Sonnet X. (10) from Andrew McNeillie’s Glyn Dwr Sonnets is about a young man coming to terms with his unconventional Welsh education. His self-consciousness springs from his attendance at as school where Welsh is the primary language, and where he feels that he is toiling in obscurity. While the poem begins in self-mockery, it ends with a sense of pride, as the speaker has accepted his unique calling. By the end of the poem, the speaker has not only made peace with the years he spent at his special Welsh school, but is also proud of what he has learned and is able to disseminate to others who do not have this specialized knowledge.
Glyn Dwr Sonnets, X. (10) Historical Context
Ysgol Bod Alaw is a school in Colwyn Bay, northern Wales. Poet Andrew McNeillie was born an a town right outside Colwyn Bay only a few years before the school was founded in 1950. This school was integral part of his formation as a poet, and, since Welsh is the primary language spoken in the school instead of English, his experience at this school also gave him a grounding in the Welsh language and Welsh poetic forms that he otherwise might not have had. The school still exists today, and the number one value espoused by the school administrators on the school’s web page is still the cultivation and appreciation of Welsh language and culture. The website also states that a key goal if for children to be fully bilingual by age 11, the age at which they would typically leave the school. Furthermore, English is introduced to the students after Welsh.
Glyn Dwr Sonnets, X. (10) Analysis
The opening line of the poem reveals the protagonist’s name, “Owain,” which is meant to evoke a connection between the subject of the poem (which is the the poet himself) and the fourteenth-century Welsh hero, Owain Glyndwr. “Young Owain’s” parents have sent him to Bod Alaw, a school at which the traditional Welsh language is spoken and taught. The poet then states what might seem like a meaningless fact, that the school was “founded in 1950”; however, the purpose of this statement is to clearly set the poem in the twentieth century as opposed to the time period of the original Owain Glyndwr. The poet is therefore establishing himself in the same continuity, but also differentiating himself from the previous Owain.
“You’d think he was retarded / And his parents thick,” the poet snarks, referring to himself and his parents. The idea of a boy studying Welsh in the twentieth century is “retarded,” and his parents “thick,” or stupid. This school is considered unfashionable, and the poet highlights this by mentioning his equally unfashionable clothing and accessories, his “rough flannel shorts” and “pebble specs.” His parents are causing him to “miss so much” and “fall behind forever” because they are sending him to this school, instead of to a more modernized school in which he would only speak and be taught English. Welsh is described as “a language no one speaks / except to the sheep and the weather,” implying that this school will also make him socially “retarded,” as it will not further the boy’s ability to fit in with mainstream culture. That the language is only spoken to the “sheep” or to the “weather” implies that it is totally useless for human interaction.
The next stanza mentions “Welsh-Welsh” or “thick Welsh,” the types of Welsh that young Owain will be learning at Bod Alaw, as opposed to a less harsh, Anglicized version. One is a “twp,” the other a “spluttering, guttural Babel,” a line which emphasizes the incomprehensible nature of Welsh to most people. The word twp means “stupid or daft,” but pronounced merely “tup,” it is far easier to say than the “spluttering, guttural Babel” version of Welsh, which alludes to the biblical Tower of Babel story in which God confounds human language so that people are unable to understand each other. “Twp,” meaning “stupid,” is an easy word to say and pronounce, as opposed to many other Welsh words, so this is clearly a humorous juxtaposition by the poet.
The final lines state ironically that it “beggars belief” that Welsh poetry doesn’t translate well into English. This is obviously a joke on the poet’s part, as he just spent the previous lines comically lambasting the difficulty of Welsh. The use of the pronoun “they” indicates that it is other people who are talking about it and making fun of him for studying Welsh, but this “they” represents the majority of people outside of Bod Alaw. Finally, the poet mentions several poetic terms that those not studying Welsh would be unfamiliar with, signaling that he has made peace with his fate as a Welsh-speaking poetry nerd. “As if they knew all about” these poetic terms – which, of course, “they,” the sneering populace, do not. Awdl is a Welsh term for a long ode which has the same ending rhymes in each section. An englyn is an elaborate short poetic form involving syllable counting and complex patterns of rhyme and half-rhyme. The final word of the poem, cynghanedd, is a term that refers to the arrangement of sounds within a line – the interplay of stress, alliteration, and rhyme. The poet is essentially saying, “You made fun of me, but look at what I’ve learned.” By the end of the poem, he has accepted the value of his Welsh education and is even proud of it.
About Andew McNeillie
Andrew McNeillie was born in 1946 at Hen Golwyn (Old Colwyn), North Wales. He is the son of John McNeillie, commonly known as the novelist, Ian Niall. Andrew McNeillie’s poetry collections include Nevermore (2000), Now, Then (2002), Slower (2006), In Mortal Memory (2010), and Winter Moorings (2014). He worked for several years as the Literature Editor at the Oxford University Press, the largest and second oldest university press in the world, before going on to found his own press, the Clutag Press. This small press has issued limited edition works by authors such as Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, and Geoffrey Hill. He has also published a prose memoir, An Aran Keening, about his experience living on the Irish island of Inishmore in his twenties.