Key Stage 2
by Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Taylor and Gillian Clarke
The following poem is often called ‘Beth Gelert’, but that is a mis-spelling of Bedd Gelert, which means Gelert’s grave. It is the name of the village in the mountains of north Wales where, they say, Llewellyn’s faithful hound Gelert is buried.
Read the poem aloud to the class. This is possibly the famous Prince Llewellyn, a real historical person whom the Welsh regarded as their nation’s leader. It’s sad poem – get the tissues ready!
The spearmen heard the bugle sound,
And cheerily smiled the morn;
And many a brach, and many a hound
Obeyed Llewellyn’s horn.
And still he blew a louder blast,
And gave a lustier cheer,
“Come, Gelert, come, wert never last
Llewellyn’s horn to hear.
O where does faithful Gelert roam
The flower of all his race;
So true, so brave – a lamb at home,
A lion in the chase?”
In sooth, he was a peerless hound,
The gift of royal John;
But now no Gelert could be found,
And all the chase rode on.
That day Llewellyn little loved
The chase of hart and hare;
And scant and small the booty proved,
For Gelert was not there.
Unpleased, Llewellyn homeward hied,
When, near the portal seat,
His truant Gelert he espied
Bounding his lord to greet.
But when he gained the castle-door,
Aghast the chieftain stood;
The hound all o’er was smeared with gore;
His lips, his fangs, ran blood.
Llewellyn gazed with fierce surprise;
Unused such looks to meet,
His favourite checked his joyful guise,
And crouched, and licked his feet.
Onwards, in haste, Llewellyn passed,
And on went Gelert too;
And still, where’er his eyes he cast,
Fresh blood-gouts shocked his view.
Overturned his infant’s bed he found,
With blood-stained covert rent;
And all around the walls and ground
With recent blood besprent.
He called his child – no voice replied –
He searched with terror wild;
Blood, blood he found on every side,
But nowhere found his child.
“Hell-hound! My child’s by thee devoured,”
The frantic father cried;
And to the hilt his vengeful sword
He plunged in Gelert’s side.
Aroused by Gelert’s dying yell,
Some slumberer wakened nigh;
What words the parent’s joy could tell
To hear his infant’s cry
Concealed beneath a tumbled heap
His hurried search had missed,
All glowing from his rosy sleep
The cherub boy he kissed.
No hurt had he, nor harm, nor dread,
But, the same couch beneath,
Lay a gaunt wolf, all torn and dead,
Tremendous still in death.
Ah, what was then Llewellyn’s pain!
For now the truth was clear;
His gallant hound the wolf had slain
To save Llewellyn’s heir.
Because it is a narrative poem, it does not linger on the sounds of the words, but uses the sound to speed things along. The four-beat, three-beat lines, often used in ballads, seem to canter along. The story is told in 16 four-line verses. (See ballads in year 6 A-Z)
Encourage the class to work out the rhyme-scheme for themselves. Line 1 rhymes with line 3, line 2 with 4, and so on. Help them to count the beat in the lines. Both the Rhythm and the Rhyme are very important to the narrative. The scene is set, the morning of a day to be spent hunting deer and hares and other prey. The story gallops along like Llewellyn’s horse till it reaches the ending that none of us wants to hear. Don’t we all want to protest, like in the pantomime, ‘No! Stop! Gelert didn’t do it!’?
Many words used in the poem seem strange to us now, words like ‘brach’, (a hunting dog with a keen sense of smell); words like ‘in sooth’, (in truth); ‘o’er’, (over); ‘where’er’, (wherever); ‘besprent’, (sprayed); ‘nigh’, (near); ‘wert’, (were), and ‘hied’, (went). These should be presented not as a problem but, in this poem, and all the other old poems used here, as an interesting taste of a past dialect of English that actually helps us to imagine and act out the past world of the story.
This poem is a great for group performance. It could be told by several voices, or by some individual voices and some in choral speech, as if the children were story-telling bards gathered round the hearth of a great medieval hall-house in Llewellyn’s time, and the listeners were shocked by the story of something that had recently happened. There could be music to accompany the telling - drum-beats, and a recorder to add to the feeling of the times recalled. The children could discuss how best to do this.
- Write about the loss of an animal – many will know the experience.
- Write a story-poem.
- Write a short poem in the same rhythm as Bedd Gelert.
- Try to follow the 1/3, 2/4 rhyme pattern.
- Look for other narrative poems in your school library, or in our on-line library for Primary Schools.