Ellis Evans, c.1910.
Frontispiece in Cerddi'r Bugail (1918)
|Born||Ellis Humphrey Evans
13 January 1887
Trawsfynydd, Meirionydd, North Wales
|Died||31 July 1917
Pilckem Ridge, Ypres
|Resting place||Artillery Wood Cemetery, Boezinge, Belgium|
|Literary movement||Romantic and war poetry|
|Notable works||Yr Arwr, Ystrad Fflur, Plant Trawsfynnydd, Y Blotyn Du, Nid â’n Ango, Rhyfel|
|Notable awards||Bard's chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod|
Hedd Wyn (born Ellis Humphrey Evans, 13 January 1887 – 31 July 1917) was a Welsh language poet who was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele in World War I. He was posthumously awarded the bard's chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Evans, who had been awarded several chairs for his poetry, was inspired to take the bardic name Hedd Wyn (Welsh: blessed peace) from the way sunlight penetrated the mist in the Meirionydd valleys.
Ellis Humphrey Evans was born on 13 January 1887 in Pen Lan, a house in the middle of Trawsfynydd, Meirionydd, Wales. He was the eldest of eleven children born to Evan and Mary Evans. In the spring of 1887, the family moved to the isolated hill-farm of Yr Ysgwrn, a few miles from Trawsfynydd.
Ellis Evans received a basic education at elementary and Sunday school. He left school at fourteen and began work as a shepherd on his father’s farm. Despite an otherwise average academic performance he held a talent for poetry and had already composed his first poems by the age of eleven. Despite his education and his work in South Wales, he, like the rest of his family at the time of the 1911 census, could only speak Welsh and not English. It is unknown whether this meant he was able to speak only a few phrases, or absolutely no English at all. This was typical of many in much of rural Wales, with 48% of the population of Meirioneth not speaking English at the 1911 census. However, in Hedd Wynn's case, this changed with military service, as he certainly was able to communicate in English on his death bed in Belgium.
He took part in eisteddfodau from the age of 19 and won his chair (Cadair y Bardd) at Penbedw in 1917. In 1910, he took the bardic name Hedd Wyn, Welsh for "blessed peace", a reference to the sun's rays penetrating the mists in the valleys of Meirionydd. It was suggested by the poet Bryfdir at a poets' meeting. Hedd Wyn's main influence was the Romantic poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and themes of nature and religion dominated his work. In 1913, he won the chairs at Pwllheli and Llanuwchllyn and in 1915, he was successful at Pontardawe and Llanuwchllyn. That same year he wrote his first poem for the National Eisteddfod of Wales—Eryri, an ode to Snowdon. In 1916 he took second place at the Aberystwyth National Eisteddfod with Ystrad Fflur, an awdl written in honour of Strata Florida, the medieval Cistercian abbey ruins in Ceredigion. He maintained an ambition to win the National Eisteddfod chair the following year.
First World War
Hedd Wyn was a Christian pacifist and did not enlist for the war initially, feeling he could never kill anyone.
The war left Welsh non-conformists deeply divided. Traditionally, the Nonconformists had not been comfortable at all with the idea of warfare. The war saw a major clash within Welsh Nonconformism between those who backed military action and those who adopted a pacifist stance on religious grounds.
The war inspired Hedd Wyn's work and produced some of his most noted poetry, including Plant Trawsfynydd ("Children of Trawsfynydd"), Y Blotyn Du ("The Black Dot"), and Nid â’n Ango ("[It] Will Not Be Forgotten"). His poem, Rhyfel ("War"), remains one of his most frequently quoted works.
In 1916, the Evans family had to send one of their sons to join the British Army despite farming being a work of national importance. Ellis enlisted rather than his younger brother Robert. In February 1917, he received his training at Litherland Camp, Liverpool, and in March 1917, the government called for farm workers to help with ploughing and many soldiers were temporarily released. Hedd Wyn was given seven weeks' leave. He spent most of his furlough working on the awdl Yr Arwr ("The Hero"), his submission for the National Eisteddfod. According to his nephew, Gerald Williams,
"It was a wet year in 1917. He came back for fourteen days leave and wrote the poem, Yr Arwr, on the table by the fire. As it was such a wet year, he stayed for another seven days. This extra seven days made him a deserter. So the military police came to fetch him from the hayfield and took him to the jail at Blaenau. From there he travelled to... the war in Belgium. Because he left in such a hurry he forgot the poem on the table, so he wrote it again on the journey. So there are two copies: one in Aberystwyth and one in Bangor."
In June 1917, Hedd Wyn joined the 15th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers at Fléchin, France. His arrival depressed him, as exemplified in his quote, "Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn’t it?" Nevertheless, at Fléchin he finished his National Eisteddfod entry and signed it “Fleur de Lis”. It was sent via the Royal Mail on 15 July 1917. That same day, the 15th Battalion marched towards the major offensive which would become known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
Death at Passchendaele
The attack began on 31 July 1917 at 3:50 a.m. Heavy rain turned the battlefield into a swamp. The 15th Battalion captured Pilckem Ridge and then advanced towards the "Iron Cross" stronghold, coming under heavy artillery and machinegun fire. In a 1975 interview conducted by St Fagans National History Museum, Simon Jones, a veteran of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, recalled,
"We started over Canal Bank at Ypres, and he was killed half way across Pilckem. I've heard many say that they were with Hedd Wyn and this and that, well I was with him... I saw him fall and I can say that it was a nosecap shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that... He was going in front of me, and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt... He was dying, of course... There were stretcher bearers coming up behind us, you see. There was nothing – well, you'd be breaking the rules if you went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack."
Soon after being wounded, Hedd Wyn was carried to a first-aid post. Still conscious, he asked the doctor "Do you think I will live?" though it was clear that he had little chance of surviving. Private Ellis Evans died at about 11:00 a.m. Also among fatalities on that day was the Irish war poet, Francis Ledwidge, who was "blown to bits" while drinking tea in a shell hole.
On 6 September 1917, the ceremony of Chairing of the Bard took place at the National Eisteddfod, held that year within Birkenhead Park, England. David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister—himself a Welsh-speaking Welshman—was present. After the adjudicators announced the entry submitted under the pseudonym Fleur de Lys was the winner, the trumpets were sounded for the author to identify themselves. After three such summons, Archdruid Dyfed solemnly announced the winner had been killed in action six weeks earlier. The empty chair was then draped in a black sheet. It was delivered to the parents of Evans in the same condition, "The festival in tears and the poet in his grave," as Archdruid Dyfed said. The festival is now referred to as "Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu" ("The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair").
The chair was hand crafted by Flemish craftsman, Eugeen Vanfleteren (1880–1950), a carpenter born in Mechelen, Belgium, who had fled to England on the outbreak of war and had settled in Birkenhead.
Ellis H. Evans was buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery, near Boezinge. After a petition was submitted to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission following the war, the headstone of E. H. Evans was given the additional words Y Prifardd Hedd Wyn (English: "The Chief Bard, Hedd Wyn").
Manuscripts and publication
Immediately after the eisteddfod, a committee was formed in Trawsfynydd to look after the poet's legacy. Under the leadership of J. R. Jones, the head teacher in the village, all manuscripts in the poet's hand were collected and carefully preserved. Due to the committee's efforts, the first anthology of the bard's work, titled Cerddi'r Bugail ("The Shepherd's Poems"), was published in 1918. The manuscripts were donated to the National Library of Wales in 1934.
A collection of all the poet's known works (in Welsh) was published under the title Hedd Wyn, Ei Farddoniaeth by Merilang Press, Bodyfuddau, Trawsfynydd, Gwynedd, LL41 4UW in February 2012 ISBN 9780956937919
The poem Yr Arwr ("The Hero"), for which Hedd Wyn won the National Eisteddfodd, is still considered the poet's greatest work. The ode is structured in four parts and presents two principal characters, Merch y Drycinoedd ("Daughter of the Tempests") and the Arwr. There has been much disagreement in the past regarding the meaning of the ode. It can be said with certainty that Hedd Wyn, like his favourite poet Shelley, longed for a perfect humanity and a perfect world during the chaos of war.
Merch y Drycinoedd has been perceived as a symbol of love, the beauty of nature, and creativity; and Yr Arwr as a symbol of goodness, fairness, freedom, and justice. It is through his sacrifice, and his union with Merch y Drycinoedd at the end of the ode, that a better age will come.
The poet's bardic chair remains on display at Yr Ysgwrn, which has been preserved just as it was in 1917 by the poet's nephew, Gerald Williams. In December 2012, it was announced that Gerald was to be awarded an MBE for his "exceptional contribution" to the poet's heritage. There is also a bronze statue of him dressed as a shepherd in the centre of the village. It was unveiled by his mother in 1923 and bears an englyn which Hedd Wyn had written in memory of a slain friend, Griff Jones.
In August 2014, the Welsh Memorial Park, Ypres was unveiled at Pilckem Ridge near Ypres. The monument stands close to the spot where Hedd Wyn had been wounded.
In popular culture
Hedd Wyn became the subject of the anti-war biopic Hedd Wyn in 1992. Based on a screenplay by Alan Llwyd, the film stars Huw Garmon as the poet. He is depicted as a tragic hero with an intense dislike of the wartime ultranationalism which surrounds him. Therefore, the film focuses largely on Ellis Evans's doomed struggle to avoid enlistment.
Hedd Wyn won the Royal Television Society's Television Award for Best Single Drama in 1993 and BAFTA Cymru Awards for Best Design (by Jane Roberts and Martin Morley), Best Director (Paul Turner), Best Drama – Welsh (Shan Davies and Paul Turner), Best Editor (Chris Lawrence), Best Original Music (John E.R. Hardy) and Best Screenwriter – Welsh (Alan Llwyd) in 1994. It was also the first British motion picture to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
- Llwyd (2009), p. 7
- Llwyd (2009), p. 17
- Literal translation: white peace
- Dehandschutter, Lieven (2001). Hedd Wyn. A Welsh tragedy in Flanders. Vormingscentrum Lodewijk Dosfel (Gent, Flanders, Belgium). p. 40.
- "Online Text". Freepages.books.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
- Alan Llwyd, Out of the Fire of Hell: Welsh Experience of the Great War 1914–1918 in Prose and Verse, Gomer Press, 2008 .
- Full text (Welsh).
- "National Library of Wales interviews Gerald Williams". Museumwales.ac.uk. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
- "Welsh bard falls in the battle fields of Flanders". Museumwales.ac.uk. 2007-04-25. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
- Dehandschutter, Lieven (2001). Hedd Wyn. A Welsh tragedy in Flanders. Vormingscentrum Lodewijk Dosfel (Gent, Flanders, Belgium. p. 47.
- "Casualty details—Evans, Ellis Humphrey". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 1 March 2010.
- "National Library's Page on Hedd Wyn". Llgc.org.uk. 1917-07-31. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
- "Full text (in Welsh)". Freepages.books.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
- "BBC News – Wales honours: Libyan Mahdi Jibani MBE for medical and interfaith work". Bbc.co.uk. 2012-12-29. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
- Carradice (2009).
- Carradice, Phil (2009). The Black Chair. Pont Books. ISBN 978-1-84323-978-9
- Dehandschutter, Lieven (1st Edn 1992, 4th Edn 2001). Hedd Wyn. A Welsh tragedy in Flanders. Vormingscentrum Lodewijk Dosfel (Gent, Flanders, Belgium)
- Llwyd, Alan (2009). Stori Hedd Wyn, Bardd y Gadair Ddu. The Story of Hedd Wyn, the Poet of the Black Chair. Cyhoeddiadau Barddas / Barddas Publications. ISBN 978-1-906396-20-6
|Welsh Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hedd Wyn.|
- Hedd Wyn's tombstone
- "The Shepherd's Poems," 1918 Anthology (In Welsh)
- Hedd Wyn at the Internet Movie Database
- A detailed biographical sketch of Hedd Wyn
- Hedd Wyn at 100 Welsh Heroes
- BBC North Wales on Hedd Wyn
- Hedd Wyn at Gathering the Jewels
- English translation of Hedd Wyn's War
- English translation of Hedd Wyn's Black Spot
- on YouTube
- National Museum of Wales interviews Hedd Wyn's Nephew (In Welsh with English subtitles)