Iolo the Bard: Part 1

The three first points, which a Bard ought to teach and consider: to believe every thing; to disbelieve every thing; and to believe it matters not what.
Barddas: The Triads of Privilege and Usage.

There are three things that most people think they know about Edward Williams, better known by his Bardic Name: Iolo Morganwg. The first is that he was a literary forger, presenting his own work as that of poets of the past. The second is that he was a bankrupt. The third is that he was a drug-fuelled eccentric.

These three things have been used to discredit Iolo, to justify brushing him under the carpet, to allow him and his achievements to conveniently disappear from the memory of contemporary Druidry.

Are these things true? Yes, they are.

Also: no, these things are not true.

Truth is a funny thing: it depends how you look at the facts. Take these triads:

The three things forbidden to a Bard: immorality, satire, and the bearing of arms.

The three necessary but reluctant duties of the Bards of the Isle of Britain: secrecy for the sake of peace; invective lamentation demanded by justice; and the unsheathing of the sword against the lawless and the depradatory.

Appleyard, Welsh Sketches, 1851, p9.


The three avoidances of a Bard: to avoid bearing arms, for there ought to be no weapon against him in country or border country; to avoid rudeness and immorality, for he is a man subject to the law of morality and correct conduct; and to avoid indolence, for he is a man of exertion.
Barddas: The Triads of the Bards of Cymru

The three repulsive necessities of a Bard: the compulsory concealment of a secret, for the sake of advantage and peace; vituperative complaint, required by justice; and to unsheath a sword against the unjust and lawless.

Barddas: The Triads of Privilege and Usage

So is a Bard allowed to bear arms or not? The answer is clearly ‘no’ – with the exception of the times when the answer is ‘yes’.

A Bard has a role to play, and a system of values which he or she is duty-bound to uphold. Sometimes, though, in the face of a threat to the whole system, normal rules do not apply, because extraordinary actions are required to protect those fundamental values. In such times, what is usually forbidden becomes required. Did Iolo Morganwg live in such a time? As we will see, a Druid in the Welsh tradition must respond ‘yes’.

In this post I want to begin the substantial task of evaluating Iolo Morganwg in his role as a Bard, and why the ‘three misunderstandings’ listed above do not accurately represent the truth about him. I’ll look at the first misunderstanding as a part of Iolo’s role as a Bard; the second in terms of his role as an Ovate;  the third partly in terms of Iolo as Bard, partly as Druid.

So: Iolo as Bard.

I’m going to come at this in a roundabout manner, firstly by exploring what it means to be a poet, and then by going over important aspects of Iolo’s background which are not well-known, but are critical to understanding him.

Let’s discuss being a poet. Have you read A Moveable Feast? It’s a great little book: Hemingway looking back from old age to the time he spent in Paris in the 1920s. The book is a collection of short vignettes. One of them recalls Ezra Pound trying to help T. S. Eliot:

Ezra founded something called Bel Esprit with Miss Natalie Barney who was a rich American woman and a patroness of the arts. […] The idea of Bel Esprit was that we would all contribute a part of whatever we earned to provide a fund to get Mr. Eliot out of the bank so he would have money to write poetry. This seemed like a good idea to me and after we had got Mr. Eliot out of the bank Ezra figured we would go right straight along and fix up everybody.

Ernest Hemingway: Ezra Pound and His Bel Esprit, in A Moveable Feast

The plan didn’t work out, but I mention it because it illustrates a fundamental human truth: being a poet doesn’t pay. Never has, never will.

Apart from a very fortunate few, poets need to be independently wealthy, they need a day job, or they need a patron. Even today, the prize for the winning poet at the National Eisteddfod of Wales is a chair, recalling the days when a prince would acknowledge the talent of a Bard by assigning him a chair at the high table: an acknowledgement of status, and indication that the poet was considered a worthy part of the royal household.

Three men who socially constitute a court: a Bard; a smith; and a harpist.

Barddas: The Triads of Privielege and Usage

Note the distinction made here between a Bard and a harpist. We tend to think of a Bard as being a harpist, or a musician of some sort, and no doubt many bards combined the two roles. The key skill of a Bard, though, is skill with words: being a poet.

Quickly listen to the two following clips. They have subtitles, so for the first time you watch them, close your eyes and just listen to the audio.

Chances are that with the first, you just nodded along with no idea what was happening. With the second, you still had no idea what was happening, but the music was there and you listened to that more than to the words. It’s easy to do that even when you do speak the language. Music is physical; it’s something we can surrender to, letting it move us emotionally with our minds switched off.

Poetry doesn’t do that; can’t do that. Poetry demands engagement, and mental activity. That leads us on to another insight about poetry: how can there be great poets, unless there is an audience who understand the metre, and can measure the poet’s skill in its use? How can the poet exist, unless the audience exists who understand the masterful use of just the right word; who understand the allusions and references  and images which enrich the poem?

Poetry is not an individual activity; it is a conversation, a dialogue between the awen-inspired poet and a knowledgable, cultured, audience. What role is there for a poet who finds no audience to appreciate his skill? What role is there for a poet who can find no patron to support his talent?

And this brings us to Iolo Morganwg.

Iolo spoke both Welsh and English, and wrote poetry in both languages. These had very different audiences and cultural environments, and that’s important for us to understand as we consider his life and legacy. I’m going to have to discuss his work in each language in separate posts.

Iolo’s mother, Ann Matthew, was a member of the gentry, fallen on hard times. After her mother died, her father sold their family hall and squandered the money.  This meant utter disaster for her.

As John Mullen shows in an excellent essay for the British Library, Status, rank and class in Jane Austen’s novels, this was a  time of intense awareness of social status. Centuries of rule by members of the aristocracy, and the traditional gentry of knights and squires, were coming to an end. The first stirrings of the industrial revolution meant that there were newly-rich professionals and merchants, people who didn’t fit into the established hierarchy and who desperately wanted to achieve social rank. With the traditional social hierarchy changing, snobbery and social climbing were essential survival skills for the upwardly-mobile. It was important to gain the acquaintance of people of superior status; it was equally critical not to be seen associating with people of lower rank, for fear of being snubbed.

When her father died, the young Anne was sent to live with her older sister, who had previously married into local aristocracy – descendants of one of Cromwell‘s Roundhead commanders. She spoke English, was educated well, and lived in the world of the gentry until the time came for her to marry. With no money or other assets, she would not have been considered a suitable match for any of the local gentlemen (in Mullen’s sense). The only option she had for survival was to marry down. It’s often noted in Iolo’s biographies that in later years his mother would lament the loss of this comfortable life.

It’s worth reminding ourselves here that Mullen’s article is part of a larger theme: “The novel 1780–1832” – a period which maps closely to Iolo’s lifetime. These attitudes did not just affect Iolo’s mother, and Iolo’s life as a child; they would have been very real social barriers throughout his life.

In reading about Iolo, I found haven’t  any further discussion of his aunt, and her family, and I wonder how much it affected him. He must surely have had cousins. Did they have any kind of relationship, or did they ostracise him, and his mother? Given the nature of society at the time, it’s very possible that they would have seen his side of the family as an embarrassment.

How did he feel about being at one remove from this world of affluence and comfort that he could not be a part of? How did he feel about this affluent, English-speaking world, from which his mother had fallen?

It seems clear to me that this must have been a profound influence on him. When we consider his adult views – his support for the American and French revolutions, his intense antipathy towards the Crown and the Church, his insistence on the value of every human life regardless of status or wealth… were they rooted in his awareness of his outsider status,  denied the status and respect his talent and family history deserved because of an accident of birth? Surely they were.

It is also worth speculating that this sense of being wronged, of not having received what might just have been his were it not for his grandfather’s profligacy, contributed to his cantankerousness, which throughout his life cost him opportunities, lost him friends, and gave him enemies who would go on to shape the way he was remembered after his death.

It must have given him certain advantages, though. He would have understand the manners and mores of ‘society’ through his mother, in a way that someone from a purely humble background could not have. When she married, she brought to her new home a library of books, cementing Iolo’s literacy, and providing him with access to worlds  of the mind that most children of his class would never have been able to attain. It would also have given him an awareness, at an early age, that literary success could potentially bring him the status that his birth had denied him, and which he could only know vicariously through his mother. He was her favourite child, and particularly precious to her after the death of her first child, a daughter.

Iolo’s father  (after whom he was named) was completely different. Edward Williams was a Welsh-speaking stonemason, a trade which Iolo and his three younger brothers –  John, Miles, and Thomas – would follow in turn. This was a commission-based trade; masons were constantly on the move, seeking work and then moving on to find the next job.

This was a life lived in a society which at that time primarily spoke Welsh. Jobs would come from churches, from the gentry, and from ordinary folk commissioning memorials for deceased relatives. It was skilled work which paid relatively well, but it was competitive, hazardous, and insecure. An injury which left a mason unable to work, even temporarily,  might well mean financial ruin. Though he never suffered a serious accident, the stone dust that Iolo inhaled in the course of his work ruined his lungs, giving him lifelong, severe asthma – for which the only remedy was laudanum. Financially, the gentry like to commission work but they were less enthusiastic about paying for it once it was finished – something about which Iolo later had much cause to complain.

Iolo’s literacy, and access to his mother’s library, led to him studying the rules of Welsh poetry at a young age, via a book written by Siôn Dafydd Rhys. He was encouraged, and tutored, in his studies by a local gentleman, coincidentally also named Edward Williams. His peripatetic work as a young stonemason brought him into contact, and friendship, with a group of Glamorgan poets: Lewis Hopkin, Siôn Bradford, Rhys Morgan, Dafydd Nicolas, and Edward Evan. This group would provide him with an educated peer group with whom he could develop, then fine-tune, his mastery of the traditional metres of Welsh poetry, and his familiarity with the masters of past ages. As his command of poetry, and his grasp of its place in traditional Welsh culture, grew, it became the single most important aspect of his life. Through poetry, and his love of Welsh culture, he came into contact with two groups formed by Welsh-speakers resident in London: the Cymmrodorion Society, and the Gwyneddigion Society.

This brings us to a convenient spot to stop for this post. We can at this point place Iolo, and identify some of the key themes that will come to shape Iolo’s values, his life, and the way he was remembered:

  • a descendent of the gentry, born an artisan, looked down upon those who regarded him as socially inferior;
  • a man who had received an excellent, but informal education, but who had to earn his living with his hands;
  • a man born poor, dependent for his living on his social ‘betters’, who valued his work – but not to the extent of always paying for it when payment was due;
  • a poet of finely-honed skills and great talent – but with his greatest talent in Welsh, when the rich and influential spoke only English;
  • a man whose personal sense of unfair disinheritance fuelled an anti-Establishment radicalism – when the only way to advancement lay in the hands of those who made up the Establishment;
  • a man whose sense of grievance made him quarrelsome, and constantly unhappy with his lot.

Being a stonemason would never bring security. Being a poet, however, offered the possibility of attracting a patron, and a life of more ease, befitting a man of education and talent. It was a possibility that Iolo was certainly not going to let slip.

Note: for the material in this post, I have drawn primarily on the excellent book: A Rattleskull Genius, edited by Geraint H. Jenkins. Published 2009 by University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

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