Thursday, 1 September 2016

Saunders Lewis ( 15/19/93 - 1/9/85) - A tainted legacy

Poet, novelist, dramatist, critic, politician and one of the founders of Plaid [Genedlaethol] Cymru, Saunders Lewis is considered one of Wales' leading literary and political icons, and is considered by some a nationalist hero.
He was born John Saunders Lewis, into a Welsh-speaking family in Wallasey, Chesire in 1893, and grew up among the Welsh community in Merseyside.
Lewis studied English and French at Liverpool University until the breakout of World War One, after which he served in the South Wales Borderers. After the end of the war Lewis returned to university and graduated in English.In 1922 Lewis joined the University of Wales, Swansea as a lecturer in Welsh. Lewis' nationalism was heightened by his wartime experiences, and fighting with Irish soldiers in particular seemed to shape his ideas on the importance of Welsh identity.In 1925 he joined other nationalists at a 1925 National Eisteddfod meeting with an aim to establishing a national party for Wales. Plaid [Genedlaethol] Cymru was established, of which Lewis was President from 1926 to 1939.
In 1936 in protest to a bombing school being established at Penyberth on the Llŷn Peninsula, Lewis along with along with Rev. Lewis Edward Valentine, pastor of the Llandudno Welsh Baptist Church and David John Williams, senior schoolmaster at Fishguard County School had in protest set fire to a structure on a RAF base at Pwllheli, Caernarfonshire, Wales. They felt the recently built RAF base "was an immoral violation of the sure and natural rights of the Welsh people", Lewis saying that “the UK government was intent upon turning one of the ‘essential homes of Welsh culture, idiom, and literature’ into a place for promoting a barbaric method of warfare”. After setting the blaze, the trio informed the police what they had done and turned themselves in and claimed responsibility for the act of arson.Lewis was dismissed from his post at Swansea University following the crime. The Penyberth Three were jailed for nine months at Wormwood Scrubs for the act, an event which had major repercussions in the run-up to the Second World War and provoked a backlash against Wales and the Welsh in England. However after being released from prison the men were given a hero's welcome by 15,000 people in Caernarfon.They had won the hearts of the Welsh people when they opposed the building of a bombing school in Wales .Sympathy for this case will depend upon feelings for the nationalist cause. However, what is striking is that the government’s lack of willingness to engage and compromise with the protestors led to a few people taking an extreme form of action. It may not have worked as far as the Llyn Peninsula was concerned but it probably helped galvanise nationalist feeling in Wales for many years to come.
After being released from prison in autumn 1937, Lewis moved to Llanfarian on the outskirts of Aberystwyth, and spent the following fifteen years earning an uncertain living between teaching, farming and journalism. In 1939 he resigned from the presidency of the National Party. 1941 saw the publication of the slim volume of poetry, Byd a Betws, in which the opening poem, ‘Y Dilyw 1939’ (‘The Deluge 1939’), refers to unemployed miners of the industrial south as ‘y demos dimai’ (‘the halfpenny demos’) and to Wall Street financiers ‘[a]'u ffroenau Hebreig yn ystadegau'r chwarter’ (‘with their Hebrew nostrils in the quarter's statistics’). It was repeatedly quoted from then on by left-wing critics attacking his snobbery and his anti-semitism. His column ‘Cwrs y Byd’ (‘The Course of the World’) in Y Faner was more substantial. Between 1939 and 1951 he contributed more than 560 weekly articles on life in Wales, Europe and the world as it faced the inevitability of war, the conflict itself, and the new world which emerged from the subsequent peace. These columns show Lewis at his best and his worst. Prophesying doom and convinced that no good would come of victory for either side, he said that Wales should remain above the fray. His column was withheld more than once and often cut by the censor's blue pencil.
 Lewis, who during the First World War served as an officer with the South Wales Borderers,  half-halo came to be cancelled out by one diabolical horn. Lewis’s support for the dictatorships inaugurated first by Portugal’s Salazar and then Spain’s Franco became a subject of concern to Plaid members and voters.Possibly influenced by his embrace of Catholicism – in whose pre Vatican 2 reading of the Christ story it’s fair to say the Jews did not emerge with any great credit – and certainly influenced by Maurice Barres, the market-leader in what has been called ‘the first wave of French Fascism’ and a high priest of French anti-semitism (of whom Lewis once wrote, acknowledging his debt, that ‘it was through him that I discovered Wales’), Lewis was certainly a political and literary anti-semite. His position during the Second World War was also controversial as he felt that Wales should take a completely neutral position and supported the campaign for the Welsh to become conscientious objectors. He argued with the left of the Welsh nationalist movement and was seen by some as having an elitist approach. Perhaps his most controversial statement, though, was when he appeared to show admiration for Adolf Hitler – as late as 1936, the year of the arson attack, when he wrote: “At once he fulfilled his promise — a promise which was greatly mocked by the London papers months before that — to completely abolish the financial strength of the Jews in the economic life of Germany.” Though he is considered one of the leading Welsh political figures of the Twentieth Century, Lewis reputation should now be forever held into question like his comtempraries T.Eliot and Ezra Pound whose work is still marred by the same stain that lingers over Saunder Lewis.It would be a dereliction if I whitewashed this thorny issue from Lewis's story.
Saunders Lewis was a complex, tortured individual, a poet and dramatist, described by Gwyn A Williams as “deeply conservative, a monarchist, a believer in leadership by a responsible elite”. Under him, Plaid called for “a nation of ‘small capitalists’, cooperation, the deindustrialisation of South Wales and the restoration of agriculture as the basic industry”. Lewis also called for the annihilation of English as a national language: “It must be deleted from the land called Wales”. He served as president of Plaid for 13 years and became its public face.
During the Second World War the party moved rightwards, and its toleration of anti-Semitism and refusal to oppose Hitler, Mussolini or Franco alienated many who believed they had joined a liberal, even left wing, nationalist party. By the end of the Second World War Lewis was disillusioned by the ‘communal socialist’ and pacifist tendency of Plaid Cymru (as it was called by then), by its lack of emphasis on the language, and later by what he regarded as the half-hearted stance of its liberal pacifist president, Gwynfor Evans, on plans by Liverpool Corporation to drown the village of Cwm Celyn in order to create the Tryweryn reservoir. Over the next 15 years the party moved from being a right wing nationalist movement to being a party in favour of trade unions and social reform. Nationalist sentiment was heightened in the late 1950s and 1960s with the case of the Tryweryn Valley, where, despite nationwide Welsh protests, the village of Capel Celyn was flooded to build a reservoir for Liverpool. Plaid’s share of the vote went up from 0.7 percent in 1951 to 3.1 percent in 1955 and 5.2 percent in 1959.

Lewis will probably be best today remembered for his literary legacy. His first play, "Blodeuwedd" ("The woman of flowers") opened in 1923. His play "Buchedd Garmon" ("The life of Germanus") was broadcast on the BBC in 1937. Later plays like "Siwan" (1956), "Brad" ("Treachery") (1958) and "Esther "(1960) would establish his reputation as a poet and a philosopher. Lewis wrote two novels, "Monica" in 1930 and "Merch Gwern Hywel" ("The daughter of Gwern Hywel") in 1964. These works along with many others garnished him a nomination for the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature.
He returned to lecturing in 1952 at Cardiff and remained there until his retirement five years later.
 In 1962 Lewis gave a lecture on BBC radio entitled Tynged Yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language). In this speech Lewis predicted the extinction of the Welsh language and declared that the language would die unless revolutionary methods were used to defend it. It was a clear defiant rallying cry.A result of the lecture led to the foundation of the Welsh Language Society/ Cymdeithas Y Iaith – a protest organisation which subsequently forced the adoption of equal legal validity for the Welsh-language in official communications and road signs –  and forced a Government U-turn leading to the establishment of S4C – the Welsh Fourth Channel and saw a revival in the use of spoken Welsh. Here is a link to full transcript of this historical lecture;-
It would have an impact, and the language movement went through an important shift, ceasing to be just a conservative concern and beginning to draw in many students and young people. The action focused on campaigning for the use of Welsh in official documents, in the media and on road signs. Many members of Cymdeithas were involved in a high-visibility campaign of direct action in 1969, in which English road signs were vandalised and painted out. This period saw numerous hunger strikes, prison sentences and occupations of TV studios. The campaign against the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon, also in 1969, saw a separate bombing campaign, in which two young men died after bombs went off prematurely.This speech also ironically made the old man into an idol for a new generation bred on the ideals of the civil rights movements in the southern United States and South Africa. The arch-conservative had become a symbol of revolution.
Saunders Lewis died on September 1st 1985 at the age of 91.Yes he stood up for the Welsh language but despite efforts to sanitise his story by members of the Welsh establishment, it would be wrong to airbrush the ugly whiff of fascism that stays attached to him today.We should not forget either the fact, he was attacked in Wales during the Thirties in article after article in the Welsh language by those people who drew attention to his support for the Fascist cause in Europe. This is a man who polluted the public life of Wales for  generations because of his unpalpable points of view, and because of this his work will always remain contentious.Lewis remains a controversial figure, and the extent to which he harboured anti-Semitic attitudes and a sympathy for European fascists remains a subject of intense debate.


  1. Thanks Dave..... excellent blog post, beautifully written....

  2. Cheers thanks for the appreciation