Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Hiraeth on St David's Day

There is no more suitable day than Dewi Sant to be reminded of my favourite Welsh world - hiraeth.  It is one of those words which is very difficult to translate.  In fact, the only way to translate it really is to say that it is the same word as the Portuguese saudade.  However, if you are not a Lusophone, this is not much use.

Dictionaries and authorities struggle to explain hiraeth, and all seem to home on it meaning a certain longing, tinged with nostalgia, after one's homeland, even after the good old Wales that is no more.  There is a sadness to it, for it is a longing for something that cannot be, for a homeland that cannot be revisited, or which has been destroyed or changed.  Hiraeth will only be dispelled on return to that homeland.

Augustine wrote of a certain restlessness of the soul "our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee" and I wonder if there is a restlessness of hiraeth,  Portuguese Fado music is inspired by hiraeth, and I wonder if some of the lovely Welsh hymns, with their minor keys and longing for spiritual union, speak of a spiritual hiraeth.  One of my favourite hymns is this:

1 THOU Shepherd of Israel, and mine,
The joy and desire of my heart,
For closer communion I pine,
I long to reside where thou art:
The pasture I languish to find
There all, who their Shepherd obey.
Are fed, on thy bosom reclined,
And screened from the heat of the day.

2 Ah! show me that happiest place,
The place of thy people's abode,
Where saints in an ecstasy gaze,
And hang on a crucified God;
Thy love for a sinner declare,
Thy passion and death on the tree;
My spirit to Calvary bear,
To suffer and triumph with thee.

3 'Tis there, with the lambs of thy flock,
There only, I covet to rest,
To lie at the foot of the rock,
Or rise to be hid in thy breast;
'Tis there I would always abide,
And never a moment depart,
Concealed in the cleft of thy side,
Eternally held in thy heart.

It is, of course, not Welsh at all, but is by Charles Wesley.  However, it has a sense of longing, and, when sung to the proper Welsh hymn tune Trewen, is painfully beautiful.  The Fado music conveys this, as does the Sephardic music of the Spanish Jews.  And it is obvious that the negro spirituals, sung by slaves, toiling far away from their homes, are dripping with hiraeth.

Perhaps we can only know hiraeth if we long for a homeland we have lost.  I have never felt truly at home anywhere, and have found home to be a state of being rather than a place.  Perhaps my Welsh brothers and sisters are smiling wistfully as this hapless Sais tries to understand.  Maybe, as Paulo Coelho suggested, we may find our treasure is all at home after all.  But, in that melancholic part of my soul, I have hiraeth.

I end with one of my favourite Welsh songs, David of the White Rock, sung in Welsh, and in English:

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