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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