Spirit and Flesh in Twentieth-Century Welsh Poetry: A Comparison of the Work of D. Gwenallt Jones and Pennar Davies

By Morgan, D. Densil | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Spirit and Flesh in Twentieth-Century Welsh Poetry: A Comparison of the Work of D. Gwenallt Jones and Pennar Davies


Morgan, D. Densil, Christianity and Literature


In "Welsh Poetry Since 1945," a masterly assessment of Welsh poetry between 1945 and 1970 published more than thirty years ago, the then-young literary critic Dafydd Glyn Jones described the impact the Penyberth incident--the "Burning of the Bombing School"--had made on Welsh literature up to that time. Penyberth in North Wales's Llyn peninsula and the heartland of Welsh-speaking Wales, was where the British War Ministry had decided, in the teeth of local and national opposition, to build a testing ground for its Air Force pilots in preparation for the impending European war. On September 8, 1936, three leaders of the Welsh Nationalist Party--an academic, a schoolmaster, and a minister of religion--took it upon themselves to block the government's plans by setting the place on fire; they each received sentences of nine months in prison for their pains. That most unexpected blow for freedom and dignity signaled a new phase in Welsh national consciousness, when those who were committed to Wales were challenged for the first time in the modern era to act radically in order to preserve their culture and their way of life. In response to that incident, the poet Robert Williams Parry in his sonnet "Cymru 1937" ("Wales 1937") had voiced an almost existential plea calling on his contemporaries, whether pious or secular, to do something rather than to lament impotently on the demise of their nation:

   O'r Llanfair sydd ar y Bryn neu Lanfair Mathafarn
   Chwyth ef i'r synagog neu chwyth ef i'r dafarn. (Llwyd 129)

"From the Llanfair on the Hill" the burial place of the Methodist revivalist and hymnist Williams Pantycelyn, "or Llanfair Mathafarn," the Anglesey abode of his eighteenth-century contemporary, the dissolute poetic genius Goronwy Owen, "blow him to the synagogue or blow him to the tavern" (my own translation). "This wind," wrote Dafydd Glyn Jones, "has blown through Welsh poetry ever since, and--thanks largely to the powerful voices of the two Christian poets, Saunders Lewis and D. Gwenallt Jones, against whom the still small voices of Marxism and Humanism had no earthly chance,--it has blown, almost without veering, from Llanfair ar y Bryn" (47).

Even in 1971 this, in the world of literature, was a most unusual situation. The twentieth century had seen the progressive secularization of Welsh life, not least among its intelligentsia. The University of Wales, its first constituent College having been established in 1872, had taken its earliest strides at the exact time when Darwinism and other humanist ideologies had undermined, to an increasing extent, the older values and orthodoxies. If the liberal theology that became so pervasive among a section of the religious leaders at the turn of the century had been, for some, a means of preserving the integrity of Christian faith in the context of the modern age, for others it was all too easy to pass beyond liberal Protestantism altogether into a full-blown secular humanism. If Christianity was merely humanism with a pious tinge, what reason was there to stay Christian at all? Just as this was occurring among the intelligentsia, the great phalanx of the working class, and not just in the industrial south, was also traveling in a secular direction under the influence of socialism and the labor movement. By the first decade of the century, the older individualism was being superseded by a class-based politics that prized workers' rights much higher than religious faith; the people's utopia became a much more potent symbol than the Kingdom of God. Following the deep tragedy of the First World War, the feeling was that the new Wales would be a secular Wales with religion having been banished to the past.

And so it was, a fact exemplified during the 1930s by the poets and the novelists of the Anglo-Welsh: Rhys Davies, Idris Davies, and Dylan Thomas. It was also true of the most creative artists who wrote in Welsh: T. H. Parry-Williams and Robert Williams Parry being cases in point. …

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