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Davies, (William Thomas) Pennar (1911–1996), poet, novelist, and Welsh nationalist, was born in Mountain Ash, Glamorgan, on 12 November 1911, the eldest of four children and only son of Joseph Davies, a coalminer, and Edith Anne (née Moss), his wife. Despite the family's disadvantaged circumstances, William Thomas (he only later took the name Pennar from Aberpennar, the Welsh form of his home village) excelled in the local elementary school and Mountain Ash grammar school. He proceeded to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire at Cardiff where he showed unusual academic prowess, graduating with firsts in Latin in 1932 and English a year later. Following a year's teacher's training course he progressed in 1934 to Balliol College, Oxford, researching for his BLitt degree on the works of John Bale, the sixteenth-century bishop of Ossery. He won a Commonwealth Fund scholarship in 1936 taking him to Yale University, where he embarked on doctoral research, this time on the comedies of George Chapman, the early modern translator immortalized by John Keats in his sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman's Homer’. He returned to Cardiff in 1938, continuing his studies on Elizabethan literature as a University of Wales fellow.

Despite a conventional nonconformist chapel upbringing and a conversion experience as an adolescent, by the time of his undergraduate years Davies had become an agnostic, a stance to which he adhered at Oxford and at Yale. There was no doubt, however, that even at Yale his religious scepticism was being challenged, while his exile in both England and the United States had caused him to contemplate deeply the matter of Wales. A spiritual crisis engendered in him vital religious faith; the crisis was unspecified though its context was, as he wrote, ‘the long tragedy of the people of Wales’ (‘Pennar Davies’, 123). By the outbreak of war he had not only embarked on ministerial training with the Congregational churches, but had chosen Welsh, which was an acquired tongue rather than his first language, as his creative medium.

Davies's ministerial course took him back to Oxford, to Mansfield College this time, where he was drawn more to the radical pacifist nonconformity of C. J. Cadoux, professor of church history, than to the high Genevan orthodoxy of Nathaniel Micklem, the college principal. The Mansfield years were a high point of his life thus far. Davies revelled in his new-found vocation and showed his usual penchant for academic work of the highest order. During vacations he took part in the activities of the Cadwgan Circle of young, avant-garde Welsh-language poets led by his friend J. Gwyn Griffiths (latterly professor of classics at Swansea) and based in the Rhondda valley. During the war years Mansfield had become a focus for the witness of many Jewish-Christian refugees from Hitler's Germany. One of these was a young nurse, Rosemarie Wolff (1917–2010), a Lutheran Christian from Berlin whose background was Jewish. They were married in June 1943 in Mansfield College chapel according to the Lutheran rite administered by Dr Hans Herbert Kramm, a colleague of the Confessing church theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and pastor of the city's German congregation. The couple soon moved to Cardiff, where Davies—who had now taken the name Pennar—was ordained minister of the Minster Road Congregational Church.

Following three years in the pastorate, Pennar Davies was appointed professor of church history at Bala-Bangor, the north Wales ministerial training college of the Congregational denomination, and in 1950 transferred to the Memorial College in Brecon, its south Wales equivalent. He spent the next nine years at Brecon, combining his duties teaching church history with the principalship, to which he had been promoted in 1952, before the college combined with the Carmarthen Presbyterian College in its new home in Swansea in 1959. He remained at the Memorial College Swansea as principal and professor of church history until his retirement in 1979.

As well as much writing on religious matters, politics, and current affairs, and publishing a stream of literary criticism, the three main fields to which Pennar Davies contributed were poetry, creative fiction, and theological scholarship. His earliest published poems, in Keidrych Rhys's Faber and Faber anthology Modern Welsh Poetry (1944), showed him to belong to the school of Anglo-Welsh writers that included Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins, and the young R. S. Thomas, although it was as a Welsh-language poet that he was later to excel. His first early volumes, Cinio'r Cythraul (‘The devil's dinner’, 1946), his input to the composite Cerddi Cadwgan (‘Cadwgan poems’, 1953), and Naw Wfft! (‘So what!’ 1957), were whimsical, fresh, and, coming from an ordained minister, naughtily irreverent. His key themes were spirit and flesh, the incarnational principle, and the joys of young married love. This body of work, like that of his colleagues in the Cadwgan Circle, helped bring Welsh poetry up to date and rid it of much of its mustiness and jaded lyricism. A more substantial collection was Yr Efrydd o Lyn Cynon (‘The cripple of Glyn Cynon’, 1961), which included his exquisite ‘Cathl i'r Almonwydden’ (‘An ode to the almond tree’) which vies with Waldo Williams's ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ (‘Between two fields’) as being the most haunting Welsh poem of the mid-twentieth century. His collection Y Tlws yn y Lotws (‘The jewel in the lotus’, 1971) is equally accomplished. In it he holds to the unique nature of the revelation in Christ in the context of a more diverse human spirituality.

Pennar Davies's novels could be quirky. The phantasmagorical Anadl o'r Uchelder (‘A breath from on high’, 1958), a cold war novel set in an apocalyptic future, was according to Saunders Lewis, the doyen of Welsh letters, ‘The strangest, perhaps the most phoney of the new novels’; though ‘as learned as Joyce's Ulysses, it is comic and fantastic and melodramatic and brilliant’ (Jones and Thomas, 169). In it ‘Dr Pennar Davies finds a function for Welsh Nonconformity in the darkening years of possibly the last of the centuries’ (ibid., 170), while the more knock-about Meibion Darogan (‘Sons of prophecy’, 1968) portrayed the eager wartime enthusiasm of the Cadwgan group from the vantage point of one of its now middle-aged members. A volume of short stories, Carregl Nwyf (‘The chalice of desire’, 1966), contained some marvellously arresting pieces. His prose masterpiece of these years, nevertheless, was the spiritual notebook Cudd Fy Meiau (‘Hide my sins’, 1958), its 2011 translation being entitled Diary of a Soul. ‘We have an opportunity here to encounter one of the great Reformed Christian voices of our time’, commented Rowan Williams in his introduction; ‘Gentle, unsparing, delighting in the local and the domestic, yet with a clear catholic vision’.

Although Pennar Davies was effortlessly learned, his contribution to scholarship was, in comparison, fairly meagre. His early work Y Ddau Gleddyf (‘The two swords’, 1951) on the relationship between church and state was modest, this being followed by a study of Breconshire dissent, a pamphlet on the Elizabethan separatist martyr John Penry, and other occasional pieces. His foray into Celtic Christian spirituality, Rhwng Chwedl a Chredo (‘Between story and creed’, 1966), though erudite and imaginative, failed to convince, while an interesting if speculative volume on Christology, Y Brenin Alltud (‘The exiled king’, 1974), displays the eclectic nature of his spiritual vision, a type of utopian Pelagianism based on a costly discipleship and the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth. The Celtic and Christological themes are vividly blended in his arresting essay ‘The fire in the thatch’ in R. Brinley Jones's edited volume Anatomy of Wales (1972).

The listing of his creative and academic works gives little impression of the level of activism in which Pennar Davies was involved during his career, or of the quality, indeed the saintliness, of his personality. A committed member of Plaid Cymru, he stood for parliament twice, in 1959 and 1964, and was drawn into the vigorous drive for Welsh-language rights during the 1960s and 1970s. Along with two fellow academics, Ned Thomas and Meredydd Evans, he was sentenced by the Carmarthen assizes in 1979 for breaking into the Pencarreg television transmitter in the campaign to establish a Welsh broadcasting service. Although this was a difficult time, not least for his wife who had vivid memories of state authoritarianism in the Germany of the 1930s, he maintained the trust of his church constituency and gained much respect for his stand.

Although Pennar Davies continued to be active following his retirement, his last publications, two novels, a volume of verse, and a collection of short stories, did not convey the same creative energy as previous books, though his long-standing contribution to spiritual and intellectual life in Wales was recognized with the award of an honorary fellowship at Cardiff University, his alma mater, in 1986 and the degree of DD honoris causa by the University of Wales a year later. In assessing his contribution, the polymathic nature of his genius and his enigmatic charm are repeatedly mentioned. He left an abiding impression on all he met, not least the generations of students he prepared for Christian ministry in Wales and beyond. He was, in the title of his English-language biography (2011), a Saintly Enigma. (A literary and intellectual biography had been published in Welsh in 2003.) During his final years he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He died in Swansea on 29 December 1996. His wife survived him. They had five children: Meirion Pennar (1945–2010), an academic in the University of Wales, Lampeter, Rhiannon, Geraint, Hywel, and Owain.

D. Densil Morgan

Sources  

D. Densil Morgan, Pennar Davies (2003) · Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society, 5 (1997), 574–5 · I. T. Rees, Saintly enigma: a biography of Pennar Davies (2011) · D. Densil Morgan, ‘Spirit and flesh in twentieth century Welsh poetry: a comparison of the work of D. Gwenallt Jones and Pennar Davies’, Christianity and Literature, 56 (2007), 423–36 · D. Densil Morgan, ‘Celts and Christians in the work of Pennar Davies’, Wales and the word: historical perspectives on Welsh identity and religion (2008), 167–82 · R. Williams, foreword and H. Hughes, introduction, P. Davies, Diary of a soul, trans. H. Hughes (2011), 6–18 · ‘Pennar Davies’, Artists in Wales, ed. M. Stephens (1971), 119–29 · A. R. Jones and G. Thomas, eds., Presenting Saunders Lewis (1973), 164–70

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photographs, repro. in Morgan, Pennar Davies · photographs, repro. in Rees, Saintly enigma