A Poet Who Has Not Lost Faith in His Muse 1921
Huw Menai’s Remarkable Gift of Song
By A.G. Prys-Jones
Huw Menai recently published his third volume of poetry, a book in which he shows that his deep springs of song still flow abundantly despite the arid years of material drought which have overtaken.
Like another modern poet, Sir William Watson he has known the heart break pf unrequited hope. But he has also heard the trumpets sounding “on the other side,” and in the strength of their inspiration he has kept the high faith of the creative artist.
During the forty-seven years of his life he has never been in prosperous or even in comparatively comfortable circumstances. The brief, simple and very moving autobiography in the introduction of his second volume, “The Passing of Guto,” tells us that he left school at the age of twelve in order to help his mother to keep her home taut against the storms which, even in early childhood, threatened his little domestic security.
A great partnership that must have been, the youthful poet and his mother awaiting the local trawling ketch into harbour with its cargo of fish, and walking with their baskets of herrings and mackerel to sell in the scattered villages of Caernarvonshire.
One notes with a stirring of the heart his tribute to the sturdy Welsh independence of his mother. “Rather than seek Poor-law relief I believe my mother would have preferred to starve herself quietly out of life.”
There followed other juvenile, blind-alley occupations, selling newspapers, running errands beer-bottling, the unloading of timber and potatoes from ships, and a turn of three months at mining in South Wales after tramping all the way from the North. Later came a job at a bookseller’s, as a packer, with a welcome access to literature, notably a dilapidated copy of Humboldt’s “Cosmos,” Arnold’s “Literature and Dogma,” and Paine’s “Age of Reason,” the two last through friendship with an itinerant Austrian Jews who hawked music in Caernarvon. How many, one wonders, even amongst educated men and women today, can claim to have settled down to such mature reading before the age of eighteen?
Then came the renewed lure of the mining valleys of the South, with their strong stirrings into the revolt of Secularism and Socialism. Here Huw Menai found his first real opportunity for expression, in public squares and street corners as a political propagandist. One can readily imagine him breaking into an impassioned torrent of oratory laden with similes and metaphors from the natural world which he understands and loves so well; this tall, dark, bilingual, Caernarvonshire boy pitting his youthful eloquence in both languages against the powerful economic and social forces around him.
During this period also he contributed regularly to the journals of his cause, in that terse, compact brilliant English prose of which he is always a master when he uses it. But he could secure no employment until a generous gesture on the part of Lord Rhondda, whom he had often attacked in the press, provided him with work.
South O’ Dreams
By Huw Menai
The swallows rise, and drift
Far away for home and calm,
And O! that they’d give sad souls a lift
To find sweet healing balm!
They go where there’s always sun,
Where to nothing Night has paled,
They go where the wise have always gone
When by the world assailed
To join in the Nymphean dance,
Where the eyes shall know no ache
Of seeing on the iron of circumstance
Men’s brittle hearts break
They go where the stars still kiss
With an understanding high,
Where beauty everlasting is
And dreamers never die,
Huw Menai has told us: “I believe that this Christian act has had a subtle effect upon my subconscious mind.”
It was the stress of the war which led his urge for self-expression from politics into the channels of poetry, the war and the high comradeship of Shelley, Keats and especially of Wordsworth.
His first volume ”Through The Upcast Shaft,” the first-fruits of a working miner’s day dreams of beauty, showed marked individuality of thought and expression, a richness of imagery, and a serene depth of philosophy which would have been remarkable enough even in a poet who had received the normal educational advantages of the time.
In the case of one who had been given so little but who was capable of seeing so much the volume revealed genius, the native genius of a race which has thrown up from its peasant culture from time to time men of new vision and vivid imaginative power. Huw Menai is undoubtedly amongst their number; and on the strength of this slender volume he acclaimed as a vital voice by competent critics in Britain and America.
In his second volume, “The Passing of Guto,” the poet’s art shows wider vision, his mastery of form has grown more certain, his imaginative power is more exquisite and fine, his lyric strength more rhythmic ad compelling. One finds here poems which should voyage in the great argosies of English mythical verse.
His third volume “Back in the Return,” contains his first essay into the epic poem on the lines so successfully devised by John Masefield. In this long poem, written in several metres, there is much strength, vigour, and pathos; and it will stand as a remarkable achievement of its kind amongst contemporary compositions. Realistic, fierce, stark and even crude in is intensity, it voices a passionate revolt against the miner’s lost.
What of the Future?
Here, indeed, is a poet of whom his compatriots may justifiably be proud, a poet of rare distinction who writes with originality, force and insight, one who has achieved spiritual victory with no weapons save those which he has forged in the fires of his own life.
The Irish poet “A.E.” wrote with reference to the imaginative power of the Celtic peoples: “During all these centuries the Celt has kept in his heart some affinity with the mighty beings ruling in the Unseen, once evident to the heroic races who preceded him. His legends and his faery tales have connected his soul with the inner lives of air and water and earth, and they in turn have kept his heart sweet with hidden references.”
Huw Menai with his sense of wonder and his gift of song comes of this high lineage, and he will to give us his dreams wherever his pilgrim road may lead him.
But is our modern age so bankrupt that it cannot find room somewhere for such a singer, a niche in which he may be given comparative security? Or must this poet still tune his melody to insubstantial shadows, waiting for a dawn which never breaks? If so, then the appeal of true poetry is dead, and with it passes much that can solace and inspire the hearts of wayfaring men.