A Poem by Vernon Watkins

We end the third week of Dewithon 2023 with a poem written in 1958 by the Welsh poet, translator and painter Vernon Watkins

[Watkins is] the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English.”
Dylan Thomas

Born in Maesteg in 1906, Vernon Watkins studied at Repton School and Magdalene College, Cambridge University before moving to Cardiff and taking a job in a bank. In 1935 he met and bonded with Dylan Thomas, and they remained close friends until Thomas’s tragically early death in 1953.

He was part of the cryptography team that broke the Nazi’s Enigma code during the Second World War and was loosely associated with the New Apocalyptics – a movement of poets from the UK whose work reflected the political realism of poetry in the 1930s. However, his work is now better known for its traditional forms, metric innovations and invocation of Welsh history and mythology.

He died in Seattle, USA, at the age of 61 on 8th October 1967.

His published collections include The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd (1941), The Lamp and the Veil (1945), The Lady with the Unicorn (1948), The Death Bell (1954), Cypress and Acacia (1959), Affinities (1962) and Fidelities (1968).

With regard to the subject of this poem, the Crane, which lives in wetland areas, is the tallest bird in the UK and has, in recent years, been making a comeback in Wales (and other parts of Britain) thanks to re-introduction and habitat restoration. The species is renowned for its complex display behaviour, where it performs bows, pirouettes and bobs.

Since March is the start of spring in the northern hemisphere (indeed, if you were born in this month, your birth flower is a daffodil), the days are becoming longer and there is a promise of warmer weather ahead. I felt Watkins’ memorable poem was apt.

The Crane By Vernon Watkins

The crane, at his wits’ end,
Dances behind his mate.
She will not apprehend
His lonely, ecstatic state,
Nor that fine beat of the brain
Which makes the wings unclose,
Unclose, tremble, and close again:
Nothing of this she knows.

He is moving, moving in ecstasy,
The faintly flushed white wings
Gathered as if to fly.
He moves to certain strings
Stretched between earth and sky
That enforce a rigid stance.
Desire has fixed his eye
To execute his dance.

She and the distance are cut off
While he is thus engaged.
Whether spectators scoff
Means nothing. He is enraged,
Being the relict of love,
At her distracted mind,
Nor can he demonstrate enough
To make her look behind.


Categories: Reading Wales

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10 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing Paula 🙂

  2. Thanks for this, Paula – obviously a poet I need to explore further!

  3. I hadn’t encountered Watkins before, Paula, and this poem is exquisite – I could see the male crane’s every move, the female’s every indifference. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. The imagery and immediacy of this is so strong that it was only afterwards that I realised it had a rhyme scheme. Great choice! Vernon Watkins’s work is one for me to seek out.

    And for those in the know (I’m only on the periphery of such knowledge, mind) the crane dance is reflected in Irish myth where the divinatory ogham sticks which the god Manannán mac Lir kept in his craneskin bag were supposed to resemble the legs of cranes.

    A certain Aoife had been transformed into a crane and when she died her skin went towards making Manannán’s bag. Catherine Fisher uses this as one of her many motifs in her fantasy Darkhenge which I review tomorrow…


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