All 44 entries tagged Wales

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June 26, 2007

Chris Williams: ‘Problematizing Wales: An Exploration in Historiography and Postcoloniality’

In this essay, Williams begins by rejecting any models of Wales as a post-colonial nation, but he does embrace aspects of postcolonial theory such as ‘ambivalence, hybridity and post-nationality’ which might be useful in considering Wales as a marginal region (13). William sees ambivalence as bound up with Wales’ complicity with the English and British. There is also hybridity in the ‘migration, settlement and intermarriage’ in Wales: what Williams calls ‘Wales’ “fuzzy borders” and its long inheritance of multicultural experiences, if not of multiculturalism’ (14). Williams is adamant that hybridity has often been ignored by critics and commentators in Wales, yet possibilities might be found in the view of selfhood that defines postcolonial theory.

Our preoccupation with cultural identity has gradually been relaxed from seeing identity in the singular (Welsh, English, Irish etc.), to being prepared to view identity as hybridized or hyphenated (Anglo-Welsh, English-speaking Welsh, Irish-Welsh, Black-Welsh etc.) and has moved on to embrace concepts of situational or multiple identities. But an essentialist notion of self (even if it is hyphenated) is one in which questions of national identity are more pre-eminent than any other. Some postcolonial ideas, however, from their origin in the experience of the diaspora, advance the idea of the fragmented, performative or multiple self, whereby one’s authenticity flows not from the membership of a particular collective group, but from one’s existence as an individual. (15)

Williams rejects ‘monoculturism’ and he directs the reader towards the ‘postnationality’ of Habermas, Held and the critics in the field of Subaltern Studies. In contrast to postnationality, nationalism works ‘by “othering”, by identifying borders between “us” and “them”’ (16). It is these ‘reactive and essentialist binarisms’ that ‘erect psychological barriers between peoples, excite unnecessary antagonisms towards others, and render marginal or invisible those whose characters do not fit those of the imagined nation’ (16). Williams vision of ‘post-national Wales’ offers ‘a partially autonomous Wales where that autonomy has a liberating effect for all citizens, and not just for those who subscribe to conventional views of what the characteristics and direction of that nation-state should be’ (16). This society would reject ‘the notion of a homogenous nation-state with singular forms of belonging, in favour of inclusivity and diversity’ (16).

The concept of a postnational citizenship crosses existing political borders and cultural boundaries, aiming for a consensus of universal moral values that enshrines the rights of the individual through democratic participation, that speaks in terms of respect for all human beings of all levels of wealth and status, that aims to reduce inequality within and between countries and continents and that seeks human societies that are more in tune with environmental pressures and demands. (16).

*Williams uses ‘post-colonial’ to signify ‘a particular period or epoch (literally, after colonialism […])’, and ‘postcolonial’ to denote the theoretical issues surrounding colonial rule and post-colonial development (3-4).

Postcolonial Wales. Ed. Jane Aaron and Chris Williams. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005. 3 – 22.


June 15, 2007

Images of Welsh Women

Salem

Deidre Beddoe begins her essay with a plain statement: ‘Welsh women are culturally invisible’ (227). She adds that Welsh identity is based on three male groups of mass proportions: ‘coalminers, rugby players and male voice choirs’ (227). In comparison the Welsh woman is ‘a bit of trimming on the male image of Wales’ (227).

Beddoe wonders why this is the case and she suggests that the three factors involved are ‘Patriarchy, Capitalism and History’ (228). She describes Wales as ‘a patriarchal society, in which the activities and views of men are held in far higher esteem than those of women’ (228). Through coal-mining and other industries, capitalism has dominated Welsh culture with the ambiguous figure of the coalminer representing both ‘wealth’ and ‘rebellion’ (228). Women’s unwaged roles in capitalist societies often go unnoticed and Beddoe believes that this is the case in Wales. There is also the problem of the selective bias of history which is ‘not only divided along class lines but along gender lines too’ (229).

Beddoe now considers representations of Welsh women as opposed to images of women in other parts of the UK and she suggests that there are a number of types:
• The Welsh Mam. ‘[H]ardworking, ‘pious’ and clean, a mother to her sons and responsible for the home, she appears in Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939). Considering the Mam historically, Beddoe notes that before the rise of industry in the 19th century, women worked on the land alongside men, yet later they became ‘economically dependent upon her husband’s and son’s wages’ (230). She held sway in the domestic sphere only.
• The Welsh Lady in National Costume. A device of tourism, the Welsh costume was invented by Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover (1802-96) who led the ‘romantic revival’ in Wales. It was created at a time when ‘the old peasant costume was dying out’ (233). The invented costume was decorous and difficult to work in.
• The Pious Welsh Woman. There are many stories of Welsh women who committed spiritual acts of self-sacrifice for religious reasons. Beddoe refers to the painting, Salem, by Sidney Curnow Vosper.
• The Sexy Welsh Woman. Beddoe refers here to the Welsh custom of “bundling” or ‘premarital “courting in bed” ’ (234). She also notes: ‘Pre-marital sex between couples who intended to marry seems to have been normal practice in old Wales, especially before the rise of nonconformity’ (234). This was criticised by the 1840s commissioners sent ‘to investigate the state of education in Wales’ (243).
• The Funny Welsh Woman. Beddoe notes that ‘English people still regard Welsh people, along with Irish people, as inherently funny’ (236).

Beddoe, Deidre. ‘Images of Welsh Women’. in Wales: the Imagined Nation, Studies in Cultural and National Identity. Ed. Tony Curtis. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press, 1986. 225-238.


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.


June 14, 2007

Eric J. Sundquist on Rilke and Dylan Thomas

The poems referred to in this entry are In Country Sleep and ‘Into her Lying Down Head’ by Dylan Thomas and Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

Sundquist begins his essay by retelling an anecdote from Vernon Watkins, who described how he and Dylan Thomas would read Rilke to each other and how Thomas became very excited by the poems. Sundquist suggests that both Rilke and Thomas ‘inhabit poetic landscapes which, if not governed by exactly the same theological assumptions, are markedly alike in their terrain’, as they ‘explore a borderline realm inhabited by the living and the dead’ (63). This ‘realm’ is simultaneously ‘an interior psychological construct’ and ‘a conjectured external world’ (63). While Thomas’ poetry does not experience the same flux as Rilke’s, there are similarities between Thomas’ later works and Rilke’s Duino Elegies that deserve examination.

Thomas does not have angels as Rilke does and Sundquist that Thomas might even have been ready to parody such an idea. However, Thomas’ landscapes do appear as ‘intersections between the living and dead, with man and nature in perpetual decay and regeneration’ (64). Thomas demands that one explores the ‘country of the spirit’ and he discovers that ‘because the country of God is the abode of the dead, it is, whatever else it might come to be, pointedly the inheritance given him at birth and bounded by his own mind and body’ (65). Sundquist adds: ‘Just as the dead in country heaven always hark back to their life on earth, so the living at birth already contain the dead within them’ (65). Sundquist notices that death is a heavy burden in Thomas’ poetry and that Thomas must ‘play out this reciprocal agreement’ as ‘he shoulders the burden of the past’ (65). The poet, like the dead, is forever ‘[e]yeing the ragged globe from the grave’ (66).

Sundquist notes that Rilke too is concerned with ‘heritage’ and like Thomas he creates an imaginary realm ‘into which the dead are to be invited’ (66). Rilke is also concerned with another problem that preoccupied Thomas: whether ‘by granting the dead their space within, the efficacy of the living was somehow usurped or taken over’ (66).

Rilke’s earth, like Thomas’, is conspicuously the making of both the living and dead, a fruit whose language is mastered by both and which issues out of the love of both reciprocally. It is clearly marked as a system of elementary impulses, as though it were a gigantic organism aspiring and decaying into itself simultaneously […] (66)

In thinking about Rilke and Thomas, Sundquist refers to Freud’s work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which Freud tries ‘to work out a physiological analogy for the compulsion that is produced when anxiety and incomplete memory balk the desire to return to an original and blissful stage in life, presumably in the womb, and which when balked reappears as a drive towards death as a way of regaining the early harmony’ (67). Sundquist uses Freud as a gloss here to explain Thomas’ and Rilke’s recapitulation. Thomas’ recapitulation represents ‘a return to state already experienced in the womb’, yet this womb-like destination is not simply ‘sheer bliss’, but a place inhabited by ‘the dead and the living’ (67). For Thomas, “the fall” is not ‘something which has specifically happened; rather it is continually happening, even before birth and after death’ (67). Imagery of ‘destruction and falling away’ is also inextricably linked to the ‘groin’ and the sexual act, which is itself extended to be entangled with the natural world. Sundquist notes that ‘all parts’ are ‘locked in clash and union, degeneration and growth’ (68).

In comparison, Rilke is also concerned with a world in which ‘completion and rest erupt only momentarily, flash up only to sink again inward and downward, as a plant blossoms and decays’ (68). Sundquist describes ‘the interior space which the dead inhabit’ as ‘that state toward which all life advances’ (68). Quoting the second elegy, Sundquist suggests that the act of being or living in such poems ‘seems almost to be evaporating into the air, as though all being were the organic workings of a large body’ (69). Death then might mean something more positive: ‘the feeling away of flower and rind in a return to an original seedlike state’ (69). The Duino Elegies represent ‘an airy realm barely accessible to the living’ and Rilke is more unsure than Thomas about the possibility of discovering such realm, that is expect through death. Sundquist notes that it is unclear whether Rilke’s lyric voice is one of the dead or whether he has achieved ‘the abode of angels’, but Sundquist is adamant that ‘his confusion is integral to the very space that he is trying to describe’ (70). Sundquist recognises Rilke’s uncertainty ‘in his interpretation of that evaporation of the self, at times lamenting, at times affirming it, and by the time of writing the Elegies it has taken on an almost apocalyptic tinge, prompted partly by his reaction to the war and the dissolution of European culture’ (70).

However, by the ninth elegy, Rilke has come to terms more with the dissolution of selfhood and Sundquist recognises that ‘the fading away of things is praised as the vehicle of a new transformation and regeneration of the earth into an invisible space within the self, as though the inner-most core were expanded to enclose all things in their disintegration’ (71). It can be possible to become the ‘terrible’ angel and Sundquist sees comparisons with Thomas as Rilke’s angels ‘cross and recross the artificial boundary of death and dwell in a domain much like the one Thomas had in mind when he conceived of his equally apocalyptic earth as a reposing white giant whose inhabitant remember “in country sleep” their past and future lives’ (71).

Like Rilke, Thomas was devastated by war, yet his prose writings on the subject are closer to Samuel Beckett’s ‘landscapes of nuclear holocaust’ than the country heaven. In contrast, the country heaven ‘grows into a praise of what is and what could be on this lump in the skies’, and in being about ‘happiness’ and ‘love’, it grows closer to Rilke’s Elegies. In creating such a vision, ‘mythology and the actual, or the remembered, have coalesced into one vision’, so fro example, when in the beginning of ‘In Country Sleep’, Thomas offers a prayer for his daughter, it is ‘enlarged into a recognition that the sexual fall is common to all creation, the preliminary act to the test of faith’ (72). Sundquist compares the sexual fall of ‘In Country Sleep’ and ‘Into her Lying Down Head’ with Rilke’s third elegy and he suggests that while Thomas interrogates the female, Rilke studies the male’s path into a ‘primeval wilderness of desires’ (74). Yet while Rilke’s act of love-making cannot induct one into the realm of angels, there is the distinct possibility in Thomas of such an event taking place.

Drawing on Eric Heller, Sundquist notes that Rilke is constantly writing against the void which was once ‘the divine home of souls’ (qtd, Sundquist, 76). Sundquist sees in the poetry of Rilke and Thomas a desire to reconstruct an idea of ‘home’ by ‘making everything into it, by animating life with the surging existence of the dead and reading the earth as a transparent script of what has gone before and what is to come’ (76). To make this happen though dictates a recapitulation which ‘becomes a means of transformed redemption for Thomas, and to a lesser extent for Rilke’ (76-77). While ‘Rilke is always on the verge of achieving the invisible earth, always near a passage into the space of angels, but not quite over the border’, Thomas finds this possibility in his ‘country heaven, in the reciprocity of life and death, remembrance and desire, rise and fall’ (77).

Sundquist, Eric J. ‘In Country Heaven: Dylan Thomas and Rilke’. Comparative Literature. Vol 31:1 (1979), 63-78.


June 13, 2007

Methodism in Wales

Methodism emerged from Pietism, Moravianism and the Puritan tradition. The eighteenth century Evangelical Revival is sometimes called the Methodist Revival and the term emerges out of a contemptuous term used to describe the ‘Holy Club’ surrounding Wesley in Oxford. However, Methodism began to develop in Wales before the Wesley conversion through the figures of Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland. The result was a network of religious organisations led by ‘an exhorter’ (“Methodism”).

Methodism also refers to ‘the theological emphasis and moral self-discipline which developed in Methodist bodies and in Wales especially, among the Calvinistic Methodists’ (“Methodism”). Calvinistic Methodists in Wales broke away from the Church of England in 1811 basing their theology on ‘the sovereignty of God and his grace in Christ and the election of the saints’ (“Methodism”). Methodism is now established as the Presbyterian Church of Wales or Yr Hen Gorff and the sect has succeeded particularly in the north of Wales, where as Independency and Baptism has dominated the south. Writers of Wales inspired by Methodism include William Williams, Ann Griffiths, Lewis Edwards, Islwyn, Daniel Owen, Robert Ambrose Jones, Gwenallt and Kate Roberts.

“Methodism”. The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales. Ed. Meic Stephens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Nonconformism in Wales

Maesteg

After the Reformation, a number of denominations began to emerge out of the Established Church including Baptists, Independency, Methodism (Calvanistic and Wesleyan), Quakerism and Unitarianism. The first dissent in Wales emerged via John Penry who was martyred in 1593. The first Dissenting denomination (apart from that of the Celtic Church) was comprised of Independents and Baptists in 1639 in Llanfaches, Mon. However with the rise of Methodism, by 1851, seventy percent of places of worship were Nonconformist. After the ‘golden age during the first half of the nineteenth century’, Nonconformity continue to exert an influence on ‘private, social and political responsibility’ (“Nonconformity”). This manifested itself in ‘Nonconformist Conscience’, which symbolised ‘the battle for religious and educational equality, missionary enterprise and the Temperance Movement’ (“Nonconformity”). Nonconformity also went hand-in-hand with radicalism in its ‘political responsibility to lead the Welsh people’ and this role did not ercede until after the Second World War when writers like Caradic Evans and Rhys Davies began to criticise Chapel culture.

Much literature in Wales came out of Nonconformism: ‘biblical commentaries, sermons, biographies […], doctrinal and controversial books, scriptural dictionaries and concordances, periodicals, historical works, poetry (especially hymns), moralistic novels and translations of Nonconformist writings in English’ (“Nonconformity”). Through the chapel and Sunday School, Welsh people were introduced to ‘the experiential sublimity of the hymn’, although Nonconformism was suspicious of novels, the theatre and the Eisteddfod. Writers inspired by Nonconformism are Morgan Llwyd, Charles Edwards, William Williams, Ann Griffiths, Thomas Jones of Denbigh, Islwyn, Daniel Owen and Gwenallt as well as Glyn Jones, Emyr Humpries and Roland Mathias.

“Nonconformity”. The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales. Ed. Meic Stephens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.


June 11, 2007

Sheenagh Pugh on whether there is a woman’s poetry

It is hard to understand what the term “women’s poetry” is supposed to mean. Is it suggesting that there is a kind of poetry more likely to be written by women, or read by women? In that case, is there such a thing as black poetry, homosexual poetry, handicapped poetry? I hope not, because for reasons I hope I can make clear, I should prefer to see poetry as universal and unifying, rather than particular and divisive. Poetry is an exercise of the verbal faculty, and the only distinction which seems valid to me are those based on words. Hence there is clearly such a thing as German poetry, i.e. poetry written in the German language. Is there, however, such a thing as Swiss poetry - i.e. poetry in German, French, Italian or Romansch by Swiss persons and sharing some mystical component of Swissness which transcends language? I don’t know, but I seriously doubt it. The Swiss poets I know of who wrote in German have never struck me as being markedly different from Germans writing in German, and they certainly have more in common with the latter than the Swiss writing in French. This seems wholly expected, given that language, to an extent, structures thought. (30)

People’s habits differ, but it is in their nature, whatever their sex, race, orientation or culture, to laugh, to think, to feel pity, to get angry, to puzzle about their world. Of course each individual’s experience differs (and two men’s may differ as much as a man’s and a woman’s, or more), but such differences provide individual routes by which to explore the central core of our common humanity, not an excuse for hanging around on the periphery of it. Every poem which has ever impinged on my consciousness fro longer than a moment; which has struck me as being illuminating, or moving, or worth memorising, has addressed itself to what is universal in us, rather than what divides us. (31)

Poetry Wales. Vol 23 (1987): 30-37


Ken Smith on ‘Women, Criticism and the Anglo–Welsh’

Anglo-Welsh

Ken Smith begins his essay with some prescient remarks on ‘Anglo Welsh’ writing:

If the Anglo-Welsh literary community expects to obtain respectability in literary studies it must move beyond the myopic limitations inherent in provincialism and develop a critical theory which tries to cope with all the facets of literature from aesthetics to linguistics. Often the complaint against Anglo-Welsh critics is their inability to deal with questions of literature which go beyond the predicament of English speakers in Wales. In the extreme this leads to a limited definition of Anglo-Welsh as writings about Wales. In Welsh Literature, where language defines the literature, there is the freedom to write about the many complexes of the human condition; drafted in the traditional praise poem or in existentialist drama there is no question of it being categorized as Welsh. Anglo-Welsh literary theory though well-developed in describing dominant themes and influences in poetry, especially through the work of Ryamond Garlick and Roland Mathias, has as yet proved unable to personify itself in varied genres and thus constantly faces questions of identity. What is needed is a flowering of thought which fearlessly grapples with all literary theory from a Welsh perspective, whether formalist, Marxist, feminist, or other. Only then can Anglo-Welsh writers be assured of a satisfactory dialogue in the literary community of Wales. (60).

Some work is certainly being done in this vein by academics in Wales including Prof. Stephen Knight, Kirsti Bohata and Katie Gramich among others, but Smith’s comments are still relevant.

It is also interesting that Smith identifies feminist literary criticism as very relevant to Welsh writing in English and he suggests that feminist theory has been sidelined in Wales, ‘because Anglo-Welsh critics have been reluctant to break new ground or deal with problems which are universal rather than regional’ (60). Smith suggests that feminist critical theory divides into three areas: ‘images of women in literature, criticism by women writers; and the prescribing of what is “good” literature from a feminist perspective’ (60). Smith suggests that by studying images of women in Wales, a critic might be able ‘to understand the characteristics, real or projected, of women in Wales’ and ‘to understand the role of women in Welsh society’ (61). He also suggests that this might promote ‘a clearer knowledge of Welshness’ (61). (I am unsure about this suggestion. Can we generalise so easily?) Smith suggests that images of strong women in novels by Raymond Williams and Iris Davies could be studied. He also considers the possibility of comparing male and female interpretations of women in order to ascertain whether men present any ‘sexist stereotyping’ (61). For example, Smith considers the representation of the mythical woman, Blodeuwedd, in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, in Saunders Lewis’ play and Brenda Chamberlain’s poem, ‘Blodeuwedd’. He asks the following questions:

‘1. How do these images portray women in Welsh society?
2. Are women crystallised into the dualities of evil aggressive Eve and virginal passive Mary as is common in English literature?
3. Or does the image allow a more diverse, complex, whole view of women which is more consistent with the ancient matriarchs?
4. Is there a difference between the images of Mr. Lewis and Ms. Chamberlain?
5. Does this difference reflect sexist stereotypes?
6. Does it reflect a less realistic view of women?’ (62)

Leaving it to the reader to investigate, Smith considers the ‘development of women’s scholarship and criticism’ (62). He notes that Sally Roberts Jones is compiling a database of Welsh women writers from the seventeenth century to the present day. Smith also directs us to Markale’s Women of the Celts and some other essays in Poetry Wales by F.Heck and B. Hardy. Smith wonders whether the bias against women’s criticism is linked to the promotion of masculine-centred concepts like ‘the tragic hero’. Smith is also concerned about ‘prescriptive criticism’:

To say that the Anglo-Welsh should be prescriptive rather than descriptive is to sentence the writing to provincialism and deny it the fullness and diversity of the living community. Anglo-Welsh writers must be free to roam where their imaginations lead without having to defend their Welshness at every new endeavour. (64)

Smith adds: ‘The question in Gillian Clarke’s or Ruth Bidgood’s writings is not whether they are Welsh or English literature but how Welshness is reflected in them through syntax, rhythm, mood, etc.’ (64). Just as feminists are criticised for not falling in line with radical criticism, so in Wales there is ‘the problem […] of people’s Welshness being judged by their Welsh tongue, an extreme position which holds that one isn’t Welsh unless one speaks Welsh’ (64). The only antidote to these problems according to Smith is made ‘by Anglo-Welsh and feminist critics working toward a definition of what are “good” images of women’ (65).


Kenneth R. Smith on ‘The Portrait Poem: Reproduction of Mothering’

Mother and Child

Smith begins by noting the link between national mythologies and national identities and he suggests that ‘these archetypes, these symbols of the nation, tend to abstract the culture beyond the access of individual experience, and to certain extent beyond tangible understanding’ (48). In contrast Smith sets up the ‘portrait poem’ as a mode that deals with individual human experience. The portrait poem is similar to a parise poem in its ‘remembering, portraying, exemplifying’, but the praise poem only deals with ‘legendary figures or with the dead’ (48). While praise poems are ‘extraordinary, beyond reality pr life, and are aimed at social memory’, portrait poems are ‘critical or satirical, they deal with the ordinary, and are aimed at social reproduction’ (48).

Smith refers to R.S. Thomas’ demand for the ‘winnowing of the people’ and to Caradog Evans’ ironic stories and poems. Smith describes the purpose of such poetics as ‘meant to reveal the impurities and feelings of inferiority which are stifling in the true expression of national character (48). While the praise poem looks back to an ‘irretrievable past’, the portrait poem offers images of ‘portending cultural demise’ (48). Yet in each mode of writing, the representation of the culture and community is all important:

The poet, as a representative of the people, adopted from the bardic tradition, uses imagination to recreate the reality of the people’s existence in a way which they can understand. Even though at times this may take the form of poetic or mythopoetic thought, Thomas would maintain that these are representations of the true national character […] (48)

Sometimes reproduction of nation in portrait poems is done for political purposes in the hope of changing the status quo. Smith suggests that this is the case in Sally Roberts-Jones’ collection Turning Away. Roberts-Jones uses the English sonnet form to present portraits of politicians. Smith notes that while the verse form signals ‘the confinement of office’, it also ‘offers a form which can carry a moral message or cynical twist in the final couplet’ (48). The subject of Roberts-Jones’ poems is often forgotten or silenced parts or subjects in Wales and Smith offers analysis of ‘Dic Sion Dafydd Returns to the Valley’, a poem about lost community and the lack of opportunity for new generations.

Roberts-Jones’ collection, Relative Values, sticks to notions of lineage and heritage. Smith notes that in this collection, the grandmother plays a significant role as the gatekeeper of the family memory. In poems such as ‘Not a Tolpuddle Martyr’, ‘The Painting’ and ‘Dressmaker in the Nineties’ (earlier poem), the grandmother ‘reproduces in her grandchildren the memories of the family, much as the poet passes on those of the society’ (50).

Smith compares the grandmother-grandchild relationship to the mother-child relationship and he suggests that the grandmother’s distance from the child allows her a special bond with the child. The mother-child relationship is quite problematic for Welsh writers and Smith sees it as being influenced by Nancy Chodorow’s book, The Reproduction of Mothering. Smith quotes Chodorow who suggests that mothering is passed on from mother to daughter. The representation of mothering in Welsh poetry unfolds in two ways according to Smith, ‘as the poet tries to portray her own mother, or a daughter’s view of a mother, and as she tries to represent the mother’s view, or herself as a mother’ (50). Smith describes this as the ‘winnowing’ of mothers.

Smith turns to Ruth Bidgood’s sequence, ‘Seven Found Poems’, and to the particular poem, ‘Grievance’, which takes the form of a letter written in 1712 from Alice Owen to her mother. The poem reveals how the narrator has always been expected to be second best in the family: ‘the prerequisite of a good mother’ as Smith notes sarcastically. Bidgood’s poem, ‘Letter’, also portrays a woman who must give up her own wants and desires for the good of the family. Through Tony Curtis’ analysis, Smith finds similarities in Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a collection of letter-poems which in some places examine the subjugation of women by husband and family.

Drawing on Tillie Olsen’s Silences, Smith suggests that Welsh women writers are preoccupied with having to put others first and the repression that this practice causes. He quotes from Jean Earle’s poem, ‘Time’, a silent woman serves a group of men, yet she comes to understand time through her silent observation of the world. Similarly, Earle’s poem, ‘Summer’, suggests, according to Smith, ‘that women have an instinct for the natural order which they are privileged to through self-sacrifice’ (52). Chiming with Chodorow’s theorising, Earle seems to believe that women’s views are hugely influenced by their role as carers and mothers. The reproduction of mothering is obvious in Earle’s poem, ‘Daughters’ Houses I and II’ in which she imagines her daughters as mothers. Smith concludes that the role of mother is seen as ‘a natural, inevitable, [sic] situation fro women, without questioning the imposition of mothering, that is nurturing, maintenance, education, and entertainment of children, upon childbearers’ (51).

While women writing in Wales do not seem to have embraced radical changes in the structure of the family, they are very much concerned with the relationship between mothers and children. Smith quotes Nan Bauer Maglin who suggests that there are five aspects in portraits of mothers:
1. The collective speaking voice of the daughter-poet who speaks beyond her individual concerns.
2. Admiration for the mother’s strength.
3. The telling of the matrilineage or women’s familial history.
4. Maintaining a balance between sympathising with the mother and addressing conflicts.
5. The expression of anger and grief at the silence between mother and daughter.

Smith suggests that while the first three elements can be seen in Roberts-Jones, Bidgood and Earle, to address the other aspects, he needs to turn to other poets.

One of these is Gillian Clarke who offer portrait poems that are ‘significantly different […] because they show motherhood from a personal, self-revealing stance which initiates the reader into the conflicts of a woman tied to her children and the hostilities between a mother and daughter’ (52). In Clarke’s poems, the view is far less nostalgic and children sometimes appear in poems to interrupt the thoughts of the narrator as in ‘St Thomas’s Day’. Other poems such as ‘Community’ consider how ‘[a] dependence is established in which the mother satisfies the needs of the family’, while ‘Sundial’ describes the mother caged by concern for her sick child (52). In poems like these, the mother must sacrifice her own needs for those of others, but in other poems, such as ‘Letter from a Far Country’, this is challenged.

Clarke’s poems about mothers and daughters are particularly highly charged and Smith associates them with factors 4 and 5 in Maglin’s account of mother-portraits. In poems like ‘Sunshine’, ‘Catrin’ and ‘Ice Queen’, the daughter rebels against the silence inherited by the mother from her own mother and the mother responds by feeling both hurt and glad for her daughter. The chain in the reproduction of mothering is broken.


I can remember you, our first
Fierce confrontation, the tight
Red rope of love which we both fought
over …
(From Clarke’s poem ‘Catrin’).

Gillian Clarke on ‘Beginning with Bendigeidfran’

Gillian Clarke begins her essay with reference to the mythical character of the giant, Bendigeidfran: ‘It seems to have begun with Bendigeidfran, his rhythmic syllables, the imprint of his huge foot on the shore, and the rocking stone of the headland that had been the apple in the giant’s pocket’ (287). The land and poetic language seem to have a close relationship in Clarke’s vision as even stones ‘bear messages that seem to be coded or in languages I could not understand’ (287).

In her poetics, Clarke draws on Seamus Heaney and a poetic imagination that is rooted in childhood and she suggests that ‘this rich source of poetry is especially available for women’ (286). The reasoning behind this is that girls start to read earlier and consequently advance in language sooner. Clarke’s fear seems to revolve around the Welsh tongue which ‘took on the nature of a forbidden tongue, a language of secrets from which I at first felt merely excluded, and later learned to value as something stored’ (289). In poems like ‘Dw^r’, Clarke began to use Welsh language words and so to enrich her poetry further.

Our Sister’s Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales. Ed. Jane Aaron, Teresa Rees, Sandra Betts and Moira Vincentelli. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994. (287-293).


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