Like many of the boys with whom I grew up, I found myself obsessed, from about the age of seven to fifteen, with weapons, imagined battles, and military history. The Middle Ages undoubtedly the coolest. Broadswords, battleaxes, crossbows all served to tantalize the imagination with vivid scenes of glorious battle and unprecedented demonstrations of chivalry. That such implements were meant to harm never seemed to factor into the picture.
Of all the heroic tales and armaments I imagined, however, nothing seemed as majestic or powerful as the tale of the English archer and his longbow. To this day, something about the awesome power of a one-hundred-fifty pound draw weight bow sending an arrow three hundred meters sends chills down my spine. It should not be a surprise, then, that Hugh MacDiarmid’s casting of Dylan Thomas’ elegy in the form of an arrow’s flight impressed itself upon my mind and urged me on to write a blog post about the history of such fearsome weapons in the British Isles.
The poem, In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, makes beautiful use of image and symbol in positing—in my reading, at least—Thomas’ final poem (or poetic effort) as an arrow shot vertically. The fast-flying arrow is at first glorified: “Up and up it went, not weaving as it would have done / With a snatching loose, but soaring, swimming / Aspiring towards heaven, steady, golden, and superb.” Such a perfect flight, however, is quickly subverted by the entrance of an ominously named “gore crow” that snatches the arrow from flight and extinguishes the poet’s symbolic flight. Rather than ending on a pessimistic note, however, the poem insists that the arrow must eventually return to earth and uses the repetition of the opening lines (“there comes from Wales once again / The fff-putt of a triple-feathered arrow / Which looks as if it had never moved!) to signal a certain a-temporal character of Thomas’ poetry.
Moving beyond the poem itself, I found myself extremely interested in the question of why the English longbow is often referred to as Welsh. Although most writers on the internet do not do more than take a perfunctory jab, saying that the bow itself originated with Welsh clans, I think there might be more of a back story—something with which I am hoping Professor McInerney might be able to help. On the other hand, my searches did yield an overwhelming amount of references and analysis of the role of the longbow in English history. Books have been written on the subject, but the short history is that around the year 1250 AD, the English army began to actively employ longbowmen in their armies, having initially seen them used successfully by the Welsh. Over the next hundred years, a culture developed in which all peasants began training at a very young age to develop the strength and accuracy needed to use the longbow in war. Then, between 1346 and 1415, the English used longbowmen to devastating effect in the Hundred Years’ War, literally massacring the French nobility (who fought as mounted, armored knights) in the battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. The success of the weapon and its imprint of the national consciousness of England are represented, I think, in two documents I found on the Early English Books Online database. The first, Toxophilus, or, “Lover of Bows,” was written in 1545 as a dedication to Henry VIII who required all men under sixty to practice the art of archery. The second is an announcement by king Charles I in 1631 officially a commission designed to explore the importance of archery in that day and age.
Considering that MacDiarmid found himself writing Thomas’ elegy in the twentieth century—a full seven hundred years after the initial adoption of the longbow by England—I am truly struck by both the importance and the persistence of the figure of the longbow in British historical and literary traditions.