By Paul Brassley
The intensity of a poem invites us to explore its implications. In this blog I argue that a short poem written nearly seventy years ago predicted many of the changes that we have since experienced, and continue to experience, in the relationship between agriculture and the wider environment.
This is the poem, first published in one of R.S.Thomas’s early volumes An Acre of Land (1952):
Cynddylan on a Tractor
Ah, you should see Cynddylan on a tractor.
Gone the old look that yoked him to the soil;
He’s a new man now, part of the machine,
His nerves of metal and his blood oil.
The clutch curses, but the gears obey
His least bidding, and lo, he’s away
Out of the farmyard, scattering hens.
Riding to work as a great man should,
He is the knight at arms breaking the fields’
Mirror of silence, emptying the wood
Of foxes and squirrels and bright jays.
The sun comes over the tall trees
Kindling all the hedges, but not for him
Who runs his engine on a different fuel.
And all the birds are singing, bills wide in vain,
As Cynddylan passes proudly up the lane.
Who is, or was, Cynddylan? From the poem, all we know about him is that he is male, and works on a farm. After that, as readers, we make assumptions, based on our own knowledge and experience; about his nationality, his age, his role on the farm, his socio-economic status, about why he has that particular name. My own initial assumption was that he is a middle-aged owner-occupying farmer, with a name that suggests that he is Welsh. But when I think about it, I’ve never met or heard of anybody with that name, and when Thomas wrote about ‘an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills’ in a poem entitled A Peasant, he called him Iago Prytherch, which effectively suggests Welsh nationality, and also implies, unsurprisingly, that Thomas chooses names with a purpose.1 So what can we discover about Cynddylan? I’ve known this poem since I bought Penguin Modern Poets volume 1, in which
it is anthologized, back in the 1960s, but it was the discovery, from reading about early medieval Europe, that Cynddylan was a king who died in battle, that made me think again about it.2 Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn – in other words, the son of Cyndrwyn – was the ruler of parts of western Shropshire and south-east Montgomeryshire in the seventh century CE. He appears to have attacked Mercia, and died in the resultant counter-attack, to be mourned by his sister Heledd, although her surviving eulogy cannot have been written before the ninth century.3 The implication, therefore, is that Cynddylan is no ordinary man, that he is indeed a figure of historic importance, that the tractor driver is, or will become, a dominant figure in the rural landscape. Or, conversely, since there are no Welsh tractor manufacturers, is it that he is a Welshman who will come to a bad end through his dealings with the English?
What about my other assumptions? His age, for instance. Why would he be middle-aged, and not young, or old? After all, we know that it was often young people who were more interested than their elders in tractors, and machinery in general, in the years after the Second World War. I once spoke to a north Devon farmer whose father had bought a tractor at the end of the war. ‘I was the principal driver, I came to it at a very early age’, he said. ‘Like kids learning computers today?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely’, he replied, ‘I cut all the corn, drove the binder, cut all the corn with this little tractor, and it was an absolute joy’.
I assumed that Cynddylan was an owner-occupier, rather than a tenant of his land, because I knew that many estate owners sold land in the interwar years, and that the tenants often had first refusal of the land. It was a process that was going on all over Europe at the time – a contemporary commentator called it a ‘Green Revolution’ – and by the early 1940s owner-occupiers controlled 39 per cent of the total agricultural acreage in Wales, compared with only ten per cent before the First World War.4 By the late 1940s or early 1950s, when this poem was written, he could therefore represent either a tenant or an owner-occupier. Both farmed in similar ways, but bank managers were often more willing to lend to owner-occupiers because they had the farm as security. As one Devon farmer put it a little later, the banks ‘knew the farmers, you can’t run away from a farm, you can’t hide. So they always had the security of the land. I’ve never known it go down in price’.5
So perhaps an owner-occupier would have been more likely to borrow in order to buy a tractor. On the other hand, some farmers had a horror of getting into debt, and the insouciant attitude of the Devon farmer came after twenty or thirty years of post-World War Two income support. In the years immediately after the war some farmers were still uncertain, despite the assurances contained in the 1947 Agriculture Act, about whether the government would repeal the Act as they had repealed the 1917 Corn Production Act at the end of the First World War. It is worth remembering that the poem was written within the recent memory of the 1930s, when, as Moore-Colyer argues, the confidence of Welsh farmers fell, with the result that ‘many of the basic tenets of good farming were abandoned …. this initiated a vicious cycle whereby bad farming resulted in dereliction, leading to psychological depression, and further bad farming’.6 Even without psychological depression, Welsh hill farming could be a basic low-technology business, with cows hand-milked by candlelight, and hay hand-raked and pitchforked on to horse-drawn carts.7
The other important word in the first line, perhaps the most important word in the whole poem, is ‘tractor’. In the second half of the twentieth century the tractor became, for many people, symbolic of farming, to the extent that the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales adopted the ‘Red Tractor’ logo as an identifier of British farm produce in 2000.8 Presumably this implied that a red tractor embodied the traditions, values, and virtues of farming. Fifty years earlier it would have been different. The traditional power source was then the horse; the tractor represented change and modernity. This is not the same as arguing that it represented the beginnings of the mechanisation of agriculture. Mechanisation implies machines, and they had been in use to a greater and greater extent in British farming for two hundred years before this poem was written, from the seed drill of the
eighteenth century, to the threshing machine, the self-binding reaper, mower, swath turner, tedder and elevator of the nineteenth century. The Lincolnshire tenant farmer and Methodist lay preacher Cornelius Stovin described them as ‘Divine gifts to the agriculture of the nineteenth century’ in the diary he wrote in the early 1870s.9 However, all these machines were moved by muscle power. In her celebration of traditional farming The Land, published in 1926, Vita Sackville-West assumed that horses would pull
‘………. your reaper up the flat gold wall With whirling sails and clash of toppling sheaves’10
The muscles were usually those of horses, although there were some machines, such as root cutters and sheep-shearing machines, which required farm workers to turn a handle. No, what the tractor represented, as Auderset and Moser point out, was not mechanisation but motorisation.11 It was not necessarily the first source of non-muscle power on farms. Steam power was often employed for threshing machines from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, stationary engines, either steam-powered or oil-engine powered were used for barn machinery, and on some big farms with large fields steam-powered ploughing engines were sometimes used. But none of these had the flexibility of the internal-combustion-engined tractor, especially when it was equipped with pneumatic tyres. Not that everybody was convinced. Writing at the end of the Second World War, for example, J.E. Hosking argued that the tractor was ‘an alien to the land’, and that ‘the quality of soil-cultivation deteriorates in general through these stages from spade cultivation to the “power”-drawn plough’. He was firmly in favour of hand work, whether for milking or weeding. Spraying weeds was no more a complete substitute for hand work ‘than synthetic saccharine is for sugar’.12
It’s an opinion with which R.S. Thomas would have agreed. Although he is now known as a poet it is worth recalling that he earned his living, until he retired at the age of 65, as a parish priest in the Church of Wales. Between 1942 and 1954 he was rector of Manafon, near Welshpool, in the hills to the west of where the river Severn runs through the Vale of Powys. He was much concerned with what one biographer called the ‘inadequacies of technology and materialism’ and many of the critiques of his poetry go to some lengths to discuss his relationship with and writing about ‘the machine’.13 His son recalled that in his sermons he would ‘drone on about the evils of fridges ….And washing machines. And televisions’, and they were kept out of his own home.14 Cynddylan on a Tractor was first published in 1952, in one of Thomas’s early volumes, An Acre of Land, and the timing is important. It is a poem written in the middle of the change from horses to tractors in Britain. In 1940 there were almost ten times as many horses as tractors on British farms. In 1950 the numbers were roughly equal, and by 1960 there were nearly ten times as many tractors as there were horses.15 In Wales, there were only 1,932 tractors at the outbreak of the Second World War, compared with over 72,000 farm horses, but by 1955 only 17,298 farm horses were left, and they were often working on farms which also had a tractor.16 Domestic equipment aside, therefore, Thomas was writing about a question which would have closely concerned many of his rural parishioners at the time.
All this is the context suggested by Thomas’s first line. What about the rest of the poem?
There are numerous critical works on Thomas’s poetry, and several deal with this poem.17 Hughes sees Cynddylan as an ‘early comic entrance’ on the theme of the machine, which Thomas would later explore more widely.18 Davis sees ‘more ominous hints of both future themes and past troubles’, with the mention of the historical figure of the seventh-century prince reminding history-conscious readers of the later eulogy, seen by some as a ‘classic expression of hiraeth’, an untranslatable Welsh word with connotations of deep longing for a lost home, the nearest English equivalent being nostalgia or homesickness.19 Morgan takes this idea further, seeing the poem as ‘ultimately tragi-comic’, with a ‘tension between confidence in an unmechanised agricultural tradition and yet fascination with, and fear of, an impending force that may effectively separate humankind from that tradition’.20 In this reading, Cynddylan’s apparent delivery from slavery to the soil is seen as tragic, and he is ‘a man deceived, inflated by momentary pride to press onwards in ignorance toward his own inevitable doom at the hands of the machine’.21
When he was writing the poem, therefore, what was uppermost in Thomas’s mind, to judge from his later work, was the relationship between man and machine, and its impact on the rural tradition. Cynddylan being ‘yoked’ to the soil recalls the yoke used by oxen to pull the plough, a pair of animals plodding patiently up and down the field, with the ploughman’s foot following, feeling the texture of the land furrow by furrow. Sitting on the tractor he is separated from the soil but, seen from a distance, as Thomas suggests, part of the machine, as the human front of the centaur is inseparable from the horse behind, but without the elegance, a creature of cursing clutches and metal nerves. At the same time ‘He’s a new man now,’ with the higher prices and technical changes of wartime agriculture enabling him to escape some of the drudgery of muscle-powered farming. So ‘the gears obey’, and unlike the peasant trudging quietly to his task he now rides, accompanied by noise, like ‘a great man ….. the knight at arms’, recalling the seventh-century Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn after whom he is named. His status has changed. In the world of R.S.Thomas the peasant is Iago Prytherch, ‘enduring like a tree’, who might be welcomed back ‘from his long mowing / Of the harsh, unmannerly, mountain hay’ by a ‘table unlaid and bare / as a boar’s backside….’.22 But not Cynddylan. He’s a new man.
The new man and his tractor presage a new way of farming and a new impact on the environment. Whether Thomas was conscious of it or not at the time, his image of the tractor ‘scattering hens’ can be seen as symbolic of the changes that were to come for agriculture in the fifty years following the publication of the poem. In the 1940s and ‘50s few farms were without a few hens foraging around the farmyard, picking up a cheap living from spilled grain and livestock feed and anything else they could find, and providing eggs for the farmhouse, and perhaps a few surplus for sale at the farmhouse door. They might be accompanied by geese and ducks, and many farms had a few pigs in makeshift accommodation. Many small farms benefitted from the establishment of the Milk Marketing Board in 1933 to sell a daily churn or two of liquid milk from a herd of ten or a dozen dairy cows, relying on the monthly milk cheque for their regular expenditure. By the1980s all that had changed. Poultry, pigs, and dairy cows were kept in specialist units and in far larger herds.23 The kind of hill farms that Thomas would have seen on his daily walks round Manafon would by then probably specialize in beef and sheep, with perhaps some kind of tourism enterprise too. As he implies, and perhaps foresaw, farming would be transformed.
The new man, or at least his tractor, is powered, not by the sun ‘Kindling all the hedges’, enabling the leaves of trees and shrubs and crops to photosynthesise and thus ultimately to provide the fuel for muscle-powered agriculture as it has always done before, but by oil. (When Thomas was writing it was probably TVO, tractor vaporising oil, a form of paraffin. 24) The daily flux of sunlight is wasted, and Cynddylan relies upon the fossil fuels created by the ancient sunlight of millions of years ago. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the cost of fossil fuels, except for coal, was perceived in terms of the national balance of payments. Crude oil for refining, and oil products, had to be imported, and paid for in scarce US dollars. The environmental costs of greenhouse gases and their impact on global warming were not then an issue.
Is this one reason why Thomas’s poem retains its power for today’s reader? While Thomas was then concerned with technology’s threat to tradition, his expression of the threat in terms of wildlife now speaks to our environmental conscience. The quiet of the countryside is disturbed, the wood is emptied of mammals, and of birds, whose singing is drowned out by the noise of the tractor.25
Yet Cynddylan ‘passes proudly up the lane’. He has survived the struggles of the interwar years, he has contributed to feeding the country in wartime, and he has made enough money to demonstrate his enhanced status by buying a tractor. He has something to be proud about. And, perhaps, fond of. Anyone who has been to a vintage machinery rally will testify to the number of beautifully-maintained old tractors that still survive.26 Even at the time many tractor drivers were fond of their machines. Anne McEntegart named her tractor ‘Elizabeth’ and described her relationship with it as ‘true love’.27 And it was from about 1950 that tractor driving became one of the skills that most farm workers were assumed to have. Speaking on the radio in 1942, one expert suggested that ‘farmers of the last generation had the knack of horsemanship …. It will take a few more generations of mechanical power before farmers have the same instinct for tractors and tractor implements’.28 One generation was enough to prove him wrong.
This final rhyming couplet summarises the tensions existing through the previous fourteen lines. Are they an ironic celebration of the possible delivery of Welsh farmers from decades of unprofitable toil, or an elegy for a disappearing way of life, or a prescient warning of future problems? As Christopher Morgan suggests, they are all of these. And, as he points out, in his later poems Thomas was no longer sitting on this high-tensile fence, but simply lamenting the disappearance of ‘Prytherch country’:
Nothing to show for it now: hedges
uprooted, walls gone, a mobile people
hurrying to and fro on their fast
tractors; a forest of aerials
as though an invading fleet invisibly
had come to anchor among these
But all that was still to come in the early 1950s, when Cynddylan was written. In these sixteen lines R.S.Thomas identified the tipping point when one rural world was giving way to another.
1 R.S. Thomas, A Peasant, in Laurence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings and R.S.Thomas, Penguin Modern Poets 1, Penguin, 1962, p.87.
2 Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: a history of Europe from 400 to 1000, Penguin, 2010, p. 154.
3 D.E. Thornton, ‘Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford UP, 2004.
4 P. Brassley, ‘Land reform and reallocation in interwar Europe’, in R. Congost and R. Santos (eds), Contexts of Property in Europe: the social embeddedness of property rights in land in historical perspective, Brepols, 2010, pp. 145-164; J.A. Venn, The Foundations of Agricultural Economics, Cambridge UP, 1933, p. 87; R. Moore-Colyer, ‘Farming in Depression: Wales between the wars 1919-1939’, Agricultural History Review, 46(2), 1998, pp.177-196, at p.180.
5 P. Brassley, D. Harvey, M. Lobley and M. Winter, The Real Agricultural Revolution: the transformation of English farming 1939-1985, Boydell Press, 2021, p. 164.
6 Moore-Colyer, ‘Farming in Depression’, p. 196.
7 E.Neufeld, Light and Shade: an account of farming in the Welsh hills from 1943 to 1946, (unpublished manuscript in the possession of the author).
9 J. Stovin, Journals of a Methodist Farmer, 1871-1875, Croom Helm, 1972, p. 47.
10 V. Sackville-West, The Land, Heinemann, 1926, p. 40.
11 J. Auderset and P. Moser, ‘Mechanisation and Motorisation: natural resources, knowledge, politics and technology in 19th- and 20th-century agriculture’, in C. Martiin et al (eds), Agriculture in Capitalist Europe, 1945-1960: from food shortages to food surpluses, Routledge, 2016, pp. 145-164.
12 J.E. Hosking., ‘Mechanization and the land’, in H.J.Massingham (ed.), the Natural Order: essays in the return to husbandry, Dent, 1945, pp.100-103.
13 T.J. Hughes, ‘Thomas, Ronald Stuart’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford UP, 2004; C. Morgan, R.S. Thomas: Identity, Environment, Deity, Manchester UP, 2003, pp. 102-114.
14 B. Rogers, The Man Who Went Into The West: the life of R.S. Thomas, Aurum Press, 2006, p. 39.
15 P. Brassley, ‘Output and Technical Change in Twentieth-Century British Agriculture’, Agricultural History Review 48 (1), 2000, pp. 60-84, at p.74.
16 Moore-Colyer, ‘Farming in Depression’, p. 188; R. Moore-Colyer, ‘Horses and Equine Improvement in the Economy of Modern Wales’, Agricultural History Review 39(2), 1991, pp. 126-142, at p. 142.
17 Critical works include Morgan, R.S. Thomas; T. Brown, R.S. Thomas, University of Wales Press, 2006; W.V. Davis, R.S. Thomas: Poetry and Theology, Baylor UP, 2007; D. Westover, R.S. Thomas: a stylistic biography, University of Wales Press, 2011; M. Wynn Thomas, R.S. Thomas: serial obsessive, University of Wales Press, 2013.
18 Hughes, ‘Thomas, Ronald Stuart’.
19 Davis, R.S. Thomas: Poetry and Theology, p.24.
20 Morgan, R.S. Thomas, p.105.
21 Davis, R.S. Thomas: Poetry and Theology, p.24.
22 R.S. Thomas, A Peasant and Ire, in Durrell et al, Penguin Modern Poets I, pp. 87 & 93.
23 Brassley et al, The Real Agricultural Revolution, pp. 199-214.
24 Tractors were started on petrol and switched over to the cheaper TVO from a separate tank once the engine had heated up. TVO is no longer available, and the internet has recipes for making something like it from a mixture of central heating oil and petrol for the benefit of vintage tractor enthusiasts.
25 Thomas was especially sensitive to noise. He wouldn’t have a vacuum cleaner in the house because it was too noisy. He was also an enthusiastic birdwatcher. See Rogers, The Man Who Went Into The West, pp. 39 and 200.
26 full disclosure: I am part-owner of one of them.
27 A. McEntegart, The Milk Lady of New Park Farm: the wartime diary of Anne McEntegart June 1943-February 1945, RMC Books, 2011, p. 84. I am grateful to Jeremy Burchardt for this reference.
28 Brassley et al, The Real Agricultural Revolution, p. 197.
29 R.S.Thomas, Gone (1978), quoted in Morgan, R.S. Thomas, p.114.