An informative little book about the literature of Wales
This is the third in a series of occasional features about Wales to be posted in the months leading up to the first ever Dewithon, or Wales Readathon, which is taking place from 1st to 31st March 2019.
Seventeen years ago, or thereabouts, I acquired a slim, softback volume entitled, The Literature of Wales by D.R. Johnston from The Bookshop, a small, family-run independent store in Mold – a pleasant market town in north-east Wales.
The illustration on the front cover depicted the far from striking Manawydan’s Glass Door (1931) by Flintshire-born artist-poet, David Jones, and the blurb inside described it as “the first short survey of both the Welsh- and English-language literatures of Wales.” My interest vaguely aroused, I purchased a copy along with several other titles, took it home, slotted it into my tightly-packed collection of TBRs and, without further thought, completely forgot it was there. I rediscovered it quite recently on the shelf next to M. Wynn Thomas’s Guide to Welsh Literature as I was hunting for writers likely to appeal to Dewithoners.
Professor Johnston, I soon realised, had produced a readable introduction to Welsh literature covering the periods from the earliest surviving poetry of sixth century Taliesin and Aneirin (the oldest authenticated vernacular literature in Europe) to post-war works by the likes of Waldo Williams, R.S. Thomas and Gillian Clarke. It was ideally suited to someone approaching the subject for the first time, with somewhere in the region of fifteen-hundred-years of rich literary achievement condensed into 10 chapters.
Included were extracts from original texts with English translations charting the flowering of Medieval Welsh literature and the developments of the Renaissance period in Wales up to the literary revival of the late 19th and 20th-centuries, at which point burgeoned Anglo-Welsh writings (i.e. those composed in English out of a Welsh background).
I would recommend reading this short but informative book for its practical, dispassionate assessment of Welsh literature and its historical background. Johnston was a Professor of Welsh at University of Wales, Swansea, when it was first published in 1994. A revised edition was released only last year as part of the University of Wales Press Pocket Guide series with a far more eye-catching cover and a new chapter on contemporary writing.
From ‘Praise of Anglesey’
by Goronwy Owen (1723-1769)
When Môn and her gentle beauty
Shines red-hot from the heat of the flame,
And her bulging silver veins
And her lead and iron are aflame,
To what avails shelter from the molten earth?
May God provide a home for the soul!
A fine shining house of glory
In the fortress of the Stars, in the Holy choir;
And there chanting aloud
Their brilliant song to the beloved Lord,
May the Men of Môn be, and Goronwy,
Henceforth unable to take their leave.
(Translated by Branwen Jarvis, Goronwy Owen)