CREATIVE Jack Smylie Wild

NWR Issue 104

The River’s Mutterings

Browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop recently, I stumbled upon a pamphlet entitled Where I Belong (1946), comprising of a long pastoral poem by Wil Ifan. Opening it, I was surprised by the subtitle, ‘With the Voices of River’. Earlier in the year, I had contributed to a Sound Map project in Llandysul, recording an unrehearsed, spoken-word ‘conversation’ with a brook at its confluence with the Teifi. Inspired to delve deeper into Wales’ longest river, my research on river poetry led me to Dart by Alice Oswald. A shifting, surging poem of the eponymous watercourse in Devon, Dart weaves the voices of people living by, working on and interacting with the river into a narrative journey to be read ‘as the river’s mutterings’. River voices were on my radar.

But who was Wil Ifan? And where was this river? After a little digging, I discovered that Wil Ifan was the bardic name of William Evans, a prolific Welsh poet, writer and Congregationalist minister. Born in 1883 at Vale View, Cwmbach, in the community of Llanwinio, Carmarthenshire, the young Wil emerged into a deeply rural world.

Based on his poem, ‘Bro Fy Mebyd’, a long free verse poem which won him the crown at the National Eisteddfod in 1925 and recounts his early childhood, Where I Belong articulates, in sometimes striking metaphor and lucid contemplation, the personal and cultural phenomenon of hiraeth.

The voice of the anonymous ‘River’, with its ‘little cold tinkle like a spoon on the rim of a cup’ and ‘sound of pouring from bottles and great drinking’, belongs to Cwmbach’s Afon Sien – a wooded stream whose source lies deep in the Carmarthenshire countryside. Not that Wil would have approved, apparently, of any discussion of sources or springs, which to him were merely waypoints on a more sacrosanct and boundless journey:

And if you too are wise
Speak not of the source of any river…
Yours is a fruitless quest.
Though you may find the spring in the rushes;
Though you trace back the drops along each step of its
shining path to the rain-cloud
In high heaven,
Fruitless your quest;
For does not every river spring
Out of the throne of God and the Lamb,
A clear stream of the laughter of his heart?

Afon Sien runs on to join Afon Cynin which, having merged with and into the Dewi Fawr just south of St Clears, eventually flows into confluence with the tidal waters of the Taf. Not far from the mouth of the river – where the Towy too joins the swirling, saline concoction – the estuary rises and falls before the iconic boathouse of Dylan Thomas, at Laugharne – on the ‘heron-priested shore’, ‘where the sea cobbles sail’.

And so it is that a relatively minor and largely forgotten poet has his sheltered stream amid the hills. A quiet, ‘pure’ and quite ordinary waterway – one of many – gives rise to a simple, bucolic voice. Further down, where the great sea meets the accumulated body of myriad tributaries, where sandbanks and mudflats lie like the backs of hippos hosting a riot of hungry birds, where the elements collide and the sky opens, we find the den of Dylan Thomas. Here the confluence of disparate waterways reflects the various voices and styles of a more experimental, cosmopolitan artist:

Through windows
Of dusk and water I see the tilting whispering

Heron, mirrored, go,
As the snapt feathers snow,
Fishing in the tear of the Towy…

The heron, ankling the scaly
Lowlands of the waves….   •

This reciprocal relationship between topography and tone, scene and style, view and voice, by no means signals a fixed correlation between breadth of artistic expression and place. Nonetheless, the way in which the style of the writers in question echoes their given stretch of river is interesting to observe, and we might conclude of Thomas that a mind which deals in archetypes, in symbols – in ‘becoming’*** – could well be drawn to dwell by ‘the sea that hides his secret selves….’

A week later, another booklet found its way into my hands: Llandysul Trails, which describes and depicts the walks looping in and out of the town. Opening it, the Welsh word Myfyrgell caught my eye – the name of the house in which I live, on Seion Hill. I had known that the building, whose name means ‘study house’, had an interesting history – the plaque on the wall outside states the year and instigator of its construction – and I had once heard a rumour that its first inhabitant and schoolmaster had a genealogical connection to Dylan Thomas. But as the booklet explains, both the house and its former occupant were worthy of more than small plaques and Chinese whispers: ‘Further up the hill on the left is a small white cottage called Myfyrgell. Here William Thomas, better known by his bardic name Gwilym Marles, opened Llandysul’s first grammar school.’

Marles, who built Myfyrgell in 1868 as a home and place of learning, was one of Wales’ first Unitarian preachers and is considered as the founder of the modern movement in the country, setting up its first chapel at Llwynrhydowen. Born at Glan Rhyd y Gwiail, near Brechfa, Carmarthenshire, in 1834, William Thomas gained his bardic surname Marles from Afon Marlais, which runs past his birthplace and through the village.

Marles was an avid supporter of the religious views of Theodor Parker, an American reformer of the Unitarian Church, who was born in 1810. Parker’s Christian beliefs strayed radically from church orthodoxy. Sceptical of the Bible’s value as a factual text, Parker’s doubts eventually led him to adopt a more personal and spiritual faith, wherein the immediacy of God – he purported – could be felt in a more intuitive way. A leading humanist of the period, Parker was at the forefront of social reform, from abolitionism to women’s rights.

That Marles, then, was at the heart of the liberal movement in Ceredigion is not surprising; and neither, it would seem, is the fact that Unitarianism – arguably a more down-to-earth, and comparatively rational, theological movement – resonated so strongly with the young man who entered Carmarthen College as an Independent and left as an exponent of this new-found faith. As a poet and thinker by nature (he studied Philosophy at Glasgow University), a theology which could accommodate his appreciation of subjective sensibility and curiosity was essential. Gwilym Marles was Dylan Thomas’ paternal great-uncle. Dylan’s father, David John Thomas, was Marles’ nephew, and some say that the minister, even though their lives overlapped by only three brief years, was an influence on the boy – who later became an English literature teacher. Dylan Thomas, too, was perhaps inspired by his literary forebear, if only to the extent that he knew his great-uncle had been a bard. But as well as their poetic professions, the two share a nominal link: Dylan’s middle name was Marlais, in honour of his great-uncle.

Although Marles had little direct impact on his great-nephew, whose first collection, Eighteen Poems, was published a hundred years after the birth of the former, in 1934, we can at least postulate that the character of the minister, passed down in family legend, came to inspire aspects of Dylan’s writing in his later years. Rev Eli Jenkins, in Under Milk Wood, is said to have been based on the author’s great-uncle. Although testimonial evidence is lacking to support this idea, the two characters – one real, one fictional – do share one obvious similarity apart from their religious and literary vocations: a relatively nuanced conception of morality. John Edwards, in his article on Marles (NWR, Issue 47), describes how the minister, as a Unitarian, ‘would have nothing to do with creeds of any kind and utterly rejected any notion of original sin.’ The Reverend Jenkins, reciting his sunset poem to Llareggub Hill, asserts:

We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.[****]

And – in defence of small streams, sheltered dreams and – by implication – humble artistic endeavours – it is the Rev Eli Jenkins to whom we leave the final word, and in doing so reveal Thomas’ understanding of the power of waterways:

By Sawdde, Senny, Dovey, Dee,
Edw, Eden, Aled, all,
Taff and Towy broad and free,
Llyfnant with its waterfall,

Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulais, Daw,
Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,
Small is our River Dewi, Lord,
A baby on a rushy bed….

A tiny dingle is Milk Wood
By Golden Grove ‘neath Grongar,
But let me choose and oh! I should
Love all my life and longer

To stroll among our trees and stray
In Goosegog Lane, on Donkey Down,
And hear the Dewi sing all day,
And never, never leave the town.[*****]


A few months later, a third brook managed to weave its way into these stories. By this time my fascination with local rivers had consolidated around the writing of a book about the Teifi and its tributaries. Exploring the Clettwr one day, I came across a rocky outcrop in some woods which my map referred to as Cerrig Hyllod – The Ugly Stones. Talking to a local later that day, it became apparent that they knew the hidden crag as Preacher’s Rock. Given my proximity to Rhydowen, the outline of a curious idea registered, leading me to seek out more fragments of Marles’ elusive biography:

The Unitarian chapel of Llwynrhydowen, where Marles preached, was on the estate of Alltyrodyn, owned by the Lloyd family. On 30 October 1871, John Davies Lloyd inherited the entire estate on the day of his twenty-first birthday. It was not until 1877, however, that the young man would return to his ancestral home – having been to Eton (‘where he displayed no aptitude for studies but a penchant for tobacco and intoxicating liquor’), travelled extensively (‘The art treasures of Florence held far fewer attractions for him than did the snipe and other wild birds of the area. In fact a large part of John Davies Lloyd’s short life was spent killing things, from small birds to men, if we are to believe the story he told of shooting an Indian in California’), and ended up in Brighton (‘doing what he pleased and running up debts).

Meanwhile Gwilym Marles had been fighting on behalf of the people who worked the land on the estate. The Lloyds had a habit of persecuting and evicting from their small-holdings ‘those families who refused to vote for them in Parliamentary elections.’ Marles, then, was a staunch advocate of the ‘secret ballot’, as well as of individual liberty more generally. Following the 1868 election, around two hundred families were forced to leave farms throughout Wales – many emigrating to America. Of these, about eight were located within the Alltyrodyn Estate.

Having doubtless heard many distasteful tales of this ‘Unitarian troublemaker’, when John Davies Lloyd returned on a visit to Alltyrodyn he set about disbanding the source of the unrest and on 29 October 1876 he gave the orders (perhaps along with his agent and ally James Mason Allen) to close down Llwynrhydowen chapel.

And so it was that Marles was forced, if only briefly, to seek out a meeting place to preach his radical philosophy and nonconformist faith. Downstream from Rhydowen, high above the peaceful Clettwr, at the top of an isolated oak wood bordering fields, Cerrig Hyllod would have seemed a perfect – albeit only temporary – arena.

Once the young tyrant, calling himself ‘Captain Lloyd’, had returned permanently to Wales, he summoned the preacher to Alltyrodyn. From an account that Marles wrote of the visit, we learn that ‘The frail minister was shown the revolver which Lloyd always carried in his pocket; he was asked to feel the deep scar on Lloyd’s head, caused, so Lloyd claimed, by a cutlass wielded by a California Indian on that night when Lloyd had killed a man; he was asked to feel Lloyd’s bicep (“it felt like a block of marble” said Gwilym)…. The meeting, though it must have been extremely alarming for Gwilym and his wife, was quite amicable. John Davies Lloyd, despite his great strength, was dead some 18 months before the sickly William Thomas [the latter died 11 December 1879]. Indeed, at the interview when he was boasting of his physical powers he was mortally ill, in the advanced stages of tuberculosis and, it was later hinted, syphilis as well.’******

Jack Smylie Wild is writing a book on the Teifi river and its tributaries.

* Wil Ifan, Where I Belong (Cardiff: Western Mail & Echo Ltd, 1946), pp9–10.
** Dylan Thomas, Over Sir John’s hill, in Collected Poems 1934–1953 (London: Phoenix, 2000), p144.
*** In Philosophy, the concept of ‘becoming’ refers to the eternal flux of the world – ‘change is the only constant’. The origin of the idea is credited to Heraclitus: ‘Everything flows, nothing stands still….’ Nietzsche contrasts ‘becoming’ with ‘being’ – a false concept employed by language and consciousness to perceive order in chaos.
**** Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood (London: Phoenix, 1992), p82.
***** Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood (London: Phoenix, 1992), pp26 -27.
****** All quotes relating to John Davies Lloyd taken from ‘The Papers of John Davies Lloyd’, an article by John Owen, assistant archivist at Haverfordwest, June 1983.


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