Saunders Lewis (John Saunders Lewis), (October 15, 1893 – September 1, 1985), was a Welsh poet, dramatist, historian, literary critic and political activist. He was a prominent Welsh nationalist and founder of the Welsh National Party (later known as Plaid Cymru). Lewis is usually acknowledged to have been the most prominent figure in twentieth-century Welsh-language literature, though he was actually born in England.
Born into a Welsh family living in Wallasey in 1893, Lewis was studying English and French at Liverpool University when the First World War broke out. After serving as an officer with the South Wales Borderers he returned to university to graduate in English.
In 1922 he was appointed as a lecturer in Welsh at the University College of Wales, Swansea. During his time at Swansea he produced some of his most exciting works of literary criticism: A School of Welsh Augustans (1924), Williams Pantycelyn (1927), and Braslun o hanes llenyddiaeth Gymraeg (=An outline history of Welsh literature) (1932).
His experiences in World War I, and his sympathy for the cause of Irish independence, brought him to nationalism, and in 1925 he co-founded the Welsh National Party (to be known later as Plaid Cymru). He became its president in 1926 and remained so until 1939.
Lewis was the son and grandson of prominent Welsh Calvinistic Methodist ministers. In 1932, he converted to Roman Catholicism.
In 1936, along with Lewis Valentine and D. J. Williams, Lewis was involved in an arson attack on a Royal Air Force base at Penyberth in northwest Wales for which he was imprisoned, losing his lecturing post as a result. That same year, Lewis praised Adolf Hitler when he said At once he fulfilled his promise — a promise which was greatly mocked by the London papers months before that — to completely abolish the financial strength of the Jews in the economic life of Germany. The sequence of events raised his personal profile and that of Plaid Cymru. Until he was appointed a senior lecturer in Welsh at Cardiff in 1952 he supported himself through journalism, farming and teaching in schools.
After his retirement from teaching in 1957, he continued to express militant views. In 1962 he gave the Annual BBC Wales Radio lecture on the subject Tynged yr iaith (=The fate of the Welsh language) and as a result Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (=The Welsh Language Society) was formed to campaign for basic rights for Welsh speakers and for support to be given to enable the Welsh language to survive.
In 1970, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His literary works include plays, poetry, novels and essays. He wrote mostly in Welsh, but he also wrote some works in English. By the time of his death in 1985 he was amongst the most celebrated of Welsh writers.
Lewis was above all a dramatist. His earliest published play was Blodeuwedd (=The woman of flowers) (1923-25, revised 1948). Other notable plays include Buchedd Garmon (=The life of Germanus) (radio play, 1936), Siwan (1956), Gymerwch chi sigarét? (=Will you have a cigarette?) (1956), Brad (=Treachery) (1958), Esther (1960), and Cymru fydd (=Tomorrow’s Wales) (1967). He also translated Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot into Welsh.
He also published two novels, Monica (1930) and Merch Gwern Hywel (=The daughter of Gwern Hywel) (1964), and two collections of poems. He also published numerous articles and essays in various newspapers, magazines, and journals. These articles have been collected into volumes including: Canlyn Arthur (=Following Arthur) (1938), Ysgrifau dydd Mercher (=Wednesday essays) (1945), Meistri’r canrifoedd (=Masters of the centuries) (1973), Meistri a’u crefft (=Masters and their craft) (1981), and Ati ŵyr ifainc (=Go to it, young men) (1986).
Works in English and translations
Lewis, Saunders (1997), Monica. Translated by Meic Stephens. Bridgend: Seren. ISBN 1-85411-195-7.
Lewis, Saunders (1985-2002), The plays of Saunders Lewis. 4 vols. Translated by Joseph P. Clancy. ISBN 0-9540569-4-9, 0715406485, 0954056957, 0715406523.
Lewis, Saunders (1993), Selected poems. Translated by Joseph P. Clancy. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1194-6.