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26 June 2019

How the Welsh fought back

Despite English attempts to eradicate it, the Welsh literary tradition has persisted, from the fourth century to today.  

By Rowan Williams

The earliest poetry in Welsh is a cluster of short epigrammatic verses – englynion – written in the margins of a ninth-century Latin manuscript of the work of Juvencus, a fourth-century Spanish Christian writer. The spelling looks impenetrable to a modern Welsh reader, but read aloud (you can hear them online in a recording made by the National Museum of Wales) these verses are unmistakably recognisable as Welsh in vocabulary and cadence. They would be more easily understood by a contemporary Welsh speaker than an Anglo-Saxon poem of the same vintage would be by a modern English speaker, even if their meaning would not instantly be clear. And the form of the poetry would also be recognisable – englynion are still composed by much the same rules as the Juvencus poet uses, though there is now a greater variety of englyn forms in addition to the simple three-line stanza in the manuscript.

A few years ago at a bilingual poetry reading in Pembrokeshire, a distinguished young Welsh-language poet presented me at the end of dinner with an englyn that he had scribbled on a paper table napkin during the conversation; the conventions of rhyme and assonance, line breaks and syllable counts are comparable to what the anonymous ninth-century writer used. With a bit of help from a Welsh philologist, the two poets could have spent an evening exchanging more or less impromptu verses in a way that is still to be heard at Welsh literary gatherings. The most consistent thread in the long history of Welsh writing is a commitment to exuberantly challenging metrical forms – one aspect of a general relishing of sound patterns and wordplay that has often been carried over into Welsh writing in the English language, as any reader of Dylan Thomas will know.

There is a further element that reinforces the sense of recognition. Many languages have poetic conventions that seem to crystallise their distinctive music or “accent” – the Greek or Latin hexameter and Sapphic stanza, the French Alexandrine with its dramatic caesura, the iambic pentameter and Augustan couplet in English. The Welsh equivalent is a rhymed couplet in which one of the rhyming syllables is stressed and the other isn’t. Deliberately or not, Craig Raine’s famous “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” has an instance in the very first two lines:

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings and some are treasured for their markings.

Not at all common in English, it is everywhere in classical Welsh verse; and it is this kind of aural haunting that reinforces the sense of deep continuity. It is often said that Welsh has the longest unbroken literary record of any European language (forgetting the rather special cases of Greek and Latin).

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But claims like this can have the problematic effect of reinforcing a sort of linguistic “essentialism”, a myth of national integrity and even moral excellence, grounded in the purity of the language. It was a myth that developed quite rapidly in the second part of the 19th century, and still had some traction as late as 1967, when a small group of Welsh nationalist intellectuals (including Gwynfor Evans, the first Plaid Cymru MP) produced an eloquent pamphlet on “the Christian value of the Welsh language”, an impassioned statement of the traditional virtues of Nonconformist Wales: pacifist, internationalist, literate, egalitarian, communitarian, a nation of near-Quakers.

The debate about the language still generates strong emotions. Even in a far more secular Welsh culture, there is still suspicion towards any bland assumption that bilingualism is some sort of neutral and rational ideal – a suspicion born of long and bitter experience. There has never been anything like a level playing field for the two languages, and active attempts to eradicate Welsh were made up to the opening of the 20th century.

One of the most helpful things in this magisterial collection – the most extensive survey in English of the Welsh tradition and its contemporary expressions – is the way in which the question of bilinguality is handled: it is neither held up as a straightforward goal of peaceful coexistence, nor despised as the thin end of an anglicising wedge. There is due attention to the fact that “Welsh writing in English” (the phrase now preferred to the old designation, “Anglo-Welsh literature”) has a long history that is not entirely bound up with proto-imperial English aggression. So we have a chapter that gives a fascinating account of Welsh writers working in London in the 16th and 17th centuries, and another that offers a challenging and fresh perspective on two 20th-century writers, the poet RS Thomas and the novelist Emyr Humphreys. Both were Welsh-speaking and wrote in English for a public that might not use Welsh or know it well, but both retained some sense of the language’s rhythms – a prominent feature in the work of Dylan Thomas, who has a good and perceptive chapter to himself – and had a feel for the complex social codes and signals that use of the language involved in the mid-20th century.

Several essays here reflect on the fact that the current situation is still more complex: what might be called binary bilingualism – grounded in firm decisions to privilege or to write exclusively in one language or the other – is giving way to a greater flexibility as attitudes towards speaking Welsh change, and writers with “hybrid” linguistic backgrounds and habits explore a more inclusive territory, social as much as linguistic. A number of significant contemporaries write in both Welsh and English – among others, the poet Gwyneth Lewis, and the novelists Owen Martell and Fflur Dafydd. And the literature coming from ethnic minorities and from the LGBT+ community helps to dissolve the essentialism of so much of the language debate in recent decades – though there is still censure of English assumptions of superiority and a long-standing scepticism towards Welsh writers who are excessively eager to play to an English gallery.


Colonial habits have similar effects the world over. Nationalist purism is a side-effect of the exclusionary policies of an alien governing authority: the secondary, subaltern voice initially has to define itself as being what the colonial ruler is not.

In the case of Wales, it was the paternalistic efforts of Victorian governments to impose what they considered to be uniform standards of education and morality that provoked the most dramatic – and productive – backlash. In 1847, a government-sponsored report on the state of education in Wales blandly concluded that enlightened modernity and domestic morality in the country were being held back by the twin factors of religious Nonconformity (Protestant movements, such as Methodism, that did not conform to the established Church of England) and the persistence of the Welsh language. It was to be the justification for sustained and sometimes brutal attempts to root out the language in Welsh schools later in the century. This crass bit of establishmentarian prejudice – promptly dubbed Brad y Llyfrau Gleision or “The Treason of the Blue Books” (government reports were bound in blue covers) – had the unlooked-for result that Nonconformity and the Welsh language entered into a close and long-lasting alliance, substantially changing the cultural face of Wales.

Hitherto, although there was already a rich Nonconformist literature in Welsh, both theological and poetic (the two together, in the case of the magnificent hymns of the 18th and early 19th centuries), there had not been a strong ideological slant to the language in these circles. If anything, it was Tory Anglicans, often in alliance with (would-be) benign and patriarchal aristocrats or industrial magnates and their learned and energetic wives, who had previously done most to preserve and nurture the classical Welsh literary tradition.

The widespread revival at the end of the 18th century of the medieval poetic competitions known as eisteddfodau had also received a major boost from the activities of the flamboyant radical Edward Williams (known as “Iolo Morganwg”). He was the virtual inventor of what eventually became the National Eisteddfod, still probably the best-supported national cultural festival in Europe. Anglican antiquarianism and Iolo’s Unitarian theology and spurious “druidic” mysticism combined to generate a lot of very dubious rhetoric about the “Celtic” spirit (much encouraged later in the 19th century by Matthew Arnold’s influential lectures on Celtic literature). It was an odd alliance that might not have seemed very fertile soil for orthodox Nonconformists to build on. Yet by the end of the 19th century, fed by a chastened but resilient Romanticism, the National Eisteddfod had become largely an organ of just that cultivated Puritan national identity that the Blue Books controversy had helped to shape. It was an embodiment of the claim that Welsh Dissenters were wholly loyal citizens of Queen Victoria’s realm, distinguished only by their exceptional piety, honesty, thrift and sobriety; Nonconformists, perhaps, and political liberals, but very much a loyal opposition.

There are many pages in this book detailing the kind of literature that consolidated such a picture. Nonconformist suspicion of fiction gave way in the 19th century to an enthusiasm for edifying narratives – including an early Welsh version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Many of these were dedicated to promoting temperance and associated virtues; but as time went on, many also dealt with issues of religious struggle and the ethical and theological crises of the clergy. Much Welsh-located English-language fiction, such as the wildly popular sentimental novels of “Allen Raine” (Anne Adaliza Puddicombe) at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, presented a very similar moral and imaginative world. The genre of celebratory fiction about a traditionally godly and moral Wales inevitably generated a satirical reaction, already just discernible in the 19th century but reaching its brilliantly grotesque climax in Caradoc Evans’s collection of short stories, My People (1915) – a depiction of Welsh rural life that makes The League of Gentlemen look positively cosy.


It is no criticism of the earlier sections of the book to say that the treatment of the 20th and 21st centuries includes some of the most engaging and thought-provoking pages. Here we find spirited and sophisticated discussion of the tensions between inclusivity and identity, of the changes in linguistic register as Welsh society becomes more ethnically and socially varied, and of the impact of an intensified political struggle around the language from the 1960s onwards and the slow movement towards devolved government. Justice is done to the prominent role of women writers in 20th- and 21st-century literary life (in Welsh and English), and to the importance of environmental and pacifist themes for so many modern poets and novelists in Wales. The picture is of a literary tradition that is both drawing on a long and intricate custom and putting out feelers into every aspect of contemporary life, local and global.

Inevitably in a book on this scale, there are wobbles. A simple summary of at least some of the very complex rules of classical Welsh prosody would have been useful (Mererid Hopwood’s excellent book, Singing in Chains, is the place to look if you are interested). Slightly tighter editing might have dealt with overlap, such as the presence in three different chapters of the same information about the formidable Welsh humanist scholar and biblical translator William Salesbury. There are two chapters on the medieval collection of prose stories The Mabinogion, a rich source for early Arthurian narratives as well as for brilliantly realised re-creations of what seem to be very archaic mythological tales. One of these chapters is a lively discussion of “Magic and Marvels” in the stories, and the other a more general but rather inconclusive look at the historical context. It might have made more sense to have one basic introduction to the tales, with perhaps more about their use of folkloric themes and of personal names that tantalisingly echo the names of Irish mythical heroes and divinities.

There are one or two of those brain-fade moments, born of overworked academics trying to check proofs at short notice (bitter experience confirms that these are the first things you see when your printed copy arrives). Edward Williams/Iolo Morganwg, the best-known Welsh literary figure of the early 19th century, is introduced at one point as “Edward Thomas”, and in a later chapter the first title in a list of unforgettably “canonical” Welsh poems across the centuries is spectacularly misremembered.

Strangely, even scandalously, given the justifiable stress on the significance of women writers in the last century or so, there is nothing at all (beyond a single mention of her name) about the greatest of medieval Welsh women poets, the 15th-century Gwerful Mechain, author of a delightfully uninhibited celebration of the female pudenda as well as a number of other verses on those primary poetic data, the natural world, eros and God. A detailed and enthusiastic chapter on Saunders Lewis, a founder of the Welsh Nationalist Party, rightly underlines his stature as Wales’s most significant dramatist, but you would not guess from a rather bland footnote quite how fierce recent controversy has been around his fascist sympathies and the degree of his anti-Semitism. Autobiography is a genre not much mentioned, but there could have been a useful chapter tracing this – from the Confessio of the great 17th-century Catholic convert and writer on contemplation Augustine Baker of Abergavenny, to the 1960s and 1970s memoirs of the actor Emlyn Williams. His books were a watershed in the acknowledgement of bisexuality: he subtly deploys memories of a bilingual childhood to pave the way for the exploration of more complex dual identity to do with class as well as sexuality.

But this is a book to welcome warmly – the first comprehensive treatment for a general English-speaking readership of a still vital and diverse literary world. English reaction to Welsh identity, let alone Welsh writing, remains depressingly often ill-informed and patronising, a last vestige of the effortless cultural superiority of Anglo-Saxondom. No one emerging from this richly textured and admirably researched volume will be able to sustain the illusion that this (or indeed any) particular “subaltern” voice is nothing more than a vehicle for nostalgia and ressentiment.

“Letters cannot contain it, letters cannot express it”, so the Juvencus verses say about the wonder of the created order. That is where the life of any literature (paradoxically) finds its focus, in the eloquent inarticulacy of recognising the diversity of our world, human and non-human. 

“The Book of Taliesin: Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain”, translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams, is published by Penguin Classics


The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature
Edited by Geraint Evans & Helen Fulton
Cambridge University Press, 854pp, £100

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