Poetry and Melancholy in Sheers Examination of Welsh Identity
Jonathan Inglis Poetry and Melancholy in Sheers’ Examination of Welsh Identity
“Beneath the lyrical and pastoral influences on Welsh Border literature lies a deeply elegiac, even tragic note.”
Compare and contrast the different ways in which two of your chosen texts present poetry and melancholy in their examination of Welsh Identity.
The borderland represents much to those that live there. It is a geographical, geological and linguistic border, plunging the entire area into a limbo of confused identity; twilight poised between the lyrical dreams of magic and myth, and the overcast, oppressive reality. Therefore the Welsh border literature is influenced lyrically due to the rich oral tradition of the cyfarwydd carrying stories rooted in Celtic mythology from village to village. The collection of poems in Skirrid Hill by Owen Sheers is evident of lyricism, as the natural rhythms seem to capture the storytelling skill of the bardd. The pastoral influences stem from the intimacy and dependence that Welsh people living on the border show to the land, represented by the huge amount of agriculture and mining that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is shown in Resistance, also by Owen Sheers, as the writer presents poetry in such a way that people and the landscape become inseparably interdependent. However, these lyrical and pastoral influences must always be intertwined with a tragic note, since reliance on things such as the mining industry have resulted in a scarring of both the land and the people. Resistance and Skirrid Hill reflect not only the aforementioned influences, but also the elegiac note of death, deterioration and disillusionment.
Resistance tells the story of farm women in a remote Welsh valley, abandoned by their husbands, forced to toil the unforgiving land in order to survive. This isolation is perforated by an invading German patrol, who must remain in the Olchon valley so that they too can survive, or at least revive. Upon realising their interdependence during the harsh winter of 1945, the two groups form a ‘fragile harmony,’ in the words of Owen Sheers. Sheers himself has a love for nature, and his idyllic vision is that of rurality. Like many Welsh writers before him, he presents the borderland landscape (in particular the Olchon valley) as ‘bluntly beautiful,’ in the words of Albrecht, the leader of the German patrol. The word ‘bluntly’ is evident of the power of nature, and the reverence that Sheers shows towards the land. This ambiguous relationship towards the landscape is the reason why Sheers chose to place the novel in the Olchon valley; ‘the horseshoe shape...and steep escarpments which are very beautiful with a sense of protection, but are also strangely threatening.’ This ‘protection’ is captured by Sheers, as the patrol is able to take refuge in the valley, and recover from the dehumanisation of war. This clearly shows the pastoral influences on Welsh border literature, as humans are shown to return to nature, searching for an earlier, simpler way of doing things.
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This same intimacy is replicated in many poems throughout Skirrid Hill. Both Y Gaer and Hill Fort are about a father who seeks consolation for the death of his son in the landscape.
‘And that’s why he’s come back again...
Not just to make the circle complete,
To heal or mend,
But because he knows these walls...
Protect as much as they defend.’
The enjambment, as externalised by the metaphor of the ‘circle,’ and the easy rhyme creates what poetryarchive.org calls a ‘quiet naturalism,’ again showing the lyrical influences on Welsh border literature. The land here, like in Resistance, is shown to ‘protect’ the vulnerable individual from the horrors of the outside world. More importantly, the landscape is presented as something which can ‘heal or mend.’ This is significant as Albrecht searches for just that, ‘just as the air purged his lungs so the views purged his sight...He knew it was the valley that...might just unlock him altogether.’ The word ‘purged’ has religious connotations with the purging of sins, thus the land is conveyed as the salvation for the bereaved and the condemned alike.
However, these lyrical and pastoral influences, which appear to build an Arcadian vision, are undermined by a profound darkness that shadows much of what Sheers writes in the melancholy. Sheers presents poetry as the plight to grasp onto the dislocated and unstable, whether that be a literal struggle with the landscape or a spiritual grapple with self identity. In turn, melancholy is presented as the inevitable futility of these contests. Sheers captures this instability and frailty in Skirrid Hill, as Sarah Crown points out, ‘(the landscape) is made up of "broken stone giving under our feet" and filled with "gap-toothed roofs and broken beams"’. These ‘gaps’ become particularly apparent when exploring Welsh identity, as it is precariously perched between true heritage and the fragmented myths of ancient bards. The words, ‘broken stone giving under our feet’ from the poem Farther symbolise the fact that the intimacy between people and the land is being lost. This happens in Resistance; ‘a beguiling impression of both order and chaos, of studied construction and natural decay.’ In both works Sheers uses poetry and melancholic tones to show that, whilst the landscape might be our salvation, it is certainly not transcendent or immortal; this is deeply elegiac.
‘or at least a shallow handhold in the thought
that with every step apart, I’m another closer to you’
Poet Olivia Cole considers this last line of Farther to be ‘weak’, and that it ‘doesn’t earn its place.’ This is a tendentious comment however, as one might argue that Sheers is effective in unveiling the tragic note beneath the lyrical and pastoral influences in his writing. It is clear that Sheers uses the metaphor of the ‘shallow handhold’ to represent the instability and inevitable death of human relationships, and the fact that these connections can only exist in dreams and thought, which themselves are transient and fragile. This theme can also be seen in Resistance, as whilst Albrecht and Gernot dream of eternal love between them and the farm women, this is never realised. Critic Ingrid Wassenhaar points out the impossibility of these relationships, ‘the novel begins with an ending- the disappearance of the husbands. Its quest throughout is for an ending that might be a fresh start.’ Therefore Wassenhaar suggests that the tragic note in Resistance stems from the fact that the intentions of Albrecht and his patrol are doomed from the start. This is supported by the quotation, ‘the river...would always rediscover its course, however much he wished to dam it with the insignificant pebbles of his own intentions.’ It is the belief in eternal relationships, whether those are between a father and son, or a man and woman, which sets in motion the tragedy of both Farther and Resistance.
Sheers explores these flimsy, transient relationships through the use of poetry as art; ‘The Sarabande still played within her. The fragility of its sadness had turned her chest to shivered glass.’ This quotation from Resistance exposes Sheers’ technique of presenting poetry as the precedent for an elegiac note, as it’s eloquence suggests a profound grief not able to be expressed in simple terms. Four Movements in the Scale of Two, from Skirrid Hill also reflects this use of poetry;
‘Back to naked back.
Opposing bass clefs,
The elegant scars on the hips of a cello,
A butterfly’s white wings, resting.’
The word, ‘scars’ sets a deeply elegiac tone, as it represents something that is irrevocably lost. The metaphor of the butterfly places emphasis on the fragility of the couple’s relationship in the poem, as it is a fickle creature, flitting from one place to the next. Sheers uses the metaphor of glass to further illustrate this theme in both Resistance and Four Movements in the Scale of Two, ‘each individual blade encased in a thin tube, as brittle and fragile as the stems of champagne flutes.’ Here Albrecht contemplates both the delicate nature of the landscape and also, on a metaphorical level, the melancholic frailty of humans.
The T.S Elliot quotation from East Coker which prefaces Skirrid Hill is symbolic of the elegiac tone throughout both the poems and Resistance; ‘As we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated of dead and living.’ At the end of Resistance, Sarah mourns the fact that her ‘memories are no longer of any use to her in her altered world.’ In an almost Chatwin-esque notion, Sheers proposes that our ambitions are nothing but dreams and memories; it is their pursuit that is tragic, as it grounds us in one place, forever trying in vain. The quotation, ‘as suddenly and obscured as a glass dull-snapping in the hand beneath the washing water,’ from Four Movements in the Scale of Two is especially significant, as not only does it represent the breakable interrelationships between people, but that this elegiac note runs beneath Welsh literature, ‘obscured’ by the ‘washing water’ of myth and legend. Sioned Davies, professor of Welsh at Cardiff University, supports this reading of Welsh literature; ‘The nature of the poetic tradition seems to have been different among the Celts too: verse was mainly, if not wholly, employed for elegy and eulogy.’
Since he is primarily a poet, Sheers uses metaphor and similar linguistic devices to devastating effect in both Resistance and Skirrid Hill. He presents the melancholy through using the landscape as a transferred epithet for the grief of the individual, ‘(Sarah’s dreams) left her feeling like those branches outside her window. Robbed, exposed, bare.’ This use of pathetic fallacy represents the elegiac note beneath the poetry, as Sarah is rendered vulnerable by the fragile nature of human relationships. Sheers also uses the landscape as a metaphor to articulate exactly what the elegy is for, ‘A long valley where his weight had pressed...As usual, Tom’s shape, the landscape of him, was there. But it was cold.’ This quotation from Resistance highlights how Sheers uses poetry and metaphor to express a yearning for that which is irrevocably lost. This same technique can be seen in the poem The Wake;
‘Here then is the old curse
of too much knowledge, driftwood
collected along the shore of a century’
Like Sarah, the trials of life have not strengthened the grandfather in The Wake, but have weakened him and forced him to resign to his fate, as represented by the metaphor of the cursed ‘shore of a century.’ A link can also be drawn between the grandfather and Albrecht, as the war has left the German with ‘the body of a young man about the heart, lungs and skeleton of an old one.’ Both the grandfather and Albrecht know that their consolation is ‘only temporary,’ as Albrecht admits on page 139, and they are both suspended between life and death. This idea is supported by the placement of ‘driftwood’ at the end of the line; we are forced to merely drift through our changing world, because we refuse to let go of our beliefs and ambitions, despite the fact that they are founded on dreams and memories. Olivia Cole believes that, ‘this is the limbo in which Skirrid Hill is anchored...this elegiac sense of belatedness.’ This opinion is poignant, as Sheers subtly proposes the question, is it too late to go back to simplicity, to truth, and to life?
Author Garan Holcombe beautifully sums up Resistance, in such a way that it is also relevant to Skirrid Hill, ‘Resistance, like everything Sheers has written, is a eulogy to the meditative beauty of the landscape and a cry for communal values in a time of ruthless individualism.’ It is this ‘ruthless individualism’ which is the source of much of the elegiac tone in both works, as it undermines the pastoral and lyrical influences from ‘the meditative beauty of the landscape.’ After reading both works, it becomes evident why Sheers chooses the Welsh borderland for his elegy; the area is representative of the borders that the people themselves create, thus choking any potential for intimacy, and stopping them from experiencing true love, or even just life. Indeed, these borders may be legitimate, for example a language barrier or the obstacle of illness. However, where these borders derive from memories, dreams and fear, there lies the true tragedy of humankind.
Word Count: 1550