Astudiaeth o fywyd a gwaith Edward Thomas (1878-1917), bardd a nofelydd Saesneg o dras Cymreig.
Edward Thomas and World Literary Studies uses cutting-edge models of 'world literature' to present the 'quintessentially English' writer, Edward Thomas, as a pioneering figure in an Anglophone Welsh literary tradition, a controversial reading that contributes to the present-day reconfiguration of cultural relations between Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland.
The poet Edward Thomas was born to Welsh parents in London, an event he termed an ‘accidentally cockney nativity’. His literature has been claimed and rejected by the literary traditions on both sides of Offa’s Dyke.
Thomas himself declared that, ‘A Frenchman is to me the same as an Eng[lishman]’, ostensibly rebuffing any notion of self-identification as a Sais. Many biographers, including Jeremy Hooker, have established Wales as a ‘key thematic concern of Thomas’s work’. Conversely, other critics have found that their analyses of Thomas’s writing revealed ‘no such strain of inspiration’. To problematise the picture further, Thomas was killed by a shell at Flanders on 9 April 1917, and some have attempted to resurrect him as the archetypal English poet-soldier.
Thomas’s refusal to be categorised gives rise to Webb’s fascinating and informed biography. Webb’s ambition is to present Thomas as a Welsh writer, but he also interrogates the compulsion to identify Thomas as one thing or the other (why not just enjoy the work?).
The reasons for such debate are complicated. Webb argues that Welsh writers are exposed to a division of literary heritage – the ‘pure’ tradition of Welsh writing in Welsh and the less easy to define tradition of Welsh authors and poets writing in English. The latter writer is viewed through a prism of so many factors that, unavoidably, their identity can be totally skewed. A non-English writer can be pulled into the English canon and promoted as ‘English’ talent instantly. Webb demonstrates this with the following:
‘the preface [to Larkin’s 1973 Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse] focuses on English writers and states that the anthology does not include “poems by Commonwealth or American writers”. The anthology itself, Crawford reveals, gives most of its space to the American expatriate T. S. Eliot and the Irish writer W. B. Yeats, and contains work by the Australian author Peter Porter and the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott.’
As the dominant nation, England’s literary tradition can imbibe any writer’s work (written in English) and subtly remodel it as its own. This action encourages us to read writers like Thomas as English writers, but it also helps to reinforce a more toxic tradition noted by Webb. He harks back to the infamous Blue Books, the ‘imperialist project’ of destabilising the Welsh language in schools, for example, and the encouraged ‘sense of otherness and inferiority of the Welsh’.
Webb configures Thomas as a victim of all of the above. His own analysis of Thomas’s work reveals the poet’s awareness of a distinctive Welsh literary culture. Webb suggests that Thomas’s consciousness of Welsh literary history strongly informed his work and backs this up by tracing references to classic Welsh tales (the legend of Llyn y Fan Fach, Cantre’r Gwaelod and Blodeuwedd) within his writing. Webb proves that Thomas utilised many different breeds of cynghanedd in the structure of his verses which, again, shows his alignment with Welsh literature. There are also some compelling arguments as regards Thomas’s politically subversive uses of Welsh literature, myths and motifs. His uses of the Arthurian legends are read by Webb as seditionary (after all, Arthur is not represented in Welsh myth as having died, but that he will, instead, return to fight the English when the time comes!). Such politically undermining action is shown to be present in Thomas’s writing time and time again.
Webb’s goal is to ‘reclaim Thomas for the Welsh tradition’ and his campaign is consummate. The greatest achievement of the book is that it manages to pull so many threads of history together to help the reader understand the contexts surrounding Thomas’s legacy (contexts that were set out long before the poet himself was even born!) to provide an unmitigated and exciting read that navigates the tripwire of Anglo/Welsh relations bravely and, more importantly, enjoyably too.
Jemma L King
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.
World Literary Studies and Britain
Chapter Two The Reception of Edward Thomas
Welsh Literatures in their Political and Economic Contexts
Edward Thomas and the Welsh Cultural Tradition
Edward Thomas and English ‘as a foreign tongue’
Edward Thomas and England’s failed locales
Dr Andrew Webb is a Lecturer in English Literature at Bangor University, North Wales, having finished his PhD at Warwick University in 2010.
Edward Thomas and World Literary Studies offers a revelatory re-reading of Edward Thomas. Adapting Pascale Casanova’s vision of ‘world literature’ as a system of competing national traditions, this study analyses Thomas’s appropriation of Anglocentric British literary culture at key moments of historical crisis in the twentieth century: after the First World War, either side of the Second World War, and with the resumption of war in Ireland in the 1970s. It shows how the dominant assumptions underpinning the discipline of English Literature marginalise the Welshness of Thomas’s work, before combining this revised ‘world literature’ model with fresh archival research to reveal how Thomas’s reading of Welsh culture – its barddas, folk and literary traditions – is central both to his creation of an innovative body of poetry and to his extensive, and relatively neglected, prose. This study is groundbreaking in its contribution to recent debates about devolution and independence for Britain’s constituent nations.