Chapter 13


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Resurgence

Morris was most influential in reviving the study of Welsh antiquities and the history of Wales. He also supported many of the younger poets, including Goronwy Owen. In 1727, following a tour of "the whole island of Great Britain," including Wales, English author Daniel Defoe jotted down his satirical viewpoint of this new-fangled Welsh obsession with their own history:
They value themselves much on their antiquity, the ancient race of their houses, families, and the like, and above all, their ancient heroes...and, as they believe their country to be the pleasantest and most agreeable in the world, so you cannot oblige them more than to make them think that you believe so too.
Temperamental Anglesey-born Goronwy Owen has been regarded as perhaps the greatest poet of the remarkable literary renaissance that made possible such observations as Defoe's. Owen emigrated to the American Colonies in 1757 after serving many years as a low-paid curate as a parish priest in Wales, hoping to obtain a more lucrative post. He took up a teaching position at William and Mary College in Virginia, but before leaving Wales had completed his most important works, writing poetry in the classical manner which was instrumental in the revival of ancient Welsh traditions.

Henry Rowlands was yet another Anglican priest from Wales who was deeply interested in the history and traditions of his native land. His famous work was "Mona Antiqua Restaurata" of 1723, that not only surveyed the antiquities of Anglesey, but also attempted to prove that the ancient order of Druids had originated in that north Wales county. A major result of this book was to begin the druidic fad, mainly originating in London at the end of the century that Professor John Davies believes did much to "muddy the stream of Welsh historiography."

London was already beginning to play a major role in the social lives of many of the prominent families of Wales. Now it began to play a similar role in Welsh literary life. It was in London that most of the advocates of Welsh nationhood lived or worked. Society in the nation's capital had already been piqued by all things Celtic, especially following the travels of such intellectuals and authors as Daniel Defoe and Dr. Samuel Johnson, both of whose writings can be said to have started the tourist trade in the British Isles. Another impetus came from the publication of the so-called Songs of Ossian, by the unfortunate Scot, James Macpherson. Forgeries or not, these epic poems, written in the ancient Gaelic tongue, created a huge appetite for more such romantic literature.

As fellow Celts with the Scots, Welsh writers obligingly filled in the void. In 1764, Evan Evans published the results of his painstaking research into Old Welsh manuscripts: "Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards". Yet another Anglican clergyman, Evans was responsible for the preservation of many priceless medieval Welsh manuscripts that gave the lie to so many English literary critics who saw no literature coming out of Wales at any period.

Though another century was to pass before the appearance in English of the "Mabinogion," not published by Lady Guest until the 1840's, Evans's copies of the "Red Book of Hergest" made the English literary world aware of the glories of much that had previously been unknown. Unlike Macpherson, Evans was hailed in London as a genuine scholar. His greatest fame came from his discovery and publication of many important texts including the works of "Taliesin" and the poem "Y Gododdin," from the earliest period of Welsh literature, ironically, it may have been written in what is now part of Scotland.

Thomas Grey, Thomas Percy and others supported Evans in his successful attempts to make the study of Welsh literature acceptable in English circles. The literary giant Dr. Johnson may have deplored Evans' excessive drinking, but he could not fault his scholarship. Others who criticized his personal lifestyle were the Welsh bishops, none of whom knew the language of the flocks they ministered to, and all of whom resented Evans' severe castigation of that fact (knowledge of Welsh was not a requirement for ordination in the Church for positions in Wales).

Evans' publication of the ancient Welsh manuscripts not only brought him fame, but were also greedily seized and exploited by those expatriate Welshmen in London such as Edward Williams and Edward Jones, in their efforts to bring about a revival of the study of Celtic literature and of what they considered to be Celtic customs. As a result of their efforts, two Welsh societies sprang up in London in the 1770's. The Honorable Society of Cymmrodorian and the Gwyneddigion, with similar aims: gave the people of Wales a society equal to the English Royal Society so that they could have a voice in the cultural and social affairs of the British nation. It was important to "defend the purity of the Welsh language by stimulating interest in the history and literature of Wales and promoting economic and scientific ventures of benefit to the country."

The Gwyneddigion Society tried to revive the ancient competition known as the Eisteddfod, which had been allowed to lapse with little accomplished in music or poetry. They had become nothing more than noisy, perhaps boozy, meeting in taverns. Edward Williams, a stone mason from the Vale of Glamorgan, in South Wales, solved the problem. Known to posterity by his bardic title "Iolo Morgannwg", he created the elaborate, colorful ceremonies that eventually led to those of today's National Eisteddfod of Wales. Williams may have invented most of these ceremonies (they were given further embellishment in the 1930's by archdruid Cynan), but by his speeches in defense of his country's traditions, he gave the people of Wales a sense of importance and pride and helped ensure that these traditions (invented or not) would be passed on to posterity.

Chapter 13 Continued
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