruistic character that comes across in the single name on the memorial. Could you conceive of a poet’s monument in England with Alfred or Edward, Wystan or Thomas or George written on it? Does `Waldo` tell us something of the status of a poet within a society? And yet he only published one full collection of poems, Dail Pren – Leaves of a Tree – in 1956, when the poet was 52 years of age. At his outstanding best, his verse has a mystical intensity and a calm beauty of vision that are powerfully sustaining and memorable. Its musicality is allied so nearly to an amelioristic urgency of meaning that, divorced from his own echoing language, Waldo is virtually untranslatable. If you want fully to appreciate the greatest British mystic of the 20th century, you have no real option but to learn Britain’s oldest surviving language.
Jim Perrin Travels with the Flea The Inpinn 2002
Throughout his life, Waldo based his vision of the brotherhood of man upon a belief in the inborn divinity, and goodness, of every individual. Persuaded early of the truth of the inner light, he eventually joined the Quakers, discovering in their socially active faith the kind of mystical attraction Whitman had also felt toward the teaching of the controversial Quaker Elias Hicks. But for Waldo, as for Whitman, the corollary of spiritual immanence was what, with his genius for succinctness, he called “Awen adnabod.” Unlike English, Welsh distinguishes between the act of knowing a thing (“gwybod”) and that of knowing a person (“adnabod”). “Awen” can mean muse, or spirit, or genius, or gift. Hence “Awen adnabod” means the spiritual-poetic gift of creatively apprehended human recognition, involving an existential gesture of generous “fellow feeling” that goes as deep as a profound understanding of our fellow men – a humanly comprehensive act of “knowing” that was for Waldo, as it was for Whitman, the very essence of writing poetry. To “know” in this way was to know oneself to be inextricably part of what in Welsh is epigrammatically called “cwlwm cymdeithas”, literally “the knot of communiuty/society.” And again like Whitman, Waldo tended to see his own society – the actual rural society of West Wales – as instinct with the potential for visionary community. In this he saw the hope for a redeemed Wales and a redeemed world, just as Whitman extrapolated a future cooperative American order and a transfigured world order from his vision of contemporary New York.
Waldo’s visionary communitarianism was an amalgam of many different sources, including his radical Nonconformist background, his family involvement in the early Socialist and Welsh nationalist movements, his wide reading in Welsh literature, in English literature, in anthropology and in Eastern religions, and his interest in the philosophy of international figures such as Gandhi and of international thinkers such as Buber and Berdayev. But although it would not do, in the face of all this, to overemphasize the influence of Whitman on his thinking, it is important to remember Waldo’s very early and enduring affection for him. He had absorbed Whitman’s poetry, one suspects, to a point where he was no longer fully conscious of its presence within him, or of its contributions to the color and movement of his own highly original and distinctive imagination.
All his admirers and commentators have been unanimous in regarding ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ as his masterpiece and in valuing it as the supreme, magnetic expression of his governing vision. It is a retrospective poem, the record of a riveting and transformative vision granted him in his adolescence, when news of the ghastly terrors of the Front, with its deadly maze of muddy trenches, was just beginning to permeate and permanently alter public consciousness during the First World War. The power he encounters is welcomed as ‘dihangwr o’r byddinoedd’, one who has escaped from the armies, and it is imagined as having dwelt in human bosoms throughout ‘oesoedd y gwaed a’r gwellt, a thrwy’r goleuni y galar’, the ages of blood on the grass when the light was shot through with mourning. In a revealing aside in one of his review essays, he remarked that an apocalyptic vision is ‘hope’s unreasonable leap above troubled circumstances’ and ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ is a poem born of extreme duress. It therefore obviously has its redemptive aspects – there is specific mention early on of how this miraculous manifestation had come to Waldo, steadily unrolling like a great sea-swell of light through a gap between two ordinary fields, ‘ar ôl imi holi’n hir yn y tir tywyll (after I had long been questioning in the dark land). And at the poem’s heart lies the birth of a calming assurance that the whole of life is underpinned by a ‘llonyddwch mawr’ (a great stillness) out of which everything proceeds and to which it will eventually return. The poem could therefore be accounted to what Walt Whitman called a ‘retrieval out of the night’.
M. Wynn Thomas R. S. Thomas to Rowan Williams The Spiritual Imagination in Modern Welsh Poetry University of Wales Press 2022
A Welsh poem, translated by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, uses the form of catechism to gently address some universal dilemmas.
(Carol Ruman’s Poem of the Week The Guardian 7/12/2015)
What is Man?
What is living? The broad hall found
between narrow walls.
What is acknowledging? Finding the one root
under the branches’ tangle.
What is believing? Watching at home
till the time arrives for welcome.
What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns
to stand alongside your old enemy.
What is singing? The ancient gifted breath
drawn in creating.
What is labour but making songs
from the wood and the wheat?
What is it to govern kingdoms? A skill
still crawling on all fours.
And arming kingdoms? A knife placed
in a baby’s fist.
What is it to be a people? A gift
lodged in the heart’s deep folds.
What is love of country? Keeping house
among a cloud of witnesses.
What is the world to the wealthy and strong? A wheel,
turning and turning.
What is the world to earth’s little ones? A cradle,
rocking and rocking.
In March, 2012, the poet and theologian, Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, visited Pisgah Chapel in Llandysilio, Pembrokeshire, to deliver a Waldo Williams Society (Cymdeithas Waldo Williams) sponsored lecture. Entitled Poetry and Peacemaking, the lecture drew on Waldo Williams’s poem Mewn Dau Gae (In Two Fields) and discussed the work of the Welsh-language poet and peace activist in relation to the transformative force known as “awen” – sometimes mistranslated as the Muse.
Rowan’s kinship with Waldo will be clear to all readers – even the benighted English – of the two translations with which he concludes his latest collection,The Other Mountain. This week’s poem, What is Man? (Pa Beth yw Dyn? ) is one of those translations. Recent events sharpen the moral resonance of Waldo’s metaphorical catechism. British MPs voted to drop bombs rather than push a way through thorns towards dialogue with the factions of Syria, to risk endangering the cradles of “earth’s little ones”. Can we trust any baby yet to use the knife responsibly?
I’m among the doubly benighted – an English atheist who can’t speak Welsh beyond the beginners’ phrasebook, page one. I’d be reluctant to comment on the original poem via comparative English translations. All I can add, after reading and being greatly moved by all the work in The Other Mountain, is a generalisation. Sometimes, when a poet presents his/her original poems side by side with translated poems, the diction and tone will be radically different in the translation. This doesn’t happen, or only minimally, in Rowan Williams’s Waldo Williams translations. They sing at a slightly higher pitch than his own poems, perhaps, but the melody and pulse are united.
The most essential question of all begins the poem, in the form of the title. It’s not directly answered. Instead, a further question, related and perhaps even tougher, shoulders into the opening line “What is living?” The answer – “The broad hall found/ between narrow walls” – recalls the Venerable Bede’s image of human life as the flight of a sparrow across the mead hall. It’s a powerfully physical image, with no insistence on spiritual interpretation – a little Zen-like, perhaps.
The success of a poem-as-catechism depends on how successfully the writer avoids the impression of predestination, of having filled in the didactic Q&A form in advance. The essence of poetry, after all, is to avoid pat questions, pat answers, and good questions chosen because they invite pat answers. What is Man? benefits from answers that seem sometimes to lack a perfect logical or moral fit with the questions. Because the answer is always stretched across the line-break, there’s often an effect of initial complexity yielding to clarity. For instance, at the end of stanza two, thorns make an unexpected appearance in connection with forgiveness. Yet those emblems remind us that forgiveness hurts, although the wounds may not be fatal. The enemy is an “old enemy” and that’s an important qualification: any path is long overgrown, the thorns cluster thickly. There’s an intensifying Christian symbolism too, of course, for readers coming from that tradition.
The third stanza creates a kind of extended chiasmus. Singing is “the ancient gifted breath/ drawn in creation” whereas “labour is making songs/ from the wood and the wheat”. That’s almost to say that singing is a kind of work (creation), and labour a kind of song.
My favourite stanza is the fourth. The answer to “What is it to govern kingdoms?” isn’t particularly original, but the clarity of the allegory, the “skill” imagined as a baby “still crawling on all fours” revitalises it. Relentless, the questioner pushes on with the related, urgently abbreviated question, “And arming kingdoms?” The answer is brilliantly visual, and devastating in its summoning of chaos.
Is there any implied connection between stanzas four and five? There doesn’t seem to be. The experiences of being a people and loving your country are expressed with homely, tender, inwards-turning images of house and fold, and none of the defensive emotion sometimes attached to these concepts. The idea of “keeping house/ among a cloud of witnesses” seems to glance back at the Advent lines that respond to “What is believing?” In both instances I felt my imagination stranded between solid ground and the nebulous. Perhaps that’s as it should be.
The last stanza issues what might be an overt invitation to moral judgement. Its question about the nature of the world inhabited by “the wealthy and strong” is mirrored by the question concerning their antithesis, the weak and powerless, imagined as “earth’s little ones.” But the first answer doesn’t clearly condemn the wealthy and strong. (Does it in the original?) It shows us something intensely human, after all, and even indigenous to the poem’s stanza-form and anaphoric structures: the turning wheel.
It’s relentless, of course: the “turning and turning” evokes ceaseless, insatiable, joyless production. The world as felt, or desired, by the “little ones” is one of satisfied demands, peaceful rest and the delightful repetition of movement without travel. These figures may interestingly leave the reader with evolution’s central human dilemma: stop or go on? And they add to the impression that the ripples flowing from this apparently simple poem have a universal reach.
The Quaker headquarters in London, located off Euston Road, has developed what can be ostensibly called ‘Waldo’s Garden’. The space for reflection was designed by Wendy Price, a horticulturalist and design consultant, “as a piece of visual outreach celebrating Quakers”. She quoted as her inspiration the words of Waldo Williams from his poem ‘In Two Fields’ – “Where did the sea of light roll from/Onto Flower Meadow Field and Flower Field?” His reference to light and fields spoke to her about early Quakers. The choice of plants is informed by the poet’s ‘sea of light’ quotation and, through spring days, as hard landscaping has been softened by planting, existing mature trees, magnolias and olive trees (symbols of peace) have been joined by blossoming Amelanchier lamarki (emblematic of Native Americans). Around the entrance to Friends House heavily scented plants like rosemary (for remembrance) will engage visitors’ senses. Lavender plants will be particularly attractive to the two thriving colonies of bees that have been kept on the roof of Friends House. Rainwater will be collected to help water the garden.
The garden speaks of the ways Quakers put their faith into action. The words ‘peace’, ‘equality’, ‘simplicity’ and ‘truth’ are inscribed on a central stone set in the pathway. A time capsule has been buried in the garden with its contents illustrating the kind of world young Quakers wish to see by 2116. These include a peace flag symbolising world peace without nuclear weapons, a solar charger since energy will be produced from renewable sources and a packet of Lunaria (honesty) seeds to encourage the growth of society to become fair and just.
Visitors are welcome to spend some time in contemplation in the garden at 173 Euston Road, London.
So it is that Waldo Williams can sing of his mother, the wife of a primary schoolteacher in a Pembrokeshire village, ‘she recreated with his praise an unblemished world’ (Dail Pren p 43). The final suggestion of the poem is that she made of her life an offering of prayer and praise in which joy and grief were so woven together as to be divine clothing, an offering in which the priesthood of her concern was spread as a protecting veil over the daily cares and achievements of the society in which she lived.
A. A. Allchin ‘Praise Above All – Discovering the Welsh Tradition’, University of Wales Press 1991
Mur fy mebyd. Foel Drygarn, Carn Gyfrwy, Tal Mynydd. Wrth fy nghefn mewn pob annibyniaeth barn. Geiriau pwerus i’r oes ansicr yma . In these uncertain times I like to reflect upon Waldo’s words. He took great strength form the natural world and particularly the Preseli hills backing him in his independence of opinion. The Preseli hills were his backdrop and inspiration. He is one of the reasons the Preseli hills are not a military range. We owe him a great debt of respect.
Nia Angharad Siggins Facebook 31/8/2019
Was Waldo a great poet? I think there can be no doubt. His humour gave him an acute sense of life’s incongruity, the disparity between the world as it is and the world as it should be. Even read in translation – and Waldo has been fortunate in his translators – his poetry is of the highest quality in terms of intelligence, love, and above all a numinous awareness.
John Osmond ‘Real Preseli’ Seren Books 2019
Waldo Williams’ poetry places him alongside Richard Jefferies and Thomas Traherne as nature-mystic;
Jim Perrin ‘Afon Gwy’ Rivers of Wales p. 39 Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2022
In some ways a natural loser, in others he was sociable and gregarious, his insatiable curiosity fed alike by his conversations with agricultural workers in the ‘local’ during his Lyneham period and by the yarns he heard from the old salts who were Cape Horners from the days of sail when he was teaching on the Llŷn peninsula. Deeply attracted to quietism – late in life he felt an affinity for the Quakers – he was nevertheless a stubborn, courageous social activist willing to face imprisonment rather than compromise his beliefs – as indeed happened twice. . . . And of late another important dimension has been added to our apprehension of the complex character of a man who was at once eminently loveable and accessible but also elusive. The author of a handful of luminous poems, of lucid, calm, assured spiritual vision, he has been revealed by recent research to have suffered throughout his life from a wounding trauma that originated in his early childhood. He was chronically restless, both physically and mentally. Apart from the two blissful years of his brief marriage, it seems he experienced ‘home’ only when visiting the hearths of very close friends or as a utopian state to be desired rather than as a solidly experienced mundane reality. There was something of the tramp about Waldo, despite his long-term periods of teaching, and his excruciatingly brief happy marriage. And analysts would no doubt view his visionary poetry as the defence mechanism he developed to protect himself from the fits of despair to which he was prone and against the all-consuming anxiety that paralysed him periodically . . .
M. Wynn Thomas ‘R. S.Thomas to Rowan Williams The Spiritual Imagination in Modern Welsh Poetry’ University of Wales Press 2022