Letter to the Gentleman's Magazine (1789)
This pen-portrait, written by Iolo under the pseudonym 'J.D.' is the first public pronouncement of his bardic status. It was effectively a letter of introduction to the metropolitan literary scene, and was intended to stimulate interest in his forthcoming volume of English poetry, Poems, Lyric and Pastoral (1794). The overall emphasis of the piece is on the self-taught, druidic, historical nature of his bardic persona, and may also have been an attempt to stimulate interest in his bardic vision at a time when the Gwyneddigion society was actively involved in reviving the eisteddfod tradition.
The pieces you herewith receive were written by Edward Williams, of Flimston, near Cowbridge. - He is absolutely self-taught and was never at school; and it may be observed, that, in those parts, the Welsh is the general language of the common conversation, the English being very little known, and very little understood. His first poetical productions were in the Welsh language. About the age of twenty he was admitted a Bard in the ancient manner; a custom still retained in Glamorgan, but, I believe, in no other part of Wales. This is by being discipled to a regular Bard, and afterwards admitted into the order in a Congress of Bards assembled for that purpose, after undergoing proper examination; and being also initiated into their Mysteries, as they are pleased to call them. Besides Edward Williams, there is, I believe, now remaining only one regular Bard in Glamorgan, or in the world: this is the Rev. Mr. Edward Evans, of Aberdare, a Dissenting Minister. These two persons are the only legitimate descendants of the so-long-celebrated Ancient British Bards; at least they will allow no others this honourable title. Not but htat there are excellent poets in considerable numbers in many other parts of Wales, who write both in Welsh and English; but they have never been qualified as above: and what knowledge they have of the ancient laws and rules of Welsh poetry they derive from books. Besides, that species of poetry which mostly prevails now in Wales is formed on the models of the ancient and modern learned language. But the few that remain of the successors of the Ancient Bards pretend to mysteries in their art entirely unknown to what they call the modern book-taught poets.
Edward Williams is now about forty years of age, and lives by the humble occupation of a journeyman mason. He is remarkably sober and temperate, very seldom drinks any strong liqors, and, if he sometimes tastes them, it is in very small quantities, and was never seen in liqor. His food is almost entirely vegetables; and he is a professed Pythagorean with respect to his opinion of animal food. He has other singularities: none of them, however, to my knowledge, of a vicious cast. Though not in the least given to wastefulness or extravagance, he is but a poor œconomist; and when was a poet known to be otherwise! Some, that are but little acquainted with him, suppose him not sufficiently industrious; the charge is unjust: but he has certainly been in other respects very inattentive to his interests. There are certain little attentions to things very trifling in appearance, that, in being neglected, are of very unfortunate consequences. Edward Williams, lives the life of a hermit, is very little known, and knows very few; is never seen in any kind of company, and, tho' his native village contains not above seven or eight houses close together, he has often declared, that, in the course of forty years, he never yet knew all the inhabitants. He is naturally reserved, very bashful, and has been very unfortunate in his little concerns through life hitherto; yet he is chearfully contented with his lot, diffident to a fault, and too inoffensive to thrive in such a world as we live in. He is however respected by some gentlemen of learning and genius. - He is never seen walking without a book in his hand. - In his religious opinions he seems to be inclined to Quakerism, though he professes himself to the Established Church. - He has acquired considerable reputation in his trade.
He intends publishing proposals for printing some of his pieces by subscription: he has written an incredible number, both in the Welsh and English languages. Whether the pieces I send you have any considerable merit, I will not pretend to say; but, if they have, the insertion of some of them in your valuable Magazine will much oblige your constant reader.
The Gentleman's Magazine, LIX, part 2, 976-7. - 1789