Welsh Literature

  Search Britannia
Britannia Home
Wales Home

History of Wales
Welsh Language
Wales Forum
Seven Wonders
Cultural Traditions
Facts About Wales
Welsh Royal Families
Welsh: The 8th Wonder
Welsh Proverbs

Travel Home
London Guide
Touring Online
Planning Resources
Reservations Centre

Chapter 16: 20th Century, Pt I

It is in the 20th century which many Welsh writers have become known to the rest of the world; they wrote in English. At the same time, some of the very best literature produced in Wales since the beginning of the century remains relatively unknown;it was written in Welsh.

Between 1900 and World War I, it was evident that a new beginning had taken place in Welsh literature. Termed "remarkable" by Professor Davies, the achievements of Welsh scholarship received a jump-start in 1900 with the publication of two influential histories: "The Welsh People" by John Rhys and Brynmor Jones and one year later, "Wales" by Owen Edwards. These were followed by the monumental and inspiring work of J.E. Lloyd, "A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest" in 1911. Then, in 1913 appeared another publication of great importance, "A Welsh Grammar, Historical and Comparative" by John Morris-Jones.

A new era of scholarship was afoot; it was helped immensely by the founding of the National Museum of Wales in 1907 and the National Library the same year, both logical outgrowths of the newly-established educational system, especially of the University of Wales and the network of county schools, both of which had leading roles in the development of education by providing invaluable resources and services to Welsh secondary schools. It became profitable to study Welsh language and literature, especially when the inevitable reaction to the adverse effects of industrialization began to sink in and a great need arose for a return to the rural days of one's youth (imagined or not) such as been idealized in the poetry of Ceiriog, who died in 1887.

With the rapid Anglicization of much of Southeast Wales, it was Gwynedd, in the Northwest that remained the bastion of the Welsh literary revival. It was here that the great majority of Welsh-language periodicals were published, and it was here that the majority of prominent Welsh writers of the early part of the century resided. Professor Davies reminds us that in 1911 over one million people spoke Welsh, the highest number in history. So there was an audience ready to receive works written in Welsh at the same time that the country was being flooded with a mass of English publications and at the same time that the majority of Welsh children were being educated through the medium of English and thus exposed to English literature (and, therefore, not to works in Welsh). And it was this that caused great concern to one of Gwynedd's most influential scholars, Owen M. Edwards (1858-1920) of whom, almost forty years after his death, poet Bobi Jones wrote: "If it's true that Madog discovered America, it is much more true that O.M. Edwards discovered Wales." It is easy to see why.

While at Oxford University, Edwards, from Llanuwchllyn at the head of Llyn Tegid (Lake Bala), had taken part in the Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym, a society that had a great deal to do with the new interest in Welsh language scholarship and literature. He also helped edit "Cymru Fydd", the journal of the Welsh nationalist movement. Returning to Wales, he devoted himself to the publishing of Welsh books and magazines to counteract the rapid spread of English publications, often of inferior content. Anxious to promulgate the glories of the simple, hard-working folk, the "Gwerin", hIs four history books gave the Welsh people knowledge of their own country and fostered a new pride their inheritance and culture. In 1890 he started the magazine "Cymru" (Wales) and continued to edit it until his death thirty years later. From 1891 to 1920 he published "Cymry'r Plant", (The Children's Wales) a magazine that sold 12,000 copies a month, and this was followed by a series of children's books.

Edwards's collection of essays on important figures in Welsh history published in 1896 is regarded as his most important literary work; in the same year he founded a society especially for Welsh children called Urdd y Delyn (Order of the Harp) which was a forerunner of the hugely successful and influential Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the Welsh youth league begun by his son Ifan ab Owen Edwards in 1922. In all his work, the older Edwards was interested in fostering a sense of national consciousness among the Welsh people. He himself had suffered the shame of being ridiculed for speaking Welsh at school in Bala, having to wear the dreaded piece of Wood (the Welsh Not or Welsh Lump) around his neck. For his efforts at promoting a sense of nationhood, O.M. as he is affectionately remembered throughout the principality, is one of the giants of Welsh literature.

Another father of Welsh nationalism, yet who wrote in a completely different vein than O.M.Edwards, was Clwyd-born Robert Ambrose Jones (Emrys ap Iwan: 1848-1906). A literary critic and writer on political and religious subjects, Jones did not enjoy the popularity of his less caustic colleague. Violently opposed to those who preached in English to please immigrants into Wales, Jones was scathing and cruel in his criticisms of those who catered to the "English fever." Meic Stephens has so succinctly pointed out that for someone to try to convince the Welsh to remain faithful to their cultural heritage at a time when the British Empire was at its zenith was a monumental task indeed. Historian Dafydd Johnson sees Jones as way ahead of his day in his intuitive grasp of the recognition that language is not merely incidental, but [is] "an essential aspect both of the mentality of a people and of their nationhood."

Jones wrote many sermons and homilies that have been considered as literary masterpieces. A regular contributor to the Welsh press, he published only two books: "Camrau mewn Gramadeg Cymraeg" (Steps in Welsh Grammar) and an adoption of Ellis Wynn's "Visions of a Sleeping Bard". Yet it was Jones who made an important contribution to the literary revival in the early part of the century by his highlighting the existence of ancient Welsh prose classics, and he helped restore many of the former high standards which had been disappearing as a result of over dependence on inferior English models. As one of the founders of Welsh nationalism, recognizing that language is an essential aspect of the mentality of a people and of their nationhood, R.A. Jones had a great influence on later generations that cannot be overlooked.

Perhaps the leading scholar and literary critic of the nationalist movement was John Morris-Jones (1864-1929), professor of Welsh at Bangor University. Determined to set studies of the Welsh language and its literature on a firm foundation, he was perhaps the first to study them scientifically. His analysis of Elis Wynne's "Sleeping Bard" showed that its purity of language owed nothing to foreign forms. Because of Morris-Jones's "A Welsh Grammar, Historical and Comparative" (1913), Stephens believes that he belongs in the company of such great Welsh grammarians of the Welsh language as Gruffydd Robert and John Davies of Mallwyd.

As a regular adjucator at eisteddfodau, Morris-Jones helped raise the standards of Welsh poetry; it was he It was who was one of the first to doubt the authenticity of Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain and the inventions of Iolo Morgannwg. (though these continue to be a much-loved part of the National Eisteddfod even today). His translations into Welsh of Heine and Omar Khayyam also helped bring back the sensuality which had been missing from much Welsh poetry since the heavy philosophizing and religiosity of the turn of the century. It was high time, for the so-called Bardd Newydd school of Welsh poetry, spanning the years 1890-1901, had emphasized preaching "the Word" at the expense of expressing external beauty. Its practitioners were, in the main, Nonconformist ministers; its products long, pedantic, overly serious works that ignored poetic form and were themselves an over-reaction to what they considered to be the superficiality of "nature" poets such as Ceiriog.

One of the poets of the Bardd Newydd school was Howell Elvet Lewis (Elfed: 1860-1953), like so many others from the county of Carmarthen, a minister, hymn-writer and poet. Winner of the Crown at the National Eisteddfodau of 1888 and 89, he later became Archdruid. Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, however, his poetry, published in "Caniadau", consists of romantic lyrics about the beauties of nature. It is not as well known as his hymns. The latter, written in Welsh and English, called by Stephen as "sensual, lyrical, devotional meditations." are strongly influenced by both Welsh and foreign hymnody. One of them, "Cofia'n Gwlad" (I will remember my Country) has been called the second national anthem of Wales due to its popularity and patriotic sentiments. Another popular hymn written in English, and therefore much better-known, is "The light of the Morning is Breaking." In 1890, Elfed published his study of Welsh hymns and their authors: "Sweet Singers of Wales."

After Elfed, however, under the influence of John Morris Jones, a new group of poets came on the scene who set out to recover the classical tradition; Some prominent names in the literary revival that was an inevitable reaction to the moralizing tone and pedagogic sermonizing that had permeated much Welsh Literature at the end of the century, (in addition to Morris-Jones) are Robert Roberts, T. Gwynn Jones, R. Williams Parry, W.J. Gruffydd, and T.H. Parry-Williams.

The first of this group, Robert Roberts (Silyn), was born in 1871 in Llanllyfni, Gwynedd. After working in the slate quarries of his native distinct, he attended the University at Bangor and the Bala Theological College. Along with W.J. Gruffydd, in 1900 he published a volume of poetry "Telynogion" (Lyrics) and two years later his "Trystan ac Esyllt a Chaniadau Eraill" (Tristan and Isolde and other Songs) contained his eisteddfod- winning pryddest (free-meter poem). His translations into Welsh of popular works of the time, "Gwyntoedd Croeson" (Welcoming Winds) and "Bugail Geifr Lorraine" (The Goat Shepherd of Lorraine) were followed by "Cofarwydd" (Remembrances), a collection of verses published after his death in 1930. They are still very much worth reading.

Silyn's colleague, W.J. Gruffydd (1881-1954), a quarryman's son, was also born in Gwynedd. He was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, where he came under the spell of Owen M. Edwards. In 1906, Gruffydd joined the staff at Cardiff University as Professor of Celtic. For just under thirty years he edited the influential magazine "Y Llenor" (the Literateur). He used his position to vigorously defend the language and culture of Wales. In 1926 he wrote that "the University of Wales was further from the thought and culture of its own nation than any other university in the world.," and the same year: "We have had no architecture, hardly any painting, and very little music until quite recently; the culture of Wales has always been a literary culture, and it depends on the Welsh language and the use that is made of it." One year later, he agonized over the increasing anglicization of literary works: "And as for Anglo-Welsh literature, I blush for my country at seeing any of it in print."

Gruffydd's poetry, full of sensitivity and color, was a reaction against the didactic and philosophical modes of most of the contemporary Welsh writers, but it is deeply influenced by the work of Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels. He praised the simple, hard-working gwerin, the ordinary folk of his native district (a theme to be developed in the novels of Kate Roberts, from his own area of Gwynedd). After his collaboration with Robert Roberts on "Telynogion", he published his own verses in three volumes: "Caneuon a Cherddi" (Songs and Poems); "Ynys yr Hud a Caneuon Eraill" (Magic Island and other Songs) and "Caniadau" (Songs). He then made two important contributions to Welsh scholarship in his history of Welsh literature in two volumes: "Llenyddiaeth Cymru"(Welsh Literature).

Gruffydd published numerous works dealing with the medieval Welsh classic, "The Mabinogion." His prodigious energy helped him play a central role in Welsh literary life of the first half of the century. In 1943 was elected to Parliament as Member for the University of Wales, defeating Saunders Lewis (of whom much will be heard later). At one time, in "Y Llenor", in response to the statement of the first Archbishop of Wales (A.G. Edwards) that, "There is no room in the world for small and snarling nations: Gruffydd responded: "There is no room in Wales for small and snarling prelates."

Yet another prolific author with humble beginnings was T. Gwynn Jones (1871-1949), the son of a North Wales crofter who taught him the art of cynghanedd. After working on many Welsh newspapers, he became interested in foreign languages and literature, but especially in medieval Welsh poetry, in which his studies, coupled with his fast-growing reputation as a poet, scholar, translator, dramatist and journalist created for him a new chair at the now-prestigious University of Aberystwyth. Jones' produced volumes of poetry, translations of Ibsen and Goethe, literary criticism, satirical verse, plays and novels, and historiographies.

In his time, Jones was considered as the greatest master of the strict meters since the Medieval period, using cynghanedd in a variety of free meters to produce a more flexible form than those constrained by long tradition. Many of his themes dealt with the quest for the return to Paradise, and in them, it was easy to see his concern with the loss of Welsh culture in the face of modern barbarism. In 1902 Jones won the chair at the National Eisteddfod with his awdl entitled "Ymadawiad Arthur" (The Departure of Arthur). He had borrowed its theme from Tennyson, but had added his own interpretation to emphasize the contemporary national revival of his country.

"Ymadawiad Arthur", the first in a series of major poems dealing with Celtic legends, has been considered a landmark in the history of Welsh poetry in the 20th century. Jones's method, using classical, majestic language, was to reconstruct what he called "the imagination of the centuries: so as to accommodate the great issues confronting modern Man." For example, his poem dealing with the legend of Madoc is concerned with the desire to fulfil a spiritual quest. He was convinced that the forces of materialism were destroying the ancient time-honored values and in these historical poems and in another series entitled "Y Dwymyn" (The Fever), Jones condemned the frantic pace and mindless direction of modern life. In what is perhaps his finest long poem, "Cynddilig", Jones indicted the mindlessness of WW I by reworking the theme of the ancient "Llywarch Hen" cycle with its poignant lament.

Three stanzas translated from "Ymadawiad Arthur" will readily show the great longing that Jones expresses for a return of his country to a golden age:

There's a gracious country over the seas
Where there is no longer lamentation;
In that place, for the one who dwells there,
Is no pestilence or growing old,
And the fresh, clean air of freedom
Keeps all hearts pure and bright,
Just as is in the Isle of Avalon.

In that land of blessedness, old dreams
Have erased the pain of myriad ages
And kept alive the ancient longings
There, in that golden place, clings aspiration
Untouched by loss of faith
Or by ravages of time or blackened heart

Every song of hope is fervent!
And to every wish comes strength,
With power to make the needed change
Resting on a sure foundation
While that hope lasts there is no ageing,
But a life-giving, lasting breeze.

The next influential poet of the generation that came to maturity around the time of the first World War was R. Williams Parry (1884-1956) yet another native of the North Wales quarry region. As those who have been to this area will testify, it is a desolate, bleak and scarred land, horribly defaced by the slate industry. It is a landscape that Williams Parry turned away from. His prize-winning poem of the 1910 Eisteddfod, "Yr Haf" praised the joys of summer; it is a paean to the joys of love and nature, looking back to the carefree days of the pre-war period. Known at first as the Y Bardd y Haf (the poet of summer), after his conscription into the British Army, Williams Parry began to turn his attention to the horrors of the War. He composed a series of elegies to those such as the young farmer poet Ellis Evans (Hedd Wyn) who had been killed in action. In 1924 he published his "Yr Haf a Cherddi Eraill" (Summer and Other Poems), a collection that epitomized his melodic, evocative love of nature, one of the most popular being "Y Llwynog" (the fox), of which these lines are a close translation:
Near the summit of the mountain, when the church bells
from the valley called all men of God,
And when the clear summer sun, undimmed,
spoke to the mountain peak. Then, precisely then,
came the stirring of his honest foot,
with its rare beauty, startling to our sight;
We did not move, nor did we wish to,
But remained transfixed, like a trinity in stone
We stood stock still, frozen in our stride.
He also stopped; his eyes staring unblinking
Above his steady paws, and then,
without a sign of fright or haste,
his blur of red moved on,
Disappearing like a shooting star.
After a period of discontent concerning his resentment at what he thought was a lack of respect owed him, and during which he abstained from poetry, Williams Parry's literary career came to life again. The catalyst was an incident involving the actions of three prominent members of Plaid Cymru (The Party of Wales) in protest at the government's decision to erect a "bombing school" at Penyberth on the unspoiled (and very Welsh) Llyn Peninsular. The three sober, rational gentleman, all upstanding pillars of their communities started a small fire at one of the government's outbuildings and reported their "dastardly deed" to the local police. The governments' decision to prosecute Saunders Lewis, D.J. Williams and Lewis Valentine, termed "a black day " by W.J. Gruffydd, proved to be a rallying point for so many. From that time on, according to Professor Davies, "there were to be hardly any Welsh-language writers who delighted in the ties which bound Wales to England."

"The Penyberth Three" all confessed their guilt; they had hoped for a trial in Wales before a Welsh jury, but at Caernarfon no verdict was reached. The proceedings were then moved to the Old Bailey, London. Here, the three accused were refused permission to testify in their own language and were duly convicted and sentenced. (The judge refused to believe that D.J. Williams was unable to express himself properly in English). As a result, poet and dramatist Saunders Lewis was dismissed from his position at Swansea University. Williams Parry, stirred to action at this indignity to the whole nation of Wales, began to write again in earnest, eventually producing the series of satirical, often vitriolic protests against man's smugness and small-mindedness that forms his second volume of poetry "Cerddi'r Gaeaf" (Poems of Winter), published in 1952 when he was seriously ill.

Because of the similarity in names, it is sometimes easy for the non Welsh-speaking to confuse R. Williams Parry with his contemporary (and cousin) T.H. Parry-Williams (1887-1975), from Rhydd-ddu, a village at the foot of Snowdon. While still a student at Jesus College, this son of a schoolmaster won both the Chair and the Crown at the National Eisteddfodau of 1912 and 1915, a prodigious achievement. In 1920 he was appointed to the Chair of Welsh at Aberystwyth. His poetry in a reaction to the Romantic lyricism of the so-called "John Morris-Jones school" took Welsh literature in a new direction both in its realism and its natural style.

In 1931 Parry Williams published his first volume of poems; one of its central themes was that of the bonds of attachment felt by the exile for his native hearth, that sentiment known in Welsh as hiraeth. It is, however, in Parry Williams, a sentiment full of paradox and delicious, self-deprecating irony, full of the ambiguities that reveal themselves in a life desperate to hold on to a fast disappearing culture, yet sometimes unsure of its value. His most well-known expression of this ambiguity is "Hon", perhaps best translated as This Spot or Here. It is worth repeating in its entirety (in translation by Joseph Clancy), as it shows a conflict between scientific detachment and a personal involvement that strongly affects many who are forced to leave Wales (or perhaps many who are forced to stay behind):

Why should I give a hang about Wales?
It's by a mere fluke of fate
That I live in its patch.
On a map it does not rate.

Higher than a scrap of earth in a back corner,
And a bit of bother to those who believe in order.

And who is it lives in this apot, tell me that
Who but the dregs of society? Please, cut it out,

This endless chatter of oneness and country and race:
You can get plenty of these, without Wales, any place.

I've long since had it with listening to the croon
Of the Cymry, indeed, forever moaning their tune.

I'll take a trip, to be rid of their wordplay with tongue and with pen,
Back to where I once lived, aboard my fantasy's train.

And here I am then. Thanks be for the loss,
Far from all the fanatic's talkative fuss.

Here's Snowdon and its crew; here's the land,
bleak and bare;
Here's the lake and river and crag, and look,
Over there.

The house where I was born. But see, between the earth and the heavens,
All through the place there are voices and apparitions.

I begin to totter somewhat, and I confess,
There comes over me, so it seems, a sort of faintness;

And I feel the claws of Wales tear at my heart.
God help me; I can't get away from this spot.

It is no wonder that modern critic Meic Stephens sees Parry-Williams as revolutionary "in his combination of searching intelligence, linguistic directness, and mystical sensibility."

Parry-Williams' very first publication, "The English Element in Welsh" (1923) began his notable contribution to Welsh scholarship. It was followed with several studies of poetry in the free metres, volumes of works that combined prose and verse highlighting his many innovations in both style and theme, a series of essays, and translations of opera liberate into Welsh. His basic philosophy, however, was expressed in his sonnets, the most well-known of which are "Dychwelyd" (the Return) and "Ymwacad" (Self-denial). He also expressed the same themes in the couplet-sequences "Yr Esgyrn Hyn" (this Bone) and "Celwydd" (the LiE). Confronted with the inexplicable nature of life, Parry-Williams utilized his mastery of language to make a unique contribution to Welsh literature. He deserves to be much better known outside Wales.

It isn't often that a movie is made of the life of a poet, especially of such a short life as that of Ellis Humphrey Evans (Hedd Wyn). Evans was posthumously awarded the Chair at the National Eisteddfod of 1917 held at Birkenhead, in Cheshire one month after his death on the battlefield. The movie, "Hedd Wyn" received with international acclaim and a candidate for a Hollywood Oscar, was made in the Welsh language (with subtitles in English). The poet's work is found in a collection entitled "Cerddi'r Bugail" (Poems of the Shepherd, 1918). The winning awdl, which was almost censored by the British Army on account of its reference to a great battle (which was called "Armageddon"), is a retelling of the myth of Prometheus as it relates to Christian symbolism.

One more prominent figure of the poets who remained faithful to the Welsh language is Albert Evans-Jones (Cynan: 1895-1970), whose commanding presence and deep, resonant voice as Archdruid of the Gorsedd thrilled the crowd and dismayed the ardent nationalists at the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon. Cynan had experienced the World War first hand and wrote of his experiences in "Mab Y Bwythyn" (Son of the cottage). This poem also, however, presented a nostalgic look at pre-war rural life. It won the Crown at the 1921 National Eisteddfod, a feat repeated in 1923 by "Yr Ynys Unig" (the lonely island) and in 1931 by "Y Dyrfa" (The Multitude). Cynan also won the Chair in 1924 and became Archdruid in 1950. His popular writings include narrative poems, war poems, ballads and lyrics. They appear in "Telyn y Nos" (Harp of the Night, 1921), "Canaiadau" (Songs) and "Cerddi Cynan" (Poetry of Cynan, 1959).

The nostalgia for a Wales that perhaps never was, and the lament at the disintegration of rural society continued to be expressed in the poetry of D.J. Williams and Gwenallt. The first of these, "D.J." (1885-1970), from the tiny, close-knit community of Rhydcymerau, Carmarthenshire, worked as a coal miner before taking his degree at Jesus College, Oxford in English. He was one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, and is particularly revered for selling his family homestead to provide funds for the desperately poor organization in its infancy. One of the famous three imprisoned for their symbolic act at Penyberth (and for refusing to speak English at their trial in London), for many years he contributed many articles and short stories for periodicals, including the trilogy "Storiau'r Tir" (Stories of the Land) which were eventually published as "Y Gaseg Ddu" (The Black Mare) in 1970.

D.J.'s two greatest works, however, were published in 1934: "Hen Dy Ffarm" (The Old Farmhouse) and "Hen Wynebau" (Old Faces) portraits of his family farm and of the people and animals of Rhydcymerau. Through an effective use of gentle humor and occasional satire, he specialized a particular kind of human character, that of men whose ideals were fixed on nationhood and society: the roots found in y milltir square "the square mile" around his farm, a community of close cooperation and values that praised individuality and resolution. It was, above all, a community that reflected his own devotion to Welsh culture.

Also connected to Rhydcymerau through his parents who had migrated from there to the industrial Swansea Valley, and a contemporary of D.J. (as Williams was known throughout Wales) was David James Jones (Gwenallt: 1899-1968). Refusing to serve in the World War I, Gwenallt combined elements of his Christian pacifism and International Socialism with his intense love of Wales, a feeling that intensified after experiencing a visit to the Irish "Gaeltacht", where Irish customs and the Irish language were undergoing something of a revival in the early part of the century. In 1926, he won the Chair with his poem "Y Mynach" (the Monk) and was again the winner in 1931. A volume of short poems, however, established his literary reputation: "Ysgubau'r Awen" (Sheaves of the Muse), "Eples" (Leaven), "Gwreiddiau" (Roots), "Cnoi Cil" (Backbite) and "Coed" (Wood), all published between 1939 and 1969 (the last one posthumously).

In some of his later lyrics, using raw, powerful language that deliberately avoided any sentimentality in expressing his religious and national themes, Gwenallt described Wales as putain fudr y stryd (a dirty street prostitute); its people he described as wolves "howling for the blood that redeemed us." His anger at the baneful effects of industry with its blackening of the valleys, its degradation of the workers (his father was killed in an industrial accident), should not hide his accomplishments, however, in uniting various elements of the historical experience of his country. Industry was an integral part of modern Wales, whether one liked it or not; the poet had to deal with the spiritual crisis brought about by the loss of old, primarily rural values. In Gwenallt's vision, old Christianity was tempered with new Socialism; rural Carmarthen might have been restless in its chains that linked it to industrial Glamorgan, but the link was indissoluble and formed part of the fabric of modern Welsh life.

A similar concern was expressed by John Saunders Lewis (1893-1985) whom we first met as one of "the Penyberth Three," who lamented that "Wales became superficial and materialistic; idolatrous, throne-loving, because she ceased to think in terms of the Sacrament" (in "Baner ac Amserau Cymru" July 1926). The greatest influence of all the Welsh writers upon the conscience of his people, Lewis is remembered as a dramatist, poet, literary historian, critic, one of the founders of Plaid Cymru in 1925, and its president from 1926-39. Lewis was born in Merseyside, an area to which thousands of Welsh people had emigrated and which remained a stronghold of Welsh culture during the first half of this century. He served in the army in the Great War, but was a conscientious objector during WW ll, encouraging others to act against the conscription of Welsh youth to fight to preserve England's territorial empire. His radio lecture of 13 February 1962 marks a turning point in the attitude of the Welsh people toward their language and their culture.

In his lecture ("Tynged Yr Iaith:Fate of the Language"), Lewis called upon the Welsh people to take action to halt the alarming decline in their beloved, ancient language. It was a stirring call to arms: "to make it impossible to conduct local or central government business without the Welsh language." The effects of the talk were dramatic, even revolutionary, and the long chain of events that followed the lecture, beginning with the sit-down at Trefechan Bridge, Aberystwyth in February, 1963 by members of the newly-formed Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) began the movement to gain respectability as well as legal status for the Welsh language fully impressive credentials.

Lewis believed that an individual was obligated to take action in defiance of his moral principles and that this could be best expressed through drama, his main creative medium, abut one of the weakest of the literary forms of Wales. Drama had been very slow to develop; even the popular folk-theatre known as "Anterliwt" (Interludes), had been suppressed by the activities of the Methodist Revival in the 1800's. Although some kind of romantic nationalist theatre began to make itself known in Wales in the late nineteenth century, it was not until the plays of Ibsen became popular in Britain that a Welsh dramatic movement emerged (as it did in England). Plays such as W.J. Gruffydd's "Beddau'r Proffwydi" (The Graves of the Prophets), first performed in 1913, severely criticized the establishment, particularly the oppressive, hypocritical chapel hierarchy that had done so much to stifle Welsh intellectual and artistic expression.

Two other Welsh dramatists whose work dealt with contemporary issues were J.O. Francis who wrote in English; and D.T. Davies who wrote in Welsh. Both were outshone by Lewis, who published a total of nineteen plays, beginning with "The Eve of Saint John" in 1921 and ending with "Excelsior" in 1980. Two plays remain unpublished but were broadcast over the radio. He also published translations of plays by Moliere and Beckett. In his verse-drama "Blodeuwedd," taken from the medieval "Mabinogion," Lewis explored the tragedy of the protagonist's rootless condition, the legend of marital infidelity providing contemporary significance He continued his use of medieval romance in his "Siwan," also dealing with adultery, but his own version ends with reconciliation, forgiveness, and marital harmony --essential condition for the well-being of society as a whole. In 1934, he wrote that "Wales was Christian and Catholic even before she was Welsh, and I see the mark of her Catholic formation upon the whole of her history and culture."

It is this Catholicism that runs throughout Lewis's work: he was proficient in Latin, French and Italian literature as well as English and Welsh, and was heavily influenced by his readings in those works that emphasized the importance of tradition in passing along and upholding moral and cultural values, especially through the family. These values, along with his ever-present concern for moral responsibility, led to his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1932.

Wales had been part of the culture of Europe in the Catholic Middle Ages when classical poetry had mirrored an ideal social order. For Lewis, the restoration of such order was possible for a Wales freed from its English shackles and able to participate once more in the literary traditions of a greater (and more Catholic) Europe. "I have no hesitation," he wrote in 1934, "in saying that Welsh literature was one of the three great literatures of medieval Europe." Sadly, in his play "Cymru Fydd" (Future Wales), published in 1967, he showed his disillusionment with the moral decline of Wales, and the seeming inability of his people to restore any sense of vision. But even here, however, as pointed out by Professor Johnston, the possible pregnancy of his idealistic girl friend may represent hope.

In the 1990's, with the election of Welsh members to the European Parliament at Brussels, some of Lewis's vision seems to have become something of a reality; certainly his political influence has been enormous, going hand in hand with his contributions to Welsh literature. As early as 1931, he had called the nation to action: "What the Welsh today and tomorrow need is a call to heroism. The heroic note has not been heard in Welsh politics. But it is the only note that can save us now."

In addition to his plays, Lewis wrote some of the finest religious poetry of the century, much of it dealing with the defense of Christian civilization in Wales against the ever-present threat from the Barbarians without the gates, a theme powerfully expressed in "Blodeuwedd" (Flower Maiden) and "Buchedd Garmon" (The Moral Life of Garman). It is the same theme that he expressed in his speech at his trial in Caernarfon:

The English Governments's behaviour in the matter of the Llyn bombing range is exactly the behaviour of this new Anti-Christ throughout Europe... Here in Wales, a land that has no tradition except Christian tradition, a land that has never in all its history been pagan or atheist, we stand for the preservation of that Christian tradition and for the supremacy of the moral law over the power of materialist bureaucracy: so that whether you find us guilty or not guilty is of importance today to the future of Christian civilization and Christian liberty and Christian justice in Europe.
A translation of a part of "Buchedd Garmon" cannot demonstrate Lewis' mastery of the Welsh language, but it can at least show the power of his convictions
                    The Vineyard God's nobleman, listen:
A vineyard was set by a man on a sunny slope
Enclosing her, he put a tower in her midst;
And gave her to his son, a rich inheritance
That his name might be known from age to age.
Have trampled the fence, and rooted out the vines;
Is it not well for the son to stand in the breach
And to call his friends to help him,
That the breach may be closed and inheritance secured?
Lewis also published two novels "Monica" and "Merch Gwern Hywel" (The Daughter of Hywel's Meadow). A line from the first one, "a virulent condemnation of rootless suburban life and the narcissism of sexual lust" (Johnston, p. 107) is significant in the context of Lewis's romanticism: "To stop lusting is to die." Without a doubt, his lust to preserve the culture of his people, a culture he felt indissolubly linked to its language, made him the foremost literary figure of twentieth century Wales. His life also spanned the great period of transition when the Anglo-Welsh writers began to dominate the literature of their country. Yet, in addition to Lewis's short novels, and perhaps one novel by Tegla Davies "Gwr Pen y Bryn," there has been some very commendable Welsh-language fiction produced in this century, even if it does not form part of a sustained tradition; and the names Kate Roberts, T. Rowland Hughes and Caradog Pritchard stand out in this genre.

Kate Roberts was born in the quarrying village of Rhosgadfan in Gwynedd in 1891. Of her profession as a writer, during her early years, she wrote in "Y Nofel Gymraeg," an article for "Llenor", Winter 1928)

As it is impossible to earn a living in Wales by writing novels, they must be written during leisure hours. Only a little can be written during leisure hours, if one does one's other work honestly, and so, as far as I can see, no one will ever be able to write a novel in Wales.
Roberts also stated, two years later that "No one can be expected to buy and read Welsh books for patriotic reasons only."

Kate was brought up in a community where the slate quarries employed thousands of men and produced a lively, thoroughly Welsh culture. After her marriage, she and her husband published "Baner ac Amserau Cymru" at the famous Gwasg Gee (Ge Press) in Denbigh. She contributed many articles on literary, political and domestic subjects, but her main love was the novel. Her classic "Traed mewn Cyffion" (Feet in Chains) marks the beginning of the industrial novel in Welsh. Set in the background of the slate industry region around Caernarfon, It deals with the history of a family spanning four generations, ending with the traumatic events of the first World War. The novel deals with the magnitude of the everyday suffering of the working people in the bleak, austerity of the Arfon district that was compounded by the loss of so many young men during the war. Such passive suffering, believed Kate, must eventually inspire action, and she thoroughly endorsed and wrote about the aims of Plaid Cymru.

In one of Kate's short stories, "Y Condedmniedig," she writes of a dying quarryman who begins to enjoy simple pleasures, including the sight of his wife going about her domestic chores. A stark descriptions of the husband's attitude -- "When he was about to lose something he began to enjoy it" -- is seen as Meic Stephens as expressing in miniature "the strong formal sense holding in deep emotion" that is characteristic of Kate's work. Certainly the repression of emotion, in the face of unremitting toil and hardship was one of her great themes. Yet she could write books about and for children too, and "Deian a Loli" (Laura Jones) and "Te yn y Grug" (Tea in the Heather), all show her mastery of social observation as well as her skill in depicting the joys of childhood.

Kate Roberts died in 1985. Towards the end of her life she wrote that "It is a novelist's privilege to be unfaithful to the society to which he [sic] belongs." Her later works dealt with the psychological problems of a society that had become prosperous in many ways but poor in many others, especially in its breakdown of continuity. Many of her characters are old, living alone, seemingly in a comfortable setting, but derived of the social support of their earlier lives. At this time, she was living in Denbigh, a town much nearer the English borders and materialistic English influence than the South Wales valley where she had lived from 1925 to 1937 amidst scenes of great struggle against poverty and unemployment but where traditional values still held on. Her work, compared to that of many Russian masters of literature, but unknown to many outside the borders of Wales deserves to be much better known.

Caradog Prichard (1904-80) and T. Rowland Hughes (1903-49) were the two other novelists writing in Welsh who deserve notice, and who also came from Caernarfonshire: Prichard was a three-times winner of the Crown at the National Eisteddfod. His poetry, strongly autobiographical, expresses his bitter experiences, with the recurring theme of insanity. Prichard's most famous novel in "Un Nos Ola Leuad" (One Last Moonlit Night) was published in 1961. It is a scary nightmare told by a madman reliving the event of his childhood. The memories of a life of hardship are also related in the works of Oxford educated T. Rowland Hughes who had worked in the slate quarries at Llanberis and who suffered from multiple sclerosis. Hughes wrote poetry and plays, winning the Chair twice, but is best remembered as a novelist, producing five works of note. His finest novel is "Chwalfa" (Dispersal), about the longest strike in the history of British industrial relations that took place at the beginning of the century at the Penrhyn quarries and its bitterness left permanent emotional scars upon the people of the district. Unlike Prichard, however, and more like Kate Roberts, Hughes depicted a people, the virtuous gwerin, possessed of an admirable stoic heroism.

Before turning to the work of the more well-known Welsh novelists, those who wrote in English, there are a few more novelists and poets of influence who wrote in Welsh that need mention. One of these is poet Isaac Daniel Hooson (1880-1948), a favorite of children's eisteddfod competitions in recitation. Hooson came from Rhosllangerchrugog, still an atoll of Welshness in a lagoon of English, near Wrexham, Denbighshire. Trained as a solicitor, he served his apprenticeship as a poet by contributing to O.M. Edwards's magazine "Cymru" (Wales). One of his most popular pieces is an adaptation of Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamlin," but other well-loved pieces include "Wil, Barti Ddu, Guto Nyth Bran" and "Guto Benfelyn."

More recent poets writing in Welsh have taken advantage of the resurgence of nationalism and its association with religion, especially since the 1950's, when many in Wales felt it was time to shake off that close bond that had held Britain so closely together during the threatening days of World War II. Once again, a major theme of Welsh literature (as that of so many other nations) became that of the decline of the older, rural way of life. In Wales, however, this nostalgia became transformed into a concern with spiritual and national renewal. It found expression in the Cadwgan Circle, first meeting during World War II at the Rhondda home of J. Gwyn Griffiths and including Rhydwen Williams, Gareth Alban Davies and Pennar Davies.

J. Gwyn Griffiths, noted Welsh scholar, published four volumes of verse, a volume of literary studies, a series of political pamphlets, a translation of Aristotle's essay on poetry, and a collection of short stories. He also edited "Y Ddraig Goch" (the official newspaper of Plaid Cymru), from 1948-52. Rhydwen Williams (b. 1916) won the Crown twice, published five volumes of poetry, a novel in three volumes depicting life in the mining valleys and other works. Gareth Alban Davies (b.1920) ex-miner and Oxford graduate, produced a volume of verse, a series of essays about the Welsh in Patagonia, and served as editor (and contributor) of "Y Llenor yn Ewrop" a volume of critical essays.

Pennar Davies (b. 1911), scholar, novelist and poet is the most accomplished of the group. Born into a mining family, he wrote his early poetry under the name of Davies Aberpennar, but later completed four collections of verse under his own name, a series of novels dealing with the social and political uncertainties of contemporary Wales, a volume of short stories as well as a series of scholarly and critical works that deal mainly with religious topics (he was an ordained minister).

Following the Second World War, the diverse literary efforts of The Cadwgan Circle found an eager readership. In the 1940's there had been fears that there would be no demand at all for Welsh books, a situation deplored by such as County LIbrarian Alun Edwards who persuaded his Cardiganshire Education Committee to publish children's books in Welsh. The effort paid off, and in 1954 the Welsh Books Scheme was set up, receiving government support two years later. The year 1961 saw the establishment of the Welsh Books Council, and 1967 saw the establishment of the Welsh Arts Council with its annual grants that Profesor Davies suggests that were a way of the British state's remorse for centuries of oppression and indignities heaped upon the people of Wales.

The numbers of books published in Welsh increased dramatically and the third quarter of the century has been seen as "a period of unparalleled opportunity and encouragement for the Welsh writer." (John Rowlands, quoted in Davies, p. 652). Writers who benefited from the increased readership included not only Kate Roberts, Saunders Lewis, Williams Parry, Parry-Williams, T. Rowland Hughes, Caradoc Prichard and the members of the Cadwgan Circle but others such as Kitchener Davies, T. Glynne Davies, W. Leslie Richards, Islwyn Ffowc Elis, Marion Eames, Waldo Williams, Gwyn Thomas, Euros Bowen and Bobi Jones.

Poet and dramatist Kitchener Davies has been compared to T.S. Eliot in his use of ironic self-criticism. His long dramatic monolog in free verse of spiritual self-searching "Swn y Gwynt Sy'n Chwythu" (The Sound of the Blowing Wind) was published in 1952. In it the Rhondda, an industrial desert now almost completely anglicized, is depicted as being helpless against the forces of the wind in contrast to the rural peace of his home, sheltered by hedges. The poem abhors the materialism of the new Rhondda and longs for its return to its cultural inheritance in the face of the blowing winds of destruction. But the poem, greatly influenced by the hymns of Williams Williams, (Pantycelyn), is also a moving personal confession, a spiritual conversion with the wind coming to represent the Holy Spirit.

T. Glynne Davis (b. 1926) worked as a coal miner in his youth, but joined the BBC in 1957 as a news reporter and producer of radio programs. He won the Crown at the 1951 Eisteddfod with his widely acclaimed poem "Adfeilion" (Decay). He then produced two collections of poetry in which the chief characteristic is a kind of caustic nostalgia before completing his novel Marged, tracing the history of a Llanrwst family. He also published a volume of short stories "Can Serch" (Song of Love) and the novel "Haf Creulon" (Cruel Summer).

W. Leslie Richards (b. 1916) came from Carmarthenshire, spending most of his life as a teacher. He wrote several novels and four volumes of verse as well as editing the works of other Welsh writers. He also published a volume about D. J. Williams entitled "Y Cawr o Rydcymerau" (The Giant of Rhydcymerau). Like so many of his contemporaries, Richards' major theme was the decline of innocence as the rural way of life disappeared from Wales. The major critic of contemporary society, however, was Islwyn Ffowc Elis who published his novel "Cysgod y Cryman" (The Shade of the Sickle) in 1953. According to Professor Davies, it was this novel, together with a radio serial on BBC Cymru, "Gari Tryfan" that convinced the adolescents of the 1950's "that there was something for them in Welsh."

Islwyn FFowc Elis (b.1924) was brought up in Dyffryn Ceiriog, yet another isolated valley right on the borders of Cheshire that somehow manages to retain its Welsh identity. In 1951 his success at winning the prose medal at the Eisteddfod for a collection of essays "Cyn Oeri'r Gwaed" (Before the Cooling of the Blood) convinced him to leave the ministry to become a full-time writer, a choice that greatly benefited the new class of Welsh fiction writers that drew on him for inspiration. Equally important was his series of novels that created a new and enthusiastic readership and this, for many critics, negates the impression that he sacrificed literary merit for popular readership. He at least helped lay the foundation for the Welsh contemporary novel and the establishment of artistic standards for Welsh prose in a land where poetry has always been pre-eminent.

Marion Eames (b.1921) like Saunders Lewis, was born on Merseyside of Welsh parentage, but received her early education in Dolgellau, a thoroughly Welsh town. Her main career was with the BBC in Cardiff as a radio producer, but she produced four first-class historical novels, two of which deal with the Quaker Rowland Ellis who founded the Welsh tract in Pennsylvania.("Y Stafell Ddirgel" (The Secret Room) and "Y Rhandir Mwyn" (The Gentle Region). A third novel "I Hela Cnau" (Hunting Nuts) deals with the movement of Welsh families to Merseyside and their lives in that urban conglomeration, and "Y Gaeaf sy'n Unig" (The Lonely Winter) deals with events in the time of Prince Llewelyn ap Gruffudd. Eames is known for her scholarly research, realistic dialog, and her lively realistic impressions of other places and times.

Waldo Williams, born in an English-speaking family, but who learned Welsh from his childhood playmates, tops the list of contemporary Welsh poets, filling the niche in the astonishing market for Welsh literature that has developed since the late 1950's. His highly original "Dail Pren" (Leaves of a Tree) published in 1958, is a collection of poems dating back to the pre-war years when conditions were so much different. An ardent pacifist, Williams wrote much of his poetry in response to World War II and the Korean War; it upholds the Romantic ideal of universal brotherhood. The atomic explosions that led to Japan's surrender also brought him great anguish.

Williams used the area of the Preseli Hills of Southwest Wales, with its long tradition of cooperation among the farmers, as his pattern of an ideal social order. It is a vision of a society best expressed in his "Mewn Dau Gae" (In Two Fields), perhaps his finest poem. It was also a threatened society -- the Government's establishment of a firing range (so reminiscent of the decision to set up a bombing school at LLyn in the late 30's) was the catalyst for the production of a small group of powerful poems about Welsh nationhood, with the will to resist as the central theme.

From the Rhondda Valley came Euros Bowen (b. 1904) another ordained minister and winner of the Eisteddfod Crown who produced some of Wales's finest contemporary poetry during the years 1957 through 1984, beginning with "Cerddi" (Poems). A member of the Cadwgan Circle (Cylch Cadwgan) from the beginning, he has translated many works from Latin and Greek into Welsh, no mean feat. Bowen's linguistic abilities and knowledge of the classics not only opened him to influences from European literature, but also influenced his delight in experimenting with various poetic forms, even inventing some of his own. Like Dylan Thomas, who wrote solely in English, Bowen's Welsh poetry is often obscure and difficult to read. His own view of poetry was that it should use the bountiful images of nature in order to emphasize its sacrificial or priestly role and its Christian message. For Bowen, the Resurrection is of crucial significance as a symbol of the triumph of the life-force. Spring also had a political as well as religious significance for it heralded a rebirth of the Welsh nation.

A similar theme is found in the poetry of Bobi Jones (b. 1929) described by Dafydd Johnston as representing "better than any other writer the resurgence of the Welsh language." Jones, born as Robert Maynard to an English-speaking family in Cardiff, is another of the contemporary Welsh poets who learned Welsh as a child. He has been one of the most outspoken and passionate exponents of the language for many years, his conversion being an integral part of his fervent evangelism and prodigious energy. Jones enjoys a reputation as a short-story writer, novelist, and critic as well as a poet. His first publication was the collection called "Y Gan Gyntaf" (The First Song) in 1957. They celebrate, in a daring, insolent style, the discovery of love, the Welsh language, and the natural world. His use of language, often abstruse but always fresh and unexpected, gave him an early reputation as an enfant terrible.

The themes of love of wife and family, of land and people are continued in the six volumes of verse that Jones wrote between 1960 and 1976. He also wrote two novels and five collections of short stories, all matching his poetry in his imaginative use of language and a highly original style. He continued his work with a collection of essays that highlighted his Christian, Calvinistic faith and many important contributions to the field of literary criticism (that can only serve to show his great confidence in the mastery of what was a second language to him as well as the place of Welsh in such an intellectual pursuit). Jones also produced children's books, scholarly editions of Welsh poetry, works for students of the Welsh language, and publications that show his expertise in linguistics. Bobi's great output has had an enormous influence on a whole generation of Welsh learners as well as natural Welsh speakers. Meic Stephens believes that the first line of Jones' "Y Gan Gyntaf" presents a challenge to the demise of the language and literature of Wales: "Angau, 'r wyt ti'n fy ofni i" ("Death, you are afraid of me"). It can also serve, states Stephens, as an epigraph to a remarkable career.

Before leaving our discussion of Welsh-language writers, we have to pay attention to the resurgence of Welsh dramatic writing in the 1950's. Saunders Lewis, of course, is best known in this important period of Welsh literature, but another major dramatist was John Gwilym Jones (1904-88). Jones, who lived in London for four years, absorbing the theatre of the West End, returned to Wales in 1930 to begin a career as a school teacher, radio-play producer, and college lecturer. He began his literary career as a short story writer, utilizing the stream of consciousness technique in his "Y Goeden Eirin" (The Plum Tree) published in 1946. Other major works are the drama "Y Tad a'r Mab" (Father and Son) and the novel "Tri Diwrnod a Angladd" (Three Days and a Funeral), of 1979.

As a dramatist, Jones's skeptical, humanist vision explores the tension between outward conduct and inner life, the family tensions that help shape conduct and personality, the universality of feelings and the value of relationships with others. They portray characters whose Welshness as heirs to the long established nonconformity has left them in a modern dilemma, in a life full of anguish and uncertainty. Some of these contemporary issues are found in "Hanes Rhyw Gymro" (The Story of a Certain Welshman) that deals with the life and work of Morgan Llwyd, the noted 17th century Welsh Puritan. "Y Tad a'r Mab" deals with the tragic result of an obsessive love of a father for his son.

Editor and critic Meic Stephens writes that the quintessence of Jones's philosophy and skill as a playwright is his "Ac Eto NId Myfi" (And Yet Not I) which he terms "a masterpiece of the modern Welsh theatre." Jones also published important critical works among which are those on William Williams (Pantycelyn) and novelist Daniel Owen. To round off this period of Welsh literature, we must also the contribution to modern Welsh drams in the plays of Gwenlyn Parry, Huw Lloyd Edwards and Idwal Jones, with the short, amusing plays of the latter including a National Eisteddfod prize-winner "Yr Anfarwol Ifan Harris" (The Immmortal Ifan Harris, 1928). It is now time to turn to Welsh literary figures of this century who produced their works in English and are thus much better known to the literary world at large.

Chapter 17: 20th Century Pt II

The place to meet new friends and interesting people, ask questions, get and give answers and share experiences relating to Wales and Welsh culture. Click.
UK Vacation Packages
Reserve Hotels Online
uk vacation packages
UK car tours
London Special Packages
Amazon.com logo
Search for:

Enter keywords:

Copyright ©2001 Britannia.com, LLC   Questions? Comments!   Design & Development Unica Multimedia
Corporate Hospitality Concert Tickets London Theatre Tickets Football Tickets