E. Wyn James (ed.), Flame in the Mountains: Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths and the Welsh Hymn (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 2017), 320pp. ISBN 978-1-7846-1454-6; £12.99 (pb).
Perhaps the first question many students, and indeed scholars, of long nineteenth-century Britain will ask upon reading the title of Flame in the Mountains: Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths and the Welsh Hymn is: just how are we to understand not only the two named figures but also Welsh hymnody in the traditional contexts of British Romanticism? The materials that E. Wyn James has collected serve not only to answer this question but also to reveal that, indeed, many answers already exist (and have for no short period of time). We learn early in James’s introduction that William Williams, Pantycelyn (1717–91) and Ann Griffiths (1776–1805) are ‘not only in a class of their own as the two most outstanding of all Welsh hymn writers, but both also rank among the most prominent figures in the whole of Welsh literature’ (p. 11). The edition’s contents provide the historical, literary and scholarly frames for this vaunted status: James brings together scholarly essays on Williams’s and Griffiths’s lives and work, Griffiths’s thirty surviving hymns in the original Welsh, her hymns in prose and metrical English translation (one might wonder why Williams’s are not included until discovering that he composed somewhere between 850 and 1000 of his own), scholarly notes on her hymns and letters, and his own list of her work’s biblical allusions. All of the English translations and virtually all of the collected essays are by H. A. Hodges (1905–76), with his essays and their notes revealing to readers the expansiveness of information available—in English and Welsh—beyond this edition. Together, these materials serve as a formidable introduction to these hymnists, to the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist movement of which they were part and to an already thriving scholarly discourse surrounding these topics, providing scholars and seekers of knowledge an ongoing conversation to join.
Thus, Flame in the Mountains is not a ‘recovery project’ as the phrase is generally understood. Its structure reinforces this, and guides readers who are for the first time coming into contact with these topics, while acting as an invaluable resource for those already acquainted. It is divided into two large sections (Williams being the focus of the first and Griffiths the second), each containing essays Hodges wrote over the course of his career (as well as his own translation of an address delivered by Saunders Lewis). Preceding these are a general introduction by James and a short biography of Hodges, and following them are the copies of Griffiths’s hymns (in Welsh–English facing translation), letters and scriptural allusions. James’s introduction illuminates the hymn’s central role in contemporary Wales. As Wales experienced no fewer than fifteen religious revivals between 1762 and 1859, and in this span produced over 3000 Welsh-language hymns (p. 9), Williams and Griffiths were not pre-eminent members of passing literary fashions, but leading figures of a movement whose influence reached across the whole of Welsh culture throughout the long nineteenth century. Here we also learn some of Williams’s and Griffiths’s shared traits and how these reflected the movement of which they were part, such as an intimate familiarity with the Bible (being first translated into Welsh in 1588, predating the KJV by over two decades).
Hodges’s essays illuminate how and where we can consider Welsh hymnody’s interactions with cornerstones of what we understand as ‘British Romanticism’. He does not use this phrase, and emphasises his assertion that ‘Wales is a nation with its own life and culture’ frequently (p. 47). Yet, while Hodges elevates the uniquely Welsh elements of this period, his analyses do not depict a world ‘cut off’ from the outside. Rather, his engagement is such that attentive readers can discern correlations with Romantic-era concerns, but cannot mistakenly conclude that Welsh hymnists were peripheral contributors to a larger, transnational literary and cultural movement. We see this, for instance, in literary terms, such as where he devotes attention to the interaction of Welsh and English forms of ‘metre’, ‘style’ and ‘imagery’ (pp. 49–50); to the stanza forms and metres Williams deploys (and invents) (p. 69); and to Griffiths’s likely familiarity with the traditional Welsh poetic forms (p. 121)—further, his and his collaborator A. M. Allchin’s scholarly notes on each of Griffiths’s hymns and letters mirror, in form, scholarly editions of canonical British literary figures of this period. These reflections are situated within panoramic surveys of contemporary Wales, which include overviews of Welsh Calvinistic Methodist doctrine (and what separated it from Wesleyan Methodism, which was a discrete movement), as well as the rural Welsh world that nurtured it. Williams’s and Griffiths’s individual literary histories likewise reflect Romantic themes ‘from afar’. Williams’s prolific output partook in generic practices of the time, and included two epic poems, numerous extended prose works and over thirty elegies, in addition to his countless hymns (pp. 10–11). Griffiths, who never published or even widely shared her hymns, exemplifies the oral tradition: her hymns were remembered by a close acquaintance (who could not write), recorded by that friend’s husband (who could write), published after her death and subjected to revisions and corruptions in subsequent reprintings for decades to come (pp. 123–24).
The hymns themselves lead to a topic that pervades the collection (and indeed all studies of Welsh literature), which is language. Hodges and Allchin themselves were Englishmen who learned Welsh as adults in order to explicate and share the Welsh archive. As James explains, such efforts benefit all, since such learners ‘can bring different insights and perspectives precisely because they are approaching a culture from the outside, which in turn can enrich the understanding of the indigenous members of that culture’ (pp. 16–17). This encouragement of non-Welsh readers reflects other scholarly efforts to make contemporary Welsh materials available in their original and in translation for English-reading audiences, with the University of Wales Press’ ‘Wales and the French Revolution’ series having published editions of Welsh ballads, pamphlets, sermons and poetry in recent years. Remembering their status in the Welsh canon, Williams and Griffiths did not need to be ‘uncovered’ in the same way as more ephemeral historical matter. By providing its readers a compendium of not only primary materials but also much research they have already inspired, this edition resonates with recent recovery efforts while adding yet another dynamic to them. As such, it will be necessary reading for all who desire a more comprehensive knowledge of the social, religious and literary cultures of Romantic Britain.