Early in my journey of learning Welsh, I encountered a poem by the 19th century bard Mynyddog (given name Richard Davies). Though he enjoyed some notoriety during his own lifetime, he wasn’t an astounding poet and isn’t particularly remembered or celebrated as such today. And yet, he made some contributions to Welsh culture that have, over the near century and a half since his death, seemingly attained immortality.
What are those contributions, you ask? Well, one is an original poem that would, with benefit of another lyricist’s revision and elaboration, evolve into a well-known and much-enjoyed folk song: Sosban Fach, of all things. And another is a poem that most all Welsh-speakers and Welsh-lovers would recognize as the lyrics to what Ryan Davies called “the greatest love song that has ever been written in any language”: Myfanwy.
If you were going to be a one-hit wonder, you could do a lot worse.
March 1 is St David’s Day, Dydd Gŵyl Dewi, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales, Dewi Sant himself. The thing all Welsh-speakers know about him is his final injunction to his monastic followers: Gwnewch y pethau bychain, he told them. Do the little things, he said, that you have heard and seen me do. It’s a quintessentially Welsh sentiment: Don’t try to be great, don’t try to be grand, don’t try to be important; there is no shame in a humble life, rather dignity; do good where you are, take care of your little patch of earth, be kind and fair and honest.
I think about those words of Dewi Sant when I think about Mynyddog. He didn’t bequeath us any heartbreaking cynghanedd (always the gold standard of Welsh poetry), nor did he have the good fortune (as his contemporary Evan James did) to pen the words to the Welsh national anthem, which I venture to guess are on the lips of at least one Welsh person somewhere in the world at all times. Perhaps it’s true that, rather than a great bard, Richard Davies was a mere songster, always ready to take any stage, no matter the size, and give it a crowd-pleasing go. What of it? He lived his life, he wrote and sang his words, and miracle of miracles, a few of those words turn out to be beloved all these many years later.
When we wrote the Welsh Tattoo Handbook, we unsurprisingly included the saint’s famous utterance in the glossary of tattoo ideas. We also suggested that connecting with Welsh poetry that speaks to you could be a great source of inspiration for a Welsh-language tattoo. And as I alluded to at the beginning of this post, one of my earliest encounters with Welsh poetry came courtesy of Mynyddog. My reach grossly exceeding my grasp, I set about translating him, and I didn’t do too badly, though I’ve since reworked my original translation with benefit of everything I’ve learned since that initial attempt.
So, in the same Dewi Sant spirit of doing the little things, I thought I would share my humble translation of a humble poem, by Mynyddog, that charmed me from the first.
O dewch i ben y mynydd draw,
I weld yr haul yn machlud,
A natur gyda’i thyner law
Yn cau amrantau bywyd.
Fel arwr dan ei glwyf yr huan cun
Orwedda’n bruddaidd yn ei waed ei hun,
A’r llen sy’n derfyn rhwng y nos a’r dydd
A deflir dros ei wyneb prudd.
Ond wele’r sêr yn filoedd
Ar hyd yr wybren dlos,
Mor ddisglair y cabolwyd
Botymau gwisg y nos;
Os yw yr haul yn dangos
Prydferthion daear gref,
Mae’r nos, er twylled ydyw,
Yn dangos mwy o’r nef.
My translation is slightly free in a couple of places, though not so free now as it had been. The poem conjures a sunset, and a wistful mood, and a pleasant hush, like watching the stars come out. The diction is straightforward, which I’m sure is one reason the poem appealed to me so much when I was newly learning.
O come to the top of yon mountain
to see the setting sun,
and nature with her tender hand
closing the eyelids of life.
Like a wounded hero the lordly sun
lies grave amidst his blood,
and the veil that divides night from day
is cast upon his solemn face.
But see the many-thousand stars
across the jewelled sky,
the polished buttons gleaming
in the garment of the night;
if it be the sun who shows
the beauties of hale and hearty earth,
still the night, though she deceive,
shows the more of heaven.