Iolo Morgannwg has a reputation as a notorious forger of Welsh literary history. But perhaps we should remember him as the first Brythonic Reconstructionist. In Wales, where scholars first unmasked his imaginative reconstructions as a misleading distraction from their attempts to produce definitive texts of medieval Welsh authors, he has more recently been re-assessed as an important literary figure in his own right.[*] He was the progenitor of the modern bardic orders, both the direct descendant of his ‘Gorsedd’ which is associated with the annual National Eisteddfod festival held at a different site in Wales each year, and those druidic orders which practice druidry as a path of pagan spirituality. Iolo did not think of himself as a pagan, though he opposed the institutional power of the Church of his day. He, at various times, associated himself with Quakers and particularly Unitarians, portraying the three rays of the Awen as emanating directly from a single God.
But he could certainly be called an Awenydd in his bardic practice, both in those poems which he acknowledged as his own and those which he attributed to others. The Gorsedd he created was not just an exercise in antiquarian speculation, it was a world he created so that he could actively inhabit it, a world in which druidic ceremonies validated in the present the lost inheritance of the past. Perhaps his most notorious forgeries were those of the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym which he ‘discovered’ and persuaded others were genuine, plausibly enough for them to have found their place in editions of that poet’s work. Unlike some other notable forgeries of the Romantic period, and some of Iolo’s other creations, these were not of a wholly imagined poet, but one who existed and whose genuine works survive. What of those poems which did not survive? Iolo thought he knew, after all Dafydd visited him in his dreams and spoke to him. This has been attributed to the laudanum he habitually took to help him sleep. But he was also well-versed in the techniques of strict-metre poetry as written by the medieval Welsh bards and fully immersed in the ethos of Dafydd’s bardic practice and that of other bards, and so – in promoting their work as he did – he could also convincingly re-create it to fill the gaps which he perceived in the surviving record.
Although antiquarians and scholars such as Edward Lhuyd had previously begun to re-connect with the Brythonic past before Iolo, it was he who successfully re-imagined and re-constructed it as a contemporary practice based on both a well-informed and on instinctive knowledge inspired by Awen and also with the skill he asserted an Awenydd must have, such as proficiency in the traditional metres and the word-music of cynghanedd. He was, in that sense, a true inheritor of the spirit of Taliesin who himself berated other bards whom he considered not to be true awen-poets. Many of Taliesin’s poems are now known to be the work of medieval bards who placed themselves in his tradition. As such they wrote not for fame or fortune but for the Awen which held them to proclaim, in Iolo’s words “Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd” (‘The Truth against the World’ – words which are still proclaimed today in the ceremony of the chairing of the bard at the Welsh National Eisteddfod).
Clearly that ‘truth’ was not affected in Iolo’s mind by the feigned authorship of some of the poems he wrote, any more than it was of the 12th and 13th century bards whose work was taken to be that of the 6th century Taliesin. “The truest poetry is the most feigning” says Touchstone in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. W H Auden repeated it in the twentieth century with his own advice for lying poets. So what of the truth or otherwise of the world Iolo created? Consider these lines which he penned in English on visiting the imprisoned radical preacher William Winterbotham:
Of late, as at the close of day
To Newgate’s cell I bent my way
Where Truth is held in thrall
I wrote, that all might plainly see
My name, the Bard of Liberty
And terror seized them all.
Although this is to be seen in the context of Iolo as a political radical, he in no way separated his politics from his bardism [**]. The first five lines are an accurate account of his visit and how he identified himself in the visitor’s book. He was subsequently asked to leave without seeing the person he came to visit. We might think, therefore, that the last line is wishful thinking. Iolo was, on more than one occasion, investigated for sedition when it was feared that the Revolution in France would spread to Britain. So the authorities were certainly worried about him, if not terrified. In championing Truth, he clearly also took liberties, but it may now be time to re-assess him and celebrate all that he subsequently made possible by his activities. For us today ‘The Bard of Liberty’ and the ‘Bardd-Awenol’ might be co-identities we can comfortably inhabit.
[*] A recent academic project based at the Centre for Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth : lolo Morgannwg and the Romantic Tradition in Wales has resulted in a number of major assessments of Iolo’s life and work, establishing him as an essential figure in Welsh, and indeed British, cultural history.
[**] Iolo was in London in the 1790’s to promote his English-language collection Poems Lyrical and Pastoral and to promote himself as ‘The Bard of Liberty’. It was at this time that he held the first of his Gorsedd ceremonies on Primrose Hill and also circulated in the milieu of other radical poets and artists of the time such as the young S T Coleridge and William Blake.