Welsh Literature

Welsh literature is a regional genre of literature that originates from Wales, with works written in English and also in Welsh, the country's native language.

Welsh Literature Welsh Literature

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Table of contents

    In the following article, we will learn all about Welsh literature - the definition and history of Welsh literature, the Welsh authors and poets!

    Definition of Welsh literature

    First, it is important to consider the term's definition:

    Welsh literature describes all forms of literature that originate from Wales or are written by Welsh writers. This includes two forms: Welsh-language literature and Welsh literature in English.

    Welsh flag, pixabay.comFig 1 - Welsh culture is both critiqued and celebrated in Welsh Literature

    Welsh literature has been an important part of the country's identity within the United Kingdom, helping to empower Welsh heritage and its people as an individual culture.

    History of Welsh literature

    It is essential to understand the two distinct developments in Welsh literature.

    First, the Middle Ages (c. 5th century - 15th century AD) saw the emergence of literature written in the Welsh language. This became a tradition that has lasted for centuries, through the integration of Wales into the United Kingdom and even into the present day.

    The Middle Ages (sometimes called the medieval era) was the period in European history from approximately the 5th to the 15th centuries.

    After English became the dominant language in Wales, the term Welsh literature in English was used. This had early beginnings in the 17th century, but it did not flourish until the 20th century.

    Welsh-language literature

    Welsh-language literature is culturally and linguistically significant, with medieval roots that are some of the oldest in British history.

    The Middle Ages

    Welsh-language literature, known in Welsh as 'Llenyddiaeth Gymraeg', developed as early as the 5th century AD, the time at which the language became distinct. Poetry was the first to develop, giving rise to The Earliest Poets, who became famous for crafting praise poems for lords and rulers (known in Welsh as 'cywyddwyr').

    By the 11th century, after the Norman Conquest, the Welsh language and culture changed as it was influenced by the dominant Normans.

    The Norman Conquest was the invasion of England during the 11th century, led by William the Conquerer (c. 1028-1087).

    Welsh rulers were caught in a period of turmoil in which they engaged in battles with the English and with each other. Literature that arose during this time was known as Poets of the Princes, including the first-ever compilation of Welsh prose.

    What formed next was the stage known as Poets of the Nobility, also known as praise poetry. It primarily served as propaganda for rulers and lords, inspiring courage and loyalty in their soldiers as well as glorifying particularly brave warriors.

    The authors of these poems, bards (Welsh: 'beirdd'), held particularly high status in medieval Welsh culture.

    Bards were, in the Celtic tradition, professional poets, storytellers, composers and historians. They were employed by wealthy patrons, typically monarchs, lords or rulers, to craft commemorative art about them, their pursuits and their lineage.

    This was likely due to the delicate intricacies of the Welsh poetic art of the time. Poetic traditions were upheld by the Order of bards, or a guild of poets, which outlined rules in a 'rule book' that underscored the craft of poetry. Bards engaged in intensive training for many years and remained an important class even after England annexed Welsh lands in the mid-16th century.

    15th and 16th centuries

    During the Tudor period (1483-1603), Wales became politically, economically and socially part of the English Kingdom, losing its legal independence. Welsh bards began to struggle to keep their poetic traditions alive, and it became much harder for them to make their living.

    King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) embarked on a series of legal processes between 1536 and 1541, which essentially disbanded all monasteries and religious places in the United Kingdom. This was known as The Dissolution of the Monasteries.

    In Wales, this created a further decline in the Welsh poetic tradition as monasteries had been significant patrons for poets. The lack of patronage, combined with the traditionalism of the Guild of poets, made the transition for Welsh literature into the Renaissance age very difficult. The Welsh tradition, however, did not disappear completely: it fell into the hands of non-bards, or ordinary poets. and still survives today.

    There were some developments in Welsh-language literature during this time. In 1546, the first book printed in Welsh, titled Yn y llyvyr hwnn by Sir John Price (c. 1502-1555) was published. The English translation of the title is In This Book.

    Throughout the 16th century, Welsh literature tended towards religious subjects. In 1567, William Salesbury published a translation of the New Testament of the Bible into Welsh and compiled an English-Welsh dictionary.

    19th century

    In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought many English people to Wales, particularly in the industries of coal, lead and iron.

    The Industrial Revolution was a period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe and the United States that saw a great transition to new, modern and large-scale manufacturing processes, such as in factories.

    Despite their English heritage, many made an effort to learn Welsh and adapt to Welsh culture. Because of this, there was increased demand for literature, particularly popular forms like novels, newspapers, periodicals and poetry.

    Wealthy ex-pats, including figures like Lady Llanover and Lady Charlotte Guest, assisted in the popularisation of writing to enrich Welsh cultural life.

    During this time, Welsh literature thrived in a way that had not been seen for centuries. The first recognised Welsh-language novelists emerged, primary of which was Daniel Owen (1836-1895), who was famous for his works Enoc Huws (1891) and Rhys Lewis (1885).

    The pre-eminent poets of the time included John Blackwell (1797-1840), Evan Evans (1795-1855), John Ceiriog Hughes (1832-1887) and William Thomas (1832-1878). All four brought back the Welsh poetic tradition in popular Welsh poetry competitions (known as 'eisteddfodau' in Welsh) to disguise their names, using the bardic names 'Alun', 'Ieuan Glan Geirionydd', 'Ceiriog' and 'Islwyn' respectively.

    The influence of the 'eisteddfodau', a Welsh term describing competitive festivals that include performances of poetry and music, was also a large reason for the resurgence of Welsh literature. The largest of these competitions is the National Eisteddfod of Wales. It is still held today and is known to be the largest music and poetry festival in Europe.

    20th century

    In the early 20th century, Welsh-language literature became increasingly politicised: many writers were involved in activism for a burgeoning nationalist cause.

    In the 1940s, the Cadwgan Circle, a famous writing group, was created, forming a movement that wrote almost exclusively in Welsh. Members included founding couple J. Gwyn Griffiths (1911-2004) and Käthe Bosse-Griffiths (1910-1998), poet and playwright James Kitchener Davies (1902-1952), and author Pennar Davies (1911-1996), among others.

    The 1980s saw the appearance of new literary works written in Welsh after a few decades of stagnation. Novels, like those by Angharad Tomos (1958-), were widely well-received. By the 1990s, postmodernism took hold in Welsh-language prose, as seen in the works of William Owen Roberts (1960-), for example.

    Postmodernism is 'a style and movement in art, architecture, literature, etc. in the late 20th century that reacted against modern styles, for example by mixing features from traditional and modern styles'.2 Postmodernism is characterised by subjectivism; works of postmodernism entertain the idea that life doesn't have a clear meaning, that it means something different depending on the perspective.

    Welsh-language poetry, too, saw a resurgence, especially as the poems were involved with political causes. Traditional verse forms were revived in the works of Dic Jones (1934-2009) and Alan Llwyd (1948-).

    Welsh literature in English

    Welsh literature in English was originally termed 'Anglo-Welsh'. However, critics found that adequate status was not given to the Welsh heritage of writers who chose to write in English.

    Before the 20th century, very few people in Wales spoke English, and even fewer wrote in it. However, this soon changed after the Industrial Revolution, which saw the growth of an English-speaking immigrant population in the country.

    By the 1930s, the first wave of Welsh literature in English began to develop with the emergence of fiction writers like Rhys Davies (1901-1978), as well as poets like Idris Davies (1905-1953) and famously, Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), among others.

    After World War II (1939-1945), many prolific Welsh writers found their beginnings. For example, Poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000) and novelist Emyr Humphreys (1919-2020) both became major figures in Welsh literature in the latter half of the 20th century.

    Despite the country seeing mass unemployment in the face of industrial decline during the 1960s, Welsh literature began developing infrastructure to support cultural growth. For example, the Arts Council for Wales was established in 1965 to create more opportunities for artists and writers across the country.

    Welsh literature in English is still flourishing in the 21st century. Prominent contemporary writers include Niall Griffiths (1966-) and poet Gillian Clarke (1937-).

    Welsh authors

    As we have now established, there is an impressive number of Welsh writers that have been particularly influential. Let's have a look in more depth and some famous Welsh authors.

    Daniel Owen

    Daniel Owen (1836-1895) was a novelist credited with being the foremost significant Welsh-language writer.

    The novel Rhys Lewis (1885) and its sequel Enoc Huws (1891) were his most celebrated works, garnering overwhelming critical praise and comparisons to Charles Dickens.

    It is widely thought that Owen popularised the tradition of writing novels in the Welsh language, creating a legacy that was highly influential for centuries after.

    John Ellis Williams

    John Ellis Williams (1924-2008) wrote in both Welsh and in English, focusing on Welsh farming communities during the inter-war period (the period between the First and the Second World War).

    Where rural life tended to be idealised by his contemporaries, Williams stood out by opting to focus on realism in works like Clouds of Time and Other Stories (1989) as well as Rare Welsh Bits (2000), which were compilations of works that had previously been published in local newspapers and the Countryman magazine.

    Realism is 'a style in art or literature that shows things and people as they are in real life'¹. Common features in works of realism include realistic plots and in-depth descriptions of settings and characters. Works of realism are character-driven and focus on their day-to-day lives.

    Niall Griffiths

    Niall Griffiths (1966-) is a contemporary Welsh author born in Liverpool, England. Though technically English, most of Griffith's work is set in Wales and focuses on Welsh culture.

    His debut novel Grits (2000), follows a group of drifters and addicts in rural Wales, examining ordinary, marginalised characters as they navigate contemporary British society. The book was critically well-received, beginning a prolific career.

    Griffiths has since written eight more novels and a poetry collection titled Red Roar: 20 Years of Words, published in 2015.

    Welsh poets

    Even more so, the Welsh literary tradition is known for poetry. Let's now consider some of the most famous Welsh poets.

    Dafydd ap Gwilym

    One of the earliest and most revered Welsh poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym (c. 1315-c. 1350), is largely regarded as one of the foremost major medieval writers in Europe.

    He is renowned for writing praise poems for various patrons, particularly for Ifor Ap Llywelyn of Basaleg, whom he referred to in his work as Ifor Hael (meaning 'Ifor the Generous'). Dafydd wrote many poems for Ifor Hael, many of which are considered to be models of praise poetry written in honour of a great patron.

    His most famous poems include: 'Yr wylan' (meaning 'The Seagull') and 'Morfudd fel yr haul', which translates to 'Morfudd Like the Sun', which was written about the wife of a merchant with whom Dafydd was thought to have had an affair with.

    Dafydd was exceptionally regarded for his skills with the poetic meter. His popularisation of cywydd (seven-syllabled rhyming couplets) was highly influential; the meter appears in more than 150 of his poems and was used by many other contemporary poets, including Iolo Goch (c. 1320-c. 1398) and Gruffudd Gryg (c. 1340-c. 1380).

    Dylan Thomas

    Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) is possibly the most famous Welsh English-language poet known for poems like 'And death shall have no dominion' (1936) and 'Do not go gentle into that good night' (1951).

    You might recognise the poem 'Do not go gentle into that good night' from its use in Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar. It is used as a repeated motif throughout the film, particularly by the character Professor John Brand, played by Michael Caine.

    Thomas is known for his obscure style that favours unusual syntax and onomatopeic words, which sometimes makes his work difficult to understand. His writing often explores complex themes, including life, death and childhood nostalgia.

    Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases.

    Onomatopoeia is a literary term that describes the formation of a word that creates or evokes the sound it describes.

    As well as poetry, Thomas is known for his dramatic work, his most famous of which is Under Milk Wood (1954) which was written as a radio drama for BBC. It was later adapted for the stage. The play is told by an omniscient narrator that describes the internal thoughts of the residents of Llareggub, a fictional fishing village in Wales.

    Thomas became extremely popular during his lifetime and is known to be a significant literary influence on many prominent writers of the 20th century.

    Gillian Clarke

    Gillian Clarke (1937-) is a prominent Welsh English-language poet and dramatist who is known for works that have inventive incorporations of Welsh poetic traditions with a focus on nature, particularly the landscape of rural Wales.

    Clarke is known for discussing personal experiences and exploring her childhood through themes of war, the passage of time and the role of women.

    Her most famous poetry collections include Snow on the Mountain (1971), Letter from a Far Country (1982), and Collected Poems (1997), among others. In 2008, Clarke achieved the prestigious National Poet of Wales award.

    Welsh Literature - Key takeaways

    • Welsh literature describes literature that originates from the country of Wales.
    • Welsh literature is separated into two strands: Welsh-language literature and Welsh literature in English.
    • Welsh-language literature developed as early as the 5th century, during the Middle Ages.
    • Welsh literature in English appeared mainly in the 20th century.
    • Famous Welsh writers include Daniel Owen, Dylan Thomas and Dafydd ap Gwilym.

    1 Realism, Oxford Learner's Dictionaries

    2 Postmodernism, Oxford Learner's Dictionaries

    Frequently Asked Questions about Welsh Literature

    What is Welsh literature?

    Welsh literature includes all forms of literature that originate from Wales.

    Who was a Welsh poet?

    Dafydd ap Gwilym is an example of one of the earliest Welsh poets.

    What are examples of Welsh Literature?

    Welsh literature includes praise poems from the Middle Ages, including works by Dafydd ap Gwilym among many others, 19th century novelists like Daniel Owen, and poetic works by Dylan Thomas in the 20th century.

    Who is the most famous Welsh writer?

    It can be said that poet Dylan Thomas is the most famous Welsh writer.

    What were Welsh poets called?

    Early Welsh poets were called 'bards'.

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