Rewriting the Middle Ages

LIAM GUILAR likes a radical reimagining of a venerable Welsh work

Isolated in Aber Cuawg

Harry Gilonis, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, 19 pages

‘Claf Abercuawg’ is a Welsh poem composed perhaps in the ninth century. Claf, as a noun, means a sick person, a patient or a leper . Abercuawg is an area of north Wales. There is an ‘I’ who looks out at the landscape and speaks about it and his isolation.

This pamphlet contains an English translation of 32 three line stanzas, a short introductory essay, placed significantly after the poem, and some textual notes. The essay is a concise, necessary introduction to the differences between this poem and a modern English one. The pamphlet is visually attractive, robust enough to handle the rough usage it has received, and overall very good value for money.

The opening line announces the poem’s difference: “My mind’s requirement, to be sat atop a hill”.

In the 1970s, Glyn Williams translated this as “To sit high on a hill is the wish of my heart”

Superficially, Williams sounds more natural, and perhaps immediately preferable. But the differences in word choice and order reveals the strength of Gilonis’ translation.

Generally the contemporary trend seems to be to assume that the people of the Middle Ages were modern people in funny clothes, suffering from bad ideologies and severe technological deprivation. The consequences of such assumptions are numerous and they are all bad. The logic runs that because these people are us, then their stories can be presented as we think they should have been written, or would have been written if the original composers weren’t so clumsy. And because they are ‘like us’ then they should have known better. Therefore, the things modern observers find reprehensible in medieval behaviour and ideals can be easily condemned and preferably erased, because both are easier than trying to understand the essential alterity of the period.

The most invidious and invisible form of this domestication is when a translator surreptitiously converts a medieval text so it operates to modern, post-Romantic assumptions of how poems should function, and how a modern person would behave or think in that situation.

Gilonis, to his credit, avoids these traps. Ironically, part of the effectiveness of this translation lies in what he hasn’t done. “My mind’s requirement” does not sound like modern English. But it’s grammatical and makes sense. He walks the fine line between respecting the alterity of the original and turning the poem into something that works in English. He does this without domesticating the original, or turning it into a museum piece.

The translation, as translation, can be compared with different translations. Here are three versions of the last verse; Gilonis’ is the third.  

The Leper was a squire; he was a bold warrior

In the court of the King

May God be kind to the outcast.

Jenny Rowland

A youth was Leprous; once a bold leader

In the royal palace.

God be kind to the outcast.

Joseph P. Clancy

Isolated, once a warrior, once a champion, daring

Once in the court of a king

May God be kind to the outcast.

I prefer Gilonis’ version, but the key objective difference is the disappearance of ‘leper’. While Jenny Rowlands goes to some length to show how the speaker of the poem is indeed a leper, she’s also aware that it is not the only option (pp.191-193). The original poem would not have excluded other interpretations. As she points out, the solitary figure in a hostile landscape, well-known to readers of Old English, is as much a symbol of life on earth (with or without God) as a literal character. But translating claf as ‘leper’ would be to choose one option and for the reader of the translation to limit those other interpretations. It also throws the poem into the distance.

Gilonis defends his decision not to translate claf as ‘leper’ in the notes. The poem isn’t distanced from the modern British or American reader and the other possible readings of the text remain open.

Obviously the idea of someone isolated due to illness has an immediate contemporary relevance. The temptation would be to push the point, the use of deliberate anachronisms being a popular technique. Gilonis writes: “The resonances, in 2020, don’t need ramming home” (p10).  In 2020, ‘isolated’ was such a loaded word it should resonate without ventilators or prayers for vaccines turning up in the translation.

One of the strangest features of this poem is that, as in Old English poetry at this period, the speaking ‘I’ is an empty space anyone one reading the poem can step into. It’s merely a subject position, not an historical or fictional character, nor the product of autobiography. This is emphatically not a dramatic monologue in the Browning/Tennyson tradition, nor an ‘I’ in the tradition of English poetry from Wyatt onwards. While some speakers in the ‘saga poems’ of medieval Wales are characters in a fuller story, the speaker in this one exists only in this poem.

Some early Welsh verse, like this, simply don’t operate to the rules we assume govern modern poetry in English. There’s no clearly developed progression from an opening to an ending. There’s no ‘internal coherence’. The poems operate to their own rules, and those rules, leaving aside the complicated metrics, simply aren’t post-Renaissance or classically inflected English. There is description of landscape, but whether it’s meant to evoke the speaker’s mood or describe a place is questionable, and whichever answer you pick in one instance will be undermined in another.

Description is jammed against statement: but the relation of the two seems marginal, and the statements, as in the second line below, might be gnomic wisdom or just statements of fact. Either way, their relevance is never obvious:

Bright are the tops of the valleys; long the small hours.

Expertise is always praised.

Am I not to be granted the sleep due to the ill?

Temporally the poem hops around, sometimes in the same stanza. The overall effect is that the poem is swirling, but the swirl isn’t spiralling to any conclusion, just to the last word, where the poem stops. Gwyn Williams only translated ten of the 32 verses, but the ’extraction’ (his term) doesn’t seem to damage the poem in any way.

For general readers of English poetry, the pragmatic value of early medieval poetry, treated honestly as it is here, lies in the challenge it makes to the learnt reading practices of the school room and the lecture hall. A poem like this one, that obviously works, but not to ‘our’ rules, is a confrontation with the limits of our reading practice, and our assumptions about what a poem is, does, and can be.

This difference between what worked for a medieval Welsh audience and what a modern reader of poems expects gives the translation another level of interest. The original might have been written over 1,000 years ago, but this translation wouldn’t be out of place in something like Harriet Tarlo’s 2011 anthology of ‘radical landscape poetry’ .  

As such, it’s a blunt reminder that any claims made by ‘avant garde’, ‘experimentalist’ or ‘postmodern’ poets in the 21st century for the ‘innovative’ or ‘ground breaking novelty’ of their work is undermined, if not flatly contradicted, by the history of poetry. Whatever ‘it’ is, ‘it’ has usually been done before. This should negate the familiar excuse for writing abstruse nonsense – ‘But it hasn’t been done before’ – and focus the question on ‘Was it worth doing?’