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Obituary: T. Arfon Williams

IF WELSH poetry is a closed book to most English readers, with but a few honourable exceptions, it is not only because the poet in Wales has had a function different from that of his counterpart in England but also because for the last thousand years Welsh poetry has been written in a prosody so complex that John Cowper Powys was once prompted to remark that the people among whom he had made his home were "the most conservative, the most introverted, the most mysterious nation that has ever existed outside China".

Making some allowance for hyperbole - Powys learned to read Welsh during his years at Blaenau Ffestiniog and allowed things Welsh to colour his own writing - his remark is fairly typical of the bewilderment many cultivated English people feel when first confronted by a literature which seems to be hermetically sealed as much by the language in which it is written as by the metrical forms on which it depends. Bewilderment sometimes turns to hostility in the minds of the London literary establishment: there are to be no entries for Welsh- language writers, not even those whose work has been translated, in the new edition of Margaret Drabble's Oxford Companion to English Literature, now in preparation.

But it is not as if writing in traditional Welsh forms is something antiquarian or arcane. Although there is primitive cynghanedd - what Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had studied the language, called "consonantal chiming" - in the earliest Welsh poetry dating from the sixth century, and although it was the stock-in-trade of the great medieval masters such as Dafydd ap Gwilym, a good deal of verse is written by contemporary poets according to the age-old rules.

That such writing has enjoyed a renaissance during the last 20 years is largely due to Cymdeithas Cerdd Dafod, the society for poets and others interested in this important aspect of Welsh culture, and in particular to Alan Llwyd, the brilliant poet, editor and its indefatigable secretary since its inception in 1976.

Among the many poets encouraged by Llwyd, and one who became a leading member of the society, and latterly its treasurer, was T. Arfon Williams. It says something about the vigour and appeal of the tradition that such a man could have had an interest in the writing of poetry at all. He was, for a start, born at Treherbert, in the Rhondda, a valley which in the 1930s retained only a vestige of the rich literary heritage associated with the heyday of the coal industry and the Nonconformist culture which had produced so many writers. It was the Welsh language which "saved him for the nation": he was brought up to speak it by parents, both teachers, who were devoted to the culture into which they had been born and who, unusually for that time and place, passed it on to Arfon and his sister Gwerfyl.

Nor did he come to poetry by the usual routes. He was, in fact, a dentist; he trained at King's College and King's College Hospital in London, where he was a house surgeon, and was later appointed Licentiate in Dental Surgery by the Royal College of Surgeons. His first job was with a general practice at Penmaenmawr in Caernarvonshire, and it was in the surgery that he met the woman who was to become his wife.

After spending four years as Dental Officer in his native Rhondda and another two in Swansea, in 1970 he was promoted to a similar post with an all-Wales remit at the Welsh Office and spent the rest of his working life as a civil servant, retiring in 1993. He was elected Chairman of the South Wales Branch of the British Paedodontic Society in 1969 and among the delights of his latter years was his Honorary Presidency of Cymdeithas Deintyddol Cymru, the society for Welsh-speaking dentists.

He lived for many years in Whitchurch, a suburb of Cardiff, where he was a neighbour of mine. A generous host, fond of late-night company, he took a keen pleasure in discussion of literary matters. His last home was at Caeathro, a village in Welsh-speaking Gwynedd where his wife's family had its roots.

Williams discovered an interest in Welsh poetic forms in 1974. He began attending an evening class in Cardiff and competing anonymously in the weekly newspaper Y Cymro, where his talent was recognised by the adjudicator, Alan Llwyd. He quickly won a reputation in the pages of Barddas, the monthly magazine, as a master of the englyn, the four-lined epigrammatic poem which has been popular among Welsh poets since about the ninth century. He had mastered the rules of Welsh prosody by dint of wide reading and with the help of other poets whose company he sought, no mean feat, for the rules are devilishly complicated.

There are at least six kinds of englyn, and as many variations of cynghanedd within the lines, but the basic rules can be roughly summarised as follows. The first two lines have ten and six syllables respectively, and the other two have seven each. There is usually a dash after the seventh syllable of the first line and that syllable announces the rhyme at the end of the other three. All four lines have assonance and are accented according to fixed rules so stringent that they make the haiku look as sophisticated as the limerick.

There have been many attempts to write englynion in English, and other languages, sometimes by poets as eminent as W.H. Auden and Robert Graves, but they are usually only forlorn attempts to capture the special effects of the form, rather than true imitations. Few have taken the advice of Wallis Evans to heart:

An englyn's just like angling - cast

a line

For fine bits of writing.

Alliterate your lett'ring,

See that your consonants sing

Williams was so accomplished an exponent that he not only wrote immaculate englynion in Welsh, often memorably, but could also turn them out in "the thin language" (as English is known in Welsh) when he wanted to illustrate what the form requires. Furthermore, he made a point of demonstrating the superiority of his craft by casting his verse as a single sentence and, putting aside all jokiness. Many of his tenderest verses were addressed to his wife, Einir, "gem o wraig ddigymar" ("an incomparable jewel of a wife"), who was the muse in whom he found so much of his inspiration.

Here is an example of Williams's work in English illustrating the entry on the englyn which appears in The New Companion in the Literature of Wales (1998):

A bee in your flower bed - I alight

on the lips full-parted

of your fox-glove, beloved,

and am freely, fully fed.

The englyn, although miniaturist in length, can carry a powerful emotional charge and its very brevity and intricacy lend it a unique intensity. Williams exploited its potential to the full, writing on a variety of subjects (including the erotic) in a style which has been compared to the effect of oil on moving water, capable of more than one interpretation and reflecting whatever the reader brings to it. He also wrote chains of englynion addressing philosophical and social questions not usually found in this form, and even brought touches of cynghanedd into poems in the free metres. Unlike many of his fellow practitioners, he eschewed the obscure and the over-literary.

He published three collections: Englynion Arfon (1978), Annus Mirabilis (1984) and Cerddi Arfon (1996); and edited a symposium on the Welsh poetic craft, Yngln a Chrefft Englyna (1981), in which he contributed an essay exploring the creative process. For him the phenomenon of cynghanedd was the most precious part of the Welsh literary heritage and the sine qua non of what made a poet. He accepted its strict rules gladly, finding in them not the fetters of which lesser poets complain but a useful mould into which he could pour his words to marvellous effect. His best work - several hundred verses in all - is assured of a place in the standard anthology of 20th-century Welsh poetry when that book comes to be compiled.

His monograph on Cerdd Dafod (Welsh prosody), illustrated by many of his English englynion and commissioned by the University of Wales Press, had been virtually completed in the months before his death.

Arfon Williams was sustained during his last long illness by his devoted family and a Christian faith which never deserted him. A staunch Congregationalist, he was reverently elected President of the Union of Welsh Independents for the year 2000, and would have brought to that august office not only dignity and erudition but a delightful wit and genial personality which, in life, won him many friends. He will be commemorated in the time-honoured way - by his peers in the englyn form to which he devoted his rare talents.

Thomas Arfon Williams, dentist, civil servant and poet: born Treherbert, Glamorgan 17 May 1935; married 1963 Einir Wynn Jones (two sons, one daughter); died Bangor, Gwynedd 16 October 1998.