Victorian print showing the
Remains of the memorial to Eliseg King of Powys,
dating from the Ninth Century
The sequences of early Welsh poems recording the laments of Heledd date from the Ninth Century, though they record the aftermath of an attack on eastern Powys in the Seventh Century. They are distinctive among the poetry of the time in that many of them do not record heroic values so much as feelings of woe at a time of constant war and unrest. This is particularly the case with the ‘Dref Wen’ sequence. It is a distinctive feature of these poems that each line begins with a repeated refrain to introduce the stanza. So a phrase such as ‘Stafell Gynddylan …’ (Cynddylan’s Hall) or ‘Eryr Eli …” (Eagle of Eli) will begin the first line of each stanza, producing an emphatic pattern of repetition. The ‘Dref Wen’ sequence directs the attention of listeners to the place of that name, often translated literally as ‘The White Town’. There is some uncertainty about where this place may be, except that ‘Trenn’ , thought to be the River Tern in Shropshire, is named and that the sequence is associated with the ‘Stafell Gynddylan’ sequence located in the general vicinity of Shrewsbury. It is said to be ‘between ‘Trenn and Trafal’ and also between ‘Trenn and Trodwyd’. But these places cannot be identified satisfactorily. It may not be a town at all, as the word ‘tref’, though its modern meaning is ‘town’, could apply to any settlement in early Welsh. In the translations which follow I have preferred to translate it as ‘homestead’ as this seems to make more sense in context and it is clearly used in this way in the ‘Stafell Gynddylan’ stanzas. Similarly, ‘Wen’ (white) also has a range of meanings from ‘fair’ to ‘blessed’, so there is no need to think of a place that is white in colour. The sequence is almost tender in evoking the sense of place and serves as a reminder, if we should need one, of the deprivations caused by constant conflict and a counterpoint to those more common poems which praise the bravery and ferocity of the warriors even when lamenting their deaths.
The Fair Homestead, nestled in woodland –
It is as it always was:
Blood smeared on the land.
The Fair Homestead in the landscape –
Again at the green memorial:
Blood smeared underfoot.
The Fair Homestead in the valley –
Always joyful the prey-bird in battle’s mess
Among the people lying dead.
The Fair Homestead between Tern and Trodwyd –
More likely a broken shield after battle
Than an ox should shelter from the sun.
The Fair Homestead between Tern and Trafal –
More likely blood on the grass
Than the ploughing of land left fallow.