Cold water washes over the rocks
stirring leaf and branch
moss and sediment.
Everything at the bottom
swells and swirls into swift turmoil.
Frenzy has left the poet
and leaps into this stream
lending Spring –
her pulse, her power.
Near an oak, her lover
lingers in despair. His shadow
spreading over the branches
like tarnish over an old candelabrum.
Drained of breath and light
he leans into memory, the first
sighting of his lost rapture.
She did not appear in a garden
of blossoms or a wood of vine-tangled roots
but on cliffs overlooking the tide. Her long hair
the slanting rain
his body absorbed with a thirst
for inspiration; and her figure gowned
in the blue of slate and sea, its curves
holding mysteries he hungered
to probe, decipher. Magnetized
by her presence, his tongue
drew words from stone and grass,
sand and river, star and cloud.
His jointed fingers
turned to lightning in seconds
inserting his will in the ways
of fin and wing, hoof and claw.
And though his ancient name
meant fortress by the sea,
he became pregnable, beguiled
by a force that would render him
addicted to magic. Her spirit cast
into the scrolls of his lungs – and locked
behind gates of bone
until she unlatched the cage
letting herself loose. Now free
to stimulate the thaw, possess another.
Awen is a Welsh word for poetic inspiration. In the Welsh tradition, awen is the inspiration of the poet bards; or in its personification, the inspirational muse of creative artists. The word literally means "flowing spirit" and defines spirit energy as the main flow or the essence of life.
In this poem, the name alludes to the seductive muse, Nimue, who enslaved Merlin, the shaman/scholar from Arthurian folklore, with her beauty and beguiling ways. Her presence sends him into a state of rapturous frenzy that totally absorbs all his senses and infuses him with the extraordinary powers of perception and imaginative creativity. When she leaves him, he is both mentally and physically depleted. His magic, his art, has been diminished to a lover's lament, a longing for the one thing that allowed him to breathe and exist in a mundane world. Taking artistic liberty, my version is quite different from the original.
In the ancient texts, Nimue was a beautiful, young girl wanting to learn the ways of sorcery that were an inherent part of Merlin's mind and heart. She deliberately seduced him and used one of his own spells to entrap him in an oak where he was rendered invisible and could only be heard by those who passed with a keen ear and mind. Namely, those who believed in the supernatural. In some alternative versions of the tale, Nimue lured him into a cave and locked him away forever. One of the most lyrical poems describing this view of the myth, is a poem called "The Story of Nimue" by Thomas de Beverley
Merlin, by arts of Grammarie,
Had woven a spell, right cunningly,
That his mortal life prolonged should be.
Of herbs he had made an elixir quaint
To prolong his life, ere his years were spent;
But Fate hath frustrated his intent.
A chalice, he lifted in his hand,
To drink the elixir which fate had banned.
It fell and was spilt upon the sand.
"But," he thought, "it is not as yet too late.
I will go at once, nor a moment wait;
Though the night be dark and the hour be late."
Nimue knew of Merlin's guile;
How evil he veiled in a simple smile.
How his heart was laden with many a wile.
She had gone by night to a churchyard grey
And the herbs she had torn from the earth away.
And Merlin will curse this evil day.
For the wizard will be appalled to think
That he is trembling upon the brink
Of the grave: Life's elixir no more he'll drink.
Old he grew in a single night;
His limbs were palsied, his hair was white.
Helpless was he to set it right.
Nimue was a fairy maid,
In a Grecian garment of white arrayed.
And her hair was bound with a golden braid.
Black was her hair as ebony,
Her eyes the fairest a man might see,
Shining with magic mystery.
"Now," she cried, "is the hour mine own,
As Merlin shall for his sins atone;
His power for evil is past and gone."
When Merlin crawled on his weary way,
The little children would pause at play
To jeer at the wizard, old and grey.
He sat him down by a hollow tree,
And unto him came Nimue.
She sat her down on the Wizard's knee.
Long had the dotard followed her;
Chasing the fair one, near and far.
"Nothing now my desire will bar."
He thought for her long white arms entwined
Round his shrunken neck; and the wanton wind
Blew her hair in his face; and she seemed kind.
His shriveled lips upon hers were pressed;
His hands were fondling her warm soft breast;
As this lady weird he in love caressed.
He told her of many a subtle spell;
And, hearing his secrets her heart doth swell
As she cries, "O Merlin, I love thee well!"
"I am thine for ever, for good or ill,
If the wish of my heart wilt thou fulfill.
If thou wilt obey me, thou hast thy will."
" 'Neath yonder stone, hast thou said to me,
Is a cave and only by grammarie,
From its mouth, that great stone moved may be."
"But to me it seemeth impossible
That the stone could be lifted by any spell.
Raise it for me; for I love thee well."
Merlin arose with an air sedate,
To a certain doom, impelled by fate,
He openeth now the rocky gate.
"Further, I'll prove thee," then said she,
"Enter this magic cave for me;
Shut thou the door, by grammarie."
"Then shall thou roll the rock away,
Proving thy power by this assay,
Thou shall stand again in the open day."
She spake, and the stone was rolled aside,
And the old man entered the cavern wide--
Besotted by love and by foolish pride.
Loud laughed the fairy Nimue:
She uttered some words of mystery,
No more shall that dark cave opened be.
Even in the opening lines of De Beverley's verse, there is the reference to the magic of grammarie or grammatical language. In Celtic and Druid tradition, language when spoken, became an invocation, a prayer, a casting of a spell. It was the release of the imagination's voice, a messenger sent to embody the world with song and prophecy. And so we come back to the idea of poetry being this gift, this enabler of visionary insight. Awen is the perpetual energy, the unstoppable muse that possesses the artist, at her will, and allows for this to happen. She becomes the individual's passion/ obsession to shape and form, to change and enlighten those around him. In short, she is the breath of his creative being and furnishes his ability and reason to create.