Calan Mai!

This weekend Bryn Mawr continued one of it’s long standing traditions, May Day.
In Wales, May Day (Calan Mai) is a bit different from the May Day we celebrate at Bryn Mawr. Along with the traditional May Pole dancing, the traditional Welsh Calan Mai included lighting ritual fires that sometimes had animals roasted on them. These fires were, according to the BBC page, traditionally made from nine different types of wood collected by participants on May Day, and are a purification ritual that can be traced to druidical sacrifice to the god Beltane. It seems that these fires are less common today, though if you happen to head up to Edinburgh for May Day, the Beltane Fire Society puts on a rather exuberant Beltane festival on Carlton Hill involving these traditional fires, music, and acts that weave their way through the crowds.
Since the first of May is a liminal time zone in Welsh mythology, Calan Mai also involved divination. This divination usually takes the form of divining one’s true love rather than divining battle outcomes. Hawthorn was also used to decorate the outside of houses ((but never the inside- hawthorn is unlucky, then last thing you would want to be when welcoming in the spring and the fertility of the ground).

In some areas of Wales, such as Anglesey, straw dolls were made and hung near girl’s homes on May Eve. These dolls were hung by young men whose sweethearts had left them for another man, and often incited jealousies over the lady’s affections that could lead to fights.

Not all the traditions of Calan Mai are different, however. Like at Bryn Mawr’s May day celebration, dancing around a May pole formed an integral part of the celebrations. The May Pole is traditionally made of birch, though the way in which the dance is performed varies by region. In the South of Wales, the dancing works much the same way it works at Bryn Mawr, with the dancers weaving their ribbons around the pole through their circling dance.

In the north of Wales, however, the may pole ritual is called “Cangen haf”, the summer branch, and requires eighteen young men dressed entirely in white with ribbons attached (rather like the Morris Dancers of May Day look) and two young men to play the Cadi and the Fool. The Cadi carries the “cangen haf” around the town, often decorated with spoons, watches, and other silver borrowed from the people of the village, while the others sing and dance and ask for money from everyone they meet.
Calan Mai also has a May Queen, a young woman who presides over the festival. Traditional Welsh dancing also forms a large part of the festival.

Today, amusement park rides and bouncy castles like thoe ones Bryn Mawr set up this Sunday on Merion and Denbigh Greens also tend to make an appearance, especially since May Day is a bank holiday in the UK and most people have the day off to join in the festivities.

And for some fun, here’s a Monty Python sketch on May Day!

The Child Ballads

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland experienced a boom in interest in Scottish heritage, one that sent many would-be-scholars scurrying to the hillsides in search of folklore to publish in anthologies. Some of these men (for they were, by and large, men) succeeded in their task and published volumes of Scottish ballads and folklore. One of the most successful and most scholarly of these entrepreneurs was Francis Child, who published 305 different ballads throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, later compiled into a single work called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. His work is notable for several reasons. Each of the “ballads” he records is actually a story type, under which he would often file several versions of the same story. The entry I am most familiar with that on the ballad of Tam Lin, Child Ballad 39, which includes nine variations on the tale I was familiar with. These inner ballads represent regional variations within Scotland, as well as changes the story seems to have made in being told in America, and England was well. This, along with Professor Child’s own notes on the subject (which were published alongside the ballads in the 2,500 pages that make up the completed work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ranging from a tracing of the history of the ballad to analytic comparisons) makes the study of the Child ballads a fascinating look into the way Scottish culture comes into contact with the English, and the changes that occur in a story in order to make it suit the interests and lifestyles of different peoples. It was also well-loved for it’s tracing of the history of the ballad form as far back as Ancient Greece, and in so doing setting Scotland’s lyrics up as a sort of culmination of western literary styles. Child’s ballads have also been noted for having darker themes than most ballads, as a whole, though they do also deal with lighter elements of love and do include happy endings (as Tam Lin does end on a light note, with Janet succeeding in her rescue of Tam and their creation of a family together).
The earliest poem in the collection a date has been put to is “Judas”, dated to the thirteenth century, though most of the ballads appear to have been composed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is likely many of the ballads were recited to Childe orally, though the music you can find them set to today was written in the 1960’s by Bertrand Harrison Bronson and was not included with Child’s original publication of the works. While it is interesting to note that the ballads Child recorded were still alive enough for a modern scholar to find and record the music that went with them, it I odd that Child did not include the music in the first place. His removal of the music from the ballads moves them, after all, out of the realm of Oral Literature and into a form more akin to that of traditional English poetry. His distancing of the lyrics from the music might, then, have been an attempt to put Scottish literary heritage on what would have been seen as an equal footing with English literature. Yet, at the same time, he was collecting ballads, and made no secret of the fact that these were traditional tales for the Scottish people rather than works of solitary genius.
One of the largest difficulties with the ballads collected by Child, is thus the use of Scottish, English, and American variants of the ballads, rather than simply Scottish versions. The use of all three, it is true, makes his work more scholarly than others, as it allows a reader to trace the way the story changes with place, but at the same time it seems to undermine the movement that Child was a part of. The collection of Scottish ballads was part of a greater nationalistic movement to assert a Scottish literary heritage, after all, yet here is Child connecting those Scottish Ballads to English ones. His choice, given his being an American, could easily be read as being against a separate Scotland, as an assertion that Scotland’s heritage the same as that of England. As Balmoral become, during this period, one of the Royal Residences for Queen Victoria, making it difficult for any outsider to see Scotland and England as separate entities, a move such as this would make political sense. It also fits with the profile that has been constructed of a lover of ballads as being the same group of men who loved pastoral English poems. It can also, however, be viewed as an attempt to highlight the differences between the Scottish and English ballads, acknowledging the similarities while stressing the differences in orality and form that are the Scottish heritage.


Readings for Thursday

Hallo All! I’m hoping you all check the blog on a regular basis, as I couldn’t think of another way to do this….Here are the poems I’d like you to read for Thursday! See you then!
Selected Poems of R.S. Thomas

A Welsh Testament
All right, I was Welsh. Does it matter?
I spoke a tongue that was passed on
To me in the place I happened to be,
A place huddled between grey walls
Of cloud for at least half the year.
My word for heaven was not yours.
The word for hell had a sharp edge
Put on it by the hand of the wind
Honing, honing with a shrill sound
Day and night. Nothing that Glyn Dwr
Knew was armour against the rain’s
Missiles. What was descent from him?

Even God had a Welsh name:
He spoke to him in the old language;
He was to have a peculiar care
For the Welsh people. History showed us
He was too big to be nailed to the wall
Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him
Between the boards of a black book.

Yet men sought us despite this.
My high cheek-bones, my length of skull
Drew them as to a rare portrait
By a dead master. I saw them stare
From their long cars, as I passed knee-deep
In ewes and wethers. I saw them stand
By the thorn hedges, watching me string
The far flocks on a shrill whistle.
And always there was their eyes; strong
Pressure on me: You are Welsh, they said;
Speak to us so; keep your fields free
Of the smell of petrol, the loud roar
Of hot tractors; we must have peace
And quietness.

Is a museum
Peace? I asked. Am I the keeper
Of the heart’s relics, blowing the dust
In my own eyes? I am a man;
I never wanted the drab role
Life assigned me, an actor playing
To the past’s audience upon a stage
Of earth and stone; the absurd label
Of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders. I was in prison
Until you came; your voice was a key
Turning in the enormous lock
Of hopelessness. Did the door open
To let me out or yourselves in?

The Gap
God woke, but the nightmare
did not recede. Word by word
the tower of speech grew.
He looked at it from the air
he reclined on. One word more and
it would be on a level
with him; vocabulary
would have triumphed. He
measured the thin gap
with his mind. No, no, no,
wider than that! But the nearness
persisted. How to live with
the fact, that was the fear
now. How to take his rest
on the edge of a chasm a
word could bridge.
He leaned
over and looked in the dictionary
they used. There was the blank still
by his name of the same
order as the territory
between them, the verbal hunger
for the thing in itself. And the darkness
that is a godfs blood swelled
in him, and he let it
to make the sign in the space
on the page, that is in all languages
and none; that is the grammarian’s
torment and the mystery
at the cell’s core, and the equation
that will not come out, and is
the narrowness that we stare
over into the eternal
silence that is the repose of God.

It was all arranged:
the virgin with child, the birth
in Bethlehem, the arid journey uphill
to Jerusalem. The prophets foretold
it, the scriptures conditioned him
to accept it. Judas went to his work
with his sour kiss; what else
could he do?

A wise old age,
the honours awarded for lasting,
are not for a saviour. He had
to be killed; salvation acquired
by an increased guilt. The tree,
with its roots in the mind’s dark,
was divinely planted, the original fork
in existence. There is no meaning in life,
unless men can be found to reject
love. God needs his martyrdom.
The mild eyes stare from the Cross
in perverse triumph. What does he care
that the people’s offerings are so small?

Children’s Song
We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And though you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play,
Where life is still asleep
Under the closed flower,
Under the smooth shell
Of eggs in the cupped nest
That mock the faded blue
Of your remoter heaven

Taken From
Thomas, R. S. “Amen.” Poems of R.S. Thomas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1985. Print.

Eloisa Eternal


When reading Micheal O”Siadhiall’s poem “Secrets of Assisi” I came across the following lines

“Think of wounded Abelard meeting Heloise:

Sweet disciplines, the long haul of a soul,

Codes of one quick kiss, a hand squeeze,

Swift greetings at once fugitive and whole”

I realized fairly quickly these lines would make little sense without knowledge of the characters of Abelard and Heloise in both history and literature. I have therefore attempted to throw light upon both areas, starting by outlining the details of their romance. I shall then turn to Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” as a means to understand the complex viewpoint on separation and love O’Siadhiall has given his reader through this allusion.

Peter Abelard was born in Pallet, Brittany, in 1079 BCE. His father Berengar was lord of the village, and his mother a well-bred woman. As the eldest son of a noble, he was originally intended for a career in the military. Instead, he trained as a scholar and eventually became a highly acclaimed philosopher (though, I feel I must mention he broke quite a few eggs in the process, as every couple of years he would attmept to set himself up as a rival lecturer to his professors, a move that understandably made him few friends but many enemies through the years of his career. He was thus quite often in a sort of exile to the countryside near Paris during his time as a lecturer of rhetoric). In 1108, however, he settled in Paris more fully and was able to draw pupils from all over Europe.

One of these pupils was a young woman called Heloise d’Argenteuil who was renowned for her brilliant rhetoric and intelligence. She was raised in the convent of Argenteuil, where she learned to read and write Latin, Greek. After her training there, she moved in with her uncle Fulbert, the canon of Notre Dame Cathedral, putting her in the city just as Abelard was hitting the peak of his career.

According to Abelard’s own account, upon first meeting her in 1114 or 1115, he set out to seduce her. It was through his own machinations that he became her private live-at-home tutor. The two quickly started a romantic relationship, one that, as far as the scant evidence we have from a few letters of Heloises’s that survived shows, seems to have been built on mutual respect of intellect as well as on physical passion. Eventually rumors of the relationship reached her Uncle, and Abelard was thrown out. However, the two continued their relationship, which eventually lead to Heloise’s pregnancy. Abelard arranged for her to flee Paris to one of his relatives. She gave birth to a son, who she called Astrolabe after the scientific instrument.

Meanwhile in Paris Abelard attempted to rectify the situation by proposing marriage to Heloise. Though her family agreed for the sake of honour, she was firmly against the idea. She was unable to put them off, however, and was eventually forced into a secret marriage with him. This did not, however, stop the rumours (nor did her public claim that she was not married to him), and Abelard was obliged to remove her from Paris once more, this time to the nunnery of Argenteuil. Her family saw this as an attempt to get out of his marriage vows. After all as other literature of medieval France shows, such as Marie de France’s lay “Eliduc”, a man whose wife entered a convent was released from his marriage vows to her and was free to take another wife if he so chose.

Fulbert responded to this perceived attempt at medieval divorce by ambushing Abelard while he was sleeping and castrating him. Abelard was stripped of his positions in Paris and retreated in disgrace to the Abbey of St. Dennis, where he later took orders. He convinced his wife to do the same. The ill-fated lovers spent the remainder of their days as people of the cloth. Upon Heloises’ discovery he had published an account of their love twelve years after it’s disastrous end, an exchange of letters started between them that lasted until his death, in which she confessed her still ardent love for him, a love he professed not to share.

Let us now return to the stanza from “Secrets of Assisi” that begins:

“Think of wounded Abelard meeting Heloise:

Sweet disciplines, the long haul of a soul,

Codes of one quick kiss, a hand squeeze,

Swift greetings at once fugitive and whole”

O’Siadhiall is not only ask us to think of the legendary love story here- he is asking us to imagine the two meeting after Heloise’s family has castrated him, after each lover took vows and entered the Church, just as Alexander Pope imagined Eloisa (an Anglicized version of Heloise which made his rhyme an easier feat) reacting to Abelard’s letters after both had sworn off the world. Indeed, he is setting us inside the world of the poem. He does, after all include a prayer that Heloise and Abelard “Watch over us [He and his lover] in our clay, brittle as we are.” This, though sensible in the context of the story, is made more meaningful when we turn to Pope’s version and see that Eloisa herself says that “

“If ever chance two wand’ring lovers brings

To Paraclete’s white walls and silver springs,

O’er the pale marble shall they join their heads,

And drink the falling tears each other sheds;

Then sadly say, with mutual pity mov’d,

“Oh may we never love as these have lov’d!” (Pope)

She invites lovers in, invites them to think upon her love and wish it was not theirs.


Unlike Pope, however, O’Siadhiall’s lovers are not estranged. His lovers still have “secrets shared in a garden before they parted”, still have “keep faith” in each other, whereas Pope’s Eloisa cries

“Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!

Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,

Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.

Thy oaths I quit, thy memory resign;

Forget, renounce me, hate whate’er was mine” (Pope)

She has lost her love entirely, sworn it off in the agony of realization Abelard will never return it again. The “glow of absence” that perfects O’Siadhiall’s speaker’s relationship with his lover has destroyed the love of Eloisa and Abelard. This seems to show his love to be the stronger. The love of our speaker is stronger than myth, stronger than the legends spun by the English poets.


Yet, Pope’s poem ends with Eloisa’s certainty that

“if fate some future bard shall join

In sad similitude of griefs to mine,

Condemn’d whole years in absence to deplore,

And image charms he must behold no more;

Such if there be, who loves so long, so well;

Let him our sad, our tender story tell;

The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost;

He best can paint ’em, who shall feel ’em most.” (Pope).


Perhaps, then, the fate of O’Siadhiall’s love is not as rosy as he paints it. It is a “broken yearning”, after all, “voices of the gone… somehow in their wholeness [throwing] a shape on ours”. His ability to paint the “long range patience” of Eloisa and Abelard only confirms this. Like Eloisa, he is doomed to die loving one who has already thrown his love away. He can only hear her voice, “across the chills of the night” because he, like Eloisa, is left with only the memories of the secret time in the garden.  He even experiences her conflation of lover and God. In the darkest of his despairs, he calls on both God “O Lord” and “O Chiara” , just as Eloisa made her vow in Pope’s poem, not to the Cross, but to Abelard. There is no happy ending for O-Siadhiall’s speaker- simply the memory of his love, the same laughter playing in his head from a place he cannot reach.


And of course, “Secrets of Assisi”

The Scottish Referendum

I interrupt our regularly scheduled arts programming in order to bring (slightly) breaking news from the Scottish Political Front! This time on the Celtic Blog: A Quick Guide to the Scottish Referendum. However, I won’t be starting with the referendum itself, since I feel that in order to understand why the vote in September matters you’ve got to understand the history of relations between Scotland and England.

I feel justified in turning your attention to the referendum because, as we’ve seen through the poetry of Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid, the politics of Scotland and its poetry are very closely related. Both past and present Scottish poets have focused on the message of a free Scotland, and with the referendum nearing, their hopes may soon be answered.

Scotland and England, as you’ve definitely gathered from the poetry we’ve read so far, were not always one country. Indeed, for a very long time the two countries were separate and fairly antagonistic (Ex: William of Orange’s orchestration of the infamous MacDonald massacre in the Glen of Tears, also known as Glen Coe, during which the entire MacDonald clan was murdered by men they had been housing as guests for over a fortnight; the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, by her cousin Queen Elisabeth I).  However, following Queen Elisabeth’s childless death her cousin King James VI of Scotland, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was proclaimed King James I of England in 1603.  This move effectively combined the two countries under one ruler, though each retained their own governments. This partial separation lasted until the Scottish parliament headed by William II dissolved itself 1707 by the passing of the Acts of Union. Scotland was thus brought completely under English control by the vote of small body of upperclass men. Having failed to keep Scotland free through his poems on historic Scottish Resistance, Robert Burns immortalized this moment in Scottish history by penning the bitter Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation:

“What force of guile could not subdue,

Thro’ many warlike ages

Is wrought now by ac oward few

For hireling traitor’s wages”

Though the move to unite the two countries into one government was likely accompanied by numerous bribes, the failure of the planned for colony of Caledonia in Darien, a colony that would have substantially helped the Scottish economy, also played a role in the merger. The two countries remained merged for the next three centuries.

In 1998, however, the Scottish Parliament was reformed, and has been voting on matters of importance to Scotland ever since, from the abortion debate to currency circulation (Scotland, in case you didn’t know, issues its own version of the British pound with the Queen replaced by famous Scottish Figures, including Robert Burns. This currency is quite lovely, but is unfortunately not accepted in other parts of the United Kingdom). I highly suggest visiting their website here: and finding out more about the political intrigue modern Scottish poets write in. This reinstatement of Parliament gave Scotland power over its own future it had not had since Mary sat on the throne, power that was made even more meaningful in May 2011 with the creation of a full Scottish government that reports to the British one.

Now, however, Scotland stands on the cusp of the even greater freedom of the Referendum. Should the Referendum pass this September Scotland will no longer be part of the UK. It will instead become a country in it’ own right, and take over the entire governing of itself. As this vote essentially could restore Scotland to the position its poets have dreamed of for centuries, this may be the most important votes any living Scottish person will ever face. After all, there is no telling if the chance to democratically secede will ever be given to Scotland again. The Parliament of Scotland certainly seems to be viewing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity, as they have lowered the voting age in Scotland to sixteen just for the upcoming vote, allowing the youth of the prospective nation to have a say in their future.

Now, for the logistics of the Referendum! According to the Referendum website ( , Scotland will take all of the land currently designated Scotland with it, which including as it does most of the UK’s in country oil-rigging, means the newly formed country will not find itself bankrupt directly out of the starting gates. Scotland will have to print an entirely new currency, however, and its place in the EU will be touch and go for the first few months. There will not, however, be a change in passport requirements when crossing from England into Scotland, just as there is not one currently existence between the Republic of Ireland and the UK.

There are quite a few other issues at stake, such as defense strategies and culture (As one poster asked, what happens to the BBC? ), all of which tie in to the truly pressing question, the one of everyone’s mind, the one that will not be answered until September:  Will it pass? At the moment, it doesn’t look good. The Guardian reports that only 32% of Scots say they are planning to vote Yes in September, with fifty-seven percent saying No ( .

Though it is unlikely the referendum will pass, it is a milestone in Scottish History. It is, after all, a chance for the whole of Scotland to decide its fate. No more will Scotland be sold for hireling traitor’s wages.

Note: all the history here recounted comes either from what I can remember from tours around Edinburgh and the Highlands or from the book Scotland: History of a Nation by David Ross.


Rabbie Burns Day

Some people, on seeing this “January 25: Robbie Burns Day. You should drink whiskey and eat haggis tonight” on the syllabus, must wondered what Robbie Burns day was. Who was Robbie Burns? Why did he have a holiday? And why, why, would you eat haggis and drink whiskey on this day?

So in response, I’m writing this blog post to explain. The website Robert Burns is a famous Scottish famer-turned- poet, born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway in County Ayr, Southwest Scotland to a simple tenant farmer (Which, if you are interested in military history, is two months, nine days, and thirteen years since Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite forces were defeated at the Battle of Culloden, ending his attempt to reclaim the throne of Scotland). The house Burns was born in is a historic landmark today.

Map of Ayr

Burns has quite the rags-to-riches story. He spent most of his childhood and young adult in poverty, moving from failing farmstead to failing farmstead, but by the age of twenty-seven his poetry was well-known in the fashionable circles of Edinburgh, and by the time he died in 1796 he had made a place for himself in Scottish History and Culture as the Scottish Bard. His poetry was particularly interesting for its unabashed use of the Scots dialect. Some of his best known poems are “Tam O’Shanter”, the tale of a rather drunk man who finds himself an unfortunate witness to a fairy dance and must ride for the safety afforded by the river (the poem can even be found engraved on a chair in Holyrood House in Edinburgh) “To a Mouse”, “To a Haggis”, “Holy Willie’s Prayer” and one of Scotland’s famous patriotic ballads, “Blind Harry” (the tale of William Wallace, of Braveheart fame).


His poetry also makes appearances in many pieces of famous literature today, including Catcher in the Rye and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the title of which was taken from the following lines from the seventh stanza of Burn’s famous poem “To A Mouse.”

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft angley”


Today, people all over Scotland celebrate Rabbie Burns day as an act of nationalistic pride. The event starts with the organizer welcoming his guests to the feast and explaining the purpose. The Scottish Selkirk grace is then read, and the meal begins with soup.

Nest, the Haggis enters. The entrance of the Haggis to the celebration is traditionally prefaced by a reading of the poem “To a Haggis”, the poem in which Burns professes Haggis to be the “chieftain of the pudding race” (line 2) and a bagpiper playing in an event known as the “Piping of the Haggis”.  The reader of the poem then has the honour of cutting the haggis for the assembled company. A toast is then made to the haggis and dinner continued.

*This second image is a haggis up close. It’s delicious, despite how it looks.

A proper Rabbie Burns celebration also includes the reading of the poet’s works and singing of his songs (preferably while enjoying the refreshments, to add to the truly Scottish character of the event) by all involved, in a communal reading that brings the oral culture still largely seen in the Scotland of Burns to inhabit the modern world. Elegies to Burns are also traditionally seen.The evening ends with the singing of one of the most well-known bits of Burn’s work, “Auld Lang Syne.”

So, I encourage you to go forth and celebrate! I know this post comes late, but there’s never a bad time to celebrate the works of a great national poet!

Here are some sites you can visit to learn more about the things I mentioned here:

I also recommend Robert Burns, a Very Peculiar History by Fiona McDonald, and am willing to lend my copy to anyone who is interested!