Eluned Phillips: The only woman poet to have won the National Eisteddfod's Crown twice

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The Independent Online

Eluned Phillips was unusual among Welsh writers of her generation in that she embraced a bohemian lifestyle which took her to pre-war London and Paris, where she made the acquaintance of such major artists as Augustus John, Dylan Thomas, Edith Piaf, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Chevalier and Pablo Picasso, the last of whom showed her the unfinished Guernica with the paint still wet on the canvas. She even made it to Casablanca, where she might easily have fitted in among the habitués of Rick's Bar. Nearer home, she was only the second woman to win the Crown, one of the major literary prizes awarded at the National Eisteddfod, and this she achieved on two occasions: first in 1967 and again in 1983. It was for this remarkable feat rather than her picaresque adventures in foreign parts that she was most admired in her native Wales.

Famously reticent about the details of her life, even in her memoir, The Reluctant Redhead (2007), she was always loath to reveal so much as the year of her birth. In the Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales it was given as "1915?", whereas in fact she had been born on 27 October 1914 – the same day as Dylan Thomas, whom she heartily disliked because of his fecklessness and scrounging habits. Nor does her book provide much information about the time she spent in the company of Picasso, Cocteau and Chevalier, though about Piaf, with whom she seems to have had more of a rapport, she wrote movingly. Instead, the book is largely the record (without many facts that can be checked) of the adventures this independent-minded woman had whenever she could shake off the confines of her native patch. Many of her escapades and her short-fuse temper she attributed to the red hair she had as a young woman.

Her introduction to the raffish milieu of London's Fitzrovia wasmade possible in the late 1930s by Dewi Emrys, the dissolute ex-preacher and talented poet whose lifeshe treated in a biography publishedin 1971. Once described as "the Welsh Dylan Thomas" (as if Thomaswere not Welsh because he wrote in English), Emrys was so tormented by the alcoholism that eventually killed him in 1952 that he immediately pawned the silver Crown he hadwon at the National Eisteddfod in order to buy more drink. Phillips's biography went some way to correcting Emrys's image as a poète maudit by debunking many of the apocryphal stories told about him and pointing to the very considerable qualities of his intricate verse.

Eluned Phillips was born at Cenarth in southern Cardiganshire, a village famous for its coracles from which men fished the Teifi. Her father was killed in the First World War while she was still a child and she never knew him, but she was brought up in a warm-hearted extended family, which included the aunt to whom she was devoted, and a grandmother who encouraged her to take up every challenge with the admonition, "Go for it, girl! Give it your best shot!" From primary school at Abercych, a district renowned for its associations with the Mabinogion, she went to Cardigan Grammar School where, a dreamy child, she did not distinguish herself academically but began competing in local eisteddfodau.

She drew more sustenance from the Congregationalist chapel in Cenarth and from hearing folk-stories about the poet Dafydd ap Gwilym and the Princess Nest, known as "The Helen of Wales" on account of her abduction by a prince of the royal house of Powys in 1109. At Sunday school Phillips learned to read in Welsh, later becoming a fine public speaker and learning the rules of cynghanedd, the complex system of traditional prosody used by many Welsh poets to this day. She was admitted into the Gorsedd of Bards as Luned Teifi at the age of 22, the blue robe being exchanged for the white, decorated with laurel leaves, after she had won her first Crown.

Eluned's fascination with the life of the Left Bank was facilitated by a friend at her London boarding school whose mother worked in Paris: the two girls were exploring Montparnasse when hardly out of school uniform. In those days, as she was fond of pointing out, Paris was nearer London than west Wales, and she went there often. In 1939 she entered the University of London with the intention of becoming a journalist, an ambition in which she was encouraged by Hannen Swaffer, then at the height of his fame in Fleet Street, but her studies there were interrupted by the outbreak of war. The war also put paid to her love-affair with a Breton nationalist she had met in Paris, the only romance she was prepared to write about in her memoirs but over which she nevertheless drew a discreet veil, except to say that she knew him as Per, and that, although rescued from a French jail, he had later died of the injuries he had sustained while a prisoner.

After several years living as apseudonymous writer for women's magazines in London, and penning a number of Mills and Boon-type romances to keep the wolf from her door, she returned to Newcastle Emlyn, where she took a job in a solicitor's office and served as a court translator. At about the same time she began writing scripts for the BBC in Wales and working as a roving reporter, but her thirst for adventure also took her to eastern Europe before the demise of the Soviet Union, to Ireland, where she became a friend ofthe folk-singer Seamus Ennis, to Australia and the U S, particularly to Los Angeles where, despite two serious car crashes in 1997, she celebrated her 90th birthday. She had a close connection with several of the leading Welsh male-voice choirs that visit California on a regular basis and was usually to be seen taking full advantage of the hospitality extended on those occasions.

Her only book of poems was Cerddi Glyn-y-Mêl ("Glyn-y-mêl Poems", 1985), which takes its title from the house in Cenarth she shared for many years with her aged aunt. Very few of her poems appeared in magazines and anthologies because she claimed never to send them off unless invited, which she seldom was. In her memoirs she provided an English translation of the long poem "Clymau" ("Bonds") with which she had won her second Crown in 1983. An exploration of the ancestral links between Wales and the Welsh colony in Patagonia, the poem focuses on two soldiers, one a Welshman in the British Army and the other a Patagonian in the Argentinian, and on the tragedy involved in their having to fight each other.

She explained that she had written her memoirs in English (and on a computer acquired in her 90th year) so that her many friends all over the world could read about the life of "a simple country girl with itchy feet". The book ends with her standing mischievously in the wet concrete of the Millennium Centre then under construction in Cardiff Bay and the typically spirited advice she gave to many a young writer: "Try to make as many footprints in the concrete as you can – and treasure them."

Meic Stephens

Sara Adeline Eluned Phillips, poet: born Cenarth, Cardiganshire 27 October 1914; winner of the Crown at the National Eisteddfod of Wales 1967 and 1983; died Carmarthen 10 January 2009.