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Another Star in Glory



It was not the lurch of the dog-cart leaving the Llanfynydd by-way for the wider Towy Valley road that made the boy's heart miss a beat. On that colourful October morning in 1850, twelve-year old John Oliver was leaving home. Full realization of the fact engulfed him now. He clutched the wicker basket which held his clothing and blew his nose vigorously. It would not do to let his father, John Oliver, senior, and his friend, William Jones, seated on the front seat of the trap, see that he was already homesick. The trap was speeding on, away from the familiar scenes of his childhood, towards the distant borough of Carmarthen.

The older men were paying no heed to him. William Jones, after a brief respite in his native Llanfynydd, was returning to "the works" and was at that moment extolling life in "Sweet 'Berdare". Bitter-sweet, however, were young John's thoughts. Never had home been dearer. His brother Henry, already a student in Carmarthen, had long since observed that their home, the village shop, had been well-named, White Hall. It was the pivot of life for a wide community, the focal point in social, mercantile, religious and cultural activity for that hill-side agricultural area.

With a capacity for analysis and synthesis far beyond his brief years, John realised this afresh as he travelled. His childhood had been spent in a particularly rich Welsh neighbourhood. Theological discussions of a remarkably high standard were a daily matter. Members of the parish church, the Methodist chapel and the Baptist chapel never agreed to differ in their arguments at the shop counter and syllogisms were ripped and re-shaped when Independent opinion assailed them from the chapel at Capel Isaac. Dramatic preachers, giants of the Welsh pulpit, strong personalities, such as the Rev. John Jones, Llandysul, and Evans, Llwynffortun, were frequent guests at White Hall.

Akin to their dedication to religion was their interest in politics. Radicalism was firing the neighbourhood and John Oliver, senior, was the "dyn hysbys", the local oracle, whose words were weighted with wisdom. Men with discerning minds gathered in White Hall to listen to him and of an evening they would congregate as avid listeners to hear him read excerpts from The Welshman or some article from Seren Gomer. Echoes of "Rebecca" still reverberated in their memory. There was, however, no tinge of narrowness in their politics. In the mellow light of the oil-lamp, they discussed theories of nationalism and of democracy as ardently as if they were in the market place of ancient Athens. Incisive and caustic were their comments on European affairs on Louis Philippe, on Metternich, on Espartero and Nicholas of Russia. So vivid were these international personalities to the boys listening in the shadows that they might have been living in close proximity in the neighbouring parish of Llandeilo-fawr.

Class distinction had no relevance at White Hall. Humanity alone was the hallmark. Romantic Twm Daniel, loquacious Harri Jack, able Dafydd Williams, philosophic Evan Griffith, the weaver, and saintly Thomas Jones, Gwaelod-y-maes these formed the galaxy which brought its influence to bear on John's upbringing.

As the trap approached Nantgaredig, he was reminiscent, re-calling his two special friends, Ebenezer Evans and William Lewis, with whom he had grown up. They were friends in field and fen; together they had played and climbed and chased, carefree in mind and body. The light faded from John's face. This evening they would be at their usual haunt, the forge of Thomas and David Jones. Tonight there would be two, not three.

He sought comfort in thoughts of his mother, she who was ever beautiful, sweet, precious and full of understanding. He failed to control a loud sob. His brother Henry had once read that the Welsh word 'hiraeth' could never be fully translated. The Chinese came nearest to it the spirit goes wandering. He sighed deeply. He was experiencing that now.


The shimmering haze of summer hung like a silver veil over Carmarthen town. It was the year 1855 and it was late July. Student John Oliver was climbing Merlin's Hill. He walked with steady gait meandering like a hill-side pony from one side of the road to the other to gain the height in good fettle. He was expecting two of his closest friends, Myrddin and Gwilym Marks, to join him later at the cave of the legendary Merlin.

In the middle distance he could see groups of men at work. These were the navigators, the "navvies", Welshmen and Irishmen, men of enviable physique who were constructing the remarkable railway line from Carmarthen to Cardigan. Granted a measure of their physical strength, he might have travelled a different road in life. But he was not complaining. The years he had spent in the ancient borough had been richly blessed. It was in the year 1851 that he had entered the preparatory school of the Rev. Titus Evans. He had gone there as a lively boy, industrious and anxious to learn. The reports sent back to his parents declared him to be "a good leader, a good speaker, a wide reader and a sound writer, a good Mathematician and linguist and a scholar who showed a deep interest in literature". He remembered now the sea of doubts and misgivings that had engulfed him as he entered his teens. Independence of thought had always been inculcated in him. His mother was a Calvinistic Methodist, his father was a near Baptist and he had emerged a Congregationalist from the hybrid chrysalis, the Rev. Hugh Jones having received him into full membership at Heol Awst.

His brother Henry, recognising his intellectual potential, had urged his entry into the Presbyterian College at Carmarthen. Despite the fact that he was under age, John had jumped the hurdles of a searching examination. Rules, thereafter, had been made accommodating and he was welcomed warmly and graciously to The Parade by the professors Dr. Lloyd, Dr. Davison and the Rev. D. Davies, Panteg. These men, in their several spheres, had unwittingly become John's heroes, and his mind would blossom in their presence. Under their guidance he became an established scholar in the classics, in literature and in German. In truth, his spirit loved to wander in the ancient past, conferring readily with minds recognised as great through all time. His fellow-students accepted and indeed extolled his superiority. It was for his surpassing human qualities that they loved him; it was because of his ever-encroaching physical weakness, the ever-present chest complaints that they cared for him tenderly and constantly.

But this day was the high noon of summer. The oral examination of the Presbyterian Board was over. The viva voce, conducted by Dr. Davison himself, had proved an unqualified triumph for John. The pitfalls of theology and the classics had been made less hazardous by the bonhomie and the hearty good humour of the don himself and the result had been particularly satisfying. His good friend, his patron and constant benefactress, Mrs Eliza Phillips Hughes, the poetess "Eliza Carmarthen", had sent a message immediately saying that she was holding a celebration dinner in honour of the occasion. He must bring his friends with him to her house in Wood's Row.

john oliver Myrddin and Gwilym were long in coming. John seated himself on a fallen tree trunk. He took a sheaf of papers from his pocket and spread them before him. Yes, he had wooed the Muse and she had responded graciously and tenderly to him. Mrs. Eliza Hughes, an able critic, had encouraged him continuously in his efforts and now Dr Davison had urged him to publish his poems.

John scanned his collection. Several were on theological themes: 'Dafydd, Y Tywysog yr Arglwydd', a long poem on which he had meditated much; 'Moses', a yet longer ode; 'Mab Y Weddw o Nain'; 'Yn Iechydwriaeth' The subjects were somewhat hackneyed but his approach and his rhythms were individual. Nature had inevitably inspired him, he a child of the Welsh hills 'Yr Haf', 'Eira'r Cynta'r Gaeaf', 'Mehefin'; yes, the beauty of Nature had moved him in the full cycle of the seasons.

Merlin's Oak had inspired him to write, 'I Hen Dderwen Caerfyrddin':

Gwelaist blant yn nwyfus chwareu
Dan dy gangau praffion ir;
Gwelaist y rhai hyny'n fuan
Yn hynafgwyr yn y tir.
Un genhedlaeth ar ol arall
Lithrai heibio it i'r bedd
Tra'r arosit ti er hyny
'N wyrdd dy ddail a theg dy wedd

Erbyn heddyw, O hen dderwen
Tithau wyt yn grin a gwyw;
Mallog dinodd yw dy foncyff
Adfail o'th orwychder syw.
Ond er llwyted yw dy olwg,
Parcher dy henafol fri,
O hen dderwen fawr Caerfyrddin
Wyt yn anwyl eto i mi!

Some poems reveal the urgency of one who knows he is doomed. In the ode 'The Student' he had written -

In the room

Is naught to catch the stranger's eye save books
On all sides piled together books and papers,
Well may it be the muses' library!
But lo! there, heedless of all else, a man
Sits in the flickering light of that dim lamp!
He is a youth: but in his face no bloom
Proclaims the spring of life. His hand supports
The weary head which droops and as it rests,
His waving hair falls o'er the slender fingers
Which grasp the long dark curls. His brilliant eyes
Seem like the windows of a heaven of souls.

I must be great. I will inscribe my name
Upon the world's broad page and with truth's fire
A flame must kindle that will brightly burn,
A beacon on the stormy sea of time!
Away despair! I am a man and have
A soul which e'er aspires to mighty deeds.
And what is greatness but the just reward
Of high and noble minds? the glorious crown
Of mighty conquerors in the field of truth?
Then greatness shall be mine. A soul is mine
Then why not glory too?

He re-arranged the papers and put them away. He took out his heavy hunter, bequeathed him by his old friends, the blacksmiths, of Llanfynydd, and looked at the massive dial. It told him the time, but how much was there left to him?


It was still summer but the year was now 1857. John Oliver and his friend, Myrddin, were on a walking tour through Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire. "Sweet 'Berdare" had become, at last, a reality and the hospitality of ageing William Jones had been warm and sincere. Many and amazing were the experiences of the two happy students as they journeyed, their material needs packed within carpet bags strapped on to their shoulders. Pontypridd was a focal point in their journeys along and across the valleys of the coalfields; there brother Henry lived and there, in his home, they were to rest awhile. Precious, in truth, was the reforging of brotherly love, but the reunion brought a measure of sorrow to Henry. He was deeply concerned about John's health. John looked so wan; he was, undoubtedly, over-taxing his strength with constant study. But fresh air and human contact, Henry hoped fervently, would restore him to health. Rest, too, would play its part. It was therefore with strong reluctance that Henry allowed his younger brother to continue the walking tour. John, however, had been adamant; Myrddin must not go on alone. In any case, to remain would have been a complete confession of failure. And so it was that the two young theologians went on in exuberant spirits. Their journey was now a preaching tour. It was remarkably successful and they recorded the warmth of welcome they received at Groeswen, Mynyddislwyn, Maesycwmmer and neighbouring places. But bad weather and rain storms marred the latter part of the tour.

In striving against the elements, John's health deteriorated rapidly and his condition must have become very low. They returned to Mynyddislwyn and but for the outstanding care, kindness and generosity of their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis, John would probably not have survived. When he was strong enough, he travelled to Pontypridd. Henry was overcome by the sight of his brother's weak body. Again he counselled rest, complete rest. The two friends stayed on in Pontypridd and John did his best to rest but his mind and spirit were aflame. Defiantly he wrote 'Life':

It is not life to live and then to die.
Be great in deed! Throw lethargy away!
Be active in the world while 'tis to-day!
Alleviate woe! Bring forth a flame of light!
Make truth more clear to men's darkened sight
Pour in the balm of kindness to the heart
That with despair and suffering doth smart.
Assist to make love's flame the brighter burn
And wanderers from virtue homeward turn,
Inscribe upon the world the name of God
Then sleep thou calmly 'neath the cold green sod.
Live now, and thou shalt live a bright Eternal Life.


A mother o' pearl sky spread itself over the borough of Carmarthen on that early Spring evening in 1859. Billowing clouds passed high above the ewes and the lambs in the Five Fields and journeyed onward beyond the river. On the quayside were knots of people preparing to travel with the outgoing tide on the passenger boat to Bristol. Not for them the new-fangled railway with its dirt and splutter and undeniable hazards. The walls of the houses in the vicinity of the Guildhall caught the many opalesque reflections of the evening sky. By strict injunction and as a sanitary precaution against a further outbreak of cholera, they had been newly white-washed, but Red Street and Blue Street, in especial, and in defiance of political attribution, seemed now ablaze with colour in the evening light.

A golden splendour enveloped the gracious lines of the house of Mrs. Eliza Hughes in Wood's Row. Within, Eliza Carmarthen, an accomplished lady of distinguished appearance she was the widow of the Rev. J. S. Hughes of Swansea, was hostess to a group of young people. There were five young students from the Presbyterian College, all frequent visitors to her hospitable home, and two young women, one being her attractive niece, Anne Beddoe of Swansea. Ever and anon there was a sudden lull in the animated conversation, for there was an unmistakeable air of expectancy in the room. There was one who was still to come.

Said Gwilym Marles, "He has told Mrs. Hughes he's likely to be late. John and William Davies, Booksellers, have had greatness thrust upon them in having to establish the new Y.M.C.A. in town. The first committee is meeting tonight at Heol Dwr".

"They can bear it", said Myrddin, crossing his long legs with great deliberation; "besides, the town needs their labours".

At a signal from her aunt, Anne Beddoe lit the lamp and Mrs Hughes closed the window shutters, at the same time saying, "Dr Davies, Ffrwd-y-Val was here this morning. He spoke of John's brilliance in the classics, in language and debate. He believes that his patriotism and his love for the town and county will one day bring a rich harvest, but I am troubled about John. If only he could grow stronger. And this evening air is not good for his chest".

There was a murmer of sympathy and then Gwilym Marles said, "Try not to worry too much Mrs. Hughes; and now I will go to meet him. Perhaps 'twill be best to go by the Dark Gate".

"No need for that tonight", commented Myrddin. "It is not likely John will come by the Dark Gate to-night, nor is he likely to escort William back to Johnstown. Heol-y-Gwyddau tonight". He gave Ann a significant look and added, "The shortest way to heart's desire".

The sound of a door knocker halted conversation; and then life flowed back into the room as Jennet, the little dark-skinned orphan maid, befriended by Mrs Hughes, announced "Mr Oliver". The tall, delicate figure was hailed, welcomed and drawn into the warmth and geniality of the home where he had long since been accustomed to find happiness and comfort.

John's first greetings were to Mrs. Hughes. "My Town Mamma" he called her, a name, which always filled her with great pleasure.

"You shall tell us about your plans for the Y.M.C.A. over supper," said Mrs. Hughes, leading the way out of the room.

John lingered a moment with Anne near the piano.

"I have been practising the music for your song", she said shyly.

"Good," said John and then added tenderly, "but now I have another song, written especially for you".

She had only a brief moment to glance at the final stanzas before she folded the missive, and placed it in the folds of her corsage.

We were not born to pine and die
To fade and then depart;
But we have smiles for every sigh
And heart will throb with heart.

Then on life's path trip blithely on
Spread harmony and delight:
And as the sun when he has shone
Wipe all the tears of night.

She took John's arm and they followed the others out of the room.


In some vivid way, Henry's mind concentrated on the picture, 'The Shepherd's Last Mourner'. He was like the faithful sheep-dog as he stood by the stile leading to the chapel-yard at Llanfynydd, on a beautiful May afternoon in 1866. The verdant glory of early summer was all around him but he saw little save the cruel brown gash in the greensward his brother John's grave. Behind him at the chapel vestry and in White Hall, the last of the relatives and friends were leaving after the funeral. Their kindness had been long and continuous. To-day they had come to pay their last tribute 'y gymwynas ola'.

Henry's faithfulness had no flaw. Dr. Lewis of Carmarthen had, seven long years ago, strongly urged that John must rest. Henry had been his brother's mainstay, counselling him to leave Carmarthen, however great the wrench, and return to their parents' home in Llanfynydd. The warp and woof of those seven years came to Henry's mind. How difficult it had been for John to rest. At first one lung alone had been affected and, seeking health, John had walked far and wide over the Carmarthenshire hills. He had tried to be a good patient, taking every known remedy and making a sustained and constructive effort to regain strength.

John's mental strength grew progressively even as his bodily strength declined. How very difficult it was to rest, when mental energy was for ever seeking satisfactory expression. Henry knew better than anyone the bitterness that lay behind John's discarded hopes. John had had to set aside positive plans of studying at the University of Glasgow, of visiting Innsbruck, of becoming a pastor at Neath and then later of a bigger church in Swansea. There had been deep emotion in refusing the latter, a charge which would have united him with his beloved Anne Beddoe.

Henry, always amazed at the adaptability of human nature, reminded himself with satisfaction how John had succeeded in immersing himself in Llanfynydd. There was little doubt that the spirit of the locality had helped him with its warmth and active, albeit silent, sympathy. John had been encouraged, too, by the zeal and readiness of private pupils to whom he had been an inspiring tutor. There was also the daily companionship of faithful friends. Ebenezer Evans and William Lewis were still there and soon the years of separation were as though they had not been. The maturer minds of William Morgan, Nantgwilw and the Rev. R. Rees of Capel Isaac brought him the sound insight of cefn gwlad. Friends from far a-field often visited White Hall. Henry teased John that he must be the greatest patron of the penny post, for he maintained a steady and methodical correspondence with friends throughout Britain, in America and in Australia. John's literary tendencies also found rewarding expression in eisteddfodau.

There had been periods of hope in that long illness; there had been severe set-backs too. The death of the Rev. R. Rees, Capel Isaac in 1865 had had a marked effect on him. There had been a period of severe illness when John had confided to him that he had been indifferent about holding on to life. Some weeks later when John was stronger, Henry learnt that his brother had received sudden information of the death of his beloved Anne. By a twist of fate, she, too, had suffered from the same fell disease, the destructive and wasting consumption. Ever after, John had belonged less and less to the world around him.

And yet there had been episodes when hope regained a precious footing. Once, in the assurance of such a time, Henry had gone to North Wales to join his friend, Hwfa Mon, at Llanberis, only to be recalled urgently to White Hall, where life was visibly ebbing from John's frail body.

Henry buried his face in his hands as he recalled the final scenes. The wounds were still grievously raw but he must bestir himself to the challenge of life and assume some of John's courage, the courage of a brother who had been prepared for the end:

When I die
O choose a sweet spot for my grave
Where the rays of dawn may peep
Where the noon-day breeze may weep
And softly sigh;
And evening dews its flowers leave.
Give me such a grave
When I die.
Rear no memorial,
I shall be loved by all
That loved me whilst I lived. They will not need
The record of a stone to mark my earth.
The violet and the daisy my clay-cover
Will adorn
And the breeze will shed perfume
O'er my silent urn;
And the rain-drops will oft patter on
My bolted door
And the winter snow in purity will say
He is no more.
Thus my grave will be
A soft bed for me
Where the silence shall echo the sheep's bleat
And the birds with joyous notes shall meet
Making melody with the brooklet by
Purling over its shining stones.
Then peaceful quiet I shall have;
And oft to visit the silent grave
Bright angels will descend from high.

There had been lavish eulogies for John that day, but Henry was not altogether deceived by them, for, much as he loved his brother, he knew that John would never be acclaimed as a major poet. Yet all values were relative; the modest way-side violet had its charm and such a flower was John, cut down at the age of twenty-seven. Henry's thoughts were disturbed by the approach of a young girl. Unmistakeably she was Jennet, Mrs. Eliza Hughes' little coloured maid. Her mistress was about to depart from White Hall and wanted Henry to have this missive.

Henry read, recalling how very dear John had been to his "Town Mamma". In the note she had written:

"Behold an Israelite, in whom is no guile".
"Another star in glory. Another spirit gone to cluster with the jewels of the Saviour".

Henry thrust the note into his pocket and told himself he must return to White Hall. His sorrowing parents would need him near and he must see Mrs. Eliza Hughes before she set out. He turned again towards John's grave. The spirit goes wandering, he thought, but now the fragile body is at rest.
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