Saturday, 16 May 2015

Christmas tradition inspired poet's work

The Mari Lwyd and Wassailing – 28 December 2015 (photos: Mari Lwyd, Vernon Watkins)

The Mari Lwyd - in English ‘The Grey Mare’ - was a custom whereby a group of men would walk from cottage to cottage after dark in December carrying the skull of a horse’s head.  In Gower this was known as ‘The Horse’s Head’ - in Welsh ‘Pen Ceffyl’.  The skull was covered in a white sheet, bedecked in coloured ribbons, and held on a pole, so that the man carrying it could move the Mari’s jaws.  A rhyming contest - perhaps in song if one of the group carried a fiddle - would take place between the group outside the cottage and the inhabitants within, until those inside gave up and admitted the revellers, who were usually better prepared with rhymes and riddles.  Once inside, the Mari Lwyd might playfully chase young women about, before all enjoyed drink and refreshment.  The custom of the Mari Lwyd flourished in the mid-nineteenth century, especially in Glamorgan and Gwent, but became less common after the First World War.  

Examples of a Mari Lwyd can be seen in the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan’s, and the custom does continue in various forms - locally the National Trust had a Mari Lwyd lantern parade through Pennard on 15th December.

The custom inspired a major poem by Pennard poet Vernon Watkins.  On New Year’s Eve 1938 he had been working late at Lloyds Bank in St Helen’s Road.  When he reached home at ‘Heatherslade’ on Pennard cliffs a programme was on the radio from Taff’s Well, his father’s home village near Cardiff, about the Mari Lwyd.  Listening to this inspired Vernon to compose his long poem ‘The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’, though what he initially wrote during the next four months was discarded, with just the stanza form retained.  It was completed the following winter and runs to 600 lines.  The poem has been read on the radio on the Welsh Home Service by Dylan Thomas, taking half an hour, though sadly no copy of that broadcast has survived. 

The poem was published in the autumn of 1941 in Vernon’s first volume of poetry, entitled ‘The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd and other Poems’.  The title was of concern for the poet T.S. Eliot, who was on the board of the publishers Faber and Faber, lest it evoke thoughts of Marie Lloyd, the famous music hall singer.  But the title was not changed, and the publication made a favourable impact in literary circles: more recently Dr Rowan Williams described it as ‘one of the outstanding poems of the century’.

Like the Mari Lwyd custom, wassailing had a rhyming contest before visitors were admitted to enjoy refreshment and dancing.  The wassail, hot liquor with which a group of revelers would drink a person’s health, was taken from house to house in a large bowl, earthenware pitcher or even a tin can, covered by a blanket to keep it warm, and would be replenished by each host.  The ingredients of the wassail were secret, but might be mulled wine or spiced ale.  ‘The Gower Wassail Song’, which was among the regular repertoire of Gower folk singer Phil Tanner, mentions good ale, nutmeg and ginger.  That song includes responsive verses that would be sung by the inhabitants of the house.  The callers might also receive monetary gifts for wishing fertile crops and increase of livestock during the coming year for the household, before they moved on. 

Besides Christmas and the New Year, the wassail cup could be taken round at Candlemas (2nd February), and in Llangennith it was traditionally taken round on Twelfth Night (6th January), the old Christmas Day.  An ornate wassail bowl from Ewenny Pottery can be seen at Swansea Museum.
By contrast to these unusual but lively customs from a bygone age, mere carol singing from house to house sounds rather tame …!           

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