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Early in the second world war, before beginning his work for Strand Films in London, Dylan Thomas, his wife Caitlin and baby son Llewelyn lived briefly in Blashford near Ringwood in the New Forest. OK, it's a tenuous link for Portsmouth Poetry but both Liz Weston and Josh Brown are Welsh. (Though Liz comes from West Wales and Josh from the North ["Welsh Wales"] but we don't mention that!)
Responding to requests from some of our connections, we have included a page on the site dedicated to the greatest poet from the land of poetry and song - Dylan Marlais Thomas. It will include posts written by us and links to interesting information about the Swansea Bard.
To be born Welsh is to be born privileged. Not with a silver spoon in your mouth, but with a song on your lips and poetry in your soul.
[also in the poem "In Passing" Brian Harris 1967]
Dylan in Laugharne (A Personal Memory)
This article was originally published on the London Literary Pub Crawl website in 2016 under the title "Memories of Dylan Thomas and Chapel Wales"
I was born in a snowstorm in 1947, 6 years before Dylan died. My mother was chapel Welsh from a pit village outside Wrecsam in, as she called it, “Welsh Wales” to distinguish it from the “English Wales” of the south. Taid’s [Welsh for Granddad] family were miners although he escaped the pit shortly after returning from WW1 to be a carpenter. His family had come from Cornwall to Wales in the C19th and did not speak Welsh. My Nain’s [Welsh for Nan] family were hill farmers and Welsh speakers, refusing or possibly knowing no English.
My mother, who could reprimand in perfect Welsh, retained her lilting accent until she died aged 93. Schooled at a time when recitation was a commonplace, my treasured memory is how whenever she read out loud her accent would become stronger, more musical in the way syllables were almost sung. I was 14 when I first heard a Dylan Thomas recording. A school friend had an elder brother who had a couple of the Caedmon albums. There was an instant familiarity and I knew instinctively what Dylan meant by “the colour of saying”.
The heavy drinking roustabout poet was an ideal for a rebellious teenage would-be especially as Dylan was almost persona non-grata to the literary establishment (absent from my A Level modern poets anthology). Wales too wanted none of him, my relatives shocked that my mother ‘allowed’ me to read “that drunkard Dylan Thomas”. My first poems tried to emulate the word-wealthy feel of Dylan whilst copying the rambling format of his Greenwich Village namesake.
In 1970, having completed a degree in Economics, my new wife and I moved from London to Manchester holidaying for a week on route in Laugharne, a pilgrimage I had promised myself for months of study.
We booked to stay, inevitably, at Browns Hotel but they closed for redecoration and transferred us to a guest house opposite the Green Dragon on King Street. It was mid September. We took a train to Camarthen and a wonderful old Pioneer company bus to Laugharne. The tickets, still the pre-war type, were punched with a hole in a machine on a leather strap around the conductor’s neck – there was still a conductor and driver.
We rumbled through the apple green country and into “the strangest town in Wales” stopping next to Laugharne Pottery. My heart sank at the sight of the ‘Milk Wood Café’ (closed now the summer season was over) but this was the only concession to the town’s famous resident.
"I am spending Whitsun in the strangest town in Wales. Laugharne, with a population of four hundred, has a townhall, a castle and a portreeve. The people speak with a broad English accent, although on all sides they are surrounded by hundreds of miles of Welsh country. The neutral sea lies at the foot of the town, and Richard Hughes writes his cosmopolitan stories in the castle.
I am staying with Glyn Gower Jones. You remember I showed you one of his bad poems in the Adelphi. He is a nice, handsome young man with no vices. He neither smokes, drinks nor whores. He looks very nastily at me down his aristocratic nose if I have more than one Guinness at lunch and is very suspicious when I go out by myself. I believe he thinks that I sit on Mr Hughes castle walls with a bottle of rye whiskey or revel in the sweet confusion of a broadflanked fisherwoman."
Dylan Thomas, Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson May 1934
[RICHARD HUGHES WAS AN AUTHOR AND POET MOST FAMOUS FOR THE NOVEL 'A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA'. DYLAN LATER STAYED WITH HUGHES WHILE WRITING "A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG DOG" MORGAN GLYNDWR JONES , KNOWN AS 'GLYN', WAS A WELSH NOVELIST, POET AND HISTORIAN, HIS COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES "THE BLUE BED" WERE WRITING AFTER ENCOURAGEMENT BY DYLAN. THE REFERENCE TO HIM AS 'GLYN GOWER JONES' IS A JOKE, HE PUBISHED UNDER THE PSEUDONYM 'M G GOWER' ]
There were only two other sets of guests. Two literature students from Swansea University paying homage before the start of term and Alun Davies and his wife. Davies was Cat Steven’s guitarist and collaborator. He had been busy touring and her parents had taken the children so they could have a weekend break together.
Laugharne was a different place then. Unsure of its association with Dylan, nervous of a future that might depend too heavily on it. Cockle fishing had ceased I think, certainly we saw no evidence of it, but the town was still a rural community, close knit, not unfriendly and rooted in farming. Despite my initial misgiving, commercialising Dylan Thomas had yet to start and the only real evidence of him was the occasional afternoon coach of, mainly, American day trippers.
The Boathouse was still owned by Caitlin though she lived abroad. The furniture was in storage and the place was for sale on the strict understanding that a buyer would undertake to turn it into a museum honouring Dylan. A mausoleum perhaps. I have never been totally comfortable with freezing the artist in a stale replica of his or her dead existence. There is little of Wordsworth in Dove Cottage or the Brontes in Haworth Parsonage. The Welsh singer Dorothy Squires was the latest would-be purchaser staying in an expensive hotel in the area whilst attempting to negotiate round Caitlin’s stipulations (which I was told were many and difficult). Whilst we were there, Caitlin was said to have come over from Italy to try to complete the sale. This did not happen and Squires abandoned her attempts to reach a compromise.
In 1970, this part of Wales was still “dry”. Pubs were closed on Sundays and no alcohol could be purchased after Saturday evening. The Green Dragon, however, had an accommodating landlady, Glenys Pearce, and an unspoken arrangement with the local police so a ‘lock in’ ran into the early hours of Sunday morning. My wife and I could hear the singing and merriment in the early hours from our room in the guesthouse.
The Welsh Sunday Closing Act, 1881 was as much an act of nationalist defiance as it was one of Welsh temperance. A young Lloyd George was one of those who supported the bill. The bill was repealed in 1961 allowing each district to vote on whether or not to remain "dry" . In 1970 Carmarthenshire was still one of those yet to abandon the alcohol free Sabbath.
The 1881 Act coincided with the first wave of Italian immigrants to Wales leading to the growth and popularity of Coffee Bars and Milk Bars so, indirectly, the act contributed to the Kardomah Gang helping to shape Dylan's poetry!
The lads from Swansea University had found their way into the lock-in and made the acquaintance of a local named Johnny Oriel. Johnny was the type of roguish character Dylan populated Llareggub. I have read that he peeled off pieces of wallpaper from the Boathouse and sold them to American tourists. He was a friend of Dylan and Caitlin and it was he she trusted to take care of the Boathouse. It was said in the town that he was one of the characters in Under Milk Wood, possibly Captain Cat, probably because he wore a blue serge boatman cap!
Two excited, if hungover, students announced at breakfast that Johnny had offered to let them have the keys to the Boathouse and invited us all to join them. The Davies’ had to return to London but we were in! Late Monday morning we met Johnny. He was (I think) living in a caravan parked in Grist Square. A short rotund man in his blue hat, he was loyal in his way to Caitlin and the only person I encountered not prepared to advance an opinion on the Thomas’s. He handed us a bunch of keys, gave instructions on security and care of the house, told us he had opened the upper windows to air the house and to leave them open and we were off. With hindsight, we cannot have been the only people to get an unofficial visit before the Boathouse became a public venue but, equally, I doubt it was an offer made frequently spurred as it was by ale and the sincerity of two students. No money changed hands, or if it did the lads never admitted to the transaction.
Today, the path to the Boathouse has been cleared giving an open view of the Taff Estuary but in 1970 ‘Cliff Road’ was overgrown as it had been when the Thomas’s walked it preferring (according to John Malcolm Brinnin) to reach the town along the river bank at low tide . Now it has been re-named “Dylan Walk”, nicely cleaned up into a tourist fiction. The “Writing Shed”, the garage for Doctor Cowan’s green Wolesley, was painted in red oxide, jutting out from the trees. We pressed against the crack in the doorway trying to see inside. The (upper) gate to the house was chained and padlocked. (There was a lower gate onto the estuary. A young Michael Sheen discovered it in the mud some years later.) We opened and re-secured it as instructed by Johnny. As we were doing so, a party of day visitors arrived. As we wound through the garden I heard an American drawl exclaim “Gee, d’ya think they knew Dylan?”
[The House] was as much given to the sea as sequestered against it......at the bottom of a wild garden through which a stoney muddy path wound steeply upward through blackthorns and wild roses to a sort of promenade paralleling a mossy stone wall running along the property on which the Boathouse stood."
John Malcolm Brinnin
"Dylan Thomas In America"
The Boathouse, of course, was empty. It was warm and surprisingly quiet with a magnificent view of the estuary on whose edge it clung. A storm blew up quickly, the kind that can blow in and be gone in minutes, yet there was little indication of it inside. We walked the outer balcony and disobeyed Johnny, closing one bedroom window that was letting in the rain. The kitchen had the integral cupboards typical of the 1940’s. I opened one and inside were three dusty empty brown ale bottles. For many years I liked to imagine that these had been the last Felinfoel Dylan drank before “sailing out to die” until, with some regret, I realised that the Boathouse had for some years been rented to tenants whose empties these bottles probably were! For a second I contemplated taking one but Johnny’s trust and me being a lapsing chapel raised Catholic (it’s a long story) meant the temptation was fleeting. I wonder now if these are on display or disappeared in the re-imaging of the poet. We locked up carefully and wound back to Johnny then to the pub, possibly the Fountain, to talk over the experience.
I talked to many locals who knew Dylan. With the exception of Johnny Oriel and the manager of our guesthouse, few were entirely positive. To contextualise this, small rural communities did not take quickly to outsiders and may not have fully accepted the poet and his Irish tempest. The chapel still held enormous influence in Wales and there would have been a pursed lipped disapproval of a man who died in an alien city after boasting of his drinking to a woman he was possibly having an affair with. Then there was the recognition that Thomas Tourism was likely to wrench this “timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town” out of the hands of its people. That was certainly a resentment several locals expressed. The town was far from unfriendly, a common accusation made against the Welsh, but it could sense that it was soon to be changed utterly. It is not possible to say to what degree this discomfort with the poet was justified. No one actually spoke badly of him but none were praising either. One farmer talked of the threat he felt the town faced from growing visitors and ventured to comment that an excess of drink takes people many ways and with Dylan it just made him a pain in the backside! From word wonderful poet to bar room bore is a real fall from grace! To counter the easy excuse that this antipathy was simply small town small mindedness it should be remembered that Laugharne was used to artistic residents and that Dylan’s parents were also respected members of the community so any antipathy cannot simply be dismissed as rural prejudice.
However, if the resentment and criticism was muted toward Dylan it was not toward Caitlin! Again, Wales at the time was hardly liberal, feminism was new and moral restriction fell more heavily on women than on men but the opinion, in as many as I encountered, was uniform – she was not liked! That she was, at the time, in a hotel negotiating the sale of the Boathouse with no apparent concern for the consequence to the town served to fan the flames of the dislike!
Carl Eynon was the butcher in nearby St. Clears. He and his wife were friends of Dylan Thomas. In addition to his butchers shop, he owned a pub which served food prepared by his wife which Dylan was usually invited to sample. On one visit to the Eynon's kitchen, Dylan told them of a play he was writing and how he had written a character based on Mr Eynon who was a popular local character. He had a small dachshund which followed him everywhere and may have given Dylan the idea that Butcher Beynon would tease his wife about serving dogmeat! The Beynon family still operate in St Clears.
We visited St Clears, a short bus journey away, and the shop of Carl Eynon the butcher who by the addition of an alliterative ‘B’ is probably the only ‘local’ we can be certain inspired a Milk Wood character. I imagined he was already pestered by visitors so no mention of Mr Thomas was made, a reticence I regret years later.
In 1975, as our marriage starting to implode, we rented a cottage in the countryside some twenty miles from Laugharne, the kind of second home Plaid Cymru militants were burning at the time. I walked through the town with my daughter, a journey made long by the interruption of friendly locals who chatted to her in her pushchair. Laugharne was still a little country town but now on the threshold of change that would see it become a gentrified Dylan Disneyland. Within weeks of Dylan's death the News Chronicle had predicted "Now will begin the Dylan cult and Laugharne will become a shrine." and Daniel Jones had warned of an obscene scramble to own his memory precisely by those who refused to acknowledge Dylan in life. Doctor Cowan’s garage had been repainted. A gothic script notice had been attached about the poet’s inspiration from the view of the Taff estuary. A window had been cut into its frontage so visitors could see the interior, arranged to mimic when Dylan sat there. I could see nothing in these but sacrilege.
The Boathouse had been opened to the public just weeks before; the furniture returned, floodlights installed and the exterior redecorated. Entry was a hefty fee, a lifetime away from a few beers with Johnny Oriel! The Laugharne of five years earlier was slipping into memory. I was saddened for the town and angered for the Dylan Thomas I loved. ‘Let’s write ‘Library’ on the library wall’ – Dylan’s graffito could still be seen in 1970 when a damp weather caused its pentimento! I could see the future for the town from boutique guesthouses and celebrity to ugly statues, renamed streets and the edging out of the good people Dylan had cursed with immortality limping all too visible onto the shoreline. “The commercial enshrining of Laugharne” David N Thomas called it in ‘Postcards From New Quay’ the real site of Llareggub. No Eli Jenkins to pray for it. I left angrily determined not to return.
Ah Mr. Thomas let us ramble through the midnight fair
Let us throw old bottles at the ferris wheel
Let us paint library on the library let us raid the moonlight
Let us steal away whatever we are supposed to steal "
'For Mr Thomas' Robin Williamson (also recorded by Van Morrison)
In the 1990’s I was lecturing in Business and Management in a Hampshire college. The Vice Principal, Rob Roberts, was a fellow Welshman and somehow we learned of a shared love of Dylan Thomas. Rob is married to Daniel Jones’ daughter. Dan, mentioned for his love of reading in “A Childs Christmas”, had headed the trust set up to manage the Thomas estate for Caitlin and the children but resigned, distressed by the bickering that plagued the board of trustees. The archive of Dylan’s manuscripts was divided between Daniel, Swansea and the University of Texas which had started to run courses on Dylan’s poetry before he died. When he died in 1993, Dan Jones left his collection to his daughter and son in law who slowly catalogued it. At intervals, he would update me on the latest find.
Bugger All For A Dull One
Callous winds still push
banal estuary tides,
and though the gathering wives be gone,
foxes still sing on wintered hills
baying at the mumble moon.
There’s myth of you booked high,
a drunkards fame
making a museum of heron town
but on Hudson Street
the crooked bars
keep a modest three finger vigil.
We song lipped sailors
want your words dishevelled,
dressed in ill-fitted tweed
smelling of flat ale and bourbon
and weeping beauty despite
or inked on the skin
not etched into monument
painted on pisspot mugs,
Milwood muffins, Cwmdonkin cakes.
the tittletattle runs,
does no one hear
amid the fox song
a bitter harmony of wolves?
We are truly a nation of song.
Copyright J Brown 2020
One morning I arrived at my desk to find a note asking me to drop into his office. When I did, he pulled a non-descript brown book from the 1930’s from his desk and handed it to me, answering my puzzled look by saying, “look inside the cover”. Dylan was notorious for borrowing books and, if giving them back at all, returning them having been use as notebooks. Sadly, these were most often random memoranda such as a shopping list ordered by Caitlin but there, on the flyleaf, in Dylan’s recognisable hand was the pencilled first draft of “A Refusal To Mourn”. It, along with the rest of the archive, was generously gifted to the National Library of Wales a few years ago.
This essay is the copyright of its author and Portsmouth Poetry. We are happy for it to be reprinted and quoted in other websites providing no commercial gain derives from the site and for educational and academic use providing authorship is fully acknowledged.
The poem "Bugger All for A Dull One" may not be reproduced in part or entirety without prior communication with the Portsmouth Poetry
Portsmouth Poetry is proud to publish the following poem by local poet Maggie Sawkins adopted from a selection of love letters Dylan wrote to his first love, the writer Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1934
On the Borders Of DTs
(from The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas)
It’s a wild wet day in this tided town and it’s too cold to write.
Scarlet ants crawl from the holes in the rocks onto my idle hand.
The wind’s blowing hair across my face. I stare from this muddied
edge at the shapes of rocks carved in chaos by a tiddly sea.
Three broken masts stick up in the distance from a stranded ship
like nails in the breast of a wooden Messiah. O listen
to the near breaking of the heart as the sun peers for a tick
from its cloud & lights up the raggy sails of a fisherman’s boat.
O where are they now – the hundreds of rabbits I saw last night
as I lay in a field of buttercups and wrote of death?
Where’s the jawbone of the sheep that I wished could fit
into my pocket. Where’s the brown worm in my beer? O hell
to the wind for blowing these pages about. Woe to the sun
that he shines not. There’s no pattern, no purpose – just a torture
of words. A twisted vein of evil, like poison in a drinker’s glass,
coils from the pit to the top of this hemlocked world. O oracle
in the lead of my pencil, let me drop this customary clowning,
let me sprinkle onto this stolen paper some sweetheart words
It was the Buddha who said, apart from not being born at all,
it’s best to die young. The only solution’s for someone to garrotte
me as I nibble at my vermicelli, else pour a little poison in my cup.
The wind’s blowing hair across my face. It’s too cold to write.
Maggie Sawkins is the winner of 2013 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She is the founder of Tongues & Grooves in the Community and runs creative writing projects in and around Portsmouth.
for more information visit Tongues & Grooves at
This poem is the copyright of its author who has permitted us to reprint here. The freedom to quote and copy from this site granted by Portsmouth Poetry does not apply and it may not be reproduced in part or entirety without the permission of Maggie Sawkins.
“A Welsh mam, a Caedmon recording and a red Dansette record player”: How my passion for poetry began.
Who was Dylan Thomas?
Augustus John’s tousled angelic Fitzrovian? The Brown’s Hotel boozer, drinking at a book signing, staring back in the White Horse, almost lost!? At the BBC relaxed before the enormous microphone, ultimate performer of his own genius? Dissolutely sailing out from the Chelsea, a rock star poet seduced by the love America offered? In the garage overhanging the Taf counselled by herons? Master of his craft directing Milk Wood, lifting his head to blows of fame, fag hanging from full lips? Welsh bard, like Burns fated to be brand ambassador for a nations dream of itself? Dylan is all of these and none.
Dylan Thomas took me by surprise one summer afternoon in 1961 from inside a red Dansette record player but it was my daunting Welsh mother I thank, though she had no time for poetry. I was fourteen, had started to write, desperate to escape the suffocating limits of a small country town.
Mam was born two months before Dylan in a cluster of pit villages outside Wrecsam. Until her death at 93 she retained a fierce love of her father’s land and a perfect lilting accent. In the eulogy at her chapel funeral, I spoke of the loveliness of her voice and Eli Jenkins’ sunset prayer was my farewell.
My mother went to school when recitation was common practice. Reading aloud her intonation became stronger, words framed carefully through each syllable, clear, proud and songful. Mam’s accent embodied my love of her and gave me an instinctive understanding of the beauty of words. The ‘feel’ words possess needing to be spoken rather than read which Dylan called the “colour of saying”.
The brother of a school friend had a couple of Caedmon recordings. One of these, sparsely entitled 'Dylan Thomas Reading – Volume 2', contained the poem “Lament”, the rueful deathbed confessions of a libertine who, marrying late in his prodigal life, finds himself tied to a ‘Sunday wife’ (like the ‘tidy wives’ in Milk Wood). Libidinous but curiously moral, routed in ideas of redemption and purgatory that could only be born of Wales in the 1940’s by someone who had chosen to love and reject its strictures.
Unlikely to be set as course work the TES said, it was a perfect introduction to Dylan for a rebellious hormonal teen. No poems I had encountered had talked of lust in such a way. No poet had used words as Dylan did. But above all there was the way he spoke them. The rolling cadence of a voice I recognised somewhere below consciousness. How could I not? I had lived every day with that verbal pulse!
“With tongues that talk all tongues.”
It was a shock at first. The libertine content of the poem and the almost bombastic way Dylan chose to read, mimicking the chapel preachers of his childhood. The rolling playful regard for words was what came through. The colour of the word not only as important as the message but the power by which that meaning was conveyed. It was so unlike the poetry I was familiar with. It was a heritage I did not know I had.
That it was also frowned upon made me love it more. The literary establishment was disdainful particularly when Dylan combined seemingly unconnected words like “heron priested” and “unicorn evils” dismissed as meaningless or doggerel. They frowned on his fondness for alliteration to strengthen words and give them impact when spoken. “Bible black” is a fine example, literally spat out! Frequent references to grace and lost innocence, death and the long struggle to uncover meaning in life were deemed dated or naive by intellectually obsessed critics. The collection of “Modern Poetry” in my A Level Literature course had nothing by Dylan. My teacher pointed to a literary elite not ready to overlook the stain of being popular in America!
Nor was Dylan popular for decades in a Wales unhappy with the association. Relatives were shocked that I read Dylan Thomas and rebuked my mother for “allowing” me to read “that drunkard”! There was the drinking (age old enemy of the chapel) and Brinnin’s revelations from America. The eroticism of many of his poems – “their dust was flesh the swineherd rooted sly”. Then there was Milk Wood exposing eccentricities that could have been any small town in Wales including our pit villages . Many felt ridiculed, failing to see the gentleness and affection in the play.
A lived life later, I wear the dragon tattooed with the lines “Though lovers be lost, Love shall not” and poetry is the identifying passion I owe to Dylan, to Wales, to Mam, to Caedmon and a red Dansette.
This article was originally written for the website "Discover Dylan Thomas" run by his granddaughter Hannah Ellis
This article was originally written for the website "Discover Dylan Thomas" run by his granddaughter Hannah Ellis
Josh Brown, Portsmouth Poetry (Copyright 2016)
The Caedmon recordings are still widely available on Ebay
An audio recording of Dylan reading 'Lament' can by found on You Tube
We will be publishing an outline of Caedmon and the artists they recorded on this site soon....
IS DYLAN THOMAS THE 'WELSH BARD'?
There was a time when Wales wanted little to do with Dylan Thomas. The 'Rock 'n' Roll Poet' image did not sit well with a nation for whom the chapel and non-conformist politics was at the heart of its culture. That has changed. Dylan is fast becoming an icon of Welsh identity and pride as well as a potential "brand ambassador" for Wales and Welsh tourism. So there is a widespread desire to make him the 'Bard of Wales'!
The word ‘bard’ means a poet but we now use the term to refer to someone of importance, often held to be the greatest or leading poet of his (usually) people as in the application of the term to Shakespeare (“the bard of Avon”) in England and Burns (“the Bard of Ayr”) in Scotland. (Other examples include Rabrindranath Tagore, “the Bard of Bengal” and John Cooper Clarke, “the Bard of Salford”!) In this context, there is increasing pressure for Dylan Thomas to be hailed as the Welsh Bard or Bard of Swansea. But the significance of the status of ‘bardd’ in Wales makes this more significant.
The word ‘Bard’ is of Celtic origin and is found in Irish & Scots Gaelic and in Welsh as “Bardd”. In Medieval times a bard was a professional story-teller, a ‘Troubadour’, poet or musician/singer with the function of oral historian and genealogist when only a small minority of people, irrespective of class or status, could read and write. By the 16th Century, bard had become a derogatory term for an itinerant musician. This was inevitable given the rise of secular grammar schools offering education outside the church which elevated the importance of literacy and undermined the traditional oral function in urban communities.
Medieval bards were employed by a patron such as a nobleman to commemorate their ancestors and praise (fictionalise) their own activities. This meant that the story-tellers were often comfortably off and played a significant role in the propaganda of status and power. In line with this role, a hierarchy of names existed designating different statuses of poet. ‘Bard’ tended to be a term for a lower level of versifier with names like “Fili” in Ireland and Scotland being reserved for high status poets employed by kings and aristocrats.
As the tradition of oral history and story-telling declined, the word bard first lost its importance and then became a generic term for a poet before developing a reference to a single individual like Shakespeare.
Sir Walter Scott played a key role in developing this meaning by romanticising the bard in poems like ‘The Bard’s Incantation’. At the same time the emergence of ‘Druidism’ created a largely fictional or romanticised notion of ancient Celtic ‘traditions’ that became a key part of the Welsh Eisteddfod.
The Welsh tradition varies to that of the rest of the UK and Ireland. Welsh Celts had survived the onslaught of the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. Their culture was developed to protect the identity of the ‘Cymru’ or Community who occupied central and northern Wales. (The word comes from the Brythonic ‘combrogi’ meaning ‘fellow countrymen’.)
Welsh culture holds a long tradition of famous and respected poets and works who are honoured with the title “the Bards of Wales”. Its likely, that the Welsh respected the term as a way of maintaining a distinction from their English neighbours that placed emphasis on being a nation of poets and singers.
Guinevere by Henry Justice Ford 1910
One such is Taliesen son of Cerridwen who is both a character of Welsh myth and a poet whose works have survived (though the two need not have been the same person). Modern day Druids (sic.) often claim Taliesen as the greatest Welsh bard.
Bards like Taliesen wrote about the great myths and mythic heroes such as King Arthur, Merlin , Guinevere (Guenevere) and Tristan & Iseult. The most famous of these works is “The Mabinogion” written from collected oral stories in the Fourteenth Century. It consists of 11 stories in two sections, the White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and The Red Book of Hergest (1375 – 1425). The title of the collection is a mistake. The word “mabinogi” appears in the text and is a reference to boyhood or youth. This was misunderstood by Lady Charlotte Guest who produced the C19th publication and wrongly applied it to the two sets of texts!
But the Mabinogion has another significance.
Dylan Thomas’ parents, although Welsh speakers, raised their children to be aspiring middle class ‘English’. Dylan and his sister were not taught Welsh and were sent to elocution lessons to remove any traces of a Welsh accent leading Dylan to describe his own speaking voice as “Cut-glass”. Dylan went to Swansea Grammar School at 11. His father was head of English and the school rigorously excluded any encouragement of ‘Welshness’ This approach to the national culture and language was not uncommon in the early C20th before the resurgence of ‘Welsh Nationalism (my Welsh speaking grandparents from a mining community raised my mother and her sisters to only speak English). But strangely and in stark contradiction, DJ and Florence Thomas choose profoundly, indeed uncommonly, Welsh names for their son. His middle name ‘Marlais’ is a Celticised version of ‘Marles’ the pen-name of Dylan’s great uncle Gwilym Marles a radical preacher and poet. The name 'Dylan' comes from the Mabiogion and translates as “son of the sea”. The character appears on the fourth tale “Math fab Mathonwy”. Math is king of Gwynedd and Dylan is his great nephew, son of Arianrhod and assumes merman like characteristics on being submerged in the sea at his christening.
William Thomas who wrote under the 'bardic name' Gwilym Thomas. He is thought to have been the inspiration for the Reverend Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood
Thanks to Dylan Thomas and the American musician who plagiarised his name, Dylan is nows an extremely popular and common name and it is hard to imagine that in the 1920’s when he was at school the name would have been unknown even in Wales to all but a few literary scholars! Nor is the name ‘Dill – Ann’. In Welsh it would be pronounced “Dull-un”. Florrie Thomas is largely responsible for the contemporary mis-pronunciation. Dylan did not perform well at school. Asthmatic and not sporty he was subject to some bullying. When he was about to go to Swansea Grammar, where academic achievement was the over-riding goal, his mother was worried that his non-Welsh-speaking peers would parody his unusual name into “Dull-One”! She instructed her husband to tell his colleagues that her son’s name was pronounced “Dillan”!
The Discover Dylan Thomas website has the text of an interesting interview with Florence Thomas shortly before her death taken from "Dylan Remembered" by Colin Edwards
Druidism’ re-surfaced in the late C18th and C19th as part of a Romanticist movement in the face of unfettered industrialisation. The attraction was a fantasy past built around brave heroes and beautiful maidens depicted in fabulous stories and poetry that has its best expression in the fairy-tale paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. The great Celtic bardic myths were an obvious focus for this and it was not long before ‘Druid societies’ began to be formed. The key figure in this was an unlikely one, William Stukeley an C18th vicar who believed that the Druids had been monotheistic and declared himself to be a Druid writing several books on the subject leading to the formation of the first Druid Society on Anglesey shortly after his death. A second group was formed not long after in Ceredigion (Cardigan) and the ambitious but totally fake Ancient Order of Druids soon after that. The movement was closely aligned to the Freemasons with similar faux rituals.
There was no religious element to these initial groups but that soon changed and Druidism began to sit side-by-side with the chapel in the culture of Wales. Iolo Morganwyg (his name equally fictitious, he was born Edward Williams) began inventing Druidic rituals and along with William Price aligned the movement with Welsh nationalism and Chartism.
Festivals of poetry and music had been common in Wales up to the C12th when bardic traditions started to wane, so they were an inevitable attraction to this movement, a link with a past that distanced itself from the English and emphasised the artistic culture of the ‘cymru’. The Eistedfodd were revived in the C18th, initially on a small informal level. Derived from the Welsh ‘morphemes’ ‘eistedd’ meaning "to sit" and ‘bod’ meaning "to be" the word translates into English roughly as “session”. The first recorded Eisteddfod was at Cardigan Castle in 1176 and the first in this revival occurred in Corwen in 1789 organised by Thomas Jones. At Medieval sessions poetry competitions were held and the winning ‘bard’ sat to dine next to the king or lord. When the Eisteddfod was revived so were the competitions and the practice of awarding a winning poet a “Bardic Chair” was introduced.
When Dylan’s was a child there would be several sessions each year in different locations. The ‘Urdd’ National Eisteddfod is still held entirely in Welsh whereas the International Eisteddfod held in Llangollen every July is world famous and launched the career of Luciano Pavarotti. There are also several meetings among the Welsh communities of Patagonia in Argentina and Welsh descendants in Australia, South Africa and the USA.
Ellis Evans ("Hedd Wyn)
Perhaps the most famous and touching story of the award of a bardic chair is that of the great welsh poet Hedd Wyn who died on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele in WW1. A radical Christian pacifist, Ellis Evans (the pen-name 'Hedd Wyn' means "beautiful peace" a reference to the landscape around his family farm in Snowdonia) was opposed to war and need not have fought. As the eldest son in a farming family he was exempt from conscription but enlisted to prevent his younger brother from being called up. He submitted several Cynghanedd poems to the Eisteddfod from the Western Front overcoming the objections of his commanding officer who suspected the poems in Welsh might be espionage. He was awarded the bardic chair six weeks after his death. It was carried to his family home in Trawsfynydd covered in a black cloth. Dylan would undoubtedly have known of Hedd Wyn. His “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” contains lines of Cynghanedd and is clearly influenced by the suffering experienced in WW1.
So, should Dylan Thomas be regarded as the Welsh Bard? Probably not. He is one of many in a nation of poets and singers. C20th bardic status is also clearly justified for Hedd Wyn, Edward Thomas, David Jones and Idris Davies. He is a product of a nation of bards and should not overshadow the many great poets associated with “the Eden of bards” (Welsh National Anthem). Whether he is the greatest poet Wales has produced is an opinion and is subject to taste but for me there is no question.
Josh Brown (copyright 2020)