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Welsh literature

The term Welsh literature may be used to refer to any literature originating from Wales or by Welsh writers. However, it more often refers to literature written in the Welsh language. Literature by Welsh writers in the English language is usually called Anglo-Welsh literature.

The fortunes of Welsh literature have fluctuated over the centuries, in line with those of the Welsh language. A Celtic language spoken in the western parts of Britain since pre-Roman times, and the language of the early Middle Ages is immediately recognisable to modern-day Welsh speakers.

Overview of Welsh literature

The Middle Ages

One of the earliest known works of Welsh literature is the Gododdin, a narrative poem attributed to Aneirin (or Aneurin), a poet of the 7th century. The poem celebrates the victory of the native Britons over the Saxons at Catterick ("Cattraeth" in Welsh) in about the year 600. Since Catterick is in the north of England, this work demonstrates the existence of a uniformity of culture among the peoples of England, Wales and southern Scotland in the immediate post-Roman period.

The poet Taliesin, a near-contemporary of Aneirin, composed shorter poems in honour of Urien Rheged, a ruler of the kingdom of Rheged, located around the Solway Firth. Taliesin himself may have lived in that region. Taliesin's elegy on the death of Urien's son, Owain, is one of the poems preserved in the 14th century manuscript known as the Book of Taliesin.

From these origins, the fortunes of Welsh literature have vacillated along with the fortunes of the language. On the one hand, Welsh poetry expressed the bard's sorrow and nostalgia at the loss of eastern portion of the kingdom of Powys (present-day Shropshire) in the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen. On the other hand, Welsh bards encouraged the hope of an eventual and decisive defeat of the Anglo-Saxon invaders that would drive them back into the sea with such works as the tenth-century Armes Prydein.

Poetry continued to thrive throughout the Middle Ages, the best-known Welsh poet of all time being Dafydd ap Gwilym, who is particularly known for his love poems. However, the earliest love poetry to have survived in Welsh is that of Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd (Howell, eldest son of the great Welsh prince, Owain Gwynedd). The metres and forms used are quite different from those used in English, the englyn being the most popular in the early period. Cynghanedd, a form of assonance, is an important and unique aspect of this early Welsh poetry. Dafydd ap Gwilym invented a new verse form, the cywydd.

The poetic movement thrived in Wales as long as there were patrons available to welcome its practitioners. The fact that, until 1282, Wales consisted of a number of principalities, each with its own independent ruler, ensured that there was no shortage of courts available to the travelling poet or "bard". After that date, there were still minor noblemen to act as patrons, including some Norman lords who had successfully integrated themselves with the local Welsh nobility.

The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval folk tales, preserved in two manuscripts known as the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Their authorship and exact date is unknown. In the early Victorian period, these stories were translated into English and thus popularised by Lady Charlotte Guest.

The eisteddfod (literally, a "session") was a medieval development, a festival of literature and music on a local scale. Records exist of a major eisteddfod at Carmarthen in 1451, demonstrating that the bardic tradition had not died along with Welsh independence. The work of numerous poets of this period survives. Satire (in Welsh, dychan) also thrived.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

The first book to be printed in the Welsh language was Sir John Price's Yn y llyvyr hwnn ("In this book…") (1546), a work of religious devotion. Shortly afterwards came William Salesbury's English-Welsh dictionary, and a Welsh grammar, published 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. Most of the works published in Welsh for at least the next century were religious in nature. Morgan Llwyd, a Puritan, wrote in both English and Welsh, recounting his spiritual experiences.

During this period, poetry also began to take a religious turn, in terms of subject matter. By now, women as well as men were writing, but little of their work can be identified. The seeds of Anglo-Welsh literature can also be detected, particularly in the work of Henry Vaughan and his contemporary, George Herbert, both Royalists.

The Eighteenth Century

The trend in favour of religious literature continued and grew even stronger as Nonconformism began to take hold of Wales. The 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 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 Glamorgan stonemason and man of letters, Iolo Morganwg, led to the creation of the National Eisteddfod and the many traditions surrounding it. Although Iolo is sometimes called a charlatan because so many of his discoveries were based on pure myth, he did perform a service without which Welsh literature would have been the poorer. Some of the gentry continued to patronise bards, but this practice was gradually dying out.

The Nineteenth Century

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 for the principality. 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, John Blackwell, William Thomas and John Ceiriog Hughes, who went by the bardic names of "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

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 and south Wales.

The industrialisation of parts of Wales was now beginning to be regarded as a mixed blessing, and the old agricultural way of life which persisted in most of the country was idealised by many writers. 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.


The Literature of Wales by Dafydd Johnston. University of Wales Press, 1994. ISBN 0708312659

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