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Dylan Thomas, Biography And Visits
Dylan Thomas, Biography And Visits
Celtic culture predating the Roman invasion of Britain was oral rather than written. As had been the case for many thousands of years, information considered important enough to require passing down the generations was put into poetic form. This was simply because without writing, it was difficult to record information. The rhymes and rhythms of words in a poem make them easier to remember. No doubt the patterns of poetry became enjoyable for their own sake, and a great reverence surrounded the information that was considered important enough to be treated in this way. Roman culture when it arrived in Britain was a revolutionary written culture. The Celts were assimilated, their oral culture displaced. But in the difficult, mountainous country of the north and west, Roman influence was weaker. Echoes of the old oral culture were stronger there. In the sixteenth century Sir Philip Sidney commented on this in his An Apology For Poetry.
Into industrial times it still seems that respect for the spoken word remained stronger in the west. It would be tempting to point to the tradition of Eisteddfods in Wales as evidence of this. Eisteddfods are great poetic gatherings with strange rituals and rules. In reality, however, Eisteddfods are a nineteenth century invention, a fanciful revival of a past which never really existed. It is perhaps more in the tradition of fiery Welsh preachers that we hear the strongest echo of Celtic bards. In a typical sermon the words are rhythmic, poetic, and the subject matter considered to be of the highest importance. Dylan Thomas's great uncle, William Thomas was a preacher and a poet, who was evicted from his own church because of his support for the poor. As a bard he was known as Marlais, after the name of a stream in Cardiganshire. Dylan's father, D.J. Thomas, frustrated poet and English teacher at Swansea Grammar School, gave his son Dylan the middle name of Marlais. In his name, then, Dylan Marlais Thomas echoes an ancient oral culture, which now had to exist in the environment of the Thomas family home in a respectable suburb of twentieth century Swansea.
Dylan Thomas was born on 27th October 1914 at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, in the Uplands area of Swansea. My grandparents lived a short walk away, so it's an area I know well. Young Dylan played in nearby Cwmdonkin Park, preferring the wilder regions to respectable areas of rose garden and tennis court. He sailed his model boats on the fountain. By the fountain was a rockery, "the loud zoo of the willow graves". Dylan and his friends played here "as innocent as strawberries". Dylan was to write in later years that rather than leaving the childhood world of Cwmdonkin Park, it simply grew with him.
Dylan went to Mrs Hole's school in Mirador Crescent, and was frequently absent with chest problems, which fuelled his taste for reading, truancy and avoidance of exams. Dylan liked to claim he had twice as much tuberculosis as Keats, but if he did have tuberculosis it healed, and his later chest problems were due to asthma and smoking. Perhaps young Dylan used the trick he mentions in Under Milk Wood, where boys chew red cough sweets to produce the effect of spitting blood.
Mrs Hole's school seemed to be a kindly place, and it is sympathetically described in his story of Swansea called Return Journey:
"In Mirador School he learned to read and count. Who made the worst raffia dollies? Who put water in Joyce's galoshes, every morning prompt as prompt? In the afternoons, when the children were good, they read aloud from Strewelpeter. And when they were bad, they sat alone in the empty classroom, hearing, from above them, the distant, terrible, sad music of the late piano lesson."
Sometimes there would be invitations to visit Aunt Annie at the farm at Fern Hill, Llangain. Many years later one of Dylan Thomas's most famous poems would recall Fern Hill:
And when I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun which is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means
Sometimes Dylan Thomas was criticised for not being more of a "Welsh" poet. Fern Hill makes me feel such criticism is ridiculous. A poet might be famous amongst the barns of a small part of Wales, or he might be famous globally. But that globe might only be a small planet in a big galaxy, where the sun is like a barn, just another part of a boy's world. Somehow all "localities" become relative in the end.
When old enough Dylan moved on to Swansea Grammar School, where the headmaster believed in letting boys follow their inclinations. This for Dylan Thomas meant the study of English and little else. Once again Return Journey provides a wonderful description:
he scuffled at prayers,
he interpolated smugly, the time-honoured wrong
irreverent words into the morning hymns,
he helped to damage the headmaster's rhubarb,
was thirty third in trigonometry,
and, as might be expected, edited the School Magazine
Daniel Jones was his best friend, after claiming impressively to be a composer, poet, and author of seven historical novels. They ran a pretend radio station together, on which air time was given to characters such as Locomotive Bowen, the one-eyed cowhand, who gave a talk on the Rocking Horse and Varnishing Industry.
Mumbles Lighthouse, Gower
Not much homework got done, and Dylan left Swansea Grammar School at sixteen, to take a job as junior reporter on the South Wales Daily Post. He seemed to have a few default stories to cover weddings, fires and funerals. Much time was spent at the YMCA playing billiards, or at the Kardomah Cafe, where the conversation, according to Return Journey would cover: "communism, symbolism, Bradman, Braque, the Watch Committee, free love, free beer, murder, Michelangelo, ping-pong, ambition, Sibelius, and girls..." Dylan was already writing poetry and had decided to be a poet. Leaving the South Wales Daily Post at Christmas 1932, he worked on his poems, and went to a writers' circle at the house of Bert Trick who owned a small grocer's shop near Cwmdonkin Drive. A talent for acting, nurtured by the Mumbles Stage Society, was useful in the reading of his own poems. Between 1933 and 1935 seven Dylan Thomas poems were published in the London Sunday Referee. Visits were then made to London, particularly to the house of Pamela Hansford Johnson, a young poet he had met through the Sunday Referee. The bardic tradition of Marlais, the speaking of poems, was clearly already important: Dylan's advice to his girlfriend was: "the neighbours must know your poems by heart." The relationship with Miss Johnson petered out in the spring of 1935 when she found out that Dylan, at nineteen, had been lying about his age, and had been on a four day fling on the Gower Peninsula with the fiance of a friend.
In 1936 the apparently wild young poet spent much time in Swansea, and began to realise his affection for the city. His rejection of suburban values was always a bit of a pose, admitting as much to close friends. Rebellion and hard drinking were apparently an image for public consumption. If the drinking was only an image, then he certainly worked hard at creating it. Dylan was soon back in London, conscientiously keeping up appearances in the bars of Soho and Fitzrovia. French in Soho's Dean Street, and the Fitzroy Tavern in Fitzrovia were favourite haunts. In the late 1930s he hung around in places like this, and wrote obscure fiction influenced by the surrealist movement which was fashionable at the time. Eventually the advice of publisher Richard Church encouraged a change of direction. Church suggested a series of short stories based on life in Swansea. This idea turned into Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Dylan's first successful prose writing, published in 1940. Meanwhile he was publishing selections of poetry, 18 Poems in 1934, Twenty Five Poems in 1936, and The Map of Love in 1939.
1936 was the year Dylan met Caitlin Macnamara, in the Wheatsheaf pub in Charlotte Street, London. She was a dancer escaping from the family mansion back in Ireland to live a bohemian life in London. At the time of this first meeting Caitlin was the girlfriend of painter Augustus John, and a fight between Dylan and Augustus in a Fishguard car park was required before she became Dylan's girlfriend. They married on 12th July that year, and moved to a small cottage called Sea View in the seaside village of Laugharne, in Carmarthenshire. With very little money they scrimped along, arguing frequently, babies coming along to make the situation even more difficult. At the outbreak of war in 1939, Dylan did his best to get himself classed as a conscientious objector, but couldn't bear the religious implications involved. Lack of fitness was his next option, and the authorities obliged with a low fitness rating. So Dylan was spared military service, but he still needed to make a living during the war years, when making a living as a poet was even more difficult than usual. Dylan Thomas's war work was the making of morale building documentaries for Strand films. Subjects included the barrage balloon service, penicillin, and the reconstruction of bombed industrial towns. His best film was called Our Country, in which a merchant seaman wandered around wartime Britain and reported on what he saw. Dylan enjoyed this work. Film making's sociable atmosphere was a relief after the loneliness of poetry. Some people, Caitlin included, felt that he was wasting his talent with film writing, but Dylan did not agree. The effect of these years on his style seems positive, serving to bring greater clarity to his writing. His greatest and most famous writing followed on from the film work. Fern Hill, recalling those childhood visits to Aunt Annie's farm, was published in Deaths and Entrances in 1946. It was with this collection that Dylan Thomas's fame as a poet was assured.
The Boathouse at Laugharne
After the war Dylan did his best to emigrate to the United States. Finding himself unable to do so, his family moved around, living wherever they could, in flats in London, with friends, and in a log cabin at the bottom of the historian A.J.P. Taylor's garden in Oxford. There was fairly regular employment with the BBC, reading his poems in his own dramatic style. This spoken quality was as important as ever, and writing of a Festival of Spoken Poetry he said: "a poem on a page is only half a poem."
Return Journey, produced in 1947, was a highlight of this period, telling the story of a prodigal son's return to Swansea. This work, however, did not solve constant money problems. As the debts mounted, the already turbulent relationship with Caitlin became even more violent. A.J.P.Taylor didn't like the noise and wanted the troublesome family out of his garden. Taylor's wife Margaret had money of her own, and she resolved to continue giving help. In an act of great generosity she bought the Thomas family the Boathouse beside the estuary at Laugharne. This was done inspite of on-going rows between Margaret and Caitlin. Dylan now had a measure of security in his last years, and he was grateful for it. "I like regular meals and drink, and a table and a ruler - and three pens," he once wrote in a letter to critic and poet Henry Treece (quoted in Dylan Thomas, Poet of His People by Andrew Sinclair). The Boathouse survives and is now a museum dedicated to Dylan Thomas. The small shed study on the path above the house, where Under Milk Wood was written has also been preserved. There is a bottle of beer on the table and a lot of paper screwed up on the floor.
Interior of Dylan Thomas's study at Laugharne
It was the prospect of lecture tours in the United States that offered the way out of debt. An invitation came from American critic and admirer John Malcolm Brinnin. These tours, four of them in rapid succession, between 1950 and 1953, were boozy successes, but being away from home, living in hotels, brought out the worst in a personality prone to self destructive behaviour. Many of Brinnin's poetic illusions were shattered in the Irish bars of New York. Dylan's health declined, and he never had much money to show for his efforts in America. Writing fell by the wayside on these trips, but back in Laugharne during recuperation periods, work still continued. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night was written as Dylan's father faced his final illness. Just before the last American tour a play for voices called Under Milk Wood was recorded at the BBC studios in Swansea. This would soon be accepted as a masterpiece. Dylan then left for America, and after heavy drinking was taken ill early in November 1953. Admitted to hospital unconscious, suffering alcohol induced brain damage, he died on 9th November.
Since his death people have had strangely contradictory views of Dylan's poetry. Some have felt he speaks for Wales, others have felt he let Wales down by not writing in Welsh; others have read the poetry for itself and haven't thought too much about Wales at all. As we know, Dylan's poetry is specifically Welsh in its association with past oral cultures. Speaking is about communication, but it is also the primary way we make ourselves different to others. An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Welshman might stand side by side, and it won't necessarily be clear which is which. Once they start speaking it will become obvious. The ways in which we communicate also work to separate us, defining who we are. David Crystal in English as a Global Language says that as well as being a means of communication: "Language is a major means (some would say the chief means) of showing where we belong, and of distinguishing one social group from another..." (P19). Anthony Burgess in A Mouth Full Of Air points out that language is usually arbitrary, and seems specifically designed to keep out people who are not in the know. This is certainly the way I felt trying to learn German at school, a language full of arbitrary masculine, feminine and neutral nouns. Why? I thought to myself. The answer could be to simply make life difficult for me. German did not really want me to learn it. Spoken language is probably about two and a half million years old, evolving from cries of communication, and from cries that mean "this is my bit of territory so keep out". The oral tradition on which Dylan Thomas drew was one of communication and separation. In Under Milk Wood he portrays a very specific, inward looking seaside community in south Wales. In this portrayal we are invited into an insular community by the First Voice, to drift between houses, and into the very dreams of the inhabitants, who themselves seem to merge one into another. The First Voice says to us, his listeners; "From where you are, you can hear their dreams." Dylan Thomas relates local places to a wider picture, using what divides people to bring them together.
Lane above the Boat House at Laugharne
In my view Dylan Thomas was the last great poet. Until his death in 1953 poetry could be considered an influential part of popular culture. In the nineteenth century the poems of Tennyson and Byron sold in huge quantities, and Byron in particular was treated almost as rock stars are today. But from the 1950s onwards the ancient spoken culture changed. It did not disappear, but I would suggest it evolved. I like to think that the old oral culture survives, not in the modern poems which children struggle through in schools and nowhere else, but through the huge influence of pop music where the rhythmic possibilities of words have been expressed in musical poems. There is a story that Robert Zimmerman called himself Bob Dylan after the poet, a link which I think is instructive. As the film at the Boathouse tells us, Dylan Thomas did not make money from selling books, but from the sale of records, particularly in America. Following his death it was record sales that provided for his children, and for Caitlin. Historically Dylan Thomas stood on a border line, as he did in his work itself. He died at the end of 1953. In 1954 Bill Haley and the Comets released Rock Around The Clock.