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Book review: Poems from the Soul by M. Wynn Thomas

17 Mar 2024 7 minute read
Poems from the Soul: Twelve of the Great Hymns of Wales by M. Wynn Thomas is published by Calon

Nathan Munday

A small, blue book with a big heart. Twelve hymns are presented to us by M. Wynn Thomas in this recent volume published by the University of Wales Press’ non-fiction imprint, Calon.

Written in an era where capeli are closing, Thomas articulates a common belief that hymns persist in our national consciousness like grandparent figures squatting in our minds, whistling Bryn Calfaria. He writes:

For me, the hymns of Wales are indeed a wonder. Through them I experience the raw needs of ordinary human experience – needs I recognise as also being my own. They are also powerful social connectives.

The author is not alone in his devotion for, what Alan Luff called, ‘the folk-song of the Welsh’. Saunders Lewis believed that they were among the highlights of Welsh literature. He wrote:

The greatest Welsh lyrics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are certainly hymns. Their grandeur and intellectual power make them major poetry.

These are national characteristics that a literary historian, be he Christian or unbeliever, must in loyalty to objective truth maintain.

The divine

Ruth Jên Evans’s cover is striking. A shadowy, worshipping figure looks up. A dove, often depicted as descending, passes-by. Her art accompanies and enrichens the words.

Recurring hands electrify Dürer’s praying palms, articulating something of the desperation of modernity for authenticity, for truth, and even for the divine.

Twelve hymns are summoned by Thomas. Colourful specimens as diverse as the apostles. Rowan Williams calls the choice an ‘excellent mix of the expected and unexpected’. I agree with him.

The author takes us on a journey through the pilgrim territory of belief pointing out some intriguing insights along the way. He calls Pantycelyn ‘the Caravaggio of Welsh hymn-writers’ as he employs verbal and spiritual chiaroscuro.

In The Taliesin Tradition, Emyr Humphreys was also drawn to that ‘towering figure’ from Carmarthenshire. He writes:

It is a paradox that the very nation which he helped to bring into being has never really come to grips with the full significance of what he had to say.

There’s still time for us to grapple with Pantycelyn, and I’m glad that Thomas includes four of his classics.

Then there’s another giant, Ann Griffiths. She stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Pantycelyn at the centre of what I see as an emerging, and rather distinct, Welsh Christian Aesthetic grounded in experiential religion: praise versus doubt, individual versus society, belief versus unbelief; these paradoxes and agones characterised a new idiom.

Thomas rightly elevates Griffiths from obscurity in the English-speaking world but does so by repeatedly using the word ‘uncanny’ when writing about her.

There is something familiar and unfamiliar about Ann. Her experiential knowledge of God is deeply personal and, at times, singing her hymns feels like trespassing on holy ground.


These gems were penned by ordinary folk. Major literature springing-up from seemingly minor characters such as blacksmiths, farmers, and preachers. Poems from the Soul celebrates this Welsh congregationalism.

There is a personal dimension to this book. The epigraph could have been penned by D. H. Lawrence or M. Wynn Thomas. As you read, you too may be tempted to sing-out-loud. Every reader will have a favourite hymn, chapter, or artwork by the end…

For me it was Thomas Lewis’s magnificent Wrth gofio’i riddfannau’n yr ardd. Forged in that space between hammer and anvil, Lewis sees his own nails – say in a horseshoe – before being transported to Gethsemane and Golgotha in his mind.

No, more than his mind, because this blacksmith’s whole being is involved. He’s there himself, hammering nails into his Saviour. Thomas writes:

The point, and the power, of this hymn is its unusual brevity – a brevity that seems to indicate that these words say it all. For a believer such as its author […] they are the very soul and epicentre of the faith.

The book is full of these rich, concise observations which enrichen our understanding of the hymns.

Divine love

The accompanying stories are gold. See, for example, the chapter on Gwilym Hiraethog’s Dyma gariad fel y moroedd and the account of the poor drover who was disciplined for visiting his sick wife on the Sabbath.

Thomas’ writing is stunning in this chapter, and you can almost hear the preacher declaring ‘the pressure of divine love’.

At times, the author touches on, what he calls, the ‘chilly’ ‘iron Calvinism’ which characterised the ‘Welsh Methodist faith’.

Ironically, we must remember that ‘the subtle complexities’ of that theology lay at the heart of our greatest hymns.

Theological statements are sometimes made in the book which do not fully reflect ‘the majestic structure’ of Covenant theology. For example: ‘the capricious grace of a totally unpredictable, wholly unknowable God’.

In his reading and translation of Dyma gariad, Thomas believes that an ‘alternative’ faith is embraced and proclaimed in the second stanza.

He writes: ‘It is Hiraethog’s impassioned rejection of the theology, and the cosmology, of a punitive God’.

I disagree with him here. D. Densil Morgan writes in Theologia Cambrensis:

‘For all their [i.e. Moderate Calvinists] social zeal and political commitment, they remained first and foremost ministers of the gospel […] The same is true of Hiraethog. His [sermons] displays his uncompromising adherence to the gospel scheme as understood by the moderate Calvinists of the time. His main themes are the sovereignty of God in salvation, the attractiveness of Christ, the all-encompassing sufficiency of the atonement, and the need for sinners to be reconciled to their Lord.’

Hardly an ‘alternative’ faith. Calvary was both an eschatological judgement day as well as a day of mercy.

The mystery overwhelming Hiraethog is how divine, righteous justice is twinned with divine mercy – something totally foreign to our minds, which jars with the unsavoury pharisaism mentioned in the story.

The hymn-writer captures divine grace as he surveys T. S. Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world’. The Prince of Life is ‘our ransom’ – not only our saviour – who pays the price for our sin, taking divine punishment upon Himself (1 John. 2:2): ‘marw i brynu’n bywyd ni’.

The deluge of unmerited grace and love is mingled in the hymn with a righteous, and a just God being satisfied. This isn’t a rejection of the doctrines of grace, it’s a celebration.


Hymns continue to be written in Welsh and English and there’s a rich tradition of translation in Wales too. They remain relevant because their themes are universal. In the preface, Thomas writes:

They are all, in R. S. Thomas’s fine phrase, ‘laboratories of the spirit’. And the experiments in living that were conducted remain relevant to us today.

It’s high time that we’re re-acquainted with our hymnody. This book feels like introductory love-letters from a doyen of the Welsh literary scene.

An excellent BBC documentary on Michael Longley was aired recently called ‘Where poems come from’. What this book has shown is that hymns not only ‘persist in hanging around’, but that they come from remarkable spaces.

They are Poems from the Soul.

Poems for the Soul by M. Wynn Thomas is published by Calon and is available from all good bookshops.

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