M. Wynn Thomas looks at the life of a man who invented the notion of the ‘Anglo Welsh’
The name William Ronald Rees Jones doesn’t have the swagger of ‘Keidrych Rhys’, and in its prime the career of this raffish drifter (1913-1987) was rarely short on swagger. Self-promoting, he was an impresario of genius, circus barker and ringmaster of a generation of striking talent – the thirties generation of Dylan Thomas and his contemporaries. His greatest invention proved not to be himself but the ‘Anglo-Welsh brand’ as he set out to create a modernist aesthetic distinctively Welsh, but resolutely anglophone.
Wales, the brash, in-your-face ‘house journal’ he established in 1937 encouraged a group of disparate writers to establish themselves as a groundbreaking cultural collective. It also aggressively ‘sold’ its individual talents to a metropolitan London market that Rhys affected to despise, even as he frequented the bohemian haunts of Soho and Fitzrovia. Taking its cue both from the loudly opinionated Little Magazines of the Modernist movement and cutting-edge journals like Life and Letters Today, Wales, with its penchant for controversial snippets, spiky reviews and general aggro, was always happy to start a textual riot. No wonder the piece by Dylan Thomas that fronted its opening number was entitled ‘Prologue to an Adventure’.
Skilled at turning sacred cows into minced meat, Rhys produced marginal comments, manifestoes and editorials that still make for entertaining reading. ‘”British culture,” he grandly announces, “is a fact, but the English contribution to it is very small… There is actually no such thing as ‘English’ culture; a few individuals may be highly cultured but the people as a whole are crass.”
An eccentric nationalist, he had a wicked eye for the wilder reaches of anti-Welsh prejudice: “…the Welsh are a nation of toughs, rogues, and poetic humbugs, vivid in their speech, impulsive in behaviour, and riddled with a sly and belligerent tribalism” (V. S. Pritchett, The New Statesman).
But behind the calculated bombast and the outrageous assertions lay a shrewd, calculating mind, an ability to spot genuine creative potential, and a readiness to encourage it. Hospitable to Dylan Thomas, Glyn Jones, Rhys Davies, Idris Davies, Vernon Watkins, Lynette Roberts, Margiad Evans and others, his Wales provided a platform for the young Emyr Humphreys, R. S. Thomas (whose first collection, The Stones of the Field, was published by his Druid Press) and ‘Davies Aberpennar’.
Welsh-language writers such as R. Williams Parry, Gwenallt, Alun Llywelyn Williams and Aneirin Talfan Davies were also featured alongside Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman Macleod, George Barker, James Findlay Hendry – and Kafka. Even today, it can seem like a heady mix, a magical crucible of creativity. And Rhys’s exceptional gifts as literary midwife were also manifest in a number of important poetic anthologies he proceeded to edit.
Charles Mundaye may well be the first scholar to have patiently untangled the skein of Rhys’s self-mythologising. Particularly concerned to rehabilitate his subject’s poetic reputation, Mundaye correctly sees the uncovering of new, accurate biographical facts as contributing to the process of taking his life and creative work more seriously. We learn not only of the bizarre episode when Rhys, short of cash, was arrested for menacing women with a gun, but also of his probable nervous breakdown and his curious relationship with the ‘progressive army psychiatric hospital’ in south Birmingham.
And in Rhys’ personal appropriation of the name of his natal Carmarthenshire valley (the Ceidrych), Mundaye persuasively perceives an attempt to ‘ground’ his complex, conflicted personality on his own terms. Alienated from the stuffy chapel background of his background, Rhys was nevertheless devoted to the cultural and political liberation of a Wales whose legacy of myth excited his modernist, experimental imagination and whose economically depressed social condition angered him. One outcome of Mundaye’s excellent, measured introduction is that it challenges future scholars of Welsh Writing in English to revalue Rhys. He emerges from this sympathetic revisionist study as a compelling example of the confused, dislocated, but creatively fruitful, cultural condition of Anglophone Wales in his time.
But what of his poetry? “The best sort of crank,” was Dylan Thomas’s characteristically dismissive verdict on a man he also cruelly characterised as “a turnip” and as, “consciously queer and talking little magazines until the air was reeking full of names and nonsense.” He’d been banned from the Rhys household by Lynette Roberts (Rhys’s wife), Thomas added, “because I tell him bad things about poetry, such as that his isn’t poetry at all.”
Was Thomas right? Was Rhys only a wannabe poet, a ‘period’ curiosity? Mundaye believes not, arguing cogently for the humanity of wartime poems characterised by “clear-sightedness and journalistic currency”, appreciating his experimentalism, commending “his engagements with myth and legend”, and approving of “his committed investment in the poetry of the natural world”. He ends by proposing that Rhys significantly “continued a distinct Anglo-Welsh poetic tradition”.
Whereas Mundaye is a steady admirer of Rhys’s poetry, I can summon up only an intermittent interest, and that primarily for verbal collages such as the following, where he assembles phrases to form a striking textual landscape:
Long tails sheared; highland blood easy in red paint pools.
The butting dog linked in the barn, old veteran; a bantam pecks
At the big morning fowls’ corn leavings; the yard’s a little
Smeared with fluid;
I also respond to the sharp shards of phrasing – a technique partly borrowed from the Welsh ‘englyn’ – that serve to capture the heightened, febrile atmosphere of wartime experiences:
Sun comes gleaming
thru wall window
of ice-barred temple
Alternating with his desultory records of wartime service, the home front poems (“Differences between home and bare barrackroom”) are interesting historical documents (to be set alongside of the work of Alun Lewis, Lynette Roberts and Brenda Chamberlain) of a period when Wales struggled to resolve its position in a world at war. In grimly no-nonsense poems like Death of a Hurricane Pilot he brutally elegizes mangled young flesh: “Whole scalp attached to a Comper Piccadilly helmet”. As for his copious experimentalism, it is altogether too consciously kin to the appreciably superior work of Dylan Thomas, David Jones, Lynette Roberts and Glyn Jones. Largely deaf, it seems, to rhythm, Rhys was inclined to modishly court the obscure and to strain for effect.
But while I remain reluctantly unpersuaded of Rhys’s notable gifts as a poet, this admirable annotated edition of poems published, uncollected, and unpublished has significantly altered my estimation of his career, stimulating a wish to explore perspectives unexamined in the introduction – Rhys’s interest in the Welsh-language literary renaissance and promotion of inter-cultural relations; his eccentric nationalist activism and admiration for Saunders Lewis (“Fire was forced on the three” was his verdict on the 1936 Penyberth episode in The Fire Sermon or Bureaucracy Burned); and the links between Wales and its progressive Welsh-language counterpart, Tir Newydd.
In these as well as other respects, his now appears to have been a much more complex and compelling case than I had supposed. Dylan Thomas seems after all to have captured the enigma that was Keidrych Rhys very precisely (albeit unintentionally) when he described him as “the best sort of crank”.