1839 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Williams

Anonymous, in Review of An Essay on the Neo-Druidic Heresy of Britannia; Gentleman's Magazine NS 11 (April 1839) 393-94.



In the year 1794, two small volumes of poetry were published by Edward Williams, a stone-mason, of Flimstone in Glamorganshire, who had great merit as a self-taught Welsh scholar, but much alloyed by the pride that affects to despise classical lore. It might have been his conviction, while he endeavoured to impress it on his readers, that what the Greek and Roman writers said of Britain and its institutions was unworthy of credit, and that the truth was only to be found in the Welsh language. The national vanity of some of his countrymen, flattered by this averment, embraced his doctrine; when, having secured several supporters, he produced a system of Bardism, till then unknown. He had copied innumerable MSS. of all of which he had asserted that the originals existed, which was readily credited from proving the fact with respect to the greater part. The celebrated lexicographer, William Owen, on whom the University of Oxford, for his indefatigable researches, conferred the honorary degree of D.C.L. and who afterwards added to his former names the name of Pughe, became a convert to the Glamorganshire oracle, and with such an ally the system derived additional strength; and his new auxilliary not only adopted, but became the champion of its tenets, and the contriver had but to dictate what he chose should thus be established.

The "deliramenta doctrinae" of such an esteemed author as Dr. William Owen Pughe, at first excites astonishment, until we become acquainted with his credulity, and view him as a follower of Johanna Southcote. When in conjunction with his liberal friend, the late Mr. Owen Jones of Myvyr, he put forth in the year 1789 the Poems of Davydd ab Gwilym, he wrote his preface with information derived only from the Roman historians and the really ancient Welsh bards; but he seems soon after to have formed the acquaintance of Edward Williams, who styled himself Iolo Morganwg, and pretended to be a regularly initiated bard, "wrth fraint a dafod Beirdd Ynys Prydain." When, therefore, in 1792, he published the Elegies of Llywarch Hen, the unknown system of Bardism began to be developed, and cleared the way for the annotations annexed to the Poems of Edward Williams.

Mr. Owen Jones of Myvyr having most liberally opened his purse to produce, had the announced intention been strictly adhered to, the truly patriotic act of publishing the original Welsh literature from ancient and authentic MSS., Edward Williams was, at the recommendation of Dr. Owen Pughe, admitted as a third editor, on account of his extensive knowledge, and the vast accumulation of transcripts he had made. The first and second volumes of the Archaiology of Wales, printed in 1801, were edited according to the primary idea, and give us faithful copies with a statement whence they were taken; but into the third volume, printed in 1807, have been inserted Bardic Triads, from a MS. of Edward Williams, which have fallen under the suspicion of forgery.

The first who exposed the system of the Chair of Glamorgan, was that erudite scholar, the late Rev. Edward Davies, in his "Rites and Mythology of the ancient Druids," who, having been fiercely attacked by Edward Williams for the opinions in his "Celtic Researches," expresses himself "surprised that so candid a critic as Mr. Sharon Turner should pronounce that the ancient poems that treated of Druidism are unintelligible, especially as he acknowledges the assistance of Mr. Owen and Mr. Williams, men who claim exclusive acquaintance with the whole system of bardic lore, — but the wonder will cease when we shall have seen that the information of these ingenious writers is drawn from. another source, from a document which will appear to be in many respects irreconcilable with the works of the ancient bards, or with the authority of the classical page." In the introduction to the Elegies of Llywarch Hen a catalogue is given of the presidents and members of the Chair of Glamorgan from the year 1300 down the late Mr. Edward Williams. "A slight inquiry," says Mr. Davies, "into the credentials of this society will discover some marks of gross misrepresentation, if not of absolute forgery." He then adduces many reasons in support of this assertion, and then adds: "the principles here announced seem to go rather beyond the levelers of the seventeenth century, and to savour strongly of a Druidism which originated in Gaul, and was from thence transplanted into some corner of Britain, not many ages before the year 1792, when the Memorial of Bardism made its appearance. It were well if the sages who prepared that memorial would revise their extracts, and recal any accidental inaccuracy that might otherwise mislead future antiquaries. They must know as well as I do that this is not the Druidism of history, nor of the British bards."