Iolo the Bard: Part 3

butterfly collection

The three principal uses of all things in the hands of God: that they should be with a view to the greatest need; to the greatest utility; and to the greatest love.
Barddas: Theological Triads

“Hengwrt Library I am afraid has been too much pillaged to have anything curious in it”.
Walter Davies in a letter to his friend William Owen Pughe in London, 1800.

The myth of a place is the narrative that gives it identity. The story is a mixture of truth and untruth; it is in quantum space: to observe it too closely is to destroy it. The identity that derives from it is real, but fragile.
Lean Logic: Myth

The great tragedy of Iolo Morganwg’s legacy is that he is maligned for what may have been his greatest achievement. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that his success made it necessary for the lesser talents who followed him to play down what he did; without him, they would not have existed, and that’s a hard truth to have to acknowledge.

There are two things most people think they know about Iolo. The first is that he was addicted to laudanum; the second is that he was a “literary forger”.

To a great extent, Iolo’s use of laudanum has been distorted by modern-day attitudes which simply wouldn’t have made sense to anybody alive in Iolo’s day. Laudanum is opium dissolved in alcohol so, to contemporary minds, it seems inextricably linked to ‘drugs and alcohol’, and is paired with ‘creativity’ and ‘tragic death’, and ‘counterculture’. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Lenny Bruce. Sid Vicious. River Pheonix. Jim Morrison. Janis Joplin. So creative, so talented… but never really respectable. So poor old Iolo… so creative… but he used drugs, you know, not really a reliable type… a bit shady, really…

This, of course, is nonsense. The eighteenth century had entirely different attitudes and, in this context, Iolo was entirely normal in his use of laudanum. It was a widely available medicine, and completely legal. Iolo took it to ease his asthma. End of story, really. It was completely unremarkable at the time, and certainly no measure of moral character. Iolo’s contemporaries Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and  Thomas de Quincy, for example, were heavy users of laudanum, and this is never considered to discredit them or devalue their work.

So Iolo’s use of laudanum is a red herring; it’s not something that he deserves to be remembered for; nor should his work be assessed in light of it, any more or any differently than Coleridge’s work.

What is going on then? Why does Iolo’s memory immediately get dismissed, even by people who know nothing about it? For example, a well-known figure in modern Druidry, Joanna van der Hoeven, recently wrote this while discussing the nod cyfrin, the ‘Hidden Sign’ of Awen, invented by Iolo:

It is not an ancient symbol, but a modern Druid symbol, used widely by Druids the world over, regardless of their opinion on Iolo and his work.

Note the implicit dismissal. I doubt whether many of Joanna’s readers know anything at all about Iolo’s work but hey, he’s a ‘literary forger’, right? So, let’s look at that.

In my previous post, I examined Iolo’s work in English, and how the times were against him and his memory in the English-speaking world. Now we can look at his work in the Welsh language, in which his talent, his achievement, and the betrayal of his memory, were far greater.

In Welsh, Iolo was an absolutely outstanding poet. Time and time again, during his life and in the present day, Welsh-speaking literary scholars emphasize in their studies of his work that Iolo produced some of the very best Welsh poetry of the eighteenth century. He was able to reproduce the individual styles of the best poets of earlier periods, and there were few enough of his talent in the following generations.

Not only that. Iolo understood the Welsh poetry of the past so well that he was able to categorise the different metres by applying the methods of the Swedish botanist Linnaeus. At the time, this was cutting-edge scholarship. Unfortunately, he never published many of his most penetrating insights, which had to be rediscovered by scholars in later decades – and even over a century later.

Where did this talent come from?

Through his mother, Iolo seems to have been descended from the poets of Tir Iarll, a family that in previous generations had included many significant poets. While still young, he thoroughly studied the rules of strict-metre poetry, with assistance from able tutors. He knew old men who could still recall the days when bards wandered the land from manor to manor in the ancient tradition. Also while young, he spent much time with a group of poets of his own age, who had also been diligently studying the old poetic forms. Together, they encouraged and developed a thorough mastery, and competed in the local poetic competitions, or eisteddfodau, which were still being held in Wales.

He used this talent to produce outstanding works of the poetic art. He also used it to ‘amend’ genuinely ancient poems which he found in, and copied from, manuscripts he discovered in the private collections and libraries of the gentry. From this, he progressed to writing huge numbers of new poems, attributing them to long-dead master poets – whose actual talent he matched, and whose styles he could mimic.


Some, predictably and lazily, reply “Laudanum!“, as if that explained anything at all. It may be that there was a financial reason: the London-based Welsh businessman, Owain Jones, better known as Owain Myfyr, was committed to collecting and publishing manuscripts of ancient Welsh poems, and Iolo certainly needed the money which Owain was willing to pay. Others suggest that Iolo’s perfectionism led him to ‘improve’ the genuine material he found, and/or that forging material allowed him to attribute it to others and so freed him from the obsessive need to ceaselessly edit and revise the material which he suffered with what he published in his own name. Another school of thought suggests that he did it as a form of sly revenge, having fun in fooling his peers from North Wales, who thought their own regional dialect and literary history superior to that of Iolo’s South.

Personally, I agree with those who think that Iolo was acting in accord with the spirit of the time, and that those who are obsessed with ‘forgery’ are completely, absolutely, missing the point: they focus narrowly on ‘truth’ and utterly fail to see or understand the greater Truth which Iolo served with all his copious ability.

As I noted in an earlier post in this series, poetry is a two-way relationship: the poet needs an audience, one which is able to understand the metre, the language, the references. To Iolo, being Welsh, and being a speaker of the Welsh language, was the very heart and core of his being. He needed an audience fluent in Welsh, and steeped in Welsh culture. And yet, he could see – more clearly than anyone else – that the future existence of the Welsh people and their identity was under grave threat.

The English state and Establishment were becoming more powerful than ever before – and as we saw in the last part of this series – they despised the Welsh.

We have seen how the English nobles were patronising to Iolo as he sought sponsorship for his books of poetry. The working classes of England were no more friendly: when, through his skill at stonecutting, he obtained a position as an overseer at a firm in Kent, he found that:

the Englishmen are damn Mad (to use their own phrase) that a Taffy Should rule them

(Iolo, in a letter to his father, 13 September 1774).

The English press consistently portrayed the Welsh as impoverished, idle, and thieving – a trope which remained a favourite throughout the period of Empire, whenever the British establishment wished to justify its rule over a conquered people.

Closer to home, English (and Scottish) gentry were increasingly buying up the manors and lands of the Welsh gentry, whose family lines were failing. That Welsh class of minor nobility had been the last great patrons of the Welsh bardic tradition, and they were vanishing, replaced by incomers who held the bards in contempt. A Scot, for example, Robert Hay Drummond, was appointed Bishop of St. Asaph in north Wales – and publicly announced that “it would be better if the Welsh language were pulled up from the root” – although the witness who noted this down, William Morris, added that a local poet, William Wynn, was able to respond by bitterly denouncing the bishop before the assembled notables.

Nevertheless, the wind was against the Welsh. In Iolo’s native Glamorgan, even the remaining local gentry were switching from Welsh to English as their main language. The peasantry, more staunch in their Welsh, were being forced to emigrate as affluent incomers bought up, and amalgamated the farms on which they worked. During Iolo’s lifetime, the industrialisation of Glamorgan was well underway. Although the mass immigration of English-speakers to the Glamorgan coalfields still lay in the future, the rapid growth of the ironworks of Merthyr Tydfil, and the tin- and copper-works of Swansea, clearly indicated what was to come.

As Iolo knew better than anybody, Wales had a treasure trove of literary tradition – but the trove was rapidly being lost.

The great bards of the past had passed down a vast body of lore. As the Welsh princes were defeated, and the gentry declined, so did the bards: but much of their poetic knowledge was captured on the page, written down for posterity by passionate scribes. These manuscripts, the cultural legacy of the Welsh people, had been preserved in the libraries of mansions, and farmhouses, the length and breadth of Wales (not to mention the formerly Welsh lands of the Marches). This too was disappearing. The libraries had been neglected. Many irreplaceable manuscripts had been lost to mould, mice, or thieves and, as happened with the Hafod estate in 1807, fire. The threat of loss continues, even today.

Think about the treasures we know about: the White Book of Rhydderch; the Red Book of Hergest; the Black Book of Carmarthen. So much of what we know of the Welsh cultural inheritance comes from just these three books. Imagine how much more has been lost.

Iolo didn’t need to imagine: he knew. He had been one of the last scholars to visit the library of Hafod before its destruction; in his wanderings around Wales copying manuscripts, he would have noted how books that he had seen before had vanished. He knew precisely how dangerous the threat was.

And yet, he could expect little help. Welsh scholarship at the time was dominated by the likes of the Cymmrodorion and Gwyneddigion societies. These, in turn, were dominated by North Walians. In the north, life at the time was still continuing much as it always had done. Although industrialisation was also developing there, it was mostly in the slate industry, which used local labour, local management, and a large element of local investment. The scholars of the North, therefore, saw nothing of the social and linguistic changes that Iolo was seeing in the south, and so they shared little of his sense of urgency.

So, if Iolo was to safeguard the future of the Welsh, he was going to have to do it himself. And that’s just what he did.

Iolo knew that much of the great works of the great poets had been lost, and was still being lost – and so he replaced that loss with his own compositions, so that the Welsh people would know the greatness of their nation. Their myths, and legends, and the stories of their great ancestors, had been lost, so Iolo would provide them with new ones. By the end of his life, he was composing a new history for them: an idealised society which had been governed by the wise: the Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

A small nation, ruled by another people who despised them, needed to have a strong culture, a national myth, to sustain them. In Wales, Iolo succeeded: his work – particularly his creation of the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain – gave the Welsh almost  the only distinctive national institution they had in their own language during the long years of the nineteenth century, when the Anglicising force of the British Empire was at its peak.

In this, Iolo was far from alone. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the awakening of small nations across Europe. Many of them faced the same problem as the Welsh: their cultural inheritance had been fragmented during centuries of being ruled by other nations. They were in need of a National Epic. Across Europe, Iolo had his peers, who responded as he did: Elias Lönnrot for the Finns, Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué for the Bretons,  Václav Hanka for the Czechs, for example.

The mythic past, and the corpus of literature, which Iolo Morganwg established was partly real, and partly the product of his own imagination. Although some scholars questioned its authenticity from the beginning, the hard work and persuasive efforts of Iolo, his son Taliesin, and his disciples such as John Williams ab Ithel, ensured that the majority of it was accepted as true for several generations. This, and the institutions that Iolo similarly created, were a focus for cultural pride and confidence that bolstered the Welsh nation at a time of intense pressure. It was a huge achievement.

So why is Iolo vilified? Why is he only remembered as “a literary forger”?

Iolo was not concerned with literal truth; he was concerned with myth. As David Fleming noted in his great work, Lean Logic, myth is a mixture of truth and untruth; it is in quantum space: to observe it too closely is to destroy it. The identity that derives from it is real, but fragile. Iolo was concerned with cultural survival, not with scholarly inegrity. He had a much greater task to fulfil, and he succeeded gloriously.

Famously, though, history is written by the victors, and Iolo was followed by a generation of academics who blackened his memory. The most famous of these was John Morris-Jones.  Morris-Jones was born in 1864, 42 years after Iolo’s death. He was born into a different world: the British empire now spanned the world; Welsh coal powered the most powerful navy in the world; the industrial and scientific revolutions were now mature, philosophically and economically dominant. He took up a position at Bangor University in 1889, 100 years after Iolo first published his collection of forged ‘Dafydd ap Gwilym’ poems. By now, scholarship was a profession and a career path, no longer the domain of educated amateurs and gentlemen of leisure.

Morris-Jones became a lecturer in Welsh: this was now acceptable to the Establishment, with the worst of the anti-Welsh campaigning a generation in the past. Welsh culture was at a peak: the language was used in local and national eisteddfodau, in chapels, in a vibrant newspaper and pamphlet scene. Morris-Jones began a career that was only possible because of Iolo’s efforts, generations earlier, to sustain the language: and he spent that career blackening Iolo’s name.

Why? Because he lived in an entirely different mental universe, a newer, more self-consciously ‘modern’ world. Plagiarism and forgery of material was now the cardinal academic sin – as it still is today, and quite rightly. Morris-Jones spent his career ‘exposing’ the man who had made that career possible. He treated Iolo Morganwg by the standards of a dry and dusty academia, the mentality of butterfly-collectors who catch the ethereal beauty of a butterfly in a net, kill it in a jar of ether, and pin the corpse to a board, to be labelled as ‘truth’.

Iolo Morganwg was not a modern academic; such a thing did not exist at the time. He was a culture hero: he looked at a past, and a cultural inheritance that was needed, and which had been passed down almost to his own day, but which was tattered and in danger of being completely lost… and he recreated what should have existed, from his own talent and insight and genuine knowledge.

It is long past time to rescue Iolo’s reputation from the butterfly-collectors of academia and to recognise his immense achievement in infusing Welsh culture with a history and a corpus it could be proud of, providing a cultural petri dish in which new generations of poets could be inspired.

Iolo Morganwg was no “forger”: he was a cultural giant.

Three principal things required of a Bard: to preserve memorial and knowledge; to preserve peace and courtesy; and to preserve instruction and morality.
Barddas: The Triads of Privilege and Usage

For this post I have drawn heavily on the following texts:

A Rattleskull Genius: The Many Faces of Iolo Morganwg, edited by Geraint H. Jenkins. Published 2009 by the University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

Bard of Liberty: The Political Radicalism of Iolo Morganwg, Geraint H. Jenkins. Published 2012 by the University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

Bardic Circles: National, Regional and Personal Identity in the bardic Vision of Iolo Morganwg, Cathryn A. Charnell-White. Published 2007 by the University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

Image credits: Green butterflies by Nina Haghighi on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.


  1. Great piece of work that goes a long way to identifying Iolo’s achievements and importance in Welsh history and culture. This deserves a larger audience. Personally, don’t think that an attempt should be made to rescue Iolo’s reputation. An icon. Iolo’s contribution to Welsh identity and culture should be taught to our children.


    • Thanks – I’m glad you like it! More to come; there’s so much about Iolo that most people don’t know. I agree that his life and works should be taught in Welsh schools – one day it will be!


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