Mathias, Roland (Glyn)
MATHIAS, Roland (Glyn)
Nationality: British. Born: Near Talybont-on-Usk, Breconshire, 4 September 1915. Education: Caterham School; Jesus College, Oxford (Meyricke Exhibitioner, 1934; Honorary scholar, 1936), B.A. (honors) in modern history 1936, B.Litt. 1939, M.A. 1944. Family: Married Mary (Molly) Hawes in 1944; one son and two daughters. Career: Senior history master, Cowley School, St. Helens, Lancashire, 1938–41; resident master, Blue Coat School, Reading, Berkshire, 1941–45; assistant history master, Carlisle Grammar School, 1945–46; senior history master, St. Clement Danes Grammar School, London, 1946–48; headmaster, Pembroke Dock (later Pembroke) Grammar School, Wales, 1948–58, Herbert Strutt School, Belper, Derbyshire, 1958–64, and King Edward's Five Ways School, Birmingham, 1964–69. Since 1969 full-time writer. School-master-Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford, 1961, and University College, Swansea, 1967; part-time extramural lecturer, University College, Cardiff, 1970–77; visiting lecturer, University of Rennes, France, 1970, University of Brest, France, 1970, and University of Alabama, Birmingham, 1971. Editor, The Anglo-Welsh Review, 1961–76. Chair, English Section, Yr Academi Gymreig, 1975–78, and Literature Committee, Welsh Arts Council, 1976–79. Awards: Welsh Arts Council bursary, 1968, award, 1969, and prize, 1972, 1980. D.H.L.: Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 1985. Address: Deffrobani, 5 Maescelyn, Brecon, Powys LD3 7NL, Wales.
Days Enduring and Other Poems. Ilfracombe, Devon, Stockwell, 1943.
Break in Harvest and Other Poems. London, Routledge, 1946.
The Roses of Tretower. Pembroke Dock, Dock Leaves Press, 1952.
The Flooded Valley. London, Putnam, 1960.
Absalom in the Tree and Other Poems. Llandybie, Dyfed, Gomer, 1971.
Snipe's Castle. Llandysul, Dyfed, Gomer, 1979.
Burning Brambles: Selected Poems 1944–1979. Llandysul, Dyfed, Gomer, 1983.
A Field at Vallorcines. Llandysul, Ceredigion, Gomer, 1996.
The Eleven Men of Eppynt and Other Stories. Pembroke Dock, Dock Leaves Press, 1956.
Whitsun Riot: An Account of a Commotion Amongst Catholics in Herefordshire and Monmouthshire in 1605. Cambridge, Bowes, 1963.
Vernon Watkins. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1974.
The Hollowed-Out Elder Stalk: John Cowper Powys as Poet. London, Enitharmon Press, 1979; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1985.
A Ride Through the Woods: Essays on Anglo-Welsh Literature. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1985.
Anglo-Welsh Literature: An Illustrated History. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1986.
Editor, with Sam Adams, The Shining Pyramid and Other Stories by Welsh Authors. Llandysul, Dyfed, Gomer, 1970.
Editor, David Jones: Eight Essays on His Work as Writer and Artist. Llandysul, Dyfed, Gomer, 1976.
Editor, with Sam Adams, The Collected Short Stories of Geraint Goodwin. Tenby, H.G. Walters, 1976.
Editor, with Raymond Garlick, Anglo-Welsh Poetry 1480–1980. Bridgend, Glamorgan, Poetry Wales Press, 1984.*
Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Roland Mathias," in Poetry Wales (Llandybie), summer 1971, and "Profile: Roland Mathias," in New Welsh Review (Lampeter), 4, spring 1989, both by Jeremy Hooker; interview in Poetry Wales (Llandybie), 18(4), 1983; 'Texts against Chaos': Anglo-Welsh Identity in the Poetry of R.S. Thomas, Raymond Garlick, and Roland Mathias (dissertation) by Megan Sue Lloyd, University of Kentucky, 1993; Roland Mathias by Sam Adams, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1995.
Roland Mathias comments:
In my earlier poetry the sense of place was very strong. Even love poems used the place or history symbol.
Of recent years the process has changed. The secret place is always Wales, but since my return to it physically there has been a blurring of the remembered image by the present reality. In consequence I have become slightly more personal in my poetry in an overt sense, but there are more people about, more predicaments than mine. I think of history still, of my stock, my parents, family love, and my own insufficiency in the line of descent. For me the old nonconformist sense of guilt is not inhibiting and useless; it gives me a particular vision of the present through the past, a measurement. Out of it I can write.
I would add, however, that I continue to find significance in the parochial and believe that poetry is often weakened and diluted by being devoted to situations in which the element of the personal is small. My vision begins with Wales, and the rest of the world merely adheres to it.* * *
Such joy as there is in Roland Mathias's work is far from unconfined. There is an essential gravity to most of his work, a seriousness of theme and a weightiness of language that cohere in a distinctive view of the world. In an interview published in 1983 Mathias said of his work and his outlook, "I'm certainly suspicious of beauty. It isn't merely that my Puritan upbringing has always made me feel that Keats' dictum about beauty and truth was horribly wrong. My first response is always one of suspicion of anything that intends a large gesture particularly when it is a large gesture which is intended to exemplify beauty. Beauty in itself doesn't save." In the same interview Mathias spoke of the theme of guilt as a recurrent one in his work. The sense of sin and the mistrust of beauty and rhetoric have inevitable consequences. The poetry is often tortuous and knotted in both sound and syntax, clotted with a consonantal music that eschews conventional melodies and intricate in structure as one clause qualifies another in the single-minded pursuit of honest statement. Truth here is quite distinct from beauty (or at any rate from any conventional idea of beauty) and certainly ranks a great deal higher than beauty as a poetic aim. Mathias never writes merely to please his readers or even to make life comfortable or easy for them. Stylistically he has always been true to himself and has remained largely uninfluenced by the fashionable voices of Anglo-Welsh poetry, his own idiom appearing closer to Browning and Hopkins than to any of his contemporaries.
The characteristic tone is evident, for example, in the opening lines of "Solway" (The Roses of Tretower):
Off the low fields the lagging pools
Slip. The anomalous privet droops. Saliva spills
From the beaks of the huts towards
The restless claw-marks on the shore of birds.
Wall holds the cropped farm up.
The natural world is not a source of renewal or comfort for Mathias. It remains largely indifferent to human suffering, to the individual's sense of his own (and man's) inadequacy. In "Searching Spring," from the same collection, the season offers no kind of renewal. There is no revelatory abundance in nature:
Gravelgreat are the hills and perching
Walls are haggard over pitted ground:
In the red manner of a gash the lurching
Streams collide, leaving shoulders ragged
And sudden like the edge
Of our disaster and grave wound. Boulders
Like roofs are lifted off our talk:
Bushes that ruff the hedge and clothe our seeming
Crack in the night and the strained teeming
Multitude of roots sticks in the sight.
No measure now of things that stalk
And vein the sick flayed province under boots:
I had no notion till the fork dug in
My chiefest covenant was with my skin.
The density of the language is typical, and the "gash" and the "grave wound" are characteristic of a repeated pattern of images. In "The Path to Dinas," "the bird's eye wanders /Back to the wound half-healed." In "Testament" we are told that
I was the child
Of belief, aching pitifully
In the unready hours
At the wounds I must suffer
When I walked out weaponless
Nature and man alike carry their scars in poem after poem. "The Lurking Ancestor" (The Roses of Tretower) carries as an epigraph words from Donne: "Man hath no centre, but misery; there and only there, he is fixed and sure to find himself." Finding oneself through one's pain has been a recurrent theme in Mathias's work. At the heart of this process of self-discovery is the recognition of
Man that is God and ghost, fuel and fire,
Factor and master, ephemeral, crossed
Peccator maximus stirring to desire.
For Mathias the landscapes to value are those without "secondary forms /Pretty distractions," territories that "lay the action bare," where there is no evading "the bull-nosed rushes of a wrong /On right" ("Freshwater West Revisited"). His historical subjects, too, are chosen for much the same reason. There is no facile pretense at any kind of objective, or even national, history. Rather, as he says in the last line of "Memling," one of the best of his historical poems, "the history we choose speaks largely of ourselves."
As poet, critic, and editor, Mathias has been a major influence on the evolution of the very idea of Anglo-Welsh literature in our time. Jeremy Hooker has rightly observed that "he has taken his Anglo-Welsh situation far more seriously than all but a few writers with whom he shares it, and he has done so partly out of his humble sense of himself as an outsider who cannot claim to be fully Welsh, and who must earn his place in Wales by the quality of his effort and understanding." The poems in the sequence "Tide-Reach" (Snipe's Castle) bring together many of Mathias's familiar themes, and they succeed in doing so in language that has a greater lyricism and clarity than is often the case in his work. They are affirmatory poems freed to a great extent from the insistent doubt and suspicion of most of his earlier work. In the first poem, "The Green Chapel," the "woundhole" is unambiguously the "mark of where God is." The last poem of the sequence, "Laus Deo," closes with lines to which we may surely apply the terms "beauty" and (quite unpejoratively) "large gesture":
It is one
Coherent work, this Wales
And the seaway of Wales, its Maker
As careful of strength as
Of weakness, its quirk and cognomen
And trumpet allowed for
This whole peninsula's length.
It is one affirmative work, this Wales
And the seaway of Wales.
To read these lines, which close Mathias's collection of selected poems, Burning Brambles, is to recognize a joy hard earned.