British responses to the French Revolution changed at a rapid pace during the last years of the eighteenth century. In 1789, at the fall of the Bastille, the Revolution was welcomed, with many voices raised in celebration of liberty’s new dawn. But from 1793 on, as Britain entered into war against Revolutionary France, the Reign of Terror escalated in Paris, and William Pitt’s anti-sedition laws persecuted those Britons who still dared to express sympathy with the aims of the Revolution, radicals fell silent or took up more embattled positions while loyalists vilified the French and their British ‘Jacobin’ followers. The turbulence of the times resulted in the creation of notable works of art, particularly in the poetic genre. Now, for the first time, with Elizabeth Edwards’s English-Language Poetry from Wales 1789–1806, Wales’s contribution to the epoch is fully recorded and preserved.
‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ said Wordsworth of the first impact of the Revolution, and many of the Welsh poets whose work is presented here also effectively convey that early optimism. After a detailed introduction which takes the reader carefully through the various stages of the Welsh response, Elizabeth Edwards opens her edited selection of the poets’ work with ‘An Ode for the New Year MDCCXC’ by David Samwell, a naval surgeon from Denbighshire, which hails 1790 as the year in which ‘blest freedom is begun ... the opening dawn of perfect liberty!’ Samwell’s political radicalism was part and parcel of his equally enthusiastic embrace of the Celtic Revival which at the time engrossed the energies of the antiquarian London Welsh societies of which he was a member. In his second poem in this collection, ‘The Resurrection of Rhitta Gawr’ (1792), a tyrant-slayer from Welsh myth is brought to life once more to tell the Welsh that their ‘ancient Bards’ were devoted ‘to freedom’s glorious cause’ and ‘taught the sacred Rights of Man’. The French radicals are but the inheritors of a Celtic enlightenment to which the Welsh also can lay particular claim, according to Rhitta Gawr. Samwell’s conception of the bards was clearly influenced by the theories of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) whose poetry also figures largely in this collection. But Iolo, who apparently signed himself ‘the Bard of Liberty’ in the visitors’ book of Newgate jail, was much hindered in his efforts to resurrect Welsh bardic culture by the officers of a government who saw his ‘Gorsedd’ as Jacobin.
By showing in her edition the many emendations in the manuscript versions of his poems, Elizabeth Edwards brings vividly home to us Iolo’s difficulties after 1793 in finding a way to express his ideas which would not result in imprisonment. Yet he succeeded in the poems included here in giving memorable expression to both his detestation of war and his anger against those ‘wily spies, an odious clan’ with their ‘informer’s net’ in which to entrap ‘those who claim the rights of man’ (‘Church and King rampant or Satan let loose for a thousand years’, 1794). At the same time the collection also includes the war-mongering voices of anti-revolutionaries like Hester Piozzi (nee Salusbury, from Flintshire) who begs her fellow Britons to ‘Rise warriors, rise!’ and ‘revenge the royal cause’ of France’s guillotined king (untitled, 1794).
In this manner English-language Poetry from Wales 1789-1806 gives a full and engrossing sense of the diversity of Welsh responses to the Revolution while making it very clear how distinctively Welsh those responses were. As Edwards tells us in her introduction, because of the impact of the Celtic Revival, ‘for several writers in this selection the often equally tumultuous chronology of Welsh history, especially the medieval period, existed in a dynamic imaginary relation with the present.’ Their representation of bardic culture as a precursor of French radicalism also impressed some of the visitors to Wales whose work is here included, like Robert Southey who in his ‘Ode’ to Aberffraw (1798) hails Wales as a land from which the ideal of ‘Freedom has not fled’, for all its long centuries of subjugation. Many of these poems have not previously been collected; some hitherto only existed in manuscript versions or were lost in the corners of the newspapers of the period. In recovering and painstakingly editing them, Edwards has accomplished a task of literary resurrection of great value to all with an interest in Romantic Wales and the impact of the French Revolution.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.
Notes to the Texts
Elizabeth Edwards is a Research fellow at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies.
In the period following the French revolution in 1789, Welsh poets continually reflected on the extraordinary new era in which they lived through their writing. Effortlessly ranging from Wales’s deep and distant history to accounts of the most topical and urgent current affairs, their poems on war, Welshness, druids, parted lovers and sublime landscapes encompass the beautiful, the brutal and the mysterious. Facing a future that often seemed agonisingly uncertain, poets in Wales used their verses to voice their thoughts and feelings about events that had rocked the whole of Europe, and whose effects continued to be felt long after 1789. This new selection of poetry from Wales sets recently-discovered manuscript texts alongside little-known early printed poems, offering a full and accessible introduction to Welsh poetry in English in the period 1780-1820.