Beir y Byd

“The more he spurred on his horse, the further was she from him. Yet her pace did not seem to change.” So the magical riding of Rhiannon from the Otherworld in The Mabinogi. No-one can catch up with her – though she proceeds serenely on her way – until she wishes it. When Pwyll speaks to her she stops and allows him to approach. It is then said that she lifts the veil from her face and allows him to see her. This is a revelation, not just for Pwyll who sees his future wife for the first time, but of her Otherworld presence in Thisworld. With this lifting of the veil the two worlds meet and what is hidden is made apparent. This sense of closeness, as Rhiannon rides past, and distance as she suddenly seems farther away, is here located in the narrative of a story from medieval Wales set in an indeterminate time further back in the past. So we weave our experiences of the Otherworld and the revelations of Otherworld beings into stories which embody them in Thisworld.


There are other ways in which the reality of hidden worlds may be acknowledged. Consider that there are certain techniques in musical counterpoint where two themes are woven around each other and one of them contains within it the echo of the other. So one theme can be heard by the listener and the other is heard as something different, but yet a sense of depth and significance is created as the echo is subliminally perceived. Here a hidden sound-world plays against a perceived sound-world, enacting the interaction between them in the performance of the music, though even the performer may not be fully aware of this, or will only discover it in a fully-realised and inspired performance. So a musicologist speaks of one of Henry Purcell’s 17th century ‘Fantazias’ for viols as “encouraging both players and listeners … to hear the theme as starting on a strong upbeat and – as an equally plausible alternative – to hear it starting on a weak upbeat as well.” and of another of the same composer’s works having a “structural secret” of which even experienced musicians may not be aware, involving an interplay between “the austere cantus firmus [‘fixed melody’]… and the supernatural cantus firmus enunciated only subliminally in a nearly inaudible middle voice.” (*) The suggestion here is that the music both evokes and symbolically represents the interpenetration of an apparent and a hidden world and the uncertain terrain between them.

Such artistic creation is done not just for its own sake but as an act of acknowledgement of the source of creative inspiration. Melodies that are hidden in other melodies; words referring to things that are not obviously apparent; images that are mirrors of other, unseen, images. All these reflect a vocation to bring otherness and thisness into relation with each other and to enact that relation in offerings : prayers that are not asking for something but gifts for the gods presented on the borders between the worlds.

Out of the practice of composing contrapuntal music came a body of definitions of the different types of counterpoint which were comprehensively explored in the fugal works of J S Bach. Similarly, the early Welsh bards developed a range of techniques for the composition of verse which were standardised in the bardic grammars. These became the voice of the awen. Like counterpoint they achieved harmony not so much by the fusion of different sounds in complex chords as in later music, but by setting one sound off against another to create patterns of assonance and alliteration answering each other along a line of verse. This is called cynghanedd and is easier to do in Welsh than in English because it fits well with the natural sound patterns and the grammatical structure of the language. The most creative use of it by an English poet was in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins who taught himself Welsh and studied Welsh metrics and used them to develop innovative ways of constructing verse in English. So, writing of a kestrel in ‘The Windhover’,  he produced lines such as these:

I caught his morning morning’s minion king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding
of the rolling level underneath him, steady air and striding

which incorporate some of the techniques of cynghanedd, not as an exercise or for ornament but in order to capture the essential nature of the bird and its pattern of flight, what he called ‘Instress’. Hopkins developed several such terms to define his verse practice, including also ‘Sprung Rhythm’ and ‘Counter-Pointed Rhythm’ and related them to his attempts to achieve the presentation of ‘Thisness’ and ‘Instress’ in his poetry, both what is concretely presented to us in the world and what lies beneath the surface. So here, too, we have a sense of an invisible world infusing the world of things that can be seen. In the poem ‘Heaven-Haven’ (the title is  ‘cynghanedd groes’), he writes

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb
And out of the swing of the sea.

We might notice the obvious repetition of ‘sw-‘ in ‘swell’ and ‘swing’, but he also links ‘green swell’ with ‘havens’ by the less obvious repetition of ‘ns’ setting up an opposition between ‘swell’ and ‘swing’ which is contrary to their apparent similarity of sound, while also linking the ‘green swell’ and the ‘havens’ in an enlivened comparison of contained stillness.

I have discussed Hopkins to illustrate the use of cynghanedd because it is difficult to link the sounds and meanings of bards writing in Welsh without using that language. But it is clear that the earliest bards saw themselves as engaged in what one scholar writing in Welsh refers to as “declaiming words used for magical purposes in a way different from that used for ordinary speech”(**) It was a way of discovering a form which reflected – to use Hopkins’ terms – both the ‘instress’ and the ‘thisness’ of things: their inward as well as their outward being.


In the Mabinogi tale of the return from Ireland with the head of Bendigeidfran by the seven surviving members of the band that went there, they gain some respite from their sorrows in Harlech where the Birds of Rhiannon sing to them as they prepare for their transition to the Otherworld: “… three birds came and began to sing a song to them, and of every song they had ever heard none sounded so sweet as did this song. Though they had to look far out over the sea to get a glimpse of the birds, yet the birds seemed so apparent to them that they were there among them.” Here we are back with the idea of things being both close and far away as we were with Rhiannon’s magical riding. So it is with the Otherworld, at once distant and yet as close as an endearment whispered in the ear. Do you hear it? Can you find a way to shape it into a song, an offering, a representation of the winding path through the labyrinth which is also straight and true? This is what is asked of an awenydd and what is offered to the gods in what an awenydd makes out of what is both far and near, distant and close, hidden and apparent. So it is too for all who hear the words the gods speak, feel their breath on the breeze, see their faces in the very shapes of the trees.


(*) Laurence Dreyfus in his discussion of Henry Purcell’s ‘Complete Fantasises for Viols’ (PHANTASM CD PSC 1124) on which he also plays and leads the performance.

(**) J. E. Caerwyn Williams ‘Bardus Gallice Cantor Appelatur’, in Beirdd a Thywysogion (Cardiff, 1996)

One thought on “WRITING THE DEEP

  1. I think there’s a lot in the story of Rhiannon getting further from Pwyll until she chose to unveil herself. This seems to be a defining feature of divine experience in general. Also that paradoxical distance and closeness at once.

    I also like the quote about declaiming words for a magical purpose (ie. poetically) which really comes through in cynghanedd and in Hopkins’ work.

    On a tangent Hopkins taught at Stonyhurst College which is quite near to me and I’m sure someone said he also taught at St Wilfrid’s church in Preston. The Stonyhurst library is fascinating. It not only has really old books and prayerbooks but the relics of saints – literally skulls watching over you. It’s well worth a visit.


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