In Wales the poets, ancient or modern, are never very far away. There is a spot among the low hills of north Cardiganshire where one can span, in a single view, 14 centuries of Welsh poetry. It is a grassy knoll at about the point where, as the hills rise from the narrow coastal lowlands, the home fields of the last inhabited farms give way to the open moorlands and the higher hills beyond them.
This is Bedd Taliesin—the traditional grave of the half-mythical poet of the sixth century; and looking northward one can see the estuary of the River Dovey, near the mouth of which the infant Taliesin was found after his mother Ceridwen, so the legend goes, had set him adrift upon the sea. Those same stretches of water in Cardigan Bay are, too, the scene of a second legend, sung in a widely known poem by a writer who died only this year, John James Williams. Beneath those waves lies Cantre'r Gwaelod—the Lowest Hundred— whose lands and houses were submerged when the dyke gates were left open in a storm, and whose bells, ringing under the water on a quiet night, the poet could hear. So into a single view come poets of the sixth and the twentieth century, testifying to the long history of Welsh poetry and of the Welsh tongue.
It matters little whether Bedd Taliesin, on which we stood one July afternoon, is the actual grave of the poet or not. It is the spot upon which his memory has for centuries been honoured — as, indeed, my companion himself had honoured it in a sonnet which had won him a chair at a regional Eisteddfod. If an illustration in an old guide-book, showing a complete circle of standing stones round the grave, is to be believed, the spot has changed a good deal in the past half-century. Now there is no such circle, only by the hill track a green mound, on which lies a flat stone, with a shallow pit, lined with other stones, beside it.
The track, roughly metalled, does not end here. It continues along the edge of the rounded hill that forms the southern side of the broad curving valley down which runs the Afon Clettwr. Every now and then there is a streamlet which might be the celebrated Nant y Mynydd of the nineteenth-century poet, Ceiriog, so exactly does it reproduce the features of that
Mountain brook, so lightly brightly Whirling downward to the vale, Through the rushes softly whispering,—if one may venture upon a paraphrase
The way seems as lonely as any in the land, but there are wheeltracks to show that it is used: and after about a mile or so the reason appears—a deserted farmhouse standing alone with a solitary ash in front and an old apple tree behind. This is Cae'r Arglwyddes—the Field of the Lady—and it is said to be so named after Lady Huntingdon, though what that famous religious reformer of the eighteenth century had to do with this distant valley is not obvious.
The house — lived in till three or four years ago — is now a sad sight, with its windows blocked by sheets of corrugated iron. Yet, though empty, it is not utterly deserted; it is still a centre of life. The outbuildings are clearly in use. There are sheep on its sheep-walks. Down in the valley below we can see men working the land. And by the yard gate is parked a smart new car — symbol of the machine which has changed life upon the remote farms so deeply.
So deeply ? Well, not in everything, certainly; perhaps not in the most fundamental things. With this thought in mind we began to speak of Ceiriog again. He wrote too much, and often carelessly, and his work is to-day denigrated by many. But even a dabbler in the fringes of Welsh lyric poetry can see that he achieved a noble simplicity in some of his poems, such as that which speaks of those things which remain and those things which change. The hills, the storms, the ancient language, the old Welsh love of song remain, he says, while men and customs change with the generations,
And new shepherds watch the flock On these ancient hills of ours.
Just as we were quoting these lines there came the proof. Down the track, past the farm, huddled a flock of sheep, herded by two dogs with the shepherd following close behind and controlling the dogs from the driving-seat of a tractor. A "new shepherd" indeed. But when he spoke to us it was in Welsh, the old tongue which is still — as when Ceiriog wrote this poem 90 years ago, and as when Taliesin wrote his poems 13 centuries before that — "alive in the land."