Gwalia Deserta XV | Idris Davies #Dewithon

I didn’t think that I would have time to join in Dewithon this year, but a chance hearing of part of a Byrds song on the radio (perhaps they played it on the 1st March for a reason?) led me down a Welsh rabbit hole. This post is what I discovered.

Idris Davies was born in 1905 in Rhymney, Monmouthshire, a mining town in South Wales. He left school at 14 to start work in the mines. When he was 21, he lost part of a finger in a mining accident, he then took part in the 1926 General Strike and found himself unemployed for four years. He used this time to complete his education at the local library, where he started writing poems.

He completed his teacher training at Loughborough Training College and Nottingham University. Between 1932 and 1947 he taught in London County Council primary schools and during the war he worked in schools evacuated from wartime London to Pytchley, Northamptonshire, Meesden, Hertfordshire, Treherbert, Glamorganshire and Llandysul, Cardiganshire. It was during this time he became friends with Dylan Thomas. In 1947 he returned to Rhymney Valley to teach in a junior school at Cwmsyfiog.

He published four volumes of poetry, written in both English and Welsh. He died of cancer at the age of 48.

One year after his death, Pete Seeger, spotted a reprint of his 1938 poem, Gwalia Deserta XV (Wasteland of Wales), in an essay collection by Dylan Thomas. He put the words to music and performed it in 1957 for the first time with blues musician, Sonny Terry. Since then the song has been performed by The Byrds, Bob Dylan, John Denver, Cher, Weddings Parties Anything, Beck and many more.

Gwalia Deserta XV was Davies first published poem. It followed the pattern of the childhood rhyme, Oranges and Lemons and reflected the discontent felt in Wales at this time, towards the mining companies.

Gwalia Deserta XV 
O what can you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.

Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr.

Who made the mineowner?
Say the black bells of Rhondda.

And who robbed the miner?
Cry the grim bells of Blaina.

They will plunder willy-nilly,
Say the bells of Caerphilly.

They have fangs, they have teeth
Shout the loud bells of Neath.

To the south, things are sullen,
Say the pink bells of Brecon.

Even God is uneasy,
Say the moist bells of Swansea.

Put the vandals in court
Cry the bells of Newport.

All would be well if — if — if —
Say the green bells of Cardiff.

Why so worried, sisters, why
Sing the silver bells of Wye.

10 thoughts on “Gwalia Deserta XV | Idris Davies #Dewithon

  1. 1. Gwalia is Wales! I never knew that despite years of driving past/delivering to Gwalia (Sons of Gwalia) mine.
    2. Pete Seeger was a generation before The Byrds
    3. I’ve always been fascinated by working class men who through an extreme dedication to education in adulthood made themselves into writers. Jack London for instance.

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    1. 1. It’s the archaic or poetic name for Wales, not commonly used. The more widely used name is Cymru. I can only assume that the first white man in Gwalia, WA, was a Welshman.
      2. Thank you – fixed.
      3. Yes and the number of African American writers who were self-educated, becoming teachers and writers about their communities.

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  2. Really enjoyed this post. The lyrics are apt. I’m from Newport and am all for putting the vandals in Court. Did you know (serendipity alert) that Crawshay Bailey is buried in the Church at Llanfoist and his servant is buried at his feet. I mean that’s what I call optimism.

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