Eisteddfod of the Black Chair (for Hedd Wyn, 1887-1917)

by Gillian Clarke

Hedd Wyn is the bardic name of Ellis Evans, eldest of 11 children of a north Wales hill farmer. I take his description of the beauty of France, and his foreboding of fields red with blood, from a letter he wrote home. A friend saw him struck, and fall. The "black chair" is a famously tragic image of the National Eisteddfod where, days later, he was announced as the anonymous poet who had won the chair.

Hedd Wynn

Robert Graves met him once,
in the hills above Harlech,
the shepherd poet,
the awdl and the englyn in his blood
like the heft of the mountain
in the breeding of his flock.

In a letter from France, he writes
of poplars whispering, the sun going down
among the foliage like an angel of fire,
and flowers half hidden in leaves
growing in a spent shell.
'Beauty is stronger than war.'

Yet he heard sorrow in the wind, foretold
blood in the rain reddening the fields
under the shadow of crows,
till he fell to his knees at Passchendaele,
grasping two fists-full of earth, a shell to the stomach
opening its scarlet blossom.

At the Eisteddfod they called his name three times,
his audience waiting to rise, thrilled,
to crown him, chair him,
to sing the hymn of peace,
not 'the festival in tears and the poet in his grave',
a black sheet placed across the empty chair.

"War" by Hedd Wyn

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O'i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.
Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A'i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.
Mae'r hen delynau genid gynt,
Ynghrog ar gangau'r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A'u gwaed yn gymysg efo'r glaw
Bitter to live in times like these.
While God declines beyond the seas;
Instead, man, king or peasantry,
Raises his gross authority.
When he thinks God has gone away
Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death's roar.
It shadows the hovels of the poor.
Like the old songs they left behind,
We hung our harps in the willows again.
Ballads of boys blow on the wind,
Their blood is mingled with the rain.