Skip to main content

Gwyn Ingli James


Gwyn Ingli James lectured in English at Cardiff from 1959 to 1991. He was a scholar and critic with a lifelong passion for the work of William Blake, but he was above all a teacher who inspired generations of students, with lectures and seminars not only on Blake but on all the Romantics and many modern poets and novelists.

Gwyn, as his family and friends called him, was generally known as Ingli James to colleagues and students. (A grandfather, born in Newport, Pembs, took his Bardic name from the local mountain, Carn Ingli, and passed it down the line.) Born in Barry in 1928, Gwyn was educated at Barry Grammar School for Boys and what was then University College, Cardiff, where he took B A and M A degrees. He enjoyed the atmosphere, enriched by the presence of older students returned from the War. Among the intellectual currents of the time he responded strongly to the moral vision of F.R. Leavis and the close reading of ‘Practical Criticism’. Of the teachers, he was especially influenced by the charismatic Moelwyn Merchant. He won a Commonwealth Fellowship to Yale in 1953, curtailed by expectation of the call to National Service, which never came. Nonetheless, during a very formative year, he met some leading New Critics as well as the poet Robert Frost.

Gwyn came back to teach in Cardiff after lectureships at Hull Municipal Training College and King’s College, London. By now he was married to Joan (née Morgan, from Llantwit Major, a schoolteacher) and starting a family. The Cardiff English department, as it then was, was a small and stable group of dedicated teachers and scholars, under the long-serving E.C. Llewellyn, familiar to Gwyn from undergraduate days, and later Gwyn Jones, a magisterial eminence. Together with their families and the support staff, they nurtured a strong sense of community which was a benefit not only to them but to their students.

Teaching was the core of academic life for Gwyn. He was immensely well read, but he wasn’t ambitious for promotion in the university, and indeed avoided any promotion that would have meant less teaching and more ‘admin’ or, even, more of his own research. He did publish, as well as articles and reviews, a critical edition of Blake’s annotations to a theological pamphlet, Thornton’s Apology for the Bible. The theology of literature was a theme in his work, right up to one of the last things he published on Blake – co-authored with his wife Joan James– in the Journal of Feminist Theology. Every year Gwyn decided he had to entirely revise and rework his lectures, so that they more truly conveyed his evolving thinking. His students got the experience of seeing someone grappling with literature anew every time, discovering meaning in it there in front of their eyes. The lessons in the writers he loved were ones of self-discovery and self-fulfilment, personal liberation from narrow self-absorption and self-interest – liberation through relationship with others and with nature and with art.

The world is scattered with former students who have been marked by his teaching. One of them, Julia Thomas, now a professor of English in Cardiff and specialising in visual culture, recalled:

"...those lectures where he would stand up in front of an old slide projector and bring the pictures to life. It was a privilege to have attended those lectures. ... Not a year goes by where I don't think of Ingli James teaching [Blake]: his voracious knowledge, his passion for the material, the feeling of leaving his lecture and being excited for the next one."

In retirement, Gwyn bought his first computer and continued his involvement in Blake studies and literature at large. He was a dominant competitor in the quotation-spotting annual Nemo’s Almanack, which was also an excuse to continue collecting books. Nemo enlarged his social life, as did his daily swimming habit. He and Joan were habitués of Hay-on-Wye, both in and out of festival season. He was also invited to join a ‘Philosophical Society’ of highly distinguished University alumni, who met to dine and hear papers.

Aside from Academe, Gwyn wrote and published his own poetry, both serious and comic. Early work appeared in a Cardiff university anthology The Lilting House (1955, edited by Terence Hawkes); his late Literary Limericks circulate among friends. He followed with keen interest and great pride the careers of his children, Elizabeth, an art librarian, and Merlin, an artist, both deeply influenced by his interests and ideas. Gwyn is survived by them and by Joan.

John Freeman and Elizabeth James