A long time ago there lived in Italy a man by the name of Virgil, in the place called Mantua. A poet was he, crowned with leaves after the manner of poets of renown, who sang of weapons and ships, of men and women, and of what would be in the time to come.
Virgil was very learned in the science of enchantment and in prophecy, and he wrote books that give people guidance to this very day. He showed people the way through dark woods, and displayed to them the realms of the Otherworld. And it was he who had in Cornwall a spring whose water bore a deep power. Any person drinking this water would be granted a vision of what had been and what would be, but at the risk of death if they failed to contine drinking the draughts, or took them too quickly.
The Nine Shires of Cornwall lie at the crossroad of the seas, and it is from here that spirited people set sail for the four quarters of the compass. That is true today, and it was true in the ancient time as seafarers began to worship and pray to Manannan, Son of Lear, as the god of the Tenth Shire, the sea. Some of them remain overseas, whether living out their lives there or dying in the attempt, some return in renown and success, and some return in dire need and oblivion. Whether their fortune be good or bad, those who have gone overseas very often do look back on the route of their voyage, and try to trace their way through the world. And if others are unable to supply them with a fitting answer, they tread the path to the Fountain of Virgil, and ask that leafy-headed poet for draughts from the pool there.
Far from the turmoil of the feast,
among the treeless heights,
a certain fountain gushes coldly
clear water flowing to a pool
and sparks of the Moon through the flowing water
sink layer by layer.
To the cold fountain in the wilderness
I stumble as of right
to ask of leafy-headed Virgil
a swig from his wooden drinking-bowl,
just one untainted draught
to slake the dryness of my throat.
When the war is ended,
when the battle ceases,
what do we need of the warrior,
what is his use at all?
The people of the land grow weary
of his noisy recollections.
Among the high and low
I look for work:
daily in tavern and in church
at stone and bench and table
I would touch rich layers
deep in the earth of my memory.
In a tavern by the quay
I struggle to forget
the noise of thunder and the sear of lightning,
fearful eyes wide open:
my loose shillings cling
to a maiden’s open palm.
Here are, O noble people,
here you will find, O fine folk,
those you have forgotten,
those of broken heart and mind:
like birds in thickets
they are still among you.
Drinking in gloomy bars
amidst the chorus and the dance;
in festival and fair and feast
with friends and fellow-topers
my homeless day becomes the night,
and I will sleep upon the heath.
In the graveyard, in a sheltered corner,
stands the ancient figurehead
and speechless names adorn
the blue slate in the church forever,
and slowly fall the threads
from the old standard in the shadows.
Thus I find myself one evening,
on the bright and multi-coloured streets,
full of instrumental music playing,
songs and greetings, laughter, cries,
suddenly fleeing by compulsion
from the merriment of the throng.
In a grove of nut trees, living-leaved,
of hazel trees that never wither
that grow from ancient time,
kernels from the forests of the stars:
leaps transparent water
full of strength and power.
Whosoever comes to Virgil,
to the hollow there among the hazels,
whosoever drinking from his fountain,
a meagre swig or healthy draught,
shall have a moment of clear vision
that penetrates across the ages.
In the salt-stained tatters of the sailor,
in the costume of the free parish of the seas,
to the master of magic and alchemy,
to the artificer of a thousand whispers of enchantment
like a piece of jetsam
feebly I have come.
When I visit his narrow little hollow
three questions he asks of me:
my true name and my calling,
and the most precious object of desire
that I might drink the visionary power
of the glistening fountain.
“My name is Kea, a fellow of the high seas,
my work to voyage far and wide,
and I seek news
of a fine fair maid
whom I loved long ago,
the yearning for her still so heavy.”
With leaves about his head
from trees from the margin of the Otherworld
that grow from cool deep roots,
thus Virgil speaks: “See the hazels
growing on the pond’s bank
full of flowing water from that other place.
“There falls into the water a hazel nut,
bringing the taste of hazel to the flowing water,
you must drink three times
without hestitation, or you will run
your lifespan to its end
with the swiftness of a shrivelled leaf.
“I have made from leaves
in pure-white moonlight,
of the ice-cold kingdom of the stars
over every unadorned today
under the curving sky.
“Every today that ever was,
every today in length and breadth,
every yesterday in its today,
and every living tomorrow
that quenches every parching thirst
with flowing water from my shallow bowl.
“You must defer to reason,
responsibility and care,
weigh up and measure out for me
if your desire is true enough
to open the deep portals
to the flood of fear and joy.
“Do not decide impulsively
explain your thirst for understanding,
and recount your every step unto my bower,
and the deep source of your desire!”
“Gladly I will explain to you
my journey through the world to you.
“At the very outset of the war,
blood still fresh upon the battlefield,
I loved with a full heart
a soft-breasted maid,
an uncomplicated love
one afternoon in summer.”
“If indeed you loved her,”
said he, “what was the worth
of your tumultuous voyage in the deepgreen sea?
Was the reward so great
for you to quit her
in lamentation on the quay?”
“I had a surfeit
of her golden hair and comely face,
and without so much as asking
I stole a kiss and an embrace,
and got away
to the deck in a show of haste.”
“When you returned to land,”
the enchanter said to me,
“why did you not
in field and meadow and hollow
look for a sign of her
in street and palace and playing-place?”
“Easy enough in the hour of triumph,
too easy in the glory and renown,”
I replied, “was my choice
to cast off memory and meaning
of every name and every single word
in the madding turmoil of the crowd.
“On the gangway for a moment
I turned in an unaffected manner,
about to break into a run
and blew a kiss,
and hastened down below
to be with my valiant companions.
“When sails drop from the yard-arm,
when masts blossom freely,
when the bow sows foam
on two sides of a narrow salty furrow
translucent seeds of mighty breakers
put forth shoots in the cold green fallow ground.
“By the transcendant god of sailors,
sweet Manannan, son of Lear,
by his right buttock,
I swore without guile
that I would be an honest sailor
until I trod upon the land again.
“On that evening’s tide,
across the sweeping flowing water
I set sail in the host of ships,
a forest of masts upon the flood:
from time to time sharply
billowing canvas barked.
“On watch or at rest,
without wind or under weigh,
in pursuit or in engagement,
in mist or fog or smoke,
here you will find air bearing power,
and keel ploughing water.”
“Tell me now,”
said the urbane poet,
“what sweet words from your amour
did you recall?”
“No exact word in the world,
said I, “did come to mind.
“Shadow of her slight smile at the edge of a dream,
cool voice in boiling-hot calm,
dark breaths on neck,
air of night when it goes
through a taut web of ropes
into heavy shivering canvas.
“Yesterday, today, and tomorrow,
mast, sails, deck, hollow hull,
straight keel, and level planks,
curved timber, crow’s nest, bilges:
in a chorus of praise and wonder
“Every timber and rope resounds,
every single nail sings,
clear bells versify each watch
from the crow’s nest to the pit of the bilges,
placing in order distant memories,
resolving cruel longing.
Eight times faithfully in the watch
the blessed Son of Lear is praised,
by a bell that sings his Office
with a nimble metal tongue,
and for us, poor mortals,
the horizon is his sacred enclosure.
“In the sluggish middle watch,
when stars flow slowly through the sky,
I found wrapped round two ounces of tobacco
twisted with a good fold
a love letter,
a cry of pain from a girl’s heart.
“I found the word of a mother-to-be
in a thin unsteady hand,
to her absent sweetheart, a cry of longing
through tears, in which she begged
the worthy name of an honest wife,
and for her baby a father.”
“And was that your only motivation
a sudden rekindling of your faithfulness
to give new love
to the girl who loved you unreservedly?”
“Faithfulness? Love? Not by any means
among the swift-moving turmoil of the sea!
“When your hands were on the rope,
and voices melded in one song,
the vessel leaping through the morning
as if a bone was in its mouth,
true loyal brothers
with one great heart were we.
“And crossing the Equator
to the ample South from North
in worship to Manannan
joyfully we danced on deck
to a song
with tots of rum for every man.
“By Manannan and his two buttocks!
We consecrate in a draught
full of the sublime power of rum,
the Communion of the green down’s parish,
blessed protection of the Son of Lear
will save the flesh of men.
“For a moment in the frenzy of ill weather,
how sweet would be a grave!
And then, a calm so sweet,
if only it would never end!
The sea gives forth the voices
of ancient deep Hell and Heaven.
“Reluctantly the wind draws back
from the wall of the steep cliffs,
and retreats sulkily from its parapets
and the sharp flowing waters,
and enslaved defeated bones
lurk on the beach.
“Long bare beach or white-fisted cliff,
rock, island, port, or promontory,
greygreen flowing all the way to the world’s end,
or the day sealed
by an ancient bezant that quickly melts:
forward we go unburdened by melancholy –
“– without melancholy, but with terror,
and wound, and scar, and scab;
here body after body in canvas
splashing into a greygreen cemetery:
not melancholy for sure, but horror,
and a cruel grief that drowns.
Tim Saunders (1956, Cornwall, England) writes in Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Breton, and English. He is originally from Cornwall and primarily writes in the Cornish language. He has written poetry in Cornish since 1974, and as a literary historian, he has published an anthology of Cornish poetry from 1850–1980 titled The Wheel. He published two additional anthologies: Nothing Broken (2006), which focuses on contemporary Cornish poetry, and Looking at the Mermaid (2000), which collects Cornish literature from 900–1900. In 1998, he was named bard of the Gorsedh Kernow. Fenten Feryl / Virgil’s Fountain appeared in 2019, published bilingually in Cornish and English translation by the author.