Lynette Roberts and the Chronology of Welsh Literary Modernism

Modernism was traditionally thought of as a period of literary and artistic experiment, within an American and European context, usually dated as c.1890-1930, though sometimes stretching up to the outbreak of the Second World War. As Michael Levenson argues in the second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Modernism (2011, twelve years after the first edition): ‘in the first decade of this century, modernist studies have at once widened and deepened.'[1] The traditional idea of modernism as a fixed period has been challenged by the work of critics such as Peter Nicholls and Gabriel Josipovici. Nicholls asserts in his 2009 book Modernisms, that


It is commonplace now to acknowledge that Modernism is not one thing but many, and that its divergent forms are profoundly determined specifics of time and place… the beginnings of Modernism, like its endings, are largely indeterminate, a matter of traces rather than of clearly defined historical moments.[2]


Josipovici argues that modernism is ‘a response by artists to that “disenchantment of the world”‘.[3] Critical studies of modernism now acknowledge modernism is no longer limited to a particular time in a particular place, which allows us to re-examine accepted modernist authors, texts and spaces.

Indeed, Modernisms are no longer confined to Europe or North America, though the traditional spaces of modernism are not excluded from this ongoing re-evaluation either. As early as 1992, Robert Crawford made the case for a provincial modernism, rooted in ‘America, Ireland, Scotland, and other regions distant from the imperial centre’,[4] and critics are building upon Crawford’s work. John Duvall, for example, makes the case for a regional American modernism,[5] distinct from the urban modernism of Eliot or the Harlem Renaissance, while Margery McCulloch elaborates on the case for a Scottish modernism in Scottish Modernism and its Contexts 1918-1959.[6] I would argue that, in keeping with this kind of re-evaluation of modernism, we should understand modernism as a mind-set or mode of artistic creation, which occurs in different places across different times, not consigned to a fixed period: texts will have local variances and specific features, yet enough common elements to be acknowledged as part of a distinctive genre of modernist literature.

It is important to identify these ‘common elements’ before applying them to Wales. As Michael Levenson argues,


Within the historical revision there can still be found certain common devices and general preoccupations: the recurrent act of fragmenting unities… the use of mythic paradigms, the refusal of norms of beauty, the willingness to make radical linguistic experiment.[7]


In defining modernism in Wales, we can identify the preoccupations which Levenson articulates. Fragmenting unities coincide with issues of identity central to Anglophone Welsh literature, while mythic paradigms are present through the utilisation of Welsh medieval myth such as the Mabinogion. Similarly, High Modernists such as Eliot and Joyce used mythic paradigms to order the fragmented modern experience. The grammatical structures and ghostly presence of the Welsh language, as well as the novel, unfamiliar feel of English (particularly to early generations of Anglophone Welsh authors) helps to precipitate linguistic experimentation. Canonical norms of beauty are refused by Welsh writers, in favour of the gothic and grotesque in, for example, Dylan Thomas and Glyn Jones, and through obscure scientific terminology and imagery in Lynette Roberts. While Levenson’s ‘general preoccupations’ preoccupy a variety of Welsh authors, modernist literature in Great Britain has been defined by Mina McKay primarily as a response to ‘industrialism—and mechanized war, its most brutal expression’, which ‘annihilated the traditional ways of life without replacing them with anything worth having’.[8] This sense of modernism as a response to war is particularly apparent both in the work of David Jones, whose In Parenthesis (1937) is shaped by his experience of the First World War, and Lynette Roberts’s Gods with Stainless Ears (1951), which is concerned with the home front experience of the Second World War. At the same time, an examination of modernist writing in Wales invites us to re-evaluate existing chronologies of modernism, the constitution of modernist literature in Britain and Europe, and in what ways this literature is modernist.

A sample of Lynette Roberts’s Gods with Stainless Ears will illustrate some of the points that have been raised so far.[9] Lynette Roberts was born in 1909 in Argentina, to parents of Welsh descent, and wrote much of her published poetry while living in Llanybri, Carmarthenshire, during the 1940s. Roberts’s volumes of poetry were praised by modernist poets, most notably by her editor at Faber & Faber, T.S. Eliot, and by her friend, Robert Graves:


She has first, an unusual gift for observation and evocation of scenery and place; whether it is in Wales or her native South America; second, a gift for verse construction, influenced by the Welsh tradition, which is evident in her freer verse as well as in stricter forms; and third, an original idiom and tone of speech.[10]

Lynette Roberts is one of the few true poets now writing. Her best is the best.[11]


Eliot published Poems in 1944 and Gods with Stainless Ears in 1951, though he refused a third collection, The Fifth Pillar of Song in 1953. Gods is a long modernist poem, set around the West Wales coast in the years of the Second World War, and the protagonists are ‘a soldier’ and ‘his girl’. The poem is somewhat autobiographical: it is populated with some known residents of Llanybri; the soldier shares the same war number as Keidrych Rhys, Roberts’s husband, and the experience of the woman largely matches (though in a fragmented manner) Roberts’s experience during the Second World War. Structurally, Gods is split into five sections, spread across some 680 lines, comprised largely of five-line stanzas. Each section is preceded by an epigraph in Welsh—a translation of which Roberts provides in the Notes at the end of the poem—as well as an ‘Argument’, a brief section which relays to the reader what to expect in the coming section. Both the Arguments and the Notes are valuable guides for the reader in comprehending Robert’s poetry; indeed, the Arguments and Notes do not just guide the reader, they direct the reader onto Roberts’s specific meaning. For all the linguistic obscurity of Gods, Roberts’s Arguments and Notes ensure that the reader understands the poem in a particular way; her way.

Let us consider some lines from the first two pages of the poem, which set the scene of this peaceful West Wales coast as it is disrupted and occupied by the British Army:


Today the same tide leans back, blue rinsing bay,
With new beaks scissoring the air, a care-away
Cadence of sight and sound, poets and men
Rediscovering them. Saline mud
Siltering, wet with marshpinks, fresh as lime stud

Whitening fields, gulls and stones attending them;
Curlews disputing covers pipe back: stem
Plaintive legs deep in the ironing edge, that
Outshines the shale, a railway line washed flat,
Or tin-splintered from a crab-green cave.

This is Saint Cadoc’s Day. All this Saint Cadoc’s
Estuary: and that bell tolling, Abbey paddock.
Sunk.—Sad as ancient monument of stone.
Trees vail, exhale cyprine shade, widowing
Homeric hills, green pinnacles of bone.[12]


The epigraph[13] preceding this passage is a section from the 1588 Bible of William Morgan, which immediately introduces a mythic and historical frame to the poem. The preface that precedes the entire poem is concerned with Saint Cadoc, mentioned in the third stanza, a fifth century Welsh saint who was commemorated in early Spring. This mythic presence is strengthened by the ‘Homeric hills’ of the third stanza, which Roberts explains in her notes as an allusion to ‘legends in the locality’, specifically the legend of exiles and survivors from Troy landing on the West Wales coast, and the ‘Ishmaelites’ of the seventh stanza. These historical ghosts linger and unsettle the present of the poem, fragmenting the temporal stability of Roberts’s bay, but also providing the mythic paradigms Levenson sees as a characteristic of modernist writing.

The first Argument, however, is stylistically innovative for its time:


The poem opens with a bay wild with birds and somewhat secluded from man. And it is in front, or within sight of this bay that the whole action takes place: merging from its natural state into a supernatural tension within the first six stanzas. War changed its contour… [14]


The Argument is an impersonal intervention by Roberts that decodes the poetry for the reader by creating a vivid, sweeping panorama. It is a scene setting of the cinema, a distinct and experimental stylistic innovation; but, as argued earlier, the Arguments also function as devices that retain Roberts’s control over her readers’ understanding of the poem. Roberts prefaces the poem with ‘the scenes and visions ran before me like a newsreel’ and ‘the poem was written for filming’; before we have begun the poem proper, Roberts has established a filmic frame in our minds.[15]

Roberts’s sweep in these opening stanzas is from the ‘natural’ to the ‘supernatural’, from the organic to the mechanic:


In fear of fate, flying into land Orcadian birds pair
And peal away like praying hands; bare
Aluminium beak to clinic air; frame
Soldier lonely whistling in full corridor train,
Ishmaelites wailing through the windowpane,

O the cut of it, woe sharp on the day
Scaled in blood, the ten-toed woodpecker,
A dragon of wings 1 6 2 0 B 6
4 punctuates machine-gun from the quarry pits:
Soldiers, tanks, lorry make siege on the bay.


The natural beaks of birds scissoring the air (an immediate juxtaposition of the natural operating in simple mechanical terms) escalates into an ‘aluminium beak’, ultimately becoming a ‘dragon of wings 1620B64’, a mythic creature identified by cold, hard, mechanical numbers. This is matched by a broader movement away from the ‘blue rinsed bay’ to the ‘Homeric hills’ and into ‘the clinic air’; the vivid natural exists with the mythic past, but is intruded on by the mechanical present. The peaceful, natural bay is invaded by the apparatus of mechanised war; and the nostalgic, idealised past immediately ruptured:


Kom-pungk’-shun: discomforts of the mind deride
Their mood. Birds on the stirrups of the waterbride
Flush up, and out of time a tintinnabulation
Of voice and feather fall in and out of the ocean sky.

A sanctuary taken—trenched underfoot.
For today, today, the simple bay pined for
Out of reach. The atmospheric bogfoot
Out of season: culverts close their gate,
Machine sets against clay; irons a new uniform.


‘For today, today, the simple bay pined for out of reach’ is an echo of the earlier ‘So walk swiftly by, For today, pridian, tears ravens wings to grate / The bay’ — pridian is an obscure term meaning ‘of yesterday’. Roberts subtly indicates that the speaker is remembering an idealised bay from the beginning of the poem, before adjusting us into the present with ‘today, today’ in the tenth stanza. War, technology, fragmentation and myth combine and contend within Roberts’s West Walian bay.

Lynette RobertsThe use of ‘pridian’ also indicates how Roberts experiments on a linguistic level. Words such as ‘ligustrum’ (the botanical name for a privet) and ‘Orcadian birds’ (a small bird that arrives in Wales in early Spring) are explained in the notes, but ‘confervoid’, ‘Ishmaelites’ and ‘tintinnabulation’ are used with no explanation. Roberts capitalises ‘CONCLAMATION. COMPUNCTION’, calling to mind directions in a screenplay, again reminding us of cinematic technique, though in a different manner; Roberts breaks down the visual into the linguistic, before breaking down the word itself into phonetic fragments: ‘Kom-pungk’-shun’. Roberts creates an unconventional English, fringed by the Welsh language, informed by an enormous frame of reference—the Bible, myth, Welsh history, local legend, science, the diction of local flora and fauna — in an unashamedly radical display of linguistic and stylistic invention. Roberts, in typical modernist fashion, constructs her poem from fragments, drawing attention to the composite artifice of the poem.

Levenson argued that ‘fragmenting unities’ are a recurring feature of modernist writing. In Lynette Roberts, fragments of the past and present, of myth and science, of the organic and mechanic, are juxtaposed and united into a long modernist poem as inventive as any high modernist piece from London or Paris and the early years of the century; it is ‘a poem including history’, as Pound defined modernist epics such as his Cantos or Joyce’s Ulysses. Gods is also a modernist poem that stems not from the urban metropolis, but from rural, non-metropolitan West Wales. Consequently, Gods demands that we re-evaluate modernism in Europe by turning our attention fully to Wales and other overlooked locales. Margery McCulloch defines Scottish modernism as ‘deriving from the periphery of a peripheral small country, as opposed to the high modernism of a European cosmopolitan metropolis.'[16] As I have argued, modernism’s geographic and temporal scope is continually expanding. This expansion, of modernism beyond the cosmopolitan metropolis, into a variety of small-urban and rural modernisms, allows the literatures of nations such as Wales and Scotland to enter into modernist studies. Roberts’s West Walian bay is, in McCulloch’s terms, the ‘periphery of a peripheral small country’, yet no less modernist for that.

Roberts is one of a number of Welsh modernists that demand more attention. A grouping of, say, Caradoc Evans, Dorothy Edwards, Glyn Jones, Dylan Thomas, Lynette Roberts, David Jones, Gwyn Thomas, Margiad Evans, Nigel Heseltine and Tony Conran does not succinctly fit into a clearly defined pattern, with an easy-to-establish beginning or ending. As I have suggested at the outset, such an attempted periodisation would be futile. I would instead argue that modernism in Wales exists as emergent and re-emergent traces either side of an extended period of intense activity; the nineteen-thirties through to the nineteen-fifties. That is not to say, as some modernist studies have done by delineating certain Anglo-American works as ‘High’ modernism, that this decade is the creative or aesthetic high point of modernism in Wales, and that works before or after are inferior. Rather, I would propose that this is the high point of modernist activity in Wales. A greater volume of material across several authors is published in these decades than at any other point in Wales, though it is important to stress that modernist writing emerges before this period and re-emerges into the early twenty-first century.

It is in 1937, for example, that Keidrych Rhys’s journal Wales, is first published, with a commitment to young, experimental writers. Its pages feature creative and critical work from Dylan Thomas, Glyn Jones, Margiad Evans, Lynette Roberts and Nigel Heseltine, as well as contributions or articles engaging with other modernist figures such as Hugh McDiarmid, Robert Graves and Franz Kafka. The nineteen-thirties also saw the publication of Country Dance (1932), Twenty-Five Poems (1936), In Parenthesis, The Blue Bed (both 1937), and The Map of Love (1939). Rhys’s journal was Wales’s own little modernist magazine. Peter Brooker identifies the role of little magazines as ‘a key context and vehicle for such innovation, resolve, and expressions of community: a meeting point for both major and minor contributors to artistic modernism.'[17] Wales was just such a vehicle, channelling a creative impulse that had first appeared during the First World War, which rippled through the forties and fifties, and which has since emerged intermittently. In the nineteen-forties, Wales continued to give voice to modernist writers, alongside the publication of Keidrych Rhys’s anthology Modern Welsh Poetry (1944),[18] Roberts’s first collection Poems (1944), Nigel Heseltine’s poetry collection The Four-Walled Dream (1941) and his short story collection Tales of the Squirearchy, as well as Gwyn Thomas’s The Dark Philosophers (both 1946). In the nineteen-fifties, important modernist texts continue to appear; Gods with Stainless Ears, David Jones’s Anathemata (1952), Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954) and Glyn Jones’s The Valley, the City, the Village (1956). Modernist texts emerge in Wales as the twentieth century progresses and gives way to the twenty-first, with David Jones’s The Sleeping Lord (1974), and Tony Conran’s Castles (1993) and The Shape of My Country (2004).

Lynette Roberts is at the heart of this creative field and is one of the most experimental writers of this modernist firmament. As Gods with Stainless Ears draws to a close, the girl turns away towards ‘a hard, new chemical dawn’.[19] By the time we have finished reading Gods, the world is forever changed. Just as the traditional skyline of modernist studies has been broken up in the last two decades, so too can the traditional skyline of Welsh Writing in English, by a hard and new chemical dawn, which re-interprets and re-discovers Welsh modernists.




[1] Michael Levenson, The Cambridge Companion to Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). 1.

[2] Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide Second Edition (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.) viii.

[3] Gabriel Josipovici, Whatever Happened to Modernism? (London: Yale University Press, 2010). 11.

[4] Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000). 217.

[5] John N. Duvall, ‘Regionalism in American Modernism’ in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[6] Margery Palmer McCulloch, Scottish Modernism and its Contexts 1918-1959: Literature, National Identity and Cultural Exchange (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

[7] Levenson, 3.

[8] Marina McKay ‘Great Britain’ in The Cambridge Companion to European Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). 103.

[9] Lynette Roberts, Lynette Roberts Collected Poems ed. Patrick McGuinness (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005).

[10] T.S. Eliot, quoted in McGuinness, xvii.

[11] Robert Graves, quoted in McGuinness, xi.

[12] All lines referred to are from Collected Poems 44-45, unless otherwise indicated.

[13] ‘A synnasant oll, ac a ammheuasant, gan ddywedyd y nail wrth
y llal, Beth a all hyn fod?
Ac eraill, gan watwar, a ddywedasant, Llawn o win melus ydynt.

[14] ‘The poem opens with a bay wild with birds and somewhat secluded from man. And it is in front, or within sight of this bay that the whole action takes place: merging from its natural state into a supernatural tension within the first six stanzas. War changes its contour. Machine-gun is suggested by the tapping of a woodpecker which gives out the identity of the gunner and provides his nationality, ‘a dragon of wings’. Soldiers and armoured crops arrive: military parade and propaganda: factory workers and fatigues. The rural village described within view of this estuary where soldiers wander during the short hours of their leave. The gunners in action, and of one in particular. He, belonging to a Welsh regiment reading a bill by gunlight, and a letter from his girl in which she tells him they are to expect a child. Night falls, and with it comes the wrecking of a plane.’

[15] Collected Poems, 43. On this point, see also the comparisons with contemporary cinema made in Nigel Wheale, ‘Beyond the Trauma Stratus: Lynette Roberts’ Gods with Stainless Ears and the Post-War Cultural Landscape’, Welsh Writing in English Vol. 3 (1997): 98-117.

[16] McCulloch, 14.

[17] Peter Brooker, Andrew Thatcher ‘Introduction’ in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2013. 9.

[18] Modern Welsh Poetry collected authors such as Glyn Jones, Lynette Roberts and Dylan Thomas.

[19] Collected Poems, 64.


Further Reading


Patrick McGuiness’s Lynette Roberts Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005) and Lynette Roberts Diaries, Letters and Recollections (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008).


The following critical material by Anthony Conran:

  • ‘Lynette Roberts: War Poet’ in The Anglo-Welsh Review 65, 1979.
  • ‘Lynette Roberts: The Lyric Pieces’ in Poetry Wales 19/2, 1983. Also, John Pikoulis’s ‘Lynette Roberts and Alun Lewis’ in the same issue.
  • ‘Lynette Roberts’ in Frontiers in Anglo-Welsh Poetry (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997).

Other critical material:

  • John Goodby ‘Welsh Modernist Poetry: Dylan Thomas, David Jones and Lynette Roberts’ in Regional Modernisms (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
  • Daniel G. Williams ‘Welsh Modernism’ in The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis