William Owen Pughe (1759-1835)

William Owen Pughe

William Owen Pughe

The lexicographer and antiquary William Owen Pughe was born in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, Merioneth and was raised in Egryn, Ardudwy. He was also known by the following bardic names: Gwilym Owain (William Owen), Gwilym Dawel (Silent William), and Idrison (son of Idris). He went to London in 1776 and worked as a solicitor's clerk. He became involved in the London-Welsh societies, but was most committed to the Gwyneddigion, proving instrumental in the success of their ambitious publishing programme. He helped edit Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym (1789) and The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (1801-7). He was also a prolific author in his own right, producing translations and lexicographical works such as The Heroic Elegies of Llywarç Hen (1794), The Cambrian Biography (1803), A Grammar of the Welsh Language (1803), Cadwedigaeth yr iaith Gymraeg (1808), A Welsh and English Dictionary (1803). He also published two volumes of poetry, Coll Gwynfa (1819) (a translation of Milton's Paradise Lost) and Hu Gadarn (1822), and edited The Cambrian Register and the short-lived Welsh-language magazine, Y Greal (1805-7).

William Owen Pughe, who adopted the surname Pughe in the wake of a legacy in 1806, is famous for his idiosyncratic ideas about language. He drew on his knowledge of early Welsh texts in his experiments on Welsh orthography and in his attempts to regulate Welsh grammar. He did this in order to try and prove that the Welsh was closely related to the primitive and patriarchal language of Mankind. Iolo, in later years was scathing about Pughe's innovations: 'William Owen's scouring paper takes off the whole of the polish of the Welsh language' (NLW 13123B, p. 127). Pughe's erroneous ideas about language and etymology are generally attributed to his gullible nature, which perhaps also explains his allegiance to the 'prophetess', Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) from about 1803 to her death in 1814. Pughe's closeness to Southcott was a source of much entertainment for Iolo, and he coined the epithet 'Dr Southcott' for Pughe; 'Plan of the Analytical Dissertation on the Welsh language by E.W.' (NLW 13121B, pp. 423-30).

Pughe's relationship with Iolo was complex. He swallowed Iolo's druidical ideas, reproducing them verbatim in the sketch of Bardism in The Heroic Elegies of Llywarç Hen (1794) and supporting the Gorsedd movement even after his friendship with Iolo had cooled. However, Pughe was responsible for introducing Iolo to contemporary ideas, and it is he, in all probability, who inspired Iolo's interest in eastern religions and their imputed connections with the druids: NLW 21282E, Letter no. 342, William Owen Pughe to Iolo Morganwg, 28 August 1800; NLW 13221E, pp. 55-8, Iolo Morganwg to William Owen Pughe, 20 December 1798. Such was their enthusiasm for sharing and discussing ideas that John Walters considered Bardism a product of their collaboration. Pughe's relationship with Iolo was also complicated as a result of the animosity which grew between Iolo and Owen Jones. Pughe was a gracious man and over the years he tried to reconcile his two friends. He had understood Iolo's personality perfectly and treated him with sensitivity, using gentle humour to lift his low spirits and coax him to forge ahead with his work. Their friendship rumbled on for a year or so after 1806, but Iolo eventually became embittered towards him too, and never lost an opportunity to malign his work and character.