The Harp of Wales by Tennessee Williams


During December 1949 in Lincoln, Nebraska, the temperature dropped to a low of 1.9 degrees F and the wind picked up to a maximum speed of 26 MPH. There were daily reports of rain and melting snow.

That same season, Prairie Schooner published in its Winter 1949 issue Tennessee Williams’s poem “The Harp of Wales.” Williams was 38 at the time and had won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire the year before. For all the poem’s peculiarities, the wonder and dignity instilled in the harp still impress:

The Harp of Wales
Tennessee Williams

They do not know through the blood of what witch-like women
the instrument passed unwillingly into their hands
but in it is mist ever clearing and women that keen
among scattered nets at the wet grey edge of the sands.

They cannot guess how the wild harp of Wales came to them,
this ancient of shells in the troubled cleft of their hands,
but schooling was not necessary to master its touch
and the moving of light spells through its transparent strands.

Early they learned of it, often before they were grown,
and forebodings, their own and older, could draw from its strings
the moan of those witch-like women who fashioned in Wales
a harp made for keening the deaths of the wild grey kings.

And remembering skills in which they were never instructed,
they know what the laws of the uncivil instrument are
and where the harp strings should be struck not at all or so lightly
the demon from anarchy turns to pay his devoir.

Immutable is the shell, but not the touch,
and possibly now it has an accustomed ring
and the wonder dispelled a degree, but still for a time
it is sorrow not only their own that compels them to sing.

And still for a time they will stay with a sorrow to sing,
with instinct of rules too deep in their blood to forget,
for the wild harp of Wales is enduring among them and cries,
Ο stay for a time, Thou Stranger, turn not away yet!