Richard Robert Jones: 'Die of Aberdaron'

The phenomenal Welsh autodidact and itinerant linguist, Richard Roberts Jones, alias ‘Die of Aberdaron’ (1780-1844) or ‘Dirty Dick’, was also an unconventional dresser. In perhaps the most poignant life story we have excavated, Die was born to an impoverished carpenter and boatswain from Aberdaron, a coastal village in North Wales, whose small cargo boat shuttled between Wales and Liverpool. In his teenage years, Die taught himself Latin, Hebrew and Greek, which he could write beautifully as well as read.27 His father and elder brother used to beat him regularly for reading rather than working, but nothing could diminish the dreamy youth’s passion for Classics.28 He wrote several laborious works, including a Greek lexicon and a Hebrew Grammar. He is reported to have understood Biblical Aramaic, Arabic and Persian, and was completely fluent in Latin, French and Italian.29

Die once visited Bangor School, where he was tested on his Greek, passed with flying colours, and given some classical books which he accepted with delight and gratitude.30 Sadly, he spent much of his life as a homeless beggar in Liverpool, where he was a well-known character. His life improved slightly when the radical Merseyside poet William Roscoe gave him a small regular stipend. But Die remained eccentric. Although his favourite author by far was Homer, he liked to sing the psalms in Hebrew, accompanying himself on a Welsh harp, and turned up at an Eisteddfod with an ancient Greek essay on types of stringed instrument.31 Die died as he had lived, a wandering bard and linguist— or ‘a perfect child of nature’ as one obituary called him.32 He was buried in the churchyard of St. Asaph’s Cathedral in Denbighshire.33

In a poem entitled ‘Die Aberdaron’, R.S. Thomas wrote of his labourer’s clothes, ‘coarse trousers, torn / jacket, a mole-skin / cap’,34 basing his description on a painting in his house (Figure 15.2). We get a fuller idea of Die’s appearance from Roscoe, his biographer:

At one time he chose to tie up his hair with a large piece of green ferret [ribbon], which gave him the most ludicrous appearance possible. Some time since, one of his friends gave him a light-horseman’s jacket, of blue and silver, which he immediately put on, and continued to wear, and which, contrasted with his hair and beard, gave him the appearance of a Jewish

‘Richard Roberts Jones’ by unknown artist, reproduced by courtesy of The Welsh Library, University of Wales Bangor Information Services

FIGURE 15.2 ‘Richard Roberts Jones’ by unknown artist, reproduced by courtesy of The Welsh Library, University of Wales Bangor Information Services. © The Welsh Library, University ofWales Bangor Information Services 2019.

warrior, as represented in old prints, and consequently attracted after him a crowd of children. In his present appearance, he strongly resembles some of the Beggars of Rembrandt.35

He also concealed inside his clothing his collection of books, both those that he was fond of reading and those that he was writing. He was thus a walking library, always pictured with books tucked under his arms and his cat, from whom he was never apart. He was fond of blowing a ram’s horn, and at another time a French horn.36 For a recluse, then, he was not shy of calling attention to himself, without directly soliciting passers-by; this enabled him to make his paltry living. People saw him as a prodigy' and would offer him money and/or books in exchange for an audience, and translation or conversational services. He would answer in whatever language he was addressed. He found it nearly impossible to earn a living otherwise. An exception was three years of labour sieving ashes in the King’s Dockyard at Dover, where he had an indulgent superintendent, was fed in the morning, occupied by an unchallenging task and paid just enough to survive and pay for books and Hebrew lessons with Rabbi Nathan after work.37

So who was Richard Roberts Jones? R.S. Thomas asks the same question in his poem. ‘A / hedge-poet, a scholar by rushlight?’ he guesses.38 ‘Scholar by rushlight’ is evocative since the ‘rush’ was the cheapest kind of candle, used by only the poorest in British society. ‘Scholar’ catches well his single-minded pursuit of linguistic studies. His magnum opus was perhaps his trilingual Dictionary (Welsh, Greek and Hebrew) which took him more than ten years to compile (1821-1832). When it was complete, he went to a Bardic Eisteddfod held at Beaumaris, in order to gain assistance to publish his work. But he came away with no financial backing.39

We get flashes of Die’s complex neurology in Roscoe’s description of his struggles in relationships and supporting himself. These qualities include his physical incapacity (‘the inaptitude of his hands for any correct and continued labour’)40 which, combined with his poor eyesight, prevented him from holding down an occupation as a labourer; his paranoia (‘Richard is very liable to misinterpret the intentions and conduct of his friends, especially when any restraint is attempted to be imposed upon him, and that he is by no means sparing in his complaints on such occasions’);41 his directness (‘remarkable for his adherence to truth on all occasions’);42 his lack of social skills (‘his ignorance of the customs and manners of society’);43 his struggle to focus and express himself clearly (‘the difficulty of elucidating his meaning from collateral subjects’) and his exceptional capacity for the acquisition of languages (‘the faculty of which he possessed in an extraordinary degree’).44

The picture that emerges is one of a remarkable autistic polyglot savant, a rare type that continues to puzzle scientists and medical practitioners to this day.45 Brain and language scientists define a ‘savant’ as ‘someone with an island of startling talent in a sea of inability’.46 Roscoe hazarded his own interpretation of Die’s behaviour:

The extreme degree of attention employed by the object of our present inquiry [Die] on one particular subject [language acquisition] formed itself into a habit; that every thing which interfered with this pursuit was neglected or despised, till the other faculties of the mind became obscured and useless from the mere want of cultivation and exertion.47

Even Die’s subconscious mind was obsessed with ancient languages. He experienced vivid and portentous dreams and wrote them down. The Caernarfonshire artist, Ellis Owen Ellis (‘Ellis Bryn-Coch’), who started painting whilst working as a carpenter’s apprentice, intended to publish an Illustrated Life of Richard Robert Jones (Aberdaron). The beautifully illustrated manuscript remains in the National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth). (Figure 15.3) Ellis drew one of Dic’s dreams in which Homer’s ghost appeared to him with a personification of the Greek language.48

‘Homers ghost appearing to Jones with the genius of the Greek’

FIGURE 15.3 ‘Homers ghost appearing to Jones with the genius of the Greek’. Drawing vol. 51 from the Illustrated Life of Richard Roberts Jones by Ellis Owen Ellis, reproduced by courtesy of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru— The National Library ofWales. © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru—The National Library ofWales.

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