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Chapter 13: Influence of London

There is a Welsh expression that translates as "The best Welshmen is one who lives outside Wales," and it is noticeable that most of the advocates of Welsh nationhood lived in London. The interests of London Society had been piqued by all things Celtic, especially after the travels of such intellectuals as Daniel Defoe and Doctor Johnson, whose writings can be said to have started the tourist trade in Britain. Another impetus came after the songs of Ossian forged by the unfortunate James Macpherson, had created an appetite for more such romantic literature. In 1764 was published the work of Evan Evans who called the result of his tireless research into the old manuscripts "Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards."

Evan Evans (Ieuan Brydydd HIr 1731-1788), was an indefatigable worker on behalf of Welsh language, history, and literature. Second only to Goronwy Owen as a classical poet, he was greatly influenced by the three Morris brothers from Anglesey and the formation of the Cymmrodorion Society in London. One of his poems is an englyn to the court of Ifor Hael, a companion of Dafydd ap Gwilym. A translation of one stanza shows a theme predating that of Shelley's Ozymandias by almost fifty years:

Ifor Hael's court, wretched sight,
Lies destroyed,
Just heaps of stones in the trees
Where the thorns and brambles grow
In the place where majesty flourished.
As Wales possessed no University or national library, Evans traveled around Wales to bring together ancient manuscripts. It was he who discovered the "Gododdin" of Aneirin and the poetry of Taliesin and other medieval writers. He also translated much of the contents of "The Red Book of Hergest". One of the most important manuscripts of medieval Wales, compiled around 1400. His "Some Specimens of Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards" outlined the history of Welsh poetry from its beginnings to the 16th Century. The book not only inspired generations of Celtic scholars but also many English poets, including Gray and Percy.

Inspired by Evans, other writers took up the exploration of the language and lexicon of the early Welsh poets. In addition, there was a veritable flood of publications dealing with all kinds of subjects from the mundane to the magnificent, the sacred to the profane, that came out of the new presses at places such as Newcastle Emlyn. Another society sprang up in London in 1770: the Gwyneddigion, with similar aims to those of the Cymmrodorion. The total of all these efforts was truly a Welsh renaissance, inspired and funded as it was from the expatriots in London, that culminated in the reinvigoration of the ancient institution of the Eisteddfod and thus the start of a tradition that Professor Davies has called "an expression of popular culture unsurpassed anywhere in Europe."

Briefly, we can note the origin of the Eisteddfod in the Middle Ages when such meetings were held at various times and places to regulate the affairs of the bardic order. Of these, the ones held in 1176, 1523 and 1567 are notable, but up to the end of the eighteenth century the tradition had lapsed into informative and noisy, boisterous, uncontrolled tavern meetings. The Gwyneddigion Society tried to revive the Eisteddfod as a competitive festival in 1789, but it was the highly imaginative creation of Edward Williams, a stone mason from the Vale of Glamorgan, known to posterity by his bardic title Iolo Morgannwg to which we owe the elaborate ceremony and consequent popularity of the "sittings" of today. In a stirring speech to the influential members of the London Welsh societies, Williams gave his spellbound listeners a sense of what it was to be members of an ancient Celtic race and more important, perhaps, what they could do to ensure that the traditions of that race became known and handed down to posterity, even if some of them had to be invented!!

The outstanding success of the American colonies, in winning their independence from the English Crown had greatly influenced the London Welsh, who began to make known their feelings for recognition of a separate identity for Wales. The French Revolution with its appeal for liberty and equality also could not help but add to these feelings. In the institution of the eisteddfod, the London Welsh saw a chance to restore the dignity of an ancient Welsh custom and make it a national affirmation. In 1792 an article in "The Gentleman's Magazine" noted the following:

This being the day on which the autumnal equinox occurred, some Welsh bards, resident in London, assembled in congress on Primrose Hill, according to ancient usage.
The president at the 1792 meeting was Edward Jones, musician and antiquary who was harpist to the Prince of Wales, the future king George IV. Jones was displeased with what was happening to so many native Welsh musical traditions at the hands of the ruthless new religious leaders. A prolific author, his major work was "The Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards" in 1784 which was followed by two further addition. Jones' work was an attempt to stop the rot. In 1802 he wrote:
The sudden decline of the national minstrelsy and customs of Wales is in a great degree to be attributed to the fanatick imposters, or illiterate plebian preachers, who have too often been suffered to over-run the country, misleading the greater part of the common people from their lawful church, and dissuading them from their innocent amusements, such as singing, dancing and other rural sports, with which they had been accustomed to delight in from the earliest times . . . The consequence is, Wales, which was formerly one of the merriest and happiest countries in the world, is now become one of the dullest, (prelude to "The Bardic Museum")
It was Jones who was responsible for reviving the eisteddfod, of which he commented in 1802:
Seeing with regret the rapid decrease of performers on the harp in Wales, with the consequent decline of that elegant and expressive instrument, as well as of our National music and Poetry, gave me the first idea of reviving the ancient Eisteddfod. . . which meeting I caused to be convened at Corwen, in Merionethshire, about the year 1788. ("The Bardic Museum")
With so much of what was essentially an oral tradition, and with so much of what was essentially Welsh disappearing, a coherent body of cultural traditions needed to be re-established and set down. It was thus that Iolo Morgannwg, one of the assembled bards, decided to invent some of his own. A man of great imagination, Iolo came up with many innovative ideas, among them the gorsedd, the guild of bards that ever since its introduction into an eisteddfod held at Carmarthen in 1819 has played such a prominent role in Welsh cultural affairs ever since. In addition to helping create a truly national eisteddfod, Iolo Morgannwg also called for a national library for Wales and a national museum. It is tempting to think that much of his inspiration like that of Edward Jones, his contemporary and rival, came from his distaste at the excesses of Methodism, for in a letter to a friend in 1799 he wrote:
North Wales is now as Methodistical as South Wales, and south Wales as Hell.
It was Iolo Morgannwg who came up with the stirring and emotional three-time cry of the archdruid at eisteddod ceremonies: A oes heddwch? (Is there peace?) to which the audience each time replies Heddwch (peace).

Other prominent Welshmen were also busy creating tradition. A dramatic address by Sir William Jones in 1792 announced the discovery of America by Prince Madoc three hundred years before Columbus. It also praised the so-called Welsh Indians, calling them "a free and distinct people, who have preserved their liberty, language and some traces of their religion to this very day." Though subsequent discoveries did not bear out the truth of Jones' theories, the legend had enormous effect upon the pride of the Welsh people. It was also Jones who discovered the connection between the Celtic languages and Sanskrit, in which the sacred writings of India were written. His work gave to the Welsh language a long history and proud ancestry.

Another influential scholar was Richard Price, a prolific author of works on divinity and theology but best known for his "Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty" published in 1776. Price believed fervently that the American colonies had an absolute right to their independence. For his work, he was given many honours in both England and America which offered him citizenship in the new republic. He was enthusiastic about the advent of the French Revolution and its defiance of authority as explained in his "A Discourse..." (1789). As far as Wales itself was concerned, Price claimed that communities everywhere had the right to govern themselves. He had the revolutionary and startling idea that British Members of Parliament were simply trustees to carry out the wishes of their constituents.

Price's arguments were very influential in the work of another Welshman, David Williams, whose essays on religious freedom, universal education, and the need for voting rights put him way ahead of his time. His "Letter on Political Liberty" was published in 1782 though their real influence was not felt in Wales until the mid-1850's with the arrival of the Chartist Movement. By the end of the 18th century, however, thanks to such writers as Price and Williams, the first serious democratic and popular movements in Wales began, and another unforeseen benefit was that the Welsh language grew in stature and strength along with them.

In the meantime, however, Edward Jones's complaints had been well founded: Methodism had burst upon the Welsh scene like the great Deluge.

Chapter 14: Influence of Methodism

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