This week’s choice is “Welsh Incident” by Robert Graves, a recounting of an imaginary strange incident in North Wales.
“What did the mayor do?”
“I was coming to that.”Robert Graves (1895—1985)
Poem 265. Welsh Incident
“But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.”
“What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?”
“Nothing at all of any things like that.”
“What were they, then?”
“All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.”
“Describe just one of them.”
“I am unable.”
“What were their colours?”
“Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you’d like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.”
“Tell me, had they legs?”
“Not a leg or foot among them that I saw.”
“But did these things come out in any order?
What o’clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?”
“I was coming to that. It was half-past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments,
Collecting for Caernarvon’s (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth’s mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail’s pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder
Did something recognizably a something.”
“It made a noise.”
“A frightening noise?”
“A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?”
“No, but a very loud, respectable noise—
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.”
“What did the mayor do?”
“I was coming to that.”
I’ve always thought of this poem as an exchange between a news reporter and a typical elderly Welshman—I can just imagine this as a news report on BBC Radio 4. It’s unusual, not just because it doesn’t rhyme in the traditional sense (it does have a rhythm though) but because it seems to tell a partial story, like Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners.
The Welshman begins the poem as if he is comparing the “incident” to something else he has already said—I wonder if he is just telling the reporter a series of tall tales, and perhaps we’re not listening to the news here but a magazine programme: maybe we’re watching the One Show, rather than listening to the news!
The Welsh witness of the incident seems incapable of giving a clear picture of what he saw—“All sorts of queer things/Things never seen or heard or written about” and “All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes”. I do like the moment when he describes them as “un-Welsh” because it suggests that whatever they were, they were not part of his (or her) ordinary experience.
We move on to the circumstances—the reporter asks about the weather, other witnesses and the date and time, just as any good reporter would. He is answered by the witness’s “I was coming to that,” which is followed by a marvellous bit of description containing nearly as many Welsh place names as in Dylan Thomas’s Letter from the Rev Eli Jenkins which I covered in November 2021: “The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,/Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,/Were all assembled.” We also see the parochial nature of the Welsh witness from his description of the mayor’s address: “First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,” but we see also the awkwardness of the mayor “Twisting his fingers in his chain of office.”
As the mayor welcomes the things, they seem not to notice and continue “moving seaward/Silently at a snail’s pace.” However, one of the things—“The most odd, indescribable thing of all/Which hardly one man there could see for wonder”—makes a noise, but not a frightening noise—rather a comfortable noise: “a very loud, respectable noise”, as if to put the assembled people at ease. The reporter asks what the mayor’s response was, and the poem breaks off just as the witness is about to enlarge on the subject: “I was coming to that”.
I came across the poem as part of the anthology of poetry read by Richard Burton that I have mentioned so often. Burton’s Welsh accent is used to full effect for the elderly witness, while the reporter sounds more English. I’ve no doubt that my impression of the two people I described at the start came from this reading, and I wonder if my idea of the reporter comes from Burton’s role as the Journalist in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.
Graves was a prolific author, well known for his work on the Greek myths and his historical novels “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” which were adapted into an award-winning TV series by the BBC in 1976. He was associated with the war poets Siegfried Sassoon (whom he saved from court-martial in 1917) and Wilfred Owen.
This poem intrigues me, just as “The Listeners” does—we never get to hear the end of the incident, we don’t know much about it, and we don’t know how the conversation started, but it’s beautifully written and my imagination supplies the pictures, just as it does for a good ghost story where the phantom is more suggested than described.