“The Blue Cell”: poems on the lives of early Welsh saints

I’m happy to say that my new pamphlet, The Blue Cell, was published by Rack Press earlier this month.  The poems are concerned with moments in the lives of various early Welsh saints: some relatively well-known, such as Gwenffrewi (Winifred), and others of more local fame.

For me, the stories of the Celtic saints have an appeal comparable to the stories of the Mabinogion – to which they are at root related.  In both sets of legend we find the same unquestioning acceptance of magic, a cast of similarly powerful, headstrong individuals whose lives are nonetheless subject to stronger, supernatural forces; and, in these individuals, we find the same curiously blunted responses to danger, disaster or heartbreak, which leave an impression of characters affected by human emotion, and at the same time not behaving in truly human ways.

In the Mabinogion and in the stories of the Celtic saints, we see grand themes of human emotion and action – love, revenge, forgiveness, despair, revelation – and we see the expression of these emotions on a grand scale.  So, in the second branch of the Mabinogion, when Branwen realises the devastation brought to Britain and Ireland by her brother’s attempt to rescue her from her cruel husband: “Alas, Son of God,” said she, “Woe is me that I was ever born: two good islands have been laid waste because of me!”  And she heaved a great sigh, and with that broke her heart.  And a four-sided grave was made for her, and she was buried there on the banks of the Alaw. 

Episodes like these are moving and passionate, but the more subtle register of human thought and feeling – doubt, worry, tiredness, relief – is harder to find.  This is partly, of course, because neither the tales of the Mabinogion nor the tales of the saints are exercises in social realism, but ancient pieces of inherently formulaic narrative.  They are structured around key motifs, and have passed through so many hands that only the most crucial details remain constant.  What is more, neither the saints nor the cast of the Mabinogion are straight-forward mortals.  The Four Branches of the Mabinogion are generally understood to be medieval redactions of earlier myth, and their characters to descend from Celtic deities; while, as Elissa R. Henken points out in her excellent book The Welsh Saints: a study in patterned lives (D.S. Brewer, 1991), “the Welsh saints have less in common with the martyred saints of Europe than with the mythological and secular heroes of their own land”.

In other words, the courtly romances of the Mabinogion and the legendary lives of the saints have a common origin in pre-Christian Celtic tradition.  Many of the same tropes occur in both places: people turned into beasts, people stuck to objects, people associated with magical artefacts, and so on.  Nonetheless, there is an important distinction: however their stories developed, and with whatever archaic gods they might have become conflated in folklore, the saints themselves were real historical figures, and devout Christians.  Where the magical activities of the mythological heroes are proof of personal wizardly power, the miracles performed by the saints are evidence of God’s grace.

The saints lived from day to day in a world of earth and flesh.  Sex and violence are common concerns in their stories, and are sometimes luridly described.  They leave footprints in stone, and cause springs to burst from the ground.  How, in the earliest days of the Celtic church, were the material and spiritual worlds balanced?  How did the saints – how does anyone – live in both at once?  How do the ways in which we weigh up the physical and the spiritual change as religious conventions change?  I didn’t write my poems with any of these questions particularly in mind, and I’m sure that the poems provide no answers.  But as I looked back at the early Welsh saints I began to wonder; and these are real questions, I think, however fantastical the stories that prompt them.