Monday, May 16, 2005

Poem of the Week 5/16/2005: Lament for a Leg

Lament for a Leg

Near the tree under which the body of Dafydd ap Gwilym* is buried in Strata
Florida, Cardiganshire, there stands a stone with the following inscription:
"The left leg and part of the thigh of Henry Hughes, Cooper, was cut off and
interr'd here, June 18, 1756." Later the rest of Henry Hughes set off across
the Atlantic in search of better fortune.

A short service, to be sure,
With scarcely half a hymn they held,
Over my lost limb, suitable curtailment.
Out-of-tune notes a crow cawed
By the yew tree, amd me,
My stump still tourniqued,
Akward on my new crutch,
Being snatched towards the snack
Of a funeral feast they made.
With seldom a dry eye, for laughter,
They jostled me over the ale
I'd cut the casks for, and the mead.
"Catch me falling under a coach",
Every voice jested, save mine,
Henry Hughes, cooper. A tasteless caper!
Soon with my only, my best, foot forward
I fled, quiet, to far America.

Where, with my two tried hands, I plied
My trade and, true, in time made good
Through grieving for Pontrhydfendigaid.**
Sometimes, all at once, in my tall cups,
I'd cry in hiraeth*** for my remembered thigh
Left by the grand yew in Ystrad Fleur's
Bare ground, near the good bard.
Strangers, astonished at my high
Beer-flush, would stare, not guessing,
Above the bad-board, that I, of the starry eye,
Had one foot in the grave; thinking me,
No doubt, a drunken dolt in whom a whim
Warmed to madness, not knowing a tease
Of a Welsh worm was tickling my distant toes.

"So I bequeath my leg", I'd sat and sigh,
Baffling them, "my unexiled part, to Dafydd
The pure poet who, whole, lies near and far
from me, still pining for Morfudd's heart",
Giving him, generous to a fault
With what was no more mine to give,
Out of that curt plot, my quarter grave,
Good help, I hope. What will the great God say
At Dafydd's wild-kicking-climbing extra leg,
Jammed hard in heaven's white doorway
(I'll limp unnimble round the narrow back)
Come the quick trumpet of the Judgment Day?

John Ormond 1973

*Fourteenth-century Welsh poet
**Welsh place-name, as Ystrad-Fleur (line 23)
***Longing, nostalgia (Welsh). In my tall cups: very drunk

Good morning friends and family! I have to say that I usually put a shorter
poem in just for everybody's convenience (and my typing-laziness), but I read
this poem last night and that was that. It is somewhat surprising to find
funny literature; when I started reading in AP English, I was very serious
about it and thought that good books (and good poetry) couldn't be funny. Now
I know that some of the best ones are quite amusing. The trick is not to let
the funny bits clog up any of the weightier elements.

To begin, the epigraph itself is quite startling; I find it hilarious that
they erected a tombstone for somebody's leg. Ormond visualizes the funeral for
this lost limb as kind of a community joke. Nobody really laments (they are
all laughing too hard), the priest doesn't give more than "half a hymn," the
feast is simply a snack, and the music is a crow's cawing (some of you at UPS
might be familiar with this sort of thing haha). All in all, it is a rather
pathetic funeral, and we only realize that there is actually an element of
sadness because we hear about it from Henry Hughes's perspective. I have to
admit that I might be laughing at this funeral with the rest of them, so I am
glad that Ormond included Hughes' words to counterbalance that. He gets the
joke, noting that the truncated hymn is sort of morbidly appropriate, but,
when I see him at the funeral, I see him grinning to his friends and dropping
that facade when they turn away. They don't understand that underneath the
novelty of a funeral for a leg, somebody has lost something dear and precious.
He has literally lost a piece of himself, a limb he relied on and that carried
him many places.

As he goes to America, we understand more and more that Henry Hughes is a hard
worker and a loner. He quietly flees there (a sign that he was not happy in
Wales and that he did not care to attract a lot of attention to himself) and
makes good with what he has: two hands and the ability to grieve for his home.
This last asset seems like it would not be very helpful, but he here
acknowledges that he has to move on before he can wholly throw himself into
his new life. At least, that is what it appears. It seems as if Henry Hughes
is a man who is good at hiding himself. While he seems like the hard worker,
the kind of man who can live out the American Dream, shed his nationality and
go from rags-to-riches pulling himself up by his (one) bootstrap, he is
literally torn in two. In saying that he is a man with "one foot in the grave"
who is being tickled by a distant Welsh worm, he shows that something in him
has died, something is left on that shore so far away. The leg, then, becomes
a kind of allegory for lost nationhood and the pains of immigration. The
strangers don't understand that part of him is far, far away, lost, gone,
separate, dead.

The final stanza reinforces the poem's sadness and Henry's status as a loner.
He baffles the strangers around him because (a) they don't know him and (b)
they couldn't if the tried. As stated above, they don't understand what is
Welsh about him. They don't understand where he came from. This kind of
misunderstanding is perhaps the worst. When people don't know your home, it
has to stay inside. The new sites (for they would be new for Henry
Hughes)begin to push at the old ones, and one begins to believe that maybe
nobody will understand this ever. This is deeply tragic. Part of Henry is
literally still in this home place, home is still a piece of him and he of it,
and yet since nobody can see his inexorable Welshness, so he loses it. He
literally gives his Welshness to the poet Dafydd, perhaps hoping that it can
attain the kind of immortality that words can engender. When he says that the
leg "was no more mine to give", whose does it become? I think that it becomes
Wales' leg to give, and, since Wales seems no longer *his*, the leg is no
longer his. Maybe he bequeaths it to the Welsh poet as well because, if it is
part of Wales' heritage, perhaps he will someday be part of that heritage as

Ormond writes that the leg might help Dafydd out and goes on to describe a
somewhat comical scene in which a puzzled God watches this random third leg
trying to kick its way into heaven. The poem ends, however, on a note of
sadness. Hughes doesn't know whether God will recognize him (being recognized
is sort of like being understood or being seen the way I think about it), and
I read this as poor Hughes is so used to being misunderstood and unseen that
he doesn't believe that he will ever find a home. His situation feels so odd
and unrelatable that God won't even know what to do when his leg comes
stomping into Heaven. That is the truly sad part of this poem; he felt
alienated from his "friends" at his funeral and so he left Wales, only to feel
further estranged from himself, literally and figuratively. This poem thus
underlines the absolute necessity of human understanding; one cannot go
through life alone, acting on the outside for others. Otherwise, as Henry does
when he is drunk, the true self will bubble out the edges.

That's all for this week - hope you are all doing well, and I will see some of
you very soon who I have not seen in a long time, and others of you it will
still be a while. Have a good rest of your day!


PS - A number of you of late have requested to have the PotW sent to your
other friends or family. This is completely and totally fine - you all have my
permission to give this to whomever. If you want to send it off yourself, you
can do that, but I will be more than happy to simply add their names to my
email list. You have to send me the email addresses though!!!! Otherwise there
is nothing that I can do!!! So - send me the addresses if you want them added
or you will have to do it yourself. Thanks!

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