New biography of Gwenallt by Professor Alan Llwyd launched

A new biography of D. Gwenallt Jones, known simply as Gwenallt, the acclaimed Welsh-language poet from Alltwen, was launched in Tŷ’r Gwrhyd, Pontardawe, on Friday, 14 October, at 6.30pm. The author of this revealing biography, is Professor Alan Llwyd, of Academi Hywel Teifi, Swansea University.

David James Jones, who adopted the bardic name ‘Gwenallt’, was born in Pontardawe on 18 May, 1899. His father, Thomas Ehedydd Jones, left his native Rhydcymerau in Carmarthenshire to seek employment in the industrial South. The young Gwenallt spent most of his schoolboy holidays with several relatives in Carmarthenshire, including his father’s brother, Dafydd Ehedydd Jones, who was a tenant-farmer. Dafydd, Gwenallt’s ‘Nwncwl Dafydd’, as the eldest son of Dafydd ac Elisabeth Jones, Esgair-ceir, eventually took over the family farm, and his sisters and brothers had to look elsewhere for employment. Esgair-ceir was only a small farm, and a poor farm, according to Gwenallt. In 1894 Thomas Jones moved from Rhydcymerau to the Pontardawe area, bringing his sweetheart Mary with him. Initially, Thomas Jones was appointed as a gardener by the Gilbertson family, the great steel and tinplate magnates of Pontardawe, but he soon became a pitman at one of their works, because the wages there were slightly higher. He married Mary in 1894.

Gwenallt was still a schoolboy when he became acquainted with several hard-core, extremist members of the Swansea Valley branch of the Independent Labour Party. He joined the party when he was 16 years of age. Gwenallt’s closest friend at the Elementary School at Allt-wen was Albert Davies, and they became lifelong friends. Albert’s brother, Griff Davies, was a foremost member of the Swansea Valley branch of the Independent Labour Party and he was also the main No-conscription Fellowship representative in the Swansea Valley. It was through Griff and his fellow Marxists that Gwenallt also became a Marxist. When war came, Griff Davies and other members of the I.L.P. refused to volunteer for active service. However, when conscription was introduced in 1916, Griff Davies and several other members of the I.L.P. chose imprisonment rather that participation. Gwenallt appeared before a tribunal at Pontardawe on August 28, 1917, but was not granted exemption. He was sent to Wormwood Scrubs, and was released after 112 days. The authorities had hoped that his small term of imprisonment would have been sufficient to make Gwenallt change his mind. It didn’t. Rather he went on the run and hid with members of his family in Carmarthenshire. He returned to Pontardawe, was rearrested and made to appear before another tribunal at Pontardawe, held on March 26, 1918. He was refused exemption again and sent to Dartmoor, the ‘open’ prison which, under a new Home Office scheme, allowed prisoners of conscience to have more freedom, but also to work hard. Gwenallt was eventually freed from Dartmoor in April 1919, almost six months after the war had ended.

In 1919, Gwenallt enrolled at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth to study Welsh as his main subject. He won two chairs when he was a student at Aberystwyth, in 1922 and 1924. In 1926 he won the chair at the Swansea National Eisteddfod. The subject of the chair competition that year was ‘Y Mynach’ (‘The Monk’), and Gwenallt wrote a beautiful religious poem set in an imaginary monastery, although it was based on a real monastery, San Martino above the Bay of Naples. Having rejected his Methodist, Nonconformist background, Gwenallt now moved towards Catholicism, but he never made the final leap. In 1925 he had left the College on acquiring a teaching post at Barry County School. Then, on September 24, 1927, his father was involved in a terrible, fatal accident. He was in the act of running out molten metal from a ladle into some moulds when the metal blew up without warning, and came down like a shower on his head and body, completely burning off his clothes. Other men who were engaged near by only just got clear in time. He was rushed into hospital but died a few hours later. When their minister, D. G. Jones, stated during the funeral that Thomas Jones’s death was an act of God, Gwenallt was furious.

In 1928, Gwenallt decided to enter the chair competition at the National Eisteddfod, held at Treorchy that year. The subject of the competition was ‘The Saint’, and Gwenallt by now had become deeply interested in the doctrine of original sin, and in the mysteries of religious conversion. His poem was by far the best composition in the competition, but his graphic, explicit sexual images and descriptions had shocked and embarrassed the adjudicators, and they refused to award Gwenall with the chair. This caused quite a sensation in Wales at the time.

Gwenallt, during the 1930’s, matured as a poet, and as a religious poet at that. He had already published ‘Y Mynach’ and ‘Y Sant’ in a small booklet in 1928, but his first authentic volume of poetry, Ysgubau’r Awen, was published in 1939, to much critical acclaim. Another volume soon followed, Cnoi Cil, in 1943. It was by then apparent that Gwenallt was a major force in modern Welsh poetry, and also a major religious poet, but he was without a religious home or denomination, so he became a member of the Church of Wales.

At the beginning of the 1950’s Gwenallt was again surrounded by controversy. Professor T. H. Parry-Williams retired from the Welsh Department at Aberystwyth in 1951, and Gwenallt, having been a lecturer at the college since 1927, applied for the professorship. Gwenallt was an all-rounder, a poet, a literary critic and a highly conscientious scholar, and yet it was the much younger Thomas Jones, also a native of Allt-wen, who was appointed the new professor at Aberystwyth. Gwenallt was refused another chair, an academic rather than eisteddfodic chair on this occasion. This was a bitter blow to him and he never forgave the College authorities for what he considered to be an enormous insult.

In 1957 he was again embroiled in controversy, after Edwin Morris was appointed Archbishop of Wales. Edwin Morris was a non-Welsh-speaker, and to appoint a person who couldn’t speak Welsh as leader of the Welsh Church was, to Gwenallt, an effrontery and an insult. He immediately left the Church and became a member of the Tabernacl Calvinistic Methodist Chapel at Aberystwyth, and remained there until his death on 23 December, 1968.

Yr Athro Alan Llwyd a'r Athro Daniel G. Williams

Professor Alan Llwyd with Professor Daniel G. Williams at the official launch of Gwenallt.