Author: T. Robin Chapman (Aberystwyth University, GB)
The work of the dramatist, politician and critic Saunders Lewis has elicited more interpretation in English than that of any other Welsh-language writer. This essay traces Lewis’s dissemination for an English-language readership from the 1940s until the present under three broadly chronological headings. Initially lionised, Lewis was adopted until the 1970s as a magus figure in both nationalism and the language movement. By the late 1970s, however, his conservative politics, including accusations of anti-Semitism and what was perceived as a less than enlightened attitude towards women and the urban working classes, saw him fall into disfavour. The essay concludes with the assertion that Lewis now occupies two discursive territories: as a man of faith removed from temporal concerns and, more tellingly, as a paradigm for Welsh writers in English from David Jones to Emyr Humphreys and R.S. Thomas.
How to Cite:
Chapman T., (2017) “‘For those who do not know’: The Translation, Transmission and Reception of Saunders Lewis in English”, International Journal of Welsh Writing in English 4(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/wwe.4.1
In September 1970, Trevor Fishlock, English-born staff reporter in Wales for The Times, visited Saunders Lewis at his home in Penarth to conduct an interview and found his host, by then in his late seventies, in fine form, ‘mowing his front lawn with a furious energy’. Fishlock had been warned to expect ‘a prickly character’, but found him, on the contrary, ‘courtesy personified’. Courteous or not, as they sipped sherry, Lewis’s visitor found him anxious to undermine any effort to make himself comprehensible to an English readership. ‘No nation ever understood another nation’, Lewis told Fishlock. ‘It is impossible for Englishmen to feel for the Welsh tradition and for Welsh civilization and the unity of the Welsh people. It is impossible for them to feel it or to regard it as important.’ 2
Lewis’s career had been a steady retreat from any desire to express himself in English. His only volume-length works in the language – a play, a literary history and a monograph – all belonged to the 1920s, and his publications in English thereafter were occasional journalism and broadcasts produced at the request of editors or friends.3 His final pieces in English, a weekly column for the Western Mail, seeking, as his first contribution put it, to make sense of Welsh-language literature for ‘the worthy Welshless Welsh’, ended precisely a year later.4 It had entailed, he joked to an old friend, buying an Oxford pocket English dictionary, ‘er mwyn sicrhau fy sbelio’ (to make sure of my spelling).5 In 1966, he returned an advance from the Welsh Arts Council for a monograph in English on his friend, the artist David Jones, as ‘a matter of conscience’, because ‘I don’t want to set a bad example for Welsh writers, and nobody was ever quite first rate in two languages’.6 Lewis’s encounter with Fishlock illustrates a more general tension evident in Welsh-language culture between the 1960s and the end of the century between a belief in the impossibility or undesirability of translation and interpretation in English as cultural dilution or intrusion, and a countervailing conviction that brokerage was not only necessary and desirable, but most profitably approached by placing Lewis at its centre. It is one of the abiding ironies of Welsh- and English-medium literary relations that Lewis himself, in retreat, would become, in volume if not in proportion, the most-translated writer in Welsh ever, and the direct cause of a more general interest in literary translation and mediation between the two language communities.7
Lewis’s work, leaving aside questions of rhyme, metre and alliteration, is not lexically difficult. He does not employ puns or coinages (other than compounds), dialect, onomatopoeia, archaisms or deliberate ambiguities. The only word, arguably, which he freights with a greater significance than common usage allows is traddodiad, but his work in English makes it clear that he considers the dictionary translation ‘tradition’ adequate. Only two of Lewis’s numerous translators have suggested that the activity of translating Lewis’s work is in any sense problematic.8
His canon, however, largely inaccessible to non-Welsh-speaking readers until the final decades of his life, raises questions about the differences in transmission and reception before and after the availability of translations and, more tellingly, about the restrictions on exposition that occur with any literary work not read in the original. What follows is a broadly chronological account of the circumstances in which Lewis appeared in translation, the motivations and discursive modes of his translators and interpreters, and some thoughts on Lewis’s cultural legacy by the early years of the twenty-first century. It is a case study, too, of how translators use texts as a positioning system for themselves and how those working in Welsh seek to overcome ‘a besetting problem’ for anyone seeking to present Welsh to a non-Welsh audience: ‘that of recognition, or even interest’.9
There had been isolated appreciations and criticism of Lewis in English before any substantial body of work was available in translation. Pennar Davies included two pieces by non-Welsh-speaking acquaintances in his volume of tributes to Lewis, Saunders Lewis: Ei Feddwl a’i Waith (1950), both sustained by anecdote and personal testimony. Percy Mansell Jones, a fellow academic with whom Lewis toured France, wrote at length on Lewis’s love of wine and his physical presence:
the long, sinuous, not too aggressive nose; the astringent, slightly sardonic lines framing the mouth … the dark eyes flashing now a challenge, now a rebuke … a broad, active forehead, crowned as in many eighteenth century portraits, with an aspiring fringe of hair…10
Robert Wynne, owner of Garthewin in Denbighshire, where Lewis had seen his plays produced, praised his ‘sincerity… this willingness to accept sacrifice, this inability to compromise’.11 By the end of the same decade, Lewis received his first extended attention in English. Emyr Edwards’s survey of his plays, before any of them had been translated, concluded that he was ‘a dramatist of European stature, European in thought and philosophy. In Wales he is considered by the topmost critics as the only great Welsh dramatist who can vie with the notables of other European traditions.’12
Lewis’s broader cultural translation occurred through a combination of factors. The effect of his own February 1962 Tynged yr Iaith lecture, predicting the demise of Welsh as a community language by the beginning of the twenty-first century unless ‘dulliau chwyldro’ (revolutionary methods) were used to protect it, was crucial.13 The lecture, which led indirectly to the formation of the Welsh Language Society, moved the language question from a programme of gradualist, constitutional reform to a campaign of direct action and civil disobedience, fusing the language, in English minds at least, with antinuclear protest, the civil rights marches in the southern United States, anti-apartheid activism and demonstrations against involvement in Vietnam. The phenomenon of conservative revolution prompted Gerald Morgan’s The Dragon’s Tongue (1966), Prys Morgan’s Background to Wales (1968), Robyn Lewis’s Second-Class Citizen: A Selection of Highly Personal Opinions Mainly Concerning the Two Languages of Wales (1969), the pieces collected in Meic Stephens’s The Welsh Language Today (1973), Clive Betts’s Culture in Crisis (1976) and, most strikingly, Ned Thomas’s The Welsh Extremist (1971), discussed below.
Vital, too, to the interest that Lewis’s apologists believed they could and should evince among non-Welsh speakers was Plaid Cymru’s success in parliamentary by-elections. The party won its first parliamentary seat in Carmarthen in July 1966, with a campaign that made a distinction between the Welsh-speaking rural west and anglophone industrial east of the constituency, and the party went on to win votes if not seats in the predominantly English-speaking Rhondda West (1967), Caerphilly (1968) and Merthyr Tydfil (1972). As one contemporary observer commented, ‘attention must be given to British nationalist movements which only a short while ago may have appeared freakish’.14 Welsh nationalism received academic attention in Philip Butt’s The Welsh Question (1975), and the social, cultural and economic case for it was made in the collection of essays edited by W. J. Morgan in The Welsh Dilemma (1973) and in comparative context in William Greenburg’s The Flags of the Forgotten (1969) and Patricia Elton Mayo’s The Roots of Identity (1974). At the same time, more radical formulations of nationalism, red and green, were promoted in Peter Berresford Ellis’s Wales. A Nation Again! (1968), Leopold Kohr’s Is Wales Viable? (1971), John Osmond’s The Centralist Enemy (1974) and Derrick Hearne’s The Rise of the Welsh Republic (1975).
Coincident with this was the emergence of writers eager for various but complementary reasons to serve the cause of making twentieth-century Welsh literature accessible to outsiders. These included translators from non-Welsh backgrounds with a reading knowledge of the language, such as A. M. Allchin, Tony Conran and Joseph Clancy, and learners like R. M. (or Bobi) Jones and Pennar Davies, whose preferred creative medium was Welsh, but were happy to adopt the role of intermediaries. Lewis also found champions among first-language speakers – R. Gerallt Jones, Bruce Griffiths, Gwyn Thomas, Dafydd Glyn Jones, Ned Thomas, Gruffydd Aled Williams and Harri Pritchard Jones – whose upbringing, education or academic discipline had created a critical distance from the culture. Lewis was most energetically promoted, however, by fluent learners, from R. S. Thomas, Emyr Humphreys and Harri Webb, through Gwyn Williams, Meic Stephens, Gerald Morgan and Ioan Williams, eager to promote the shared national character of literature in both languages. Meic Stephens’s periodical Poetry Wales was launched in 1965. Its Welsh subtitle, Cylchgrawn Cenedlaethol o Farddoniaeth Newydd (a national magazine of new poetry), was more than an affectation. In his first editorial, a year after the launch, Stephens termed Welsh writing ‘the senior literature’, and following the appointment of Gwilym Rees Hughes as ‘Welsh editor’ in 1967, translations of living poets and critical essays followed, as the two literary cultures negotiated an accommodation.15 Stephens, as director of the Literature Department of the Arts Council of Wales from 1968, was instrumental in the establishment of an English-language section of the hitherto Welsh-only society of writers, Yr Academi Gymreig (Welsh Academy), founded in 1959 and he would go on, with R. Brinley Jones, to launch the Writers of Wales book series which, from 1970, provided over 100 monographs on individual writers, periods and institutions in both literary communities by the first decade of the twenty-first century. Stephens would also edit the three volumes of the Artists in Wales series between 1971 and 1977, and, under his Triskel imprint, oversee the publication of essays on Welsh- and English-medium writers, including Lewis, in Triskel One (1971) and Triskel Two (1973).16
Finally, in retirement since 1957, Lewis had what could be assumed to be a complete or near-complete grand narrative by the 1960s: upbringing in England, service in the First World War, a revisionist attitude to literary history, the founding of a political party, conversion to Catholicism, imprisonment for arson against Crown property, dismissal from his lectureship and consequent unemployment, a rancorous by-election, a triumphant return to recognition and a canon of poetry, plays and two novels. There would even be time, after his eightieth birthday, for a poem in which some readers detected evidence of a loss of faith, the award of an honorary doctorate from the university that had dismissed him, and the revelation at his funeral that he had been made a papal knight in 1975. There was a story to tell.
Although the impulse to translate Lewis was largely dictated by Lewis’s critical stature in Welsh, one suspects that by the 1960s he was also a convenient proxy for the so-called ‘second flowering’ of Welsh literature in English. Ned Thomas added to what has been termed the ‘general aura of rediscovery’ of Welsh-language writing for an English-speaking audience17 through his editorship of the bi-monthly Planet in 1970, with numerous pieces on Welsh writers and the language question. His major contribution to Lewis’s English-language reputation came in The Welsh Extremist, mentioned above. Written to help ‘people outside, and particularly Englishmen, understand some of the depth of conviction, the secret springs of emotion, the difference and strength of tradition, and the psychology of the Welsh National movement’, and informed by the conviction that ‘the record of what is happening to us … can be found in the best modern Welsh literature’, Thomas not only stresses Lewis’s exceptionality, but opens several other discursive fronts.18 Lewis represents the man of letters who feels himself obliged to pursue politics; a magus, an ascetic and a European, whose resistance to English culture is calculated and strategic:
In conditions of greater national equality it may one day be possible to write the history of English influences on Welsh literature, but in his time Saunders Lewis’s emphasis has been an essential one, because he followed a rather provincial century (in which Britain as a whole was isolated from the continental movements) and because failure to make this European emphasis involved allowing the Welsh to regard themselves as a provincial culture inside Britain.19
Most pertinent to the wider transmission of Lewis in English, Lewis is a revolutionary, an anti-authoritarian, but not, Thomas stresses, a propagandist: ‘He moves at a deeper level.’20 His plays assert a universal but specific humanity:
Because they think and feel in Welsh, his characters show what it means to be human in the Welsh mould. There is no universal human mould. Universality is always felt through the specific shapes which it takes in different times and places.21
The revolution which Saunders Lewis offers Welsh people … is both a call to change the social framework, and a call to change oneself, to cut away the layers of convention, the isolated and alienated and distorted self, to reveal the true man and the true Welshman.22
Ned Thomas’s essay, folding historical context and self-discovery into each other, provides the paradigm for the cultural translation of Lewis over the course of the 1970s. First, there is name-dropping. Thomas compares Lewis to Thomas Mann and Georg Lukács – explicitly as an expositional tool, but implicitly, too, to confer status by proxy, setting Lewis in the European perspective he himself advocated as necessary for the mature development of Wales and its culture. Secondly, Lewis is presented through a series of paradoxes. He is the means for non-Welsh speakers to learn about ‘modern Welsh politics, literature and society’, as the book’s subtitle in later editions has it, but he is not typical of any of them. He stands, like Ned Thomas himself and the majority of Lewis’s subsequent interpreters, at a privileged distance. Thirdly, Lewis’s presentation of Welsh literature and contribution to it are partial but necessary. What he offers in his criticism and creative work alike should be read for its political rather than its aesthetic or academic resonances. Fourthly, he serves to remind anglophone readers that ‘the true Welshman’, aware of his position in the world, is the exception. Welshness is both unnatural and courageous. And running through all four, there is a sense of self-referential indebtedness: Thomas’s essay – indeed the whole book – only exists because Lewis has created the circumstances under which it is produced and the sensibility that informs it.
Lewis’s English-language persona was confirmed by Alun R. Jones and Gwyn Thomas’s Presenting Saunders Lewis (1973), the first book-length account in English of any writer in Welsh. Intended, in the words of its dedication, ‘I’r rhai nad ydynt yn gwybod’ (For those who do not know), it remains the touchstone text for all subsequent approaches. The title, Presenting Saunders Lewis, invites the reader to consider Lewis as someone hitherto unknown. The bronze bust by Kostek Wojnarowski (an image of which is reproduced in the volume) – modernist in style, rough-cast in execution and photographed not quite in full profile – makes the sitter look aloof, long-suffering, his empty eye sockets lifted away from the viewer. The editors’ ‘Acknowledgements’ read like a negotiated statement between the non-Welsh-speaking Jones, editor of Wordsworth, critic of the proto-modernist T. E. Hulme and the quintessentially English Larkin, and the Welsh-speaking nationalist and Christian Thomas, poet and populariser. It falls just short of celebration: ‘Our hope is that by presenting a selection of his work to the English-speaking world we may gain proper recognition for this remarkable man who has contributed so much to the long tradition of his own language.’23 R. S. Thomas’s prefatory poem, ‘Saunders Lewis’ (‘And he dared them’), challenging the reader to understand the work through the perception of Lewis as ‘ascetic’ and ‘recluse’, is followed by personal tributes, essays on Lewis the politician, dramatist, critic and poet, and a selection of Lewis’s own criticism, poetry and plays.
The body of the work in Presenting Saunders Lewis rests on four pairs of recurring and contradictory discourses. First, Lewis is at once above the fray and at its centre. ‘He is a very private man’, Emyr Humphreys avers; ‘he doesn’t suffer from that common Welsh weakness: the overwhelming desire to be agreeable’.24 Secondly, he is unique but best understood by comparison with others. Thus, D. J. Williams views him through de Gaulle:
Both gentlemen … are about the same age, and have apparently been in the wars from birth … And as de Gaulle helped to lift France out of the ditch of her own temporary political ineptitude, so has Saunders Lewis helped to jerk Wales to a considerable extent out of the swamp of her own political ineptitude, centuries deep.
Pennar Davies weaves his criticism into the early twentieth-century anti-romanticism of Eliot, Pound and Remy de Gourmont, but adds that Lewis remains ‘profoundly Welsh’.25 Thirdly, Lewis offers certainty without reassurance. Dafydd Glyn Jones, for instance, says of Lewis’s 1926 statement on the principles of nationalism, Egwyddorion Cenedlaetholdeb, ‘Its logic is calculated to perplex, and to dislodge some familiar and cherished notions.’26 Fourthly, the epithets applied to him in the titles of D. J. Williams’s and Emyr Humphreys’s contributions – ‘a man of destiny’ and ‘a necessary figure’ respectively27 – make Lewis a man able either to shape history or, at least, to respond creatively to its vicissitudes.
By the mid-1970s, Lewis’s reputation among those who promoted him was at its most celebratory, as though the survival of the man into his eighties was the guarantee of the indomitability of his cause. One critic wrote of Lewis’s ‘integrity, intelligence and energy’.28 Another called him ‘the inspirer of our recent resistance to the decline of the Welsh language’.29 He was ‘the most-listened-to elder on the Welsh scene’,30 ‘generally regarded as the most distinguished Welsh writer, critic and dramatist of the twentieth century’,31 ‘undoubtedly the greatest single figure in twentieth-century Wales, and one of the greatest figures in the whole of Welsh history’,32 and someone whose ‘personal authority amongst Welsh-speakers … is enormous’.33
Right at the end of the decade, Bruce Griffiths’s 1979 Writers of Wales monograph on Lewis was the first attempt to weave Lewis’s life, literature and aesthetics into a coherent whole. Adopting a chronological, developmental approach, and armed with notes gathered by Tecwyn Lloyd for his biography (which was subsequently published in 1988), Griffiths relocates the pivot of Lewis’s significance from the effect of Tynged yr Iaith in 1962 to his childhood. A story from his school magazine, in which the hero saves a friend from a fire, is adduced as evidence of a performative personality, a man of grand gestures. Lewis is remade as ‘the stormy petrel of Welsh literature’, ‘impelled to take political action’, ‘this interloper, this Liverpool expatriate … this clever upstart’:
If one were to draw an identikit picture of the archetypal Welsh nationalist … no doubt one would see a Nonconformist, teetotal, pacifist, plebeian, parochial, left-wing or republican separatist, an Anglophobe and pan-Celt born and bred in the rural heart of Welsh Wales. S.L. was none of these.34
It was inevitable that Lewis’s anglophone presence would provoke a less deferential response. The first intimations that he was fallible centred on one of his rare excursions into English. His 1938 lecture Is There an Anglo-Welsh Literature? had concluded that there was not. Drawing a comparison with Ireland, Lewis argued that English-speaking Wales lacked the separateness from English industrial civilisation, the rooted-ness of English as a vernacular, the consciousness of being a literature produced for a home audience rather than the English, and the lack of writers who were ‘consciously and deliberately nationalist’.35 What had been seen at the time as ‘a diagnosis which has been generally accepted’ was now called into question.36 Raymond Garlick’s 1969 lecture, borrowing Lewis’s questioning title, begged to differ. Lewis, Garlick suggested, had been engaged in ‘essentially a piece of theoretical criticism’, based on a handful of texts. The appearance in the intervening thirty years of a body of work in English by Welsh writers and with a distinctive Welsh setting and sensibility, Garlick suggested, ‘must modify his conclusion very considerably’. Garlick tempered his disagreement with the approbation Lewis characteristically evoked at the time: ‘I do not in any way intend that that this should detract from the admiration I … feel for him as a writer and critic, and as an architect of the new Wales in which we hope our children will live’;37 but the wall was breached. The cultural movement which had used Lewis as part of its mission to assert an identity now turned on him. Ned Thomas called Lewis’s lecture, diplomatically, ‘a rather hermetically sealed account of literature’, and by the final decades of the century, his aesthetics and politics were being openly called into question.38
While Bruce Griffiths was content to interpret Lewis as a salutary and even heroic contrarian in 1979, the failure of the devolution referendum in the same year provoked less appreciative and less essentialist assessments among nationalists. Hywel Davies’s history of the first twenty years of Plaid Cymru, translating for an anglophone readership the debates that had filled the Welsh periodical press between 1925 and 1945, presented Lewis at odds with the majority of his party’s members, ‘a leader in isolation’ from a movement whose egalitarian instincts he did not share:
Never having intended remaining the party’s president for very long, being convinced that he would be a failure in such a role, he nevertheless became the personification of Welsh nationalism for members and critics despite his repeated requests to relinquish the post.39
Davies’s verdict was relatively benign. However, the late twentieth and early twenty-first century saw general criticism of his ‘authoritarian personality’40 and ‘condescending attitude’.41 Lewis, critics noted, had called for the de-industrialisation of south Wales at the height of the Depression, supported the monarchy at home and the Vichy collaborationist government in France, and defended Franco’s Republicans in Spain.42 Darryl Jones laid the disastrous referendum result of 1979 squarely on Lewis:
These figures [voting against devolution] must surely be understood as an act of political revenge: the revenge of the overwhelming Anglophone majority in Wales over what was clearly seen as a Welsh-speaking cultural elite whose definitions of Welshness habitually excluded some four-fifths of the population of the country for which they purported to speak.43
Meanwhile, other criticism sought to undermine Lewis’s own Welshness. Tony Bianchi repositioned him as heir to ‘the dominant discourse of English criticism’, resistant to industrial civilisation and fearful of mass culture: ‘Saunders Lewis’s criticism, replete with “principles”, “standards”, “organic continuity” and appeals for “learned men to raise the intellectual level of the people”, is frequently no more than an elegant reworking of Eliot and Leavis.’44 Grahame Davies labelled him ‘a man who had deliberately adopted Wales, and had adopted an idea of Wales very different to the reality’.45 His work was criticised, too, as an example of ‘a Welsh intelligentsia jealously pressing its claim that it and it alone could speak for the whole of Wales’,46 and as demonstrating ‘instances of abjection, attempts to remove from inside to outside an “other” whose very existence constitutes a challenge to the stability and integrity of a unified, homogeneous Welsh self ‘.47 Indeed, Lewis was more comprehensively ‘othered’ for his politics. Thus, in Gwyn A. Williams’s assessment:
The Europe to which we belong is not the Europe of Saunders Lewis; the Europe of Saunders Lewis’s Brâd [sic] is our enemy. Our Europe is the Europe of Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek, of Karl Korsch and Victor Serge, of Fernando Claudin and La Pasionaria; above all of that Aneurin Bevan of Italian communism, Antonio Gramsci …48
Since the 1970s, there has been consistent criticism of Lewis’s ‘authoritarian personality’, elitism and the Madonna-or-Magdalene binary roles assigned to women in his plays.49 There has been particular awkwardness with the poetry, with accusations of anti-Semitism and a disdain for the industrial poor, especially so in his poem on the causes of the Second World War, ‘Y Dilyw’, with its portrayal of the unemployed during the Depression as ‘y demos dimai’, whose lives are ruled by Jews on Wall Street, ‘[a]’u ffroenau Hebreig yn ystadegau’r chwarter’.50 Lewis, whose English-language persona had been nurtured by the conviction, thirty years before, that nationalism was no longer ‘freakish’, was now regarded as marginal.51
Although ready to absolve him of greater faults, there has, since D. Hywel Davies’s The Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925–1945: A Call to Nationhood (1983), been a steady parade of those who find his policies absurdly unsuited to the needs of Wales between the wars, in particular his call (noted above) for the de-industrialisation of south Wales.52 The views of Lewis’s remaining apologists and supporters were altered too. The referendum of 1979, in which Welsh voters overwhelmingly rejected devolution, and Lewis’s own call for an abstention, appeared to confirm his growing irrelevance. By the time of his death in 1985, Lewis’s champions were more concerned with salvaging his reputation than with presenting him as a pivotal figure. Thus, Emyr Humphreys posited that Lewis embodied ‘obligation to voices from the past and to the survival of an ancient nation and a distinct people’.53 For others he was ‘a life-long fighter’.54 Lewis became a saint. Donald Allchin found in him ‘an unusual fusion of exact scholarship and sympathetic imagination’.55 Harri Pritchard Jones’s Saunders Lewis: A Presentation of His Work (1991) contains the now-familiar parallels with famous men: ‘as fascinating as D’Annunzio’; ‘[o]ne could compare him with Jan Mazaryck’; ‘like Kiekegaard’; ‘ike Joyce’;56 but the body is homiletic in tone. ‘He died without most of his faculties’, Jones writes, ‘save the ability to pray. A race well run, and one which left an indelible mark on Welsh and European culture.’57 Other shades are invoked: Thomas á Kempis – and even the betrayed Jesus. ‘It reminds some of us’, Jones says of one of Lewis’s final poems, ‘of the experience of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.’58
Ioan Williams deals with the dramatist. The title of his 1991 volume A Straitened Stage serves as a convenient label for the critical method adopted by its author. Lewis, discussed solely as a playwright, is absolved of personal answerability for his political thought. As importantly, Williams is at pains to avoid being autobiographical. Breaking with the orthodoxy of Lewis’s presentation in English as an amalgam of writer, politician and activist, there is a strong sense in this particular study of things not being said or, rather, of being iterated from a strategically restricted dramaturgical standpoint:
For him drama continued to offer opportunities to work out the problematic elements in contemporary experience through the medium of action based on personal relations … His central characters face the difficult task of overcoming the world without abandoning it. To achieve this they have to master the devouring weakness of fear: and when they have done this they are free of the world and free to love. In Saunders Lewis’s view this is to achieve humanity, which begins in an honest acknowledgement of isolation, but which can only fulfil itself in relation to others.
That said, as with all interpretations for an anglophone readership, the question of social relevance is not absent. Williams’s defence of Lewis turns on giving his theatre the potential to be relevant. The dead dramatist is a sleeping Arthur. The study concludes:
It could well be that at the point when a radical adjustment is made in Britain, regarding the way in which individuality is felt and experienced, the traditional theatre of Europe may once again become available, a new common ground between the artist and the audience.59
However, the discovery of a cache of letters after Lewis’s death, the majority spanning the years 1914–23, has revealed another hitherto unknown figure: the soldier, research student and English-language poet in the Georgian mode. The collection, written almost exclusively to the woman he would marry, Saunders Lewis: Letters to Margaret Gilcriest (1993), and running to 636 pages, raises the inevitable counterfactual question: how might Lewis’s translators and transmitters have presented him to an English-language readership had the collection been in the public domain half a century earlier? In the event, it is difficult not to conclude that Lewis’s entrenched reputation as an elitist and isolationist, and the passage of time, have rendered him almost redundant to an understanding of Welsh Wales for those who do not know.
Nothing has appeared about Lewis in Planet since 1994. The New Welsh Review, launched in 1988, has never carried a freestanding piece about him; nor has the annual collection of essays, Welsh Writing in English, begun in 1995, or its successors Almanac (from 2007–8) and – until its publication of the current essay – the International Journal of Welsh Writing in English (from 2013). Post-devolution Wales, following the referendum vote in 1997, has largely expunged him from the English-language account it gives of itself. None of the contributors to David Dunkerley and Andrew Thompson’s Wales Today (1999) refers to Lewis, and Jane Aaron and Chris Williams’s Postcolonial Wales (2005) contains just one mention: Dylan Phillips, who says of Tynged yr Iaith that ‘the thrust of Lewis’s doom-and-gloom polemic has been proved completely wrong’.60
Lewis now inhabits two discursive territories, both of which lift him away from any concern with the contemporary or accountability for it. First, he has become transmuted as transcendental, credited with ‘restoring to his fellow citizens some sense of the vibrancy and cosmopolitanism their culture had enjoyed during the Middle Ages’, and hailed by A. M. Allchin as ‘the central figure in the mid-twentieth-century Christian vision in Welsh writing’.61 Secondly, Lewis has been made vulnerable. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, doyen of uncontroversial, depoliticised Welsh patriotism, contests that ‘frail in figure, he was yet imbued with an urgent sense of mission’.62 The most recent transmission of Lewis as writer and man of faith is melancholic. Welsh readers are unable to appreciate the language and aesthetics of his plays and poetry: ‘Whatever we think of Saunders Lewis, there is one thing on which everyone would agree – that he loved our nation passionately and was cruelly disappointed by her.’63 In the same category, with caveats, one can place Richard Wyn Jones’s more detached, more closely argued account of Lewis the politician and the accusations of fascism made against him and his party. Quoting at length from Lewis and his critics in his 2014 volume The Fascist Party in Wales? Plaid Cymru, Welsh Nationalism and the Accusation of Fascism, he asserts that comparisons with Hitler are ‘laughably inappropriate’, that his anti-statist rhetoric exonerates him from being a fascist, and that the perceived anti-Semitism in ‘Y Dilyw’, when read alongside similar sentiments found in Orwell, H. G. Wells and Churchill, can be understood as ‘part of the cultural currency of the era’.64 The major difference with this English-language defence of Lewis is that it appeals to a misunderstanding of him as much as to malice against him. Jones’s words, read through the accretion of forty years’ disapprobation of Lewis since Ned Thomas and Bruce Griffiths, are revealing:
Lewis’s great sin – his original sin, so to speak – was to challenge the dominant monolithic view in Wales about what it meant to be ‘truly’ Welsh … In the context of the dominant understandings of Welshness that prevailed at the time, it is impossible to imagine a more iconoclastic position than Saunders Lewis’s conservative, Catholic, Welsh-language-centred aristocratism (uchelwriaeth). Yet, because of Lewis’s intellectual stature and moral authority, he could not simply be ignored. Instead, an attempt was made to discredit his ideas totally by linking them with Fascism; an accusation that not only betrays profound ignorance of Lewis’s thinking, but an equally profound ignorance of the broader intellectual context of the interwar years.65
As Lewis’s canon – or as much of it as could be – has been translated, he himself became a translation too, subsumed into the work of three writers, all born outside Welsh Wales, for whom Lewis is not only an influence, friend, inspiration, exemplar and source of allusion and validation but, more significantly, the lens through which their legitimacy as Welsh writers has been established. Their writing and, more interestingly, the reception of their writing, turn the story of Saunders Lewis in translation inside-out. Through them, the diminished and in some respects discredited Lewis survives by proxy. They write in English what they would have written in Welsh had circumstances allowed or, more pertinently, what Lewis could have written in English. All three writers have attracted critical studies in which writing in English is presented to a Welsh-speaking readership as an authentic record of Welsh experience.
Emyr Humphreys, included among the generation of Welsh writers in English designated by M. Wynn Thomas as ‘sons of Saunders’,66 is both a translator and translation of Lewis.67 Diane Green describes Humphreys’s career as a gradual move towards ‘speaking Welsh in English’, and cites examples of direct borrowings from Lewis’s life for plot and characterisation in his fiction.68 One suspects that a closer examination of Lewis’s drama would have revealed commonalities, too, in the headlong plotting, the respect for intellectual talent. Lowri Davies, comparing Humphrey’s A Little Kingdom with its Welsh translation, Darn o Dir, concludes:
Fe demtir rhywun … i awgrymu fod yr awdur yn pwysleisio ei Gymreictod fwyfwy yn y nofel Saesneg, yn ymwybodol neu’n anymwybodol, bron fel cyfiawnhad dros ei ddefnydd o gyfrwng estron. Rhyw fath o gri o’r galon gan awdur cenedlaetholgar yn [sic] ei nofel gyntaf – ‘falla ‘mod i’n ysgrifennu’n Saesneg, ond am Gymru, a’r Gymru Gymraeg ar ben hynny, yr ydw i’n ysgrifennu’.69
[One is tempted … to suggest that the author is more emphatically Welsh in the English-language novel, whether consciously or unconsciously, almost as a justification for his use of a foreign medium. His first novel is almost the outcry of a nationalist author – ‘I may be writing in English, but I am writing about Wales, and Welsh Wales at that’.]
R. S. Thomas certainly makes Lewis a paradigm. Christopher Morgan refers to Lewis’s ‘singular vital importance’ for Thomas and mentions, without dissent, ‘what some have seen as his inheritance of cultural leadership from Saunders Lewis’.70 M. Wynn Thomas talks of there being ‘undoubtedly a sense in which the influence on Thomas’s poetry if not of Saunders Lewis himself then of the cultural ideology with which he was so eminently associated is very widely pervasive’.71 Geraint Evans describes Thomas the language zealot ‘clothed against the chill blast of appeasement by a mantle of steadfast integrity which he had inherited from Saunders Lewis himself ‘.72 Jason Walford Davies argues that R. S. Thomas’s tributes to Lewis for his asceticism and withdrawal become ‘refractions of R.S.’s own personality’, how he ‘increasingly inherited Saunders’s very stance’.73 Moelwyn Merchant draws deeper parallels:
For each of them history is a living thing, stirring in the blood; for each of them language is the communication of a tradition not confined to Wales but European-wide and millennia-long; neither has sought power or place; for each, poetry has expressed the same prophetic union of passion with a cleansing anger.74
Grahame Davies, in Sefyll yn y Bwlch (1999), draws parallels between the careers of Lewis, Thomas, T. S. Eliot and Simone Weil, simultaneously giving R. S. a Welsh and a European context.75 Barry Morgan reads R.S.’s poetry through his sense of himself as unable to compose poetry in Welsh.76 R. M. Jones, who argued Lewis’s cause in English, writes of Thomas in Welsh:
Camp R.S. oedd wynebu angst fawr ac ymwybod sy’n guddiedig rhag llawer o’i gyfoeswyr di-Gymraeg. Procia gloffni’u dealltwriaeth o dynged y gwareiddiad dirfodol Cymraeg. Dengys fel na ddaethant yn ymwybodol o’u tynged eu hunain; a hynny drwy fethu (dan orfod) a [sic] meddiannu delwedd o Gymru helaethlawn ystyrlon.77
[R.S.’s achievement was to face the great angst and consciousness that is hidden from the majority of his non-Welsh-speaking contemporaries. He disturbs their inadequate understanding of the existentialism in Welsh culture. He shows how unaware they are of their own fate through their failure (perforce) to achieve a broad and meaningful image of Wales.]
David Jones’s reception is extensively mediated through Lewis, often in ways that those able to read Lewis in Welsh may find unfamiliar. Elizabeth Ward ascribes Jones’s supposed reconciliation of patriotism and internationalism to ‘that most unorthodox of Welsh nationalists, Saunders Lewis. The active combination of Catholic and Celt in Lewis sheds light on the same compound as it occurred in David Jones.’78 Paul Robichaud writes that ‘Jones’s imaginative construction of the traddodiad [Welsh-language social and literary tradition] is in tandem with the development of cultural nationalism in Wales, as exemplified by his friend and contemporary, Saunders Lewis’.79 In a curiously comprehensive list, John Matthias finds in Jones’s The Sleeping Lord ‘the Wales of Saunders Lewis and R. S. Thomas and Dylan Thomas, of Ceri Richards and Vernon Watkins, of William Mathias and Osian Ellis – the Wales of the present and the recent past’.80 ‘The connection in their thinking about Wales in relation to the Catholic West’, Jeremy Hooker asserts of Lewis and Jones, ‘makes it less easy to dismiss Jones’s idea of Wales as a romantic dream.’81 Elsewhere, in what reads like the ascription of Keatsian negative capability, Hooker also asserts that an essential ingredient in Jones’s achievement ‘was precisely that he did not speak Welsh, or at least that he did not think and feel and write in Welsh, as his friend Saunders Lewis did’.82 And then there is Lewis himself, whose radio introduction to Jones’s Arts Council exhibition, broadcast in 1954, appears in print, like fresh paint, eighteen years later:
Mr David Jones is of course poet as well as painter, so that speech for him is as potential as sight, and in his inscriptions poet and painter join to state, to proclaim the mystery, the annunciation, the charged sign, that words sometimes carry an aura around them, just like a human body.83
David Jones has been found a Welsh-speaking audience, too. Hannah Dentinger, writing on the use of Welsh in Jones’s The Sleeping Lord, 84 concludes:
Y mae’r geiriau Cymraeg yn sefyll allan ymysg y Saesneg, yn enwedig am eu bod wedi’u hargraffu mewn llythrennau italaidd. Gall golwg, ac ystyr, y geiriau hyn wneud i’r testun ymddangos yn frawychus i’r darllenydd. Gorfodir y darllenydd di-Gymraeg i gadw ei lygaid ar y troednodiadau sydd yn esbonio ynganiad ac ystyr y geiriau. Y mae’r proses hwn yn niweidio rhythm a llif y gerdd. Ar y cyfan, y mae’r profìad i ddarllenwyr Saesneg eu hiaith yn peri’r ymdeimlad o anghydlyniad. Ond y mae pwrpas i’r ddwy iaith yn y gerdd. Y mae’r cynnwys yn Saesneg yn diffìnio’r llun, ond mae Jones wedi dewis enwau Cymraeg sydd yn darlunio daearyddiaeth leol neu dopograffì Cymreig. Cymraeg, felly, ydyw cefndir y manylion Saesneg.85
[The words in Welsh stand out from the English, particularly as they are in italics. The look and meaning of these words make the text appear alarming to the reader. The non-Welsh-speaking reader is obliged to consult footnotes that explain their pronunciation and meaning. This process impairs the poem’s rhythm and flow. On the whole, for non-Welsh readers, it evokes a sense of incoherence. But both languages in the poem have their purpose. The English content defines the poem, but Jones has chosen Welsh names that depict a local geography and Welsh topography. Welsh, therefore, becomes the background for the English detail.]
Ivor Davies implies a correspondence between Jones and Lewis – their age, their service in the First World War, their conversion to Catholicism – that makes each the reciprocal adjunct of the other. As for the language that separates them:
Wrth edrych dros yrfa’r artist arbennig hwn a cheisio ei gloriannu, rhaid gofyn a oes gan y Cymry hynny sydd yn hollol ymwybodol eu bod yn rhan o’u hetifeddiaeth hwy eu hunain, ragoriaeth dros David Jones? Neu a ydyw’r hiraeth am gael perthyn a’r ymdeimlad dwys o golled, fel a brofodd ef, yn esgor ar fwy o gymhelliad i greu, ac ar yr ysbryd artistig egnïol hwnnw sydd yn gwbl allweddol i gelfyddyd?86
[In assessing the career of this particular artist, one must ask, do those Welsh people who are conscious that they are part of their own inheritance, have any advantage over David Jones? Or, does the desire to belong and the acute sense of loss that he experienced, give rise to a greater impetus to create, and to that energetic inventive spirit that is vital to art?]
The energy drawn from longing and loss that Davies identifies in David Jones can be applied equally to Humphreys and R.S., of course. Just as significantly, it can be traced back to the elderly figure of Saunders Lewis on that September morning in 1970, ‘mowing his front lawn with a furious energy’.87
Robin Chapman lectures in Welsh at Aberystwyth University, and is author of a biography of Saunders Lewis, Un Bywyd o Blith Nifer: Cofiant Saunders Lewis (Llandysul: Gomer, 2006). His volume for the upcoming Oxford Literary History of Wales series, A Troubled Heritage, Literature in Welsh c.1740–2006, will appear shortly.
The University of Wales Press wishes to acknowledge the funding received from the Open Library of Humanities towards the cost of producing this open access journal.