- The Taliesin Tradition: A Quest for the Welsh Identity by Emyr Humphreys
Black Raven, 245 pp, £10.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 85159 002 0
- Jones: A Novel by Emyr Humphreys
Dent, 144 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 460 04660 8
- Wales! Wales? by Dai Smith
Allen and Unwin, 173 pp, £9.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 04 942185 9
- The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country by Jan Morris
Oxford, 442 pp, £12.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 19 215846 5
Two truths are told, as alternative prologues to the action of modern Wales. The first draws on the continuity of Welsh language and literature: from the sixth century, it is said, and thus perhaps the oldest surviving poetic tradition in Europe. The second draws on the turbulent experience of industrial South Wales, over the last two centuries, and its powerful political and communal formations.
It would be possible, within an English perspective, to see these truths as of different kinds, literary and political: one or other to be emphasised or reduced to background. Yet the distinctive Welsh character of each offered truth is that it is simultaneously political and cultural. This is a mode of argument, but perhaps even more of assumption, which has often seemed alien and unacceptable east of Offa’s Dyke, though its relevance to the English experience can be shown to be just as direct. Within Wales, the two truths, or those versions of them which are reciprocally dismissed as inadequate, are matters of intense and often bitter controversy. Indeed perhaps the least known fact, by others, about contemporary Welsh culture and politics is that there are harsh and persistent quarrels within a dimension which is seen from outside as unusually singular. The nearest analogy I can find is with what is known in England, more properly in London, as the Hard Left, where a confidently named sector, marked off from all others, is often riven by controversies more bitter than anything in a more established politics.
Yet there is, after all, a distinguishable Hard Left, and in the same sense a distinguishable Welsh culture. Each can be tracked in its general affiliations, but the more profound community is its area of discourse: the very specific issues which it selects for argument. For myself, when I say ‘two truths’, it is not from some sense of detachment or balance but because, seeing the matter in my own living conditions from both inside and outside, I am especially aware of the common elements of authenticity in each apparently alternative case.
The argument for an essential cultural continuity, informing a people long threatened by suppression, is well made in Emyr Humphreys’s The Taliesin Tradition. At one level the book can be usefully read as a history of Welsh literature, by one of the finest of modern Welsh writers. Indeed I am tempted to a review which would simply insist that English students of literature should read it, since it remains a scandal that a body of writing of this substance, composed on this island, should be so largely unknown to readers of strict literary interests. A general impression from Matthew Arnold will not do. The major verse of Dafydd ap Gwilym and the romances of Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (in English the Mabinogion) are evident classics in the writing of this island. Moreover the interest of several Welsh verse forms is considerable. Even polemically, one must wonder at the students of Hopkins who do not know cynghanedd (a set of techniques still practised).
Fy ing enfawr, fy ngwynfyd – fy mhryder
Fy mhradwys hyfryd;
Ei charu’r wyf yn chwerw hefyd
A’i chasau’n serchus o hyd.
This englyn, as so often, is dependent on particular Welsh assonances, but in at least some cases, and certainly in Dafydd ap Gwilym and the Mabinogi, the achievements are accessible in translation. Consider only this brief extract from the technique of a rapid sequence of metaphors and comparisons, the dyfalu, in Dafydd’s poem on the seagull as love messenger: ‘a piece of the sun, a steel glove at sea, and yet swift and proud and light on the wave, fish fed, foam footed, lily of the sea, contemplative of the wave, like a written page, speak for me.’