Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 60

Mystery Plays — The Two Prime Opponents — Analysis of Interlude — Riches and Poverty — Tom’s Grand Qualities.

IN the preceding chapter I have given an abstract of the life of Tom O’ the Dingle; I will now give an analysis of his interlude; first, however, a few words on interludes in general. It is difficult to say with anything like certainty what is the meaning of the word interlude. It may mean, as Warton supposes in his history of English Poetry, a short play performed between the courses of a banquet or festival; or it may mean the playing of something by two or more parties, the interchange of playing or acting which occurs when two or more people act. It was about the middle of the fifteenth century that dramatic pieces began in England to be called Interludes; for some time previous they had been styled Moralities; but the earliest name by which they were known was Mysteries. The first Mysteries composed in England were by one Ranald, or Ranulf, a monk of Chester, who flourished about 1322, whose verses are mentioned rather irreverently in one of the visions of Piers Plowman, who puts them in the same rank as the ballads about Robin Hood and Maid Marion, making Sloth say:

“I cannon perfitly my Paternoster as the priest it singeth, But I can rhymes of Robin Hood and Ranald of Chester.”

Long, however, before the time of this Ranald Mysteries had been composed and represented both in Italy and France. The Mysteries were very rude compositions, little more, as Warton says, than literal representations of portions of Scripture. They derived their name of Mysteries from being generally founded on the more mysterious parts of Holy Writ, for example the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection. The Moralities displayed something more of art and invention than the Mysteries; in them virtues, vices and qualities were personified, and something like a plot was frequently to be discovered. They were termed Moralities because each had its moral, which was spoken at the end of the piece by a person called the Doctor. 7 Much that has been said about the moralities holds good with respect to the interludes. Indeed, for some time dramatic pieces were called moralities and interludes indifferently. In both there is a mixture of allegory and reality. The latter interludes, however, display more of every-day life than was ever observable in the moralities; and more closely approximate to modern plays. Several writers of genius have written interludes, amongst whom are the English Skelton and the Scottish Lindsay, the latter of whom wrote eight pieces of that kind, the most celebrated of which is called “The Puir Man and the Pardoner.” Both of these writers flourished about the same period, and made use of the interlude as a means of satirizing the vices of the popish clergy. In the time of Charles the First the interlude went much out of fashion in England; in fact, the play or regular drama had superseded it. In Wales, however, it continued to the beginning of the present century, when it yielded to the influence of Methodism. Of all Welsh interlude composers Twm O’r Nant or Tom of the Dingle was the most famous. Here follows the promised analysis of his “Riches and Poverty.”

The entire title of the interlude is to this effect. The two prime opponents Riches and Poverty. A brief exposition of their contrary effects on the world; with short and appropriate explanations of their quality and substance according to the rule of the four elements, Water, Fire, Earth, and Air.

First of all enter Fool, Sir Jemant Wamal, who in rather a foolish speech tells the audience that they are about to hear a piece composed by Tom the poet. Then appears Captain Riches, who makes a long speech about his influence in the world and the general contempt in which Poverty is held; he is, however, presently checked by the Fool, who tells him some home truths, and asks him, among other questions, whether Solomon did not say that it is not meet to despise a poor man, who conducts himself rationally. Then appears Howel Tightbelly, the miser, who in capital verse, with very considerable glee and exultation, gives an account of his manifold rascalities. Then comes his wife, Esther Steady, home from the market, between whom and her husband there is a pithy dialogue. Captain Riches and Captain Poverty then meet, without rancour, however, and have a long discourse about the providence of God, whose agents they own themselves to be. Enter then an old worthless scoundrel called Diogyn Trwstan, or Luckless Lazybones, who is upon the parish, and who, in a very entertaining account of his life, confesses that he was never good for anything, but was a liar and an idler from his infancy. Enter again the Miser along with poor Lowry, who asks the Miser for meal and other articles, but gets nothing but threatening language. There is then a very edifying dialogue between Mr Contemplation and Mr Truth, who, when they retire, are succeeded on the stage by the Miser and John the Tavern-keeper. The publican owes the Miser money, and begs that he will be merciful to him. The Miser, however, swears that he will be satisfied with nothing but bond and judgment on his effects. The publican very humbly says that he will go to a friend of his in order to get the bond made out; almost instantly comes the Fool who reads an inventory of the publican’s effects. The Miser then sings for very gladness, because everything in the world has hitherto gone well with him; turning round, however, what is his horror and astonishment to behold Mr Death, close by him. Death hauls the Miser away, and then appears the Fool to moralise and dismiss the audience.

The appropriate explanations mentioned in the title are given in various songs which the various characters sing after describing themselves, or after dialogues with each other. The announcement that the whole exposition, etc., will be after the rule of the four elements, is rather startling; the dialogue, however, between Captain Riches and Captain Poverty shows that Tom was equal to his subject, and promised nothing that he could not perform.


O Riches, thy figure is charming and bright, And to speak in thy praise all the world doth delight, But I’m a poor fellow all tatter’d and torn, Whom all the world treateth with insult and scorn.


However mistaken the judgment may be Of the world which is never from ignorance free, The parts we must play, which to us are assign’d, According as God has enlightened our mind.

Of elements four did our Master create The earth and all in it with skill the most great; Need I the world’s four materials declare — Are they not water, fire, earth, and air?

Too wise was the mighty Creator to frame A world from one element, water or flame; The one is full moist and the other full hot, And a world made of either were useless, I wot.

And if it had all of mere earth been compos’d And no water nor fire been within it enclos’d, It could ne’er have produc’d for a huge multitude Of all kinds of living things suitable food.

And if God what was wanted had not fully known, But created the world of these three things alone, How would any creature the heaven beneath, Without the blest air have been able to breathe?

Thus all things created, the God of all grace, Of four prime materials, each good in its place. The work of His hands, when completed, He view’d, And saw and pronounc’d that ’twas seemly and good.


In the marvellous things, which to me thou hast told The wisdom of God I most clearly behold, And did He not also make man of the same Materials He us’d when the world He did frame?


Creation is all, as the sages agree, Of the elements four in man’s body that be; Water’s the blood, and fire is the nature, Which prompts generation in every creature.

The earth is the flesh which with beauty is rife The air is the breath, without which is no life; So man must be always accounted the same As the substances four which exist in his frame.

And as in their creation distinction there’s none ‘Twixt man and the world, so the Infinite One Unto man a clear wisdom did bounteously give The nature of everything to perceive.


But one thing to me passing strange doth appear Since the wisdom of man is so bright and so clear How comes there such jarring and warring to be In the world betwixt Riches and Poverty?


That point we’ll discuss without passion or fear With the aim of instructing the listeners here; And haply some few who instruction require May profit derive like the bee from the briar.

Man as thou knowest, in his generation Is a type of the world and of all the creation; Difference there’s none in the manner of birth ‘Twixt the lowliest hinds and the lords of the earth.

The world which the same thing as man we account In one place is sea, in another is mount; A part of it rock, and a part of it dale — God’s wisdom has made every place to avail.

There exist precious treasures of every kind Profoundly in earth’s quiet bosom enshrin’d; There’s searching about them, and ever has been, And by some they are found, and by some never seen.

With wonderful wisdom the Lord God on high Has contriv’d the two lights which exist in the sky; The sun’s hot as fire, and its ray bright as gold, But the moon’s ever pale, and by nature is cold.

The sun, which resembles a huge world of fire, Would burn up full quickly creation entire Save the moon with its temp’rament cool did assuage Of its brighter companion the fury and rage.

Now I beg you the sun and the moon to behold, The one that’s so bright and the other so cold. And say if two things in creation there be Better emblems of Riches and Poverty.


In manner most brief, yet convincing and clear, You have told the whole truth to my wond’ring ear, And I see that ’twas God, who in all things is fair, Has assign’d us the forms, in this world which we bear.

In the sight of the world doth the wealthy man seem Like the sun which doth warm everything with its beam; Whilst the poor needy wight with his pitiable case Resembles the moon which doth chill with its face.


You know that full oft, in their course as they run, An eclipse cometh over the moon or the sun; Certain hills of the earth with their summits of pride The face of the one from the other do hide.

The sun doth uplift his magnificent head, And illumines the moon, which were otherwise dead, Even as Wealth from its station on high, Giveth work and provision to Poverty.


I know, and the thought mighty sorrow instils, The sins of the world are the terrible hills An eclipse which do cause, or a dread obscuration, To one or another in every vocation.


It is true that God gives unto each from his birth Some task to perform while he wends upon earth, But He gives correspondent wisdom and force To the weight of the task, and the length of the course.



I hope there are some, who ‘twixt me and the youth Have heard this discourse, whose sole aim is the truth, Will see and acknowledge, as homeward they plod, Each thing is arrang’d by the wisdom of God.

There can be no doubt that Tom was a poet, or he could never have treated the hackneyed subjects of Riches and Poverty in a manner so original and at the same time so masterly as he has done in the interlude above analyzed: I cannot, however, help thinking that he was greater as a man than a poet, and that his fame depends more on the cleverness, courage and energy, which it is evident by his biography that he possessed, than on his interludes. A time will come when his interludes will cease to be read, but his making ink out of elderberries, his battle with the “cruel fighter,” his teaching his horses to turn the crane, and his getting the ship to the water, will be talked of in Wales till the peak of Snowdon shall fall down.

7 Essay on the Origin of the English Stage by Bishop Percy. London, 1793.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51