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Chapter 15: 19th Century

Much 19th century Welsh literature is closely related to the both the landscape and the effects of industrialization upon its inhabitants. In 1804 Benjamin Heath Malkin, in his "The Scenery", "Antiquities" and "Biography of South Wales" wrote the following:
The workmen of all descriptions at these immense works [at Cyfarthfa, Merthyr Tydfil] are Welsh men. Their language is entirely Welsh. The number of English amongst them is very inconsiderable.
Ninety years later, in an address to the Honourable Society of Commodorion, a statement by W. Llewelyn Williams showed, only too clearly, the great changes that had been taking place in Wales, especially regarding the language:
The educated and the leisured classes have been brought up in ignorance of the Welsh language, and often with a distinct prejudice against it as a mere patois, unworthy of the respect of an educated and cultured man. Welshmen writing in the vernacular have, therefore, only a very limited circle to appeal to.
Practically overnight, Wales had been transformed from "a marginal province into a sector of an imperial economy." (Gwyn A. Williams "When Was Wales" p. 173); its growth is described by Professor Davies as the result of having become a central part of a capitalist system that "spread its tentacles . . . to all corners of the earth" ("A History of Wales" p.318). Along with industrialization came a dramatic increase in numbers of inhabitants, from approximately 500,000 people in the 1750's to over 1,600,000 in 1851 and 2,600,000 before Word War One. The movement into the five great valleys was so great that Wales ranked second to the United States as a world center of immigration in the latter half of the 19th century. The rural Northwest and central areas of Wales however, did not share in this growth; they began a process of continually losing people to the increasingly Anglicized and urbanized Southeast, where iron, coal and tinplate, steel and rails made the area one of the most prolific in the world in terms of industrial production, or they lost them to industrial communities in England.

Industry helped create a new culture and way of life that we can call Anglo-Welsh. Though many important writers continued to use the Welsh language, especially in the North and West, English began to predominate in the other, more heavily-populated areas. On the other hand, thousands of Welsh-speaking workers came to the new industrial areas from other parts of Wales, bringing their love of music and literature with them, thus making towns such as Merthyr centres of Welsh culture. But English would eventually take over. By the end of the century, Malkin could have written "The English among them is very considerable." The change was inevitable, the vast immigration into Wales simply overwhelmed the local population's attempts to hold on to its language. Yet the creation of large Welsh-speaking communities in the industrial districts, at least for almost a century, supported a flourishing periodical press. The first Welsh language weekly, "Seren Gomer" (The Star of Gomer) began in 1814. Other periodicals printed in English were "The Cambrian" Wales's first weekly newspaper 1804); "The North Wales Chronicle"> (1807) and "The Carmarthen Journal" (1810).

The gradual decline of the Welsh language in the industrial districts was matched by what many have seen as a distressing lapse in literary standards. Unfortunately for many, the influence of Nonconformism and Methodism in particular, stifled much of the old vibrant folk culture. This was reflected in the religious contents and anti-secular bias of the new periodicals (though to be fair, they did discuss every-day affairs and political matters). Many historians have deplored the transformation of Welsh Nonconformity from a radical spiritual force that gave birth to such writers as William Williams and Ann Griffiths to a social institution that not only dominated Welsh culture, but debased it by producing an unworldly and pietistic literature. It was in the Nonconformist chapel that the Welsh could be ministered to in their own language, but it was also there that the biography of the preacher became the most characteristic genre of the period. But It was also the chapel that helped create a literate working class eager for reading material and highly supportive of the nation's poets, especially those who competed in the eisteddfodau.

Most of the Victorian Age saw the continuation of the eisteddfod tradition, with Welsh as the medium of expression. The first truly National Eisteddfod was held at Aberdare in 1861; the institution became an integral, and much-loved part of Welsh culture from that time on. Much of what was produced is not now ranked too highly as the sole aim of many poets of the period was to win the chair, and though a few memorable pieces were composed, such as Eben Fardd's "The Destruction of Jerusalem", it took the awarding of a separate competition for poetry written in free meters in 1867 (as opposed to the strict-meter ode) to get the majority of Welsh poets moving again. Golyddan's poem "Iesu" is a fine example of just what could be accomplished in the pryddest (free-meter) form.

Eben Fardd was the bardic name of Ebenezer Thomas (1802-63), of Llanarmon in Gwynedd. At age 19, Ebenezer lost both his mother and his religious faith, spending the next few years poor, dissolute and drunk. In 1839, however, he rejoined the church at Clynnog Fawr and even started a school at which he trained candidates for the ministry. Greatly influenced by the poetry of Goronwy Owen, the self-taught schoolmaster and poet won the chair at the 1824 eisteddfod, a feat he later repeated on two occasions. Meic Stephens sees the poetry of Thomas as representing the golden age of the epic in Welsh and are "the highest achievements of the Romantic literature of the period." Many of his compositions brought a much-needed emotional note to Welsh poetry. In addition, Thomas's work as a literary critic helped a great deal to raise the standards of entries submitted to the National Eisteddfod, taking it beyond the merely formal and trivial.

Golyddan was the bardic title chosen by John Robert Pryse (1840-62): it was the name of a warrior in the "Brut y Tywysogyon" of the medieval period. John Robert Pryse, like >Ebenezer Thomas, is little known outside Wales; the poetry of both of these men needs a great deal of study. Compared to their English counterparts of the Victorian period, they are hardly read today, even in Welsh schools. Better known is Pryse's father, Robert John Pryse (1807-89), a writer and historian, whose complete lack of formal education did not prevent his becoming proficient in Latin, Greek and English. His essays and his literary histories, including "Hanes Llenyddiaeth Gymreig" (History of Welsh Literature) won him prizes at various eisteddfodau and made him an authority on the Welsh language and literature.

Other Welsh poets of the period were skilled in the englyn unodl union, the four-line form of englyn that had remained popular for centuries, especially among the folk poets. Some good examples are provided by the work of Robert Williams: (Trebor Mai) whose work appeared in a collection "Gwaith Barddonol Prif Englyniwr Cymru" (Works of the Chief Bards of Welsh Poetry) in 1883, six years after his death. Of far more importance, however, to the Welsh literary tradition is the lyric poetry pioneered by John Blackwell (Alun: 1797-1841) whose works show influences of the English Romantic Movement as well as the emotionally charged hymns of the Methodist chapels. Blackwell, from Flintshire, was part of that class of Anglican clergymen whose influence upon early 19th century Welsh literature was so vital. Like many of his contemporary poets, he received little formal education as a young child. His literary efforts, however, enabled him to benefit from the largesse of local clergymen in the Mold area to study at Jesus College, Oxford. In 1851, ten years after his death, his lyric poems appeared in "Ceinion Alun".

Four of the most popular of Blackwell's poems are "Doli", (Dolly); "Can Gwraig y Pysgotwr" (Song of the fisherman's wife) and "Abaty Tintern". (Tintern Abbey) and a poem dedicated to the song of the nightingale that compares favorably with similar odes by Keats and Shelley. A close translation of the last stanza by Tony Conran gives some idea of the power of the original, though the beauty of the Welsh words, with their magical, evocative sounds is completely lost:

Though the worry almost numbs her heart
        She'll not complain
Nor tire here dear ones with distress --
        Her smile hides her pain.
Nor ends her song the long night through
        Until bright hope shall dawn;
Shining like an eye of gold
        Through the clear lids of morn.
Sharing credit for the popularity of the free meter form with Blackwell was the prolific Evan Evans (Ieuan Glan Geirionydd 1795-1855), who used many genres to express his main concern over life's intransigence. Ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church, he spent most of his working life in Chester, on the Welsh border, where there was a vibrant Welsh community right up to World War ll. Remembered as perhaps the most versatile poet of the whole century, Evans excelled in strict meter as well as free meter forms although it is in the latter that his best work appears. Stephens writes of the clarity and dignity of Evans' language and his "smooth, melodic meter" that is so effective in poems such as "Ysgoldy Rhad Llanrwst" (Llanrwst Free School) and "Glan Geirionydd".

Evans' bardic title Ieuan Glan Geirionydd was taken from his native valley. His poems show not only an early appreciation of the Welsh mountain landscape of that valley, that later became a popular theme of both poets and painters, but also an idealization of the devoted wife, a subject also explored by other Welsh poets including Blackwell. Evans also wrote many fine hymns, two of which have been considered as among the finest in the welsh language: "Ar lan Jorddonen ddofn" (On Jordan's deep banks) and "Mor ddedwyd yw y rhai trwy-ffydd" (So happy through faith). Evans' care over form and language, according to Saunders Lewis, places him firmly in the tradition of Goronwy Owen, especially in the way they were used to express the poet's stoicism, the paramount spirit and philosophy of the Welsh classical tradition.

Another poet of Wales during the period who was brought up in the Anglican tradition, but who joined the Calvinistic Methodists in 1859 was William Thomas (Islwyn) who was born in a still mainly Welsh-speaking Monmouthshire in 1832, but whose first language was English. Trained as a surveyor, Thomas came under the influence of Daniel Jenkins, who conveyed to him a passionate love of Welsh poetry as well as a deep religious faith. When he was 21 years old, the death of his fiancée, Ann Bowen, affected him deeply, causing him to write two long poems "Y Storm" in her memory. The title aptly describes the psychological storms in his life. Seen from a modern perspective as the greatest epic poetry in the Welsh language, the two poems are highly emotional, the result of his being torn between the love of his dead Ann and that for his wife Martha, but other conflicts underlie much of his poetry, not the least the contrasts between the elegant dispassion of his Anglican upbringing and the highly-charged emotional fury of his newly discovered Chapel beliefs.

Though he loved and was deeply moved by the mountain landscapes of his native land, Thomas was still troubled by the thought that all physical phenomena were but shadows of the spiritual. His mysticism was mainly responsible for inspiring a new group of Welsh poets collectively known as "Y Bardd Newydd" (The New Poet) whose work, written in the popular style that was sure to win a prize at the National Eisteddfod, full of verbosity and obscure metaphysical speculation, is now mostly forgotten. His work remains fairly popular though the inevitable reaction against that of his school led to a literary revival in the early years of the next century.

Evan Evans and William Thomas wrote as members of the Church of England, but they both wrote in Welsh, an accomplishment that not too many of their fellow clergy were capable of. Professor Davies points out that though the Church made an honorable contribution to Welsh culture, the Anglican ministry in Wales had been totally anglicized for many generations. In 1841, the situation was deplored by William Jones, in "The Character of the Welsh as a Nation in the present Age":

It is devoutly wished that the [Anglican] clergy of Wales were more vernacularly acquainted with the language in which they officiate.
Jones also commented that the paradox facing the Welsh language which 'had never been more encouraged than during the last twenty-five years, and never, in the same compass of time, has the English spread itself so much over the principality."

The situation was such that there were other notable poets of the nineteenth century whose work should be much better known but whose use of Welsh exclusively has led so many English critics, besotted as they are with Wordworth and Tennyson, Arnold and Shelley, et al., ad nauseum, to conclude that Welsh literature of the 19th century contains nothing worthwhile. It is a pity that the likes of A.N. Wilson and others, because of their complete lack of knowledge of the Welsh language, are unable to appreciate such poets as Blackwell, Evans and especially John Ceiriog Hughes (1832-87) whose publication of five volumes of his poetry in the 1860's brought him enormous fame in Wales, if not elsewhere.

Hughes used a bardic title derived from the little valley in which he was born, Glyn Ceiriog in Llanarmon Dyffryn Clwyd, in an area only a few miles from the English border yet which even today has retained much of its Welsh culture and language. Hughes was yet another Welsh poet who received little formal education. It was while working as a grocer in the large, industrial city of Manchester in Northern England that he learned the traditions of Welsh poetry, mainly under the guidance of two close friends, R.J. Derfel (1824-1905), the socialist poet and dramatist who so severely criticized the treachery of the blue books. (See Chapter 15 of "History: New Struggle") and William Williams (1814-69), who convinced him that he should write simple, natural poetry to express his deep feelings for rural Wales. Thus Hughes specialized in expressing the feeling of nostalgia for the rural scenes and characters and music of one's childhood, a feeling known in Welsh as hiraeth.

Hughes published many volumes of poetry, and many of his poems became popular pieces for recitation on countless eisteddfod stages as well as well-known songs. We can point to "Alun Mabon", "Dafydd y Garreg Wen", (David of the White Rock) and "Nant y Mynydd" (the Mountain Stream). as three popular examples, but his words to traditional melodies such as "Llwyn Onn" (the Ash Grove) are also much beloved and often sung.today. In the 1860's his "Oriau'r Hwyr" (Late hours) was the best selling Welsh language book next to the Bible, over 30,000 copies being sold in 12 years. Ceiriog is a name known to just about every person today lucky enough to have the benefit of an education in Wales. It certainly deserves to be better known to the English-speaking world, though a selection of Hughes' poems was translated in 1926 by Alfred Perceval Graves. The following lines are translated from the sequence of songs in "Alun Mabon", whose marriage and life as a farmer are idealized by the poet:

What passes and Endures

Still the mighty mountains stand
And the great winds about them roar;
And all around we hear at dawn
The shepherds' old-time songs
And daisies growing in cleft and rock
Still thrust and grow and thrive
Tis only the shepherds who are new
Among these timeless, mighty hills.

Year succeeds year; the customs change
Old gives place to new.
The generations come and go
Some with gladness, others tears
Freed from storm and stress,
Alun Mabon finds his rest
Yet the old tongue lives on
And the old songs endure.

Before leaving Ceiriog, perhaps we should include two stanzas of his most well-known poems that has been sung and recited by generations of schoolchildren: "Y Cwcw" (the cuckoo), that shows the poet's delight in hearing a cuckoo that has crossed the seas to arrive at the woodlands of his little island with the coming of spring, and which he tearfully thanks for his beautiful song:
Wrth ddychwel tuag adref
Mi glwywais gwcw lon
Oedd newydd groesi'r moroedd
I'r ynys fechan hon.

A chwcw gynta'r tymor
A ganai yn y coed
'Run fath a'r gwcw gyntaf
A ganodd gynta' 'rioed

A rough translation:
Upon returning, towards home
I heard a beautiful cuckoo
Which had newly crossed the seas
To this little island

It was the first cuckoo of the season
That sang in the wood
Just like the first cuckoo
That ever sang.

It is no wonder that Ceiriog is so revered in Welsh schools today, for the following century saw the most rapid decline in the percentages of people speaking Welsh. Not so well-known, yet, paradoxically, an important figure in Welsh literature is novelist Daniel Owen, from Mold, a town in Flintshire that had managed to keep much of its Welsh identity despite the rapid anglicization of much of the county by the end of the century. Owen (1836-95) was brought up in extreme poverty; apprenticed to a tailor at age 12, he had little schooling, but at 23 entered Bala College to prepare for the ministry. At Bala he immersed himself in English literature and upon his return to Mold would read aloud favorite passages from such writers as Eliot, Thackeray, Scott and Dickens to his fellow tailors Owen did not stay at Bala, returning to Mold to care for his sick mother and sister and becoming enmeshed in the politics and social intrigue of the Seiat (the fellowship meeting that was the seat of influence in the affairs of the Welsh chapel). Here, his involvement helped him greatly in the themes and characters in his writings.

Owen began his own writing career, in his own words "for the common man, not the wise and the learned" by translating an American novelette "Ten Nights in a Barroom"... He then produced stories and sermons about the characters belonging to his chapel. His first attempt at writing a novel was "Y Dreflan" (the Village) in which he practiced the basics of characterization and dialogue. "Y Dreflan" was followed by the series of novels for which Owen is best remembered, including "Rhys Lewis", "Enoc Huws" and "Gwen Tomos", a collection of essays, and a volume of short stories. His strengths lay in his depiction of memorable characters and his accurate portrayal of places and communities, and it is in these areas that we can consider him as his country's first real novelist. By his use of dialect, he was able to portray his characters caught up in the universal dilemma of Man as he is and Man as he appears to others.

Unfortunately for his craft, Owen did not have much of a Welsh native tradition to build on; there had been the moralistic romance "Y Bardd", "neu y Meudwy Cymreig" (The Poet or the Welsh Hermit) by William Ellis Jones (Cawrdaf) in 1830, but this can hardly be clled a novel, lacking the necessary plot and characterization though possessing some graphic descriptions of a storm at sea. There had also been a scattering of historical romances, some efforts at social criticism, especially that of the historian and publisher of the radical weekly "Yr Amserau" (The Times) William Rees (Hiraethog, 1802-83). It was Rees, in fact, who informed his readers of the evils of slavery through his adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" which he called "Aelwyd F'ewythyr Robert" (Uncle Robert's Hearth) in 1852.

It was not much for a tailor's apprentice from Mold to go on, and despite his avid reading of the great English novelists, Owen's literary skills could not match those who inspired him. His great weakness was his lack of understanding of the way to construct a novel, and his unexplained mysteries and unexpected coincidences are grave faults in all his major works. Still, Professor Stephens thinks that despite his faults as a novelist, Owen had no equal in Welsh literature as an observer of society and character. It was in the next century, however, that the true Welsh novel, written in Welsh or in English, came into being. It is also in the next century that the literary renaissance of Wales began to include writers who used the English language, the school of the Anglo-Welsh.

Chapter 16: 20th Century Pt I

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