- Merthyr at 188:What Could Be Romantic Wales?
Wales's presence in the Romantic cosmology is inextricable. The country and its populace were channeled by virtually all of the figures associated with the period, from Coleridge to Wordsworth to Hemans to Shelley. Among Romantic authors, Wales was a refuge of ancient liberty and apolitical, rustic life, and, being far from the trappings of the commercialized London core, it was a wellspring of inspiration unencumbered by worldly and industrial trifles. This relationship could be said to have been symbiotic, as London was the destination for Welsh people seeking literary prestige and patronage. The antiquarian and bard Iolo Morganwg exemplifies this imbrication and remains well known among Romanticists for his acquaintanceships with the radical likes of Godwin, Southey, and Thelwall.
Thus Wales in Romanticism. But what of Romanticism in Wales?
A reasonable approach to this question might begin with an examination of a Welsh historical event that fell within the conventional Romantic timeline. As 2019 marks the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre, it also coincides with the 188th anniversary of the 1831 Merthyr Rising, [End Page 131] during which the British infantry killed twenty-four Welsh strikers. Was this the Wales framed by English authors in the period? Additionally, was this event propelled by the same ideologies of reform associated with more well-known, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century flashpoints?
To be sure, there were dynamic differences between Welsh and English life at the time. First and foremost, much of the country only spoke Welsh, and a significant portion of its population possessed basic Welshlanguage literacy. This literacy supported Welsh literary and cultural revivals, replete with traditional Welsh poetical and dramatic forms. It likewise supported no small number of weekly, monthly, and quarterly Welsh-language newspapers, which reported on national and international affairs. Another key Welsh distinction was in matters of faith. By the mid-nineteenth century, a majority of Wales had turned away from the Anglican Church and toward Nonconformist denominations, with one of these being an indigenous Protestant denomination known as the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists. Wales was, then, a nation of readers who neither spoke the state language nor adhered to the state religion.
Such was the social fabric of Merthyr and much of the rest of industrialized south Wales in the 1830s, and such were the lenses through which the causes of the rising were voiced. The chief complaint was a desire for reform, some visions of which included redistribution of property, consistent wages, and improved standards of living. Among those arrested during the early June protests—in addition to the twenty-four killed—was Dic Penderyn, a Methodist and coal miner, who, despite a petition bearing eleven thousand signatures calling for his release, would be executed that August; he immediately thereafter become a martyr of folkhero proportions and a symbolic figurehead of the working class.
In 1831 Wales we thus witness a culture at odds with its English-language portrayals yet preoccupied with the same social issues as its English authors. Inevitably, we are presented with more questions than we had initially, all revolving around the presences of British Romanticisms. [End Page 132]
Matthew C. Jones is a Postdoctoral Teaching Associate at Northeastern University.