Four Nations Romanticism and Welsh Writing in English
This week, Dr Liz Edwards (National Library of Wales) examines the writing of Richard Llwyd through a four nations approach, recovering this ‘forgotten voice’.
Almost exactly a year ago, my edition of the poetry of the Anglesey labouring-class writer Richard Llwyd (1752-1835) was published by Trent Editions, a small press that specialises in recovery work, especially of radical and/or working-class writing. Taking that edition as a starting point, this post explores some of the uses of four nations critical approaches for studies of Welsh writing in English.
Trent had previously reissued C18th Welsh material in John Goodridge’s edition of John Dyer’s poetry, and early-C19th labouring-class verse by the London shoemaker-poet Robert Bloomfield, who sold 20,000 copies of his first book in 1800. Trent’s list is appealingly broad-ranging – other Romantic-period titles in the back catalogue include shipwreck narratives, satirical broadsides, and antirevolutionary pamphlets – but the combination of Dyer and Bloomfield as significant writers who had slipped from view seemed like the ideal context for Llwyd. Now largely forgotten, he was a literary landmark in his own time as the ‘Bard of Snowdon’. His poems are deeply-set in Welsh literature and history, but also present contemporary portraits of class, patronage, place, current affairs, and the everyday lives of the rural poor.
But adding Llwyd to a list that already included Bloomfield doesn’t just make sense from a C21st perspective. Llwyd, a domestic servant-turned-steward, was himself already claiming to be part of a wider community of British Isles labouring-class poets back in 1804, when he published his second book, Poems, Tales, Odes, Sonnets, Translations from the British. The second poem in that collection, ‘Hymn to Temperance’, turns on a four-nations vision of contemporary poetry: a labouring-class literary landscape consisting of Robert Burns, Robert Bloomfield, and the Irish poet Thomas Dermody. All three of these poets had powerful aristocratic sponsors, and Llwyd’s point in the poem is his lack of any influential backer, though, in a less traditional patronage model, he enjoyed the support of the Chester Chronicle, the more liberal of Chester’s two newspapers.
The terms of the ‘Hymn to Temperance’ represent a fairly bald bid for status, and to an extent for independence – Llwyd is clear both about his similarities to his counterpart Scottish, Irish and English ‘humbly-born Bards’, and his differences from them. But Burns (and others) are also present in the collection in more subtle ways. Llwyd’s ‘Ode to Winter’, a passionate defence of the suffering poor that pleads with winter to spare those in their ‘huts of Want and Pain’, is reminiscent of poems by Burns’s like ‘To Ruin’, verses on the cold storms that humble the ‘mightiest’ of empires. In the 1786 Kilmarnock edition, ‘To Ruin’ appears just a few pages after ‘Winter, A Dirge’, on the ruinous force of winter, and after another wintry dirge, ‘Man Was Made to Mourn’, which depicts an elderly man ‘on the edge of life’ as a result of his age and his poverty.
Precarious lives, individuals struggling to survive within their communities, can clearly be seen in poems by Llwyd. ‘Kate of Cymmau’ tells the story of an elderly cottager; ‘The Scarecrow’ explores the effects of collective action against social injustice; while ‘The Contrast’ angrily compares the lives of rich and poor.
Looking to Burns is a reminder that Llwyd’s levelling rural perspective is part of a wider, restless political pastoral. But Llwyd bridges cultures in other ways too. A self-taught antiquarian, he’s just as likely to quote Welsh-language medieval verse as to quote Shakespeare, Milton, James Thomson or Thomas Gray. Recognising the Welsh-but-transnational quality of Llwyd’s work is crucial to understanding it, but also brings into focus some of the challenges of recovering his work. In 2010, Murray Pittock made the case for the failure of institutional Romanticism – particularly taught Romanticism – to deal with issues of place, nation, and particularly language. He locates that failure largely within the mid-C20th shift to New Criticism, which led to an ‘aestheticized Romanticism’ that more or less ‘wiped out’ the place of Burns, and also Walter Scott.[i] Burns is still rarely taught on survey courses on Romanticism; and when he is, his use of non-standard English means, as Pittock points out, that ‘the only niche available to him … is that of peasant or labouring-class poet’, even though he uses both English and Scots registers.[ii]
The legacies of New Criticism also present problems for reading Welsh writers, and not just Romantic ones. In a recent article on Edward Thomas, Andrew Webb shows how Thomas has been constructed via ‘a recalcitrant Anglocentrism which operates within a notionally devolved British literary establishment’.[iii] Webb argues that New Critical readings of Thomas as a universalising poet of human experience or the human condition is a kind of infection that still hasn’t left the system. More than that, they’re also the means to a veiled political literary history of these islands: the C20th construction of Thomas as ‘quintessentially English’ ignores or conceals his Welshness and ‘de-nationalises’ him in order to present an unbroken tradition of English (and anti-Modernist) poetry that runs from Lyrical Ballads to Larkin.
Four nations approaches have opened up space for recovering forgotten voices from the so-called peripheries. They have also vitally sharpened critical readings of more canonical figures, as in the example of Edward Thomas. Things have changed within Wales studies, too: critics are perhaps less troubled than ever before by the concept of Anglophone writing as Welsh writing, and bicultural Wales has become a critically useful concept. Although the Welsh-speaking Llwyd wrote in English, he is relentlessly culturally bilingual throughout his work.
Llwyd is the kind of figure who enables us to ‘reconstitut[e] British Isles Romanticism as a series of dialogues’ illustrating that not all exchanges in this period ‘are between a centrally English and marginal Scottish/Irish/Welsh literature’.[iv] Furthermore the lesser known areas of Romantic writing – from newspapers to songs, letters and forgotten poets – are arguably ones in which aesthetic and formalist readings tend not to work; long-held views don’t take priority there, if they exist at all. As we continue recovering all kinds of discarded Romantic and other dialogues, four nations thinking offers frameworks for restoring lost or hidden difference, and for understanding the relations between the parts of these islands.
[i] Murray Pittock, ‘Scottish, Irish and Welsh Romanticism’, in David Higgins and Sharon Ruston (eds), Teaching Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 38-48, 38.
[ii] Ibid., 39.
[iii] Andrew Webb, ‘Anglocentrism within British literary studies: the reception of Edward Thomas’, Textual Practice, 27: 7 (2013), 1103-23, 1103.
[iv] Pittock, 40.
Liz Edwards has been a Research Fellow at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth, since 2009. Her English-Language Poetry from Wales 1789-1806 (University of Wales Press) was published in in 2013, and her guest-edited Four Nations-themed special issue of Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780-1840 appeared earlier this year.