The term Welsh literature may be used to refer to any
literatureoriginating from Walesor by Welsh writers. However, it more often refers to literature written in the Welsh language. Literature by Welsh-language writers in the English languageis usually called Anglo-Welsh literatureor Welsh literature in English.
This article will give an overview of the history of Welsh-language literature. For more information about Welsh-language literature refer to the articles noted.
After literature written in the
classical languagesand the Irish language, literature in the Welsh language is the oldest surviving literature in Europe. The Welsh literary tradition still lives, stretching from the 6th century to the twenty-first. Its fortunes have fluctuated over the centuries, in line with those of the Welsh language. Even today the language of the early Middle Agesis recognisable to some modern-day Welsh speakers.
The Middle Ages
The core tradition was praise
poetryand the poet Taliesinwas regarded as the first in the line. The other aspect of the tradition was the professionalism of the poets and their reliance on patronage – from kings, princes and nobles in their turn – for their living. The fall of the principality of Gwyneddand the loss of any form of Welsh independence in 1282 did prove a crisis in the tradition but a crisis which was overcome. It led to the innovation – the development of the cywyddmeter, a more loose definition of praise, and a reliance on the nobility for patronage.
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 professionalism and that the making of poetry as a craft. Under its rules it took 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.
But kings, princes and nobles not only had their court poet, they also had their storyteller (Welsh: "cyfarwydd"). Like poets, the storytellers were also professionals; but, unlike the poets, little of their work has survived. What has survived are literary creations based on native Welsh tales which would have been told by the storytellers. These tales are usually known as the
Welsh prose in the Middle Ages was not confined to the story tradition, it included a large body of both religious and practical works, in addition to a large amount translated from other languages.
The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
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 1535-1542Wales 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 Protestantcountry 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 leadand ironsmelting, which led to the mass industrialisation of the following centuries.
The end of the Guild of poets system
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 renaissancelearning and the growth of printing.
However, the Welsh poetic tradition of the traditional meters and
cynghanedddid not disappear completely, but 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.
Without a university of its own, without other learned 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.
The first printed Welsh book
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 aristocratand an important civil servant. He served as Secretary of the Council of Wales and the Marchesand 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
Shortly afterwards the works of
William Salesburybegan to appear. Salesbury was an ardent Protestant and coupled his learning with the new religious ideas from the continent. On the other hand, Gruffudd Robertwas an ardent Catholic, but in the same spirit of learning published an important Welsh grammarwhile in enforced exile in Milanin 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 Bibleby William Morgan.
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 Philipsof 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.
The beginnings of Welsh writing in English
The seeds of Anglo-Welsh literature can also be detected, particularly in the work of
Henry Vaughanand his contemporary, George Herbert, both Royalists.
The Eighteenth Century
In the 18th century the trend in favour of religious literature continued and grew even stronger as
Nonconformismbegan to take hold of Wales. The Welsh Methodist revival, initially led by Howell Harrisand Daniel Rowland, produced not only sermons and religious tracts, but also hymns and poetry by William Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffithsand others.
The Morris brothers of
Angleseywere leading figures in the establishment of the London Welshsocieties, 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
Corwenand the Glamorgan stonemasonand man of letters, Iolo Morganwg, led to the revival of the National Eisteddfod of Walesand the invention of many of the traditions which surround it today. Although Iolo is sometimes called a charlatanbecause 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 gentrycontinued 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 Valleysduring 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 Llanoverand 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 (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.
novelhad 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 Lewisand the writer/ publisher Kate Roberts. Lewis, who had been brought up in Liverpool, was a leader of the nationalistmovement, jailed for his part in protests; he chose dramaas 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 Walesand South Wales.
The industrialisation of parts of Wales was now beginning to be regarded as a mixed blessing, and the old agricultural
agrarianway 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 Existensialismin post Second World War Franceand had an active friendship and correspondence with Simone de Beauvoir.
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 Llwydand Dic Joneswere leaders in the field. Female poets such as Menna Elfyngradually began to make their voices heard, overcoming the obstacle of the male-dominated bardic circle and its conventions.
The scholar Sir
Ifor Williamsalso pioneered scientific study of the earliest Welsh written literature, as well as the Welsh language, recovering the works of poets like Taliesin and Aneirinfrom 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 Stonehengein 472.
List of Welsh writers
List of Welsh language poets
List of Welsh language authors
Association of Welsh Translators and Interpreters
*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.
* [http://www.famouswelsh.com/03_writers/literature1.html Welsh Writers]
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