Exploring the Symbolism of “Stripping the Willow”

Hi, all!

Last Tuesday, we discussed Kathleen Jamie’s poem “The Queen of Sheba” in class. I don’t remember who in class asked about the significance of the line “she wants to strip the willow,” but the question really stuck with me. I was convinced that willows had specific meaning attached to them, dealing with wisdom or some other aspect of Truth or knowledge– although I think now that may just have come from the Disney movie Pocahontas’ Grandmother Willow character.

Nevertheless, I wanted to push the symbolism a little further, to see if there was any background that we could be missing as non-Scottish readers. I did some research first on “symbolism of the willow” and found a number of websites (with perhaps questionable credibility) that were just begging to tell me about the magical/otherworldly powers of the willows.

Wikipedia shared that “in English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.” (Also, in Japanese culture, willows are connected to otherworldly spirits like ghosts!)

Through my travels around the internet, I also learned that willow trees have medicinal uses, like to relieve colds, fevers, pains, and rheumatism. Willow trees are associated with the moon, with “the ability to adapt and adjust to life,” and with “the enhancement of psychic abilities.”

EHow shared that willows connected back to ancient Greece: “[Greek] Mythology tells us that the poet Orpheus received his gift for music and poetry after touching a willow in a grove sacred to Persephone, and the willow was linked to those skills.”

The OED, too, was pretty unhelpful, sharing very little by way of significance (and also not acknowledging the connection one website was CONVINCED about, in which “willow” and “witchcraft” came from the same root word).

Although I always use sites like Wikipedia and Ehow (and who doesn’t believe a website called “What’s Your Sign? Celtic Meanings of the Willow Tree!” last updated in 2003?), I still wasn’t quite sure of a literary reference to fit with the passage. Jamie speaks of “stripping” the willow, which I found particularly interesting– would you strip a willow to use its bark? Would you strip a willow to make a switch? So, on the off chance it was an idiom, I Googled the term.

As it turns out, “strip the willow” is a Scottish folk dance.

From just Googling the term, I found the following videos, which illustrate the dance of “stripping the willow.” The BBC version below also teaches you how to “strip the willow.” The dance has been around since the 1600s, and so it would be common knowledge of Scottish readers of the poem.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBCayM6aFJQ

www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01n4n1l

So when the Queen of Sheba wants to “strip the willow,” just as she wants “the keys to the National Library,” she is asking for part of Scotland, to participate in the culture and the history of the area to which she’s come. This makes her transformation of all the young women in the poem even more powerful– she takes part in the culture and reappropriates her own role in it (and the girls’ too, by extension).

The Child Ballads

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland experienced a boom in interest in Scottish heritage, one that sent many would-be-scholars scurrying to the hillsides in search of folklore to publish in anthologies. Some of these men (for they were, by and large, men) succeeded in their task and published volumes of Scottish ballads and folklore. One of the most successful and most scholarly of these entrepreneurs was Francis Child, who published 305 different ballads throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, later compiled into a single work called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. His work is notable for several reasons. Each of the “ballads” he records is actually a story type, under which he would often file several versions of the same story. The entry I am most familiar with that on the ballad of Tam Lin, Child Ballad 39, which includes nine variations on the tale I was familiar with. These inner ballads represent regional variations within Scotland, as well as changes the story seems to have made in being told in America, and England was well. This, along with Professor Child’s own notes on the subject (which were published alongside the ballads in the 2,500 pages that make up the completed work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ranging from a tracing of the history of the ballad to analytic comparisons) makes the study of the Child ballads a fascinating look into the way Scottish culture comes into contact with the English, and the changes that occur in a story in order to make it suit the interests and lifestyles of different peoples. It was also well-loved for it’s tracing of the history of the ballad form as far back as Ancient Greece, and in so doing setting Scotland’s lyrics up as a sort of culmination of western literary styles. Child’s ballads have also been noted for having darker themes than most ballads, as a whole, though they do also deal with lighter elements of love and do include happy endings (as Tam Lin does end on a light note, with Janet succeeding in her rescue of Tam and their creation of a family together).
The earliest poem in the collection a date has been put to is “Judas”, dated to the thirteenth century, though most of the ballads appear to have been composed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is likely many of the ballads were recited to Childe orally, though the music you can find them set to today was written in the 1960’s by Bertrand Harrison Bronson and was not included with Child’s original publication of the works. While it is interesting to note that the ballads Child recorded were still alive enough for a modern scholar to find and record the music that went with them, it I odd that Child did not include the music in the first place. His removal of the music from the ballads moves them, after all, out of the realm of Oral Literature and into a form more akin to that of traditional English poetry. His distancing of the lyrics from the music might, then, have been an attempt to put Scottish literary heritage on what would have been seen as an equal footing with English literature. Yet, at the same time, he was collecting ballads, and made no secret of the fact that these were traditional tales for the Scottish people rather than works of solitary genius.
One of the largest difficulties with the ballads collected by Child, is thus the use of Scottish, English, and American variants of the ballads, rather than simply Scottish versions. The use of all three, it is true, makes his work more scholarly than others, as it allows a reader to trace the way the story changes with place, but at the same time it seems to undermine the movement that Child was a part of. The collection of Scottish ballads was part of a greater nationalistic movement to assert a Scottish literary heritage, after all, yet here is Child connecting those Scottish Ballads to English ones. His choice, given his being an American, could easily be read as being against a separate Scotland, as an assertion that Scotland’s heritage the same as that of England. As Balmoral become, during this period, one of the Royal Residences for Queen Victoria, making it difficult for any outsider to see Scotland and England as separate entities, a move such as this would make political sense. It also fits with the profile that has been constructed of a lover of ballads as being the same group of men who loved pastoral English poems. It can also, however, be viewed as an attempt to highlight the differences between the Scottish and English ballads, acknowledging the similarities while stressing the differences in orality and form that are the Scottish heritage.

Sources:
www.sacred-texts.com/neu//eng/child/index.htm
www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/50489/ballad-revival
www.historytoday.com/christopher-harvie/ballads-nation
www.bartleby.com/220/1009.html
www.springthyme.co.uk/ballads/child_child.html

The Loch Ness Monster on Apple Maps? Thoughts About Land and Nationality

Today I noticed that a Loch Ness Monster sighting is trending on the Internet!  Apparently Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts have found a mysterious shape in the loch on Apple Maps.  They’re claiming that the shape looks like the monster.  Adversaries say it’s a boat wake; sighters fight back that there is no boat in sight around the wake, as the only boats visible are those moored at the loch’s shore.  You may read the full story here:

www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2607667/Is-THIS-Loch-Ness-Monster-Apples-Maps-satellite-image-Nessie.html

This returns me to our class discussion following Edwin Morgan’s poem “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song,” and what it means to fabricate a following of a creature that ties itself so closely to the land.  Much of the poetry we’ve been reading this semester relies on landscape for its settings and content, and I think the Loch Ness Monster branches off this tradition of identification with the land.  I’ve thus been pondering about the relationship between landscapes and nationality in Scotland.  I also wonder, who is entitled to become a believer in Nessie?  What kind of person believes — Scottish? Celtic? International?  When does one start believing, and why?  How does the legend of the Loch Ness Monster relate to Scotland’s cultural history?  Is it significant that the monster is female? (Apparently, to answer this last question, it’s because the name Nessie sounds female! This leads us to interesting questions about the relationship between gender and nation as well — what happens when the nation is a female? Source: http://www.unknownexplorers.com/lochnessmonster.php.)

In my search for some light to shed on the rest of my questions, I found (unsurprisingly) that Nessie has her own website, www.nessie.co.uk, which is “Ultimate and Official.”  The website offers a shop where fans can buy a variety of paraphernalia.  What does it mean that the Monster has been commodified in this way? Does the “Ultimate and Official” website now own/profit from the historical legend?  Now that Nessie has been made “Official” in this way, how does that change or deconstruct or even crystallize our perceptions of how the monster should appear?  I wonder about the importance of having a unified conception of the monster and how that speaks to the people who participate in the legend.  I’d wager to say that having a unified image provides a center for [the myth of (?)] the monster, in that it is a foundation off of which people can build.  And the vagueness of the monster’s appearance welcomes new followers in so that they may easily believe they’re seeing the monster.

Still, in returning to the Apple Maps “sighting,” The Wire wonders, “Is this the work of Scottish nationalists?”  (Source: www.thewire.com/global/2014/04/apple-inadvertantly-intensifies-the-search-for-loch-ness-monster/360929/).  This question implies that “Scottish nationalists” could be using the monster sighting as a ploy for attention given the current question of whether Scotland will break away from England, answering one of my original questions of how having a monster might elevate Scottish cultural history and nationalist sentiments.  Now I ask, if the monster intrigues an international audience, are Scottish nationalists using the monster to elevate Scotland’s global relevance?  Or, on the other hand, given the monster’s international application, does the fact that the monster is in Scotland specifically even matter?  Put differently, I am curious about how much the country matters when the setting of Loch Ness is so famously recognized.  Does this bring Scotland forward, or push it into the background of global thought, the foreground of which is the Loch and its Monster?  Clearly right now the Internet is abuzz with the sighting, but I don’t think we are being drawn any further than that — in other words, I hesitate to agree with The Wire in saying that this is a nationalist plot because the Internet seems to be selectively paying attention to Nessie but not to Scotland in general after the sighting.

Phonetic Poetry

I was struck by Tom Leonard’s poetry (Six O’clock News and Jist ti Let Yi No), which was written phonetically in the urban Glaswegian accent, a technique I had not previously seen. I was curious to learn more about how phonetic poetry functions and its literary context. In literature, phonetic writing for the most part occurs in dialogue as opposed to narrative. Its function in poetry is similar; it more effectively calls up a particular voice. The British newspaper The Guardian described Leonard’s work as “bringing excluded voices into poetry…” By writing his poetry phonetically, Leonard forces the reader to hear these excluded voices rather than a universal standard accent, such as the BBC English accent he addresses in Six O’clock News:

this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. 

 A similar use of phonetic poetry that captures a colloquial accent is found in older E.E. Cummings poem: poem II in ViVa, Oil tel duh woil doi sez:

oil tel duh woil doi sez 
dooyuh unnurs tanmih essez pullih nizmus tash,oi
dough un giv uh shid oi sez.    Tom
oidoughwuntuh doot,butoiguttuh
braikyooz,datswut eesez tuhmih.    (Nowoi askyuh
woodundat maik yurarstoin
green?    Oilsaisough.)—Hool
spairruh luckih?    Thangzkeed.    Mairsee.
Muh jax awl gawn.    Fur Croi saik
ainnoughbudih gutnutntuhplai?
HAI

yoozwidduhpoimnuntwaiv un duhyookuhsumpnruddur
givusuhtoonunduhphugnting

A Standard English translation of Cummings’ poem:

I’ll tell the world I says
do you understand me as he’s pulling his moustache,I
don’t give a shit I says.  Tom
I don’t want to do it, but I got to
break youse,that’s what he says to me.  (Now I ask you
wouldn’t that make your arse turn
green?  I’ll say so.)—Who’ll
spare a Lucky?  Thanks kid.  Merci.
My jack’s all gone.  For Christ sake
ain’tnobody gotnothin’toplay?
HEY

yousewiththepermanentwave and theukeorsomethingorother
giveusatuneonthefuckin’thing

Another source of inspiration for Leonard was the American poet William Carlos Williams, who did not write phonetic poetry. However, Williams’ poems were “patterned by breath rather than metre,” in the same way that Leonard’s are; they share a focus on the sound of a voice. Earlier, we read Leonard’s Jist ti Let Yi No, an imitation of Williams’ famous poem, This is just to say. Leonard’s poem escalated from simply being patterned by breath to being spelled phonetically, creating a specific accent to further fill out the speaker’s voice. The direct creation of a specific accent is crucial to Leonard’s poetry. He has expressed that in order for spelling and syntax to be “correct,” they must indicate accurate and specific pronunciation, not simply the universal standard:

I. In speaking of reality, there is a standard

correct mode of pronunciation.

2. In writing of reality, there is a standard

correct mode of spelling and of syntax.

Therefore

3. In reality, correct spelling and correct syntax

are synonymous with correct pronunciation.”

In reading more about Tom Leonard’s unusual style of poetry, I came across the tradition of ‘sound poetry.’ This form is related to the concepts behind Leonard’s phonetic poetry, in that “the phonetic aspects of human speech are foregrounded instead of more conventional semantic and syntactic values;” however, sound poetry often dispenses with words altogether and focuses only on sound, sometimes using only onomatopoeias—“bridging literary and musical composition.” While Leonard’s phonetic poetry keeps actual understandable language in order to better convey his message, he may have taken inspiration from the tradition of ‘sound poetry.’

Sources:

www.theguardian.com/books/2009/oct/17/poetry-leonard-batchelor-review

www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/tom-leonard

faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/cummings/oiltel6.htm

scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1213&context=ssl

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_poetry

Macaulay, Ronald K. S.. Standards and variation in urban speech examples from Lowland Scots. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Pub., 1997. Print.

 

 

 

 

Readings for Thursday

Hallo All! I’m hoping you all check the blog on a regular basis, as I couldn’t think of another way to do this….Here are the poems I’d like you to read for Thursday! See you then!
Selected Poems of R.S. Thomas

A Welsh Testament
All right, I was Welsh. Does it matter?
I spoke a tongue that was passed on
To me in the place I happened to be,
A place huddled between grey walls
Of cloud for at least half the year.
My word for heaven was not yours.
The word for hell had a sharp edge
Put on it by the hand of the wind
Honing, honing with a shrill sound
Day and night. Nothing that Glyn Dwr
Knew was armour against the rain’s
Missiles. What was descent from him?

Even God had a Welsh name:
He spoke to him in the old language;
He was to have a peculiar care
For the Welsh people. History showed us
He was too big to be nailed to the wall
Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him
Between the boards of a black book.

Yet men sought us despite this.
My high cheek-bones, my length of skull
Drew them as to a rare portrait
By a dead master. I saw them stare
From their long cars, as I passed knee-deep
In ewes and wethers. I saw them stand
By the thorn hedges, watching me string
The far flocks on a shrill whistle.
And always there was their eyes; strong
Pressure on me: You are Welsh, they said;
Speak to us so; keep your fields free
Of the smell of petrol, the loud roar
Of hot tractors; we must have peace
And quietness.

Is a museum
Peace? I asked. Am I the keeper
Of the heart’s relics, blowing the dust
In my own eyes? I am a man;
I never wanted the drab role
Life assigned me, an actor playing
To the past’s audience upon a stage
Of earth and stone; the absurd label
Of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders. I was in prison
Until you came; your voice was a key
Turning in the enormous lock
Of hopelessness. Did the door open
To let me out or yourselves in?

The Gap
God woke, but the nightmare
did not recede. Word by word
the tower of speech grew.
He looked at it from the air
he reclined on. One word more and
it would be on a level
with him; vocabulary
would have triumphed. He
measured the thin gap
with his mind. No, no, no,
wider than that! But the nearness
persisted. How to live with
the fact, that was the fear
now. How to take his rest
on the edge of a chasm a
word could bridge.
He leaned
over and looked in the dictionary
they used. There was the blank still
by his name of the same
order as the territory
between them, the verbal hunger
for the thing in itself. And the darkness
that is a godfs blood swelled
in him, and he let it
to make the sign in the space
on the page, that is in all languages
and none; that is the grammarian’s
torment and the mystery
at the cell’s core, and the equation
that will not come out, and is
the narrowness that we stare
over into the eternal
silence that is the repose of God.

Amen
It was all arranged:
the virgin with child, the birth
in Bethlehem, the arid journey uphill
to Jerusalem. The prophets foretold
it, the scriptures conditioned him
to accept it. Judas went to his work
with his sour kiss; what else
could he do?

A wise old age,
the honours awarded for lasting,
are not for a saviour. He had
to be killed; salvation acquired
by an increased guilt. The tree,
with its roots in the mind’s dark,
was divinely planted, the original fork
in existence. There is no meaning in life,
unless men can be found to reject
love. God needs his martyrdom.
The mild eyes stare from the Cross
in perverse triumph. What does he care
that the people’s offerings are so small?

Children’s Song
We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And though you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play,
Where life is still asleep
Under the closed flower,
Under the smooth shell
Of eggs in the cupped nest
That mock the faded blue
Of your remoter heaven

Taken From
Thomas, R. S. “Amen.” Poems of R.S. Thomas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1985. Print.

John Lennox Visits Swarthmore

Last Wednesday, I went to Swarthmore to hear John Lennox (not John Lennon) speak on the question, “Does morality need God?”  Regardless of the answer (which he answered simply, “No, of course not.”), Lennox’s past of growing up in Northern Ireland was very interesting and relatable to the history we’ve been delving into in regards to our poetry.

lennox

John Lennox

Lennox is a mathematician, a philosopher of science, and a Christian apologist who also happens to be a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford.

He introduced us to his background with the question, “Now, have you heard of Northern Ireland?”  He chuckled and said that yes, we’ve probably heard of Northern Ireland, but for probably not the best reasons.  Lennox explained that he comes from a non-sectarian Christian background.  His father very strongly believed that all people are created in the image of God, making all people (and all Christians) valuable and important.  Because of this, his father hired Catholics and Protestants in his family store.

Lennox also revealed that he almost lost his brother (who “almost had his face blown off,” Lennox remembered) to the violence in Northern Ireland over religion because of their father’s devotion to treating both sides the same.

To this day, Lennox continues his father’s inclusive belief and looks upon his homeland, Northern Ireland, with the shame that his people “are using the name of Jesus Christ to take up bombs and AK-47s.”

He also had an experience in school when another boy asked him about his religion, but then immediately backed off, saying, “Oh, that’s right, you’re from Northern Ireland.  You don’t talk about those things there.”  Because of the violence he was exposed to as a child and that encounter with the other boy in grade school, Lennox chose to continue to delve deeper into his faith to discover and share what it is really means.

Kilmainham Gaol

During my Spring Break trip to Dublin, one of the coolest (and perhaps most touristy) places I visited was Kilmainham Gaol. Part of what made this site so interesting to me was the relevance that it had to our class. This jail is located in Dublin and is the place where most of the leaders of the Irish rebellions, including the rebellion that took place on Easter 1916, were imprisoned and executed. The gaol was used to hold all kinds of prisoners, including women and children, the youngest prisoner documented being a five-year-old boy.
Kilmainham Gaol prison cells from the outside

The Gaol was built in 1796 and originally referred to as the “New Gaol,” as it was built as a replacement for an older gaol. It operated as a gaol until 1924 when it was closed and eventually turned into the museum that it is today. During the many famines that took place in Ireland during the years that the gaol was functioning, many people would commit petty crimes with the intention of being put into the gaol, because they knew that in there they would at least be given three basic meals. This lead to the gaol becoming significantly overpopulated, and because of this, constant renovations and additions were required to be able to hold all of the prisoners.

The largest area of the gaol is known as the Victorian Wing or the East Wing. It is in this area of the gaol that the majority of the leaders of the Easter 1916 rebellion were held, including Countess Markievicz, Willie Pearse, and more.
1975030_10202608722353242_475608483_n
Below is a picture of the guards’ staircase in the East Wing of Kilmainham. Their staircase is wide and straight, making it easy for them to get to all floors and cells of the wing. On the opposite side of the room was a small, steep, spiral staircase that was used by the prisoners. It was designed this way to make it difficult for the prisoners to manuver quickly, making it difficult for them to run away.
10003482_10202608726513346_1026147725_n
The East Wing of Kilmainham Gaol is now used as a highlight of the tour, as well as for concerts, galas, fashion shows, and the set of multiple motion pictures, such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Italian Job, Michael Collins, and The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.
The_Shawshank_Redemption The-Italian-Job 8917 MV5BMzM0Nzk2MzkyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDgxMjM4NA@@._V1_SY1200_CR126,0,630,1200_

Grace Gifford, the wife of Joseph Plunkett, was also held in this area of the gaol. She was imprisoned after her husband. The night before Plunkett’s execution, Gifford (who was his fiancée at the time) was brought into the gaol so that they could get married before he died. There was a small ceremony with no friends or family present held inside the gaol. After the wedding, Plunkett returned to his cell to be executed in the morning and Gifford returned home.
safe_image

The executions of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rebellion started that May. The first three to be executed in Kilmainham were Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke, and Thomas McDonagh. James Connolly was the last to be shot. He spent the night before his execution in The Royal Hospital Kilmainham because of his wounds, but on the day of the execution he was tied to a chair. All of these leaders and more were shot in a corner of The Stonebreakers’ Yard behind the gaol.
Stonebreakers-yard
This area was used for the prisoners’ “work,” in which they broke big stones into smaller stones. It was supposed to be hard, unproductive, and keep the prisoners busy while they thought about their crimes. Originally, all executions were carried out in the form of hangings from right above the front door of the gaol. This was extremely public.
Kilmainham-Gaol

Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish landlord and a key leader of the national political party, was put into Kilmainham because his paper, United Ireland, directly attacked the Land Act. While this in and of itself was not a crime, English rulers in Ireland feared that Parnell would start trouble, so he was put into a suite in Kilmainham. From this suite he was allowed to conduct business with the outside-world, have visitors, and was even once allowed to leave for a family funeral as long as he promised to return afterwards. For the most part, Parnell was only put into Kilmainham to keep him out of trouble. During his time in Kilmainham, Parnell helped to form an agreement, The Kilmainham Treaty, with the government of England. Below is a picture of Parnell in his comfortable room in Kilmainham, into which he was allowed to bring his own furniture.
1105

During the gaol’s period of function, there were multiple escapes. Escapes were more common earlier on in its’ existence, as at this time guards were paid very poorly and therefore were easily bribed by prisoners. According to my tour guide, in a few cases escapes were successful when a prisoner merely walked out of the front gates at the right time.

Just for fun, here is a picture of my friend that I traveled with and me in the doorway of a typical cell at Kilmainham Gaol.
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The Red Kite

red-kite-head

This week while reading Alan Llwyd’s poems I noticed (as a avid animal enthusiast) that many of his works were animal related. Specifically I was struck by the first poem in the anthology, “The Hawk Above Felindre,” which I found to be extraordinarily beautiful. I am constantly evaluating the role animals play in literature and while reading this poem I was interested in Llwyd’s choice to portray the hawk as an all-powerful and all seeing creature. Llwyd writes:

 

Wheeling and wheeling above the woods
the hawk spinning in the invisible
whirlpool of his flight in the thin
sunshine’s radiance
on a cold morning:
primeval rite,
the rhythmic movements of the hawk’s
dance, round and around,
on the line of his own horizons:
the day stock-still, and his fire-dance
one with the dance of all the planets,
one with the dance of the universe.

Every timorous heart beneath his wide
hovering, underneath his spirallings,
fills with terror and thumps through the silk
of the thin bosom. The world billows
within his wingspan:
animals, creatures and man
whirling about in his eyes,
in the vast vacancy that is the cleft
of his eyes, every living soul
held fast by the dance’s motion.

He turns overhead on his axle,
his flight-path around his own
equator: he is the ripple in the middle
of the lake, that spreads
in waves around
the dint of a skipped stone.
The circle widens, widens as he hangs
on wings of fire,
and as he spirals he cuts an enormous
hole in the cosmos,
opens a hole through God’s creation,
and through the gap our civilization collapses,
falls through to its death.

It is clear that Llwyd’s hawk is not just any bird but holds more significant meaning as an omniscient presence in its landscape. Its view from the sky places all “animals, creatures and man” in the hawk’s control giving it enough power to cut a hole through God’s creations with its spiraling dance. This overwhelming presence made me consider whether hawks have specific significance in Wales. I did some research and found that in fact Wales is known for its birds, both on its extensive coastline and throughout the interior of the region. Among the most famous of these birds is the Red Kite (a type of hawk), which is considered by many to be the Welsh national bird. Although Red Kites once bred throughout Britain, they became extinct in England and Scotland by the end of the 18th century after being hunted by farmers who saw them as a threat to expanding agriculture. However, the birds continued to survive in Wales and became iconic due to their beauty and their distinctive and elaborate areal displays.

red-kites-janet-baxter
A Red Kite

While Llwyd makes no mention of a specific type of hawk in his poem, he makes continual references to the bird’s “rhythmic movements,” and its “fire dance” which is “one with the dance of all the planets,/ one with the dance of the universe.” The poem is also set in Felindre which is a Welsh town surrounded by countryside and woods, the perfect habitat for the Red Kite. I am therefore concluding, both due to textual evidence and for the sake of my argument, that Llwyd’s hawk is in fact a Red Kite and thus the Welsh national bird.

After reaching this conclusion I now see the poem in a slightly different light. The hawk is a symbol of Welsh identity, an icon of a natural beauty that the rest of Britain did not manage to preserve. In this sense I now see Llwyd’s poem as not only a tribute to a majestic animal, but I believe he is identifying the bird as a protector of the land. For centuries the hawk has been circling the Welsh skies, witnessing hundreds of years of repetition and change. The bird represents the survival of a national identity, an identity that holds significance for all in its sight.

The last two lines of the poem, however, are still causing me some difficulty. Llwyd concludes by describing how civilization collapses to its death into the hole formed by the hawk’s spiraling dance. One could interpret this image as a statement surrounding the strength of national identity. It is possible that Llwyd is suggesting that the survival of a civilization is inherently dependent on nationalism. Conversely it can be seen as illustrating the dangers of nationalist identities and emphasizing the manner in which nationalism has repeatedly led to destruction.

I would love to hear what others think!

Also if you are interested in birds BBC has some great videos including this one:

www.bbc.co.uk/nature/places/Wales#p006l8qz

Sources:

www.bbc.co.uk/nature/places/Wales#p006l8qz

www.redkites.co.uk/

www.cardiganshirecoastandcountry.com/birds-wildlife-red-kite.php

galleryhip.com/kite-bird.html