The Welsh Marches

The flag of morn in conqueror’s state

Enters at the English gate:

The vanquished eve, as night prevails,

Bleeds upon the road to Wales.

 

Not so long ago – on the way back from that wedding in Shropshire, my wife and I took a detour into Wales, up to Chirk Castle in Wrexham, right on the border. Huge, imposing and (still) solid, it was built by Edward I in his wars against the Celtic parts of his Kingdoms (he’s known as the Hammer of the Scots, but hammered the Welsh quite a lot too). It gives one a stark sense of the English  monarchs as an impressive conquering force, encroaching on an ancient land. With the King’s standard fluttering from the battlements, right on the eastern edge of Wales, it could certainly have inspired the first two lines of the above stanza. Driving up to Chirk from Shropshire, as you pass into Wales through Chirk Bank, the road takes a sharp turn upwards – much of the border at this point is situated at a high ridge on the Welsh side; in fact, look at the Welsh border with ‘terrain’ on Google Maps, and you’ll see that most of the Welsh border comprises suddenly tall hills and mountains towering over English lowlands, mountains the Welsh speakers retreated too after earlier conflicts with the English – this area saw fighting some centuries before Edward I even.

Last post we looked at R.S. Thomas, a Welsh poet – or rather an Anglo-Welsh poet, with his poem with religious echoes, about a fox bleeding to death. It vaguely got me thinking about the  ‘Shropshire Lad’ poem. In ‘The Welsh Marches’, the persona speaks of his Welsh mother and English father and there is the second part of the stanza quoted above: ‘eve, as night prevails, / Bleeds upon the road to Wales.’

‘Anglo-Welsh’ as R.S. Thomas and others born in Wales used it meant something rather specific, that is an English speaker born in Wales, of English speaking parents themselves born in Wales, specifically the southern coast of Wales (and especially Pembrokeshire) which has had an English speaking majority, with a distinct identity, at least since Norman times. Thomas saw himself as one of this group, but was uncomfortable in it, learning the Welsh language himself and writing in it – and seeing an alternative to the modern English civilization in a nevertheless dying Welsh culture.

It’s an idea with some purchase on Britain’s Celtic fringes: England as a ruthless, modern power, since the Saxon invasion forever pushing the islands’ older inhabitants westwards, displacing their language and their culture in the process, a culture older, more sacred, more in touch with the land and nature, perhaps with God.

Houseman – or at least, the Shropshireman who is the speaker of this poem is a different sort of ‘Anglo-Welsh’ (Houseman wasn’t from Shropshire: his father was from Lancaster and his mother from Worcester, though she had a Welsh name). He shares Thomas’s sense of ambivalence though.  ‘The Welsh Marches’ shows a soul riven by dual heritage, forever at war within himself, though the border battles are long since ended.

 The Welsh Marches

High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam

Islanded in Severn stream;

The bridges from the steepled crest

Cross the water east and west.

 

The flag of morn in conqueror’s state

Enters at the English gate:

The vanquished eve, as night prevails,

Bleeds upon the road to Wales.

 

Ages since the vanquished bled

Round my mother’s marriage-bed;

There the ravens feasted far

About the open house of war:

 

When Severn down to Build was ran

Coloured with the death of man,

Couched upon her brother’s grave

The Saxon got me on the slave.

 

The sound of fight is silent long

That began the ancient wrong;

Long the voice of tears is still

That wept of old the endless ill.

 

In my heart it has not died,

The war that sleeps on Severn side;

They cease not fighting, east and west,

On the marches of my breast.

 

Here the truceless armies yet

Trample, rolled in blood and sweat;

They kill and kill and never die;

And I think that each is I.

 

None will part us, none undo

The knot that makes one flesh of two,

Sick with hatred, sick with pain,

Strangling—When shall we be slain?

 

When shall I be dead and rid

Of the wrong my father did?

How long, how long, till spade and hearse

Put to sleep my mother’s curse?

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