Cymru Culture

Articles / Erthyglau

Emlyn Davies - A restless soul; W. J. Gruffydd

(March 01, 2018)


A Restless Soul
W. J. Gruffydd (1881-1954)

W J Gruffydd - portrait

As we look forward to the National Eisteddfod’s visit to Cardiff this year, it seems natural that we should also recall memories of some of the past eisteddfodau in the Capital. The 1938 Eisteddfod was notable for several reasons, including a visit by a twenty-one-year-old young man named John F. Kennedy, who accompanied his father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the American Ambassador to the UK. We do not know what impression the visit made on the future President, but certainly his father spoke very warmly about the experience saying that the concert by the children’s choir was one of the most memorable events he had experienced during his stay in Britain.

John F. Kennedy, in 1961
John F. Kennedy, in 1961

This eisteddfod was a notable milestone in the history of the festival for a number of reasons, especially in terms of promoting the Welsh language within the institution, and one of the key persons in this respect was the scholar, literary figure, poet and critic W. J. Gruffydd. A native of the village of Bethel, near Caernarfon, William John Gruffydd had settled in Cardiff since 1906, when he was appointed lecturer in the Celtic Department at the University College, and by 1918 he was Professor of the Welsh Department. Although he had read English Literature and Classics at Oxford, he also had a passion for Welsh literature. In 1922 he was appointed to a part-time post as editor of Y Llenor, the influential quarterly magazine covering literary, scholarly and political subjects. The most prominent Welsh poets and writers of the day would contribute regularly to the magazine.Y Llenor

No one can deny that Y Llenor was one of the most exciting developments during the first part of the twentieth century in the history of the Welsh language. It fulfilled a dire need at the time to extend the horizons of Welsh literature and offer something new and energetic. It included poems, reviews, plays, obituaries and literary criticism. Gruffydd would use his Editorial Notes to comment on some of the current topics of the day in Wales, often involving the National Eisteddfod.

He had campaigned for a long time in favour of a Welsh-only rule in the eisteddfod, and it was in Cardiff, in 1938, that the festival came closest to realising that dream. This was not completely achieved, but at least the Eisteddfod was on the way towards that goal. Welsh was the language of all the literary competitions, and it was decreed that only those who lived in Wales, or who were directly involved in the life of the nation would be allowed to preside at the eisteddfod. According to Alan Llwyd in his masterly volume Y Gaer Fechan Olaf which traces the history of the Eisteddfod, Welsh speeches were delivered by prominent figures such as O. C. Purnell, Lord Mayor of Cardiff, and Lord Dumfries, the son of the Marquess of Bute, although there were also speeches by some non-Welsh speakers. Lloyd George failed to keep his appointment on the day of the chairing ceremony, and W. J. Gruffydd was asked to preside instead. He did so with a fire in his belly when he repeatedly referred to the arson attack on the Bombing School at Penyberth, and his comments were given a resounding welcome.

In the same Eisteddfod, the idea of publishing a Dictionary of Welsh Biography was enthusiastically discussed, with members of the Cymrodorion Society conducting a heated debate about the language of the publication, and many of the stalwarts favoured English. W. J. Gruffydd delivered a fiery speech in favour of publishing in the Welsh language, and when the publication appeared fifteen years later it was in Welsh, with an English adaptation following at a later date.

His campaign for a Welsh-speaking eisteddfod made him a host of enemies, and he was once accused of "grotesque racial hatred" by none other than Sir T. Marchant Williams, Secretary of the Society of the Eisteddfod at the time. But Gruffydd was quite uncompromising on the subject: "The eisteddfod is like a home to me, and I'm determined to make it the nation's main festival. We have to be less servile, and a little more hot-headed."

Until the beginning of the forties of the last century, Gruffydd was one of the most influential public figures in Wales, highly respected as a poet, scholar and literary critic, and he also made an important contribution in the field of education through the medium of Welsh. It is worth remembering that he was the first person throughout the University of Wales to lecture through the medium of Welsh, at a time when Sir Ifor Williams and Sir John Morris-Jones were lecturing about Welsh grammar and literature in English. He was a romantic nationalist in terms of his politics, influenced by O. M. Edwards and his sentimental ideas about the cultured proletariat (‘y werin ddysgedig’).

When the buildings of the Bombing School were set on fire in Penyberth, Llŷn, in September 1936, W. J. Gruffydd was very prominent in his support for the three responsible, Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D. J. Williams, “the three heroes” as they were called by their supporters at the time. His public stance in their defence was a distinctive feather in Plaid Cymru’s cap, and Y Llenor became an effective tool to promote the nationalist cause.

Llosgi'r Ysgol Fomio - The Burning of the Bombing School, image Alan Fryer
Memorial to
Llosgi'r Ysgol Fomio - The Burning of the Bombing School
image: Alan Fryer

But Gruffydd began to nurture serious doubts about the political tendencies of Saunders Lewis. He was disgusted by his aristocratic nationalism, and his fervent Catholicism. He was worried that Plaid Cymru might adopt excessively Fascist trends, and he also believed that the Roman Catholic influence favoured by Saunders Lewis was having an unhealthy effect on Wales. Regarding his own politics, Gruffydd seemed to return to his Liberal roots, and that caused a great rift between him and some of his friends in Plaid Cymru, as he had previously been the vice president of the party. In the words of Dr. T. Robin Chapman, "Gruffydd considered Saunders Lewis's values as being threadbare and reactionary."

The result of this unease on behalf of Gruffydd led him to decide to stand as a Liberal candidate in the by-election for the University of Wales seat in Parliament following the resignation of Ernest Evans in 1943, when he was appointed judge. This episode became part of Welsh folklore because of its bitterness as the Plaid Cymru candidate was none other than Saunders Lewis. There were three other candidates in the hustings, namely Alun Talfan Davies as an Independent, and two Independent Socialists, Evan Davies and Neville Evans. W. J. Gruffydd was seen as the representative of the unofficial coalition to oppose Saunders Lewis, and the result was a huge victory for him with 3098 votes cast in his favour compared to the 1330 won by the Nationalists. He held his seat until 1950, when the university seats were abolished.

Many of Plaid Cymru's supporters were livid with W. J. Gruffydd for daring to stand against Saunders Lewis, and for being a turncoat by joining the Liberals. Over the next few years, he was treated as an outcast by people who had previously been his friends. He was considered a traitor, and many decided to take their revenge on him because of his stance. Consequently, many regular contributors to Y Llenor decided to withhold their work from publication, and that was a heavy blow. From the mid-forties onwards, the magazine struggled to exist, but Gruffydd did not truly appreciate the reason why so many prominent figures of the nation were so reluctant to contribute articles for publication in the magazine. All he knew for certain was that he had to write more than half of every edition himself, and that became a burden on him. In 1946, T. J. Morgan was appointed co-editor, and he continued in that role until the end, with the final edition being dedicated to the memory of Gruffydd who had died the previous year, in 1954. During this period, many of the poets and writers admitted to having boycotted the publication to punish W. J. Gruffydd, and according to Professor Prys Morgan, this was a very shocking revelation to his father, the co-editor.

Saunders Lewis
Saunders Lewis

W. J. Gruffydd may not be regarded as one of our greatest poets now, but his work still has a popular appeal, and many of his prose writings are still considered classics. For some years, he had a clandestine relationship with Mary Davies, a schools’ inspector from Harlech who was ten years younger than him. This affair continued from the middle of the twenties until her untimely death in 1938. His letters to her have been kept in the Archives at Bangor University, and they contain as much information about Gruffydd's ideas as anything he published during his career.

In a television documentary called 'Hen Atgofion’ (Old Reminiscences) for S4C, Prys Morgan said about Gruffydd: "He was disparaged for adopting what was seen as a Judas-like role against Saunders Lewis." (Hen Atgofion / Teledu Elidir 1999). Dr Robin Chapman summarised his contribution by saying, "Gruffydd was tainted by blasphemy in the middle of the twentieth century, treated as a traitor for standing against Saunders Lewis in the University election." (Hen Atgofion / Teledu Elidir 1999). But it is clear that not everyone took exception to him. Recounting the story of his life in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, Sir Thomas Parry said, "He was incredibly consistent in his opposition to injustice or dishonesty, which was one reason for the deep respect of his friends, and everyone who knew him."

Emlyn Davies, March 2018

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     George M Ll Davies; December 2017
Canon William Evans; September 2017
Robert Owen; June 2017
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley; December 2016
Adelina Patti, September 2016
Billy Hughes; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau; March 2016
Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015
The two redheads; June 2015

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2018


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