Discovering Dylan Thomas’s Wales


The Blue Bell, once a pub that poet Dylan Thomas frequented, is being renovated in the seaside town of New Quay, Wales. (Michael Shapiro/For The Washington Post)
August 15, 2013

“This is not a museum,” says Annie Haden, the vivacious Dylan Thomas enthusiast who has restored the poet’s childhood home in Swansea, an industrial city on the south coast of Wales. “I’m the oldest thing in this house!”

At about 60, Annie, who tells me to call her by her first name, is displaying some Welsh hyperbole — she’s hardly the oldest thing in this loving memorial to Wales’s best-loved English-language poet. There’s a typewriter from the 1920s, colorful drawings based on phrases from Thomas’s poetry, antique copper kettles, even oblong filament light bulbs that look like something fashioned by Thomas Edison.

Details: Dylan Thomas’s Wales


But she’s right — it’s not a museum. Annie, who has spent years refurbishing Thomas’s first home with her husband, Geoff, is intent on making this a living, breathing house, a place where the writer’s admirers can eat, drink, recite poetry, play music and stay the night.

“Would you like a drink?” she asks. “It is a Thomas house, after all.”

The nation of Wales is gearing up to celebrate the centennial of Thomas’s 1914 birth, so I thought I’d explore the coastal homes where he wrote and found solace, the beaches that made his spirit soar and perhaps a favorite pub or bookstore. Like many readers of Thomas’s often inscrutable poetry, I can’t say that I fully comprehend it all. I’m hoping that visiting places that shaped and inspired him will give me a deeper understanding of the artist and his words.

Thomas, who died before his 40th birthday, is often remembered as much for his excessive drinking and womanizing as for his art, but his poems, including “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” which he wrote for his dying father, have endured.

“And I fly over the trees and chimneys of my town, over the dockyards, skimming the masts and funnels . . . over the trees of the everlasting park . . . over the yellow seashore and the stone-chasing dogs and the old men and the singing sea. The memories of childhood have no order, and no end.”

Dylan Thomas, “Reminiscences of Childhood”

Located in the Uplands suburb of Swansea, Dylan Thomas’s birthplace is a handsome two-story Edwardian house on the steep part of Cwmdonkin Drive. Out front, attached to the white stucco facade, is a simple round plaque reading: “Dylan Thomas, A man of words, 1914-1953, was born in this house.”

I arrive on a rainy afternoon last summer, a few hours after touching down at London’s Heathrow Airport; the brick-red tiles in the entryway are so worn that they’re noticeably bowed. “We didn’t want to restore it, because it’s part of the history of the house,” Annie says.

She puts a polished copper kettle on the stove. The time between the two world wars, when young Dylan grew up, Annie says, was an “era when people never got rid of stuff like old copper kettles. People see relics and say, ‘My gran had one of those.’ That’s what brings ’em right in.”

We climb a wide and time-smoothed wooden staircase to the upper floor and peer out the window of the back bedroom. Annie recalls Thomas’s poetic phrase about ships sailing across rooftops. In the bedroom once shared by the poet’s parents, she points toward a row of houses, the Bristol Channel in the distance. Because of the sloping hill down to the sea, it appears that boats bob atop Swansea’s roofs. “You get it,” Annie says, “when you see the view.”

She looks me up and down and asks, “How tall are you?” I tell her 5-5. “Well then, you’re a half-inch taller than Dylan.” I concede that I’m really 5-41 / 2. She seems pleased that I’m the same height as her beloved bard.

“I know Dylan,” she says. “I’m his mother now.” Then Dylan’s mother retreats to the kitchen to bring out lamb “that’s come nine miles to be with us tonight,” fresh pastry-crusted salmon from the nearby River Tawe, potatoes and a divine bottle of French Cotes du Rhone. Later she’ll top off the feast with a fresh-baked rhubarb fruit tart.

I suggest that the house is a labor of love, but Annie is quick to correct me. “It’s a labor born of frustration,” she says. “This boy of ours hasn’t been acknowledged as he should be.” (Since my visit, alas, I’ve learned that Annie and Geoff have decided to separate and that Geoff will take over running the house.)

Annie tells me that I can choose where I’ll sleep and invites me to stay in Dylan’s tiny boyhood room. But the room is barely bigger than the single bed, so I opt for the guest room at the front of the house, which young Dylan called the “best room.”

Overlooking Cwmdonkin Park, where Dylan’s legs and imagination ran free, the spacious best room has a fireplace and brass candlesticks, a sink with a pitcher for wash water, a photo of Dylan and his wife, and a little crib. A book of Thomas’s poems waits on the nightstand.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. . . .

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

His parents’ first language was Welsh, but Thomas was raised speaking English so that he wouldn’t sound working-class, Annie says. He took elocution lessons to get rid of his Welsh accent and read poems in the bathroom to train his voice because he realized that it’s “not just what you say but how you say it.”

Many of Wales’s early and modern poets write in a strict-meter form of Welsh, but Thomas became internationally known because he wrote so eloquently in English. Yet it was his undeniable, intrinsic Welshness that gave his poetry so much strength, Annie says. “The meter and structure is old Welsh in form, and the English loved it.”

Annie tells me that Thomas wrote hundreds of poems in this house, with his greatest output coming between ages 16 and 20. He worked in the morning and drank late, Annie says. Unfortunately, Thomas couldn’t hold his alcohol — perhaps because he was a diabetic, as it’s now believed — so he became a “performing monkey,” she says.

“Obnoxious behavior became his calling card. In London he was a performer. That’s not creative, and it’s tiring. He had to keep coming back and recharging here — not just in this house, this town,” she says. “He’d say when he was on the train to London (that) he wasn’t going to England, he was leaving Wales. He was leaving his heart, he was leaving his safety.”

Like a protective mother, Annie denies that Thomas was an alcoholic. There’s “such a lot of work of such high quality that alcoholism is not considered.” I refrain from listing all the great writers who overindulged in alcohol. Annie refills my glass with wine, and I ask about Thomas’s most famous poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” written as his father, a frustrated poet, lay dying.

“Listen to it from a child’s point of view,” Annie says. “His father wouldn’t give Dylan the words he needed, like ‘well done’ or ‘I’m proud of you.’ The work between father and son wasn’t finished.”

Annie tidies up the kitchen, shows me how to turn up the heat, then bids me goodnight. I’m alone in the room where Dylan Thomas was born, his words on the nightstand for company.

The next morning I stroll along the lush byways of Cwmdonkin Park, where a dead tree standing more than 30 feet high has been carved into the shape of a pencil to honor the bard who grew up across the street.

At Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre, a stone’s throw from the Bristol Channel, are photos of long lists of words that Thomas compiled as he wrote. He placed scrolls of rhyming words before him like an artist’s palette, selecting just the right shade for the meaning he wished to convey.

Audio recordings play in corners of the center. As I listen, I understand that, as with James Joyce, the best way to comprehend Thomas is to hear his work read aloud, ideally in his own voice.

Thomas’s work has been called “thrillingly incomprehensible,” but I can hear what the Welsh call hiraeth, an ineffable longing, and it all starts to make sense. Read aloud, Thomas’s poetry becomes music. Which makes me think that Bob Dylan, who took his name from the Welsh bard, is his natural heir: a musician who turns songs into poetry.

“When I think of that concentrated muttering and mumbling and intoning, the realms of discarded lists of rhyming words, the innumerable repetitions and revisions and how at the end of an intensive five hour stretch (from 2-7) prompt as clockwork, Dylan would come out very pleased with himself saying he had done a good day’s work, and present me proudly with one or two or three perhaps fiercely belaboured lines.”

Caitlin Thomas

When Thomas was 23, he left the sanctuary of his family’s Swansea home and moved to another seaside abode, a place he called the Boathouse in Laugharne, overlooking the west coast of Wales. Walking up a stone path on a drizzly morning, I first arrive at his “word-splashed hut,” perched like a bird’s nest on a cliff above the sea.

The converted shed where Thomas created some of his best work was exposed to Wales’s tempestuous storms and crashing ocean sounds. The room remains a churning sea of manuscripts, discarded drafts of verse, empty cigarette packs and literary journals.

Farther up the stone path is the house where Dylan lived with his wife, Caitlin, and their children. It feels like a small ship, with low doorways (51 / 2 feet high, just enough for Thomas). The house has been converted into a homey museum called the Dylan Thomas Boathouse at Laugharne. In the parlor is a grand radio from the 1930s. While Thomas was traveling — to London, New York or Paris — his children would gather around the radio and listen to their father recite his poetry and stories on the BBC.

The scent of baking draws me to the basement kitchen, where two young women are making bara brith, a lightly sweet Welsh bread. I ask about it, and they cut me a slice to taste, on the house.

In the Laugharne town center is Corran Books, in a weathered stone building with a bright blue door. Owner George Tremlett, co-author of a Caitlin Thomas memoir, says that Laugharne is where Dylan Thomas matured as a writer.

“His early work wasn’t very good,” Tremlett says. “It was here that he found whatever it was he needed to make the mix.” What made this town so right for Thomas? It’s an egalitarian town, Tremlett says. “The rich man counts for very little here. And it’s very easygoing — I think that fitted him like a glove.”

In his last years, Thomas and his family moved to New Quay, a seaside resort that has created the Dylan Thomas Trail, a set of sites related to the poet. I walk along a concrete pier and look out to the “fishing-boat bobbing sea” that inspired Thomas in his last years. A lone bottlenose dolphin gracefully arcs above the water, and a seal clasps a silver fish that flaps in vain.

“It is the measure of my individual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light.”

Dylan Thomas, “Poetic Manifesto”

Before leaving Wales, I attend a lunch with Thomas’s granddaughter, Hannah Ellis, who says that Dylan “clearly had a very happy childhood.” However, his world was shattered in February 1941, after the German blitz leveled much of Swansea, leaving 230 dead and 7,000 people homeless in midwinter.

“Our Swansea is dead,” he writes in “Return Journey,” a BBC radio play. The play isn’t simply an elegy for his home town, Ellis says; it’s his attempt to rebuild Swansea with his words.

Like Annie Haden, Ellis believes that her grandfather hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. She hopes that the upcoming centennial celebrations will change that and introduce a new generation to his work. “When I tell someone I’m Dylan Thomas’s granddaughter,” Ellis says, “I don’t want them to say, ‘Who?’ ”

There’s one last place I feel compelled to visit: the stately National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where some of Thomas’s possessions remain. I sit with a curator with the delightfully Welsh name of Ifor ap Dafydd in a high-ceilinged room. He shows me a map of downtown Swansea that Thomas drew, a betting slip with odds on horses, a Pan American airline ticket and a letter to his uncle thanking him for a gift and praising the Disney movie “Dumbo.”

The curator then unwraps a leather wallet containing Thomas’s passport. “Can I hold it?” I ask. Ap Dafydd hesitates, then consents. I slowly turn the yellowed pages and see stamps for France, Italy and Iran.

Then there’s the final stamp: a New York entry into the States in 1953, where on Nov. 9, five days after allegedly boasting that he’d knocked back “eighteen whiskeys, a record,” Thomas died at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

After that last stamp, the better part of the passport is blank. I survey the grand room in this house of words that Thomas helped build. “So many empty pages,” I say in a low voice as a wave of sadness washes over me. “So many pages left unfilled.”

Shapiro is the author of “A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.” His Web site is www.michaelshapiro.net.

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