Raymond Garlick: English writer who made Wales and its history his principal subject

Raymond Garlick was one of a handful of Englishmen who, without renouncing their own nationality, are so closely associated with Wales, its language and literature, that they are generally taken to be Welsh writers, at least by affiliation and sympathy. In Garlick's case, his identification with Wales went deeper, for he not only chose to live there but made the country's history and present condition the main theme of his work, learning the language and, during the 1970s, becoming embroiled in the struggle to win for it a measure of official status.

At the same time, he argued in favour of Wales's "other language", English, as one of the languages of a fully bilingual Wales, teaching its literature and, as poet, editor and critic, making a major contribution to its development. He was the most important critic of what he insisted on calling Anglo-Welsh literature long before it became known to a younger generation, in the 1990s, as Welsh writing in English. Welsh literature, for him, was written in Welsh, in Tolkien's phrase "the senior language of the men of Britain", and he always stuck to his guns on this cardinal point. Raymond Garlick's major work of criticism, An Introduction to Anglo-Welsh Literature (1970), demonstrated that from the late 15th century there has existed a tradition of writing by Welshmen in English which deserves wider recognition, not least in the country's schools.

Raymond Garlick was born in the London suburb of Harlesden in 1926, the elder son of a clerk in the National Bank, and was brought up on a new estate in North Harrow, a place he detested for its snobbishness and philistinism. At the age of four, after being scratched by a kitten, he contracted a mysterious disease, thought to be septicaemia but never diagnosed, and spent a year in hospital, from which he was discharged, as the result of botched surgery, with a severely damaged foot. Having to accept that he was physically disabled made this handsome man all the more determined to achieve in art what was denied him in life – hence the formal elegance of many of his poems.

Sent to convalesce with his grandparents at Degannwy on the coast of north Wales, he discovered a rugged landscape and egalitarian people with whom he felt such an immediate affinity that he asked to be transferred from Harrow Boys' County School to the sixth form of the John Bright County School in Llandudno.

After matriculation, he was sent to work in the laboratories of the Kodak factory in Wealdstone but, having felt a call to the Anglican priesthood, left to join the Community of the Resurrection in Leeds, only to fail his university examination in Latin. This result gave him an opportunity to realise an ambition, hitherto concealed, to read English and history at the University College of North Wales at Bangor, where he enrolled in 1944.

Ever of independent mind, Garlick lived as an undergraduate at Ty'r Mynydd, a cottage above the slate-quarrying village of Bethesda, insisting that he could fend for himself even in that difficult terrain. It was there, in conversation with the artist-writer Brenda Chamberlain and the artist-craftsman John Petts, that he knew himself to be a poet.

He was received into the Catholic Church in 1948, the night before he married Elin Hughes, a fellow-student, a Welsh-speaker and already a convert to Catholicism. She was a fiery ultra-nationalist whose forthright political opinions, much in line with those of Saunders Lewis, the right-wing founder of Plaid Cymru, contrasted sharply with Raymond's eirenic, democratic and gentlemanly nature.

His appointment to a teaching post at Pembroke Dock County School in 1949 proved decisive because it brought him into contact with its headmaster, Roland Mathias, also a poet and historian, with whom he was to do much of his early work in Anglo-Welsh literature. Together, and with the help of a small literary circle, they launched the magazine Dock Leaves, later retitled The Anglo-Welsh Review, which Garlick was to edit from 1949 to 1961.

From 1954 to 1960 Garlick lived in Blaenau Ffestiniog, where he had taken up a teaching post at the county school and where he enjoyed the warm friendship of John Cowper Powys. During these years he published three books: Poems from the Mountain House (1950), The Welsh-Speaking Sea (1954) and Blaenau Observed (1957), a long poem for radio. Well-shaped, technically meticulous, civilised in the deepest sense of having to do with the higher values, these poems struck a new note in Anglo-Welsh poetry, especially among readers more used to the windy abstractions of Dylan Thomas.

Early in 1961, Garlick took up a post at an international school at Eerde in the Netherlands. The Garlicks were so happy at Eerde that they considered taking up Dutch citizenship, but by 1967, they were ready to return, partly so their children could have a Welsh-language education and partly because Raymond saw signs that there might yet be a role for Anglo-Welsh literature.

From 1967 until his retirement in 1986 he taught English at Trinity College, Carmarthen, where he became principal lecturer and director of the Welsh studies course. He also helped establish a link with the Central University of Iowa, teaching a module in Anglo-Welsh literature.

His time at Trinity coincided with the campaigns of the Welsh Language Society, in which his wife, son, sister-in-law, and some of his friends and colleagues were arrested. The policy of non-violent civil disobedience espoused by the Society chimed with Garlick's own pacifism: "For some of us, you see, Wales is another word for peace".

The anguish he felt at seeing idealistic young people hauled before the courts proved a powerful stimulus to his poetry and he published three substantial collections in rapid succession: A Sense of Europe (1968), which looks back at the years in the forest of Eerde, A Sense of Time (1972), which includes the radio poem "Acclamation", about the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales who were canonised by the Pope in 1970, and Incense (1976), a nicely ambiguous title for a book largely concerned with a Catholic's faith and his saeva indignatio at the denial of civil rights. He was also angered by the jingoism of the Malvinas adventure, writing in an essay published in Authors Take Sides on the Falklands (1982): "I am appalled at the sanctimoniousness and violence of British nationalism, the warmongering of most of the English tabloid newspapers, the attacks on free and reasoned speech and the BBC, and the virtual collapse of democratic opposition in Parliament."

Shortly afterwards, there occurred a double crisis in his life: his wife left him to live with another woman in the Netherlands (where she became a translator of Dutch literature into Welsh), and he came to the realisation that he had never believed in God and, in Dr Johnson's phrase, must "clear his mind of cant". He left the Catholic Church and was divorced in 1982.

The poetic impulse also failed him and it seemed as if he would write no more verse. He therefore put together his Collected Poems 1946-86 (1987), though not before editing with Roland Mathias Anglo Welsh Poetry 1480-1980 (1984; revised 1993), still the most authoritative anthology of its kind.

The muse revisited him in March 1989 when a radio programme on WB Yeats prompted him to write nine poems in a month, and he was further stimulated by the birth of his grandchild Alys, in whom he found unbounded delight. The 40 poems of this late flowering are to be found in Travel Notes (1992), which also recounts his own visit to Byzantium during a cruise in the Mediterranean, and recalls other journeys, including that of Dutch Jews to their terrible destinations. His last book, RS Thomas: letters to Raymond Garlick, was published in 2009.

Meic Stephens

Raymond Garlick, poet, critic and teacher: born London 21 September 1926; married 1948 Elin Hughes (marriage dissolved, deceased; one son and one daughter); died Cardiff 19 March 2011.

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