Last week, as part of that European travel that I told you I hardly ever do, I spent a few days roaming south Wales. My husband had business in Swansea, and we stayed on for a few days to tour castles, to climb hills for views of dramatic coastlines, and to visit, among other places, the boathouse where Dylan Thomas lived.
Dylan Thomas, the best-known Welsh poet since the legendary bards of Wales died out in the 13th century, started out in Swansea, too: he was born there in 1914. I’ve you aren’t familiar with him, you don’t have to take my word for it that he’s famous; just look on the cover of your old Sgt. Pepper’s album; he’s two rows behind Paul McCartney (the clean-shaven McCartney in a dark suit, not the moustachioed McCartney in blue satin), the one with the chubby face of an overgrown cherub.
And even if you haven’t heard of Dylan Thomas there’s a good chance you might recognize some of his most-quoted lines: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs”, maybe, or “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light”, a powerful response to his father’s death.* When Dylan was a child (in the same way fans of Virginia Woolf tend to call her Virginia, Dylan Thomas fans tend to feel they’re on first-names terms, which is saying something—I mean, you wouldn’t call T.S.Eliot “Tom”, would you?) his father taught at the local grammar school Dylan attended. When the school’s headmaster asked Dylan one day where he was going, he said “Home, to write poetry”. The headmaster said “Well, don’t get caught, then.”
Despite calling Wales “the land of my fathers” and adding “my fathers can keep it”, Dylan eventually settled in Laugharne (pronounced Larn**), then a little village of 400 people. He lived with his wife, Caitlin, and three children in a boathouse on the Tâf estuary, bought for them by a patron. (Those were the days.) That’s the house I wanted to see.
We parked at Laugharne castle, which has, unfortunately as it turns out, been chosen by Cadw (the government agency in charge of maintaining Welsh historic sites) to be a center for community arts projects in the cultural Olympiad—events and exhibitions scheduled to run during the Olympics so Britain can show the world what’s happening here in the arts. What’s happening at Laugharne castle is an installation of enormous—and I mean at least a couple or three feet across—bright pink flowers on what ought to be the stern and forbidding 13th-century stone walls. I found it so off-putting that I didn’t think to take a photo, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine it.
The path skirts the castle, then goes up (and up and up) the hill into the village and out again, through a tunnel of green leaves where its name changes from Cliff Road to Dylan’s Walk, passing the poet’s “wordsplashed hut”, otherwise known as his writing shed and, before he moved in, known as the garage. (We’ll come back to the writing shed, I promise). Down the other side of the hill at the water’s edge, we found the house.
It was an actual boathouse once; old photos show boats in drydock where visitors today sip tea at picnic tables. When the tide is highest, the Tâf still invites itself across the patio, and has been known to come right into the Thomas’ sitting room.
On the next floor up, high and dry, the family kept a more formal parlour used mainly for seeing guests, and a bedroom for Llewellyn, the eldest son. Dylan and Caitlin’s bedroom and a bedroom for Aeronwy and Colm, the younger children, were on the floor above; the bottom floor had a kitchen as well as the sitting room, and there was a lavatory outside. The house didn’t have running water or electricity until the Thomases moved in.
Dylan’s father’s desk—at which the teenaged Dylan wrote innumerable poems in his parents’ house in Swansea—sits in the parlour of the Boathouse now, looking rather unimportant, when actually over half the Dylan Thomas poems we read today had their roots in those early efforts. He copied over 200 poems into neat notebooks, and mined them for material for years afterwards. The notebooks themselves aren’t on display, though; they’re in a university library in Buffalo, New York, because Dylan sold them in the 1940s when he was, according to Boathouse staff member, “skint” (a good British word you can understand from the context, I’m sure).
Llewellan’s bedroom is now the ticket office and bookshop. I commented to the lady at the ticket desk that while it was a pleasant walk from the village on a nice day, Caitlin Thomas probably thought differently when she had to walk to the village in all weathers, carrying a shopping basket and towing three children. “Oh, but she didn’t,” said the ticket lady, who grew up in Laugharne and remembers the Thomases. It seems the family had food delivered from a lady the whole village called Auntie Louie, who kept a grocery. And after a delivery boy came back wide-eyed, saying that Mrs Thomas had opened the door to him without a stitch on, Auntie Louie had no trouble at all finding someone to take the groceries all that way.
It occurs to me that the delivery boy might have pulled a Tom Sawyer on his friends to get out of the long walk. If Caitlin Thomas had a reputation for public nudity, nobody seems to have recorded it, though she and Dylan were unconventional, with their personal histories running to several lovers and to truly prodigious drinking. Historians say that Dylan may have been an alcoholic, but he also played up his image as a drinker and lady’s man, and in fact wasn’t as profligate as he liked to let people think. My faithful reader Malcolm, who often comments on my posts here, tells me that as a student he once went into a London pub, sat at the bar, and heard from the barkeep that the last person to sit on that stool before he did was Dylan Thomas.
Dylan’s reputation was apparently enough to keep him from being buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where he might have lain alongside distinguished writers from Chaucer to Kipling. When President Jimmy Carter, a fan of the poems, led a campaign to add a memorial to Dylan Thomas, officials at the Abbey at first declined, mentioning his “dissolute lifestyle”. (Carter noted—when the the Abbey eventually allowed the placing of a plaque—that there was “no need to list the human foibles of some of the others who had already been honored there.”)
Instead, Dylan is buried with Caitlin in Laugharne, which he once called the “strangest town in Wales”. Scholars tend to agree that Laugharnians inspired the characters in Under Milk Wood, Dylan’s play for voices, which is widely considered a masterpiece, though he set the action in a fictional town named Llareggub—which may look like a Welsh placename because of the double-L at the beginning, but is really bugger all spelled backwards.
Guidebooks will tell you he wrote most of Under Milk Wood in his writing shed, a former garage perched on the cliff above the Boathouse. Recent research suggests he probably didn’t, but it must have made a wonderful study, and it had the advantage of being a good way towards the pub from the house, so when he was finished working, he had less of a walk to get to his pint.
Some say his last words were “I’ve had 18 whiskeys in a row. I believe that’s a record”, but from statements made at the time by friends and doctors, that was another exaggeration. His health had never been very good; he was excused from the military in WWII due to asthma. It might have been that the doctors gave him too much morphine.
In any case–and to misquote him only a little—the metronome fell with a clout to the ground, stopped, and there was no more time. He had just turned 39. But he left us the poems, though in his judgment, he was only “the top of the second eleven”, a term from cricket, for which the closest American equivalent might be “the best player in the second string”. But a lot of people all around the world would place him far above that.
** I’ve touched on the subject of names with unusual pronunciations before, but just stumbled across this “List of names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations”, which might very well interest some readers.
Please note that the featured link will now point you to the website of the Dylan Thomas Boathouse.