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Chapter 18: 20th Century, Pt III

The new generation of poets that flowered in Wales of the 1960's was also thinking deeply about the changes affecting their country. Still another Welsh writer born into an English-speaking family who learned Welsh, and in so doing, discovered himself is the poet R.S. Thomas b.1913). Thomas was born in Cardiff; it is in English that he is best able to express his intensity of language and precision. Though his move to Aberdaron at the tip of the Llyn Peninsular in 1967 took him to an area where Welsh predominates. Ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church, he published his "The Stones of the Field"in 1946, the first of twenty-four volumes of poetry. At first he wrote of nature, and how the hill farmers of a particular district (in Montgomeryshire) were influenced by geography and history. Much of his later poetry, however, expresses his ambiguity towards Wales-- his disappointment at its constant failure to live up to its potential, its diminished romantic potency. He turned towards "Welsh Wales" with its partisanship and growing sense of national consciousness as a refuge against the growing materialism and alien technology that was stifling ancient traditions everywhere.

Thomas's creation of the farm-laborer Iago Prytherch, who appears in about twenty poems, enabled him to give voice to these concerns through a complex persona. Often however, his poetry expresses his contempt for the lack of response to the new call for unity called for by such ardent (and prescient) writers as Saunders Lewis. It is the same kind of contempt expressed in many of the songs of ultra-nationalist Dafydd Iwan who tells his rapt, young audiences (always through the Welsh language) that it is not enough to show one's Welshness by simply dressing up on St. David's Day, buying a plastic rugby ball or a record of a popular Welsh comedian. Iwan of course is one of the Gwerin; he can totally identify with his audiences; Thomas, by virtue of his position in the Church in Wales, ever aloof from the "common folk" could never share this identification.

Since the publication of "What is a Welshman" in 1974, R.S. Thomas has written very little about Wales. It is as if his Anglicized upbringing and vocation, despite his learning Welsh and his growing fervent nationalism have made him feel an alien forever (in addition to his Anglicanism) Yet it is this very nationalism, allied to his deepening quest to determine the nature of God, that forms an important theme of much of his later poetry. This change of direction in Thomas's poetry has made his work increasingly religious but less and less orthodox. The mature poet is involved with a search for God and the spiritual, not with the Wales and Welsh characters of his early work.

In his editing of many anthologies, both of poetry and prose that appear in periodicals, lectures, and books, Thomas has provided many clues to an understanding of his poetic development. Along with that of the other Welsh Thomas, the works of whom his own have so little in common, the reputation of R.S. as one of the great modern poets is firmly established. A few lines from an early poem, "Welsh History"; are astonishing in the clarity and depth of the poet's ambiguity towards his subject (its theme is so reminiscent of much Irish nationalist writing:

We were a people bred on legends,
Warming our hands at the red past.
The great were ashamed of our loose rage
Clinging stubbornly to the proud tree
Of blood and birth, our lean bellies
And mud houses were a proof
Of our ineptitude for life.

We were a people wasting ourselves
In fruitless battles for our masters,
In lands to which we had no claim,
With men for whom we felt no hatred.

We were a people, and are so yet.
When we have finished quarreling for crumbs
Under the table, or gnawing the bones
Of a dead culture, we will arise,
Armed, but not in the old way.

The newer direction of R.S. Thomas can be seen in his later poem "Kneeling":
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun's light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
            Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.
A far more fiercely political poet is Swansea-born, Oxford educated is the late Harri Webb (1920-96). Noted for his radicalism, Webb is one of the new school of Anglo-Welsh poets who were able to have their works published through the founding of the magazine "Poetry Wales" by Meic Stephens in 1965. After his wartime military service, Webb became active with Plaid Cymru >in its mostly unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate the Labour-dominated Valleys. His career as a poet has coexisted with that of journalist, public speaker, and essayist.

Webb's first poems appeared in the magazine Triad along with those of other writers, including Meic Stephens. Of his own work, he has declared that it has only one theme, "unrepentently nationalistic," and his first collection, "The Green Desert" (a term he used to describe the mostly empty interior moorlands and mountains of Wales) deals with his country's history and social conditions. His second volume, "A Crown for Branwen", includes one of his poems written in Welsh that has apparently become a popular song, "Colli Iaith" (Losing the Language). Webb has also written scripts for television, published a collection of songs and ballads, and adapted stories for children from the "Mabinogion."

A sample of Webb's whimsy can be found in a few stanzas from his poem "Big Night." They read almost like a popular Welsh rugby song, but they belie the seriousness of his account of the stereotyped Welshman: ("The Tipsy Taff")

We started drinking at seven
And went out for a breather at ten,
And all the stars in heaven
Said: Go back and drink again.

We were singers, strongmen and sages;
We were witty and wise and brave;
And all the ghosts of the ages
Applauded from Crawshay's grave.

The tipsy Taff was bawling
A non-traditional tune
And the owls of Pontsarn were calling
Rude names at the frosty moon.

And homeward we were staggering
As the Pandy clock struck three
And the stars of the Plough went swaggering
From Vaynor to Pengarnddu.

(To be fair to the reader not familiar with some of Webb's references, we should point out that on the grave of Crawshay, a most-hated Merthyr iron master who fortified his house against his own workers, is inscribed "God forgive Me." "Taff " is a term of derision but is used by Welshmen in jest. The poet is here referring to the local river, also named Taff. "Pandy" is a common place name in Wales; it means fulling mill.)

Harri Webb wrote poetry in both Welsh and English. Beginning in the 1960's the use of Welsh became "politically correct' perhaps for the first time in its long history. The gap between the two literatures still remained, of course, but it has been considerably narrowed by the scholarship of Anthony Conran (b.1931) and others, including the American translator Joseph Clancy (b. 1928).

Though Anthony Conran was born in India, he was educated in North Wales where he remained as a Research Fellow and Tutor in the English Department at Bangor University. The discovery of Welsh literature led him to embark on a career as a poet and a translator. He learned the intricate rules of Welsh poetry known as cynghanedd, using them to write poems in English based on Welsh themes and in 1960 published "Formal Poems" in which he included dramatic monologues from medieval Welsh masters. His "Spirit Level" (1974) and "Life Fund" (1979) contain his most substantial collections of verse. His "Penguin Book of Welsh Verse" (1969) contributed enormously both within and without Wales to the knowledge of Welsh poetry and established his fame as a distinguished translator. It was followed by a volume of critical essays about Anglo-Welsh poetry.

Joseph Clancy is another valuable contributor to the study and appreciation of Welsh literature. Of Irish background, he was born in New York City and became interested in Welsh writing after reading Gwyn Williams's 1953 "Introduction to Welsh Poetry." This led to visits to Wales to learn the language and the methods of the bards. He ultimately published his "Medieval Welsh Lyrics" (1965), "The Earliest Welsh Poetry" and "Twentieth Century Welsh Poems" (1982). Clancy has also translated plays of Saunders Lewis, John Gwilym Jones and Gwenlyn Parry as well as a selection of the poetry of Gwyn Thomas. A book of his own works that shows his understanding of traditional Welsh poetic meters is "The Significance of Flesh" (1984).

Of the other Anglo-Welsh poets of the modern era we can mention Gwyn Williams, Roland Mathias, John Ormond, Leslie Norris, Raymond Garlick, and Danne Abse. So successful were these writers that according to Professor Davies, the breach that had existed between Welsh and Anglo-Welsh authors was finally healed in 1968 with the founding of the English Section of the Welsh Academy, and it was Meic Stephens, author of "The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales" (1986) who was mainly responsible.

The first of these poets, Gwyn Williams was born in 1904. in Port Talbot, an ugly town just east of Swansea that only recently has been cleaned up after almost a century of environmental degradation and industrial squalor. Aberystwyth University and Oxford educated, Williams taught for much of his adult life in the Middle East as an English professor. As an exile, no doubt having to explain over and over again (as the author still has to even in the U.S.), that Welsh is a Celtic language, far different than English yet still written in and spoken in the modern British Isles, Williams devoted himself to translating Welsh poetry into English, establishing an early reputation as a translator and critic.

Williams' translations were collected in 1976 as "To Look for a Word", but before this he had published outstanding works such as "The Rent that's Due to Love", "An Introduction to Welsh Poetry"; "The Burning Tree" (a study of Welsh poetry since the 6th Century) and "Presenting Welsh Poetry" -- all completed between 1950 and 1959. His prodigious energy as a writer, utilizing both languages also produced three novels, numerous travel books, and four volumes of his own poetry: "Inns of Love" (1970), "Foundation Stock" (1974), "Choose Your Stranger" (1979) and "Y Ddefod Goch" (The Red Ritual, 1980). He also completed two novellas, an adaptation of Troelus and Chresyd, a history of Wales, and if that weren't enough, a collection of Shakespearean studies. His "ABC of (D)GW" appeared in 1981; in it he looks at the places in which he lived from the point of view of a Welsh patriot, one both "intensely local yet richly cosmopolitan" (Stephens, p. 647).

Next on our list, Roland Mathias (b. 1915), was educated in England and through the medium of English. He became aware of his Welsh identity, not through his parents, but from avid reading as a child. This identity has been strengthened with his increasing interest in the history and culture of the land of his Welsh-speaking father. In 1949 he helped found "Dock Leaves" (with Raymond Garlick) which later became "The Anglo-Welsh Review." He began a long and distinguished career as a poet with his collections of poetry beginning with "Break in Harvest" (1949), and including "Burning Brambles" (1983). His works also include collections of short stories, "The Eleven Men of Eppynt" (1956), essays and studies of John Cowper Powys, David Jones, and other modern Anglo-Welsh writers. Meic Stephens sees MathiasŐ accuracy and substance stemming from his training as a historian, especially in his studies of the development of English writing in Wales from its very beginnings. In 1985, "A Ride Through the Wood" is a selection of his writings on what he considered to be an area of literature formerly neglected. His concern for honesty and scrupulous craftsmanship is also carried over into his poetry.

Leslie Norris (b.1921), is a product of the Merthyr district. His reputation as a writer has enabled him to work full-time at his profession, giving lectures as visiting professor at many universities in the US. It is his childhood experience that form the emotional basis of much of his writings, expressed in nine volumes of poetry, collections of short stories and essays. His imagery and verbal technique prevent his poems from appearing too sentimental in his presentation of the vanishing Merthyr that so strongly influenced his poetry. It was a Merthyr that epitomized Valley culture before the disintegration brought about by World War ll with the loss of so much that had shaped the character of the Valleys: the world of boxing, whippet racing, pigeon breeding, rugby football, and comic gossip carried on in "Wenglish" by poor, but colorful inhabitants. It was, to outsiders, a typically Welsh world.

Swansea born John Ormond (b. 1923), was strongly influenced by his friendship with Vernon Watkins. During a long career as director and producer with the BBC, he published his first volume of poetry in 1969, "Requiem and Celebration", followed by "Definition of a Waterfall" in 1973. The latter, dealing with his Welsh roots, specifically his family and his locality, finally established his maturity. Stephens sees Ormond's later work as "unsentimental, shapely and meticulously crafted" which delight in explorations and "which probe complex themes and problematical areas of feeling."

Raymond Garlick (b. 1926), born in London, came to live in Llandudno, Gwynedd as a child and later studied at Bangor University, where he picked up a knowledge of Welsh. At Pembroke Dock, where he subsequently worked as a teacher, he edited "Dock Leaves" (with Roland Mathias). His poetry "Poems from the Mountain-House" and "The Welsh-Speaking Sea", as well as a long poem for radio, "Blaenau Observed" were written before his move in 1961 to work in the Netherlands, where he continued to serve as an important editor and critic. His numerous essays are an important contribution to the study of Anglo-Welsh literature. In addition, with Roland Mathias, in 1984 he edited the anthology "Anglo-Welsh Poetry" 1480-1980.

After returning to Wales in 1967 to teach at Trinity College, Carmarthen, Garlick produced a trilogy of poems composed between 1968 and 1976 which present a view of his adopted country as an integrated part of European civilization: "A Sense of Europe", "A Sense of Time" and "Incense." Like so many of his colleagues deeply concerned by the revolutionary events in Wales that began in the 1960's, not the least of which was the formation of "Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg" (The Welsh Language Society), Garlick takes up the theme of rejuvenation of desire for self-government, equal justice, and the need for non-violence to create a thoroughly bi-lingual society. Contemporary activist and poet David Greenslade (who learned Welsh as an adult) continues this theme in his appeals to the younger generation of those Welsh who live in mainly English-speaking areas.

In 1923, in English-speaking Cardiff Dannie Abse was born. Part-time poet, dramatist and novelist and full-time medical doctor working in London, his writings are mainly concerned with dramatic political and social events. In fact, his autobiography, "A Poet in the Family" (1974) deals with the Spanish Civil War that concerned so many socialist writers and activists in South Wales in the 1930's. His first novels "Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve" and "Some Corner of an English Field" deal with his childhood experiences as a member of a Jewish family in Cardiff and his experiences in the wartime RAF. Once again, in the work of Abse, we discover a Welsh writer concerned himself with what he considered the loss of culture and traditional values following the Second World War.

Abse, whose brother Leo became Labour MP for Pontypool, is best-known as a poet, publishing seven volumes of poetry beginning with "After Every Green Thing" (1948) and including "Way Out in the Centre" (1981). In 1977 appeared his "Collected Poems" 1948-76: Dealing with the unusual, even the eccentric, Abse's poems decry the uniformity that is stifling so much of modern life. Reflecting his upbringing as a member of two minority races, Welsh and Jewish, he empathizes with those who strive for independence and non-conformity. In addition to his poetry, the melancholy of which has occasioned Meic Stephens to compare his work with that of Philip Larkin, Abse has published seven plays as well as other volumes of occasional writings including the autobiographical "A Strong Dose of Myself" (1983) and the anthology "Wales in Verse" (1983).

The post-industrial environment of modern Wales has spawned a new generation of writers with a new outlook on their country and on the art of poetry. One of these is Cardiff-born Gillian Clarke (b. 1937) who moved to west Wales to be more in touch with the world of nature and the effect of its seasonal rhythms upon the lives of women. As a college lecturer, however, in Gwent, she has also produced poems that deal with urban life or that reflect her experiences as a mother. Her first poems appeared in Poetry Wales (1970) and "Snow in the Mountain" (1971). Clarke was editor of "The Anglo-Welsh Review" for a number of years; her later poetry is collected as "The Sundial" (1978), "Letters from a Far Country" (1982), and "Selected Poems" (1985). In 1993, she published a long poem about her memories of her father, "The King of Britain's Daughter", that was based on the story of Branwen in "The Mabinogion." To illustrate her identification with natural forces, I have chosen a few lines from her "Blaen Cwrt":

            The wattle and daub
Chimney hood has decayed away; slowly
Creeping to dust, chalking the slate
Floor with stories. It has all the first
Necessities for a high standard
Of civilized living: silence inside
A circle of sound, water and fire;
Light on uncountable miles of mountain
From a big, unpredictable sky.
Two rooms, waking and sleeping;
Two languages, two centuries of past
To ponder on, and the basic need
To work hard in order to survive.
Another modern poet from the post-industrial South is Robert Minhinnick (b.1952). His observations of the decaying of the once flourishing manufacturing center of Bridgend, with its environmental degradation and increase in "the exploited and marginalized inhabitants in recent years" mark a strong contrast with those poets whose concern was more nationalistic and patriotic. Thus a distinctive sense of place and identification with its people mark the poems of Minhinnick and has contemporary, Tony Curtis (b. 1946), a master of local speech patterns. Some of the latter's earlier work is found in the volume "Three Young Anglo-Welsh Poets" (1974) co-authored with Nigel Jenkins and Duncan Bush, two other prominent modern Anglo-Welsh poets whose themes are social and political. Curtis's later poems appeared in "Album" (1974), "Preparations" (1980), and "Letting Go" (1983); he has also published a collection of prose-poems and short stories "Out of the Dark Wood" (1977).

It might have been expected, following over a half-century of Anglo-Welsh writing, and the rapid increase in the readership of an English-speaking majority in Wales, that writings in the Welsh language would have disappeared by the 1990's. It seems most fitting therefore, to conclude this long study of what was produced over the centuries in the country that was cited in the Introduction as not having any literature, by looking at those modern writers who have stuck to the Welsh language. It is not surprising that there are so few, but that there are so many. After centuries of being told that their language is not only a useless burden but one that is dead or dying, the people of Wales, helped immeasurably by the competitive spirit fostered in Eisteddfod competition, persistently (and some say arrogantly) continue to produce commendable literary works in their own language.

Between 1969 and 1972, Archdruid of the Gorsedd was the poet Gwilym Richard Tilsley (Tilsli: b. 1911) and educated at Aberystwyth and Cambridge. His popular awdlau which won the Chair at the "National" on two occasions are "Moliant Y Glowr" (Praise of the Collier) and "Cwm Carnedd" (The Valley of the Cairns). The poems, based on his experiences as a minister in both north and south Wales, convey his compassion for the hard lives of the quarrymen and miners. A collection of his poetry is found in "Y Glowr a Cherdd Eraill" (The Collier and Other Songs 1958).

Tilsli wrote in free metres, but a feature of modern Welsh poetry is the revival of the strict-metre tradition that was fostered, not only by the need to conform to rigid Eisteddod standards, but by the upwelling of nationalist feeling during the 1960's that permeated so many areas of Welsh life. Dismay at the way the modern world was trampling on so many revered traditions could only be countered by returning to those traditions. And one are in which this could be done most successfully was literature, especially poetry, and especially the peculiar Welsh form of poetry known as cynghanedd. (harmony produced by metrical consonance). Here the Cilie cicle of Cardiganshire has been prominent, with Dic Jones (b. 1934) the leading exponents of the art of strict metre poetry written expressly as an art form to entertain and celebrate his community.

As a competitor in the National Youth Eisteddfod (Eisteddfod Urdd Gobaith Cymru), Dic Jones (Richard Lewis Jones) won the Chair five times His first volume of poetry is Agor Grwn (1960) following up with a win in the National and two more volumes of poetry, "Caneuon Cynhaeaf" (Harvest Songs, 1969) and "Storom Awst" (August Storm, 1978). The delight Jones takes in nature and the seasons, are expressed with a ready wit and joyous lyricism in poems that show his absolute mastery of his craft learned at the hands of his father Alun Cilie (Alun Jeremiah Jones) and other members of the extraordinarily talented Cilie family.

A more radical poet is Gerallt Lloyd Owen (b. 1944) who began his own printing and publishing company in 1972: Gwasg Gwynedd and whose mastery of cynghanedd is shown in his "Ugain Oed a'i Ganiadau" (Twenty Years and its Songs, 1966) and "Cerddi'r Cywilydd" (Poetry of Shame, 1972). The "shame" of the title of the latter refers to the poet's contempt of the shenanigans associated with the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon in 1969--a reminder for Welsh patriots of the long involuntary subjection of their country at the hands of a foreign power.

This subjection was also the subject of Owen's Chair-winning awdl in 1972, a year that marked the 700th anniversary of the death of the last native Welsh prince Llewelyn ap Gruffudd. In 1975 and 1982 Owen again won the Chair. Since then he has become well known as an adjudicator of bardic contests and a writer of poetry for radio programs. Much of his poetry expresses his deep feelings of regret (and shame) at the decline of so many Welsh-speaking communities since the end of World War II.

Another poet deeply worried about the future of his country is Alan Llwyd (b. 1948). Well-known as a practitioner of the art of and craft of the metrical form englyn, Llwyd was raised in the monoglot Welsh community of the Llyn Peninsular. Winner of both Crown and Chair at the "National" he first wrote cynghanedd as a schoolboy. He has since striven mightily and successfully to promote Welsh poetry as editor of "Barddas" (Poetics), begun in 1976 as a medium for publishing the works of "Cymdeithas Cerdd Dafod" (a society for poets writing in the traditional metres). This followed his period as poetry editor of "Y Cymro." His astonishing virtuosity is expressed in eleven volumes of poetry published since 1971.

According to critic Dafydd Johnston, the work of Alun Llwyd "adopts a conservative Christian viewpoint which places the condition of modern Wales in the context of the crisis of human civilization in the twentieth century." Llwyd's later work, however, moves outward from his consideration of the loss of tradition (and faith) in Wales to pondering mortality and the fate of Mankind in general. In addition to his prolific writings, Llwyd has also edited fifty cywyddau (alliterative poems) of Dafydd ap Gwilym, several anthologies and critical studies, and translated many stories for children, and many essays on past Welsh poets and the state of present Welsh poetry.

Gwyn Thomas (b.1936) from Gwynedd, expresses himself in free metre poetry, by very definition less restricted in scope and content than that of the strict metres, and thus less defensive in its treatment of Wales as well as being more open to the influences of modern colloquialism and humor. A professor of Welsh at Bangor University, Thomas believes that the literary tradition of his country should be more accessible to the general reader. Thus his poetry, while drawing on a wide range of mythology, at the same time deals with contemporary life. Yet, like so many of his contemporaries, Thomas also dwelt on the destructive effects on society of modern technology, the harsh vision expressed in "Chwerwder yn y Ffynhonnau" (Bitterness in the Springs) and "Y Weledigaeth Haearn" (The Iron Vision).

In 1970 Thomas published "Yr Aelwyd Hon" (This Hearth), closely followed by his selection of the earliest Welsh poetry, "Y Traddodiad Barddol" the same year. In 1982, he published "Gruffydd ab Yr Ynad Coch", about the court poet of Gwynedd whose powerful elegy lamented the death of the last Welsh prince. Thomas's most important scholarly work is his study of Ellis Wynne, "Y Bardd Cwsg a'i Gefndir" (The Sleeping Bard and his Background, 1971).

Central to Thomas's writing is his concern for communication; above all, he stressed, poetry must be understood and liked for its message to be effective. In addition to his poetry and works of scholarship, he has published two stage plays: "Lliw'r Delyn" (The Color of the Harp, 1969) and "Amser Dyn" (The Time of Man, 1972). He has also written dramatic poems for radio and television, including a tribute to the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, "Cadwynau yn y Meddwl" (Shackles in the Mind, 1976). One of his most popular works was one he co-edited: "Presenting Saunders Lewis" (1973). He has also written a guide to the craft of writing "Ymarfer Ysgrifennu" (Practice of Writing, 1973), and helped translate an edition of "The Mabinogion" for children. His third book of poetry is "Ysgyrion Gwaed" (Staves of Blood, 1968), but there have been many volumes published since that one that show his increasing maturity in his subtle and flexible use of modern colloquialisms, especially those of Anglicized Welsh. All of them have been milestones in the achievement of his goal.

Chapter 19: Conclusion

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