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When Dylan Thomas died, in New York in 1953, he was only thirty-nine years old and the myths soon took hold. He became the Keats and the Byron of his generation -- the romantic poet who died too young, his potential unfulfilled. Making masterful use of original material from archives and personal papers, Lycett describes the development of the young poet and brings invaluable new insights to Thomas's early writing and the themes that continued to appear in all he wrote. This major new work unearths fascinating details about the poet's many affairs and about his tempestuous marriage to his passionate Irish wife, Caitlin.
Lycett uses as his overwhelming motif the deeply ambivalent forces in Thomas's life -- "I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me" -- that allowed him to be a wild boy in public and a private poet of deep sensitivity -- the forces that helped him bridge the gap between modernism and pop, between the written and spoken word, between individual and performance art, between the academy and the forum. Throughout, the social and historical context of Thomas's struggles and accomplishments are vividly presented.
The result is a poignant yet stirring portrait of the chaos of Thomas's personal life and a welcome re-evaluation of the lyricism and experimentalism of his poetry, plays, and short stories.
Finding the right balance between Celtic sentiment, nationalist roots and the uncompromising demands of upward mobility has always been a feature of life in mainly Anglophone Swansea. By buying a new house in Cwmdonkin Drive, an unfinished terrace tilting alarmingly down a hill in one of the burgeoning suburbs to the west of the town, taciturn local Grammar School master D.J. or Jack Thomas and his lively wife Florrie were following a clearly defined path away from their family roots in rural Welsh-speaking Carmarthenshire.
The usual staging post was Swansea's industrial centre a couple of miles east, around the clanking docks which had sprouted at the mouth of the river Tawe to service the coal-mines and belching copper and tinplate works a little inland. This was where most of the town's immigrants from the countryside had settled in the nineteenth century. But over the years the more respectable and ambitious among them had pushed westwards towards the salubrious Gower peninsula, colonising sea-facing ridges in haphazard fashion.
When Florrie became pregnant in early 1914, the Thomases staked their claim to bourgeois respectability. They had been living with their eight-year-old daughter Nancy in rented accommodation in Cromwell Street, close to the Grammar School, nearer the centre of town. But a residential construction boom had followed the innovative South Wales Cottage Exhibition in Swansea in 1910. When local builder W. H. Harding advertised a neat new row of houses to the north of Walter Road, the main thoroughfare leading out of Swansea towards Gower, the family raised £350 to buy a ninety-nine-year lease on a four-bedroom, semi-detached house, with bay windows, in Cwmdonkin Drive.
The purchase was financed with a 5 per cent mortgage, which was just about manageable on a teacher's salary of around £120 a year. The Thomases also paid a small ground rent, but this was reduced in the first year, probably because the house was unfinished. Although the surrounding area, known as Uplands, was well developed, only one other dwelling in their street had been completed in 1914, and that was occupied by Harding himself.
Unusually for a couple of modest means, the Thomases' house was owned by both husband and wife - a reflection, perhaps, of the greater financial resources in her immediate family, the Williamses. Florrie's mother Ann (or Anna) had died the previous year leaving her with, inter alia, an interest in a couple of leasehold shops in Pontypridd.
The youngest of eight children, Florrie herself had been born and brought up in St Thomas, a polluted dockside quarter on the lower reaches of Kilvey Hill on the other side of town. Both her parents hailed from farms in the Llanstephan peninsula to the south of Carmarthen. Following one of the few assured routes out of rural poverty, her father George had joined the railways in Swansea in the 1860s. Originally a porter, he worked his way up to shipping inspector on the docks for Great Western Railway - a responsible job which involved monitoring freight in and out of the busy port. (He was even mentioned, along with the local stationmaster, in the Swansea commercial directory for 1900.)
Not that his life was easy. He, his wife Ann and their family lived in a cramped house in Delhi Street, carved out of Lord Jersey's Briton Ferry estate. The date of the development is clear enough, as intersecting streets have the names Inkerman and Sebastopol. This part of St Thomas was built after the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny to accommodate people who flocked to Swansea from the countryside to find work in the rapidly expanding port, following the opening of the North Dock (in 1852) and South Dock (in 1859).
Until his death in November 1905, the 'quiet, retiring' George was a pillar of a poor but busy working-class community. Around him was strewn the human and physical evidence of an uncaring industrial society. Political consciousness was stirring: in 1898, a vociferous trade unionist from St Thomas called David Williams (no relation) became the first Labour candidate to win a seat on Swansea Council. George Williams's approach to improving society was different: an old-fashioned Nonconformist, he was a deacon of the English-speaking Canaan Congregational chapel and superintendent of the local Sunday School. One daughter, Florrie's sister Polly, played the organ there, while another Theodosia (Dosie) had married the former minister, the Reverend David Rees. Two sons, John and Bob, worked in the docks.
In his thrifty way, George salted away some money. He managed to buy number 30, the house next door to his own at 29 Delhi Street, as well as his two shops in Pontypridd. Willie Jenkins, son of his neighbour on the other side, also worked hard, founding a leading coal shipping agency, before becoming an MP and Mayor of Swansea in the 1940s, and being awarded a knighthood. He probably helped George's son, John, on the road to prosperity. John Williams was a stevedore, but people remembered him carrying out his own coal trading business down at the port. By the time of his death in 1911 he owned two of the plushier houses in the vicinity - one inhabited by the Reverend J. Llynfi Davies, a former minister at Canaan, to which John had demonstrated his largesse by donating a Bible and hymn-book for the pulpit.
With residents such as the Williamses, the Jenkinses and also the Leyshons, who were teachers, St Thomas was a lively old-fashioned neighbourhood, with a proud tradition of self-help. Not surprisingly, Florrie looked there, rather than to the spruce environs of Cwmdonkin Drive, for domestic assistance when she was pregnant. Her need for someone in the house had increased following the death of her mother in July 1913. Her sister Polly knew a St Thomas girl, Addie Drew, who was 'in service' with the Leyshons. For six shillings a week, plus board and lodging, Florrie was able to hire this eighteen-year-old as maid-cum-nurse.
On the morning of 27 October 1914, she sent down to St Thomas again for a trusted midwife, Gillian Jones, whose family ran the grocery shop opposite the Canaan chapel. With Dr Alban Evans, the stout Miss Jones had helped deliver the Thomases' daughter Nancy. She cheerfully made her way by tram across town to take her place once more beside the same doctor. Some time that evening (reports differ as to the hour, though by general consent it was a few days later than expected), Florrie gave birth to a seven-pound boy in the main front bedroom of her still uncompleted house.
Now it was her husband's turn to defer to his antecedents. This was unexpected since he, more than Florrie, seemed to have consciously kicked over all traces of his rural Welsh origins. He taught English in an established, some might say snooty, English-style Grammar School which prided itself on preparing its best boys for university. Parents at Swansea Grammar School made a decision that they wanted their sons educated in the language in which business was conducted, scientific progress debated, and continents governed. This pragmatism percolated down the social scale: to many, including both Thomases' families, English was the language of economic advancement. They might, like many of Florrie's relations, including her mother, continue to speak Welsh among themselves. But they were determined their children would benefit by learning English.
This was controversial, of course. Wales had an independent history, an expressive language, and a distinguished literature - older than English, in fact. But teaching in Welsh had been banned by the Blue Books in 1847, ostensibly to counter poor standards in Welsh-speaking schools. This blatant piece of cultural colonialism had been reversed a quarter of a century later. But the damage had been done. A majority of the one and a half million strong population still spoke Welsh, but they were predominantly country folk in dead-end agricultural jobs. The emerging middle-class spoke English, and the political challenge to this linguistic hegemony would not come for another two decades.
Nowhere was English more entrenched than in Swansea and its environs. The coastal strip beside the Bristol Channel had long offered invaders - whether Romans, Danes, Normans or Plantagenets - a foothold in the mysterious mountain fastness of Celtic Britain. By the early twentieth century a two-tier principality had developed, with North and West Wales maintaining their native culture, with its language and traditions, while the South and East had fallen, at least superficially, to the English from across the border. That is not to say there were not major discrepancies. For example, Swansea was a centre for dissenting Nonconformism (otherwise a rural phenomenon). In their chapels, the urban working classes, recently arrived from the countryside, clung to traditional values in the face of maritime cosmopolitanism. As a result Swansea was a town of twitching curtains (with all the attendant hypocrisy) as well as of intellectual energy and commercial drive.
Jack Thomas, the graduate of University College, Aberystwyth, embraced all this, and knew which way he was going. Slim (at this stage) and clearly vain, he wore his hair slicked like a younger member of the royal family. Later, the slick was trained to cover a bald patch and when that became too obvious, he wore a hat. He was always smartly dressed, adopting the style of an English country gentleman in suits, checks at weekends and brogues. The shelves in his new study groaned under the weight of standard English texts from the Dent and Everyman libraries. His greatest delight was Shakespeare. Walking the three-quarters of a mile from Cwmdonkin Drive to the Grammar School on Mount Pleasant (a journey he made twice most days, as he liked to come home for lunch), he even invented a new identity. To the outside world he was no longer known by the familiar 'Jack' but by the more remote initials 'D.J.' which he deemed more fitting for a serious-minded schoolmaster.
However, when he named his new suburban villa and his infant son, nature proved more powerful than nurture, and he drew directly from his Welsh background. The house later became widely known by its number, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. However, for a dozen years after its construction, it also had a proud Welsh name, Glanrhyd. And, as for the baby, he was called, mellifluously and romantically, Dylan Marlais.
* * *
The house looked back to Glanrhyd y Gwinil, the smallholding where his grandfather had lived in the middle of the last century in the Cothi valley, thirteen miles north of Carmarthen. Ostensibly the families of both D.J. (as he will be styled) and Florrie came from the same county, west of Swansea. But the bleak, spectacular hills of its northern reaches provided a much tougher environment than the rolling plains around Llanstephan, where seafaring and the railways helped stimulate the mainly agricultural economy.
With his forty acres, nestling beneath the royal forest of Brechfa which covered the Llanybydder mountains in a green expanse of oak and ash, D.J.'s grandfather William Thomas should have made a decent living. But the 1830s were a decade of material hardship and political struggle, culminating in the Rebecca riots of 1843. His son, also William, born in 1834 and later known throughout Wales as the radical preacher and bard Gwilym Marles, was forced to leave his parents and live nearby with a devout uncle Simon Lewis, who was a cobbler. (The Marles - or Marlais - was a stream which joined the Cothi two miles up the valley.) As soon as they were able, he and his two brothers, Thomas and Evan (D.J.'s father), made a hasty exit from these economically depressed hills.
William's (or Gwilym Marles's) career was the most interesting, with parallels to his great-nephew Dylan's. He was brought up an Independent Congregationalist, one of several Nonconformist branches which had taken root in Wales. By dint of hard work, he gained a place at the influential Presbyterian College in Carmarthen. There he discovered Unitarianism, an intellectual strain of religious dissent which denied the Trinity and advocated social reform. Although known (and frowned upon) for his heavy drinking and love of theatre, he won a scholarship to Glasgow University (Oxford and Cambridge still being restricted to Anglicans). While there between 1856 and 1860, he wrote widely, including a novel, book of verse and several tracts. One long winter holiday he acted as tutor to another William Thomas - no relation, but a greater poet, under the bardic name Islwyn.
Quite when Gwilym Marles adopted his own bardic name is not clear. In 1860 he became minister of three Unitarian chapels in southern Cardiganshire, just over the mountains from his birthplace in Brechfa. At his house in Llandysul, he set up a small school which took in boarders from as far away as London. After studying the teachings of the fiery American Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, his own views became increasingly radical as he battled for the rights of tenant farmers and landless labourers. Welsh country folk were supposed to vote according to the wishes of their landlords. But in the 1868 general election, they defied convention and, when the Liberals gained a famous victory, local Tory squires hit back by evicting tenants from their farms.
As District Secretary for the Liberals, Gwilym Marles became a prominent advocate of the secret ballot - a political battle won in 1871. But this laid him open to retaliation: since owners no longer knew how tenants voted, they targeted their ministers instead. In 1876 an absentee landlord refused to renew the lease at Gwilym Marles's main chapel at Llwynrhydowen without a clause which prevented the incumbent from preaching there. The congregation stood firm and was duly evicted with its minister - an abuse of the rights of free speech which led to widespread protest meetings and drew financial support from liberal-minded people throughout Britain. However the strain took its toll on Gwilym Marles who died three years later, aged only forty-five.
His life was characterised by an unstable mixture of emotional exuberance and deep depression. He enthusiastically supported the Union in the American Civil War ('there is a vein of unmitigated barbarism in the South,' he wrote) and his respect for the United States was evident in the names he gave two of his ten children - Mary Emerson (after the poet) and Theodore (in honour of his preaching mentor). He translated Tennyson, Browning and Pope into Welsh (one obituary commented on his 'fine' rendering of Tennyson's 'Oh, yet we trust that somehow good may be the perfect goal of ill'), and read Socrates, Spinoza and Heine. He loved cricket and theatre, and holidayed in Europe.
Excerpted from DYLAN THOMAS by ANDREW LYCETT Copyright © 2003 by Andrew Lycett. Excerpted by permission.
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|2||A Precocious Childhood||16|
|3||Virtue and Good Literature||28|
|4||My Body was my Adventure||41|
|6||A Tormented Thing||65|
|8||The Rub of Love||89|
|9||The Blindest Bit||108|
|10||Caitlin, Emily and Veronica||127|
|12||Skirting the War||173|
|15||Oxford, the BBC and Italy||227|
|16||Longing for Home||247|
|17||View from the Shed||267|
|18||A Voice on Wheels||280|
|19||In the Direction of his Pain||303|
|20||Battle Against American Hospitality||323|
|21||To Begin at the Beginning||348|
|22||The Gates of Hell||362|