In 1976, the poet and Anglican priest R. S. Thomas was asked to give a lecture at the National Eisteddfod, the Welsh annual festival of art and literature. Thomas, one of the finest twentieth-century poets, was a man of many paradoxes: though an ardent nationalist and advocate of the Welsh language, he did not learn to speak it until his early thirties and wrote poetry only in English; though he ministered as a priest for forty years, he struggled with faith for even longer, eventually describing himself as a “retired Christian.” His lecture asked, “Lle mae Abercuawg? – Where is Abercuawg?”

Abercuawg is the unidentified setting of the ninth-century poem “Claf Abercuawg,” told from the perspective of a claf, a sick man – most likely a leper – who finds himself exiled to a desolate wood because of the stigma of his disease. With his old life gone and his body failing him, the speaker meditates on those things that endure: sin, redemption, and the mysteries of God. A thousand years after its composition, “Claf Abercuawg” continues to fascinate readers. The unknown author’s opaque, allusive style prefigures twentieth-century modernism; the experience of the leper reflecting on the pristine natural world he encounters attracts readers disenchanted with an urban, mechanized modernity.

For Thomas, Abercuawg represents the world as it should be, a Wales lost which can only be regained by triumphing over contemporary indifference, the machine, and the English language. Lle mae Abercuawg?ni welaf ystyr i’m bywyd, os nad oes y fath le ag Abercuawg, tref neu bentref y mae’r cogau’n canu ynddo. “Where is Abercuawg?” he asks. “I do not see meaning in my life, if there is not a place such as Abercuawg, if there is no stead or village where the cuckoos sing.” For the leper of Abercuawg, the pain of separation and the anxieties of self-reflection alone in creation, where the only thinking beings are him and God, is resolved in a renewed faith: a recommitment, in spite of everything, of his life to Christ. The author of “Claf Abercuawg” positions himself both within an existing tradition of Welsh Christian nature poetry, and outside it. Such poems tend to be allusive, with the poet taking on the character of the speaker, and offering bits of wisdom or gnomic sayings about the human and natural worlds, interspersed with straightforward descriptions of the landscape. Part of the art of these poems is transforming the particular into the universal. In one, a grieving young woman, having lost her family and home in war, exclaims dygystud deurud dagreu, “tears wear away the cheeks,” connecting the character’s own experience of loss to what was certainly a common occurrence in early medieval Wales. Such gnomes (from the Greek for aphorism) are not unique to early Welsh poetry; they are found in Old English works like “The Wanderer” or “The Seafarer,” as well. In most Welsh saga poetry, the speaking character has a backstory the audience would know; this does not seem to be the case with the wise leper in “Claf Abercuawg.”

Malcolm Edwards, Mignient, watercolor, 2020. All artwork used by permission.

Our exiled companion is a nobody, his fame and status all in the past. He laments to his listeners – the poem would have been recited – that he “cannot lead a troop.” That he misses war might strike the modern reader as odd, but his audience would have immediately understood such sentiments. Ninth-century Wales, for all its literary merits, was a violent place, even by medieval standards; one could make a rough parallel to the martial culture of its near-contemporary Beowulf or the Iliad. A nobleman was expected to provide for his warband, which in turn protected his interests and property. By the time “Claf Abercuawg” was composed, such a state of affairs had abated in England, but survived in Wales much longer due to widespread cattle-stealing – that time-honored way of transferring wealth and power – and the lack of centralized authority that would prevent such endemic violence. In stressing his lost status as a nobleman, from the forefront of this martial culture, the leper makes clear how far he has fallen.

He has indeed fallen far enough that, without position or human community, he lacks even a name. Lepers were often exiled from early societies for fear of contagion – a stigma reinforced by the common belief that leprosy was a divine punishment for some unknown transgression. The doubled exile – physical and spiritual – was total. One liturgical document, a few centuries on from “Claf Abercuawg,” describes a ritual separating the leper from society. The priest declares: “I forbid you ever to enter churches, or to go into a market, or a mill, or a bakehouse, or into any assemblies of people”; the leper is forbidden to dine with non-lepers or to speak to people in public, even when addressed, except from a distance. He is not cut off just from his old community, but from human society itself. It is unsurprising, then, that many lepers made their homes in places remote from human habitation. Even there, our leper’s condition haunts him. We first encounter him at the base of a hill: his soul “longs to sit for a while” on its summit, but his body is unable to take him there, even though it is not far. The pleasures of summer, the breeze, the colors of the flowers and the wood, bring only passing pleasure to him, as he admits he runs a fever. His home, he tells us, has fallen into disrepair or disuse.

Reminiscing on his exile during a lull in his affliction, he is interrupted by a cuckoo’s call – summer is a-coming in. He offers his first gnomic observation: “He that giveth too much is better than he who is a miser.” Even as he begins to reflect on the flaws of his past life, he finds a brief release in the beauties of nature: “Chattering cuckoo, may it sing forever!” Some of the earliest Welsh poetry, a metrical lyric known as the “Juvencus Nine,” dwells on how the grass and trees, if they sang in chorus, would not be sufficient to recount all of God’s glories. This perhaps calls upon imagery from Psalm 96: “Sing a new song to the Lord, all the earth.” We find similar expressions in Augustine: “A lizard catching flies, or a spider entangling them as they rush into her nets, oftentimes arrests me.… From them I proceed to praise you, the wonderful Creator and Disposer of all things.” Our leper’s thoughts do not yet rest explicitly on the Creator, but he too finds joy in creation.

Malcolm Edwards, Gribin, Patterns and Textures, watercolor, 2020.

Suddenly, the pleasures of beholding the natural world turn to misery. The leper is keenly aware of how much he has lost. The cuckoo flitters about, giddy, searching for a mate, and the leper is immobile, alone, once again in pain. As the bird longs for another, the speaker longs for everything he once had. The bird can look forward to finding a companion, but what hope does the leper have of restoring the life he has left behind? The air is cold, the night lengthens. His heart chafes at his illness, and he longs for death “from his disease and age.” He contemplates the shore, marveling at the sun’s reflection on the flow of water, though this does not last long either, as he is interrupted by the sounds of birds being chased by baying hounds and laments that his illness does not allow him to go to war. Perhaps he has heard his own former self in the sounds of the hounds and the hunters chasing their prey.

The sun breaking through the clouds – a rare occurrence in the region, even in summer – brings the leper’s gaze back to the hill which his soul longs to ascend. But this light brings no comfort. He declares “my fever has chosen me,” perhaps indicting his own past actions for the illness he now suffers. It is here that his gnomes are adduced to criticize human behavior, perhaps with one eye to himself. Contemporary readers might find alien the belief that God punishes people on earth with bodily disease for their sins. Others of his attitudes are easier to make sense of: today as in the ninth century, being forced to face one’s mortality with a deadly or chronic illness does give a new perspective to life. It is not clear that the leper views his disease as a punishment. He muses: “The idle are wont to arrogance”; “The wise man desireth not discord”; “Patience encompasseth understanding.” Reading between the lines, we glimpse a condemnation of the noble lifestyle the leper strove to emulate in the past.

This critique of the heroic ideal is not unique in early Welsh poetry. In the slightly earlier saga poem scholars call “Gwên and Llywarch,” an aged father, Llywarch, convinces his last surviving son, Gwên, to defend a border-ford against a greater force. Llywarch boasts of his own youthful exploits to convince his son, who might otherwise have been dissuaded since all his brothers have previously died in battle and the odds are against him. Gwên sees through his father’s bravado, but, duty-bound to obey and hoping to gain glory, goes to battle nonetheless. He is slain. Llywarch elegizes him, attacking his own speech for leading to his son’s untimely demise, but does not extend his condemnation to the heroic ideal itself. Even awash in pain, he commends his son’s bravery: he has died but did not retreat. There is no such contradiction at work in the leper’s critique of his society. His world has left him behind, and he has left its standards behind in turn. Gwên, in youth and the pride of his father, could gain glory or victory so long as he was brave, but the leper has nothing to lose. He has no treasures to store up on earth, no way to gain earthly fame or possessions.

Malcolm Edwards, Braich y Waun, watercolor, 2020.

Now the leper finds himself in winter, and with the distractions of the surrounding landscape diminished, he focuses on more spiritual questions. “The heart is deceitful above all things. It is full of deceit, and wicked works. There shall be grief when it is cleansed.” Deceit is no small part of how the leper would have made his living before his illness: thieving and scheming played an indispensable role in the cloak-and-dagger politics of medieval Wales. The significance of literal daggers is hard to overstate: punishments such as blinding and castration were not uncommon. We might imagine the leper reflecting on his own past sins, then, when he denounces the lies and immorality of power and fame. “When the Lord judges on the long day the false will be in gloom, the true in light.” He seems to reject his former life and the earthly glories he had wished to attain: “The attacker is ragged.” The noble warrior is now in rags slipping off his weakened body. All his efforts have led to this.

“My heart rubs raw from depression tonight.… The cheek cannot hide the heart’s grief.” Would these spiritual realizations have occurred to him without his exile and affliction? He has an acute sense of his own unworthiness: “God allows no good for the hapless man.” He even feels he must be “hated by God above,” who gives him “only sorrow and care.” He has tried, it seems, the usual treatment for his contagion – going to a monastery to partake in a “lepers’ mass.” The purpose of these services was not to cure the lepers, however, but to console them against hopelessness, drawing on the words of the apostle Paul: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

“Claf Abercuawg” ends abruptly, in words that suggest the speaker has internalized the suffering Saint Paul speaks of. “May God be kind to the outcast,” the leper says, in what is both a plea for grace and an acceptance of his condition. This is, conforming to the tropes of gnomic poetry, a particular experience with universal implications. The earliest word for leprosy recorded in Welsh is gwahanaint, literally, “the disease of separation.” Given this reading of the poem, the word takes on a new meaning: Christians believe we are all separated from God through our own sinfulness, an illness as total and as painful as the leper’s. We long to climb the summit of a bright hill, to find unity with God in heaven, but we find our own weakness continually works against the attempt. By our sin, and our consequent affliction, we have created a gulf between us and God that we cannot cross. But he can. With God’s grace, all things are possible, and even the shame and solitude of exile can appear as a gift. Even as the leper in this poem claims to be hated by God, he knows this is a lie. Outcast from the human world he once knew, alienated from the natural one, the leper finds himself wishing to be drawn near to God.

Malcolm Edwards, Blaen y Nant, watercolor, 2020.

The “sickness of separation” that “Claf Abercuawg” wrestles is still with us: many people whose lives are mediated by technology and deprived of meaningful community will relate to the isolation of the leper. It was this loneliness, fostered by the encroachments of the “machine” and the spiritual desolation of a secularized, scientific worldview, that formed much of R. S. Thomas’s poetry. The priest-poet spent his life seeking “the far side of the cross”; trying to find a path to faith through nature and introspection in the face of God’s apparent absence. In one of his late poems, “The Flower,” Thomas speaks of the “unseen flower” of faith – a faith he arrived at, as the leper did, through surrender to God even in his apparent silence. “I gave my eyes and my ears,” Thomas writes, “and dwelt in a soundless darkness in the shadow of your regard.” When we cannot see God in our social surroundings, or the natural world, or in our own fallen condition, it is in our “hapless” nature that God comes to save us. When the leper of Abercuawg writes that “God will not undo that which He does,” it is both an expression of despair in his own condition and a declaration of ultimate hope. God’s promise of redemption is one on which we can, and must, rely. Until then, as Thomas once wrote, “the meaning is in the waiting.”

Claf Abercuawg

Translated by David McBride

My soul longs to sit for a while on this hill
Alas, I am unable to take one step.
My journey is not long, my home is deserted.
The wind pierces, the cow-paths are bare—in summer,
when the trees obtain their comely color.
I shiver with fever today.
I am not agile, I cannot lead a troop,
I cannot move about.
While the cuckoo is happy, let it sing!
A chirpy cuckoo hails the dawn
Generous its words in the fields of Cuawg.
He that giveth too much is better than he who is a miser.
In Abercuawg, cuckoos sing
on branches bedecked with blooms.
Chattering cuckoo, may it sing forever!
In Abercuawg, cuckoos sing
on branches bedecked with blooms.
Woe to the leper, hearing them always.
In Abercuawg, cuckoos sing.
It brings my heart anguish
that I have no more a friend to hear them with me.
I have listened to a cuckoo on an ivy-covered tree.
My clothing has become looser.
Grief for what I loved is greater.
On the peak above the rustling oak
I listened to the birds’ call.
Tuneful cuckoo, all remember what they love.
Always crooning its carol, its cry full of yearning,
About to flit, of flight like a hawk
Is the eloquent cuckoo in Abercuawg.
Vocal the birds; wet the valleys.
The moon gives light; the night is frozen in stillness.
My heart chafes, my disease grieves me.
Vocal the birds; wet the valleys; this night is long.
A good thing should be held onto.
I am owed my sleep from my disease and age.
Vocal the birds; wet the roof-tile.
Leaves fall; the exile is dispirited.
I will not deny I am ill tonight.
Vocal the birds; wet the strand.
Bright the sky; broad the wave.
My heart withers from longing.
Vocal the birds; wet the strand.
Bright the wave of broad movement.
That which was loved in my youth—
I would love if I were to have it once more.
Vocal the birds in the hills of Edrywy.
Loud the hounds’ baying in the wastes.
Vocal the birds again.
Early summer—each growth is fair.
When warriors rush to battle,
I do not go; my illness forbids it.
Early summer—fair the borderland.
When warriors hasten to the battlefield
I do not go; my affliction burns me.
Hazy the hilltop in the sun; broken the ash’s branches.
From the estuaries a bright wave flows away.
Mirth is remote from my heart.
Today for me is the end of another month
In the leper-house where I am abandoned.
My heart chafes, my fever has chosen me.
Clear is the sight of the water.
The idle are wont to arrogance.
My heart chafes; sickness wastes me.
Cattle in the shed; mead in the bowl.
The wise man desireth not discord.
Patience encompasseth understanding.
Cattle in the shed; mead in the bowl.
Slippery the paths; fierce the shower,
The ford bursts its banks.
The heart is deceitful above all things.
It is full of deceit, and wicked works.
There shall be grief when it is cleansed:
Exchanging for a little thing a great one.
Hell is in store for the base ones.
When the Lord judges on the long day
the false will be in gloom, the true in light.
Cups are held up; the attacker is ragged,
Men are merry over ale.
Withered the stalks; cattle in the shed.
I have heard a heavy-pounding wave,
loud between the beach and pebbles.
My heart rubs raw from depression tonight.
Oak-branch splitting; bitter the ash-taste.
Cowparsley is sweet; the wave laughs.
The cheek cannot hide the heart’s grief.
Many a sigh tells against me
as follows my practice.
God allows no good for the hapless man.
Good to the hapless man may not be allowed,
only sorrow and care.
God will not undo that which He does.
Despite that which may be done in a prayer-house
a hapless man is he who reads it—
hated by man here; hated by God above.
The leper was a squire; he was a bold knight
in the court of a king.
May God be kind to the outcast.

Author’s note: I have tried to follow the source material closely while still striving to maintain a semblance of acceptable poesy in English. The author’s gnomes are translated in seventeenth-century English, and, when the meaning of a line in the original Welsh is uncertain, I have consulted academic commentaries. For the interested reader, the standard editions are in Jenny Rowland’s Early Welsh Saga Poetry or Nicolas Jacob’s Early Welsh Gnomic and Nature Poetry, though the latter offers no translation, only ample notes and a glossary.