Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomas, William (1832-1878)

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THOMAS, WILLIAM (Islwyn) (1832–1878), Welsh poet, was born at Ynysddu, a small village on the banks of the Howy, in the parish of Mynyddislwyn in Monmouthshire, on 3 April 1832. His father was a native of Ystradgynlais, and his mother of Blaengwawr. Both became members of the Calvinistic methodist church of Goitre. William, the youngest of nine children, received the best education his parents could give. He attended schools at Tredegar, Newport, Cowbridge, and Swansea, but his career at school was cut short by the sudden death of his father, and he began life as a land surveyor in Monmouthshire.

Under the influence of Daniel Jenkins, who had married his eldest sister, and was pastor of the church of Y Babell (The Tabernacle), Thomas resolved to enter the Calvinistic methodist ministry. His first sermon was preached in 1854, but it was not till 1859 that his ordination took place at Llangeitho.

Thomas, who wrote verse from an early age, and adopted the bardic name of Islwyn, long devoted his leisure to a remarkable philosophical poem in Welsh called ‘The Storm,’ which was to extend to over nine thousand lines (cf. Wales, June 1896, p. 357). He published some extracts in a volume of poems which appeared at Wrexham in 1867 with a dedication to Jenkins. Translated specimens of this and of others of Thomas's Welsh poems may be seen in ‘Welsh Lyrics of the Nineteenth Century,’ 1896. His Welsh poetry, although now acknowledged to be the finest of the century, was not widely recognised in his own lifetime. He edited the Welsh column of poetry in the periodicals entitled ‘Cylchgrawn,’ ‘Ymgeisydd,’ ‘Star of Gwent,’ ‘Y Glorian,’ ‘Y Gwladgarwr,’ ‘Cardiff Times,’ and ‘Baner Cymru.’ Thomas's attempts in English poetry were failures, giving no indication of the high quality of his Welsh poetry. Some twenty specimens were published in ‘Wales’ for 1896 and in ‘Young Wales,’ 1896.

Islwyn spent his life in Mynyddislwyn and its vicinity, the district of his birth. There he won a reputation as a preacher, and he died there on 20 Nov. 1878. He was buried in the churchyard of Y Babell, where a granite column was erected to his memory by public subscription. In 1864 he married Martha, daughter of William Davies of Swansea. There was no issue.

His published works were: 1. ‘Barddoniaeth [Poetry] gan Islwyn,’ Cardiff, 1854, 12mo. 2. ‘Caniadau [Songs of] Islwyn,’ Wrexham, n.d.; 1867, 16mo. 3. ‘Ymweliad y Doethion â Bethlehem [Visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem] gan Islwyn,’ Aberdare, 1871, 12mo. 4. ‘Pregethau [Sermons] y Parch. William Thomas (Islwyn) yn nghyda Rhagdraethawd ar “Islwyn fel Pregethwr” [An Essay on Islwyn as a Preacher] gan y Parch. Edward Matthews,’ Treherbert, 1896, 8vo. 5. A complete collection of his Welsh poems, ‘Gweithiau Islwyn,’ edited by Mr. Owen M. Edwards in 1897, Wrexham, 8vo.

[The Life, Character, and Genius of Islwyn, by Dyfed, ‘Y Geninen,’ Ionawr, 1884; The Genius of Islwyn, by Dewi Wyn o Essyllt, ‘Ceninen Gwyl Dewi,’ Mawrth, 1887; Islwyn, by John Owen Jones, B.A., ‘Y Geninen,’ Hydref, 1892, Mawrth, 1893; Islwyn as a Preacher, by Edward Matthews, ‘Cylchgrawn,’ 1879; Islwyn as a Preacher, by John Hughes, M.A., ‘Y Mis;’ Bro [the land of] Islwyn in ‘Y Tyst,’ 7 Aug. 1896; Islwyn (a Criticism?) ‘Cymru,’ by D. Davies, 1896; Islwyn's Peculiarities, ‘Cymru,’ by J. M. Howell, 1896; Review of his Caniadau [Songs] in Llanelly Guardian by W. Thomas, M.A., all except this in Welsh.]

R. J. J.