Wales awaits poetic justice: David Lister on the film of a writer's life up for an Oscar
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Sunday 13 March 1994
One table at the Academy Awards ceremony has been reserved for the staff of Pendefig, a small independent Welsh film company whose latest work, Hedd Wyn, has been nominated in the foreign film category, the first time a Welsh language film has been nominated for an Oscar.
It tells the true story of the First World War poet, Ellis Evans, who wrote an epic poem Yr Arwr (The Hero) in the trenches and in his billet before Passchendaele and submitted it to the 1917 Eisteddfod under the bardic name Hedd Wyn, meaning 'blessed peace'.
He was killed in the battle, but five weeks later his poem was declared the winner and at an emotional Eisteddfod the ceremonial chair was draped in black cloth.
The film, commissioned by S4C (Channel 4 Wales) was directed by Paul Turner, a TV drama director who founded Pendefig. It will be shown nationwide on Channel 4 on Tuesday. When it was shown at the Cambridge Film Festival the climactic battle scene was described as 'a masterpiece in its own right, the horror amplified by Turner's nose for the telling realistic detail: enemy machine guns don't echo hauntingly in shell-spattered darkness, they rattle dully, oddly like hatching chrysalids, through the haze of a hot summer dawn.'
Every Welsh school pupil knows the story of Ellis Evans intimately but to students of literature anywhere else the name is virtually unknown.
Evans was a farmer's son from the village of Trawsfynydd, now in Gwynedd, in a remote part of Snowdonia. A statue of him stands in the village square, and his 87-year- old sister Enid still lives in the village. Two of his nephews still run the farm, which has the 1917 Eisteddfod ceremony chair.
The poet, who left school at 14, worked on his father's farm by day and studied romantic poetry, particularly Shelley at night. He managed to teach himself the complicated traditional Welsh metre, used in English verse by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas. He dreamed of winning the National Eisteddfod, even though it had always been the province of university-educated poets. The story of his conscription is a particularly poignant one. He had resisted the call to war, and a number of farmers were allowed to be exempt.
But a conscription tribunal insisted that either he or his younger brother, who was 18, must go. They told the two brothers to decide between themselves.
Ellis Evans, who was 29, could not bear to see his 18- year-old brother go to France so went himself instead.
He died on the first day of the Passchendaele campaign, hit by a shell without ever firing a shot himself.
Alan Llwyd, the scriptwriter on the film and himself a poet, has written a biography of Evans and spent two years researching his life. He said: 'He is very much part of our Welsh mythology but not known in England at all.
'What Rupert Brooke is to English literature Hedd Wyn is to Welsh literature. Brooke symbolised unfulfilled promise, a symbol of the generation that was lost. Like Brooke, he was not a major poet, he was a minor poet who would have become a great poet had he lived.
'It took him nine years to learn the complex alliteration of the strict Welsh metre. He lived at a time when poetry was supremely important in Welsh- speaking communities. It was a society of cultural and literary meetings and literary competitions.'
Mr Llwyd hopes the nomination will widen the appeal of Welsh poetry. 'There are a lot of good poets working in Welsh and there have been about two dozen really good ones over the century. An anthology of Welsh poetry has been translated into Spanish - into Spanish, mind you, not into English.'
Yesterday Evans's sister Enid reminisced about her brother, saying: 'I was ten at the time when he was lost, but I remember him very well. What with working on the farm all day, and there being lots of children around, he couldn't write in the daytime, but he used to write all night, every night.
'I kept the fire going for him. I do hope this film wins an Oscar and I hope now that his work will be more widely known.'
EVANS'S prize-winning poem The Hero has still to be translated in full, but a 12-line poem, War, with its inverted biblical allusions anticipating the banishment of God, was written shortly before his death at the age of 30. That poem, reprinted here, has been translated by Alan Llwyd with the metre faithful to the original.
Why was I born into this age
In which mankind has exiled God?
With God departed Man, with rage,
now sits upon the throne of God.
And when man knew that God had gone,
To spill his brother's blood he bore
His eager sword, and cast upon
Our homes the shadow of the war.
The harps to which we sang are hung
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain
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