Cantre’r Gwaelod: the ballad of the sunken hundred

Cantre’r Gwaelod: the ballad of the sunken hundred

I climbed the coast to Dinas Head
one All Fools’ evening still
And the hedd of that high headland then
no curlew called to kill.
I stood on the trig-point like a statue,
my gorwel for to see:
Wexford way out to the west of me,
across the Irish Sea;
To my north, the Llŷn Peninsula
as clear as Waterford glass,
And all between was the blue waves’ sheen,
as glas as new-grown grass.

And it looked like nothing was living down there;
like nothing ever had:
Like maybe the gweilgi was a graveyard sown
with the ambitions of the mad.
And I fancied I heard a tolling carry
from the dwfn down below
As a black mass landed on the clifftop,
which I thought to be a crow –
Perhaps a chough? Though its bulk cast doubt;
and, when it turned, its brutal beak
Was gloomy as glo; and croaking, and slow,
this bird began to speak:

“Foolish man thinks itself apart
from that which its senses grasp.”
Its voice had no cerddoriaeth:
but a rough and rusty rasp.
A talking bird being nonetheless
beyond my common ground,
I stared back dumbly at the cigfran,
awaiting another sound.
“Have you nothing to say in your defence?”
demanded the indignant bird.
I asked myself had I the health
to credu what I had heard.

“It talks to itself, but not to us!”
the raven shrill declared.
I climbed lawr to approach the beast
But it just stood and stared:
Tilting its head, with an olewog eye.
“Who do you mimic?” I said.
It grunted in gruff disapproval, and shook
its hangman’s hood of a head.
“I speak for neb and all others,” it said.
“But to no end, I fear;
For you men have ears only to hear
the words you want to hear.”

“Then tell me what you would tell me,” I said.
“And I promise I’ll pay you heed.”
“Promise a blisgyn to the ocean floor,”
it said. “Just do the deed.
That body of dwr you gaze upon
was our childhood hunting ground.
Among its many fertile fields
were the choicest morsels found.
Till the tywysog of that fair place,
overdosed with wine,
Guiltless slept as the salt waves crept
to bury our hundred in brine.”

“A legend,” I said, “that I’ve heard before.
And one that every gwlad knows;
A story to worry each child who’s born
where rain falls and wind blows.”
The raven cocked its pen and looked
for a silent moment my way.
“Foolish man thinks tomorrows safe
from its deeds of yesterday.”
“What deeds of mine?” I snapped at the bird.
“Why blame you me for this?”
And on this note from the raven’s throat
came a swn, half-laugh, half-hiss:

“This sunken hundred was only one
of your kin’s forsaken lands.
And no cefngwlad across these wide islands
is free from the curse of your hands.”
The cymylau gathered above us
and the sea turned the colour of slate;
A calendar hoping to contain this scene
could surely display any date.
“Your brain is the size of a walnut,” I told it.
“I’ve no such power,” I said.
“No blood nor brine stains these dwylo of mine;
your culprits are centuries dead.”

The bird flapped up at my gwyneb,
before perching itself on the trig;
Shaking its shaggy ruff in a rage
And grunting like a pig:
“As are the beasts of the forest,” it squawked.
“And half of the pysgod too.
There will be little more than you and yours
by the time your kind are through.
Only a few milflwyddiannau ago
there were bogs and forests and fens;
Till you came to sow with arrows and bow
and to lock us in cages and pens;

“You drain the corsennau and the marshes,
lay all the forests low;
Raise silent cells for your mutant beasts,
reap death wherever you go.”
“But this lowland hundred you lament,”
I raised a bys to its beak.
“Which beast but man could have held back the tide
And plugged each fresh-sprung leak?”
It snapped the air as I drew back my hand:
“No need would exist!” it yelled,
“Had your ancestors cared for the tir that we shared
and the ancient oaks they felled.

“But you shaved the uplands bald and bare,
gouged wounds deep into the earth.
Brewed cas alchemical poisons to plague
the mother who blessed you with birth.
You assumed the mantle of mastery
dros all other matter,
And milked the will of the wilderness
to make your children fatter.
Till to find land capable of feeding your greed
you had to snatch it back from the sea.
But the tonnau wouldn’t stand at your command,
nor leave you be.”

I glared at the raven and stooped to pick up
a carreg from among the ferns.
“Yes, the sea will still drown you if given the chance,
and the sun still burns;
And the gwynt will still throw down your buildings,”
continued its maddening rasp;
“And the lightning will strike and the fire will lick…”
And I felt the cold stone in my grasp.
“And the ice will still freeze all the gwaed in your veins
and the rivers will burst at their banks.
And the soil will cease to reward for your toil,
no matter your pleas and your thanks—”

I struck the bird cross the side of its skull
and it flopped, slack to the floor.
The raven had dim byd to answer that with,
so I whispered “Nevermore.”
The nos was gathering in from the East
and the sunset was rusty red,
That All Fools’ eve as I descended
the coast from Dinas Head.
And I thought about Cantre’r Gwaelod then
and the flooded lowland’s fate:
And when, I wondered, did those of that hundred
know the hour had grown too late?

 

Allwedd – Key

Welsh words listed in the order they appear.

hedd – peace, tranquility.
gorwel – horizon; also, figuratively, the limit of one’s mental capacity.
glas – blue, blue-green; also fresh or verdant.

gweilgi – ocean (archaic/poetic).
dwfn – deep.
glo – coal or charcoal.

cerddoriaeth – music or poetry.
cigfran – raven; literally: meatcrow.
credu – believe.

lawr – down.
olewog – oily.
neb – no one; or anyone/someone.

blisgyn – shard or shell or fragment.
dwr – water.
tywysog – prince or lord.

gwlad – land, as in country.
pen – head.
swn – sound or noise.

cefngwlad – hinterland or countryside; literally: backcountry.
cymylau – clouds.
dwylo – hands; two hands.

gwyneb – face.
pysgod – fish (plural).
milflwyddiannau – millennia; thousands of years.

corsennau – bogs or wetlands.
bys – finger or digit.
tir – land, as in soil.

cas – nasty or hateful.
dros – over.
tonnau – waves.

carreg – rock or stone.
gwynt – wind.
gwaed – blood.

dim byd – nothing; literally: no world, or nothing [in the] world.
nos – night.
Cantre’r Gwaelod – the Lost Lowland; literally: [the] Hundreddwelling [at] the Bottom.
The Atlantis or Lemuria of Welsh mythology. Inundated, according
to the story, in the 6th century AD; though science speculates this occurred around 7000 BC.

 

Appears in:

Poetry Birmingham, Issue 1 [2019]
In the Men’s Room [201?]

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