Obituary: Pennar Davies

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The Independent Online
Pennar Davies was among the most scholarly, religious, and passionate men to have written in the Welsh language during the 20th century. A prolific writer, he combined in his poetry and prose a polymathic command of language, theology, and psychology with a personal tenderness rooted in his Christian faith, which was by turns mystical and practical in its concern for human frailty and the world's suffering.

Whether in his delicately wrought love-poems or in his more contemplative novels and spiritual journals, he laid great emphasis on both eros and agape, endeavouring always to balance them in a richly complex whole by means of myth, symbol, and a sometimes labyrinthine erudition which few of his readers were able to penetrate without difficulty. There is much self-analysis in his prose works, often of an uncompromising kind and usually illuminative of the cultivated Christian mind under pressure from the barbarities of the modern world but ultimately finding equilibrium in the affirmation of traditional certainties.

William Thomas Davies was born, a miner's son, at Mountain Ash in the Cynon Valley in the old county of Glamorgan, in 1911. He took the name Pennar from Aberpennar, by which the town is known in Welsh, as a sign of his identification with the native culture of Wales. Using the pseudonym Davies Aberpennar, he wrote poems in both Welsh and English up to about 1948 but thereafter he chose Welsh, which he had learnt as a young man, as the medium for almost all his literary work. He was deeply committed to the Welsh language and it, together with his religious convictions, was the bedrock of his nationalism. During the 1970s, together with two other academics, Ned Thomas and Meredydd Evans, he cut off the power at Pencarreg television transmitter in a campaign for an improved Welsh-language service which led to the establishment in 1982 of S4C, the fourth channel which now broadcasts programmes in Welsh.

Left-wing and pacifist in politics, he stood as Plaid Cymru candidate in the steel town of Llanelli at the General Elections of 1964 and 1966. He was an effective public speaker, though not averse to the loftier manner which his audiences and congregations came to expect of him as a leader of Welsh religious and political life. His winning of the Llanelli seat would have raised the intellectual debate in Wales by several notches above what it was during the 1960s, but it was not to be: he attracted only the more radical sections of the chapel vote and made little dent in the Labour majority.

After a brilliant career at University College, Cardiff, where he graduated in Latin in 1932 and in English the year following, he went on to Balliol and Mansfield Colleges, Oxford, and then to Yale University, where he took his doctorate in 1943. In that year he married Rosemarie Woolff, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who promptly learnt Welsh and made it the language of their home. During the 1940s he was a member of the Cadwgan Group, a small circle of intellectuals who used to meet at the Rhondda home of J. Gwyn Griffiths, later Professor of Classics and Egyptology at University College, Swansea.

Davies spent three years as a minister with the Independents in Cardiff before his appointment in 1946 as Professor of Church History at Bala- Bangor Theological College, a bastion of the Congregationalist cause in Wales. In 1952 he became Principal of the Memorial College at Brecon, a post in which he remained, after the college's removal to Swansea in 1959, until his retirement in 1981.

Pennar Davies wrote in a variety of literary and scholarly modes. He published, besides a barrage of pamphlets, six volumes of verse, a collection of short stories, six novels, and several works of a theological nature, of which Y Brenin Alltud ("The Exiled King", 1974), a study of Christ's practical goodness, is perhaps the most mat-ure and rewarding. Some of his poems, which refer as often to Newton and Einstein as to the heroes of the Welsh pantheon, are breathtaking attempts at reconciling the discoveries of science with religious belief.

Among the figures from Welsh history to have captured his imagination was John Penry, the Puritan pamphleteer, executed in 1593 on suspicion of being the Martin Marprelate who had attacked the institution of episcopacy and lampooned the Church of England.

Some measure of Davies's wide culture and literary gifts, together with a bibliography of his publications, is to be found in the Festschrift published under the editorship of Dewi Eurig Davies in 1981.

There was something enigmatic in Pennar Davies's personality which some found disconcerting, especially those who saw in him walking proof of the veracity of Benjamin Jowett's boast that the mark of a Balliol man is that he is able to excel so effortlessly. Tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, he might have seemed to many the very type of a muscular Christian, but his beatific smile hinted at a deeper sensibility that was preoccupied, in everything he did, with the revelation of the numinous in humankind.

For myself, I always found him extremely good company, not least during a trip to Finland in 1977, when, on midsummer's eve, we found ourselves sitting on an island beach together as the sun dipped, but never sank, below the horizon. I shall always remember how Davies was much taken with the metaphysical implications of the midnight sun, relishing the thought that, albeit temporarily, darkness had been banished from the world.

Meic Stephens

William Thomas (Pennar) Davies, writer and theologian: born Mountain Ash, Glamorgan 12 November 1911; Professor of Church History, Bala-Bangor Theological College 1946-50; Professor of Church History, Memorial College, Brecon 1950-59, Principal 1952-59; Principal and Professor of Church History, Memorial College, Swansea 1959-81; married 1943 Rosemarie Woolff (four sons, one daughter); died Swansea 29 December 1996.