Saturday, 31 July 2010

Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge

On this day in 1917, Hedd Wyn (right) and Francis Ledwidge were killed just a few miles apart at Passchendaele.

Hedd Wyn had joined that most brilliantly poetic of regiments, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, only the previous month, but there is no evidence that he ever met his comrades David Jones, Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves. Unlike them, he wrote his poetry in Welsh. (Unlike them, a cynic may be tempted to add, he was Welsh.) Having finished second at the National Eisteddfod in 1916, he was posthumously elected Bard the following year for his entry 'Yr Arwr' ('The Hero'). I am the first to admit that my Welsh is a little rusty, so I cannot speak for the accuracy of these translations of some of Hedd Wyn's poetry: 'Y Blotyn Du' ('The Black Spot') and 'Rhyfel' ('War').

Francis Ledwidge was an Irish Nationalist and passionate supporter of Home Rule. He enlisted because he considered that Ireland's interests were better served by British victory, but the Easter Rising of 1916 put paid to that belief, and Ledwidge began to cause problems for the British: having outstayed home leave, he was court-martialled and demoted, yet he returned to France and served with great merit in 1917. I wish that I liked his poetry better: much of it is a dreamy sub-Yeatsian mood-music. At its best, as here in 'After Court Martial', it manages to elude Ledwidge's all-too-familar 'dream companions', at least briefly.

After Court Martial

My mind is not my mind, therefore
I take no heed of what men say,
I have lived ten thousand years before
God cursed the town of Nineveh.

The present is a dream I see
Of horror and loud sufferings,
At dawn a bird will waken me
Unto my place among the kings.

And though men called me a vile name,
And all my dream companions gone,
'Tis I the soldier bears the shame,
Not I the king of Babylon.


  1. That translation of "War" has such a feel of Sorley MacLean about it - wish it were possible to know if it came from the translation or the original. Puts me in mind of MacLean's tone in "Ruweisat Ridge".

  2. I remember some years ago, I took out this, to me, unknown film "Hedd Wyn" (1992) from the local library. My wife and I watched it that evening, and we were deeply touched by the poet and his life.

  3. Can't say I care for the Ledwidge. King of Babylon? Quite a claim. Ten thousand years before Nineveh? The poem gives no reason to believe it.

    The poem makes it probable that the speaker was court-martialed for some action he took in a fugue state, though I doubt that's what Ledwidge intended. Regardless, it doesn't make me feel anything at all for the poor bugger. It's a shame he got into uniform in the first place, but that's an intellectual, not a poetic, response.

  4. Wyn's poems, on the other hand, are quite effective, with explicable images and ideas not dependent on wishful thinking. Do you know of any other WW1 verse in Welsh, Irish, or Scots Gaelic?

  5. That's a good question. No, I don't. Some important poets during WW2 writing in Welsh and in Scots Gaelic, but I can't think of any other than Hedd Wyn during WW1.

  6. It had everything to do with the death of his close friends in the easter rising in Dublin .
    Ledwidge was a good soldier ,,was promoted quickly , saved several men by shooting a sniper who was sneaking into their camp while in the dardenells .

    He overstayed his leave while racked with Grief after the death of close friends with whom he was involved with 'his dream companions "
    The poem evokes imagery used by poets who died in Dublin .