‘Welsh History’ is a free verse poem in the form of a single stanza. It is exactly thirty lines long and while it does not have any physical breaks in the lines, the poem is easily separated into sections. The first section discusses how the Welsh became the strong people they are, the second gives the viewpoint of those looking in on their lives, and the third shows a hopeful future for the people of Wales.
Throughout this poem, Thomas makes use of enjambment. This technique puts extra emphasis on the last word of a line. This can be seen most clearly in the first section of the poem in which each ending line carried the reader, with some force, into the next. Also, by referencing nature throughout this piece, Thomas is intimately connecting the Welsh to their natural environments. The land is as much a part of them as they are of the land.
Summary of Welsh History
‘Welsh History is a metaphor rich piece about the history of the Welsh people. Thomas creates a narrative for the reader that directly engages them with the troubled history of Wales, how its people fought endless battles and lived on very little. The Welsh lost and regained their history through legends, and even when they were thought of as undeserving of life, maintained their strength to fight against those that would take their homes from them. The poem ends on a hopeful note in which the Welsh no longer have to beg under the table for scraps or “[gnaw] the bones / Of a dead culture.” They will arise from their destitute state and create a modern culture fuelled by their past.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Welsh History
‘Welsh History’ begins with the speaker naming his/herself as part of a group of people, the Welsh people.
We were a people…
Immediately the reader knows that the speaker is part of this community, they will not be speaking without bias, emotion, or perhaps an agenda. The speaker tells the reader they were a people “taut for war.” They were pulled tight, like the string of a bow, ready to fly into battle whenever they needed to. It can be drawn, from only this first line that the Welsh people were a people that were used to war, they knew its dangers and lived with the constant pressure of it.
The speaker continues to give a number of other examples of the strength of the Welsh. The hills are no harder than they are, (no tougher), as the grass that covers them is warmer than the “coarse / shirts” covering the small bones of the Welsh. This description of their bones being small is used to imply their lack of nutrition. They have not grown tall, as their bones have not been supplied with sufficient nutrients.
The next lines show the spirit of the Welsh,
We fought, and were always in retreat,
Like snow thawing upon the slopes
They have war waged upon them constantly and they are never able to defeat their enemy. They are continually retreating, losing land, and presumably their homes. They are like the snow that melts down a hillside. The speaker mentions the hillside of Mynydd Mawr, which is a mountain in North Wales.
The speaker continues on, listing all of the types of people that have been lost in battles throughout time. Their “kings have died, or they were slain” by traitors at crucial points in battle. Their bards, (someone who would recite stories and retell history), perished having been driven from the halls.
The fact that the speaker mentions the bards amongst the kings and nobles shows the importance of their role in the community, as keepers of history. The history of the Welsh people is very important to them and the loss of this form of history is damaging to their cultural heritage. This is soon remedied as the poem begins to take a lighter turn, showing the strength the Welsh have gained from living for so long this way.
The speaker states that the Welsh are a people that have,
been bred on legends,
Warming our hands at the red past.
They have learned their history, not through any official source, written down and well documented, but from legends passed down through generations. The tales of their ancestors and their brave deeds, all that has been lost and the blood spilled, have warmed those hearing the stories. Thomas creates a parallel here between the warmth of a burning fire and the warmth of blood, these two things in tandem fill the hearts of the Welsh with the knowledge of their past.
Continuing on, the speaker describes “the great” and how they were ashamed of “our loose rags.” This reference to “the great” could be the limited aristocracy of Wales, or more likely that of England, often the instigators in the wars fought in Wales. The great did not understand the Welsh, how their rags were not shameful but a symbol of their strength in times of strife. This same message comes through in the next couple of lines in which the great are said to be:
Clinging stubbornly to the proud tree
Of blood and birth,
They are absorbed by their own great histories, they cling to their family trees and find their worth from their heritage, while the Welsh people find it in their everyday life and perseverance.
“The great” look down on the mud houses and see them as proof that the Welsh are unable to succeed at life.
Thomas continues his poem by further explaining how others viewed the lives of the Welsh. They are said to be,
In fruitless battles for our masters,
In lands to which we had no claim…
Others believe them to be wasting their lives fighting for land that has been claimed by others, most likely England. The English assert their dominance over the Welsh but they do not give in. They fight battles said to be “fruitless” to regain their lands.
The poem concludes with the speaker asserting that the Welsh:
…were a people, and are so yet.
They were united in the past and remain so today. The poem ends on a hopeful note. The speaker states that when the battles have ended and there is no more quarreling amongst themselves, or with others, they will arise. They will no longer gnaw on “the bones of a dead culture,” or more simply, they will be able to have a culture of their own, one which is not based on the legend but is real and well known. The poem ends by stating that once this happens, they will arise from beneath this metaphorical table
And greet each other in a new dawn.
A new age will begin for them and they will be united in their strength, as they always have been.
About R.S. Thomas
R.S. Thomas was born in 1913 in Cardiff, Wales. He was the son of a sailor and spent much of his youth moving through different English port towns. He studied at the University College of North Wales and later became an Anglican priest in 1936. It was at this time that he began to explore poetry and verse writing. He produced twenty volumes of poetry and was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Thomas was always a Welsh patriot and this became a major theme in his work, after that of religion. It is his religion works for which is he is best known. Thomas died in 2000 in Cardiff.