Argoed and Masada

T. Gwynn Jones (1871-1949 CE) and Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934 CE) never met. As far as I know, these two poetic giants were never even aware of one another. Close contemporaries, they each executed a revolution in the scholarship and poetry of their respective languages, Welsh and Hebrew. Each of them broke with a current state of degeneration and formlessness by resorting to the poetic and linguistic resources of an earlier age. This particular strategy is often the most effective strategy for artists wanting to launch a community on a new course.

Both T. Gwynn and Bialik worked in every imaginable genre, and both created pieces that are now an autonomous element in their respective traditions. For T. Gwynn, this generally meant abandoning many of the Biblical themes that dominated Welsh poetry in the 19th century CE. However, I suspect that one of his most famous poets, Argoed, about a fictional Celtic realm that immolates itself rather than submit to the Romans, may have been prompted by Josephus’ account of the siege of Masada. At least two Welsh editions of Josephus were published, and T. Gwynn could easily have picked up the story while still young.

One bizarre aspect of Welsh attitudes to Jewish life and culture is that this country’s landscape is spattered with Hebrew toponyms, while its scholars are given to conceptually unsound and embarrassingly ill-informed utterances about Hebrew. (One or two of them are given to conceptually incoherent and exuberantly ill-informed utterances about Cornish, but that is another story.) When the University of Wales published the famous Geiriadur Beiblaidd some 90 years ago, this standard work proclaimed that Arabic was the only Semitic language with any genuine life in it. The Hebrew periodical press, in fact, started about the same time as the Welsh periodical press, and the first Hebrew daily was published in St. Petersburg in the 1880s CE. As a boy, Bialik encountered a rich body of secular literature in Hebrew in addition to the vast expanse of religious writing in the language. He was publishing poetry before he was 20, and rapidly came to dominate the Hebrew poetic landscape.

One of his most famous poems is Al HaShechitah ‘On the Slaughter’, written in response to a massacre in Chisinau, now capital of Moldova, in 1903. My first reaction when I read that 60 people were murdered in this atrocity was ‘Is that all?’ My second reaction was horror at my first reaction. There is a certain zone of obscurity between shock at an individual homicide, and the numbing terror of all those zeroes in the accounts of industrial-scale murder. We need to be constantly alert, less imprecise perceptions blunt our sensibilities.

The poem begins with lines that echo many of the great Biblical laments:

Heaven, beg mercy for me!  

If there is a God in you, a pathway through you to this God

– which I have not discovered

– then pray for me!  

For my heart is dead, no longer is there prayer on my lips;

all strength is gone, and hope is no more.  

Until when, how much longer, until when?

I hope very much that you will look out Bialik’s work. which is as fresh and as challenging today as it was a century or more ago. For now, I’d like to leave you with the last verse, which runs as follows:
And cursed be the man who says: Avenge!  

No such revenge – revenge for the blood of a little child

– has yet been devised by Satan.  

Let the blood pierce through the abyss!  

Let the blood seep down into the depths of darkness,

and eat away there, in the dark, and breach

all the rotting foundations of the earth.


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