Tuesday, October 17, 2000

The Bard, by Thomas Grey, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Thomas Grey

The Bard is a poem written in 3 parts set at the time of the 1282 Conquest of Edward the First, when he invaded the kingdom of Llewlyn ap Griffith, “the last Welsh prince.” Edward the First “Longshanks” (“Cambria’s curse”) ordered all the bards be put to death. “

Politically the Conquest brought to the bardic order a diminished status...” A. H. Dodd writes of a vanishing social order (A Short History of Wales); future bards “soft-peddled warlike and political themes.” He recounts a bard’s tale of a 15th c. bard executed under the crabbed “law of London” for pursuing a family feud. The Statute of Rhyddan didn’t help either, but I digress...

Romantic poet Thomas Gray, a contemporary of Johnson and Goldsmith, opens his poem evoking the majestic Snowden range. He sets in the midst of a tempest, his protagonist, the haggard-eyed Poet, who totters the banks of the raging river “Conway” [Conwy], where he “Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.” Gray weaves a pageantry of kings: Hoel, Llewellyn, Cadwallo, Urien, Mordred?...who was Plinlimmon? “Ye died amidst your dying country’s cries—” 

Gray weaves a warp of ravens, eagles and revenge upon “Edward’s race. The characters of hell...” the succession of Edwards- I, II, and III; the sumptuous—nearly neoclassic—funeral scene in II, 2., must be Richard II?, a beloved (and maligned) hero, obviously well mourned. 

Gray’s tapestry reveals the Henrys- IV, V, VI; Edward IV; a reference to the War of the Roses in symbolic language, and the very, very short reign of Richard III, “The Boar.” After four Edwards, who is evoked in III, 1? 

A segue to the Once and Future King preparing us for the Tudor line? Gray is sympathetic to The Virgin Queene: “Her eye proclaims her of the Briton-Line.” We take a great leap from the 6th c., of the Great Poet Taliesin—who like Arthur, rises again—to the last bard, who speaks in a allegorical Spenserian style (the Red-Cross knight?) as he leaps to his death into the roaring tide.

The landscape is painted majestic—somewhat parallel to the paintings of Constable (too bucolic) or Turner (too industrial), or even Bierstadt who made the American landscape so famous. But David Lloyd showed us a fabulous painting of the last bard leaping to his death, so perhaps my vision is colored by art. “Hark how each giant oak, and desert cave/ Sighs to the torrent’s awful voice beneath!” 

The poem (low on plot) has a two king lists, and a plethora of warriors and damsels. And the endgame: a bard (or warrior) would rather commit suicide rather than face surrender is an age-old Celtic trait.

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