‘The Old Tongue’ is about the gradual decline of traditional language and culture in Wales. Williams refers to specific Welsh customs, places, and historical events in the poem in order to evoke a sense of loss and to show that Wales has been degraded by industrialization. The final word of the poem, “requiem,” itself encapsulates the entire poem – it is a requiem for what has been lost. Williams is not hopeful that it will be recovered; rather, he is speaking about it as if it were already dead. The Welsh city of Swansea is used as the focal point for these ruminations, which are largely pessimistic in nature.
Form and Tone
The form of ‘The Old Tongue’ is free verse, with an irregular structure. The first stanza is 10 lines, the second, eight lines, the third, five lines, the fourth, four lines, and the final stanza is merely a couplet. This creates a dwindling effect – as each stanza is shorter than the preceding one, it mirrors the gradual dwindling of Wales’ traditional language and culture, the central theme of Williams’ poem.
The tone is one of sorrow and regret. The poet recalls, in the first stanza, an idyllic past that no longer exists. In the second and third stanzas, he refers to the recent past and the present in unpleasant terms, conveying that it is undesirable. In the fourth stanza, he considers what has been gained, but is dismissive of those gains. In the final couplet, he reveals how deeply he is emotionally affected by the loss, which serves effectively to color and defines the rest of the poem even further, marking it as a “requiem.”
The Old Tongue Analysis
The opening stanza laments the loss of “the old tongue,” the Welsh language. With this loss, the poet also speaks of the loss of “the old ways,” or the traditions of Wales. This coincided with the dawning of the twentieth century, for the poet speaks of even his “father’s parents” having known the old ways and language (the poet himself was born in 1932).
He uses the Welsh term, gymanfu ganu (alternate spelling cymanfa ganu), which is a Welsh singing festival. These festivals still occur by the thousands every year, in almost every village and town in Wales, as well as in Welsh communities outside Wales. Sacred hymns are sung during these festivals by a congregation led by a choral director. The gymanfu ganu is a unique Welsh cultural phenomenon, which is why Williams brings it up here. It is a distinctive event that represents Welshness, and while other aspects of Welsh culture have faded, this one is still going strong.
The gymanfu ganu is therefore the exception rather than the rule. It is set apart against the rest of Welsh culture, which Williams believes is irretrievably lost. He lists a series of activities and/or objects that evoke this lost Welshness. Once a country is driven by agriculture and seafaring, Wales succumbed to the Industrial Revolution, and like so many other cultures, became part of the modern machine. The “shouts of seafarers,” “home-made bread,” “cakes at missionary teas,” and “shadows falling” on “unattempted hills” are all things that are disappearing in an increasingly mechanized age.
In the second stanza of ‘The Old Tongue’, Williams declares that “it is all lost.” With Welsh language and culture has also disappeared a national sense of hope and optimism. He refers to “Gethsemane in Swansea,” an obvious reference to the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, where he prayed and his disciples slept. Swansea was a major center of mining and manufacturing in the nineteenth century, with all the attendant problems. Instead of creating a new “dawn” for Wales, Williams is saying that industrialization destroyed the area. Indeed, visitors to Swansea in the nineteenth century described it in unpleasant terms, as dirty, gloomy, or even comparing it to scenes from Dante’s Inferno. As Jesus was not delivered from his horrific death, so was Swansea not delivered from its fate of bleak industrial wreckage and decay. Further, unlike the hope that Christians have due to Jesus’ later resurrection, Williams does not share hope for a similar “resurrection” of Welsh culture.
Swansea was also bombed during World War II, in an event called the Three Nights’ Blitz, in February 1941. The entire town center was completely destroyed. The “brotherhood of universal fear” that Williams cites here could refer to this event. He also states that even the surrounding “hills are diminished,” meaning that the countryside is also blighted by Swansea’s history. Further, he states that the hills are a “gallon of petrol,” another reference to the area’s industrial past. He speaks of “old salts” rotting, and bread “as tasteless as a balance sheet,” which ties back to his reference to bread earlier in the poem. The bread is no longer freshly made and is instead, like everything else, an industrial product, made in a factory. The reference to “a balance sheet” implies that Wales’ decline is all about money. Someone is profiting off of it in a purely financial sense, but the implication is that more has been lost than money. The loss that centers the poem goes beyond anything on a “balance sheet.”
In the next to last stanza, Williams states that there have been “gains,” but he quickly turns this statement around and implies that the lost language and culture exceed whatever momentary financial gains were made.
In the final couplet, Williams expresses that hearing the Welsh language spoken causes him “regret,” and is as disturbing as hearing a “requiem,” which is something that is said or sung for the dead. He believes, therefore, that Welsh language and culture are already dead, and any occasional incidence of them is merely a reminder of what they once were.
About Herbert Williams
Herbert Williams was born in 1932 in Aberystwyth, Wales. He has written in a wide array of genres, including poetry, fiction, biography, and history, as well as writing for television and radio. As a teenager, he contracted tuberculosis. He survived, but his younger brother died from the disease, an event that has haunted him throughout his life. He started his career as a journalist and later began branching out into various other literary genres, becoming a prolific and versatile author. He is the subject of a fairly recent biography published in 2010 by Phil Carradice, part of the Writers of Wales series.