'Canu'r carchar': Prison Sonnets of T. E. Nicholas

Reference: NLW MS 13692A

This volume was written by T. E. Nicholas, or 'Niclas y Glais' when he was imprisoned at Swansea and Brixton between 11 July and 22 October 1940.  He initially wrote on slate (as described in the sonnet 'Llechen Arfon' (f. 113) and 'I'm Llechen' (f. 77) and 'Sonedau' (f. 192)), before copying the poems onto toilet paper in the jail; or at other times on the reverse of letters (e.g. f. 21v-24v and f. 200v).

We see that he had written 'Brixton' on the top of the first pages (f. 1-29), and then there is a front cover for "LLYGAD Y DRWS. Sonedau'r carchar." with his name and prison number "T. E. Nicholas, Estron (meaning Alien) 2740" (f. 31).  Most of the sonnets were published in Llygad y Drws: Sonedau’r Carchar (Aberystwyth, 1940) and Canu’r Carchar (Llandysul, 1942), with translations in The Prison Sonnets of T. E. Nicholas (London, 1948).

The poet imprisoned - his muse free

Niclas y Glais and his son T. Islwyn Williams were imprisoned due to false accusations by the Chief Constable of Ceredigion because of their political views. Their homes were searched without warrants, with no charges or evidence against them, and they were released following protests by many chapels and Labour movements. He received over a thousand birthday cards and telegrams in jail on his birthday on 6 October 1940.

Thomas Evan Nicholas (1879-1971) is described as a preacher, lecturer and dentist by occupation, but also as a poet, Socialist, Communist, pacifist and revolutionary.  He was a pioneer of the Labour movement, and one of the first members of the Communist Party in Britain, and he stood as a candidate for the Independent Labour Party in the 1918 election.  He was known as 'Niclas y Glais' as he was the minister at Glais from 1904 to 1914; and he also ministered at Llandeilo, Dodgeville (USA), Llangybi and Llanddewi Brefi.  He published his first volume of poetry, Salmau'r Werin, in 1909 and subsequently published another nine volumes of poetry.

Cerddi'r Carchar

As a poet, his time in jail proved very productive – he wrote 150 sonnets in less than four months – and these sonnets are among his best poetry.  Most of the sonnets are without titles in this manuscript, and there are some differences between the contents of the typescript (NLW MS 13693C) and what was eventually published in the printed volumes.  Some poems, such as the critical sonnet to 'Golygydd y Cymro' (f. 94) and some of the English sonnets didn't appear in the printed books.

Many of the poems relate to the experience of being under lock and key, and also sympathize with others who are suffering oppression and captivity. See 'Y Negro' (f. 28), 'I Aderyn y To' (f. 80), 'Cath y Carchar' (f. 88), 'Indiaid' (f. 97), [Blodau'r Carchar] (f. 139), [Llygad y Drws] (f. 185), 'Sonedau' (f. 192), 'Troseddwyr' (f. 194), and '2740' (f. 193).  The poem 'I Aderyn y To' (f. 80) was translated by Wil Ifan as 'To a Sparrow' (f. 32 and 33).

'Niclas y Glais' Manuscripts at The National Library of Wales

T. E. Nicholas presented this manuscript to the Library in 1941 as well as three other manuscripts (NLW MS 13693-5).  NLW MS 13693C is a typescript copy of 'Canu'r Carchar' that also contains a detailed report by T. E. Nicholas of the history of his imprisonment.  The other manuscripts contain letters received from William Rees (NLW MS 13694A) and a translation of the poem 'Sara' (NLW MS 13695D).

The Islwyn Nicholas Papers contain many scrapbooks, correspondence and sound tapes as described in the Annual Report 1980-81.  Many letters from T. E. Nicholas and information about him can be found in other collections in the Library, for example the papers of the Rev. W. Rhys Nicholas (file 4), Gwenallt (file CH138), Dewi Emrys (file 26), Ithel Davies Papers (file 313-34), Idris Cox Papers (files 26, 72-6), and NLW ex 1491.

Further reading

Gregynog Gallery

On 7th and 10th - 14th November the Gregynog Gallery will be hosting Arad Goch Theatre Company.

The Dylan exhibition will remain open as usual to the public, although visitors are advised there may be some disruption in the gallery during this period.

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