WJ Gruffydd: Writer who helped keep alive the Welsh tradition of ‘country poets’

Wednesday 20 July 2011 00:00 BST

What remains of the ancient bardic tradition of Wales is still to be found in certain parts of the western counties of Gwynedd and Ceredigion, where the writing of verse in traditional forms has survived the demise of the native aristocracy and gentry and now depends for its audience and vitality on its social function as the medium for recording such occasions as births, marriages and deaths, and for recounting incidents in the life of the neighbourhood.

Ffair-rhos, a village a little to the north of Pontrhydfendigaid in Ceredigion, is one of several such vicinities renowned for the clusters of beirdd gwlad or "country poets" to be found there, and indeed is known as pentref y beirdd ("the poets' village") for that very reason. If Dafydd Jones is perhaps the better known, WJ Gruffydd enjoyed a reputation as one of the most accomplished writers associated with the district, if only by the range of his literary interests and achievements.

Born in Ffair-rhos in 1916, William John Gruffydd first came to prominence as a poet at the National Eisteddfod held at Pwllheli in 1955 when he won the Crown for a poem in the free metres – that is to say, not in traditional Welsh prosody. He repeated this feat when he won again at Cardiff five years later, thus earning the honorific title Prifardd ("Chief poet"). Among the 40-odd eisteddfodic chairs which he collected in the way that some farmers collect rosettes, was the Chair of the Powys Eisteddfod, one of the most prestigious of the regional festivals in Wales.

From 1984 to 1987 he served as Archdruid of Wales, a role in which his genial personality and dignified stage presence made him a popular figure among those attending the National Festival. His bardic name was Elerydd and he used it to distinguish himself from others of the same name, not least the WJ Gruffydd who was Professor of Welsh at Cardiff University for many years.

Educated at the Grammar School in Tregaron, he did not have the benefit of higher education but trained for the Baptist ministry in Swansea before working in ordinance factories for six years as part of the war effort. Ordained in 1946, he served his ministry at various chapels in Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire, latterly at Y Glog, a place with which his name came to be generally associated.

In 1968 he won the coveted Sir Ifor Williams Memorial Prize, which enabled him to spend a term at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, and in the year following he was awarded a bursary by the Welsh Arts Council with the help of which he wrote a novel, Angel heb Adenydd ("Angel without wings", 1971).

His poems were published under the titles Ffenestri ("Windows", 1961) and Cerddi'r Llygad ("Poems for the Eye", 1973), and collected under the editorship of D Islwyn Edwards in 1990. Many are in Cardiganshire dialect, for which he had a finely tuned ear, and most bring satire and a gentle humour to bear on people and local events, thus fulfilling his function as bardd gwlad. One of his most poignant poems is about the candlesticks made from corned beef tins by Italian prisoners of war for their chapel at Henllan, Carmarthenshire.

His novels and short stories areeven more remarkable for the gallery of country characters who inhabit them, especially those featuring Tomosand Marged, two lovable old people who look out from deep in the Cardiganshire countryside on a changing world with wit and wisdom. Sevenvolumes of these stories were published to great acclaim. He also wrote detective novels.

His most unusual work is the novel Hers a Cheffyl ("Hearse and horse", 1967), one of the very few which attempt to bring the verbal fireworks of Under Milk Wood into the writing of Welsh prose. It observes the rituals of death and burial in the Welsh countryside, as well as the family tensions that follow, with deliciously black humour. The influence of Dylan Thomas on the literature of Wales has been, on the whole, detrimental but WJ Gruffydd used a muscular style to produce his own effects.

He published his autobiography in two parts: Meddylu ("Contemplating", 1986) and O Ffair Rhos i'r Maen Llog ("From Ffair-rhos to the logan stone", 2003); the latter title refers to the large stone from which the Archdruid conducts the open-air ceremonies of the Gorsedd of Bards. He also wrote a good deal for the local and denominational press, and was for a while a correspondent for The Times, writing on country matters.

William John Gruffydd, Baptist minister and poet: born Ffair-rhos, Cardiganshire 24 September 1916; Archdruid of Wales 1984-87; married Jane Mary Owen (died 2010; one son, one daughter); died Llanelli, Carmarthenshire 21 April 2011.

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