Welsh-language literature

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Welsh-language literature has been produced continuously since the emergence of Welsh from Brythonic as a distinct language c. 5thC. The earliest llenyddiaeth Gymraeg (Welsh literature) was poetry, which was extremely intricate in form from its earliest known examples, a tradition sustained today. Poetry was followed by the first British prose literature in the 11thC ( The Mabinogion). Welsh language literature has repeatedly played a major part in the self assertion of Wales and the Welsh peoples. It continues to be held in the highest prestige, as evidenced at the massive Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (National Eisteddfod of Wales) the largest arts festival in Europe, which crowns its chosen literary winners in dignified ceremony.

Middle Ages[edit]

The mediaeval period has three stages. The Earliest Poets wrote praise poems for rulers and lords of Welsh dynasties from Strathclyde to Cornwall. In the 11thC Norman influence and challenge disrupted Welsh cultures, and the language changed to Middle Welsh. The next period is the Poets of the Princes, when Welsh rulers fought each other and the English in shifting alliances. The first prose literature of Britain was compiled in the 11thC. In 1282 Welsh territories were annexed by England, the princely lines ended, and poets adapted by turning to the uchelwyr, the landowners, for support in the stage of the Poets of the Nobility.

The earliest praise poetry to survive is by the poet Taliesin and Aneirin. Praise poetry was a powerful PR function in society, that is, propaganda, inspiring loyalty and courage by the teulu, the warband of a king, prince or lord. It spread his fame, and that of named warriors, as widely as possible, creating a kind of immortality and glory. The art was so valued that the beirdd, bards had their liberal rights coded in native Welsh law. The highest levels of the poetic art in Welsh are intensely intricate. The beirdd, bards were extremely organised and professional with a structured training which lasted many years. As a class the beirdd, bards, proved very adaptable; when the princely dynasties ended in 1282, they found their necessary patronage with the next social level, the uchelwr, the landed gentry. The shift led creatively to innovation – the development of the cywydd metre, with looser forms of structure..

The professionalism of the poetic tradition was sustained by a Guild of poets, or Order of bards, with its own 'rule book'. This 'rule book' emphasised their professional status, and the making of poetry as a craft. Its rules required an apprenticeship of nine years for a poet to become fully qualified. The rules also set out the payment a poet could expect for his work – these payments varied according to how long a poet had been in training and also the demand for poetry at particular times during the year.

There were also 'cyfarwydd, storytellers. These were also professionals, paid artists; but, unlike the poets, they seem to have remained anonymous. It is not clear if storytellers were a wholly separate, popular level class, or if at least some of the beirdd, bards, practised storytelling as part of their repertoire. Little of this prose work has survived, but even so it provides the earliest British prose literature. These native Welsh tales and some hybrids with French /Norman influence form a collection known in modern times as the Mabinogion. The name became established in the 19thC but is based on a linguistic mistake!

Llenyddiaeth Gymraeg (Welsh literature) in the Middle Ages also included a large body of laws, genealogiies, religious and mythical texts, histories, medical and gnomic lore, and practical works, in addition to literature translated from other languages such as Latin, Breton or French. Besides prose and longer poetry, the literature includes the distinctive Trioedd, Welsh Triads short lists usually of three items, apparently used as aids to memory.

Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries[edit]

The 16th century and 17th century in Wales, as in the rest of Europe, were a period of great change. Politically, socially, and economically the foundations of modern Wales were laid at this time. In the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-1542 Wales was annexed and integrated fully into the English kingdom, losing any vestiges of political or legal independence. The political-religious settlement of Elizabeth I through the 1559 Act of Uniformity made Wales in name a Protestant country only to be reinforced by developments during and after the English Civil War. This period also saw the beginnings of industries such as coal mining, metal-mining for lead and iron smelting, which led to the mass industrialisation of the following centuries.

End of the guild of poets system[edit]

From the middle of the 16th century onwards a decline is seen in the praise tradition of the poets of the Nobility, the cywyddwyr. It became more and more difficult for poets to make their living from the craft of poetry. This happened primarily for social reasons beyond their control. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, that had become important sources of patronages for the poets, and the Anglicisation of the nobility during the period of the Tudors, exemplified by the Laws in Wales Acts, meant that there were fewer and fewer patrons willing or able to support the poets. But there were also internal reasons for the decline: the conservatism of the Guild of poets, or, Order of bards, made it very difficult for it to adapt to the new world of renaissance learning and the growth of printing.

However, the Welsh poetic tradition of the traditional meters and cynghanedd did not disappear completely, although it did lose it professionalism, and came into the hands of 'ordinary' poets who kept it alive through centuries. Cynghanedd and traditional meters are still used today by very many Welsh-language poets.

Renaissance learning[edit]

Without a university of its own, without other learning institutions, without even a court and courtiers of its own, Wales was not in a very good position to participate fully in the revolution in ideas and scholarship, which is usually termed the Renaissance. Wales did not really have any towns of great significance at this time which could have acted as centres for the type of society where such ideas and movements flourish. But the renaissance did hit Wales in no uncertain terms, and that due to the commitment of certain individuals, both Protestant and Catholic, in ensuring that the Welsh language would be part of this new movement.

First printed Welsh book[edit]

In 1546 the first book to be printed in Welsh was published, Yn y llyvyr hwnn (=In this book…) by Sir John Price of Brecon. John Price (ca.1502-55) was an aristocrat and an important civil servant. He served as Secretary of the Council of Wales and the Marches and he was also one of the officers responsible for administrating the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the area. He was also a scholar who embraced the latest ideas relating to religion and learning: reform and humanism. It is also known that he was a collector of manuscripts on various subjects, including the history and literature of Wales.

Other humanists and scholars[edit]

Shortly afterwards the works of William Salesbury began to appear. Salesbury was an ardent Protestant and coupled his learning with the new religious ideas from the continent; he translated the New Testament into Welsh and authored an English-Welsh dictionary among other works. On the other hand, Gruffudd Robert was an ardent Catholic, but in the same spirit of learning published an important Welsh grammar while in enforced exile in Milan in 1567. A huge step forward for both the Welsh language and its literature was the publication, in 1588, of a full-scale translation of the Bible by William Morgan.

Other works[edit]

Most of the works published in the Welsh language for at least the next century were religious in nature. Morgan Llwyd, a Puritan, wrote in both English and Welsh, recounting his spiritual experiences. Other notable writers of the period included Vavasor Powell.

During this period, poetry also began to take a religious turn, in terms of subject matter. William Pugh was a Royalist and a Catholic. By now, women as well as men were writing, but little of their work can be identified. Katherine Philips of Cardigan Priory, although English by birth, lived in Wales for most of her life, and was at the centre of a literary coterie comprising both genders.

Beginnings of Welsh writing in English[edit]

The seeds of Anglo-Welsh literature can also be detected, particularly in the work of Henry Vaughan and his contemporary, George Herbert, both Royalists.

Eighteenth century[edit]

In the 18th century the trend in favour of religious literature continued and grew even stronger as Nonconformism began to take hold of Wales. The Welsh Methodist revival, initially led by Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland, produced not only sermons and religious tracts, but also hymns and poetry by William Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths and others. The Morris brothers of Anglesey were leading figures in the establishment of the London Welsh societies, and their letters to one another are an important record of the time. The activities of the London Welshmen helped ensure that Wales retained some kind of profile within Britain as a whole.

The activities of a number of individuals, including Thomas Jones of Corwen and the Glamorgan stonemason and man of letters, Iolo Morganwg, led to the revival of the National Eisteddfod of Wales and the invention of many of the traditions which surround it today. Although Iolo is sometimes called a charlatan because so many of his discoveries were based on pure myth, he was also an inveterate collector of old manuscripts and thereby did perform a service without which Welsh literature would have been the poorer. Some of the Welsh gentry continued to patronise bards, but this practice was gradually dying out.

Nineteenth century[edit]

Largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution, there was a large influx of people into the South Wales Valleys during the 19th century. Although many of them were English, some made an effort to learn the Welsh language in order to integrate themselves with the local communities, and there was increased demand for literature in the form of books, periodicals, newspapers, poetry, ballads and sermons. Some of the more wealthy incomers, such as Lady Charlotte Guest, Lady Llanover and others, were of active assistance in the trend towards a richer cultural life. Thanks partly to the eisteddfod network, writing became a popular pastime, and all forms of poetry thrived.

Poets now used their bardic names to disguise their identity in competitions, and continued to use them when they became well known. The most celebrated poets of the century were: Evan Evans (Ieuan Glan Geirionydd), John Blackwell, William Thomas and John Ceiriog Hughes, who went by the bardic names of "Ieuan Glan Geirionydd", "Alun", "Islwyn" and "Ceiriog" respectively.

The novel had been slow to pick up momentum in Wales. Translations of works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin existed, but the first recognised novelist in the Welsh language was Daniel Owen, author of Rhys Lewis (1885) and Enoc Huws (1891), among others.

Twentieth century onwards[edit]

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Welsh literature began to reflect the way the Welsh language was increasingly becoming a political symbol. Two of the greatest figures in the literary history of this period were the prolific Saunders Lewis and the writer/publisher Kate Roberts. Lewis, who had been brought up in Liverpool, was a leader of the nationalist movement, jailed for his part in protests; he chose drama as a means of drawing attention to the rightness of his cause. Novelist Kate Roberts worked as a teacher, and was one of few writers to have lived in and written about both North Wales and South Wales.

The industrialisation of parts of Wales was now beginning to be regarded as a mixed blessing, and the old agricultural (agrarian) way of life which persisted in most of the country was idealised by many writers. However, a more realistic picture of Gwynedd farming communities between the Wars was presented by John Ellis Williams (1924-) in both English and Welsh. Publication of these reminiscences appeared in community newspapers, the Countryman magazine and subsequently in paperback format in English under the titles of Clouds of Time and other Stories (1989) and Rare Welsh Bits (2000). A free spirit in the Welsh publishing circle, Williams was neither an academic nor a politician, but had embraced Existensialism in post Second World War France and had an active friendship and correspondence with Simone de Beauvoir. The 1940s also saw the creation of a notable writing group in the Rhondda, called the 'Cadwgan Circle'. Writing almost entirely in the Welsh language, the movement, formed by J. Gwyn Griffiths and his wife Käte Bosse-Griffiths, included the Welsh writers Pennar Davies, Rhydwen Williams, James Kitchener Davies and Gareth Alban Davies.

After a relatively quiet period between 1950-1970, large numbers of Welsh language novels began appearing from the 1980s onwards, with such authors as Aled Islwyn and Angharad Tomos. In the 1990s there was a distinct trend towards postmodernism in Welsh prose writing, especially evident in the work of such authors as Wiliam Owen Roberts and Mihangel Morgan.

Meanwhile, Welsh poetry, which had been verging on stagnation, took on a new lease of life as poets sought to regain mastery over the traditional verse forms, partly to make a political point. Alan Llwyd and Dic Jones were leaders in the field. Female poets such as Menna Elfyn gradually began to make their voices heard, overcoming the obstacle of the male-dominated bardic circle and its conventions.

The scholar Sir Ifor Williams also pioneered scientific study of the earliest Welsh written literature, as well as the Welsh language, recovering the works of poets like Taliesin and Aneirin from the uncritical fancies of various antiquarians, such as the Reverend Edward Davies who believed the theme of Aneirin's Gododdin is the massacre of the Britons at Stonehenge in 472.

See also[edit]

Sources[edit]

General[edit]

  • Johnston, Dafydd (1994), The literature of Wales. Cardiff : University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1265-9.
  • Parry, Thomas (1955), A history of Welsh literature. Translated by H. Idris Bell. Oxford : Clarendon Press.
  • Stephens, Meic (Ed.) (1998), The new companion to the literature of Wales. Cardiff : University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1383-3.

External links[edit]