The Literature of Wales by Dafydd Johnston (#Dewithon20)

I’m pleased to have finally read this introduction to the literature of Wales. Last year I learned about the inaugural Wales Readathon too late to participate, but ordered a copy of this book right away so I’d be ready for this year’s event.

In Brief: 

The Literature of Wales by Dafydd Johnston is a highly readable and engaging introduction to the country’s 1,500 year literary history, from the 6th century to contemporary writers. For someone like me who knew next to nothing about Wales or its literary heritage, it is an excellent introduction to the various literary periods and writers. Wales’s strongest literary tradition is its poetry and Johnston also makes note of plays, novels, and short fiction.

The book’s strength lies in its first half. In the early chapters Johnston’s passion for the writing and his knowledge of the subject is presented clearly and concisely. Throughout the book, however, a lack of examples by women writers is frustrating and in the last chapter he makes some problematic statements. Indeed, the final sentences of this otherwise balanced and thoughtful survey seem unwarranted and left a bad taste.

Overall, it is an excellent introduction and overview of how Welsh writers of various time periods responded to current events and their life circumstances. Johnston shows both why and how the writing of Wales changed over time. It makes me wish for such a survey of every country’s literature.

Nuts and Bolts:

Dafydd Johnston is the director of the University of Wales’ Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. The Literature of Wales was first published in 1994 by the University of Wales Press. It was revised and expanded in 2017.

The table of contents:

  1. Heroic Poetry
  2. Early Medieval Poetry
  3. Medieval Prose
  4. Medieval Poetry
  5. The Renaissance
  6. The Eighteenth Century
  7. The Victorian Age
  8. The Literary Revival of the Early Twentieth Century
  9. The Inter-War Years
  10. 10.Post-War Literature
  11. The Later Twentieth Century
  12. 12.Contemporary Literature

At the back of the book Johnston offers suggestions for further general and specific reading. The index lists author’s names, titles, concepts and categories. The index was helpful while reading, such as when a Welsh concept like gwerin appears again in a later chapter. I was able to quickly go back and find the initial meaning.

Longer Response:

First Half

The first half of this introduction was exciting. The writing is smooth and clear. Writers and their major works are introduced in the context of their time period, showing that writers have never worked in a vacuum nor has any one time period been exclusively focused on one style of writing.

The first two writers discussed, Taliesin and Aneirin, established the heroic praise tradition of Welsh poetry. Their poems also establish Welsh as, “the oldest attested vernacular literature in Europe (1).” Taliesin is considered the founding father of the praise tradition. His poems celebrated the ideal ruler, Urien Rheged, which became “a model of for the praise poetry for the next thousand years” (3).

Aneirin was a contemporary of Taliesin. In contrast to Taliesin’s praise of the ideal ruler, Aneirin’s work celebrated heroic defeat. Both reflect the ongoing resistance and loss the Welsh have experienced politically then and for centuries to come.

Perhaps the early chapters flowed so well because Johnston specializes in medieval poetry. Maybe it is a matter of having fewer source materials to cover. It may, of course, boil down to my own interests.

Second Half

The second part of the book doesn’t flow as well. Some sections start to feel like a laundry list and the generalizations seem more sweeping. This could be due to the abundance of material after the invention of the printing press and the explosion of literacy and publishing during the Victorian Age. 

Even so, Johnston manages to present an understandable overview of what was going on in Wales during the various time periods as well as how forces from outside the country impacted the writing happening within. Or, in some cases, writers writing about Wales from outside the country. 

And this was an interesting thing to learn: there are two languages of Wales, Welsh and English, which have had an uneasy coexistence. In the 1930s the Anglo-Welsh literary movement arose, which was writing in English about Welsh concerns from a Welsh point of view (121). There was, however, tension between those writing in Welsh and those in English.

Then, in the post World War II era a second generation of Anglo-Welsh writers emerged who embraced nationalism and made “less of a show of their Welshness, which suggests that they were writing for their own people rather than for the English” (160). Today there is more harmony between the two languages, with some authors writing in both Welsh and English. In an effort to preserve and encourage more people to learn Welsh, a small minority of writers publish only in Welsh.

Problematic Final Chapter

Unfortunately, the final chapter on Contemporary Literature makes for a poor ending to an otherwise interesting read. Several sweeping statements are offensive. For example, this sentence: “Transgressive sexuality no longer carries the moral stigma once attached to it” (189). This makes clear Johnston’s heteronormative worldview, which in turn made me wonder about who, what, and how he chose to include what he has.

Indeed, when Johnston discusses how Welsh writers are now writing about a wider array of topics, including once “taboo” subjects, he writes, “Judging by the content of much recent writing, one could be forgiven for thinking that there had been a sharp decline in the moral standards of Welsh Society” (189). This seems to be a backhanded compliment to the opening up of subject matter. It’s also reflective of hegemonic surface readings of writing from earlier eras.

Take this example of a courtly love poem from the 12th century by Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd:

A love lyric

I love the trampling of a horse in summer time,
Keen are the soldiers before a brave lord.
The swift-flowing wave is topped with foam,
The apple-tree has put on a new aspect.
My shield shines on my shoulder ready for combat;
I loved — I never had her despite desire —
A tall white hemlock, gentle and tender inclination,
Of the same color as a bright sunlight at midday,
Delicate shining form, soft, white, clear,
Hardly does a reed bend at her step.
Little darling of tender nature,
She is hardly older than a ten-year-ld girl.
Child-like, shapely, full of comeliness,
She was taught as a child to give freely.
Child-woman, ardour embraces the beauty more readily
Than unseemly speech from her mouth.
Petitioner on foot, will I have a tryst?
How long will I beseech you? Stick to your task.
Love’s madness has left me helpless,
Jesus will not blame me, He who knows.

Page 44

Johnston writes that Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd’s love poems, “give passionate expression to his masculine delight in women.” My interpretation of this poem is that it celebrates an adult male’s fantasy of raping a child. Talk about transgressive.

The book concludes with this sentiment:

Literature today reflects the internal divisions of Wales more fully than ever before, not just the obvious linguistic one, but a range of ethnic, social and gender identities which make up the cultural diversity of the country. And Wales’s position as a microcosm of minorities means that its literature is of great interest to many people throughout the world who struggle to withstand the bland uniformity of Anglo-American culture (192).

Wait, what? “The bland uniformity of Anglo-American culture”? Where did that come from and to what purpose? Throughout the book Johnston notes the historical Welsh resistance to the English, but now suddenly this overwhelmingly white group of writers and a handful of “sexual transgressives” he surveys are a “microcosm of minorities” battling against Anglo-American culture?

Nowhere does Johnston show evidence of Wales being a “microcosm of minorities.” There is mention of a writer with Italian heritage, a Jewish writer, and then those sexually “transgressive” people. Perhaps he sees women as part of this minority grouping. It’s as if a page or two of argument supporting this sweeping statement was mistakingly left out of the final printing.

It is unfortunate that this excellent survey is marred by a final chapter with such judgements and unsubstantiated statements.

More Examples of Women Writers Needed

At times while reading this book, I was disappointed by Johnston’s statements that a women writer was influential and then not offering her writing as an example, such as in the case of Ann Griffiths’s hymns from the 18th century or especially when stating that modern Welsh fiction is dominated by Kate Roberts. In the final chapter he does in include two poems by women, “Marged” by Gillian Clarke and “Let the World’s Peoples Shout” by Menna Elyfn, translated by Elin ap Hywel.

Perhaps I’ve gone on too long about this last chapter of an otherwise splendid book. But it highlights the fact that the lack of examples by women writers in earlier periods is reflective of a world view that still regards men as the important writers (and readers) while giving lip service to women and minorities. Had I read the 1994 edition, I may have chalked it up to the time period. For a university press to go through the effort of putting out a second edition of a book in 2017, one would think they would have encourage a more robust revision.

Johnston writes in his preface to the second edition that he, “kept revisions to a minimum” and added the two new chapters at the end. What a missed opportunity to further enrich the reader’s overall impression and appreciation of the literary history of Wales.

Bottom line:

Overall an enjoyable read and impressive introduction to the literary history of Wales. It’s an excellent jumping off point to dig deeper into the writers and literary movements one finds interesting. The final chapter is marred by the author’s sweeping statements about minorities and unfounded judgement against Anglo-American culture, which casts a dimmer light on the book as whole. 

Perhaps in a third edition there will be more examples by women and minority writers, as well as a nod toward more complex and diverse readings of earlier works. Mere crumbs of mention are no longer acceptable.

Title: The Literature of Wales
Author: Dafydd Johnston
Publisher: University of Wales Press, 2017
Source: Bought it via Book Depository
Read for The Wales Readathon 

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  1. An excellent and very fair summation, Chris. My copy of the book lacks the final chapter, so I obviously need to pick up the revised edition from the library. I’m really glad you raised these points.

    • Thanks, Paula! I’m curious to know what you think whenever you get to it. It is feat to write a pocket guide to a 1,500 year literary history.

  2. I don’t have this book but it would be interesting to compare his assessment with that of the authors of The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature which was published last year (about 800 pages). Wales does have a multicultural dimension – until the mid nineteenth century is was mainly farming but then when coal was discovered everyone flooded here. But I don’t recognise his view of the tensions in Wales and I hotly dispute his comment about Kate Roberts, she was writing in Welsh so had a very limited audience (at best 4% of people in Wales speak Welsh) and she’s certainly not contemporary since she died in 1985.

    • Wow, I had no idea just 4% of people in Wales speak Welsh! That is a small minority.

      Johnston’s book is a pocket guide — the index pushes it to just over 200 pages. He does categorize Roberts as a modern writer rather than contemporary. She’s first mentioned in Chapter 9: The Inter-War Years and her writing is presented in an appealing way.

      Now I’m curious to check out The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature. Thanks for mentioning it.

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