Welsh Literature


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Chapter 11: 17th Century Religious Literature

In 1625, James was succeeded as king by Charles I, for whom Welsh support was vital in his attempts to hold off the powers that united against his obstinate wish to rule without Parliament. In many ways, apart from draining it of much of its manpower, the struggles of the ten-year English Civil Wars did not greatly affect Wales, where the fighting took place only in the Southwest and the Northeast, around two parliamentary strongholds. Life went on in its own unhurried way mostly unchanged. Purely local factors governed the lives of most Welsh people, still relatively isolated in their rural communities, still clinging to their ancient myths, and still using their beloved Celtic language. On the other hand, though many of their great families and scholars had remained Catholic far longer than many of their counterparts in England, the great majority of Welsh people had felt a general religious apathy. They were now about to be awakened from their indifference by a new phenomena let loose among them, the forces of evangelism.

After the defeat of Charles, Parliament was anxious to provide sufficient ministers of the gospel to reach those areas of the country they deemed sufficiently in need, Wales being perhaps on top of their list. In 1650 was passed the Act for the Better Propagation and Preaching of the Gospel, appointing many prominent government officials as Commissioners in Wales. Their job, and they carried out their duties most efficiently if not ruthlessly, was to investigate complaints against the resident clergy (who had mostly supported Charles), following the doctrine of "Divine Right", and to eject those they considered unsuitable or disloyal. They also appointed "godly and painful men" to replace those who were deprived of their livings.

The Welsh congregations seemed to take most of the changes in their stride. Puritan doctrines had been taking root in many of the urban centres and market towns, aided and abetted by wealthy London merchants. Since having their own Bible in 1588, in any case, the Welsh were fast becoming a "people of the Book," and they welcomed the travelling clergymen who appealed to their sense of religious independence for one thing, and who preached to them in their own language, for another. Fervent evangelists had a great and lasting influence, such as William Wroth and Walter Cradock, with Vavasor Powell, who advocated public hymn singing, the most dynamic preacher and recruiter of them all.

From the efforts of such tireless and inspired workers came the founding of the first "gathered church" of independents in Wales in 1639. In the little village of Llangaches, Monmouthshire, the mother church of Welsh nonconformity was modeled after those established by the Puritans in the New World. In 1649 the first Baptist Church in Wales was launched in Llston in the Gower Peninsular by John Miles. The seeds were thus planted for a new religious consciousness in Wales that had an enormous impact on the future political, social and cultural development of the nation.

The religious movement received great impetus from the printed version of the Welsh Bible, but because this was a still a very expensive purchase, it gained much more from the printing of additional devotional material. A great deal of prose works was produced in the period, most being translations from English or Latin. Notable translators were Morris Kyffin and Rowland Vaughan, who produced a new Welsh translation of the Prayer Book in 1664, and Huw Lewis, but the more Puritan writers, reflecting their belief in individual spiritual experience, produced more original works. Foremost among these was Morgan Llwyd, whose influential books in Welsh were climaxed by his "Llyfr y Tri Aderyn" (The Book of the Three Birds) in 1653. This is in the form of a dialogue between an eagle (representing secular authority); a dove (representing the Puritan saints); and a raven (representing the Anglican establishment). Using a wealth of metaphysical imagery, and showing a command of the rhythms of language to express various emotions, the author also displays an acute understanding of the psychology of religious experience.

Another influential Puritan writer of the period was Charles Edwards, who believed sincerely that the Welsh were God's chosen people, having replaced the fallen children of Israel or having been directly descended from the Lost Tribes themselves; his "Y Ffydd Ddi-ffuant" (The Sincere Faith: 1667) was an attempt to prove it. The book deals with the history of the Christian religion, the moral history of the Welsh people themselves, and the spiritual condition of individual Welshman (Edwards' belief is still prevalent among many Welsh congregations).

The 1650 Propagation Act, in addition to rooting out dissident clergymen, established in Britain a national system of schools. In Wales, 63 new schools were opened in the larger towns; in them, children of both sexes were taught to read, write and count (and memorize the scriptures) free of charge, albeit through the medium of English. Though the Commission was not renewed in 1653, "suitable" ministers continued to be selected by the agents of Parliament and many gifted and enthusiastic preachers arrived in Wales to live and work. Their influence was a lasting one, and the nonconformist chapels that sprang up everywhere in their wake, such as those of the Independents, Baptists, Quakers and others created a heritage that still forms an integral part of the Welsh character and left a fertile field to be tilled by the Methodists in the next century.

Before leaving the seventeenth century, we should mention the Welsh poets George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Thomas Traherne, all of whose writings more properly belong to the English school of metaphysical poets and thus do not belong in a discussion of Welsh literature (Perhaps a glimpse of what was to come?). Henry Vaughan, nevertheless, was able to speak and write in Welsh and was certainly aware of Welsh cultural and historical traditions as well as being influenced by the landscape of the Usk Valley. A country doctor in the county of Brecon, he called himself The Silurist (South Welshman). His English poems, like those of Dylan Thomas, over two hundred years later, do show the influence of the Welsh poetic tradition, what some writers have termed their "Celtic Magic." On an amusing note, those familiar with Vaughan's Welsh poem "Y Cerbyd" (The Chariot) cannot fail to notice that during the 1970's the Ministry of Transport erected signs on Motorways leading into South Wales utilizing the word Cerbyd to designate modern automobiles!

The revival of Welsh literature continued in the next century. It was accompanied by a renewed interest in the language as a proper medium of religious instruction and therefore, in the climate of the times, of everyday affairs.

Chapter 12: 18th Century Wales

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