Edward Thomas and Penderyn

EDWARD THOMAS and PENDERYN

The poet and literary critic Edward Thomas was born in 1878 in Lambeth, London to a Welsh father and a Yorkshire mother.

Elis Jenkins, nephew of poet and theologian John Gwili Jenkins (1872-1936), wrote about some of Edward Thomas’s Welsh friends in NLWJ XV, 1978 on the occasion of the “Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of Edward Thomas (1878-1917)”

Gwen John of Swansea, was a niece of Mr John Williams, Waun-wen, Swansea, schoolmaster. Among his friends and acquaintances were Prof. John Hartman Morgan K.C. later Brigadier General Morgan, and Edward Thomas.

Brigadier Morgan’s grandmother known locally as Macws, lived in the hills above Hirwaun. Macws was a friend of Gwen John’s grandmother who also lived in the same neck of the woods.

Part of Gwen John of Swansea’s reminiscences:
‘It may seem a far cry from a Welsh grandmother to Edward Thomas, but inasmuch as he loved all thIngs Welsh, it is not innapropriate. I had a wonderful Welsh grandmother born and bred in a farmhouse on the mountains above Hirwaun, in South Wales. In a farm nearby lived the grandmother of a man who had risen to fame in letters and law, Professor John Hartman Morgan, K.C. – later Brigadier General Morgan.’
[Macws and Gwen’s grandmother were great friends. John Williams used to visit Hartman Morgan and through him, came to know and befriend Edward Thomas.] ‘Their close friendship lasted till his death’.
[Edward Thomas used o visit John Williams in Swansea quite frequently and it was on one of these visits that Gwen John reminesces]:-

A Visit to Pont Nedd Fechan
‘Edward Thomas and his wife, my uncle and I, and a friend, went for a day to the beautiful falls near Pont Nedd Fechan. I remember a delicious meal of ham and eggs in the Angel, eaten as silently as if it were a religeous rite. A wonderful hound followed us to the falls, and Edward Thomas fed it on blackberries.
I remember perilous crossings of streams, which he strode across like a Colossus – a happy day, in which he imbued all the party with that spirit of his so at one with nature.
On our return, I ventured to ask him to write in my album, and in his exquisite handwriting he wrote, ‘Words, not deeds’.

In 1914, Edward Thomas wrote a piece of prose called “PENDERYN”.
He did not publish it. He was killed in Arras, France on Easter Day 1917 aged 39.
“Penderyn” was written in an exercise book and a holograph of the pages are kept in the Berg collection of the New York Public Library. George R Thomas (1978) and Jeff Towns (2018) have made transcripts of the holograph, but there are minor discrepancies.

Here is an extract from ‘Penderyn’ :-

“The fields down by the river were very green, enclosed, and protected by a few farmhouses and trees. But up above them all was open fern. Nothing bigger than a hawthorn grew there, except when I crossed the River Fellte1, or rather the dry boulders of its channel, a few rocks sprinkled with silver lay about. Trees stood there faithfully. The rough ground was broken also by pits with pools at the bottom and the curly tailed foals shared it with sheep. It was crossed by tramlines from a quarry, so light they seemed not so much to invade the mountain as to emphasise the calm mountain wildness; the harsh stone piled at the quarry half a mile distant, and the dusty men passing me on the way to homes far off, added a touch of dreariness, the very least touch. It was made lonelier by the story of Mary Nant-y-Deri. She used to keep ponies in this mountain beyond Penderyn, and lived at her farmhouse alone in spite of warnings. One night she was found dead there. The house had been ransacked, but her money hidden under a basin escaped. An attempt had been made to burn the old woman, to pretend that she had set fire to her clothing and burnt to death, but her flannel would not burn. The murderer was never caught.

It was only when I climbed some way that I saw Penderyn Church against the sky about three miles distant. My road was bending towards it, that is to the right, along under the hill like the motor road away from the Beacons. Chancel, nave and square low tower in a row, and some neighbouring trees stood very clearly out on the ridge of a low hill. The hill itself to the left of the church had been cut by the quarry to a face like a wall: on the other side rose up a considerable dome called Penderyn foel 2, for the most part bare even when it had not been quarried.

Very slowly that raw brown quarry became clearer. The road approached the main road at an acute angle. The land began to be hedged and green; there were sycamore and ash trees and a farm showing white among them.

The road reaching the foot of the church had turned and crawled round it, and the village lay chiefly along the road. Only a narrow lane went straight and steep up to the inn. The lane was full of mourners all in black except a baby who wore a long white shawl and was carried by the only man of the company. They were wandering slowly down admiring the mountain eastward. The rest of the male mourners were drinking and talking up above at the Red Lion opposite the church. The church, a plain building of harsh stone on the highest ground, was locked, but the grave digger was still at work filling up with bits of limestone the grave of a Morgan or Jones or Jenkins or Evans, another Gwenllian or David to be commemorated like the rest with a dark stone, which in its turn would be decorated by a blackish lichen of liver shape. A few of the dead upon the slope had something more than a slab. Some angels and spire-like tombs were conspicuous against the sky. One of these greater stones bore many names, and I heard it said that two ofre conspicuous against the sky. One of these greater stones bore many names, and I heard it said that two of them were brothers, young gentlemen who had gone to penal servitude for tarrimg and feathering and causing the death of an old man. They had died not long after leaving prison.

One broad horizontal stone marked the grave of George Menelaus,3 a great ironmaster of Dowlais. The grass grew among the tombs thick and long, and frequently yellow brown flax with it. The ash trees which had been visible along beside the church loosely surrounded the churchyard. Nothing was here to remind me of August but Penderyn and the mountains, nothing to interfere with, nothing that did not give light and substance to the shadowy and tenuous beauty of the mere name Penderyn.

And yet it was little more than a name. Its builders were as dry mountain ones. Yet when I crossed the brook, the rustle of an overhanging aspen deceived me into thinking I heard water run. Between that sound and the rush of water there is not more difference than the meaning of Penderyn to me and its meaning to an inhabitant.

Years before someone had waved his whip towards the mountains aying ‘Penderyn is beyond the hill!’ One of the first Welsh melodies I ever heard was that of ‘The girl of Penderyn parish’. And once upon a time fresh years ago there lived a certain Dick Penderyn,4 a kind of Dick Turpin. So that evening the name was still pure music, perhaps more earthy than before, more definitely mountainous, perhaps the sweetest place name in the world.”
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1 Edward Thomas probaly took the river name from the mutated Ystradfellte place-name. The river is called Mellte.

2 The Jeff Towns and R. George Thomas transcripts have Penderyn fach but this is possibly a scribal error for Penderyn foel (as seen on the 1901 OS6” map).

3 The grave is of William Menelaus, Manager of Dowlais, died 1882.

4 Richard Lewis, known as Dic Penderyn (1801-31) was hanged after his involvement with the Merthyr Rising of 1831. The Merthyr martyr was accused of shooting and injuring a soldier, but locally he has always been considered an innocent victim who represented injustice and the working man.

Deric Meidrum John 13/11/18