Literature from the land of the leek and the lyre

I’m walking in Wales this week so I’ve put together a literary tasting plate from the land of the leek and the lyre. I hope these morsels give you the flavour of what’s been written by some of this windswept country’s more lyrical inhabitants.

1. ‘Evans’ by R. S. Thomas

It was not the dark filling my eyes / And mouth appalled me; not even the drip / Of rain like blood from the one tree / Weather-tortured. It was the dark / Silting the veins of that sick man

R.S. Thomas (1913–2000) was one of Wales’ most commanding literary figures, with a writing career that spanned five decades and produced over 20 volumes of poetry. In 1996, at the age of 83, Thomas was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. A leading poet of modern Wales, Thomas writes about the people of his country in a style that some critics have compared to that nation’s harsh and rugged terrain. James F. Knapp says he writes about ‘a world of lonely Welsh farms and of the farmers who endure the harshness of their hill country. The vision is realistic and merciless’.

2. The Hill Fort (Y Gaer) by Owen Sheers

And that’s why he’s come back again, / to tip these ashes onto the tongue of the wind / and watch them spindrift into the night. // Not just to make the circle complete, to heal or mend, but because he knows these walls, sunk however low, / still hold him in as well as out: protect as much as they defend.

Owen Sheers is a novelist, poet and playwright. His novel, ‘I Saw A Man’ was published by Faber in June 2015. He is Professor in Creativity at Swansea University. Born in 1974, Sheers was chosen as one of the Next Generation Poets and as one of the Independent’s top 30 young British writers on the strength of his first book of poetry, The Blue Book. His second, Skirrid Hill, described by The Guardian as a ‘beautifully elegiac collection’ was published in 2005. Drawn to free verse, Sheers claims to be ‘quite an instinctive writer, I do a lot of it on the ear.’

3. ‘Cold Knap Lake’ by Gillian Clarke

Was I there? / Or is that troubled surface something else / shadowy under the dipped fingers of willows / where satiny mud blooms in cloudiness / after the treading, heavy webs of swans / as their wings beat and whistle on the air? // All lost things lie under closing water / in that lake with the poor man’s daughter.

Gillian Clarke is a poet, playwright, editor, and translator, and was National Poet of Wales 2008–2016. She was born in Cardiff and now lives in Ceredigion. Her prize-winning and critically acclaimed poetry is studied throughout the world and has been translated into ten languages. Her collection, Ice, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award 2012 and Zoology was published in August 2017.

4. ‘Anniversary’ by Dannie Abse

The more they go they come again. / The clocks of the smoky town / strike a quiet grating sound. / Tomorrow will be the same. / Two sit on this hill and count, two moving from the two that stayed.

Dannie Abse (1923–2014) was a Welsh poet, novelist, dramatist and physician born in Cardiff. He is considered one of the most important Welsh writers of the past century. Abse was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the Welsh Academy of Letters, Honorary Fellow at the University of Wales College of Medicine, and recipient of the Cholmondeley Award. William H. Pritchard, in the Hudson Review, remarked upon the poet’s musicality: ‘Abse, like all good Welshmen, cares about, because he is so endowed with, the singing voice and the sense of humour.’

5. ‘Head and Bottle’ by Edward Thomas

The downs will lose the sun, white alyssum / Lose the bees’ hum; /
But head and bottle tilted back in the cart / Will never part / Till I am cold as midnight and all my hours / Are beeless flowers.

Edward Thomas (1878 –1917) has become one of the most widely read poets of the 20th century. He was born in London to Welsh parents, and Thomas made frequent trips back to Swansea and the Carmarthenshire areas of south Wales to stay with relatives. He had strong friendships with Welsh-language poets and was tutored at Oxford by Owen M. Edwards, one of the most significant figures in nonconformist Welsh culture. He was a poet, essayist, and novelist and Ted Hughes famously called him ‘the father of us all’.

6. ‘The Wind’ by Dafydd ap Gwilym

Yeast in cloud loaves, you were thrown out / Of sky’s pantry, with not one foot, / How swiftly you run, and so well / This moment above the high hill. // Tell me, north wind of the cwm, / Your route, reliable hymn. /

Dafydd ap Gwilym was a 14th century poet believed to have been born near Aberystwyth and to have spent some time in Newcastle Emlyn. A charismatic man, he performed poems about love and nature and was very popular due to his ability to make fun of himself. He was buried at Strata Florida Abbey in Ceredigion and there is a memorial in the grounds dedicated to the man considered to be one of Europe’s most important poets of his day.

7. ‘Veruca Salt…’ (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) by Roald Dahl

‘Veruca Salt, the little brute, / Has just gone down the garbage chute, / (And as we very rightly thought / That in a case like this we ought / To see the thing completely through, / We’ve polished off her parents, too.) / Down goes Veruca! Down the drain! / And here, perhaps, we should explain / That she will meet, as she descends, / A rather different set of friends …’

Roald Dahl (1916–1990) was born in Wales to Norwegian parents. He served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He rose to prominence in the 1940s with works for both children and adults and he became one of the world’s best selling authors of children’s books. His most famous works include The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. Most people don’t realise that in addition to being a fine author, Roald Dahl was also a gifted comic poet.

8. Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

‘It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobbledstreets silent and the hunched courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.’

Dylan Thomas (1914–1953) wrote poems including ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘And death shall have no dominion’; the ‘play for voices’ Under Milk Wood; and stories and radio broadcasts. By the time of his premature death at the age of 39, he had acquired a reputation, which he had encouraged, as a ‘roistering, drunken and doomed poet’. Though Thomas wrote exclusively in the English language, he has been acknowledged as one of the most important Welsh poets of the 20th century. He is noted for his original, rhythmic and ingenious use of words and imagery. His position as one of the great modern poets has been much discussed, and he remains popular with the public.

Other writers with Welsh roots

Kate Roberts (1891–1985) was one of the foremost Welsh-language authors of the 20th century. Styled Brenhines ein llên (The Queen of our Literature), she is known mainly for her short stories, but also wrote novels. Roberts was a prominent Welsh nationalist. Perhaps her most successful book of short stories is Te yn y grug (Tea in the Heather) (1959), a series about children. Of the novels that Roberts wrote perhaps the most famous was Traed mewn cyffion (Feet in Chains) (1936), which reflected the hard life of a slate-quarrying family. In 1960 she published Y lôn wen, a volume of autobiography.

Sarah Waters has written six novels, which have won or been shortlisted for significant awards including the Man Booker Prize and The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. They are Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999), Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006), The Little Stranger (2009), and The Paying Guests (2014). Her first four novels have been adapted for television, following the success of Andrew Davies’s 2002 dramatisation of Tipping the Velvet for the BBC. Waters’ most recent novel, The Little Stranger, is currently in development as a feature film, and other works have been adapted for the stage.

CS Lewis (though born in Ireland) was the grandson of a Welsh businessman and the great-grandson of a Flintshire farmer. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote: ‘My father’s people were true Welshmen, sentimental, passionate and rhetorical, easily moved both to anger and to tenderness; men who laughed and cried a great deal.’ Lewis’ best-known books include The Chronicles of Narnia.

Philip Pullman was born in Norwich but his family settled in North Wales where he received his secondary education at the Ysgol Ardudwy, Harlech. His most well-known work is the trilogy His Dark Materials, beginning with Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA) in 1995, continuing with The Subtle Knife in 1997, and concluding with The Amber Spyglass in 2000. These books have been honoured by several prizes, including the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Book Award, and (for The Amber Spyglass) the Whitbread Book of the Year Award—the first time in the history of that prize that it was given to a children’s book.

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