Waldo Williams: After Silent Centuries

I have been reading some Welsh language poets recently (in translation – unfortunately I cannot speak or read Welsh, bar a couple of words here and there), and in doing so came across a poem – After Silent Centuries – written in honour of those Welsh Catholics who were martyred during the Reformation. The feast day for the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales used to be celebrated on the 25th of October (also the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian), but in England has since been moved to the 4th of May (last Sunday), to be celebrated with all two hundred and eighty four canonised or beatified martyrs of the Reformation.

The Catholic Church in Wales, whilst celebrating the beatified English and Welsh martyrs on the 4th of May, retains the 25th of October as a feast day for the Six Welsh martyrs (who are included amongst the Forty) ‘and their companions’(i.e.; the thirty-four English martyrs). It is this group of six that Waldo Williams dedicated his poem to. They are: Saints Philip Evans, John Lloyd, John Jones, David Lewis, John Roberts, and Richard Gwyn. None of these names are as widely known as some of their more famous English counterparts, so I think it worthwhile to examine Williams’ poem on that basis alone – it gives vivid expression to the lives of those Welshmen who gave their lives for the Catholic faith, and whose sacrifice should never be forgotten.

Moreover though, Williams (who was himself a Quaker) paints a remarkable picture, in very brief strokes of place and character, of what martyrdom really involves – namely, the revelation of one’s true priorities. At the moment when the authenticity of these men’s faith was put to the test, when they were offered ‘the world’ in various forms, and given the opportunity to compromise, they chose Jesus. How strong their faith was, and how deep it ran, was perhaps unknown even to them before this choice was placed before them, but when it was, they chose Our Lord and His Church, before all else.

Williams’ poem, in language that manages to be both forthright and deeply elusive, compresses great emotion into concise snippets of the martyrs’ experience, and in doing so poses a powerful challenge to the reader – ‘look at what these men did’ he seems to say, knowing that this immediately causes us to ask what we would do if put in the same predicament. Whilst the enigmatic final couplet almost certainly stems from William’s nationalism, in this context it also acts as a call for us all to remember our own national stories, to recover a true sense of the Faith that was for so long such a foundational part of all British identities, and to remember those who gave their lives for it:

 

 

The centuries of silence gone, now let me weave a celebration;

Because the heart of faith is one, the moment glows in which

Souls recognise each other, one with the great tree’s kernel at

            the root of things.

 

They are at one with the light, where peace masses and gathers

In the infinities above my head; and where the sky moves into

            the night.

Then each one is a spyhole for my darkened eyes, lifting the veil.

 

John Roberts, Trawsfynydd: a pauper’s priest,

Breaking Bread for the journey when the plague weighed on

            them,

Knowing the power of darkness on its way to break, crumble,

            his flesh.

 

John Owen, carpenter: so many hiding places

Made by his tireless hands for old communion’s sake,

So that the joists are not undone, the beam pulled from the roof.

 

Richard Gwyn: smiling at what he saw in their faces, said,

‘I’ve only sixpence for your fine’ – pleading his Master’s case,

His charges (for his life) were cheap as that.

 

Oh, they ran swift and light. How can we weigh them,

            measure them,

The muster of their troops, looking down into damnation?

Nothing, I know, can scatter those bound by the paying of one price,

 

The final silent tariff. World given in exchange for world,

The far frontiers of agony to buy the Spirit’s leadership,

The flower paid over for the root, the dying grain to be his cradle.

 

Their guts wrenched out after the trip to torment on the hurdle,

And before the last gasp when the ladder stood in front of them

For the souls to mount, up to the wide tomorrow of their dear

            Lord’s Golgotha.

 

You’d have to tell a tale of them, a great, a memorable tale,

If only, Welshmen, you were, after all, a people.

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