Dylan Thomas: the poetic geography of the new university

In the transforming University of Wales Trinity Saint David, the locations of the new university’s campuses reveal a geography of poet Dylan Thomas’sDylan Thomas work and life. 

The merged universities courses delivered from campuses in Carmarthen, Lampeter, London and Swansea also share in the local, national and global celebrations for the forthcoming centenary of his birth: Dylan Thomas 100Much of Dylan’s work is produced as a young man, and is echoed by the current cohorts of students seeking to express themselves, their ideas and their passions through a variety of arts activities and programmes offered by the University.

Dylan Thomas was one of the most significant writers of the mid-twentieth century, a romantic and in his time, and aftermath, a controversial figure; a poet who lived his excesses and died young as a consequence. An inventive genius with a gift for both lyrical phrases and anecdote-rich impish humour, he also wrote for films and radio, and is renowned for his radio broadcasts and stage performances. He became the first literary star in the age of popular culture – a favourite of both T.S. Eliot and John Lennon. During his pitifully short life he produced some of the most dramatic and enduring poetry in the English language.

Old Building Carmarthen

The University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Carmarthen campus lies just 500 metres above Johnstown Park.

Anyone with an interest in Dylan Thomas soon discovers the significance of Carmarthen and Carmarthenshire on Dylan Thomas’ writing; his Johnstown Parkdevelopment and family connections which influence his early and later life and work.

Dylan’s father better known as “DJ” was born at The Poplars, Johnstown in 1876 and would meet his future wife, Florence Williams, at a country fair in Johnstown some twenty-seven years later in 1903, when most likely he was up from Swansea visiting his father (locally known as “Thomas the Guard”). In 1899 having graduated from Aberystwyth with the only first class degree in English of the then three University of Wales colleges, Dylan’s father had recently been appointed English master at Swansea Grammar school.

Swansea born Florence Williams’ family also hailed from Carmarthenshire and had settled around the Llansteffan peninsula; she too was up from Swansea visiting relatives when they met.

 

Johnstown Park 2

The romance of Dylan Thomas’s parent’s courtship in Johnstown that Easter Holiday in 1903, little known in reality, unfolds in the complex interplay of “you love me, you love me not” which entwines any marriage.  It is the hidden substance amid the Anglo-Saxon world and the Gothic mythopoeia of the Welsh Celtic twilight that Dylan playfully, movingly and lightly explored in his poetry. 

Dylan (centre), Nancy (left), Florrie and PatriciaIn 1904 his parents married in Swansea, by 1906 their first child Nancy was born, and on October 27th 1914 the birth of a son to David John and Florence Thomas, led his father “DJ” to consider his own Welsh origins in the naming of his son Dylan Marlais. 

Dylan (pronounced in the English-style ‘Chillun’) from the Mabinogion was a golden-haired baby who, as soon as he was born, made for the sea: ‘he partook of its nature, and he swam as fast as the swiftest fish.  And for that reason he was called Dylan Eil Ton, Sea Son of the Wave.’ Dylan therefore means sea or ocean.  

Marlais after his Great Uncle’s Bardic name Gwilym Marles, a celebrated Welsh poet in the C19th, (the Marles – or Marlais – after the stream in Brechfa in Carmarthenshire).

For Dylan Thomas the romance of Carmarthen and the surrounding area and his parent’s relationship imbues his earliest writings as a young poet. It is the foundation of the 4 notebooks that he completed by the age of nineteen which later became the source material for most of the poems, stories and sketches for his first 3 books.  In 1934 at the age of 19 his first book 18 Poems was published, in 1936 25 Poems and in August 1939 The Map of Love, which contained sixteen poems and seven short stories.  These three books contain a half of all the poems Thomas chose to publish, and most were written during adolescence to early manhood.

As a boy Dylan Thomas visited Carmarthen and the surrounding area to holiday and visit relatives. There were, too, childhood visits to the deep rural countryside of ‘Fern Hill’. ‘My mother came from the agricultural depths of Carmarthenshire’, wrote Thomas in 1933, for her family had its roots in farming country near Llangain, and Fem Hill farm is some three miles inland from Llansteffan. Around the estuary point where four rivers meet the sea and the River Towy flows into the River Tâf, is the township of Laugharne. Dylan was to live there with his wife Caitlin just before the war, and where he returned in 1949 to live at the Boat House with his three children Llewellyn, Aeronwy and Colm.

Such stories as ‘The Peaches' and ‘A Visit to Grandpa's' from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog reveal Dylan's delight in his holiday visits to west Wales. They vividly evoke the places, while recording Thomas's tendency even as a child to dramatise himself and his situation, already seeing himself in his imaginary tales as in this description of the welcome he received from his aunt, Ann Jones, on arriving at Fern Hill:

   Then a door at the end of the passage opened; I saw the plates on the shelves, the lighted lamp on the long, oil-clothed table, 'Prepare to Meet Thy God' knitted over the fire-place, the smiling china dogs, the brown-stained settle, the grandmother clock, and I ran into the kitchen and into Annie's arms.
   There was welcome, then. The clock struck twelve as she kissed me, and I stood among the shining and striking like a prince taking off his disguise. One minute I was small and cold, skulking dead-scared down a black passage in my  stiff, best suit . . . clutching my grammar school cap, unfamiliar to myself, a snub-nosed story-teller lost in his own adventures . . . the next I was a royal nephew, embraced and welcomed, standing in snug centre of my stories and listening to the clock announcing me . . .

In 1945 he would revisit this scene with one of his finest poems Fern Hill

As in Fern Hill, many of Thomas’s poems and stories hark back to childhood times with deep affection and recollection.  There the rural vitality and forces of nature in these places energizes his imagination, revitalizes the self and provide solace and security throughout the war years.  Time and again we see Thomas returning to west Wales to love, bring up his family, and to write. A theme seen in one of his celebrated early poems The force that drives the green fuse drives the flower:

The force that drives the green fuse drives the flowerFern Hill
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
…/…
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.

It is this sustainability with nature in the green and soft rolling hills of this rural part of Wales that inspires and envisions his poetry:

When all my five and country senses see,
The fingers will forget green thumbs and mark
How, through the halfmoon’s vegetable eye,
Husk of young stars and handful zodiac
Love in the frost is pared and wintered by…

Perhaps a cliché now, but it is worth remembering why these gentle rural places, de-stress and rejuvenate the mind and body:
[A link to a reading of this poem can be found here.]

Especially when the October wind
with frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire 
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks 
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

From 1937-49 Dylan Thomas assisted Keidrych Rhys in editing the groundbreaking Welsh writing in English literary magazine WalesThe magazine had its office in Lammas Street in Carmarthen which brought many young writers to visit Carmarthen creating a vibrant local contemporary literary scene. 

The magazine was hugely influential and not only published many of Dylan’s poems, but most of the Welsh writers writing in English at that time, such as Keidrych Rhys, Lynette Roberts, Alun Lewis, Saunders Lewis, Vernon Watkins, Robert Graves, Glyn Jones, Nigel Heseltine, Leslie Thomas and R. S. Thomas (his first published poem), to name but a few.

The town as it was in the in Dylan’s time was a gateway to the rest of west Wales; from wherever Dylan lived it was where he caught trains, shopped, drank and convened with friends and family. 

Carmarthen Campus

Laugharne from Jack the ferryman's boat at Llanybri
Laugharne from Jack the ferryman's boat at Llanybri

Sea View LaugharneDylan Thomas first went to visit Richard Hughes who lived at Castle House in Laugharne with his friend and contemporary Glyn Jones. He was somewhat spellbound by this remote village at the estuary point of the River Taff with its views of the distant sea and the Llansteffan peninsula. 

Boat House Laugharne

In 1936 Dylan via the painter Augustus John, met Caitlin Macnamara, and in 1937 they married, and went to live in Laugharne at Eros in Gosport Street; then to the larger happier house Sea View from 1937-40, from where most of Dylan’s third book The Map of Love was written.

Their first child Llewellyn Edouard was also raised there, having been baptized at St Martin’s Church, Laugharne.  They lived at Sea View in much poverty until debts got the better of them and in July 1940 left for a peripatetic existence in Oxford, London and eventually New Quay in Wales.

In 1949, Margaret Taylor pianist and wife of the philosopher, historian and pacifist A. J. P. Taylor bought the Thomases the Boat House in Laugharne.  Here the Thomases began a more settled life.

Dylan Thomas boathouse, Laugharne
Dylan Thomas boathouse, Laugharne

Even during their earlier stays in Laugharne, Dylan and Caitlin had dreamed of living in the Boat House. It was certainly not the material comfort or the practicality of the house that attracted them. In fact, the house was notoriously cold and damp, and did not boast electricity nor running water or a bathroom until after Margaret Taylor paid for improvements to be carried out.  Approached via the small pathway now renamed ‘Dylan’s Walk’  visitors move into the timeless world of the sinuous curves of the river Tâf, of glinting light on mud and water, of low green hills, of the vast panorama across the estuaries and the sea, and of the wheeling and calling of seabirds. As Dylan said, “there is nowhere else like the Boat House.”  The building nestles under the cliffs, hence Thomas’s description, in ‘Prologue’, of living ‘At a wood’s dancing hoof’.

Writing ShedFrom the ‘seashaken house on a breakneck of rocks’ (which may have more to do with the RAF rocket testing facility at the Ginst opposite), it was here that Dylan wrote ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, one of his most famous poems for his father in failing health [Click here to Dylan Thomas reading the poem from his 1952 Caedmon recording].

Just before the Boat House is a garage that was converted to Dylan Thomas’s ‘Writing Shed’, assembled on four ornate cast iron pillars straddling the cliff rock below.  [Click here to see a photo of Dylan Thomas working in his ‘Writing Shed’ in 1952.]   The writing shed has become a place of pilgrimage for writers from around the world. Across the river, just over the horizon, stand Blaen Cwm, Llanybri, Llansteffan and Fern Hill; places that linked his childhood with friends and family against the inexorable march of time.

Writing Shed InteriorOn the far horizon, lie the Gower Peninsula and Worms Head where Dylan’s best friend and poet Vernon Watkins lived, and where Dylan set one of his most powerful short stories, ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’
[Link here to Dylan Thomas reading the story from his 1952 Caedmon recording]

To the right of Laugharne Bay is Sir John's Hill - one of the most famous heights in British verse - the inspiration for one of his most magnificent poems, Over Sir John’s Hill [Link here to Dylan Thomas reading the poem from his 1953 Caedmon recording]  [A variation here].   

Below lays Laugharne town, with his parents (who came to live in Laugharne at a house called The Pelican), the pubs and with the road that took him away from his inspiration, ‘yet always brought him back’.  Perhaps that is part of the wistful evocation Thomas had for Laugharne, in one sense he spent less time in Laugharne than at any of his former homes.  In 1946 Dylan Thomas’s Selected Poems was published in the USA to much acclaim. In 1950 shortly after his move to the Boat House, Dylan’s went on his first literary reading tour of the USA.  This was such a success that he was invited back again in 1952, and subsequently he would return for another two tours in April-June 1953 and then in October 1953.  Between the second and third tours, Dylan was finalising the radio drama Under Milk Wood where much of it was written in his Writing Shed.

(See: Lampeter section)

Working from a typescript made shortly before he left for the USA; on his third American tour on the 14 May 1953 Dylan Thomas read as First Voice in the first performance of Under Milk Wood in New York.  The success of Under Milk Wood brought Thomas much fame and in October 1953 he embarked on his fourth American tour.

[A link of the typescript of Under Milk Wood via Australia Guttenberg Project // Link Dylan Thomas Gravehere  // For the first broadcast released in 1954, with Richard Burton as 1st voice link
(1) here  (2) here (3) here (4) here (5) here (6) here (7) here (8) here (9) here (10) here (11) here (12) here ]

Just before Thomas had left for the States on his fourth American tour he had been unwell. Exacerbated by the pressures of the trip and forthcoming engagements combined with excessive drinking bouts, on the 5th of November his health deteriorated and through a number of circumstances he lost consciousness, and was admitted to St Vincent’s Hospital, New York.  It was also on 5th November while listening to the broadcast of his talk ‘Laugharne’ in the school hall with the other townsfolk there, that Caitlin Thomas received the news that her husband was ‘lying unconscious in an American hospital’. 

After four-and-a-half days in a coma, on the 9th November 1953 he died.  Dylan’s body was brought back to Laugharne from America and he is buried at St Martin’s churchyard with a simple white cross; his wife Caitlin was interred with him on her death in July 1994.

Celebrating Wales in all its diversity – promoting our shared culture – and celebrating its distinctiveness, the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David Lampeter Campus, is a gateway campus some 27 miles north of Carmarthen. The campus facilities boast one of the best libraries and private collections of medieval manuscripts in the country - The Roderic Bowen Library and Archives - as well as the Canterbury Building which is home to the range of services providing support for students. The Arts Hall and Cliff Tucker Theatre are both modern and well-equipped venues used for lectures as well as arts and community events.

st-davids-building-lampeter

Lampeter is in the ancient county of Cardiganshire, now Ceredigion and is the closest town to New Quay and the Aeron Valley, where Thomas lived on and off in the 1940s.  It was there in New Quay that Dylan Thomas wrote his evocative sketch of the town ‘Quite Early One Morning’, and from which the germ of his ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood came.  Although set in an imaginary coastal resort ‘Llareggub’, there has been many a conjecture as to whether it is set in New Quay, Fishguard, Llansteffan or Laugharne; most likely all of these places contributed.  Although it has been established that Thomas wrote most of the play elsewhere, he laid the foundations and sketched the characters at the Majoda bungalow, New Quay.

New QuayThe evocative opening lines delivered by the omniscient narrator invites the audience to listen to the dreams and innermost thoughts of the inhabitants of a fictional small Welsh fishing village, Llareggub:

To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

Under Milk Wood had its first staged performance whilst Dylan was on his third lecture tour of America on the 14th May 1953.  Under Milk Wood could be said to be the first ‘soap opera’ and the name for the TV soap Coronation Street derives from the central street in Llareggub.  (See Laugharne section)

Swansea Campus

A Transformed University

With the merger of Swansea Metropolitan University and the University of Wales: Trinity Saint David on Friday 28 September 2012, this historic development will allow the transformed University to enhance the already excellent student experience offered by its predecessor institutions and build on the existing achievements of the merged partners. 

Within the poetic geography of Dylan Thomas, we uncover between the locations of the university campuses of Swansea Metropolitan’s Campus at Mount Pleasant and the Townhill Campus (View campus map here) Dylan’s birthplace at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, where he played and ran riot as a child at Cwmdonkin Park, and at Swansea Metropolitan’s Campus at Mount Pleasant, rediscover the hidden gem of the Swansea Grammar School where he first published his poetry and where his father was senior English master.

On the 27th October 1914 Dylan Thomas was born at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, from the time Dylan could talk his father began to instil in him a love of English literature and the complexities of language, forged in the twin towns of bohemian and industrial Swansea.  In contrast to his sharp tongued father, his mother was warm and affectionate and doted on Dylan extravagantly. 

I first saw the light of day in a Glamorgan villa, and amidst the terrors of the Welsh accent and the smoke of the tinplace stacks, grew up a sweet baby, a precocious child, a rebellious boy and a morbid youth.  My father was a schoolmaster: a broader-minded man I have never known.

Swansea Countryside

Between the Metropolitan and Townhill campuses lies Cwmdonkin Drive and around the corner Cwmdonkin Park:

Though it was only a little park, it held within its borders of old tall trees, notched with our names and shabby from our climbing, as many secret places, caverns and forests, prairies and deserts, as a country somewhere at the end of the sea.

 It was here too, in Reminiscences of Childhood, that Dylan was later to endure:

‘...with pleasure, the first agonies of unrequited love, the first slow boiling in the belly of a bad poem, the strutting and raven-locked self-dramatization of what . . . seemed incurable adolescence.’

From these reminiscences Thomas also wrote one of his most delightful poems, Hunchback in the Park

Like the park birds he came early
Like the water he sat down
And Mister they called Hey mister
The truant boys from the town
Running when he had heard them clearly
On out of sound

Swansea Montage