Gareth Alban Davies: Poet who combined Welsh and Hispanic interests in his work

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The Independent Online

Gareth Alban Davies, the former Professor of Spanish at Leeds University, was also a Welsh poet who brought a European perspective to his writing, especially through a scholarly knowledge of Federico García Lorca, the poet murdered by Nationalists during the civil war in Spain, and of Fernando Arrabal, the Spanish dramatist who writes in French.

Davies translated a good deal of Spanish poetry into Welsh and, for the Welsh Academy, edited an anthology, Y Ffynnon sy'*Ffrydio (1990), in which the eponymous fountain refers to the well-spring of poetic inspiration in Spain in the first three decades of the 20th century – until Franco's dictatorship poisoned it.

He combined his Celtic and Hispanic interests in research on the Welsh writer David Rowland, whose translation of La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades (1554) was published as The Pleasant History of Lazarillo de Tormes in 1586. This anonymous work, the prototype of all picaresque literature and a scurrilous satire on the Catholic church, was edited by Davies for the prestigious Gregynog Press, which brought out a particularly fine edition with wood engravings by Frank Martin in 1991. His interest in the picaresque genre also took in La Celestina, the short name for the famous dialogue novel by Fernando de Rojas, first published in 1499, on which he was an authority.

Davies was among a small but gallant band of Welsh writers whose knowledge of other European languages has been put to the service of the native literature. With W. Gareth Jones, sometime Professor of Russian at Bangor, he edited a symposium on 20th-century literature under the title Y Llenor yn Ewrop ("The writer in Europe") in 1976, contributing chapters on Lorca and André Gide. With his wife, Caryl, herself a minister's daughter and a distinguished scholar in her own right, he translated Gide's masterpiece, La Symphonie Pastorale (1919), as Y Deillion ("The blind ones") in 1965, in which the Protestant ethos and the pastor's love for the blind Gertrude are movingly rendered in Welsh.

Gareth Alban Davies was born at Ton Pentre in the Rhondda Fawr during the "angry summer" of 1926, when the miners were locked out for seven months by intransigent coal-owners after the general strike of May. His father, the Reverend T. Alban Davies, a former engine fireman and an early member of Plaid Cymru, instilled in his son a social conscience and the egalitarian and patriotic principles which remained with him for the rest of his life. He was the minister of Bethesda, a bastion of Congregationalism, the most radical of all the Welsh creeds, whose lamp-lit piety during the last phase of Nonconformity the writer always recalled with affection.

The mass unemployment and economic deprivation of the Rhondda in the inter-war years do not figure much in his writing, but in an essay which I translated into English as "The Fur Coat", Davies recalled the subtle class distinctions of the Valley – from the extravagant Siberian fox and Persian lamb worn by the managers' wives to the sealskin for which colliers' wives had to scrimp and save. He was particularly percipient about the superior social status of women teachers, the proud daughters of colliers set apart by their salaried profession in a sub-class of their own.

As a schoolboy, Davies was introduced to Cylch Cadwgan, a coterie of Welsh writers who used to meet at the home of J. Gwyn Griffiths at Pentre in the Rhondda, and he later contributed poems to a group anthology. There he was able to hone his skills as a poet and discuss the Spanish and French literature he was studying at Porth Grammar School. Thanks to his teacher, the Swiss expatriate Georges Rochat, the school had a high reputation for the teaching of Romance languages, and by the time he left Davies was a fluent speaker of Spanish.

In this he was helped by the existence in London of the bookseller Joan Gili, who satisfied his voracious reading by supplying him, at generous discounts, with books in Catalan and Castilian. Davies was able to repay his debt in 1988 by writing a glowing article in the magazine Planet about Martin Gili, the bookseller's son, who carries on the business from a warehouse near Llangrannog in Ceredigion.

At the age of 18, Davies became a "Bevin boy", conscripted to work in a local mine in lieu of military service under a scheme introduced by the Minister for Labour Ernest Bevin. Davies, who had inherited his father's sturdy build, spent three years working underground and, despite the physical hardship, enjoyed the experience because it brought him into closer contact with Rhondda men with whose lives he was already familiar. Even so, the son of the manse was regarded as very odd by his workmates because he did not smoke, drink or chase women.

In 1948, free at last to pursue an academic career as a Hispanist, he went up to the Queen's College, Oxford, where he took a degree in Romance languages, after which he was appointed to a lectureship in Spanish and Portuguese at Leeds University, where in 1975 he was given the chair of Spanish. His doctoral thesis was on Antonio Hurtado de Mendoza (1586-1644).

Although Davies and his family spent some 30 years in Yorkshire, mainly near Otley, they kept in close touch with Welsh cultural life and managed to bring up their four children as Welsh-speakers. After Davies's retirement in 1986, they moved back to Wales, making their home at Llangwyryfon in the wild uplands of Ceredigion.

Gareth Alban, as he was generally known in Wales, was an accomplished poet who was not averse to letting his knowledge of the Romance languages show in his writing. His three collections, Baled Lewsyn a'r Mor ("The ballad of Lewsyn and the sea"), published in 1964, Trigain ("Sixty", 1986, and Galar y Culfor ("The gulf's grief", 1992), include poems addressed to the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno and the Portuguese José Maria de Eca de Queiroz, while others are set in Galicia, Asturias, Valladolid, Bar-celona, Estremadura, the Balearics and El Escorial.

The Welsh writer and literary critic Saunders Lewis thought that Davies's verse was more influenced by the French poet Paul Eluard's "crystalline simplicity" than by any Spanish poet, but that is to ignore the echoes of Lorca and Pablo Neruda that can be heard in it. His poems have a voice of their own, especially when probing the faith he had inherited from his father and the more cerebral complexities learned from his extensive reading.

Gareth Alban was "a Welshman with an international accent". Though he was steeped in the Welsh literary tradition, his horizons were wide and his sympathy with other peoples deep and lasting. Much travelled, he wrote two journals, one dealing with a sabbatical year spent teaching at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and the other with a visit to Australia. In both books he suppressed personal anecdote in favour of social observation.

In Tan Tro Nesaf ("Till next time", 1976), he gave an account of several months spent in Patagonia, the southernmost province of Argentina, during which time he met descendants of the Welsh people who had settled in the Chubut valley and the foothills of the Andes in 1865. Because many were bilingual in Spanish and Welsh, he was the ideal visitor and his book is a valuable account of that distant place and its dual culture.

Largely on account of his European interests and the universal themes of his verse, Gareth Alban Davies stood apart from his contemporaries in Wales and, in a culture that prefers the performer to the philosopher, his work received comparatively little critical attention. The collected poems I suggested several times did not materialise. But here was a Welsh writer fully equipped to deal with the modern world in all its complexity. I always read him with immense pleasure and feel privileged to have counted him among my friends. He was a true poet and a man for whom the things of the mind always took precedence.

Meic Stephens

Gareth Alban Davies, writer and Hispanist: born Ton Pentre, Rhondda Fawr, Glamorgan 30 July 1926; married 1953 Caryl Glyn Jones (died 2007; one son, three daughters); Professor of Spanish, University of Leeds, 1975-86; died Aberystwyth 9 February 2009.