Iolo the Bard: Part 2


The Romantic movement influenced English poetry and prose profoundly in the 18th and 19th centuries. A list of some of the most influential names might include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Mary Shelley, and Iolo Morganwg.

Wait… Iolo Morganwg?

Yes indeed. Iolo Morganwg has been written out of the history of Romantic literature in English, but his name deserves to be listed there. So what happened? Why has Iolo’s contribution been airbrushed from the record? As we shall see, there were a number of contributing factors.

Iolo first moved to London in 1773, when he was 26 years old, and remained there until 1777. During this time, he supported himself by working as a stonemason, and became an active member of the city’s Welsh community. This is when he really began to flourish in his career writing Welsh-medium poetry, but that’s for another post. However, he was also writing in English, and this is also the time when he first developed the idea of publishing a collection of verse in that language.

After his return to Wales, Iolo married and started a family. He tried a number of different careers, but nothing ever worked out for him. Money, and the means to support a household, increasingly became a problem. He lacked the capital to really establish himself. How could he obtain a living beyond the physically demanding – even physically damaging – life he had as a stonecutter?

In 1791, now 44 and already in ill-health, Iolo returned to London. His work in Welsh was bringing him recognition and some financial reward, and he had decided that now was the time to use his literary talents in English as his way out of life as a working artisan and into a more leisurely life as a man of letters.

This was by no means an impossible dream. Although his wife Peggy famously accused him of ‘bilding castels in the ayre’, Iolo actually had a reasonably good business plan. He had a very marketable product in his literary skill. He was also very good at what we would today call ‘personal branding’. These would serve him well, but there was still the same problem: money.

In the literary market of the late 18th century, there was no such thing as authors being paid an advance by a publisher. It was the author who needed to fund the publishing and printing of their work, and to then get it sold. The times being what they were, a large number of those who got published were independently wealthy, and could come up with these funds from their own resources. Iolo was a poor man; he had to find another plan.

What he came up with was a model that had already proved successful for others, including Walter Scott. This was a subscription model.

The poet would need to present examples of his work to potential sponsors: members of the gentry. He would get their attention in two ways; firstly, through letters of introduction given by  gentry already known to the poet, and secondly by paying for a short prospectus to be printed. These would be left, with printed samples of poems, in sympathetic bookshops. Those who chose to subscribe would pay up front for their copy of the book. The poet could then use these funds to print books in numbers sufficient to supply the subscribers, with copies left over to be sold in bookshops (which was more profitable for the poet). With luck, a member of the aristocracy might give permission for the poet to dedicate the book to them; with their vast wealth, a poet whose work sold well would normally be able to expect a substantial gratuity to be paid for the dedication. Finally, a poet whose work proved popular might, perhaps, win the greatest of all prizes: a wealthy patron willing to provide financial support, meaning that the poet would no longer need to work, beyond his literary efforts.

This was Iolo’s goal, and he set about it well. In the years after 1777, he had cultivated the support of his local gentry, the Welsh families of Glamorgan. As we have seen, his mother came from a notable family, and he had received the help of local gentlemen in his education. Whatever his relationship with his own relatives, it does seem that the broader circles of the county society knew him and were well-disposed towards him. In particular, he contributed his talents in what we would now know as political marketing to benefit local members of the gentry in parliamentary elections, notably Thomas Wyndham of Dunraven, contributing to the defeat of representatives of English nobles. The goodwill that he gained led to the Glamorgan gentry becoming the first of his subscribers. More importantly, they gave him letters of introduction.

In these days before the Industrial Revolution, south Wales only had one town of any significance: Carmarthen, in the south-west: still a very Welsh town. The cultured classes of Glamorgan, in the south-east, who increasingly spoke English, were more socially integrated with the nearby English towns of Bath, and of Bristol (then becoming very wealthy due its role in the slave trade). The introductions he gained from the Welsh gentry gave Iolo access to their English peers, who in their turn provided subscribers. Both groups also gave him introductions to their London-based contacts; this was the springboard he needed to move back to London, and prepare for the printing of his collection of poems. Even better, one of his English contacts gave him access to royalty: he was given permission to dedicate his book to the Prince of Wales. This gave the promise of a very substantial gratuity if his work was well-received.

Moving to London, Iolo continued to collect subscribers. He also began to mix in circles including political and religious radicals, philosophers, and artists. We know that he knew Samuel Taylor Coleridge personally. There is strong circumstantial evidence that he knew William Wordsworth, and William Blake. He was engaged in a much-commented dispute with the anarchist and philosopher William Godwin (husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of ‘The Rights of Woman‘; father of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein‘); in this debate, we know that Coleridge took Iolo’s side.

After many difficulties, Iolo eventually succeeded in publishing his collection of poems in two volumes: Poems, Lyrical and Pastoral (Volume 1online)(Volume 2 online). It was very well received, and the London literary journals gave it very favourable reviews. We know that Coleridge and Wordsworth had copies, and scholars have found strong evidence that Iolo’s work had a significant influence on both the style and content of both poets in their early careers.

This leads us to see Iolo early in 1795 as a man vindicated: a successful poet, with positive reviews in the best journals; well-connected; influential among the rising stars of the Romantic Tradition. As such, his name should be prominent in literary histories.

Instead, he was ‘disappeared’: a non-person as far as literary historians were concerned. What went wrong?

Iolo had tragically miscalculated on a number of critical matters.

Firstly: in Welsh circles, both English- and Welsh-speaking, he had an acknowledged status based on his undisputed knowledge of Welsh history and poetry. This would not help him break into the English-language literary market, though, so he developed a ‘personal brand’ as a ‘novelty’: a plain-speaking Welsh folk poet. It worked: the English literati were charmed by the idea of this seemingly unsophisticated natural prodigy emerging from the labouring classes. He had counted on this being a stepping stone towards acceptance as a man of letters – but he had made a fatal misjudgement.

The Glamorgan gentry had accepted him because of his background; he was (to some extent at least) one of their own. The English gentry would never, ever extend the same generosity. As noted before, this was a time of intense change, and insecurity, and awareness of social status: a working man writing poetry could be indulged as a novelty, but a working man he must remain. Iolo had taken Walter Scott as his model, but Scott – though initially poor – was the son of a clergyman. He started with no money, but he was of the right class, and that made all the difference. Once Iolo’s English subscribers began to feel that he was getting ideas ‘above his station’, their support began to evaporate. One of his affluent sponsors, the poet Anna Seward, spelled it out plainly:

Nature made for you the fatal present of a spirit and an imagination so raised above the sphere in which you were destined to move; since in every Age they have much oftener proved great misfortunes than blessings to their possessor.

Secondly, there was the issue of his political and religious views. Iolo was egalitarian to the core. He deeply, angrily, opposed inequality in both mundane and religious affairs. He supported French and American republicanism; he supported religious Dissent. All of this was exacerbated by his experience with his subscribers. Reasonably enough, as part of his marketing campaign he had to visit them to explain his project, and he did this well enough to convince them to fund him.

However, it was a humiliating experience: although these members of the gentry and aristocracy were willing to subsidise him, they  often wanted to be very obvious about the fact that that they were doing him a favour. Iolo was expected to demonstrate how grateful he was – a performance that he found increasingly difficult. Letters to Iolo from some of his supporters in Bath make it clear: their contacts in London were complaining that Iolo was not being sufficiently servile. Iolo himself  complained mightily of ‘superciliousness’ of the ‘great and rich’.

This radicalism found its way into his verse: when the book was published, many of the dignitaries who had funded it found their social class roundly condemned in the poems. This, let us say, did not win hearts and minds, and it closed down the possibility of future support.

Iolo’s third problem was that while he was a fine poet, and an accomplished antiquarian, he was a poor businessman. Basically, he got the numbers wrong. The printing of each book cost more than he had budgeted for, and he printed too many of them. On top of this, the cost of mailing copies to his subscribers turned out to be prohibitive. The funds Iolo had obtained from his subscribers did not cover his costs, and he ran out of money. Fortunately,  the hugely influential bookseller and literary publisher, Joseph Johnson, was one of his supporters; Johnson took over the publishing role, and covered Iolo’s financial shortfall. This meant that Iolo had achieved his initial goal: had successfully published his work, and met his commitments to his subscribers… but he had made no money, apart from copies sold by booksellers. He was still in no better a position to provide for himself and his family than when he had started.

He had one hope remaining: that the Prince of Wales would give him a generous gratuity, which would become his capital fund for future work. Iolo and the Prince did indeed meet. Based on the experience of other poets, Iolo would have reasonably expected to receive a gift of around fifty guineas to reflect this royal patronage. He was given only two guineas – a patronising, humiliating, token. Why? We don’t really know. Perhaps it was because of his class; more likely it was because of the attention he had gained through his radical activities. Whatever the reason, it was a disaster for Iolo. His years of effort in London had achieved nothing to bring him financial security. He was finally forced to give up, walking 175 miles or so from London to his home in Glamorgan. He would remain in Wales for the rest of his life.

There was one more consequence of his radicalism; one that has particular importance to the question of why his literary talent in English is not remembered. Iolo remained true to his principles. He was a radical as a young man, and a radical he remained until the end of his days. The same cannot be said of his companions in London. Coleridge and Wordsworth, as we have seen, were without question influenced by Iolo Morganwg. Why is this not remembered? It’s because both became more conservative as they grew older – and as they became conservative, they became embarrassed by the radical companions of their younger days, and refused to acknowledge them or give them credit. Their status by the time they died meant that the literary historians and academics who later wrote their profiles followed suit. A similar example which has been well documented is the case of the early feminist poet, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who also disappeared into obscurity despite her important influence on the two poets.

There is one more important reason why Iolo has vanished from English histories: he was the wrong nationality.

As a Welshman, Iolo was incredibly proud of the Welsh language and its literary heritage, devoted to the history and culture of Wales. Indeed, he wrote to a friend in 1776 that :

I have always thought myself more successful in my British than my English poetry, indeed a great part of my happiness in the little knowledge I have of the British language and poetry.

But this meant that Iolo faced a steep uphill battle in the London of his time. The English were (and, many will argue, remain) utterly opposed to the existence of the Welsh as a separate culture. In the century before Iolo’s birth, an English pamphleteer, William Richards (1682), wrote:

The native gibberish is usually prattled throughout the whole of Taphydom except in their market towns, whose inhabitants being a little raised do begin to despise it. ‘Tis usually cashiered out of gentlemen’s houses … so that (if the stars prove lucky) there may be some glimmering hopes that the British language may be quite extinct and may be Englished out of Wales.

The racist, anti-Welsh rhyme ‘Taffy was a Welshman” was written during Iolo’s lifetime, and shortly after his death, a government commission (1847) wrote that:

The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects.

This was not therefore a passing phase: English anti-Welsh racism was deeply entrenched. This was without any doubt a factor complicating Iolo’s relationship with his English subscribers; they would have been condescending towards him not just because he was a working man, but (even worse) because he was Welsh.

There is a much bigger issue here, though. Note that both Iolo, and the 17th-century anti-Welsh pamphleteer described Welsh as “the British language”. This is really important. Although Wales had been conquered by the English in the thirteenth century, both English and Welsh understood the historical truth that the Welsh were the cultural descendants of the native ancient Britons, and that the English were the descendants of the Saxon and Angle invaders (and in the case of the ruling classes of Normans and Hanoverian Germans as well). The English were in charge, so they weren’t bothered about the terminology. This had been the case ever since the Kingdom of England had been founded in 927AD.

By the time Iolo arrived in London, this situation was changing, for the first time in nearly a thousand years. This was because after a millennium of the Kingdom of England being bordered by the Kingdom of Scotland, the two had become united. This had been formalized in 1701, but it was only with the defeat of the Jacobite Rising, just before Iolo’s birth, that London’s rule over Scotland finally became secure. A new political state had been established, and it was seeking a new identity. Scotland, Wales, and England together occupy the Island of Britain, so it was natural that the now-dominant English Establishment would want to form a new ‘British’ identity. Unfortunately for them, the Welsh already owned that.

The process of taking it away from them was well underway, and a not-unimportant element of this was the concept of the Druids. The works of John Aubrey and William Stukely had contributed to a cultural trend allowing the English, as well as the Celtic peoples of the British Isles, to envisage the Druids as common ancestors – allowing the English to appropriate the term ‘British’ so that it could be applied to the new State. Interest in the Druids and their perceived virtues was widespread, so that by the time Iolo arrived in London both he and – for example – the Londoner William Blake were portraying themselves as contemporary heirs of the Druidic tradition.

For Iolo, this was a different personal brand. This was not the humble workman he presented to potentatial subscribers; amongst his radical friends in London (who included Tom Paine and Joseph Priestley amongst many others), he was ‘The Bard of Liberty’. (I will explore this in more depth in a separate post). His personal vision of Bardism, and of Druidry, was already complete before his second spell in London. While trying to get his book published, he threw himself into establishing this vision – and he succeeded. Through his efforts, such as the famous meetings of the Gorsedd of the Bards on Primrose Hill, he ensured that the literary, political, and cultural leaders of the day began to associate Druids with the Welsh.

He succeeded so completely that by the end of his life, in the 1820s, the English were complaining that the Welsh had completely co-opted the idea of Druids – and this was indeed true, to the extent that Druids also completely vanished from the Scots’ self-perception.

Through his promotion of Druidry as a Welsh cultural possession, Iolo kicked away one of the main supports for the new ‘British’ identity. This was so complete that the surviving ‘Druid’ orders in England (who certainly would never recognise Welsh cultural precedence) were reduced to claiming William Blake as a former “Chosen Chief” – this despite the fact that Blake had moved from describing himself as a Druid to representing Druids as oppressive and cruel in his work, a priesthood of the kind that Blake despised in the Church of his day.

Our take-away from this is that in his day Iolo Morganwg was a successful and respected poet in English. He was no obscure figure writing in obscurity in Wales: he was in the thick of London’s literary and artistic scene, and had a not inconsiderable influence on the English Romantic tradition.

In the eyes of those who wrote the histories, though, he was too Welsh for the English to accept; too much of a social upstart for the gentry and aristocracy to permit; and too much of a genuine radical for the political and ecclesiastical Establishment to tolerate.  He reminded the giants of English Romantic literature  of their radical youth – a youth that now embarrassed them. What’s more, he had more or less single-handedly wrecked the English attempt to appropriate the Druids and ‘Britishness’ for themselves, and they did not forgive him for that. As English society grew more conservative throughout the 18th and 19th centuries it was in everybody’s interests to let his name and his works be forgotten.

Note: for the material in this post, I have drawn on A Rattleskull Genius, edited by Geraint H. Jenkins, published 2009 by University of Wales Press, Cardiff, as well as Blood and Mistletoe by Ronald Hutton, published 2009 by Yale University Press.

Image credits:

Featured image: ‘London’ by William BlakeThe William Blake Archive, Public Domain, Link

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