Monday, October 23, 2023


Gwenallt (1899―1968) is a Welsh poet, born as David James Jones, who adopted Gwenallt as his bardic name which he created “by transposing Alltwen, the name of the village across the river from his birthplace”. At age 16 he joined the Marxist Labour Party, and during the latter part of WWI was imprisoned as a conscientious objector. After the war he studied Welsh, and by 1927 was appointed Lecturer in the Welsh Department of University College Wales, Aberystwyth.

He outgrew the political idealism of his youth, but also faced disillusionment with other structures. He was passed over, time and again, for a professorship by college authorities, and he was unsettled in his search for a spiritual home ― reacting strongly to what was said or done by church leadership. He was raised as a Nonconformist, flirted with Catholicism, became a member of the Church of Wales for many years, but ended his days as a member of a Methodist Chapel at Aberystwyth.

Gwenallt wrote his poetry in Welsh, and the first of his five poetry collections, Ysgubau’r Awen (1939), was published to much critical acclaim; in time he became a major voice in Welsh poetry. He also eventually wrote two novels, although his poetry remains more influential. He is noteworthy for his passionate, spiritual voice, his precise local imagery, and the universal significance of his themes.

Here are two English versions of one of Gwenallt’s poems ― which I include for comparison, and to demonstrate how the translating of poetry is akin to writing the poem afresh, hopefully as close to the spirit of the original as possible. The first version was translated by Patrick Thomas ― from Sensuous Glory: The Poetic Vision of D. Gwenallt Jones (2000, Canterbury Press); and the second is translated by Rowan Williams, from his book Headwaters (2008, Perpetua Press). Patrick Thomas and Rowan Williams have both granted me permission to include their translations.


When we strip off every kind of dress,
The cloak of respectability and wise knowledge,
The cloth of culture and the silks of learning;
The soul's so bare, so uncleanly naked:
The primitive mud is in our poor matter,
The beast's slime is in our marrow and our blood,
The bow's arrow is between our finger and thumb
And the savage dance is in our feet.
As we wander through the original, free forest,
We find between the branches a piece of Heaven,
Where the saints sing anthems of grace and faith,
The Magnificat of His salvation;
We raise our nostrils up like wolves
Baying for the Blood that redeemed us.


Take off the business suit, the old-school tie,
The gown, the cap, drop the reviews, awards,
Certificates, stand naked in your sty,
A little carnivore, clothed in dried turds.
The snot that slowly fills our passages
Seeps up from hollows where the dead beasts lie;
Dumb stamping dances spell our messages,
We only know what makes our arrows fly.
Lost in the wood, we sometimes glimpse the sky
Between the branches, and the words drop down
We cannot hear, the alien voices high
And hard, singing salvation, grace, life, dawn.
Like wolves, we lift our snouts: Blood, blood, we cry,
The blood that bought us so we need not die.

This post was suggested by my friend Burl Horniachek.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the author of five poetry collections including Angelicus (2021, Cascade) ― a book of poems written from the point-of-view of angels. His books are available through Wipf & Stock.