Monday, 13 February 2012

I was coming to that ...

Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog just featured an interesting post, An Aberystwyth Mermaid, an account from the 1800s that strongly recalls the Robert Graves poem, as read above by Richard Burton. I love this poem: it manages to be simultaneously funny, surreal and sinister.

Welsh Incident

'But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.'
'What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?'
'Nothing at all of any things like that.'
'What were they, then?'
'All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.'
'Describe just one of them.'
'I am unable.'
'What were their colours?'
'Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you'd like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.'
'Tell me, had they legs?'
'Not a leg or foot among them that I saw.'
'But did these things come out in any order?'
What o'clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?'

'I was coming to that. It was half-past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments
Collecting for Caernarvon's (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth's mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail's pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder
Did something recognizably a something.'
'Well, what?'
'It made a noise.'
'A frightening noise?'
'No, no.'
'A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?'
'No, but a very loud, respectable noise ---
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'
'What did the mayor do?'
'I was coming to that.'

- Robert Graves

Graves commented on the origins of the poem in The Listener of 28th May 1970: see Where the crakeberries grow - Robert Graves gives an account of himself to Leslie Norris.

Perhaps one of your best-known poems is 'Welsh Incident'. Could you tell us the story behind the writing of that poem?

The Irish used to say that you write one sort of poem with your right hand and another with your left, and I think it was the same with the Welsh bards. But the right hand is the constructive one and the left is the satiric one, and you can't be serious the whole time. Occasionally you have to have a satire, which is pleasant joking, and this is what 'Welsh Incident' was intended to be. It started when my father and I were in a train compartment of the old Cambrian Railway. The train was going round that curve from Barmouth, through Llan-bedr, round into Harlech where you see the sea stretched out; and there was a policeman aboard, a Welsh policeman. He got very excited and started telling my father how he had recently seen a mermaid. He wasn't joking either: it was in perfect seriousness and made a very powerful impression on us all. Mermaids come into that poem, you may remember. And, of course, I'd been to those sea caves-, I'd been taken there by Professor Lloyd Williams, a botanist by profession, who was also one of the great Welsh mythologists. You could go there only at low tide about once a year. The caves had a very great fascination for me. But about 'Welsh Incident' - I wrote it in a Welsh accent.

The satire is evidently directed at the Welsh, regarding both their reputed fondness for discursive storytelling and their religious conformism (the creatures being quite the opposite of conformist - "Very strange, un-Welsh ... each perfectly unlike his neighbour"). In the original version of the poem, called Railway Carriage, the sound the creature made was "a loud belch". As Douglas Day describes in his 1963 Swifter than reason: the poetry and criticism of Robert Graves:

Then, having issued this brief evaluation of Welsh stuffiness and religious fundamentalism, it fades into the sea.

The forum quotes the critical commentary from Michael Kirkham's 1969 The Poetry of Robert Graves.

- Ray

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