Looking for Dylan Thomas

By Peter Murphy

I am on a bus in West Wales traveling from Aberystwyth to Llansteffan near Fern Hill, to visit the landscape that Dylan Thomas loved as a child when he was happy “as the grass was green.” He referred to Llansteffan and two nearby villages, Llangynog and Llangain, as his "breeding-box valley." The bus stops at every hamlet along the way, Llanwnnen, Llanybydder, Llanllwni, Alltwalis, Rhydargaeau, Peniel, Glangwili before reaching Carmarthen, a town whose name I can finally pronounce, and where I will switch buses. Wales has a long religious history which explains why so many villages and towns begin with “Llan,” pronounced “Thl-an,” which means church. Across the aisle, a woman leans over and asks, “What brings you to Wales?” When you are in this part of the country where sheep outnumber people by about ten to one, don’t expect to go too long without a conversation.

“Dylan Thomas,” I answer. “I am visiting the places that were important to him to understand how they inspired his writing.”

“Oh aye,” she says. “I don’t like him much.”

“Too English?” I ask. This is, after all, Welsh-speaking Wales, and English is a foreign language, the language of the conqueror and the language of Dylan Thomas.

“No, not that. I just don’t like poetry.”

“Oh,” I say. Why am I surprised?

Truth is, until this year, the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, Dylan Thomas has been more popular in the United States than he has been in Wales. The Welsh I meet who read poetry prefer the other two Thomases, Edward Thomas (1878-1917) killed in World War 1 which is also celebrating its centenary this year, and R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). Wales is a Calvinistic Methodist country, and its puritanical values run deep as coal veins. Even six decades after his death some people are still embarrassed by Dylan’s lifestyle. A receptionist at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea told me a woman complained that such a grand building was celebrating a drunk. When the receptionist countered by saying that they were celebrating Dylan Thomas’ writing, the complainer, puzzled, responded, “He was a writer?”

However, 2014 is his year and everyone, it seems, is celebrating Dylan Thomas, not just in Wales, but in London, New York, Canada and Patagonia which has the second largest Welsh speaking community in the world. There are exhibitions, festivals, films, readings—including a thirty-six hour “Dylanthon”—performances of Under Milk Wood and apps for smart phones. A replica of his famous “Writing Shed” in Laugharne is traveling around Wales. You can sit in it and have your picture taken. I sat in it, but I passed on the photograph. When I mentioned to a local that I feel like I’m in a theme park, “Dylan World,” he smiled and said, “He’s a cow to be milked.” As the bus rises and falls with the hills, I see fields surrounded by hedge rows. And, of course, I see sheep. Lots of sheep.

My mother, Thelma Elias Samuel, was born in 1924, ten years after Dylan, in Tredegar, a mining town in the Sirhowy Valley about forty miles east of Swansea. Like Dylan, she died too young. After marrying my father, a G.I. stationed in Wales during World War II, she moved to New York where she became depressed. They moved back to Wales where I was born, but she was unhappy there too. We moved to New York, then back to Wales, then back to New York, where, sad lady, she killed herself in 1958 at the age of thirty-three. I doubt my mother ever heard of Dylan Thomas, even though on November 9, 1953, we lived just six blocks from St. Vincent’s Hospital where he died, and where I was “Famous as the barns” in the emergency room, one time for swallowing a screw, another time because I had trouble breathing, another time to have my tonsils out, another time for this, another time for that.

Because I was born in Wales, people assume that I am a Dylan Thomas fan. In fact, I have been invited by several journals to write something about him on the centenary of his birth. I am a fan, but it’s more complicated than that. When I started writing poetry as a teenager, instead of reading Dylan’s poems, I made the mistake of imitating his philosophy: “I am a Welshman. I am a drunkard. I am a lover of the Human Race, especially women.” I thought that I had to experience the world like he did so I could write more honestly about it. This was fun for a while, but a few years later I was living in a commune of sorts in Cardiff. Eighteen people and two dogs crashed in a small row house near the University. Most communes have a purpose: “Let’s live off the land” or “Let’s make environmentally-friendly soaps” or something like that. If this house had a purpose, it was “Let’s stay stoned as long as we can.” One of the dogs was named Dylan. When he tried to jump over the backyard fence while tied to a post, he wound up hanging himself. One night I was too drunk to make it inside and woke up in the gutter not sure if my pants were wet because it was raining or because I peed myself. I had to change my life. I managed to stop drinking and returned to the States. A Welsh friend later told me I am the only person he knows who ever got sober in Wales.

Donald Hall refers to Dylan’s death as a “Public Suicide.” He may not have chosen the moment as my mother had, but his death was inevitable. You probably know the story. After leaving the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, Dylan declared, "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record!" and went into a coma from which he did not recover. Turns out he probably died from undiagnosed pneumonia. But the alcohol, I’m sure, would have gotten him anyway. I was nineteen when John Logan accepted me into his poetry workshop at the 92nd Street Y because, I suspect, I was a bartender and he, like Dylan, had a fondness for the bottle. After class each week we went barhopping around Manhattan, several times to the White Horse where he told me Dylan’s story and where, as we got drunk on chartreuse, he recited a new poem, “Suzanne.”

“Chartreuse,” you chanted
(the liqueur you always wanted),
“I have yellow chartreuse hair!”
Oh it was a great affair.
(Zig Zag Walk 98)

Coincidently, I was seeing a young woman named Suzanne who had, you guessed it, “yellow chartreuse hair.” I woke up sick and hungover on a couch in a three-walled room near Times Square. At least I think it had three walls. Maybe it had five. Logan was passed out on the bed. The workshop lasted ten weeks. I wasn’t sure I would survive it.

When Dylan died at the age of thirty-nine in 1953, Logan, a traditional poet at the time, wrote a sonnet “On the Death of Dylan Thomas” which is noteworthy for its abstractions, its references to nature and that it doesn’t mention him at all. Ten years or so after our boozy workshop, Logan tried again and got it right. His three page “Elegy for Dylan Thomas” ends with these lines:

Why, even the gravestones tremble
at the touch of time. So I will touch my friend once more
for the solace of the living—
and for the solaces of art,
whose mysteries deepen in the grave,
I will read your poems again.
(Bridge of Change 66)

A word about Welsh names and pronunciation. Most Welsh surnames are derived from given names: Arthur, Charles, Davies (and Davis), Evans, Hughes, Morgan, Owen, Richards, Williams, etc. There are lots of Evan Evans in Wales, as well as Richard Richards, Samuel Samuel, Thomas Thomas...you get the point. William Carlos Williams’ grandfather was born in Wales. Good thing his mother was Puerto Rican or he would be just another William Williams. The most common Welsh name is Jones, a spin-off of John. Dylan’s father, David John Thomas, was an English teacher who discouraged his son from learning Welsh because it was considered backward. He also had young Dylan take elocution lessons to diminish his Welsh accent which explains why the booming voice we hear on the recordings is more BBC than Blaenavon. Dylan, which is pronounced “Dull-an” in Welsh, is a character in the Mabinogion, the book of mythology that has given us, among other things, the stories of King Arthur. When his father named his son Dylan Marlais Thomas it was the first use of “Dylan” in modern times. The second, of course, was Mr. Tambourine Man, the third, the unfortunate dog referred to earlier. “Marlais” is Welsh for big river or big ditch. And while we’re on the subject, no one I spoke to knows how to pronounce the name of Dylan’s wife, Caitlin. She answered to both Kate-lin, the English version and Kat-leen, the Gaelic. Because she was Irish, not Welsh, people excused her for not knowing any better.

Dylan and Caitlin named their first son Llewellyn, pronounced “Thlew-ell-thlan,” after a famous Welsh king. Their second son was named Colm which is Gaelic for “Dove.” Their daughter, Aeronwy, pronounced “Eye-run-we,” was named after the River Aeron near New Quay where the family lived during the last year of the war. If you’ve seen the film, The Edge of Love with Sienna Miller, Cillian Murphy, Matthew Rhys and Ah! Keira Knightley, this is where the shooting scene takes place. When I met Aeronwy in 2008, a year or so before she died, she told me she knew her father was a poet, but hadn’t read his poems and didn’t realize what a big deal he was until, in her twenties, she moved to London from Italy where she grew up.

The land that Dylan Thomas loved has not changed much since he was a child, but what tax collectors like to call “Improvements” certainly have. Wind farms have cropped up on the sheep and hay farms, welcome at first, but no longer. Residents have placed signs on their properties that say “How Green Is My Valley, but for how long?” and “Say No – Nant Y Moch” which means something like—I didn’t understand this— “The Stream Pigs.” Turns out “Nant Y Moch” is a bucolic area where a wind farm is planned. Aeronwy’s daughter, Hannah Ellis, has been leading the campaign to stop the construction of a wind turbine across the estuary from Laugharne where it will spoil the view from the Boathouse, but the local council gave final approval in June.

When I arrive at “Fern Hill” the “lilting house” is not happy. I look around for the hill, but Wales has a million hills. I look for fern, but everything in Wales is green and leafy, and to be honest, I flunked botany in two different colleges and couldn’t tell a fern from a eucalyptus. I look at the spike-topped fence surrounding the property, but I don’t get too close because another visitor points out the poison ivy. I try to get myself into a “green and carefree” mood, but I am distracted by a large sign featuring a fierce-looking German shepherd and in big red letters: “Warning! Guard Dogs in Operation.”

It’s a different story at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea where Dylan lived until he was twenty-three. He loved this house and this neighborhood which is the setting for many of the autobiographical stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. The current owner, Geoff Haden, said that Dylan fell in love with words and wrote two thirds of his published work there, and he’s probably right. “Fern Hill,” “Poem in October,” “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and many of his poems and stories celebrate his carefree days in what the Welsh call a Cwtch, pronounced “cootsh,” a safe and nurturing cuddle you never want to break away from. Dylan went from Cwtch to Caitlin, and not that it’s her fault, but when they met in 1936 and married in 1937, he was beginning his public life as a wild man.

Geoff tours me through the house on which he has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds, restoring it to what it would have looked like when Dylan lived there. He bought a set of dinnerware at auction, but when he discovered that the willow-pattern china was made in China, not Wales, he ditched it and purchased another set manufactured locally. He points out a grandfather clock made in Swansea in the 1850’s and a working gramophone featuring the RCA logo of a dog listening to “his master’s voice.” Upstairs is the front room where Dylan was born, the original toilet in the water closet, the bath room with the tub where young Dylan smoked and dropped his ashes in the water and the room where Dylan slept and wrote his poems and stories. I gasp when Geoff sits on Dylan’s bed before remembering that it’s not Dylan’s bed. On the mirror above the desk is a copy of a newspaper photograph of young Dylan winning a foot race, the “Swansea Mile,” when he was fifteen. The original was found in his wallet when he died. The Welsh word Hiraeth, pronounced “here-eyeth,” has no English translation. It is a deep longing that can never be satisfied. Dylan had a Hiraeth for his childhood, although, in many ways he remained a child who relied on others to take care of him. His mother cut off the tops of his soft boiled eggs, a practice Caitlin continued after they were married.

Despite his faults, which were legendary, Dylan was passionate about his writing and that passion was contagious. Everyone liked him, even the painter Augustus John who introduced him to Caitlin. Although John had raped her the first time she modeled for him, she continued to model and became his mistress. According to Geoff, Caitlin and Dylan holed up in a hotel room for a week and sent John the bill. Even after John punched Dylan out for stealing her, they remained friends. The young Richard Burton was enchanted by Dylan when they met at a BBC studio in London. Dylan later hit him up for £200 “...for the education of my children,” but Richard Burton wasn’t Richard Burton yet and didn’t have £200. Two months after Dylan died, Burton starred in the first stage performance of Under Milk Wood and made sure the proceeds went to a fund to support Caitlin and the kids. When Burton died, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” was read at his funeral, and he was buried with a copy of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas in his hands.

After Dylan went into a coma before dying, Caitlin flew to New York and allegedly said, “Is the bloody man dead yet?" She escorted his body back to Wales on the SS United States, the same ship on which I crossed the Atlantic with my family the year before. She buried him in Laugharne, and after an attempted suicide or two, packed up the kids and moved to Italy where she died in 1994. I am surprised to see she is buried next to Dylan and that they share the same marker. Dylan’s name is on one side of a white metal cross, Caitlin’s on the other. They face different directions, not looking at each other.

In his story, “Who Do You Wish Was With Us,” Dylan describes a walking vacation he, “a boy,” and Ray, “a young man,” make to Rhossili Bay on the tip of the Gower Peninsula. They are full of themselves and make fun of the people riding a bus until they tire from walking and catch a bus themselves. When they arrive in Rhossili, they walk out on the rock formation known as the Worms Head, named by Viking invaders after its dragon-like appearance. They become so engrossed in its beauty, they forget they must hike back to the mainland before the tide comes in. Of course the tide comes in, leaving them stranded. I am moved by the tenderness of this story, how young Dylan tries to cheer up his friend who is mourning the deaths of his father and brother. I don’t think of Dylan the elder as having much empathy for anyone.

I stand on the cliff looking out over the magnificent and frightening Worms Head. I try to imagine being stranded there through the furious night as young Dylan was. I think of his poems and how, out of his tumble-down life, he produced such beauty. If my nutritionist friend is right, that we become addicted to the things we’re allergic to, I wonder if what sets us free also binds us. For Dylan it would be his childhood, what Rilke called, “that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories” that Dylan tapped so brilliantly in poems like “Fern Hill”: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs...green and carefree...happy as the heart was long...young and easy in the mercy of his means...” But age works us over. Despite his Hiraeth for childhood, his exuberant lifestyle and his blustering, “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Dylan, like my mother, gave up too early and reached for death, which has dominion over us all.

 Note: This article previously appeared in the Fall 2014 print edition of the Schuylkill Valley Journal.