As part of my ‘Month of Letters’ blogs to mark the re-release of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Letters in two paperback volumes, here are two more letters that particularly interest me. They also, appropriately, seem to link well with another event this week, National Poetry Day. This year’s theme is Freedom.
Below are two short letters to Vernon Watkins from early September 1940 and 27th July 1944. Vernon was a Swansea friend whom Dylan communicated with on various matters, including asking for help and advice with his poetry. His letters to Vernon also demonstrate a strong friendship. I’ve chosen these particular letters because they offer an insight into both the dangerous world of the 1940s and the constant fear that must have surrounded everyday life. Furthermore, they possibly explain why Dylan struggled to write poetry during much of the Second World War. It was only afterwards, or when war was nearly over, that he could express what he observed through some very powerful poems and broadcasts.
Malting House Marshfield nr Chippenham Wilts
God, yes, how awful it must have looked. But I didn’t get the 2 quid. Mad things have been happening to letters: I’ve lost one before, about 3 weeks ago. I think this house must be marked, & the letters opened. Really. The house, as I told you, is full of musicians, all are young men, not one is in the army, one has a German name, there was a German staying here some time ago, and there have also been five lighting offences in about six weeks. Perhaps a lucky censor got your lovely present. I am so sorry, for you & for me. 2 crinklers. And at bank-bombing time too. I thought that your not answering my letter was because you’d been hijacked into the army. I couldn’t realize you were waiting for an answer from me.
I can’t imagine Gower bombed. High explosives at Pennard. Flaming onions over Pwlldu. And Union Street ashen. This is all too near. I had to go to London last week to see about a BBC job, & left at the beginning of the big Saturday raid. The Hyde Park guns were booming. Guns on the top of Selfridges. A ‘plane brought down in Tottenham Court Road. White-faced taxis still trembling through the streets, though, & buses going, & even people being shaved. Are you frightened these nights? When I wake up out of burning birdman dreams—they were frying aviators one night in a huge frying pan: it sounds whimsical now, it was appalling then—and hear the sound of bombs & gunfire only a little way away, I’m so relieved I could laugh or cry. What is so frightening, I think, is the idea of greyclothed, grey-faced, blackarmletted troops marching, one morning, without a sound up a village street. Boots on the cobbles, of course, but no Heil-shouting, grenading, goosestepping. Just silence. That’s what Goebbels has done for me. I get nightmares like invasions, all successful. (Ink gone)
I saw, and of course liked for I’d known nearly all of it before, the Llewelyn poems. Have you any time for writing now? Will you let me see something new? I’ve collaborated in a detective story and am just about to begin a short story. I do scripts for the BBC, to be translated into, & broadcast to, Brazil. I’ve got an exciting one to do next, on Columbus. But I haven’t settled down to a poem for a long time. I want to, & will soon, but it mustn’t be nightmarish.
I just looked again at your last letter, and you said in it that bombs were falling on the cliffs. I hope they missed you. Where is the nearest air-raid shelter? Singleton? You must run very fast. In this house Caitlin & I have our bedroom on the top floor, and so far we haven’t got up even when the German machines are over us like starlings. But I think we’ll have to, soon. My mother wrote & told me that people are sleeping on the Gower beaches, in barns and hedges. I went to see a smashed aerodrome. Only one person had been killed. He was playing the piano in an entirely empty, entirely dark canteen.
What are our Swansea friends doing? Is Fred still crossgartering fruit and faces? drilling? objecting? I don’t hear from him ever. Life & Letter, of course. My father said he saw him in an airbattle over the town, standing in the middle of the street, his long neck craned.
I don’t know at all when we’ll be back in the ruins. I’ll have to go to London so often, once—& if ever—this job gets really going. I’d love to see you before you undrive your motorcycle. No chance of us meeting in London? We’ve never done that. That would be lovely.
Write soon. Forgive this unavoidable & rude-appearing delay. Sorry, very sorry, sorrier than I can tell you, about the death of the pounds.
Lower me immediately on the equinoctial list of dislikes.
Love from Caitlin & me.
Remember me to your people. I hope the bombs won’t touch the croquet lawn. We must all play next summer.
Blaen Cwm Llangain near Carmarthen
I didn’t think it was so long since we saw each other, or since I wrote to you. We were three months in Sussex, and two months near Beaconsfield. So it’s nearly half a year and what a year and what a pity and what the hell. We must (always my fault that we haven’t) write regularly to each other now, if only to report that a little tepid blood is still trickling, that there is still a faint stir somewhere in the chest, that we can still put pen to paper, paper to bottom, thumb to nose, the world to rights, two & two together, put and take.
The Sussex months were beastly. When it wasn’t soaking wet, I was. Aeroplanes grazed the roofs, bombs came by night, police by day, there were furies at the bottom of my garden, with bayonets, and a floating dock like a kidney outside the window,and Canadians in the bushes, and Americans in the hair; it was a damned banned area altogether. They worshipped dogs there, too, and when a pom was born in one house the woman put out the Union Jack.
Near Beaconsfield, where Chesterton sat on his R.C., it was better. We stayed with a man who runs the film company I fool for, and the country was green and okay, but the well-off people were dry and thin and grieved over their petrol-less motorcars and played bridge like ferrets, and the poor snarled and were all named Body.
Now we’re with my mother and father in Llangain, near Llanstephan where everyone goes into the pubs sideways, & the dogs piss only on back-doors, and there are more unwanted babies shoved up the chimneys than there are used french letters in the offertory boxes. It’s a mean place but near Laugharne where we will go next week.
Is Dot in Carmarthen? Let me know. We’d love to see her.
I’ve found that I can do most of my filmwork outside London, (which soon will be shelled terribly by things that scream up into the stratosphere, passing the queen bees, and then roar down on to Manresa Road), and so we are looking, again, for somewhere to live in the country. In Laugharne, if possible. In Wales, preferably. And we’ll stay here, getting on my father—for he’s one bald nerve—until we find a house, a flat, a room, a sty, a release.
By the way, I have a new complaint. Itching feet. There is nothing to see, the feet just itch. I have to take my shoes off many times a day and rub my soles with my socks. Ask Dan if he knows what it is—he’s learned in little woes. How is Dan? I’d write to him but have lost his address. Ask him to write to me; I feel very Warmley to him all the time, and would very much love to hear.
Here is a poem (printed in ‘Our Time’) which perhaps you haven’t seen. I didn’t print the Lorca lines above the poem. Will you tell me about it? It really is a Ceremony, and the third part of the poem is the music at the end. Would it be called a voluntary, or is that only music at the beginning?
Keidrych & Lynette are in Llanybri. I always knew Keidrych was a turnip, and now there are little turnips growing all over his top. Lynette, who cannot read Welsh, is revising the standard nineteenth-century book on Welsh prosody, and also annotating a work on the Hedgerows of Carmarthenshire. I hope she becomes famous, & that they will name an insect after her.
I am writing poems, and have three new ones I’ll send you when they are typewritten and after I have heard from you about the Ceremony.
Write very soon, please, & tell me everything.
Hannah Ellis – 25th September 2017.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – www.lovethewords.co.uk