June 15, 2007

What is 'Anglo–Welsh'?

I am very impressed by the attitude adopted in Gwyn Jones’ essay, ‘The First Forty Years: Some Notes on Anglo-Welsh Literature’, especially as it was written in the seventies, a moment when there were still problems with the way in which critics considered Welsh writing in English. Unlike many Welsh critics, Jones recognises the importance of Welsh writing in English and does not see it as a negative thing.

I think they arrived in the best possible way, with the maxi-(78)mum of offence and the maximum of effect. The majority of the Anglo-Welsh have been painfully modest and deferential in face of native Welsh criticism: we would no more talk back to a proper Cymro [Welshman] than we would cheek our mother. If the situation were to be expressed heraldically, we proved no red and rampant dragon, belching fire and brimstone and fire, but an inverted hydra, possessing not a hundred heads but a hundred bottoms; and such was the kynedyf (as the Mabinogion would call it), the peculiar quality of this unnatural monster , that every time one of these bottoms was kicked two grew in its place. (77-78)

Jones expresses the situation with that singular Welsh humour that is so familiar to me. He does though take a moment to define exactly what Anglo-Welsh literature is, stating that it refers to ‘those authors of Welsh blood or connexion who for a variety of reasons write their creative work in English’ (78). Jones also makes the important point that ‘most of [Wales’] writers are working class origin, or the sons of the lowliest strata of the middle class: the poor middle class, teachers, parsons, small tradespeople’ (79). Jones wonders whether this explains the delay in the emergence of Welsh writing in English. Jones is also aware that ‘the decay of Nonconformity’ is a factor in the rise of ‘Anglo-Welsh literature (81). While Jones recognises the gifts that Nonconformity gave to the Welsh, he also suggests that it was detrimental with its ‘dogma and shibboleth’ and ‘the weakening lure of the pulpit’ (81)

When Anglo-Welsh literature did emerge, Cymraeg and English language literatures came into conflict and Jones tries to ‘display the paradox, indeed the fantasy of the Welsh and the Anglo-Welsh literary situation’ (82).

Obviously there could be no extensive Anglo-Welsh literature till there existed what I have called a reservoir of Anglo-Welshness from which it could flow. This means, in cold and brutal fact, until English was the first language of a fair, or even considerable proportion of the people of Wales. Anglo-Welsh literature, so it seems to me, is the rendering articulate of the majority of Welshmen who cannot, do not, and will not make Welsh their first language. It follows that every Anglo-Welsh writer passionately though he may proclaim his love of Wales and things Welsh, is a danger to the Welsh language. […] The Anglo-Welsh, though they are a danger to the Welsh language, must never be its enemy; and the Welsh Welsh, even if they are true dancers before our tribal ark, will be unwise to try and impose an irresistible logic upon an immovable fact; they must accept that they cannot speak for, even to, half their fellow-countrymen; while to the great world outside they may not speak at all. (82)

Jones undermines the privileging of Cymraeg speakers over the supposedly tainted Anglo-Welsh. Rather he offers a less essentialist view of language and culture:

I do not believe that Welshness and the Welsh language are synonymous. But I think that the preservation and extension of the Welsh language are of primary importance to Anglo-Welsh literature. Many Anglo-Welsh writers are fluent Welsh-speakers, a few know no Welsh at all; others know what we had best leave undefined as ‘a bit’ of Welsh; but in their varying degrees they are all living on an inherited fund of Welshness and mustn’t exhaust the capital. ‘Anglo-Welsh, after all, is just a tag, a literary label, a device for avoiding circumlocution. (83).

Jones, Gwyn. ‘The First Forty Years: Some Notes on Anglo-Welsh literature’. Triskel One: Essays on Welsh and Anglo-Welsh Literature. Ed. Sam Adams and Gwilym Rees Hughes. Swnasea: Christopher Davies Publishers, 1971.

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