Thursday, January 31, 2008

Roland Mathias' "Anglo-Welsh Literature: An Illustrated History" Book Review

This 140-page text, with nearly a hundred pictures, gives a brisk overview of the past five hundred years of Welsh writing in English. On pg. 16. Mathias, a noted poet and editor of the "Anglo-Welsh Review," defines his topic: "it implies no mixture of blood" but "it describes those writers who by birth or strong family derivation and residence were Welsh but who, whether from necessity or choice, wrote in English." Today, of course, anyone in Wales chooses to write in one of its two languages. In the beginning, starting in the Tudor period and increasing after the Union of 1536, when Welsh historians and poets first penned texts in English in appreciable numbers they tended to emphasize dutifully the loyalty of the Welsh to the Crown. They concocted stories assuring Britons that those enthroned at Westminster traced their roots to Brutus the Trojan and then to a Welsh monarchy.

Since then, many of those included here tended to explain their country, adopted or native, to the English. The foreignness of Wales could be mined for pathos, praise, satire, stereotype, and romance. The difficulty, as Mathias charts, lay in the fact that much of Wales over the past few centuries lay off limits to most writers in English who lived in the Principality, unless they knew both languages, and few could navigate both tongues with equal facility. Most, and this tendency perhaps grows in the past half-century, exaggerate the strangeness supposedly left in Cambria with an eye towards a London publisher, and a wider audience eager for stock characters, timeworn platitudes, and manufactured lore.

The most intriguing recent authors among admittedly a vastly disparate lot united only by geography remain such as the formidably learned but intriguingly erudite David Jones, who Mathias places within a 'second movement' along with Emyr Humphreys' fiction, R.S. Thomas' verse, and perhaps the much less known poems by Raymond Garlick. These writers sought a reapproachment with the older, fading literary culture that emphasized communal duty rather than merely channelling one's muse. Mathias contrasts this disciplined mid-century faction against a 'first movement' sparked by the Joyce-like portraits of a religiously constricted and morally corrupt village that brought Caradoc Evans his first fame in 1915, and then flamed into the laments of Richard Llewelyn, Gwyn Thomas, Alexander Cordell, and others who sought in rural depictions and coal-pit descriptions a vital Welsh sensibility grounded in the peasant and the proletariat. Above all, the talented Dylan Thomas voiced his own alienation from the Welsh tradition in a language he never learned, while echoing its cadences in verbose and dazzling wordplay.

The shadow of Thomas, as Joyce for Irish writers, casts a long stretch across the second half of the past century. Mathias scans the results, and nods at Raymond Williams, John Cowper Powys, and Richard Hughes for their uses of their Welshness. He accurately observes of a less remembered author: "Menna Gallie, who wrote three spirited novels-- beginning with Strike for a Kingdom (1959) -- never adequately followed them up." (118) Gallie's predicament appears common among the later writers Mathias mentions. He finds that the most successful writing (and this book appeared in 1986) comes from criticism such as Ned Thomas' "The Welsh Extremist" and Glyn Jones' "The Dragon Has Two Tongues," as well as Raymond Williams' literary and political criticism, not to forget Kenneth Morgan and Gwyn A. Williams' histories.

In a society so anglophonic today, can the hyphen of Mathias' title still matter? He suggests that for the 'first' and 'second' movements, a counter-movement away from anglicization lingered. The 'first' usually, "involuntarily or otherwise, had an acquaintance with the then receding Welsh language and the different culture that had flourished within it,"-- that of the Nonconformist combination of radical politics and literary craft which since the mid-18th century enabled Welsh people in villages and then cities to keep moored to their legacy, much as they may have resented it, it did keep them informed of an alternative. The writers of the 'second' movement, within which I'd transfer the late J.C. Powys along with R.S. Thomas-- reconnected their own severed strands to the Cymric inheritance. But, now, Mathias argues, the involvement with the Welsh end of the hyphenated identity appears purely a matter of one's own preference.

I interpret this attitude as follows. Many live not in Wales except as a postal address-- they see themselves as part of the United Kingdom or Great Britain. The names of their towns may seem nearly as remote as the Indian terms common across so many of the United States. There's no commitment for nearly all but a few idiosyncratic residents of a land occupied by a people who've invaded and taken over another nation to learn the atavistic language or master the cultural remnants, if any exist outside of museums and monographs.

Mathias concludes that since 1950 and especially 1965 ("when the latest of the older writers emerged" from his mid-1980s perspective) the standstill of Welsh at least halted its rural erosion with an urban and school-based revival. (Same as Irish has in the past few years, perhaps, although I'd say the Gaeltacht and the Welsh-speaking enclaves both continue to decline under the pressure of both anglicized tourism and the dependence of the economy on incomers.) He wonders, in fact, if the move towards reclaiming Welsh leaves many learners too optimistically thinking they should try to write by that language's "demanding standard" when sticking to their native English'd be a wiser option and ensure the continued creativity they could bring to their work by their native means of expression. As of nearly a quarter-century ago, then, Mathias ends his reflections doubting that "Anglo-Welsh" can continue to matter as the nostalgia's vanished, the village's modernized, and the shibboleth of not being truly Welsh without a command of Cymraeg continues to shut out so many emerging citizens of Wales who have no "poor but romantic past" in either language to return to, or who wish such a retreat from modern reality.

(Posted to Amazon US today.. Image: "Hill Pastures, Capel-y-ffin, 1926," watercolor by David Jones. His delicate drawings do not transfer well, but here's a bolder vision from the commune he shared with Eric Gill. Wish it was in color! But, a solid non-Monkee David Jones website; and we all know another D.J. who changed his stage name to avoid confusion at the time to Bowie. All three were London Welsh.)


Justin said...


My comment is actually in regards to the review of My Happy Days in Hell that you posted on Amazon.

I've been attempting to research Faludy's life for a project I'm working on, but have had little luck finding the information I need. Your review was very helpful and I wonder if you wouldn't mind answering a few briefd questions for me. I can be reached at


Fionnchú said...

I sent this to Justin, but here it is in case anyone's interested.

Justin, can't say I know any more than what that review garnered from the Web sources in English I could gather. I looked at a few obits on-line, some archived articles to learn more about Faludy's later life, and I looked up the Wikipedia article on this intriguing man! I must have written more on my blog 26 Dec. 2006 compared to that Amazon review:

That blog post in turn appeared (without my blog's brief preface and perhaps altered slightly) under the Irish form of my name, Seaghán Ó Murchú, in The Blanket on 5 Jan. 2007:

Thanks for your interest, and I'm happy to help out any way I can, but I cannot boast any depth beyond these 5000 words you have in these two URLs, I confess.