Last week our family was joined at Westminster Abbey by the Dylan Thomas Society to lay a wreath on my grandfather’s plaque and to mark sixty-three years since his death. Seeing him in Poet’s Corner surrounded by the likes of Lord Byron, George Eliot, DH Lawrence and Henry James reminds me of his high status within the literature world and what a truly international writer he is. With that in mind, I’m keen to understand the interesting relationship between Dylan Thomas and his home country, Wales and why it has taken many years for them to embrace him as one of their own.
I wonder that if the press were not always so quick to reinforce, what they imagine, is a clever caricature of the Welsh clown they might look at my grandfather’s life more deeply. For me, his choice to give the ‘Land Of My Fathers’ line to one of his most spiteful and mean characters is far more indicative of his attitude to Wales than all the sensational headlines put together.
I always return to my grandfather’s writing when I’m trying to understand him more. His poetry, prose and letters completely contradict the idea he disliked his country of birth. They tell me quite the opposite in fact. It appears to me to be a very superficial argument that I am struggling to find basis for. His writing continually and repeatedly refers to the beauty of the Welsh landscape. He unconsciously demonstrates that Wales was important to him. When away, he yearned to know, “What birds sounded like and said in Gower; what sort of a sound and a shape was Carmarthen Bay; what silence when night fell in the Aeron Valley.” His work is filled with nostalgic trips back to his childhood. Was he returning to a time when he felt safe?
Throughout Dylan Thomas 100, I was asked to talk about the loveliness of Wales– it was so easy – I just gave them a whistle-stop tour of industry, sea and countryside by using Dylan’s words alone.
So, where does it come from this belief that Dylan loathed Wales? I feel I’ve missed a section of the jigsaw. One thing I have considered is that he may have made negative comments within certain ‘judgmental’ crowds made up of the Welsh establishment – the ‘Crachach’. Maybe he was made to feel inferior (he didn’t have a Oxbridge education but could still write so well – perhaps they were intimidated too) and then did, and said, shocking things to cause a stir – I certainly wouldn’t put it past him. He could have made some very influential enemies. The very same ones that dismissed his work as meaningless -“frothing at the mouth with piss” were Kingsley Amis’s exact words!
There is also no denying that he had a complex relationship with the small-seeking chapel going culture. The constant, “What’ll the neighbours say, what’ll the neigbours say” must have been tiresome. Wales was a small country, with even smaller villages and towns, where everyone knew every one else’s business. At times, he must have felt trapped and vulnerable. After all, he did make a pilgrimage in 1934 to meet the controversial figure Caradog Evans who described the Welsh Conformists as people, “who prayed to God on Sunday and preyed on his neighbours every other day of the week.” It’s true that these groups probably struggled to forgive Dylan for exposing them in Under Milk Wood and memories are long…I met a lady recently that was working on a Dylan Thomas project and her elderly mother’s response was an expression of disgust, “Ach a fi!”
Interestingly though, it was in these communities where my grandfather absorbed the Welsh language. From all around: his mam, his aunts, his uncles and in the chapel of course. Another suggestion I’ve heard is that Dylan rejected the dialect of the West Wales villages where he spent much of his childhood. Again… just look at his writing. His work is overflowing with Cynghanedd the traditional component of Welsh poetry. He steals the music of his upbringing and draws upon it in two of his most famous poems. The title and first line of his poem Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ and the last line of Fern Hill, ‘Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’ This is just a drop in the ocean there are so many more examples.
So how about ‘Wales didn’t care much for Dylan Thomas, and the feeling was often mutual.’ Do the people of Wales really despise Dylan? The celebrations of his centenary year convince me that this argument is also very simplistic. The love and respect my grandfather received was overwhelmingly positive. Yes, there were a few negative comments. “Why’s it all about Dylan Thomas?” (Erm, it’s his centenary) and “Wales has other writers too.” Well, actually, I agree with that one. Wales does have other writers and they should be applauded too. But, Dylan Thomas became internationally recognised in his own lifetime and has remained well known around the world– let’s learn from that. What did he do to make it happen? Use Dylan Thomas’s fame and his wonderful work as a hook and then share and share again the talent we have in Welsh literature and the arts.
My conclusion in truth is I suspect it is myth-feeding myth feeding myth. Be cautious about anything you read about Dylan Thomas – perhaps this blog also as I more than likely have a biased take on my grandfather. But my opinion is (and it is just my opinion) that Dylan loved the Welsh landscape – it’s where he felt free to write poetry – and he adored the ‘characters’ and the real people he met in his beloved seaside towns and villages. We must work together to remember my grandfather’s accomplishments but equally, we must also support and highlight up and coming writers and help them find opportunities to have their work stand proudly on a bigger stage.
Hannah Ellis – 21st November 2016.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – http://www.hannahellisconsultancy.com