Reading matters

Considering that we comprise just 0.0025% of the global population, the Welsh contribution to literature has been out of all proportion to the country’s size, and far exceeds our negligible influence in most other spheres of human activity. But, since the systematic stupifying of the ordinary people is among the myriad drawbacks of being shackled to the UK, that contribution is little known even within Wales. Keeping the masses uneducated, uninformed and unquestioning has been calculated British policy for generations, an ignorant populace being easier to manipulate into obedient cannon-fodder for imperial wars, or supine shoppers to keep the tills ringing. The Welsh traditions of non-elitist literacy, love of language and free-thinking intelligence have inevitably been eroded through these centuries of brutish Brit barbarity, so it’s important to keep reminding ourselves, and the world, what we are capable of when left to our own devices. To that end, here’s a selection, in chronological order, of 22 magnificent Welsh writers who deserve a place on everyone’s bookshelf or e-reader:

DAFYDD ap GWILYM (c1320-1370)
The supreme master of the bardic arts from Ceredigion utilised lucid idioms, juicy vocabulary and an almost modernist poetic sensibility to coax timeless perceptions from a life chasing beautiful women amid sublime Welsh landscapes, while adhering to and enriching the fiendishly complex strict metrical rules of his era. Some 150 of his poems have survived and are available in translation; 1982’s Dafydd ap Gwilym: A Selection of Poems by Rachel Bromwich (1915-2010) is the ideal introduction.

ISLWYN (1832-1878)
Taking his bardic name from the mountain above his home (and, uniquely, sharing it with a parliamentary constituency), William Thomas from Ynysddu on the Gwent/Glamorgan border learnt his trade from the roaming bards of Gwent and honed it at the eisteddfodau that remain so vital to Wales’ affinity for poetry.   In 1856 he wrote Y Storm as a response to the sudden death of his fiancée, a mighty, 9,000-line opera of sorrow now considered the greatest epic poem in the Welsh language. Nearly forty years before Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) invented psychoanalysis, and over 100 before the dawn of ‘bereavement counselling’, Islwyn peered into his own subconscious and searched, searched in vain, for a way through his impassable grief.

DANIEL OWEN (1836-1895)
Due to the prestige of poetry, the novel was slow to become established in Wales – until Mold tailor Owen broke new ground with three densely-plotted, closely-observed depictions of real life, Rhys Lewis (1885), Enoc Huws (1891) and Gwen Tomos (1894).  His wry, wordly narratives unflinchingly faced the facts about people, swept away the hackneyed conventions of Victorian melodrama and set the tone for all subsequent naturalistic writers.

ARTHUR MACHEN (1863-1947)
Far ahead of his time in many ways, Machen effectively founded the modern horror genre by tapping into the pagan legends and Celtic mists of his Caerllion boyhood. From his 1894 novella The Great God Pan a direct line can be traced to Stephen King and Alan Moore; his 1922 novel The Secret Glory was the first to use the Holy Grail as a fictional trope and led to today’s vast Holy Grail Industry of Dan Brown et al; and his magnum opus of 1907, The Hill of Dreams, was the precursor of the now ubiquitous psychogeography.

WH DAVIES (1871-1940)
Taking the Welsh tradition of the wandering bard into the machine age, Newport’s most famous son made the stereotype of the impoverished poet starving in an attic look fey and phoney, spending most of his life a homeless, one-legged hobo. The first Welsh writer in the English language to find an audience did so by simply being himself. While England’s lionised lyricists lived in luxury, ‘WH’ (William Henry) was an itinerant labourer riding the freight wagons and sleeping in hedgerows, compiling his extraordinary The Autobiography of a Super-tramp (1908) along the way. Most poets will only ever dream of nailing eternal truths in a rhyming couplet as Davies did with the immortal “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare…”

‘TH’ (Thomas Herbert) from Rhyd Ddu in Gwynedd was a serious academic in several European universities as well as a brilliant poet who helped Wales shake off the dull, cringing fatalism of religion and begin to handle the precarious uncertainties of the modern world. His taut, deceptively simple language is nowhere more powerful than in his most acclaimed poem Hon, a perfect encapsulation of the cursed/blessed Welsh ambiguity written decades before Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) covered similar territory for Ireland. Joseph Clancy’s translation in Twentieth Century Welsh Poems (1982) has not been bettered.

KATE ROBERTS (1891-1985)
The first great women novelist of Wales, the originator of the Welsh industrial novel with Traed Mewn Cyffion (1936), and the first Welsh writer to bring European psychological preoccupations to the Welsh story-telling tradition, Roberts, from a slate-quarrying village near Caernarfon, wrote poised, spare fiction of piercing, progressive intelligence for nearly 60 years. Her theme, the daily struggles of her beloved, beleaguered people in this abused, embattled land, has not gone away: it’s still on the table to be dealt with, at the top of the agenda, the hot topic all contemporary Welsh writers should be exploring.

DAVID JONES (1895-1974)
A key modernist on a par with James Joyce (1882-1941), Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and TS Eliot (1888-1965), but not nearly so well known because his overarching theme was Wales and the violence done to the Welsh heritage of the British Isles – not something the UK cultural police would want widely disseminated. His two masterpieces are In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathémata (1952), described by WH Auden (1907-1973) as the greatest long poem in the English language.

Not many Welsh novels become global best-sellers, but Un Nos Ola Leuad (1961) is an exception. As One Moonlit Night in English, as well as 12 other languages so far, it is the most translated Welsh book of all. Prichard’s shocking vision of Bethesda through the eyes of a young lad, a savage, dark soliloquy in slate-town slang, has prompted world readers to further explore the neglected riches of Welsh literature.

IDRIS DAVIES (1905-1953)
Where else but Wales, where poetry’s roots are proletarian not posh, could have produced the outstanding working-class poet of the 20th century? The coalminer from Rhymney who wrote in English, his second language, was treated as a lefty propagandist by the critical establishment in his lifetime, but now it’s accepted that his two major works Gwalia Deserta (1938), a gut-wrenching Depression-era elegy, and The Angry Summer (1943), a scintillating tour-de-force about the 1926 miners’ strike, seethe with an eloquent passion no subsequent poet has yet matched. Yes, poetry can break your heart.

Few writers have mythologised a place and its people with such potency that the myth becomes the defining image, but London Welshman Llewellyn did just that with the mining valleys of south Wales in How Green Was My Valley in 1939. Still the best-selling English language novel about Wales 75 years later, its relevance today is in the revelation that, even when the writing is flawed, Welsh subject matter can’t help but make it enthralling and moving.

RS THOMAS (1913-2000)
An out-and-out genius who enraged British nationalists in the 1980s and 90s with his unequivocal support for Welsh republican fire-bombings of the (empty) holiday homes that, to this day, are turning Wales into a picturesque desert while young people can’t afford a home in their homeland. The son of a Cardiff sea captain was the conscience of Cymru, the uncorruptible embodiment of the poet archetype who made the ancient craft pertinent in the computer age. His wondrous, succinct, fastidious words track an anguished hunt for a God forever out of reach. He even shows us how to die: “…bravely, close up under the rain-hammered rafters, never complaining…”

DYLAN THOMAS (1914-1953)
The short life of the most famous of all the poets of Wales has, posthumously, become the very definition of bo-ho creativity. Not for Dylan the refined respectability of the English tradition; the roaring Swansea boy raged, romanced and revelled while producing transcendental poems such as Fern Hill, The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night – poems that will still be read when the last humans are scavenging for the last scraps on a parched planet.

ALUN LEWIS (1915-1944)
WW2’s supreme poet in English shot himself in the head on a jungle-covered Burmese mountain dreaming of his wife Gweno back home in Aberdâr, “whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves / dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders / where you lay waiting, listening to the waves.”

The Prestatyn-born doyen of Welsh writers has worked for 65 years to show that the Welsh condition is the human condition. He uses both languages as poet, dramatist, essayist and cultural historian, but it’s his English-language novels where his subtle, compassionate prose has most impact. From A Toy Epic in 1958, via Outside the House of Baal in 1965 and through to his monumental seven-novel sequence completed in 1991 The Land of the Living, charting the political and social history of Wales across the 20th century, Humphreys’ achievements are staggering. If he were English/British he’d be a household name.

HARRI WEBB (1920-1994)
In the 1960s Anglo-Welsh literature stopped being apologetic and began to embrace the Welsh cause in new ways. Webb, a radical republican from Swansea, yanked poetry out of the groves of academe and returned it to the common people, the ‘gwerin’ of old, with boozed-up ballads and incendiary stanzas. His deceptive skill and fizzing energy showed that poetry could go to places where prose would fear to tread. After he died, his work was collected by Meic Stephens under the title of Harri’s best-known poem Looking Up England’s Arsehole: “Oh, we’re looking up England’s arsehole / It’s the prettiest view we know / It’s the height of our ambition / It’s where we want to go / It’s the finest sight in the universe / Though you seek both high and low / So we’re looking up England’s arsehole / Waiting for the breeze to blow…”

RON BERRY (1920-1997)
Miner, navvy, fitter, boxer, merchant seaman, footballer, and Rhondda’s chronicler of working-class life in a sequence of unheralded short stories and novels, Berry cast his gimlet eye over the throwaway heroics and survive-another-day trials of the people with rhythmic intensity and bitter-sweet pathos, and consigned the How Green Was My Valley version to the remainder bins. He never made a penny out of writing (sounds familiar), spending his last years plagued by arthritis downing pints in the Treherbert Con Club, but posterity is elevating him into the Welsh pantheon. Start with his Collected Stories, published by Gomer in 2000, and his superb 1970 novel So Long, Hector Bebb.

The son of a railwayman from Pandy in Gwent became the most eminent public intellectual of his day. His seminal Culture & Society (1958), which argued that pop culture was as valid as highbrow, was the foundation upon which the international discipline of Cultural Studies was built. His very European libertarian Marxism, rooted in the very Welsh conviction that no-one is better than anyone else, made him the dominant figure of the ‘New Left’ in the 1960s. As he matured he increasingly concentrated on his first priority, Welsh independence, much to the bewilderment of English socialists (who object to all ‘nationalism’, unless it’s British, and always have a convenient blind spot where Wales is concerned, justified by a threadbare and bogus ‘internationalism’ that merely serves to entrench the status quo). Williams set about writing the great historical novel Wales deserved, People of the Black Mountains. Even though his death robbed us of the final part of the trilogy, we have parts one and two to treasure. Travelling from the very beginnings of recorded time through to the 15th century, they are breathtaking in their immense sweep and towering imaginative vision.

JAN MORRIS (1926-)
You have to be very special to be revered for non-fiction, but the avowed Welsh republican and patriot from Gwynedd has accomplished it with her inimitable and exceptional works, whether on history (the peerless Pax Britannica trilogy), travel (illuminating studies of Venice, Hong Kong, Spain, Oxford and Trieste), memoir (Conundrum, the gripping account of her 1972 gender reassignment in Morocco), or her main passion: Wales. The Matter of Wales (1984) is a book that will change anyone who dares read it.

The most travelled of all Welsh poets, the bilingual ‘Christian anarchist’ from Llandysul is fêted all around the world (bar Anglo-land, where she’s unknown). Her collections Eucalyptus/Detholiad o Gerddi (1994) and Cell Angels (1996) best display her exuberant, inventive use of both languages, her restlessly quizzical descriptive gifts and her bold courage on the frontline of the battle against cultural extermination.

The steady undercurrents characterising modern Welsh poetry are protest and political radicalism, to a degree found elsewhere in the world only in dictatorships and war-zones. Merthyr’s Jenkins has made agit-prop into high art, wielding words like weapons to splatter the blood and guts of our oppressors across the page; poetry as activism not aestheticism, giving voice to the forgotten people. Jenkins co-founded Red Poets Society in 1995, a loose collective of Welsh socialists who perform free at events across Wales and publish an unmissable magazine (see

Thanks to TV programmes filmed in Cardiff, Lewis’s 6ft-high words on the Wales Millennium Centre have made her the world’s most visible poet. It’s not just grandstanding: her writings in both languages are urgent and creative. Y Llofrudd Iaith (2000) and Keeping Mum (2004) place her in the vanguard of modern poetry; their very theme, language itself, fixing Wales as the abiding birthing pool of poetics.