Pughe, William Owen (DNB00)

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PUGHE, WILLIAM OWEN, known in early life as William Owen (1759–1835), Welsh antiquary and lexicographer, was born at Tynybryn in the parish of Llanfihangely Pennant, Merionethshire, on 7 Aug. 1759. His father was a skilled singer to the harp, and he thus acquired at an early age an interest in Welsh poetry, which was deepened by the study of ‘Gorchestion Beirdd Cymru,’ when that collection appeared in 1773. After some education at Altrincham, Cheshire, he sought his fortune in May 1776 in London. About 1782 he made the acquaintance of Robert Hughes (Robin Ddu o Fôn) and Owen Jones (Owain Myfyr), through whom he became in 1783 a member of the ‘Gwyneddigion,’ a society of London Welshmen founded in 1771. Owen thereupon began to collect materials for a Welsh-English dictionary. The first section appeared ten years later, on 27 June 1793. Its publication proceeded slowly until 1803, when it was completed and issued in two volumes, with a grammar prefixed to the first. It contained about one hundred thousand words, with English equivalents, and, in a large number of cases, illustrative quotations from old Welsh writers. No fuller complete dictionary of the language at present exists. In definition, too, the work is fairly trustworthy; its system of etymology is its chief blemish. This is based on the assumption that all Welsh words can be resolved into monosyllabic elements of abstract signification, a notion first put forward with regard to English and other languages by Rowland Jones [q. v.] in his ‘Philosophy of Words’ (London, 1769). An abridgment of Owen's dictionary appeared in 1806, a new edition (revised by the author) in 1832 (Denbigh), and a further edition, with many alterations, in 1857 (Denbigh).

Meanwhile, in 1789, Owen published a volume of poems in English, and with Owain Myfyr edited the poetry of David (or Dafydd) ap Gwilym [q. v.] (London; reprinted at Liverpool, 1873), adding in English a ‘sketch of the life and writings’ of the poet. In 1792 he published ‘The Heroic Elegies and other Pieces of Llywarç Hen’ (London), with a translation and a prefatory sketch on bardism. He had become dissatisfied with the orthography of the Welsh language, and throughout this work uses ‘ç’ for the sound usually written ‘ch,’ and ‘v’ for Welsh ‘f.’ In his dictionary a third innovation appeared—the use of ‘z’ for ‘dd.’ In 1800 Owen translated into Welsh ‘A Cardiganshire Landlord's Advice to his Tenants,’ a treatise on agriculture, by Colonel Johnes of Hafod. The next year saw the publication of a far more important work, the first volume of the ‘Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales,’ an enterprise for which Owen, Owain Myfyr, and Iolo Morgannwg were all nominally responsible, though the main literary work was probably done by Owen, as the cost (above 1,000l. for the three volumes) was defrayed by Owain Myfyr. The first volume was an attempt to give from the manuscripts the text of all Welsh poetry to 1370 (excluding that of Dafydd ap Gwilym, already printed). The design of supplementing this with a selection of later poetry (general advertisement of 1 Jan. 1801) was never carried out. Vol. ii., which also appeared in 1801, contains the text of the Trioedd, the Bruts, and other prose documents of an historical nature; vol. iii. (didactic literature, laws, and music) followed in 1807. The three were reprinted, with some additions, in one volume at Denbigh in 1870. Owen was the editor of the ‘Cambrian Register,’ a publication devoted to Welsh history and literature, of which three volumes appeared, in 1796, 1799, and 1818. In June 1805 he commenced the ‘Greal,’ a Welsh quarterly of a similar character, which was issued under the patronage of the Gwyneddigion and Cymreigyddion societies of London. Its orthographical peculiarities proved an obstacle to its success, and it was discontinued in June 1807. ‘Cadwedigaeth yr Iaith Gymraeg,’ a Welsh grammar published by Owen in 1808, was printed at London in the same orthography, but an edition in ordinary spelling also came from a Bala press. In 1803 had appeared Owen's concise ‘Cambrian Biography.’

In 1806 Owen succeeded to a small estate at Nantglyn, near Denbigh, whereupon he assumed the surname of Pughe. During the rest of his life he spent much of his time in Wales, and his literary activity diminished. On 9 Aug. 1790 he had married Sarah Elizabeth Harper, by whom he had a son, Aneurin Owen [q. v.], and two daughters, Isabella and Ellen. His wife died on 28 Jan. 1816, and it was to divert his mind from the loss that he afterwards undertook to translate ‘Paradise Lost’ into Welsh. ‘Coll Gwynfa’ appeared in 1819. Though a powerful and fairly accurate version, its ponderous and artificial diction has always repelled the ordinary Welsh reader. Pughe was no doubt the anonymous translator of Dodsley's ‘Life of Man’ (‘Einioes Dyn,’ 1821). In 1822 he essayed original verse, publishing a Welsh poem in three cantos on ‘Hu Gadarn,’ while in the same year he issued a volume of translations from English, which included Gray's ‘Bard’ and Heber's ‘Palestine.’ During his later years Pughe was chiefly occupied in preparing an edition of the ‘Mabinogion,’ or Welsh romances; but though the Cymrodorion Society in 1831 voted 50l. for the publication of this work at Denbigh (Cambrian Quarterly Magazine, iii. 117), it never appeared.

Pughe died of apoplexy on 4 June 1835 in a cottage near Dolydd Cau, in the neighbourhood of his birthplace, whither he had gone for the sake of his health, and was buried at Nantglyn. He had been elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries about 1793, and on 19 June 1822 received from the University of Oxford the degree of D.C.L. (Alumni Oxon.) In erudition no student of the Welsh language and literature has ever surpassed him, and his enthusiasm for these studies has deepened the interest generally felt in Celtic history and literature. His influence upon Welsh students was very great, nor has his authority upon questions of spelling and etymology yet ceased to carry weight in Wales. But he was entirely without critical power; his opinions were formed early and underwent no alteration to the close of his life. The eccentricity of his mind may be gauged from the fact that he was one of the followers of Joanna Southcott [q. v.]

[Hanes Llenyddiaeth Gymreig, by C. Ashton, pp. 412–21; introduction to first edition of the Dictionary (1803); preface to Coll Gwynfa; Enwogion Cymru, Foulkes, pp. 864–8; Leathart's Origin and Progress of the Gwyneddigion Society, London, 1831.@]

J. E. L.