Elegy for the Welsh Dead, in the Falkland Islands, 1982 by Tony Conran

Gŵyr a aeth Gatraeth oedd ffraeth eu llu.

Glasfedd eu hancwyn, a gwenwyn fu.

Y Godoggin (6th century)

Men went to Catraeth. The luxury liner
For three weeks feasted them.
They remembered easy ovations,
Our boys, splendid in courage.
For three weeks the albatross roads,
Passwords of dolphin and petrel,
Practised their obedience
Where the killer whales gathered,
Where the monotonous seas yelped.
Though they went to church with their standards
Raw death has them garnished.

Men went to Catraeth. The Malvinas
Of their destiny greeted them strangely.
Instead of affection there was coldness,
Splintered iron and the icy sea,
Mud and the wind’s malevolent satire.
They stood nonplussed in the bomb’s indictment.

Malcom Wigley of Connah’s Quay. Did his helm
Ride high in the war-line?
Did he drink enough mead for that journey?
The desolated shores of Tegeingl,
Did they pig this steel that destroyed him?
The Dee runs silent beside empty foundries.
The way of the wind and the rain is adamant.

Clifford Elley of Pontypridd. Doubtless he feasted
He went to Catraeth with a bold heart.
He was used to valleys. The shadow held him.

The staff and the fasces of tribunes betrayed him.
With the oil of our virtue we have anointed
His head, in the presence of foes.

Phillip Sweet of Cwmbach. Was he shy before girls?
He exposed himself now to the hags, the glance
Of the loose-fleshed whores, the deaths
That congregate like gulls on garbage.
His sword flashed in the wastes of nightmare.

Russell Carlisle of Rhuthun. Men of the North
Mourn Rheged’s son in the castellated vale.
His nodding charger neighed for the battle.
Uplifted hooves pawed at the lightning.
Now he lies down. Under the air he is dead.
Men went to Catraeth. Of the forty-three
Certainly Tony Jones of Carmarthen was brave.
What did it matter, steel in the heart?
Shrapnel is faithful now. His shroud is frost.
With the dawn the men went. Those forty-three,
Gentlemen all, from the streets and byways of Wales.
Dragons of Aberdare, Denbigh and Neath –
Figments of empire, whore’s honour, held them.
Forty-three at Catraeth died for our dregs.

By Tony Conran

Additional information: It is the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands War at the time this poem is being posted.

The quote before the poem is from the Medieval Welsh poem Y Godoggin. The lines translate as: “Men went to Catraeth , keen was their company. / They were fed on fresh mead, and it proved poison.”

Tony Conran (7 April 1931 – 14 January 2013) was an Anglo-Welsh poet and translator of Welsh poetry. His own poetry was mostly written in English and Modernist in style but was very much influenced by Welsh poetic tradition, Welsh culture and history. To some extent there are parallels in Conran‘s writing with that of R. S. Thomas, but Conran can also be seen in the line of Pound, Bunting and MacDairmid.

The battle of Catraeth was fought around AD 600 between a force raised by the Gododdin, a Brythonic people of the Hen Ogledd or “Old North” of Britain, and the Angles of Bernicia and Deira. It was evidently an assault by the Gododdin party on the Angle stronghold of Catraeth, perhaps Catterick, North Yorkshire. The Gododdin force was said to have consisted of warriors from all over the Hen Ogledd, and even some from as far afield as Gwynedd in North Wales and Pictland. The battle was disastrous for the Britons, who were nearly all killed. The slain warriors were commemorated in the important early poem Y Gododdin, attributed to Aneirin.

Islas Malvinas is the Spanish language name for the Falkland Islands an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean on the Patagonian Shelf. An interesting fact is that a Patagonian form of Welsh is spoken in Patagonia due to some Welsh settlers.

Conran notes the areas of Wales the fallen come from: Connah’s Quay, Tegeingl, Pontypridd, Cwmbach, Rhuthun, Carmarthen, Aberdare, Denbigh and Neath.

Rheged sticks out amongst the above mentioned locations as it refers to one of the kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”), the Brittonic-speaking region of what is now Northern England and southern Scotland, during the post-Roman era and Early Middle Ages. It is recorded in several poetic and bardic sources, although its borders are not described in any of them. A recent archaeological discovery suggests that its stronghold was located in what is now Galloway in Scotland rather than, as was previously speculated, being in Cumbria. Rheged possibly extended into Lancashire and other parts of northern England. In some sources, Rheged is intimately associated with the king Urien Rheged and his family. Its inhabitants spoke Cumbric, a Brittonic dialect closely related to Old Welsh.

A Feast in Time of Plague [excerpt] by Alexander Pushkin

There is joy in battle,

poised on a chasm’s edge,

and in black ocean’s rage –

that whirl of darkening wind and wave –

in an Arabian sandstorm,

and in a breath of plague.

 

Within each breath of death

lives joy, lives secret joy

for mortal hearts, a pledge,

perhaps, of immortality,

and blessed is he who, storm-tossed,

can see and seize this joy.

 

by Александр Сергеевич Пушкин (Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin)

a.k.a. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin

(1830)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun Facts: This is one of Pushkin’s ‘Little Tragedies’, an adaption of part of a play by a Scottish writer, John Wilson. The song this excerpt is from is of Pushkin’s own original composition though.

‘After Midnight Clean Out Of Your Hands’ by Osip Mandelstam

After midnight, clean out of your hands,

the heart seizes a sliver of silence.

It lives on the quiet, it’s longing to play;

like it or not, there’s nothing quite like it.

 

Like it or not, it can never be grasped;

so why shiver, like a child off the street,

if after midnight the heart holds a feast,

silently savouring a silvery mouse?

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(1931)

translated by Robert Chandler

Маки (Poppies) by Innokenty Annensky

The gay day flames. The grass is still.

Like greedy impotence, poppies rise,

like lips that lust and poison fill,

like wings of scarlet butteflies.

 

The gay day flames… The garden now

is empty. Lust and feast are done.

Like heads of hags, the poppies bow

beneath the bright cup of the sun.

 

by Иннокентий Фёдорович Анненский (Innokenty Fyodorovich Annensky)

(1910)

translated by C. M. Bowra


 

Fun extra: Here is the poem performed in Russian.

‘The Fifth Act Of The Drama…’ by Anna Akhmatova

The fifth act of the drama

Blows in the wind of autumn,

Each flower-bed in the park seems

A fresh grave, we have finished

The funeral-feast, and there’s nothing

To do. Why then do I linger

As if I am expecting

A miracle? It’s the way a feeble

Hand can hold fast to a heavy

Boat for a long time by the pier

As one is saying goodbye

To the person who’s left standing.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1921?)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun fact: Though the poem is dated as being written in the 1940s it is more likely it was written just after, her husband Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov‘s execution in 1921.