Iolo Morganwg and the Romantic Tradition in Wales 1740–1918: Fuller Description

Edward Williams was born into a period of extraordinary change; his response to the events around him was itself extraordinary. Working all his life as a stonemason, he became a talented poet in Welsh and English and an enthusiastic antiquarian with a detailed knowledge of the Welsh manuscript tradition. He was a complex man, driven by strong convictions: his passion for his native Glamorgan developed, over time, into an obsession, and much of his energy went into reviving, and (where necessary) reinventing, a glorious medieval past for both his county and his country as a whole. His legacy to Wales was an inspiring, if frustrating, mesh of fact and fiction: his name is forever associated with the bardic ceremony of the Gorsedd, still performed annually at the Welsh National Eisteddfod.

The Iolo Morganwg papers are a gold-mine for those interested in the late eighteenth century and early decades of the nineteenth century, and not only in Welsh or Celtic studies. Although most of his famous forgeries (the Dafydd ap Gwilym poems, the Triads and various other pseudo-medieval historical and legal texts) were in Welsh, Iolo wrote copiously, and on many subjects, in English. The archive contains detailed notes, for example, on agricultural practices and vernacular architecture in Glamorgan, on pastoral poetry, on geology, on the slave-trade, the prison system, the ‘Welsh Indians’ in America, gardening – and, of course, Welsh ‘druids’ and the bardic tradition. The aim of the Iolo Morganwg project has been to draw attention to this valuable resource and to make it far more accessible to a wider audience.

A team of full-time researchers, funded jointly by the AHRC and the University of Wales, has been working through the archive since Autumn 2001 under the directorship of Geraint H. Jenkins. Mary-Ann Constantine joined as project leader in 2002, with Marion Löffler taking over for a year in 2006–07 and again in 2008. The research team over this period has included Ffion M. Jones, David Ceri Jones, Cathryn A. Charnell-White, Andrew Davies, Marion Löffler and Gethin Rhys, with contributions from Eluned Jones and Bethan Jenkins. Editorial assistance has been provided by Glenys Howells and Marian Beech Hughes.

The project’s first major publication offers an excellent introduction to Iolo’s multifarious interests. A Rattleskull Genius: The Many Faces of Iolo Morganwg (Cardiff, 2005), edited by Geraint H. Jenkins, is a composite volume of some twenty-two chapters contributed by leading specialists on topics ranging from Iolo’s poetry and politics to his interest in Welsh dialects and his work as a mason. It also introduces the characters – family, friends and enemies – who supported (and occasionally thwarted) Iolo’s many and varied ambitions. His often stormy relations with these people can now be charted in detail, thanks to the massive three-volume edition of letters edited by Geraint H. Jenkins, Ffion Mair Jones and David Ceri Jones, with the assistance of Andrew Davies. The Correspondence of Iolo Morganwg (3 vols., Cardiff, 2007), the cornerstone of the project, throws new light on the literary networks of the period, on the links between Wales, Bristol and London, and the cultural life of Iolo’s native Glamorgan; the letters also offer fascinating details of the hunt for early manuscripts and a dramatic account of Iolo’s struggles to survive as a poet in London in the early 1790s.

Mary-Ann Constantine’s The Truth Against the World: Iolo Morganwg and Romantic Forgery (Cardiff, 2007) is a comparative study, exploring Iolo’s vast oeuvre in the light of a phenomenon that spread across Europe in the wake of James Macpherson’s Ossian : the ‘invention’ – part retrieval and part imaginative recreation – of a national past. It looks at Iolo’s response to the two most famous forgery debates of his day, the Chatterton controversy and the Ossian debate, and maps his influence on the Celtic revival in Brittany. Reinvention is also a prominent theme of Cathryn Charnell-White’s Bardic Circles: National, Regional and Personal Identity in Iolo Morganwg’s Bardic Vision (Cardiff, 2007), which shows how Iolo wove together the strands of his country’s literary past to suit his own shifting agenda; it contains a selection of previously unpublished texts, including drafts of his great unfinished ‘History of the Bards’.

Iolo became an iconic figure in nineteenth-century Wales, and Marion Löffler, in The Literary and Historical Legacy of Iolo Morganwg 1826–1926 (Cardiff, 2007), traces his metamorphosis in the public imagination from the radical, and often bitter, character of the letters to something like a national treasure: a benign old man of literature and letters. She shows how, through debates in journals and through the flourishing societies and eisteddfodau, Iolo’s ideas became part of the very fabric of Victorian Wales. Iolo’s legacy to posterity has also been explored by Gethin Rhys in a recent short monograph, ‘ A Wayward Cymric Genius’: Celebrating the Centenary of the Death of Iolo Morganwg (Aberystwyth, 2007).

The project launched its dedicated website at its annual 2007 one-day conference, The Welsh Bard and Druid: Iolo Morganwg (30 June 2007). Further volumes, articles and editions are in progress, covering Iolo’s political radicalism, his copious marginalia and his Unitarian hymns.

 

Further resources

A supplementary grant awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council has allowed the project to set up a dedicated Iolo Morganwg Website. Visit it at http://www.iolomorganwg.wales.ac.uk

Main Project Publications

See also the following pamphlets :

  • Geraint H. Jenkins, Facts, Fantasy and Fiction: The Historical Vision of Iolo Morganwg (Aberystwyth, 1997)
  • Mary-Ann Constantine, ‘Combustible Matter’: Iolo Morganwg and the Bristol Volcano (Aberystwyth, 2003)
  • Cathryn Charnell-White, Barbarism and Bardism: North Wales Versus South Wales in the Bardic Vision of Iolo Morganwg (Aberystwyth, 2004)
  • Geraint H. Jenkins, Perish Kings and Emperors, but let the Bard of Liberty Live! (Aberystwyth, 2006)
  • Hywel Gethin Rhys, ‘A Wayward Cymric Genius’: Celebrating the Centenary of the Death of Iolo Morganwg (Aberystwyth, 2007)

For many further articles from the Iolo project please see the individual staff profiles: