A poem in the Cornish language

And now for something completely different. In the current circumstances a small dose of poetry might lift our spirits a bit and remind us of another reality. But not just any old poetry; let’s sample something written in the Cornish language.

Tim Saunders is the most accomplished poet writing in Cornish. Tim’s most recent publication is Virgil’s Fountain/Fenten Feryl, published by Francis Boutle and described as ‘a poem of love and loss in which myth strives to give shape to unbearable memory’. To give a flavour of Tim’s poetry here’s one from his collection The High Tide: Collected Poems in Cornish 1974-1999. It first appears in Tim’s spelling, then with his literal translation and finally in the traditional, colloquial Cornish spelling that I use.

Vodya

Monez yn-kerdh pan dheu gworthewer,
meyn ow’kwska yn fosow isel,
edreg ow’chwystra’n-kosel, kosel,
avowa kÿvrin dhown dhÿ’nn gewer.

Kerdhez war fordh a-hyz ann morreb,
meyn ow’kwska dhÿ woelez avon,
lanwez gov ow’puthi peub bystyon,
gwovynn heb gwaityanz kavoz gwortheb.
Gwortos ha’ miraz worth ann mordan,
meyn ow’kwska yn mysk ann tyweuz,
gevyanz nowneug ow’c’hwilaz pec’heuz,
gwolsowez worth ann nos polz byc’han.
Kilya a’nn traeth, a’nn tir, a’nn Noarvyz,
meyn ow’kwska yn kylc’how’nn ebrenn,
kov ow’fellyl, kÿvrenn ha kÿvrenn,
c’hwilaz korfow’nn lavarow kÿllyz.

Departing

Setting out when evening comes, stones sleeping in low walls, regret whispering quietly, quietly, admitting a deep secret to the weather.

Walking on a road along by the sea, stones sleeping at the bottom of a river, memory’s tide swamping all dirty water, asking without hoping to get an answer.

Waiting and looking at the fluorescence on the sea, stones sleeping amongst the sand, hungry forgiveness looking for sin, listening to the night for a little moment.

Retreating from the beach, from the land, from the earth, stones sleeping in the circles of the sky, memory failing, link by link, looking for the bodies of the lost words.

Voydia

Moaz e-ker pa thea gothewar,  
mein a cuska en fozow ezal,  
edrak a whistra’n cuzal, cuzal,  
avowa kevrin down tha’n gewar. 
Kerraz war vor a-hez an morreb, 
mein a cuska tha wolez awan, 
lanez cov a perthi pub bistian, 
goofen heb gwaitianz cavaz gorreb. 
Gurtaz ha miraz ort an mordan, 
mein a cuska amesk an tewez, 
gevianz naoneg a whilaz pehez, 
gasowaz ort an nôz pols bian. 
Kilia a’n treath, a’n tîr, a’n Nôarvez, 
mein a cuska en kelghow’n ebarn, 
cov a fillal, kevran ha kevran, 
whilaz corfow’n lavarow kellez.

John Passmore Edwards: the Cornish philanthropist

Anyone who walks around Cornish towns with half an eye open cannot fail to spot the buildings adorned with the name ‘Passmore Edwards’. But who was Passmore Edwards?

John Passmore Edwards was born on 24th March 1823 in a nondescript cottage in Blackwater, a mining village a mile or two east of Redruth on the main road through Cornwall. John’s father wasn’t a miner but made his living from a variety of useful skills, including market gardening and carpentry. This allowed the family to pay to school their four children. John read avidly and became a solicitor’s clerk in Truro before giving this up for the lure of journalism.

After spending a few years in Manchester working on a radical newspaper, John moved to London. He survived on freelance journalism before entering the publishing business and buying his first magazine in 1851. This turned out to be a disaster and he became bankrupt. Nonetheless, by 1861 by dint of unremitting work he’d recovered his losses and was even able to pay off his creditors.

The Passmore Edwards Library at Redruth

After that hiccup John Passmore Edwards’ fortunes began to change. He settled down, married and began buying a variety of publications. In 1874 these included an evening paper, the Echo, at just the time the market for cheap daily newspapers was beginning to expand rapidly. This made his fortune and from 1890 he turned to philanthropy, using his resources to fund buildings across the south of England and in Cornwall. Many of these were libraries but there were Science and Art schools, an art gallery and even a convalescent home.

While not exactly a story of rags to riches, John Passmore Edwards’ life was the stereotype of the Victorian self-made man. Yet throughout his life. Passmore Edwards stuck to his radical principles. He had been involved in agitation against the Corn Laws even before leaving Cornwall. In later life, he continued to speak truth to power, using his titles to stand up for the poor, for peace overseas and for reform at home, and using his money to support ‘useful knowledge’ and educational facilities.

Newlyn Art Gallery

True to his convictions, he declined a knighthood and died at home in Hampstead in 1911, aged 88. John Passmore Edwards would now presumably be spinning in his grave if he could see the sorry state to which the press in the UK has descended.

The mystery of mid-Cornwall’s literati

The cottage in which Clemo grew up.

On this day in 1916 one of Cornwall’s foremost writers was born at Goonamarris, in Cornwall’s clay country. This was Jack Clemo, writer of dialect tales, autobiographies, novels and theological works, but best remembered for his poetry. Clemo’s works – stark, harsh, unforgiving – and his opinions – from Calvinism to obscure mysticism – do not make him an easy or comfortable read in our shallow post-modern times. However, his achievement was immense, even without taking into account the physical disabilities which left him virtually blind from an early age and then deaf.

More widely, Clemo was one of a band of writers who hailed from the St Austell district of mid-Cornwall. These include the academics A.L.Rowse and Quiller-Couch, Rowse also being a poet and Q a novelist. Ann Treneer was the daughter of a teacher at Gorran, on the other side of St Austell Bay from Q, and wrote Schoolhouse in the Wind and Cornish Years. Then there were the Hocking siblings, Joseph, Salome and Silas, who wrote hundreds of novels between them and came from the same parish as Clemo – St Stephen in Brannel. In the contemporary period we have the prolific output of Alan Kent, poet, dramatist and novelist, who is also from the clay country.

What is it about the St Austell district that makes it a hot spot for literature, with more than its fair share of writers? Is it just luck? Or is there a deeper factor involved? The question is particularly intriguing when we note the reputation the clay businessmen had for cultural philistinism, although this was probably exaggerated by snobbery, Rowse being particularly adept at this. Nonetheless, when Passmore Edwards offered to finance the building of a library as long as the local council paid for its upkeep out of the rates, St Austell Urban District Council was one of the few to turn down the offer.

For more on Clemo see Luke Thompson, Clay Phoenix: a biography of Jack Clemo, London, 2016.

For the Hockings see Alan Kent, Pulp Methodism: The Lives and Literature of Silas, Joseph and Salome Hocking, St Austell, 2002.

Cornwall’s literary and philosophical societies

Currently, Cornwall’s largest museum, the Royal Cornwall Museum at Truro, is temporarily closed to the public. This is the result of ‘continued reduction in grants and consistently low visitor numbers’. The museum’s origins date back more than 200 years. On the 5th February 1818 a number of gentlemen met together at Truro Library. From that meeting came the Cornwall Philosophical Institution, which soon added ‘literary’ to its title. It later became the Royal Institution of Cornwall (RIC). The RIC remains the managing body for the museum.

The building that housed the original RCM
(to the right)

Literary societies in the 1800s provided lectures and in the days before mass education were often associated with libraries and museums. The RIC was one of a triumvirate of literary societies that were established in the 1810s in Cornwall. The first had been the Cornwall Geological Society at Penzance in 1814 and the third was the Cornwall Physical Institution at Falmouth. This latter body folded but in 1833 the Cornwall Polytechnic Society took up the baton in the same town.

Falmouth, Penzance and Truro were the three Cornish towns with the largest and most confident professional and middle classes, who comprised the bulk of the membership of these societies. They were also situated on the edge of the mining districts of west Cornwall. Those districts had from the 1730s onwards created the wealth from which the urban middle classes benefited.

Three lit and phils in such a relatively confined district reflected Cornwall’s dispersed population structure but could prove a drawback in terms of collaboration and ability to take advantage of economies of scale. Some sporadic efforts in the 1840s to combine the societies came to nothing, foundering on the rocks of small town patriotism.

Unfortunately, a museum explicitly devoted to the pan-Cornish story with widespread popular support never emerged. The recent failure of the RCM to discover a viable ‘business model’ for the museum, in a Cornwall with twice the population as in 1818 and many times wealthier, presumably tells us something about the nature of modern Cornwall and its prevailing priorities.

The impressive frontage of the current RCM, opened in 1919

Q

This week in 1863 saw the birth of Arthur Quiller-Couch, Cornwall’s foremost early twentieth century intellectual. While at Oxford Quiller-Couch adopted the pseudonym Q.

Born at Bodmin, his father hailed from a well-known Polperro family, Q’s grandfather being the naturalist Jonathan Couch. Yet his mother’s home was Newton Abbot and it was there, outside Cornwall, that the young Quiller-Couch received his education, before moving on to Clifton College, Bristol and Trinity College, Oxford.

Between leaving Oxford in 1886 and returning to formal academic life at Cambridge in 1912, Q was a full-time author, at first in London and then from 1892 at his wife’s home town of Fowey. His first novel was published in 1887 and this was followed by almost 40 novels, collections of short stories and anthologies. Many of these were set in Cornwall, the most notable being The Astonishing History of Troy Town (1888) and The Delectable Duchy (1893). The latter, with its humorous yet sympathetic treatment of a fading Cornish world, did much to put Cornwall on the tourist map. This was something Q agonised about in 1899-1900 when he edited the short-lived Cornish Magazine.

Q in 1934

Having edited the Oxford Book of English Verse from 1900, the standard anthology of verse, Q was appointed Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University in 1912. He was a key figure there in the campaign that established English as a faculty separate from medieval and modern languages.

Meanwhile, outside the university terms he was more usually found back in Fowey. He served for 30 years on the Cornwall Education Committee, which oversaw the establishment of grammar schools after the Education Act of 1902. It was these that provided the route for A.L.Rowse, Q’s protégé, to become the leading light of the next generation of Cornish intellectuals.

Like many of his middle class contemporaries in Cornwall, Q was kindly disposed towards the Cornish ‘Revival’, although he remained the epitome of the English gentlemanly ideal. Nonetheless, while Conservative in cultural terms and Anglican in his religion, Q was resolutely liberal in his politics and was rewarded for his services with a knighthood from the Liberal Government in 1910.

As Alan Kent has pointed out, Q straddled the two worlds of the English establishment and Cornish particularism. Yet he remained sceptical of many of the more fanciful notions of the early twentieth century revivalists. When it was proposed that the mystery plays of the fourteenth-century should be restaged, Q remarked drily that ‘the audience would have to be play-acting even more strenuously than the actors’.