So. I have been trapped down one of the research mines I wrote about earlier. This time, a reprint of an archaeological report from the 1980s led to a Welsh writer of the eighteenth century and his visions of the ills of society.
Ellis Wynne was a clergyman in North-West Wales, whose reputation today rests on his book Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard), first published in 1703. I’d be surprised if you’d come across it: for all its status as a classic of Welsh literature, moralising visions of hell and destruction are not widely read these days. (If you want to have a read, the text is available on Project Gutenberg in both the original Welsh and George Borrow’s 1860 translation.)
Wynne’s targets in the book are for the most part commonplace (the proud, lawyers, the Pope: eighteenth century Protestants were not very ecumenical), but there were a couple that pleasantly surprised me. Here’s my first extract: the narrator is asking why the devils in Hell regard rulers and nobles as worse than common thieves.
“Pray, my lord,” said I, “how can you call those illustrious people greater thieves than robbers on the highway?”
“You are but a dupe,” said he; “is not the villain who goes over the world with his sword in his hand and his plunderers behind him, burning and slaying, wresting kingdoms from their right owners, and looking forward to be adored as a conqueror, worse than the rogue who takes a purse upon the highway? What is the tailor who cabbages a piece of cloth, to the great man who takes a piece out of the parish common? Ought not the latter to be called a thief of the first water, or ten times more a rogue than the other?—the tailor merely takes snips of cloth from his customer, whilst the other takes from the poor man the sustenance of his beast, and by so doing the sustenance of himself and his little one.”
Conquerors and those who enclose common land; worse than highwaymen and cheating tailors. Yup, I’ll go with that.
And a second extract: here a knight is trying to excuse himself from damnation on the grounds that he comes from a noble family; the devils are having none of it.
“If your ancestors and your ancient house be all that you can bring in your defence, you may go the same road as he,” said one of the devils, “because we can scarcely remember one ancient house, of which some oppressor, murderer, or strong thief did not lay the foundation, and which he did not transmit to people as froward as himself, or to lazy drones, or drunken swine, to maintain whose extravagant magnificence, the vassals and the tenantry must be squeezed to death, whilst every handsome colt or pretty cow in the neighbourhood must be parted with for the pleasure of the mistress, and every lass or married woman, may consider herself fortunate, if she escape the pleasure of the master.”
Almost every noble house has been founded by an oppressor, murderer or strong thief (that is, a violent one) and their continued existence is a financial burden and moral risk to all around them.
Wynne may be laying it on thick – the visions are extreme – but too often we to go after the little crimes, ignoring the big ones because their size deceives us into thinking they can’t be in the same category.
I think Ellis Wynne may end up featuring in my poetry.