Llandeilo Past and Present

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Thomas Edwards

[Twm o'r Nant]
(1738-1810)
Interlude Writer

Thomas EdwardsThomas Edwards (Twm o'r Nant) by an unknown artist, circa 1800-1810. (Gwynedd Archives and Museums Service.)

Introduction

Llandeilo today gives the appearance of being a sober, well-to-do market town nestling comfortably in the shadow of the Black Mountain. But who can say with any confidence what lies behind its closed doors? Are any fugitives from the law hiding out here, responding nervously to a knock on the door or ring of the telephone? Was it a draft that caused that curtain to twitch or was it someone checking to see if he coast is clear?

This scenario is all imaginary, of course (how could anyone think otherwise of Llandeilo's fine, upstanding folk), but there was certainly such a fugitive here back in the eighteenth century when one Thomas Edwards, in flight from a debtor's prison, arrived in Llandeilo from his native Denbighshire. It made no difference that the offending debt was incurred by his uncle; Thomas Edwards had stood surety for him and when the uncle went bankrupt, Edwards was liable for all his debts. At that time debt carried a much greater stigma than it does today, with prison waiting for any unfortunate soul who couldn't pay his creditors, rapacious creatures waiting to seize your possessions in lieu of your debt and as a bonus getting you thrown into one of the stinking prisons of the time. A dingy cell was not a prospect that Thomas Edwards relished and a moonlight flit was the method he chose to avoid such a restricted life-style.

Twm had been in the haulage business in his native Denbighshire, a trade he reverted to once in Llandeilo. But it was as a writer that he is known to posterity, not as a Llandeilo businessman. Adopting the pen-name of Twm o'r Nant (Tom of the Brook) Edwards became the best-known exponent of a now long-dead literary form known as the interlude, and a wealthy man in the process. As the only experience he'd ever had of the English language was a two-week course of instruction he quite naturally chose to write and perform these interludes in his native Welsh, the only language that the vast majority of the people of Wales then spoke. It would be well over a century before the stranger's tongue would become a common language in the streets and homes of Wales.

An interlude was a musical and dramatic production of a moral and satiric nature performed by a touring troop of actors, which castigated the numerous social and moral ills of the day. Tax collectors, landlords, religious hypocrisy and - not surprising for a man who'd fallen foul of the law - lawyers all felt the sting of Twm's satiric lash. Interestingly, Twm also used his interludes to promote the moral and religious values of Methodism, at that time a new but rapidly growing breakaway movement from the Church of England.

Summary of life and career

Edwards, Thomas [ called Twm o'r Nant ] (1738-1810), poet , was born in January 1738 in the parish of Llannefydd, Denbighshire, the son of Evan Edwards, a smallholder, and his wife, Mary. The name Twm o'r Nant was acquired when his parents moved to a farm called Y Nant Isaf (the lower brook).

The details of Twm's early life are known from an autobiographical tract he published in 1805, just five years before his death. The autobiography mentions his meagre schooling - a few weeks at a local free school and a fortnight's instruction in the English language. He also boasts of his exploits as a timber haulier, curtailed when his horses fell victim to a disease and died. More troubles followed when an uncle for whom Twm had stood surety went bankrupt. Twm's solution was a time honoured one - he fled the county, eventually settling in Llandeilo where once again he became a haulier, more successfully this time, presumably with healthier horses at his command. He returned to his native Denbighsire in 1786. Like the much better-known Sir Walter Scott Twm overcame his financial problems by taking up writing. His involvement with the then popular form of interludes seems to have begun around 1749 when he was invited to join a local company of touring actors, and for whom he wrote seven interludes by the time he was twenty. These have since disappeared but there remain in manuscript seven other similar works written between 1766 and 1789. According to his own testimony, the performance of these interludes, and the sale of their published versions, brought him much financial reward. Uniquely, his interludes were re-published after his death and his collected works Gwaith Edward Thomas ( The Works of Edward Thomas ) were published as late as 1874.

His renown as an interlude writer, both before and after his death, is explained by his explicit comment on the social and moral ills of the day. He frequently attacks such unpopular measures as taxes. Landowners are lambasted for their exorbitant rents, as are their greed and absenteeism - landowners of these centuries generally lived the high life in London on rents paid by tenant farmers on their rural estates. The church authorities are exposed for their immorality and lack of concern for the spiritual welfare of their flock. Their inability to communicate with their monoglot Welsh-speaking parishioners due to their lack of Welsh also comes under satiric scrutiny in these interludes.

The legal profession, central in Twm o'r Nant's personal drama of misery, is portrayed as a haven for conniving swindlers. But most unusual for a satirist, Twm doesn't blame an unjust social system for the various ills of society. Quite the opposite, in fact: he parades himself as an upholder of the social order and instead blames the inability of the individual, whatever their social status, to respect their predestined place in life and perform their required duties. This he outlines quite clearly in Pedair Colofn Gwladwriaeth (Four Pillars of State), published three years prior to the French Revolution.

Twm uses his interludes as a sort of personal manifesto to proclaim his moral and religious values, a not uncommon practice of satirists to this day. Two stock characters, the miser and the jester, are usually used to symbolise the degenerate nature of man, a weak creature at the mercy of his nature. But his last known interlude ends, not with the conventional death of the miser, but with his conversion, an unusually generous gesture. This rejection of the world by the miser serves to remind the public of a central tenet of Methodism and gained Twm acceptance by the leaders of this recent branch of Protestant Christianity, who otherwise despised the interlude for the lewd actions and speeches of its characters.

Like other prominent interlude writers in 18 th century Wales Twm was also a prolific ballad writer, with around 200 pieces surviving in print and manuscript. As many poems again written in the traditional Welsh cynghanedd metres await an editor. If Twm's autobiography is to believed he also sold 2,000 copies of an anthology of his works, Gardd o gerddi ( a Garden of song ).

Twm also collected early manuscripts which he eventually sold to the Gwyneddigion Society (the London-Welsh Society founded in 1770) and participated in eisteddfods held by this organisation in the late 18 th century, though the supreme title of chaired bard eluded him. This could have had been the result of an earlier dispute within the Gwynedigion who preferred the compositions of their favourite Gwallter Mechain (Walter Davies) over Twm's. Twm was not without his own champions in the Gwyneddigion though; one such was Captain Cook's surgeon, David Samwell, who dubbed Twm the Cambrian Shakespeare, a complete exaggeration, of course, but an indication of the high esteem he was held in by some of his contemporaries.

Twm survived his wife by two years. He died on 1 April 1810 and was buried in the parish church of Denbigh. The Gwyneddigion Society funded a tablet in his memory.

Source:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

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