A light-hearted look at recent cultural and bookish chatter from Wales
This is the first in a series of posts concerning literary goings-on (Welsh speakers may prefer sgwrsio llenyddol Cymraeg) from the land of poetry and song.
A Walesi Bardok
On Saint David’s Day (1st March), children living in the remote Hungarian village of Kunagota were given lessons on Welsh culture while the national anthem boomed forth and the flag of Wales (Y Ddraig Goch) was projected on to the walls of nearby Breda Castle.
This small community in the south-east corner of Hungary shares literary links with Montgomery, in the county of Powys, stemming from János Arany’s 160-year-old folkloristic ballad, The Bards of Wales, which tells the tragic tale of five-hundred Welsh versifiers being slaughtered by King Edward I at a banquet in Montgomery Castle after refusing to extol the virtues of their English conqueror.
Earlier this year, over thirty Hungarians created a video letter to Wales called Let’s Build Bridges, which they describe as “a love letter to Wales”.
Classical singer, Elizabeth Sillo, the chair of the Welsh-Hungarian Cultural Association, said: “We wanted to send a message to our Welsh friends as they mark St David’s Day in an undoubtedly difficult year. We’d like everyone in Wales to know that there’s a place in Hungary where people have such admiration for their culture and where they are always welcome.”
Balint Brunner, a founding member of Magyar Cymru, said: “We were inspired by St David’s well-known maxim, ‘gwnewch y pethau bychain’, or ‘do the little things’. For this reason, we are sharing small acts of love and kindness from Hungarian individuals and organisations this year, including children’s performances and a daffodil-themed painting by Kunagota-born Klara Gyomber.”
In return, pupils from Montgomery Church in Wales School, along with the local mayor, councillors and business owners replied to their European friends with their own video letter, which has since been viewed more than half a million times and featured on Hungarian TV and radio.
Unsurprisingly, Kunagota has been dubbed ‘Hungary’s Welshest village’.
Arany’s poem, which was intended to criticise the strict Habsburg rule over Hungary following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, was first written in 1857 and disguised as a translation of an Old English ballad to evade censorship.
All Hungarian students in the sixth grade of elementary school are expected to learn The Bards of Wales by heart as it is considered by many to be one of the poet’s most significant works.
The Bards of Wales by János Arany
(translated by Watson Kirkconnel)
Edward the king, the English king,
Bestrides his tawny steed,
“For I will see if Wales,” said he,
“Accepts my rule indeed.
“Are stream and mountain fair to see?
Are meadow grasses good?
Do corn-lands bear a crop more rare
Since wash’d with rebel’s blood?
“And are the wretched people there,
Whose insolence I broke
As happy as the oxen are
Beneath the driver’s yoke?
“In truth this Wales, Sire, is a gem,
The fairest in your crown:
The stream and field rich harvest yield,
And fair and dale and down.
“And all the wretched people there
Are calm as man could crave;
Their hovels stand throughout the land
As silent as the grave.”
Edward the king, the English King
Bestrides his tawni steed;
A silence deep his subjects keep
And Wales is mute indeed.
The castle named Montgomery
Ends that day’s journeying;
The castle’s lord, Montgomery,
Must entertain the king.
Then game and fish and ev’ry dish
That lures the taste and sight
A hundred hurrying servants bear
To please the appetite.
With all of worth the isle brings forth
In dainty drink and food,
And all the wines of foreign vines
Beyond the distant flood.
“You lords, you lords, will none consent
His glass with mine to ring?
What? Each one fails, you dogs of Wales,
To toast the English king?
“Though game and fish and ev’ry dish
That lures the taste and sight
Your hand supplies, your mood defies
My person with a slight.
“You rascal lords, you dogs of Wales,
Will none for Edward cheer?
To serve my needs and chant my deeds
Then let a bard appear!”
The nobles gaze in fierce amaze,
Their cheeks grow deadly pale;
Not fear but rage their looks engage,
They blanch but do not quail.
All voices cease in soundless peace,
All breathe in silent pain;
Then at the door a harper hoar
Comes in with grave disdain:
“Lo, here I stand, at your command,
To chant your deeds, O king!”
And weapons clash and hauberks crash
Responsive to his string.
“Harsh weapons clash and hauberks crash,
And sunset sees us bleed,
The crow and wolf our dead engulf –
This, Edward, is your deed!
“A thousand lie beneath the sky,
They rot beneath the sun,
And we who live shall not forgive
This deed your hand hath done!”
“Now let him perish! I must have”
(The monarch’s voice is hard)
“Your softest songs, and not your wrongs!”
In steps a boyish bard:
“The breeze is soft at eve, that oft
From Milford Havens moans;
It whispers maidens’ stifled cries,
It breathes of widows’ groans.
“You maidens, bear no captive babes!
You mothers, rear them not!”
The fierce king nods. The lad is seiz’d
And hurried from the spot.
Unbidden then, among the men,
There comes a dauntless third
With speech of fire he tunes his lyre,
And bitter is his word:
“Our bravest died to slake your pride –
Proud Edward, hear my lays!
No Welsh bards live who e’er will give
Your name a song a praise.
“Our harps with dead men’s memories weep.
Welsh bards to you will sing
One changeless verse – our blackest curse
To blast your soul, O king!”
“No more! Enough!” – cries out the king.
In rage his orders break:
“Seek through these vales all bards of Wales
And burn them at the stake!”
His men ride forth to south and north,
They ride to west and east.
Thus ends in grim Montgomery
The celebrated feast.
Edward the king, the English king
Spurs on his tawny steed;
Across the skies red flames arise
As if Wales burned indeed.
In martyrship, with song on lip,
Five hundred Welsh bards died;
Not one was mov’d to say he lov’d
The tyrant in his pride.
“‘Ods blood! What songs this night resound
Upon our London streets?
The mayor shall feel my irate heel
If aught that sound repeats!
Each voice is hush’d; through silent lanes
To silent homes they creep.
“Now dies the hound that makes a sound;
The sick king cannot sleep.”
“Ha! Bring me fife and drum and horn,
And let the trumpet blare!
In ceaseless hum their curses come –
I see their dead eyes glare…”
But high above all drum and fife
and trumpets’ shrill debate,
Five hundred martyr’d voices chant
Their hymn of deathless hate.
Categories: Reading Wales