Free Welsh voices to sing

April 26, 2002

For too long Welsh and Anglo-Welsh writing has been dismissed. Stephen Logan says it is time for a reappraisal.

Like many, I am dismayed by the readiness with which those who defend the distinctive national identity of the Welsh are accused of nationalism. I speak as one of a generation of people from Southeast Wales that was denied the opportunity to learn Welsh as children. Yet I consider myself as Welsh as the Taff or the Usk. There is a close relationship between the Welsh language and the Welsh national identity. But there is also a close and developing relationship between Welsh national identity and the English language.

In South Wales in the late 1950s, I, like many other children, was discouraged parentally, politically and culturally from learning Welsh. I would often hear from members of my maternal grandmother's generation the faintly quizzical disclaimer, spoken with a strong Welsh lilt: "We're not very Welsh down here, are we?" People living near the English border were particularly susceptible to feelings of shame about Welshness.

This was chiefly the result of English propaganda. But the shame was sometimes compounded by compatriots in Welsh-speaking parts of Wales who might refer to the inhabitants of Gwent, say, as "not really Welsh". Although no English visitors to Newport or Cardiff will doubt that they have entered a different culture, it is perhaps only recently that the inhabitants of Southeast Wales have begun consciously, proudly and (where necessary) defiantly to define themselves as Welsh.

Most schools in the areas of South Wales where Welsh is not generally spoken now routinely teach Welsh. This has further complicated a complex situation. Among Welsh people are several different groups:

* Welsh speakers who never use English

* Welsh speakers who freely use English

* English speakers who cannot speak Welsh

* English speakers who rarely speak Welsh, despite possessing some degree of competence in it

* People equally fluent and active in Welsh and English.

There is a diversity of views about how the situation arose, but the general view in Wales seems to be that preserving both languages is desirable. However, given the historical oppression of Welsh and the ignorance of its antiquity and cultural refinement, Welsh needs careful tending and promotion.

J. R. R. Tolkien, a great philologist of complex national identity who used Welsh as a source of names and cultural-linguistic motifs in The Lord of the Rings , was well aware of the greatness of the Welsh language; aware too, of how little its greatness is recognised by the English, whose discussions of Wales, he said, can sometimes smack of nationalistic complacency.

J. R. Green, not known as a defender of Welsh nationhood, asserts in his Short History of the English People (1874) that, by the 14th century, when England was producing its first great upsurge of poetry since Beowulf , Welsh poetry was already at a point of technical sophistication reminiscent of the age of Pope. However these claims might be assessed, it is beyond reasonable dispute that the relative stability of Welsh language and culture promoted the development, by the Middle Ages, of a literary tradition of dazzling richness and subtlety.

Yet the habit of neglecting Welsh language and culture runs deep. Never in my childhood in Gwent did I hear anything of Welsh history. It was not until I had been teaching English literature for nearly 20 years in three universities that I realised fully the importance of distinguishing between literature written in English by the English and literature written in English by the Welsh. I was somewhat quicker to see the need for such a distinction in the case of Irish and Scottish writers. I had unconsciously inherited a habit of subordinating Welsh interests to English ones and had accustomed myself to supposing that English literature excluded most Welsh writers, except perhaps R. S. Thomas and Dylan Thomas.

I have subsequently been amazed by the richness and diversity of Welsh writing, in Welsh and English, a richness and diversity that is little recognised outside Wales. Irish writers are incorporated into literature in English with due respect for their national distinctness and distinctiveness. The same is true, though perhaps to a lesser extent, of Scottish writers in English. But Welsh writers have yet to be accorded such respect, although their achievements are comparably distinguished and their language and culture among the oldest in Europe.

It is extraordinary that, barely 50 miles from Bristol, you can find whole communities speaking a language of such ancient origin and sophistication. More extraordinary still is that this is so little recognised in England. Books by and about Welsh authors writing in English are poorly represented in English bookshops. The treatment of Anglo-Welsh (and a fortiori of Welsh) writing in England is in need of reappraisal.

It might have been thought that, by writing in English, Welsh writers would have improved their chances of reaching readers in England. But this hardly seems to have happened. Dylan Thomas's allegiances were to the Welsh nation and the English language. He was Welsh in sensibility, English in speech. Yet, despite his being probably the most widely appreciated poet of the 20th century in the British Isles and in the United States, Thomas is commonly regarded in England as a minor poet. It might be argued that not until Wales has produced an English-language poet of the stature of T. S. Eliot will Anglo-Welsh writing be properly respected. Of course, some would reply that Dylan Thomas is indeed of Eliot's stature.

And it could be that, in any case, the vitality of Anglo-Welsh writing has benefited from the lack of metropolitan interference. But, when the complexities of modern Welsh culture are so little understood outside Wales, it may be unwise to take the possibility of fair consideration and acclaim too much for granted.

Stephen Logan is lecturer in English at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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