in verse #5 : green armor

It was in his first class at the University of Washington, and my first poetry class in graduate school, that I met Leslie Norris.  He walked into class that first day and said, in what we would all have surmised to be an Oxbridge accent, “I come from a country where poetry is honoured, a nation where poets are respected.”  Here he paused, looked around the room and smiled.  His accent, his confidence, had already won over most of the class, when he continued: “That is to say, I am not English.  I come from Wales.”  Having done some research before signing up for the class, I vaguely knew this, but considered it a mere accident of birth.  I knew nothing about Wales honouring poets.  I had read a couple of Norris’s poems and stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, and all the information the English Department had on him.  I even knew that Wales had its own language, Welch, but that everyone there spoke English too, like reservation Indians in Washington.  So I felt prepared to take a chance on this teacher.  What I was unprepared for was his love:  his love of poems, his love of words, his love of teaching, and his love for his students.  Given the example of the only other Welch poet I knew of, Dylan Thomas, I had not expected it.

I had, after all, worked through a class in 20th-Century Literature in which Roger Sale called Thomas “That phony Welchman” wherein I almost raised my hand and asked “I thought Thomas really did come from Wales?”  I was saved from that embarrassment by the speed at which Sale spoke.  All that came flooding back in the wake of one of the next things Norris said:  “But do not call me Welch.  To welch is to cheat, to swindle, as the English would have it.  That is a grave insult to my nationality.  I am Welsh.”  By now he could have raised a large commando team from our class with a hint that we should avenge the honor of Wales by destroying Parliament.  I learned to appreciate his ability to finely distinguish between words and shades of meaning, despite the fact that the editors of the American heritage dictionary have not:  they list welch in its verb form as “Variant of welsh” {and add to the insult by offering the etymology “[Origin unknown],” a cowardly evasion they do not practice for the equally insulting gyp “[Probably short for Gypsy],” but more on this later} — the insult still survives.  And it rankles.

I had, and have even moreso now, a personal stake in this matter of Welsh:  on her mother’s side, my mother’s ancestors are Joneses and Lloyds as far back as the mists of Welsh history will allow me to peer.  So here was one of the best teachers I ever had, as Welsh as the current overlay of English domination might allow, defending his nation in what is now his native tongue — Leslie, ironically, did not speak Welsh, though his wife Kitty did.  As I got to know him, Leslie told me many tidbits about Welsh, such as that the Lloyds were so named because “lloyd,” pronounced something like “chluid” wed to “fluid,” means grey (as in “grey eyes,” which were highly-prized) — but that “Jones” derives from John, as in John the Baptist.  In confirming this, however, Wikipedia‘s contributor(s) say(s):

Jones is a common Celtic Welsh surname based on the English version of the parent’s name ending in ‑S….  The earliest record of the name occurs in England, in the late 13th century. The name is derived from a patronymic form of the Middle English personal names Jon and Jone, and thus roughly means in modern English “son of John”.[i]

So that Welsh surname is English in origin.  That business about the parent’s name comes from one of Wikipedia‘s sources,, which says even more cryptically “Celtic; Welsh; Name of Parent Ending in –S” which could indicate a possessive in English, but is not further explained.  I would surmise that it was a name imposed by an Anglo-Saxon lord who did not understand the Welsh names he heard.  Wikipedia goes on to say that “Surnames representing John cognate with the late formation Welsh Siôn such as Jones and John are particularly common in Wales.”  This could indicate that Welsh had no form of the name “John” until it came into Wales with the English, and became naturalized (Siôn being akin to the Irish Sean, not Zion).  John McWhorter might simply say it was a slave name, like “Welsh” itself.

In Our magnificent bastard tongue[ii], John McWhorter tells, as his subtitle has it, “the untold story of English.”  I hope it will not spoil your future enjoyment of the book if I reveal that, in two crucial aspects, Anglo-Saxon was altered by speakers of Cornish and Welsh[iii] into Middle (and hence Modern) English.  This alteration did not take place in the roughly four generations between 1066 and 1200 that mark the boundary between written records of Old English and Middle English, but began “with the first generation [of Welsh] who grew up bilingual, as far back as the fifth century, and throughout the Old English period” (42).  They grew up bilingual because they had been defeated in battle by an invading force of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who came to pillage and stayed to village.  They had to learn to talk with, and take orders from, their new masters.  So they started to learn an alien tongue.

The author of The power of Babel is a linguist as well as a philologist, and his grounds for determining that Anglo-Saxon was altered by Welsh are grammatical, rather than, say, lexical.  His primary exhibits are the progressive present tense, and the very un-Germanic presence in English of the “meaningless do” auxiliary verb, as in “Did you think this would be a short post, or on time?”  In no other Germanic language do these features occur, and amongst the larger Indo-European language family he finds it in only two:  Cornish and Welsh.  The same is true of our use of the progressive -ing to indicate present tense.  “What are you doing?” Valerie asks; “I’m writing this post” I reply.  If I said “I write this post,” as I might if English were still heavily Germanic, she might reply “Yes, you do.  Endlessly.”  Because “I write this post” as an answer to her question is not grammatical English.  But in Cornish and Welsh the grammar is equivalent.  Although the second language would not be called, by its native speakers, “Welsh.”  As McWhorter himself puts it, discussing the laws of Ine, a king of Wessex in the seventh century, the Anglo-Saxon “wealh, while coming down to us as Welsh, was not the name the people had for themselves (which was Cymry), and in Old English meant ‘foreigner,’ with a goodly tacit implication of ‘slave’” (14; italics in original)[iv].

This same Anglo-Saxon word shows up in Beowulf in the name of the wife of Hroðgar (the king besieged by Grendel and his dam), which is “Wealhþeow.”  One might translate that name “foreign slave,” but I heard another possibility from Robert D. Stevick in my Beowulf class at Washington:  “Welsh servant” — a name that might indicate a woman of high status who came from a Welsh land and had been wed into an Anglo-Saxon family to serve as a hostage, ensuring peace (she’s called a “friðusibb folca” in the poem, a “peace-kin of the peoples” or a “kindred-by-peace for the peoples”).

So McWhorter argues that Middle English was a patois (or pidgin or creole) of Old English, a trade-speech like Koine that would not have been heard in the courts of the rulers where Beowulf might have been recited.  It was the street-speech of two peoples, not even a dialect of Anglo-Saxon — so that, when the Norman invaders conquered England in 1066 and their dialect of French replaced Anglo-Saxon in the courts, this Celtified Anglo-speak replaced it in turn in the streets.  He concludes that

… after relations with France began to sour in the early 1200s and English started to be used as a written language again, we see a brand-new, slimmed-down English, as if it were in an “after” picture in a diet ad.  Old English had been jangling with case markers, and nouns had three genders as in Latin, Greek, and Russian.  In Middle English, waking up like Rip Van Winkle around 1200, case and gender were largely as they are now: vestigial and absent, respectively  (pp. 38-39).

So the language of the slave replaced the language of the court, and then became the language of the court — to enable the Norman overlords, who had broken with France, to communicate with their Anglo-Saxon & Celtic underlings, serfs, slaves and freemen — and those pesky barons at Runnymede.  A new language, written for the first time in 150 years (and now a vehicle for insults like “welsh,” kind of the way “Indian giver” is in American English:  how the victors insult the vanquished, by attributing their own sins to the losers).

I am convinced by the evidence McWhorter offers (which is not entirely original with him, but is arrayed by him in spotless white, thoroughly documented, and very accessible) of this Welsh shaping of English.  I don’t know what Leslie Norris would have said about McWhorter, but he brought a good deal of Welsh prosody into his poems.  In fact, one of his best poems, “Siencyn ap Nicolas upon his deathbed,” is an early tribute to his Welsh heritage:  as he explained it, when a Welsh bard was at the height of his powers, he would compose his last poem, the one to be read at his funeral.  Siencyn ap Nicolas neglected to do this, so Leslie did it for him.  But this was merely a foray into the legends:   it was in the rhythms of his speech and his love for words and sentences, his immersion in poetry, that his heritage surfaced.  Or as Kitty put it, “He reads for pleasure what other people read for penance….It’s not accessible to most people, but nothing’s inaccessible to Leslie.”  Leslie read poetry aloud, and anyone who heard him read knows he always sounded better than you or I, and that the poetry sounded absolutely right — but may not know why.

All of the foregoing but heightened my pleasure when, on returning to Rolfe Humphries’s collection of poems Green armor on green ground, I rediscovered his discussion of the influence of Welsh verse on verse in English — and explains partly at least why Leslie read so well.  All this business of iambs and trochees and spondees, for example — all bull.  Anglo-Saxon — Old English — had a stress-based prosody, as we saw in earlier posts.  You had four stressed syllables in a line, and any number of unstressed syllables.  The unstressed syllables were irrelevant , but there were several kinds of stressed syllables.  Middle English emerged as a stress-syllabic language, one in which you can rarely go for more than three syllables without having to stress the next syllable, a feature it might have picked up rubbing up against Welsh.  Iambic pentameter is a Greek verse form, not an English form.  Shakespeare adapted it superbly to English, but a truer modern verse form for English might be the first, and simplest, of the 24 official Welsh verse forms, cyhydedd fer, “a rhymed couplet of 8-syllable lines, well-known to us from Marvell, Herrick, and many others,” as Humphries says[v].  As in “Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, Lady, were no crime.”  Note the alliteration on “w” in the first line, and how it repeats in the second line, between the alliteration on “c.”  Note how “were” also half-rhymes with “world” while carrying a lighter stress, and how “lady” picks up the “ld” in “world.”  Marvell writes in iambic tetrameter, but the music comes from those Welsh effects, not from “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.” That kind of music in Welsh verse is called cynghanedd (literally “harmony,” but more strictly divided into four main kinds of harmony within a line, and not so loosely applied as I have here used the term), and Humphries, who was a classicist and a translator of (among other things) Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses : Art of Love, includes some of those effects in these lines from his lead poem “For my Ancestors”:

They dig in mines, they care for sheep,                                                                                     Some kinds of promises they keep;                                                                                            They can remember warriors found                                                                                         Dead in green armor on green ground.

Nothing iambic about that fourth line; it gets its power from the absence of daDUM.  It is poetry that deserves to be read aloud.

But hold on, I hear you say, doesn’t all poetry deserve that?

Your turn.


[i] Wikipedia. “Jones (surname)”. – accessed 26 May 2011.

[ii] McWhorter, John. Our magnificent bastard tongue : the untold story of English. – New York : Gotham, 2008.

[iii] For the balance of this discussion of English grammar, when I write “Welsh,” read “Cornish and Welsh.”

[iv] Interestingly enough, the American heritage dictionary offers this etymology for Welsh as the name of the language:  “[Middle English Walische, from Old English Wælisc, from Wealh, foreigner, Welshman, Celt, perhaps of Celtic origin.]”

[v] Humphries, Rolfe.  Green armor on green ground : poems in the twenty-four official Welsh meters, and some, in free meters, on Welsh themes. – [New York] : Scribner’s, 1956.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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7 Responses to in verse #5 : green armor

  1. Dennis Clark says:

    Okay, so I’m late again. This time, just as I was saving the final draft last night, my daughter’s DSL line went down here in Ithaca Town in the state of New York. So this post is coming to you from Mann Library on the campus of Cornell University.

    Hope you find it, hope it finds you.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    That is quite lovely, as was Leslie Norris himself.

    I think we ought to be taught to read poetry: not simply that it ought to be read, but taught how to read it well. I don’t think it’s something I necessarily know how to do. I think that if we did, perhaps poetry would be more widely appreciated than it is today.

    Is poetry in a primarily written literary cultural a fundamental contradiction?

    • Dennis Clark says:

      It may well be. Performance of poetry need not be limited to the traditional “reading,” but that name is a telling point about how much we stress written form, and how little we listen to poetry. Perhaps we should hold “poetry hearings” rather than “readings.” Only problem with that is, most poets I hear can’t read their own poetry, let alone that of other poets. The voice I hear reads by the line, with a rising inflection? like a question? at the end of each line? But perhaps that is fitting for verse that doesn’t know what it wants to be. I’ll be talking about this in future posts, but for now I find it interesting that “cyhydedd fer” is essentially our hymn meter, complete with half-rhymes and slant stress.

  3. I think that the greatest honor a translator can give to poetry (or any written work, for that matter) is to retain the music/meter as well as the sense, and I suspect that such an honor is particularly difficult to achieve.

    By the way, I’d like to clarify what I mean by “music.” I realized one day in the temple, while listening to one of the workers recite his speaking part, that the man had to be a native German speaker (I studied German in school, for whatever that information may be worth). His word choice could not tell me that (because it’s the same each time someone speaks it), nor did his pronunciation, which was fully American. The only thing that could tell me of his German nativity was the “music” of his speech.

    I hear returned missionaries from foreign language missions report on their missions with clear American English that still sounds as if there is an “accent” and I recognize that what I am hearing is the “music” of the language those missionaries have been speaking for 18 months to two years.

    Thank you, Dennis, for sharing these insights into a truly musical language and a wonderful representative of its music. It was worth waiting for.

    Also, I find myself wondering if Tyndale was Welsh, in spirit if not in fact. And could Shakespeare have had Welsh ancestors? (I love that he made such good use of a Greek verse form.)

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Well, Wikipedia says “Tyndale was born around 1490, possibly in one of the villages near Dursley, Gloucestershire,” which would put him just east of the southern part of Wales, but the family seems to have originated in Northumbria of Anglo-Saxon stock. But the music is in his words. Phrases like “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” or “live and move and have our being” we owe to Tyndale, as well as “it came to pass.” Well, two our of three ain’t bad.

      • Well, happen with that proximity, he heard enough Welsh lilt to learn the meter?

        I was working with a French-speaking patron in the temple recently who seemed very stiff and uncomfortable, so I decided to not only try to pronounce her French ancestral names as close to her pronunciation as I could, but to also speak the other words I said with as much French “music” as I could manage. She visibly relaxed as time went on, and told me, smiling when we finished, that my French pronunciation was very good. I consider it a tender mercy that I was able to do that for her.

        • Dennis Clark says:

          That, I agree, was a tender mercy — and an example of the gift of tongues, which appears to be a whole gift catalog all of itself. Any one receiving such a gift in service to another is, as Shakespeare would have it, twice blessed, despite the situational irony in which that quality of mercy is so described.

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