February, month of the quickening,
month of Brigid the Threefold,
muse healer, goddess of fire.
As Imbolc approaches I’m revisiting a collection of poems by Ruth Bidgood (*) which includes a ‘radio ode’ commissioned by the BBC. I published the ode some time after it was broadcast in a magazine I was editing at the time but it did not appear in book form until much later. The ode is called ‘Hymn to Sant Ffraid’ and is written for three voices. How could the Welsh Ffraid be cognate with the Irish Brigid if the latter was an actual person living in Kildare? Donald Alchin, who provides an ‘Afterword’ in which he discusses this question, quotes the work of Mary Low:
“One of Brigit’s character traits as a young woman is to be always giving things away: bacon to a dog, butter to the poor, her father’s sword to a beggar.”
“Brigit the saint inherits a great deal from Brigit the goddess … Brigit the goddess is not a single figure however, there seem to have been several different Brigits, many of whom have associations with fire. These Brigits, daughters of the Dagda, are described in Cormac’s Glossary as the goddesses of poetry, leechcraft and smithcraft.”
In a prose prelude to the poem, Ruth Bidgood herself concludes that Brigid was previously a “fertility goddess cum muse”. The poem rather more subtly, and at greater length, outlines this development of a saint/goddess associated with the earliest emergence of Spring in February, “freeing the river to flow into time of seed”. The three voices weave around each other to tell the story of “a saint of cloudy western hills, moorland rivers, of sea brume and secretive islands”; also of an association with the growing light after the darkness of December and January and of protection as symbolised by the hearth “the mothering fire/in the midst of the house”.
Donald Allchin characterises the way Ruth Bidgood writes about Ffraid as wholly appropriate to the elusive, interwoven strands of myth and legend that have gathered around the goddess/saint over centuries. If he has much to say about Ffraid, surprisingly Allchin says much less about Melangell, the subject of another poem sequence published here. Parts of the sequence were, in fact, originally published separately but were brought together for the anthology about Melangell The Hare That Hides Within, and adopted from there. It is surprising because, apart from the fact that Donald Allchin has written about Melangell elsewhere, there are many parallels between her and Ffraid. Both came from Ireland because they wanted to avoid an arranged marriage, both founded a sanctuary and were said to be concerned with the protection of the vulnerable and both were integrated into the natural environment of Western Britain. True, Melangell’s cult was more localised, being centred on the remote valley of Pennant in North Wales and chiefly known because she gave refuge to a hare and out-faced the hunter who was pursuing it. But the appearance here of poems to these separate figures certainly underlines the similarities both of the stories told about them and in the way in which they are conceived by this poet.
The collection also contains the sequence ‘Singing to Wolves’, five poems about particular places along the border between England and Wales. The title is a comment ascribed to a bored monk of Llanthony Abbey who abandoned the wildness of the place; but it is re-allocated to a young girl picking daisies, imagined by the poet to be one who might be inclined “to risk-encircled beauty” and to embrace her wild nature by “the sweet/unprofitable singing to wolves”.
Ruth Bidgood is a poet whose work is informed by perceptions of the numinous. She says of Ffraid, “You were a poem waiting to be written. / Found and revealed, you make for us / resonances with things nameless, deep, ancient, and to come.” Goddesses, saints, angels, even wolves incarnate her spiritual perceptions, which are always located in the natural environment, and are in that sense icons of our need for otherness. But they invite us, as with the poem ‘Angel with Crwth’, not to be spectators to their music of the spheres, but creators of such music.
* Symbols of Plenty Ruth Bidgood Canterbury Press £9.99