All entries for Thursday 15 March 2007

March 15, 2007

Writing Glamorgan


M. Wynn Thomas suggests that the origins of Glamorgan literature were influenced by writers such as Caradog Evans. Of Evans, Wynn Thomas writes: ‘Filled with admiration for the libertarian, egalitarian world being dreamed about, if not actually lived, in industrial south Wales, Evans through his parodic Old Testament style put the mark of Cain on a rural society which by contrast, appeared backward and savagely feudal to him’ (25). In the social change that was occurring, Glamorgan represented ‘the time and place of sundering’, while literary portraits of West Wales for example, became ‘the indispensable mirror images fashioned by industrial south Wales inversely to reflect, and to enable it to reflect upon, its own fiercely cherished separate identity’ (25).

Wynn Thomas compares Glamorgan literature’s feeling of ambivalence to a state described by Octavio Paz in his Nobel Prize speech. Paz suggests that South American writing is seen as separate recalling that, according to Wynn Thomas, ‘the psychological (and creative) consequences of socio-cultural separation are […] subtle and extend across a spectrum far wider than that covered by his suggestive duality’ (26). Wynn Thomas suggests that separation in Glamorganshire writing manifests itself in a number of ways:
• ‘personal isolation’ (Alun Lewis, Rhys Davies);
• ‘the conviction of solidarity with a unique society’ (Gwyn Thomas, Jack Jones, Lewis Jones);
• ‘the search […] for social and cultural connections’ (Glyn Jones);
• idiosyncratic style and content (Dylan Thomas);
• and a preoccupation with friendship as a thene (Vernon Watkins) (26).

These differences may be emphasized and respected. But underlying them, and interconnecting them in labyrinthine fashion, it seems to me, is the writers’ common experience – simultaneously constructive and destructive, liberating and inhibiting – of belonging to a place apart; a historical region which was certainly not assimilable to England, but which could not be integrated into traditional Wales either, It was therefore doubly separate – set apart on two counts and on two fronts – and its writers were perhaps doubly blessed and cursed. (26)

Wynn Thomas, M. Internal Difference: Twentieth-century writing in Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992.

General Characteristics of Welsh Poetry

In 1848, the Blue Books Comissioner, Jelinger C. Symons claimed 'there is no Welsh literature worthy of the name'.

H.I. Bell notes how, just as Wales itself has assimilated foreign influences, so has its poetry. It is ‘dominated […] by tradition’ (in form and content) and it retains ‘a technical mastery and a concentrated force’ (2). Bell also notices Welsh poetry’s ‘lyrical quality’ and also its production of ‘compositions of an epical, romantic, dramatic, philosophical or didactic character’ (4). The preference though on the whole is for the lyric.

Bell makes a criticism of Welsh poetry suggesting that ‘image is added to image, fancy piled on fancy, in a rich jewellery of verbal felicity, but in which we feel the want of any organic progression of thought or feeling’ (5). This generalisation is really too general!

However, Bell does hit the mark when he suggests that Welsh poetry displays, ‘a peculiar sensitiveness to the music of words’ (5). Bell writes: ‘The chime and clash of rhythm, alliteration and assonance, the interplay of vowel and consonant, have been pursued with unfailing zest. sometimes to the detriment of sense and structural quality’ (6). Bell suggests that cynghanedd may appear ‘to an Englishman extravagantly complicated and artificial’, but he argues that the form is inestricably allied to the Welsh language. It represents, ‘a love of accomplished and eloquent speech’ as in the case of the peculiar speaking manner (hwyl) of the Welsh preacher (6).

Welsh poets supposedly have a ‘love of nature’ and can intuit its ‘various moods’ (6). However nature is more often, ‘the background’ and is not ‘the primary theme’ as is the case in some English poetry, yet Welsh poetry does manifest ‘a peculiar responsiveness’ to it (6). Nature is the poet’s companion and fellow-traveller. Bell wonders whether it is a Celtic influence that creates this ‘sensibility to natural influences (7). In any case, Welsh poets are often able to ‘bring human moods into relation with those of nature’ in ‘a relation […] of either contrast or sympathy’ (8). The kinds of nature that appear in Welsh poetry are often ‘softer landscapes and more intimate aspects of nature’ rather than wildernesses (11). Poets of the nineteenth century are he exception to this rule thouh, as they do celebrate ‘the storm and wilder aspects of nature’ (11).

Another aspect of Welsh poetry is ‘the gnomic style and the epigram’ encouraged by the cywydd metre which creates ‘terse and effective statement’ and by the englyn (11). Bell compares the cywydd with Pope’s heroic couplet.

In terms of temperament, Welsh writers do not necessarily manifest ‘a [stereotypical Celtic] gentle and wistful melancholy’ according to Bell. In medieval times, the Welsh people were apparently, ‘warlike, buoyant, gay and sensuous’ (another rather distasteful stereotype!) (12). Bell notes that in modern times, Methodist and Calvinist influences and an Iberian section of the population (!) may have contributed to a class of poet, ‘sprung from a poor peasantry, often winning such education as they had in the teeth of difficulties and during a life of ill-health and privation’ (another stereotype) (12).

Bell is more at home in talking about Hiraeth, which is often a theme of Welsh poetry. Hiraeth refers to a ‘longing for home’, a desire that can never be truly fulfilled because it quests ‘for dead friends, vanished youth, the peace of Heaven, some satisfaction which life can never give’ (13). Bell links the loss of Hiraeth to the spirit of the Celts and again, he tends towards speculation:

When this note of wistfulness is united with the delicacy of conception and the power of bare, direct, seeming-effortless and yet infinitely significant expression which are characteristic gifts of Welsh poetry the resulting verses are at times quite heartrending in their perfect simplicity. […] The Celts are eternal children of a later age, and in some of the Welsh poems we have a feeling that the author is looking with unacquainted eyes at a new world, coming for the first time, and with wondering incomprehension, into the presence of sorrow and death. (15)

This is rather whimsical but it was written in 1936 when views about the Celts and the Welsh were certainly less progressive. It does seem rather like positive discrimination or stereotyping. There is also the very telling description of the Welsh as children. As the academic Susan Bassnett has shown, all too often English imperialism has figured the Scottish, Irish and Welsh as feral and helpless children in need of England’s adult guidance.

Bell, H.I. The Development of Welsh Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936.

Devolving English Literature

UK Crown

Robert Crawford begins his introduction by considering the term ‘difference’ and its various manifestations: Derrida’s différance and its ‘enormous geographies of debate’; difference as a means of thinking about ‘how writing occludes, constructs, or distorts racial and sexual difference’; and “making in difference” in terms of ‘theoretically orientated investigations’ (1). However, Crawford asserts that, ‘there were also areas of difference which almost all the consciously theorized writing of that period, as well as the more traditionally orientated criticism, obscured or ignored in a gesture which, deliberate or not, curiously reproduced distortions perpetuated by traditional literary criticism or historiography’ (1). England is often thought of as an island and its inhabitants are usually all English. For example, in 1879, J.C. Shairp wrote a book on Robert Burns for the series, English Men of Letters. Thinking about the twentieth century, Crawford comments sarcastically on Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island, a book that ‘ignores Scottish and Welsh writing , so surely he should be free to simplify cultural geography by assuming that England’s boundaries extend to Aberystwyth and John O’Groats’ (2). For Crawford, there is, ‘a noticeable slipperiness in the use of the term ‘English’, the term which, among other things, labels, or fails to label, the academic discipline of English Literature’ (2).

Crawford believes that the coupling of the words ‘English’ and ‘Literature’ cannot be left unexamined. He notes how the terms dominate literary courses at universities and how outside specific regions, areas such as Australian Literature, Scottish Literature, Welsh Literature etc are sidelined. However American Literature is represented in faculties and Crawford wonders whether, ‘this is a question of literary merit, or of American economic and political power’ (2). In considering minor literatures, Crawford notes: ‘Questions of cultural authority constantly arise in discussions of ‘minor’ literatures, such as Caribbean or Irish writing, where there is a repeated and troubled interaction with Anglocentric values’ (2). For the discipline of English Literature, there is no dilemma over including certain figures from minor literatures such as Smollett, Carlyle, Eliot and Joyce.

Some literary theorists have written on cultural difference, for example Said’s Orientalism, Spivak’s In Other Worlds and Dabydeen’s The Black Presence in English Literature, but they do not focus so much on more subtle variations. Crawford asserts: ‘Far less attention has been paid to less immediately visible cultural differences within “English Literature”, or if that attention has been paid, all too often it has been confined to academic ghettos – Scottish Literature specialists, or those especially interested in Anglo-Welsh writing’ (3). Crawford finds this particularly annoying because the Scots contributed so much to the creation of ‘English Literature’.

There have been those wanting to represent minor cultures. Crawford points to Paul de Man’s wartime journalism which highlighted the exigencies of subjects speaking the minor language of Flemish. Crawford is interested in de Man, because in writing through the medium of French, de Man showed an interest in, ‘how a literature which could be seen as provincial might preserve an independence while being written in the language of another dominant culture’ (4). Unfortunately de Man’s concern for national identity led him mistakenly towards the Third Reich, but later after moving far away from Belgium to the US, de Man was still concerned with questions of cultural nationalism.

According to Crawford, Anglo-American critics have on the whole dismissed minor literatures and their cultural identities. Even Derrida’s theorising is to Crawford, ‘an avoidance of the adoption of any stance on these matters as it is a subversion of the discourses of authority’ (5). Crawford worries that post-structuralism sometimes works to maintain the status-quo rather than undermine it. A new project needs to be created in its stead: ‘Often what small and vulnerable cultural groups need is not simply a deconstruction of rhetorics of authority, but a construction or reconstruction of a ‘usable past’, an awareness of a cultural tradition which will allow them to preserve or develop a sense of their own distinctive identity, their constituting difference’ (5).

Crawford explains that the push and pull between historicist reconstruction and poststructuralist mistrust of historicism is clear in feminist literary studies. He directs his point to Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own , a work of literary historicism that works against post-structuralists like Kristeva and Cixous, theorists whose writing is ‘far removed from the circumstances and possibilities of actual cultural or social change’ (5). I disagree with this point, particularly in the case of Kristeva, because many of her works, such as Strangers to Ourselves, directly address problems in modern society and seek to find a way of being in the world that will change certain cultures of discrimination and exclusion. Apparently, Crawford is drawing on Feminist Literary History by Janet Todd.

However, Crawford does suggest that minor literatures might have lessons to be learned from feminist literary studies. Crawford is inspired, ‘by Todd’s arguments in favour of the need for close empirical re-examinations of writing produced by a marginalized group and tied to the circumstances of particular cultural studies’ (6). Crawford directs the reader here to Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature which argues that through deterritorializing the English language and a commitment to the collective, political voice, a minor literature with a place on a world stage can be constructed. Crawford notes that in his analysis he is dedicated to ‘manifestations of a collective identity’ and to specific ‘cultural traditions’; ultimately his project is ‘devolved’ and it rejects ‘a totalitarian or centralist approach to English Literature’ (6).

Crawford also notes that he will differentiate between ‘Scottish Literature’, ‘British Literature’ and ‘English Literature’. Also, for Crawford, the title, Devolving English Literature, not only calls for power to be redistributed in the margins as well as the centre; it also recognises that the margins have been challenging and structuring ‘English Literature’ for centuries (7). Running counter to hegemonic ‘English Literature’ is ‘devolutionary momentum’ (7). The writers to be discussed all represent this, since they deny ‘the traditionally dominant London-Oxbridge English cultural centre’ (7).

However on the whole, Crawford discusses Scottish Literature, because:
• ‘it offers the longest continuing example of a substantial body of literature produced by a culture pressurized by the threat of English cultural domination’ (8);
• it offers, ‘ a model for writers in other countries concerned to escape from being England’s cultural provinces’, e.g. Americans, Canadians and Australians (8);
• ‘Scottish writing in English (like Welsh writing in English) is particularly vulnerable to being subsumed within English literary tradition’ (8);
• and, ‘Scotland […] was crucially instrumental in the development of the university teaching of English Literature’ (8).
Crawford asserts that the book is not a Scottish literary history. Rather it, ‘is intended to stimulate further debate by its emphasis on the way in which the ‘provincial’ energies so important to Scottish writing, and the anthropological viewpoint developed by Scottish writers, fed into American writing and into the essentially ‘provincial’ movement that we know as Modernism’ and writers beyond that movement in the late twentieth century (9).

Crawford, Robert. Devolving English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.


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