THE THREE MESSENGERS (Notes)
The original impetus to write this poem was the need to absorb and rationalise the grief of losing my beloved wife more than seven years ago. I understood that feeling sorry for myself was not an option; like most people I had family and friends, relationships and responsibilities, that I might not opt out of. The Jews, always practical, have a tradition where family and friends take it in turns just to sit with the bereaved for a week. The bereaved is then allowed two years to get sorted out emotionally; after that no allowances are made.
Christianity requires belief in a “soul”, some essential part of a human being that remains after death. This soul will be raised to “heaven”. In heaven souls of the departed meet their loved ones again and all is well for ever more. Kipling wrote a very bleak story in which the newly deceased husband meets his previously departed wife, only to find that relationships are not the same in heaven and he is condemned to rejection and despair. More immediately, and the immediate reason for setting this down on paper, the daughter of good friends who died close together after a long and successful marriage told me, outside the church after the funeral service, of her belief. Her parents would now be in heaven together restored to the prime of youth. Obviously I kept my own counsel, but mundanely I could not help thinking that when Valerie and I were in the prime of youth heaven consisted of a well-sprung mattress and endless restorative cups of tea.
It occurred to me, all those years ago, that the ancient Greeks probably coped best. They were keenly interested in what we call psychology. In their view we do not choose to be born, we do not choose to fall in love, and we do not, usually, choose to die. These matters, being outside our control, are ascribed to “the gods”, who could be worshipped by the simple but who could be regarded by the sophisticated as metaphors for processes outside human jurisdiction. Following that train of thought, it might be seen, as in Euripides' Alcestis, that it would be base ingratitude to bewail the end of a long and happy marriage.
I have taken and interwoven two conceits around which to build my poem. The first is the idea of the Triple Goddess, best described for the investigative reader by Robert Graves in The White Goddess. The Triple Goddess is a very old concept, traceable everywhere between Ireland and Mesopotamia. I have selected the most familiar expression of the idea, namely the Greek. Thus Aphrodite, the young woman, is the goddess of love; Artemis is the mature woman, protectress of childbirth; and Hecate is the old woman, rather sinisterly portending death. Hence the poem is in three sections, each relating to a person of the Triple Goddess. The Triple Goddess can also be symbolised by the three phases of the moon. The moon is feminine in many languages, and the lunar cycle approximates closely with a woman's menstrual cycle.
The second conceit, taken from Welsh poetry, is the idea of the bird as messenger: hence the title of the poem. In Greece, each deity had a corresponding bird. So Athene had her owl, or sometimes the wryneck (in Greek iynx, English “jinx”). Both birds can turn their heads backwards, so are, in myth, all-seeing, therefore wise. I have arbitrarily assigned particular birds to the persons of the Goddess in order to fit Welsh convention. There is a difference. In Welsh, the poet addresses the bird in order to send a message to his beloved. In practice, one needs to envisage a mediaeval great hall in which the whole community is assembled. When the poet recited, or more probably sang, to the bird telling of his love for a woman, his Angharad or Myfanwy was probably in the audience. In my poem, on the other hand, the bird is an intermediary between the poet and the goddess.
The greatest of Welsh poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym (c1315 – c1370), is noted for his brilliantly exact descriptions of birds. He was also notorious as a seducer of women. One story about him is that, having acquired more girlfiends than even he could handle, he invited them all to meet him under one particular tree at the same specific time. He sat hidden in the tree and wrote up the results.
Finally such a poem as this has to written in the simplest, barest, cleanest English. Perhaps the best example of what I mean comes from John Milton on a similar subject:
“I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night.”
This requirement added to the difficulty in writing it. It may also offend the taste of the reader, who is entitled to find the work clumsy, insufficient, unskilled, or not mnémotechnique, that is, not constructed so as to be easily memorised. In my defence, I wrote it to fulfil a personal need, in a state of compulsion. As the Greeks understood it, a female divinity, the Muse, compels the poet to write. If the poem is bad, it is the writer's fault; if good, the Muse should take the credit. Fair enough.
Now for the notes.
Section 1 – Blackbird. In Welsh: Ô gwrandaw y beraidd fwyalchen - “O listen to the sweet blackbird”. There is no reason in the history of myth to assign the blackbird to Aphrodite. But, as I have said, the birds belong to the Goddess and are the poet's means of communicating with her, not with the beloved as in Welsh literature.
Line 11. “nursling”. See John Milton Samson Agonistes, in which Samson says of God:
“I was his nursling once, and chief delight”.
“ward”. The Goddess protects women.
Line 14. We were together for forty-six years.
Line 17. The Welsh Arianrod is the same as “Ariadne”. The name means “Silver Wheel” and refers to the Milky Way. [The Greek galaxy also means “The Milky Way”. Gala – galaktos means “milk”. Recent astronomy has identified other galaxies and the name has been transferred. The district of Istanbul Gálata is where the Byzantine emperors had their dairy farm. A Turkish palace built there was called Gálata Saráy or “Dairy Palace”, hence the name of the football team Galatasaray.]
The notion that the deceased become stars in the sky is common to many cultures. Perhaps we can return to Welsh:
Nos yw henaint pan ddaw cystudd
Ond i harddu dyn â'i hŵyrddydd
Rhown ein goleu gwan i'n gilydd.
“Night is the old age when affliction comes.
But to beautify mankind in his latter days
Let us share our pale light with each other.”
Section 2 – Dove. Again in Welsh: Y deryn pur ar aden las - “The pure bird on a blue wing.”
Line 2. Astarte is symbolised by the full moon.
Line 4. See Genesis, Chapter 8.
Line 11. See Ovid Metamorphoses. Diana (Latin for Artemis) changes Actaeon into a stag so that he will be savaged by the hounds.
Line 12. La donna è mobile. Even Homer represents the female divinities as fickle. Perhaps we can say in translation that women have their own agenda and that men are excluded from their decision-making processes or from even understanding them.
Line 21. Venus and Cupid are Latin for Aphrodite and Erōs.
Section 3 – Crow. The crow is intelligent, black, and slightly sinister, like Hecate. The bird is also monosyllabic and would seem to be a poor choice to act as a messenger between the bereaved and the Goddess.
Line 8. See Alfred de Vigny – La Mort du Loup.
Gémir, pleurer, prier, est également lâche.
“Moaning, weeping, praying, are equally craven”.
Line 11. The Common Frog Rana temporaria does make mating calls that sound like distant motorcycles. With a poem that takes its imagery from classical and mediaeval sources, I felt it necessary to remind the reader that we are actually in the present.
Line 14. Light pollution prevents many of us from seeing the true beauty of the heavens. Last time I saw the Milky Way I was in Africa. It is astonishing.
Line 19. The crow has only one word in its vocabulary. But that word will suffice to sum up a forty-six year marriage (and a sixty-seven line poem).