by Roderick Conway Morris

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Celebrating a Gifted Welsh Poet

By Roderick Conway Morris
Jonathan Jenkins/NSPA
Gerald Williams, the nephew of Hedd Wyn,
with the Black Chair, 2012



To win the chair at the annual National Eisteddfod cultural festival is the highest honor to which any Welsh poet can aspire. It has only once been awarded posthumously, and that was in September 1917, to Ellis Humphrey Evans, better known by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn.

The adjudicators that year had unanimously awarded the prize to Hedd Wyn for an 'awdl' (ode), called 'Yr Arwr' (The Hero). The work was inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound' and has been described by Alan Llwyd, the contemporary poet and two-time winner of the chair, as 'a rich, complex, allegorical poem,' which was 'possibly the most ambitious of any Eisteddfod winner of the 20th century.'

The judges of the Eisteddfod, which was held at Birkenhead near Liverpool that year, were unaware that Hedd Wyn had died of his wounds at the age of 30 on July 31 at Pilkem Ridge during the battle of Passchendaele.

At the award ceremony the archdruid rose to summon the poet, in the traditional fashion, to come to take the chair, calling him three times to make himself known. But it then had to be revealed, to the consternation of the gathering, which included the prime minister, David Lloyd George, that Hedd Wyn had fallen while fighting with the Royal Welch Fusiliers 'somewhere in France.' The empty chair was draped with a black shroud, and the festival of that year has ever since been called Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu (The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair).

The Black Chair was brought by train and then horse and cart to the Evans farm, Yr Ysgwrn, on a hillside above the village of Trawsfynydd in the Prysor Valley. The stone farm cottage, which dates back to the early 16th century, quickly became a place of pilgrimage, where visitors were warmly received by the poet's family.

Gerald Williams, the poet's nephew, has lived here since 1933, and for decades has greeted guests and related the stories of the poet's life and his early death. Not the least remarkable aspect of Yr Ysgwrn is that the cottage interiors remain as they were in 1917, including the kitchen, where Hedd Wyn wrote 'The Hero' and many of his other poems on the table by the iron stove.

Mr. Williams is now in his eighties and continues to work the 68-hectare, or 168-acre, hill farm with grazing for 300 sheep and a small herd of cattle. Although extraordinarily vigorous in limb and lively of mind, Mr. Williams had begun to be concerned about the long-term future of Yr Ysgwrn as a monument to Hedd Wyn.

On Saint David's Day this year it was announced that the Snowdonia National Park, within whose boundaries Yr Ysgwrn lies, would purchase the cottage, restore it, keep it open for visitors and find a tenant to work the farm in the traditional fashion. Mr. Williams will remain on the farm in a small house below the cottage to guide visitors around Yr Ysgwrn.

Conservation work on the cottage was reaching completion and preparations were under way to reopen the house to the public when I visited Yr Ysgwrn. Mr. Williams ushered me into a tiny parlor, almost entirely occupied by a circle around the fireplace of the five high-backed, local Eisteddfod bardic chairs won by Hedd Wyn from 1907 to 1915 and the celebrated Black Chair of the National Eisteddfod of 1917, elaborately adorned with ancient Celtic motifs by the Belgian woodcarver and war refugee, Eugeen Vanfleteren.

Mr. Williams invited me to sit down in the chair the poet won at the Llanuwchllyn festival of 1913, while he settled into the one Hedd Wyn carried off from the Pontardawe Eisteddfod in the Swansea Valley two years later.

Mr. Williams explained how he had come to live at Yr Ysgwrn when his mother, Ann, Hedd Wyn's second-to-youngest sister, had died, leaving four young orphaned children who were taken in by members of the family. Mr. Williams was 4 years old at the time, and he and a 5-year-old brother, Ellis, were brought to Yr Ysgwrn.

'My grandmother was well into her sixties by then and had already brought up a large family of her own,' he said. 'I have very early memories of visitors coming to the house and my grandmother talking to them about Hedd Wyn. I promised my grandmother always to keep the door open for people who came here and it seemed natural to keep the house as it was when my uncle was alive and writing his poetry here.'

'Hedd Wyn had very little formal education, except what he got at the village school in Trawsfynydd,' Mr. Williams said. He was a late starter at school because the cottage was some way from the village, a challenging distance for a small boy, and he quit school early because his father needed his help on the farm.

Welsh poetry has a history that goes back as far as the middle of the sixth century, and its meters and systems of alliteration, assonance and consonance take years to master and produce a richness of texture that is impossible fully to translate into other languages, said Mr. Williams, reflecting the opinion of many of his fellow Welsh speakers.

Hedd Wyn's father wrote light verse, and when his son was 11 he bought him a 'Yr Ysgol Farddol' (The Bardic School), a rule book of complex meters that had been codified in the 14th century. The young Ellis had written his first 'englyn,' a short poem in strict meter, before he was 12.

In 1907, the poet won his first chair at the Bala Eisteddfod. In 1909, he acquired the bardic name of Hedd Wyn (Blessed Peace).

The poet's love of the landscape of the Prysor Valley, which is little changed from the way it was a century ago, is one of the central themes of his verse. One of the poems most familiar to Welsh schoolchildren is his haiku-like 'Atgo' (Recollection): 'Only a purple moon/On the edge of the bare mountain/And the sound of the River Prysor/Singing in the valley.'

Although somewhat shy and unkempt in appearance, Hedd Wyn never lacked female admirers, who inspired him to write some notable love poetry. And after his death, his friend and fellow poet William Morris described him as 'the most decent and unassuming person I have ever known: and yet, beneath his simple and natural external appearance, a strange audacity was concealed, like the rock beneath the heather.'

His experience in World War I produced some of his finest poems, which deserve to stand alongside the poetry and memoirs of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sasoon and Robert Graves (the last two also fought with the Royal Welch Fusiliers) and of other poets of the conflict. One of the most powerful is 'Y Rhyfel' (War), in which he evokes a Godforsaken world of fratricidal mayhem, ending with the lines (in Alan Llwyd's translation): 'The harps to which we sang are hung/On willow boughs, and their refrain/Drowned by the anguish of the young/Whose blood is mingled with the rain.'

The fact that Hedd Wyn's war poems - and his poetry in general - are not better known outside his native land is substantially because so little has been translated.

The primary event of recent times that has brought Hedd Wyn's story and his verse to a wider audience was the making of the memorable Welsh-language feature film 'Hedd Wyn,' shot on location in the Prysor Valley. The film was written by Alan Llwyd, who has also written biographical works on the poet, and directed by Paul Turner, starring Huw Garmon in the title role and Judith Humphreys as his lover, Jini Owen.

This compelling and moving drama was the first British film to be nominated at the Academy Awards for a Best Foreign Language Film in 1993.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023