What makes a nation? Ethnic identity? Language? Common values? Or, is it just the peculiar result of accidental forces through history? The questions are at the forefront of my mind, not because of Scotland or Catalonia or Kurdistan, but because of that grumpy old Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas. Thomas is today’s lens for looking at the work of Novoneyra in Galicia.
Galicia and Wales have a lot in common. Both have deep connections with a more powerful and arrogant neighbour: Castilla and England respectively. Both have been sucked up into an imperial project: the Spanish Empire; the British Empire. Both have mountains and coastline and look out onto a western sea with a longing for the return of legendary heroes who will right wrongs and restore justice. Both have their own language.
I grew up in Somerset. From the north coast you could look out and see the industrial towns of South Wales across the Bristol Channel. Our little black-and-white television picked up HTV with some programmes in Welsh. The language was impenetrable in both its written and spoken forms, but the lilting sound of it was unique.
In the comics I read and the action films I watched there was usually a Welshman who was called Taffy or Davies: devoted to his mum, good with a gun and with a charming provincial simplicity. Not one of the officers; one of the men. I knew that the Wales I could see was the industrial fringe of a land that rose up to mountains and valleys where the people increasingly spoke their own language, tended their sheep and resented the English. They resented the reservoirs that were built to give water to the English Midlands. They resented the holiday cottages that their richer neighbours bought in that sublime landscape.
Thomas grew up in the north of Wales where the Welsh language is more widely spoken. Yet he did not grow up speaking Welsh:
England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger at my lips?
The Old Language p.25
He was a middle class child, not a hill farmer, and his parents thought it better for him to be brought up in English. It was a source of pain to him through his life. He became a country priest and spent his life serving parishioners I imagine to be a little like Galician hill farmers. An Acre of Land was published in 1952. In this book Thomas develops themes that remain consistent throughout his subsequent poetry. I am going to focus on this one collection even though I am using Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix, 1993) because it provides a direct parallel to Novoneyra: Os Eidos was published in 1953.
Men of Wales… How I have hated you…
Thomas says this as a country priest whose attempts to bring an appreciation of poetry and culture to his flock wash against the flint faces of the hill farmers he has to deal with. Yet he comes to realise that they have something that he lacks:
…I know, as I listen, that your speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips
A Priest to His People, p.13
The Welsh language then is one of the founts of his respect for the nationhood of Wales. Yet, he cannot participate. This emphasis on the language makes for another point of comparison with Galicia. Novoneyra might be one of the countrymen that Thomas is talking to: distant from the claims of the city and the town; heir to a tradition of lyricism in his own language that is as clear as that country rill.
Wales compares with Galicia. For centuries Galician was seen as a language spoken by peasants in the hills and villages. Even today it is more likely that you will hear Castilian Spanish on the streets of Santiago or Coruña. Gallego is the language of the people in the villages by the sea or in the mountains. The same is the case in Wales in spite of legislation making it obligatory to learn Welsh in school and to have mastered it for a government job. In Cardiff or Swansea it is English you hear.
The old ways were hard. People want to move to the cities. As the traditional way of life in the countryside shrinks what is left of the roots of identity that made the idea of a nation? We see that language is just one part of something bigger. A way of life is fading and the language is going with it.
Thomas was witness to the depopulation of the villages in the hills. In The Welsh Hill Country (p.22) he says it is “too far for you to see” the death throes of an old farmer with “the embryo music dead in his throat.” He says we should “leave it, leave it” because these are the “last survivors” (Depopulation of the Hills, p.28).
Or we can turn to Welsh Landscape:
There is no present in Wales
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
…an impotent people
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.
Thomas is pessimistic. He is famous for his identification of the Machine as the bringer of the ills that he sees around him. The machine is not a single thing, but a multi-facted symptom of all the forces that drive the way of life that he comes to cherish to extinction. In An Acre of Land the machine is represented by the tractor of Cynddylan: “emptying the woods// of foxes and squirrels and bright jays.” Thomas’s rejection of the machine has made him a saint of environmentalists (see Paul Kingsnorth or Dark Mountain Project). Yet he lays the blame clearly on English industrialists:
in the corpse of a nation
for its congealed blood. I was
born into the squalor of
their feeding, and sucked their speech
in with my mother’s
infected milk, so that whatever
I throw up now is still theirs.
There is no hope of reconciliation in his view of Wales. He tries to emphasise common humanity- “listen, listen, I am a man like you” (The Hill Farmer Speaks, p.31) but there is scant comfort in that. In the end he resigns himself to something that approaches the presence in Nature of Novoneyra:
We will listen instead to the wind’s text
Blown through the roof, or the thrush’s song
… For nature’s truth
Is primary and her changing seasons
Correct out of a vaster reason
The vague errors of the flesh.
Thomas and Novoneyra follow different paths. Thomas writes out his concerns in a way that Novoneyra does not. I come back to the feeling that the Galician is one of the hill people that Thomas envies and admires. Yet Novoneyra ended up in Santiago whilst Thomas never surrendered his rejection of what the machine offered him: he lived in a cottage with no central heating or modern appliances. He pulled out. He pulled back even though in grander terms he knew that it was useless.
What does it mean? What does it mean for me, an Englishman living in a mountain village in Asturias?
Both Thomas and Novoneyra have something to say to me. Here in the village the older people are dying off and the younger people do not want to live with cows and cowdung. No one is a hill farmer like Thomas’s Prytherch. The landscape is depopulated. There are houses going for a song. Even today a woman came from Oviedo asking about a house she wanted to buy for 15000€. She probably paid more for her car. There are elegant ruins in all the villages, testimony to a time when more people lived off the same land. With the advent of the machine you cannot even live poorly off twice the land the rich people had in the past.
People slip a few words of Asturianu into their speech to sound like they belong but it is an affectation: they all have jobs where they speak Castilian and earn the money that allows them to own the privilege of this place.
And I imagine this dynamic repeated around the world. Small communities of people with their own customs and language compelled by the logic of the times to surrender and head to the cities. There, in the city, they have available all the good things- doctors, internet, shops and restaurants. It is the great bonanza of modern life, for which we have to make the sacrifice of the old ways, which anyway come to seem unattractive and harsh.
What fool raises his cattle on the hard mountains? There are vast barns where the animals wander over to troughs where the feed is laid on for them. Mechanised milking makes the hand on the teat a thing of the past.
I don’t exclude myself. I am writing a blog. I will go down into town to put it onto the internet. And you, dear reader, will have read it on a device that implies the same contraction of the variety of past lives. So what is a nation? What is a people? What is a language and a culture? I seem to myself to be a sad remnant of a Romantic tradition in my searches through literature to find a richer life that brings in the words and feelings of- what?- redemption?
Just as Novoneyra found his spirit reflected in the old songs of Galicia, Thomas looked back to the old literature of Wales and spoke about Abercuawg. I shall transcribe the poem of the same name below so that you can get the full texture of his thought without my comments.
Abercuawg! Where is it?
Where is Abercuawg, that
Place where the cuckoos sing?
I asked the professors.
Lo, here, lo, there: on the banks
Of a river they explained
How Cuawg had become Dulas.
There was the mansion, Dolguog,
Not far off to confirm them. I
Looked at the surface of the water,
But the place that I was seeking
Was not reflected therein.
I looked as through a clear
Windw at pebbles that were the ruins
Of no building, with no birds tolling
Among them, as in the towers of the mind.
An absence is how we become surer
Of what we want. Abercuawg
Is not here now, but there. And
There is the indefinable point,
The incarnation of a concept,
The moment at which a little
Becomes a lot. I have listened
To the word ‘Branwen’ and pictured
The horses and the soil red
With their blood, and have opened
My eyes on the sickly child, sticky
With sweets and snivel. And: ‘Not
This,’ I have cried. ‘This is the name,
Not the thing that the name
Stands for.’ I have no faith
That to put a name to
A thing is to bring it
Before one. I am a seeker
In time for that which is
Beyond time, that is everywhere
And nowhere; no more before
Than after, yet always
About to be; whose duration is
Of the mind, but free as
Bergson would say of the mind’s
Degradation of the eternal.
And this seems to me to be a pretty good definition of saudade as defined by Ramón Piñeiro!