1 February 2020 Susannah

Robert Graves & ‘A Welsh Incident’

The only way to experience the poem I’ve chosen for you this month is to listen to Richard Burton read it. Please give yourself a treat and listen to his glorious Welsh voice reading this intriguing poem.

Or you can listen to Graves read it himself, but, in my view, Richard Burton does it better.

A Welsh Incident by Robert Graves

‘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.’
‘Well, what?’
‘It made a noise.’
‘A frightening noise?’
‘No, no.’
‘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.’

Robert Graves (1895 – 1985) was a poet and novelist (did you watch the fabulous production of his novel I, Claudius on TV in the 1970s?). He said he wrote this poem as a joke and in a Welsh accent. You notice the Welsh place names and the sing-song rhythm of the conversation. The poem was inspired by an incident in a railway carriage. Young Robert was travelling with his father and on the train was a Welsh policeman who started telling everyone about a mermaid he had seen – the encounter made a deep impression on him.

The poem is a conversation. One speaker is telling of the ‘things’ that came out of the sea, while the other is asking urgent questions, wanting a full description of what happened. It begins in mid-conversation and ends without any resolution to the story or the dialogue. The main speaker is a man who knows he has an astonishing story to tell and is not going to be hurried! The open ending is in keeping with the comic tone of the poem.

The poem is also a delightful satire on the Welsh – their religious conformism and also their fondness for discursive storytelling. The ‘things’ are “very un-Welsh”, each “perfectly unlike his neighbour”, the Mayor goes out to greet them and the people seem stuffy in comparison with the strange creatures invading their very ordinary place, creatures that will not keep time to the band and make noises like the groans they themselves make in chapel.

Robert Graves was born in London, but family holidays were spent at Harlech in Wales. This poem was published in 1929. He became Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1961. You might like to read his fabulous memoir about his war experiences, Goodbye To All That.

Amongst the seven deadly sins, purple represents vanity. It was traditionally the colour for Roman Emperors and royalty, of power and magnificence, with the result that in Europe and American purple became the colour associated with vanity, extravagance and individualism. It is also a challenging colour to use in a poem, as it has only one perfect rhyme – curple (a Scottish word meaning crupper). No wonder Jenny Joseph avoids rhyme!

Have you enjoyed this poem? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Header image credit- A mermaid sits on a rock by the seashore, by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1911, http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/10722/lot/288/

Comments (8)

  1. David Castle

    I loved the poem and particularly the Richard Burton reading. Where did you find it? Are you familiar with the latest poetry anthology by Paul Kelly – “Love is strong as death”? It has many of my favourite poems, but nothing by Robert Graves. Thank you so much for your newsletter.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      So glad you enjoyed the poem. I first heard it on an audio compilation of poems and just loved it. That was read by the divine Richard Burton and since then, I’ve felt he is the ONLY reader of that poem.
      Thanks for recommending the Paul Kelly anthology. I’ll look out for it as I don’t know it.

  2. Louise

    That was wonderful. Thank you. Richard’s rich husky tone is just perfect for this enticing poem. What a tease to leave it hanging! It reminded me of how I use to love listening to Leonard Teal read Henry Lawson.

  3. Chris

    I was a little surprised to find that Robert Graves´ version didn´t match up (imho), to Burton´s, or even Dylan´s. Of course the latter two had the advantage of their natural welsh accent.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree – it’s a long way from matching up. I think the poem really needs a rich Welsh accent.

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