Hedd Wyn: 'The Hero'

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The Hero - Yr Arwr

When the winner of the chair, with the pen-name 'Fleur-de-lis', was called to receive his prize during the chairing ceremony of the Welsh National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead in 1917, nobody rose. Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans, 1887-1917), the victorious bard had been killed a few weeks previously on the battlefield in Flanders. The empty chair was covered with a black veil and from then on Birkenhead Eisteddfod 1917 was known as “The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair”.

Ellis Humphrey Evans was born on 13 January 1887, the eldest son of Evan and Mary Evans, of Yr Ysgwrn farm, Trawsfynydd. When he left school aged 14 he worked as a shepherd on the farm. He began to write poetry in his youth and competed in several local eisteddfodau under the pen-name 'Hedd Wyn'. His gift as a poet developed, and he went on to win six chairs in local eisteddfodau and nearly won his first chair in a National Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth in 1916.

Hedd Wyn is regarded as one of Wales' foremost poets, and many believe his ode 'Yr Arwr' (The Hero) is his most impressive poem. When the Great War began in 1914 he concentrated on discussing the nightmare of the war in his poetry and wrote poems in memory of friends who fell on the battleground. He began composing 'Yr Arwr' in October 1916, before he himself was forced, under the Military Conscription Act 1916, to join the army and sail to France in June 1917. He completed the ode while he was on the battlefield, and posted it back to Wales from the village of Fl├ęchin in northern France in July 1917. Within a few weeks, on 31 July 1917, he had also lost his life in the battle of Pilkem Ridge near Ypres.

The National Library of Wales has digitised one of Hedd Wyn's final drafts of his winning ode which was presented by J. R. Jones of Llwyn Celyn, Trawsfynydd, in 1934. The manuscript contains 25 pages and on them are corrections in pencil. The ode has four parts, and contains two main characters, 'Merch y Drycinoedd' (Girl / Daughter of the Tempests) and the 'Arwr' (Hero). 'Merch y Drycinoedd' is considered a symbol of love, beauty in nature and the creative muse, and the character of the 'Arwr' is a symbol of  goodness, fairness, freedom and justice, and it is believed that through his sacrifice, and the union of the two characters at the end of the poem, a better age begins. It is believed that Hedd Wyn yearned for perfect humanity and a perfect world in his ode, and that at a time of huge instability in the shadow of the First World War.

It is possible to see a digital version of this manuscript at the Library's Digital Mirror.