As the 2014 National Eisteddfod gets underway in Llanelli, Meic Stephens recounts the 1917 winner who was unable to take his seat on the Bard’s chair.
Few poets achieve fame solely on account of the circumstances of their deaths, but in the case of Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans;1887-1917) it was the manner of his passing that caught the public mood and ensured that he would be remembered a hundred years later. The soldier-poet’s fate would be the stuff of one of the most abiding folk-narratives of twentieth-century Wales. Every schoolchild in Welsh-speaking Wales has heard of Hedd Wyn and many have visited Yr Ysgwrn, his former home in the hills above Trawsfynydd, which is now a small museum maintained by the National Trust. Just as familiar is the bronze statue to ‘the Shepherd Poet’ that stands in the village.
In 1917 the National Eisteddfod was held at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, one of the rare occasions when the festival has been held outside Wales. Because there was a war on, it was only a three-day event rather than the week-long celebration of the nation’s music, art and literature that it continues to be to this day. The Chairing of the Bard, generally considered to be the principal honour to which a Welsh poet can aspire and the main ceremony in the proceedings, was held on the second day, the sixth of September. The three adjudicators, all distinguished men of letters, were of the opinion that the most accomplished poem submitted for the competition had been written by a poet using the pseudonym Fleur-de-lis, and that in their estimation, the poem was worthy of the prize. The ceremony took its usual form: the Archdruid asked Fleur-de-lis to stand so that he could be acclaimed by the crowd that always gathers on these occasions. But no one got to his feet. He called a second time, again with no response, and a third, by which time it had become clear that the winning poet was not present.
After a pause, the Archdruid announced that the winner of the Chair competition had been killed in the war, paying the ultimate sacrifice shortly after sending his awdl (a long poem in the traditional, strict metres) to the Eisteddfod. He also informed the audience that Fleur-de-lis was the pseudonym of Ellis Humphrey Evans of Trawsfynydd, better known by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn. He had been serving as a private with the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (Ist London Welsh), and that he had fallen ‘somewhere in France’. The prize was therefore awarded posthumously. The empty chair was then draped in black, to the great emotion of the audience, and would be known ever after as Cadair Ddu Penbedw (The Black Chair of Birkenhead), one of the most potent icons of tragic loss associated with the Great War. Hedd Wyn, virtually a monoglot Welsh-speaker, was thirty years old when he died but he is usually depicted as a sturdy youth full of idealism and promise. It was a poignant scene and, according to newspaper reports, there wasn’t a dry eye in the pavilion. Wales lost a disproportionately large number of its sons during the Great War but it has kept a special place in its affections for Hedd Wyn.
The winning poem was entitled ‘Yr Arwr’ (The hero) and related the myth of Prometheus to Christian symbolism. With the possible exception of some of his much shorter lyrics, it is generally thought to be his finest poem. It had been started in Trawsfynydd and polished in camp at Litherland, near Liverpool, and then taken to Flanders, where it was finished and posted back to Wales. Having enlisted early in 1917, the poet was killed after being struck in the chest by shrapnel on the day he first saw action, on Pilkem Ridge, on 31 July in the same year – the first day of the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). ‘He was a silent fellow,’ an officer commented, ‘it would appear he could speak but little English, or if he could he did not.’ Hedd Wyn was one of the 31,000 soldiers who died that day. ‘A fine day’s work,’ Douglas Haig wrote in his diary.
A volume of Hedd Wyn’s poems, Cerddi’r Bugail (The shepherd’s poems), was published in 1918 and with the profits from this book, supplemented by subscriptions, the statue was raised to him in his home village, a permanent reminder of the sacrifice of a whole generation. The poet was buried in Artillery Wood cemetery at Boezinge, and is commemorated by an inscribed slate at Langemarck. The story of Hedd Wyn was made into a film that was nominated for an Oscar in 1992. The Black Chair, together with other artefacts associated with the poet, is kept at Yr Ysgwrn.