Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Songs and Stones: Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826), Mason and Bard

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Songs and Stones: Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826), Mason and Bard

Article excerpt

He has all but dropped out of sight in English eighteenth-century and Romantic studies, but Iolo Morganwg (born Edward Williams, 1747-1826) remains a name to conjure with in Wales. The inventor of the Gorsedd ceremony at the heart of the literary and musical festival of the National Eisteddfod, he is acknowledged as one of the prime movers in the Welsh cultural revival. (1) His contribution to Welsh letters, however, was decidedly double-edged, since his vision of the past was largely based on material he had invented himself. Besides the druidically inspired Gorsedd, his most famous creations include a series of poems attributed to the fourteenth-century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, and hundreds of triads, or bardic aphorisms, encapsulating the history and mythology of the Welsh people from earliest pre-Christian times. (2)

He became a stonemason like his father, and relied on his craft to support his family all his life. None of his many other schemes--he also worked as a lime-burner, a bookseller, a grocer, a collector and copier of manuscripts, and a surveyor of agricultural practices--ever brought him financial security, and he was frequently, if ungratefully, reliant on help from friends. He was an abolitionist, a "kingophobe," and a committed Unitarian; in the mid-1790s he had a somewhat exotic walk-on part in the British romantic movement, and, as "Bard Williams," was known to writers like Coleridge and Southey as a repository of arcane knowledge. The result of a life spent in many different occupations and encompassing so many different interests is a vast and disorderly archive of papers in English and Welsh, and a variety of positions from which to analyze two of his other interests, folk song and oral tradition.

As I have shown elsewhere, they are not the same thing. (3) The late eighteenth century, in the wake of the debate that raged around James Macpherson's Poems of Ossian, saw the development of various theories about the nature and reliability of oral tradition as a window onto the distant past. Macpherson's "forgeries" had seriously prejudiced many scholars against the notion of any kind of culture which, as Samuel Johnson put it, "merely floated in the breath of the people," and the Celtic countries fell under particular suspicion. (4) Iolo, who claimed in a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine in 1789 to be one of the last "legitimate descendants of the so-long-celebrated Ancient British Bards," made sure to devise an oral tradition which would be as solidly reliable (and hence as un-Ossianic) as possible. (5) His invented bardic tradition, revealed in the introduction to William Owen Pughe's 1792 translations of medieval poems attributed to Llywarch Hen, and in a lively essay in his own Poems, Lyric and Pastoral (1794), was, in contrast to the broken histories of the whispering ghosts and sighing heroes of Ossian, the perfect data-storage and retrieval system, based on the transmission of aphoristic triads. These, he claimed, had been recited since time immemorial at annual bardic meetings, where they were checked and triple-checked for "corruption." (6) Beyond the fundamental premise that song can be a transmitter of cultural values across time, Iolo's careful, hieratic tradition of what he called "Vocal Song" seems oddly untouched by what must have been his actual experiences on the ground. Because, although they comprise only a fraction of an archive covering everything from cures for rheumatism to tirades against William Pitt, there are enough songs and tunes scattered through his papers to show that Iolo did indeed, as he claimed, ramble Wales "with all my ears open" to a very different kind of oral tradition. (7) He was one of the earliest to do so in Wales, and what he noted down deserves to be better known. This essay will focus particularly on a small group of songs and poems relating to Iolo's craft as a mason, but it is perhaps best to start with a general introduction to the kinds of song texts found in the archive. …

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