The thoughts and words of Chairman Eric (Part one?)

The following is shamelessly plagiarised from my annual dinner address.

Recently I have become increasingly interested in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) who lived in my home county of Devon.

His poetry was originally written in west country dialect. The versions we know have been translated into standard English, but several years ago I realised that the original translations were full of errors. I set about re-translating and was amazed to discover that the majority of his poems are really about caving.

Here I present some of his work correctly put into modern(ish) language.

My first translation was fairly short. Coleridge was only able to remember the first 54 lines of the 300 line epic he dreamed of whilst in a scrumpy induced slumber. The surviving lines are a prophecy of future cave discoveries in the Ystradfellte area with clear references to the use of explosives in cave digging. The poem is normally published under the title “Xanadu”.

In Ytradfellt did Croydon Club
A stately caving hut decree:
Where Neath, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down from LNRC.
So two hundred yards of stony ground
With walls and hedge were girdled round
And there were gardens bright with caving frills,
Where blossomed many a wetsock-bearing tree;
And here were cavers ancient as the hills,
Slumped on sunny spots of greenery

But oh! that squalid hole which slanted
Up the green hill beneath a manhole cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By cave widow wailing for her demon-caver
And from this chasm, with ceaseless banging seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty eruption momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or salty chips beneath the caver’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the hidden river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through twists and sumps the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to an airless pool;
And ’mid this tumult the cavers heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying a bar!
The shadow of the hut of pleasure
Floated midway down the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the mountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A Welsh sink-hole with caves of ice!

In a vision once I saw:
A damsel with an open bar
It was an Abergavenny maid
And on her gleaming pumps she played
Singing of Mount Pen-Y-Fan.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that hut in air,
That sunny hut! those caves of ice!
And all will see Chris Crowley there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on welsh turkey hath fed,
And drunk the ale of Paradise.

My current project is more ambitious. I am attempting to translate all 143 verses of one of his longer poems, the so-called “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (sic)”. I now present the first few verses of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Potholer” in which a visiting student caver is held entranced by the stories of an aged club member.

It is an ancient Potholer,
And he drinketh one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore caveth thee?

The landlord's doors are opened wide,
And he was second in;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.'

He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a cave,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'
And so his hand dropped he.

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Caving Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Caver hath his will.

The Caving Guest sat on a stool:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Potholeer

'The pub was cheered, the cottage cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the turf, below the hill,
Below the mountain top.

The water came up on the left,
Out of the floor came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down to the valley.

Higher and higher every day,
Till over the waist at noon—'
The Caving-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard a bang like a burst balloon.

The rescuer paced onto the hill,
Sick as a pig is he;
Nodding their heads before him goes
The men of the CDG.

The Caving-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on
that ancient Potholeer.

And now the FLOOD-PULSE came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wave,
And chased us all along.

Just another 132 verses to go!


Eric Downer