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This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.The Other Side of the Hedge
Gwyn Griffiths and Meic Stephens, eds., The Old Red Tongue:
An Anthology of Welsh Literature (Francis Boutle Publishers), 999pp
An Anthology of Welsh Literature (Francis Boutle Publishers), 999pp
IT IS ONE of the minor wonders (and to some one of the minor irritants) of the modern world that a ‘Wales’ exists – albeit perhaps as little more nowadays than as ‘England’s little butty’, as the cruelly perceptive Harri Webb put it. After all it was never meant to be like this. The Act of Union of England and Wales of 1536 – really a summary Act of Annexation and Incorporation – had deliberately set in train a process of steady assimilation by England that, from some contemporary perspectives, seems (despite the flummery of a carefully emasculated National Assembly) to have pretty well reached its conclusion. Yet this tiny mouse of a country, for so long the bedfellow of a (mostly amiable) elephant, has hitherto somehow avoided being completely flattened.
Of course, the disobliging Welsh language has had much to do with it. Right down to the middle of the nineteenth century, the overwhelming majority of the Welsh spoke a language known only to themselves. But then in 1847 the monoglot English authors of a government report on the state of education in Wales informed the general populace that their primitive patois of a language was nothing but a barrier to ‘progress’. And then shortly afterwards ‘progress’ duly came in the form of a multitude of English-speaking outsiders sucked into the vortex of the great industrial boom of the South Wales valleys. The Welsh language seemed to have been well and truly flattened. But mysteriously (providentially?) that proved not to be the case.
It is one of the proudest boasts of Welsh that it has survived that catastrophe to continue producing and maintaining one of the very oldest continuous literatures in Europe. And this bilingual anthology – at one thousand pages still five hundred years short of the duration of the Welsh nation – provides imposing supporting evidence for this. It also underlines the fact that Welsh is of far more than merely antiquarian interest, whatever university departments of Celtic would prefer you to suppose. It is the only language of ‘Celtic’ derivation still capable of maintaining a vigorously varied contemporary culture, an achievement also faithfully reflected in these pages.
The twin wonders of twentieth-century Welsh cultural history were the remarkable renaissance of Welsh-language literature and the unexpected creation by the ‘Dylan Thomas generation’ of a new Anglophone literature excitingly answerable to the needs of the new ‘majority culture’ in Wales of monoglot English speakers. After the Second World War aspects of this culture, again surprisingly, began to take on something of a committedly Welsh and ‘post-colonial’ character. It would, however, take another sizeable anthology to illustrate this.
Excellent idea though it is, this hefty, ambitiously comprehensive volume covering some fifteen hundred years of prime cultural output is immediately faced with an obvious problem. Many of the greatest poems in the Welsh literary tradition are strict-metre compositions, their remarkable power wholly inseparable from the peculiar features (most particularly the mutations) of the language out of which they have been intricately sculpted. Whether solemn or scurrilous, Welsh cynghanedd poetry, the foundations of which were solidly laid as early as the seventh century of the Common Era, is one of the unsung glories of European civilisation. A stunning edifice of aural architecture, it provides an acoustic environment that has reverberated to all the mood music of the human imagination down to the present day.
Try telling that, though, to a sceptical reader capable of accessing this magical world of sound only via translations such as this, well-meaning but desolatingly bathetic:
It is sad summer for a lively poet
And a sad world for him.
There is in Gwynedd today
Nor moon, nor light, nor colour,
Since was put (unlucky welcome!)
The moon’s beauty under hard earth.
A sad world indeed. So much for a fourteenth-century poem of such elegiac power that the beautiful name of the poor young girl who died – the beguiling Lleucu – continues to be current in the Wales of today.
For all the wicked ingenuity of his prodigal, prodigious inventiveness, Dafydd ap Gwilym, the grand-daddy of all Welsh poets, suffers little better. ‘Merched Llanbadarn’, ‘The Girls of Llanbadarn’ – a poem parts of which poem poor Prince Charles was once made to learn by heart to please and appease the Welsh at Investiture-time – appears here in markedly chastened form. A much freer, riskier, and friskier approach to Dafydd’s poetry, such as was attempted by the late Glyn Jones, might have conveyed a little more adequately the irreverent brio of the writing. See, for example, Jones’s sprightly version of ‘Le Jaloux’:
Daily I feel down, doleful,
A girl calls my love-talk bull!
Esyllt – (I fell hard for her),
Slinky – old Cuckold’s sugar.
The barddas boys – and very occasional girls – are not the only ones to suffer, though. Equally discombobulated are the God-intoxicated enthusiasts who produced the great hymns – the soul-poetry of an oppressed people – of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Take the case of that mystical genius Ann Griffiths, for example. The rapturous, impetuous, erotically-charged vision she, an ordinary uneducated ‘country girl’ from remote Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa, was vouchsafed of her Saviour in ‘Wele’n sefyll rhwng y myrtwydd’ is here decorously confined within the four-square limits of middle-class English hymnology: ‘There he stands between the myrtles / Worthy object of my heart.’ Wouldn’t it have been better to risk the version produced by the American Joseph Clancy, who drew on the answerably unorthodox writings of the maverick individualist Emily Dickinson?
See – there stands – among the myrtles –
An object worthy of my heart –
Though I know in part how
He transcends all worldly thought –
But even here we encounter that dread word ‘worthy’: what Griffiths is really doing, of course, is breathlessly admiring her lover’s overflowing capacity to satisfy all her needs. But at least this unconventional American version has the merit of suggesting the frayed edges of passion, and its ‘unbalanced’ mode of utterance. We have here, then, the age-old insoluble quandary of translators. Do you go for ‘accuracy’ and ‘fidelity’ or for poetry? But after all, how can you be ‘faithful’ to a great poem save by re-producing it as at least powerful poetry?
There are though, thankfully, plenty of examples here of poetry at least partly surviving the humiliating ordeal of translation, as in Richard Poole’s deft rendering of the twentieth-century poet T.H. Parry-Williams’ cunningly demotic rhyming in ‘Yr Esgyrn Hyn’ / ‘These Bones’:
What else, brother, are you and I
But bones in a flesh pink suit and tie?
At Corlan Rhos Boeth, immortality
Is a sheep’s bare, ivory bone-cage. See!
This captures the pertness of the learned poet’s carefully calibrated down-home whimsy. Similarly successful is Joseph Clancy’s attempt to capture the Calvinistic baroque style of Bobi Jones, the most extravagantly innovative of recent Welsh poets. These are the opening lines of his praise-poem to a piously nonconformist engine-driver:
Smoke contending with smoke which will be maddest;
Light chewing chunks in the cloud and then belching;
Blasphemous grunting in a garden of grease.
See the driver crouched singing in the steel ball
‘And the lightning fading in the blood.’
That last line comes from a famous Welsh hymn psalming the miraculous salvific power of Christ’s blood sacrifice. Such versions save the volume from becoming a grim, glum mausoleum of talent.
Coverage of Welsh poetry is impressively thorough, extending beyond the usual suspects to include the ‘folk poetry’ produced by the legion of the ‘Anonymous’, often originally in the form of sententious or mischievous ‘penillion telyn’ (stanzas for harp-accompaniment):
Siân is gentle, Siân is fair,
So debonair an armful;
Siân in between my arms and breast,
Hard pressed, would be delightful.
But also – and here lies its particular originality – it includes extensive prose extracts, including religious writings and stimulating polemics by writers such as the controversial social visionary Emrys ap Iwan, a great nineteenth-century advocate of Welsh-Europeanism. It is, though, a pity that there is no extract from the magnificently austere and magisterial prose of ap Iwan’s greatest twentieth-century devotee, Saunders Lewis.
One distinctive and peculiar feature of early twentieth-century Welsh literature was its persistent fondness for the ‘ysgrif’, a form that had much in common with the English belletrist ‘essay’ tradition but given (in the compelling case of T.H. Parry-Williams) what might be anachronistically termed a ‘post-modern’ twist. There are few examples of it here, but reasonable coverage is afforded to another genre central to modern Welsh writing, that of the short story; and there are also sample extracts from a small handful of novels, including Caradog Prichard’s phantasmagoric Un Nos Ola Leuad / One Moonlit Light, recognised as indubitably the greatest of Welsh novels when it was selected a while back for inclusion in the Penguin Modern Classics series. There are even short chunks of plays by one or two of Wales’s leading dramatists, although, as in every similar case of quick dips into complex texts whose meaning and significance are inseparable from their full length, readers may be left unsure as to the value of such cursory token exercises.
The editorial policy was clearly to provide as wide a sample as possible of Welsh writing, to the inevitable detriment of the truly towering figures who are cruelly cut down to far less than size. One sad, but inevitable, consequence was the reduction of Kate Roberts, for example – not only Wales’s greatest short-story writer but one of European stature – to a bit-part player, represented only by two pieces. But the positive side of such an approach is that it has enabled the inclusion of one-piece wonders such as, say, Dyfnallt Morgan’s ‘Y Llen’/ ‘The Curtain’ and J. Kitchener Davies’ ‘S^wn y Gwynt Sy’n Chwythu’/ ‘The Sound of the Wind That is Blowing’, the most searingly confessional poetry to have emerged from Wales:
there came a breeze thin as the needle of a syringe,
cold, like ether-meth on the skin,
to whistle round the other side of the hedge.
One additional advantage of the inclusion of two such pieces as these is that they provide conclusive evidence that ‘the valleys’ of South Wales, loudly touted by some as Welsh-free zones and the exclusive preserve of the ‘Anglo-Welsh’, have continued to give rise to Welsh-language writing as powerful as any to be found in the many other regions of Wales. Dyfnallt Morgan’s poem is about the social and cultural dereliction that faced Merthyr as it entered its dire post-industrial phase, while ‘Kitch’s’ poem fused his personal spiritual crisis with that of the socio-economic crisis faced by his mining community in the Rhondda Fawr during the terrible Depression years of the nineteen-thirties.
Also from that same area, but this time from the Cynon valley, came Pennar Davies, the strange polymath whose ‘Cathl i’r Almonwydden’ / ‘A Song for the Almond Tree’ – that ‘scarred, impulsive, living tree’ – is a wonderful celebration of the scandalous, outrageous nature of the Christian vision at its most exhilaratingly affirmative. While I would have much preferred to see the incomparable translation by Elin ap Hywel chosen, R. Gerallt Jones’s version, if much tamer, is an acceptable substitute, hinting at Pennar’s hectic intemperateness:
What miracle is this which changed a carcass
Into a wild, milk-white glory, seething, rich?
Was it not the miracle which gave to the fawn its vigour
And vivacity to the swallow beneath the blue sky?
It is a poem that reminds us of the deeply unfashionable truth that from its beginnings down to the present day, much of the greatest Welsh-language poetry has remained unrepentantly and gloriously rooted in religious belief. Nowhere is this more apparent in twentieth-century writing than in the wondrous poetry of Rowan Williams’ great favourite, Waldo Williams, a strange, complex mix of mystic and dissident activist, who was so ashamed that his taxes had helped fund the Korean War that he could not bring himself even to leave the house for fear of having to look his neighbours in the eye. He was a kind of Welsh Rilke, and most people would regard his ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ as the greatest poem to have appeared in either language from twentieth-century Wales, with its majestically apocalyptic opening:
Where did the sea of light roll from
Onto Flower Meadow Field and Flower Field?
After I’d searched for long in the dark land,
The one that was always, whence did he come?
Who, oh who was the marksman, the sudden enlightener?
The roller of the sea was the field’s living hunter.
From above bright-billed whistlers, prudent scurry of lapwings,
The great quiet he brought me.
The greatest poet of industrial Wales in either language came, unexpectedly, not from the eastern valleys of the coalfield belt but from Cwm Tawe, the Swansea valley. Gwenallt helplessly watched his father die an agonising death after a cauldron of liquid metal passing overhead in the tinplate works spilled its load directly onto his unprotected head. He never forgot that Bosch-like vision of the cruel ‘pagan’ savagery of industrial processes. Some Native American tribes used to claim that the only thing they feared in war was rain, because it softened their bow-strings, fatally reducing their tautness. Any sensitive translator of Gwenallt’s poetry should be similarly worried that the tension raw anger injected into his unforgiving lines will be lost in the conversion process. The late Tony Conran – surely the most gifted of translators, whose 1967 Penguin Book of Welsh Verse was such a landmark publication – manages at least to minimise the damage in his version of one of the most celebrated of Gwenallt’s works, ‘Y Meirwon’ / ‘The Dead’:
Men and brave women with a fistful of bloodmoney,
With a bucketful of death, forever the rankling of loss,
Carrying coal, chopping wood for a fire, or setting the garden,
And more and more reading the Passion of the Cross.
This Sunday of Flowers, as we place on their graves a bunch
Of silicotic roses and lilies pale as gas,
Between the premature stone and the curb yet unripened,
We gather the old blasphemings, curses of funerals past.
Recent and contemporary writers are also here well represented in all their remarkable diversity.
Any such anthology as this is bound to involve several endlessly controversial trade-offs, but there can only be unqualified approval for the contextual materials, in the form of short introductory essays, notes and glosses, that greatly assist the reader to make both local and overall sense of what could otherwise be a bewilderingly vast and pathless expanse of text. And a brief word in conclusion about one of the two hugely industrious editors. Now approaching his eightieth birthday, Meic Stephens has for half a century been one of the most imposing figures on the Welsh cultural scene. A fine poet and prodigious compiler –for instance of The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales – Stephens it was who made possible the thriving Welsh book industry of today thanks to his seminal investment in infrastructure during his culturally transformative years of service as Director of Literature at the Welsh Arts Council. He has now merited the gratitude of his nation once more, and also hopefully attracted some new admirers from across Europe, for serving as co-editor of this rich and impressive anthology of extracts from the extraordinary – and thankfully still stubbornly enduring – tradition of Welsh-language writing.
This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.