A Poem for St David’s Day

FebruarySince March 1st is the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, I thought I would share a Welsh poem with you. And since March 1 is famously the start of a windy month (March either comes in like a lamb or like a lion, reversing its nature at the end of the month), I wanted to share a poem (see the YouTube video below) about the Wind by Dafydd ap Gwilym (who is named after the saint as Dafydd is the Welsh spelling of David).

Dafydd ap Gwilym is one of my favorites of the Welsh poets. He wrote in the fourteenth century and his poetry is clearly influenced by the troubadour tradition. His favorite topics were nature and romance and he combines them beautifully in poems about trysting with the woman he loves in a grove of birch trees. In this particular poem, the poet addresses the wind and asks him to carry a message to his beloved.

If you would like to hear the Welsh version of this, you can listen to it here.

For a really interesting (but somewhat academic) article on the meter of Welsh poetry and why Wales has produced so many great poets, check out this article on “Extreme Welsh Meter” by Gwyneth Lewis from Poetry magazine: I’ve tried writing poetry using Welsh meters myself while I was in Wales and it is both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. Can still recite whole verses form the poems I wrote because the rhyming and meter schemes made it so memorable.

The photo of the bird flying over the ocean was used to illustrate the month of Windy in my French Republican Calendar in 2013 and was taken by Melissa Gayle West. The French Republican Calendar for 2016 is still available and Melissa’s wonderful photo of sprouting moss decorates March (the month of Germinal, Sprouting).

First published February 28, 2015.

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St David’s Day


detail of stained glass window in Jesus College Chapel, Oxford, showing St David. Late 19th century

March, various, fierce, and wild, with wind-crack’d cheeks
By wilder Welchman led, and crown’d with leeks!
Churchill, “Gotham” iii 101

St David was an abbot and a bishop of the sixth century who established a monastery at Pembrokeshire in Wales, and is considered the patron saint of Wales.

To show your Welsh allegiance, wear a daffodil. To become a honorary Welshman, eat a leek. Some say eating a leek celebrates a Welsh victory in the 6th century, where the Welsh, advised by St. David, wore leeks in their caps to distinguish themselves in battle from the Saxons. Others say it is the plant of Wales because it is green and white, the colors of the Welsh flag. There’s also a tradition that eating leeks in March is good medicine.

Eat leeks in March and ramsons [wild garlic] in May
And all the year after the physicians may play

Upon St David’s Day
Put oats and barley in the clay

Sowing sweet peas between the feasts of St. David and St. Chad will produce larger and more fragrant flowers (see also Mar 17 and Mar 21 when the same conditions apply).

In honor of the day, I’ve posted a blog post which features a poem about the Wind by my favorite Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Martin, Laurie C., Garden Flower Folklore, The Globe Pequot Press 1987

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Flower of March: Daffodil

Daffadowndilly has come to town
In a yellow petticoat and a green gown.

I always think of the daffodil as the flower for the month of March. That’s because I always look for the daffodils on the first of March, and for the past ten years, with one exception, I have always found them in bloom by this date in Seattle.  Lucky for me since I want to wear a daffodil on March 1st  to show my allegiance to Wales (thanks to my ancestress, Nesta, the mother of the first Fitzgerald, who flourished around 1100).

The daffodil is the national flower of Wales which is why you should wear it on March 1, the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. Or you can eat a leek on this day and become an honorary Welshman (Cymru as the Welsh would say it). I try to do both.

The David Morgan site in its entry for St David’s Day
implies that the daffodil was imposed as a symbol of Wales by the English who wanted to downplay the political implications of the leek (worn by wild Welshmen in battle with the Saxons). Julie Ardery’s article at the wonderful Human Flower Project web site
mentions David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Britain during World War I, as the person who popularized this custom but he was Welsh himself so it seems more likely he was bringing to the forefront an authentic Welsh custom. The creators of the French Revolutionary calendar must have known of the association of the daffodil with St David’s Day back in 1792 when they designed the calendar and assigned the “narcisse” to March 1 (the 11th day of Ventose, or Windy). (The daffodil appears later in March on the 8th of Germinal)

Daffodil is a common name for a narcissus. It may be derived from the plant name asphodel, known to the Romans. Pliny wrote that it grew on the banks of the Acheron, delighting the spirits of the dead. The Romans planted it on tombs, perhaps because it was said to grow in the Elysian Fields. It was the sight of a daffodil that lured Persephone into the Underworld.

Perhaps it is the way they droop that evokes death. It also gave rise to the myth of the beautiful boy, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. I will let my favorite garden writer, Paghat, tell you all about the Narcissus myth and the secret rites of Echo practiced during the Eleusinian mysteries

The narcissus common in Greece, Narcissus tazetta, is called Little Tear Drops. In Germany, daffodils are called Osterglocken, Easter bells. They are also called Lent Lilies in England. They are favorite decorations for Easter tables, for Nawruz (Persian new year) celebrations and for Chinese New Year.

Gabi Grieve of the World Kigo database
mentions a new holiday in Ireland, Daffodil Day, March 24 which is sponsored by the Irish Cancer Society. Resonating as it does with connotations of both death and hope, the daffodil is used as a symbol by cancer societies around the world.

All daffodils have a central trumpet-shaped corona surrounded by a ring of petals. The traditional color is yellow but hybridizers have bred all sorts of fanciful variations, including daffodils with multiple layers of petals or frilled petals and daffodils with contrasting coronas and petals, or elongated or compressed coronas.

Daffodils come from the Mediterranean but there is one particular daffodil, Narcissus obvallaris, which grows only in a small area around Tenby in Wales. The Narcissus pseudonarcissus is also native to Wales. Julie Ardery writes about the way the winter daffodils bloom in January at Quarrelton in Wales, possibly due to the fires still smoldering beneath the surface in the abandoned tunnels of the mines there:
She also describes how Welsh scientists are cultivating daffodils because they contain galanthamine, which is used in the treatment of Alzheimers.

However don’t try this at home. Daffodil bulbs are poisonous. Mrs. Grieve says they are a powerful emetic. Even the flowers are slightly poisonous. However, both bulbs and petals have been used medicinally. The Arabs used an oil of daffodil to cure baldness and as an aphrodisiac.

In Wales, if you find the first bloom of the season, you will have more gold than silver this year.

The oil of Narcissus jonquilla and Narcissus Campernella are used to make a sweet-smelling oil used in perfumes, but Mrs. Grieve warns against being in a closed room as the Narcissus poeticus, or Poet’s Narcissus, as the scent of these daffodils has been known to cause headache and vomiting.

The daffodil is also called the goose leek. In the Isle of Man it is considered unlucky to bring them into the house until the goslings are hatched. In Maine, they say that if you point at a daffodil it will not bloom. And in Wales, if you find the first bloom of the season, you will have more gold than silver this year.

May you find the first bloom of the season.

Wikipedia article:
Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal:
Leach, Maria, editor, Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, Harper & Row 1972

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