The further from his childhood he got, the more self-destructive Dylan Thomas became. It was like youth was the source of his superpowers, and the more it dwindled, the more he faded. And it was not like he didn’t notice; the man sailed headlong to his fate and did not “go gently into that good night.” He raged against the dying of the light to the very end, even as he hastened the coming darkness. I get the feeling he had let’s-just-get-this-over-with gestalt to his own mortality.
So I guess you could saw the greatest poet Wales has yet produced was complicated.
Begin at the Beginning
Walking through Dylan’s childhood home in Swansea, I had to remind myself that it was all a reconstruction. That isn’t to dispel the magic, it’s a monument that enough of Thomas’s otherwise ordinary upbringing that enough evidence was left to recreated the magic in the first place. But it was at 5 Cwmdonkin Lane, a typical Welsh row house, where I stepped bodily into A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
The Dylan Thomas House; Dylan’s childhood room; his father’s study.
Thomas’s penultimate paean to his childhood, the words could describe any Christmas of any child of the age, (OK, maybe the fire at Mrs. Prothero’s was a little unique), yet Thomas weaves hay into gold. Postmen, snowball fights, carolers, and candy take on a mythical luminosity rivaling Taliesin, an ancient Welsh bard whose prose is a direct ancestor to the lore of Thomas.
Read The Mabinogion, the Welsh answer to The Odyssey, and you begin to pick up how a Celt sees two worlds at once, the mortal and the magical. One is mirror to the other, married to the other. But where I would see a crumbled ruin, a Welshman sees a towering castle of glass. If you can part the veil, you can see the magic, without casting daylight on it that would destroy it.
And suddenly, it was all there in front of me. I wasn’t reading Thomas, I was remembering Thomas. I was remembering my own childhood, and how a pencil became a rocketship to Mars, or a forest became a world of centaurs and robber bands, or an open field became an endless plane of pure joy, ready to create anything I wanted. Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to see the world that way, or convinced myself no one else could. How wonderful it was, not to be alone anymore, then, and to know some one saw the world the way I did.
And that’s how Dylan Thomas became my favorite poet. And maybe how I got into his head a little too much.
The Ugly, Lovely Town
And all that was just from walking from the Thomas House to Cwmdonkin Park, another wellspring of inspiration. Remember when I mentioned an open field as a playground? For me, it was an empty lot. For Thomas, it was Cwmdonkin.
In his day, Cwmdonkin must have positively glowed; the Swansea Thomas knew was a grim, muscular, coal and steel town doused in soot and industrial clamor. Not good for a man with weak lungs. Green spaces like Cwmdonkin may as well have been the equivalent of a record scratching. No wonder Thomas adhered to it so much in his writing.
Had Thomas stuck around to see Swansea’s 21st Century incarnation (he died in 1953), he 1) would not recognize it and 2) be at least a little amazed how deep his footprint is in the city. You cannot get away from Thomas here: a theater is dedicated to him, a prestigious literary prize is in his name, an interpretive centre chronicles his life, and every watering hole he every ponied up to charts his regular pub crawls. There is even a statue. Very impressive. And maybe a little eerie.
Dylan Thomas, and wife Caitlin, both past and present. Upper right is the Dylan Thomas Centre by the Swansea marina. It’s amazing what remains of the man, like a beer bottle. Somebody actually kept it…
The funny thing was, Thomas was the very definition of a modern artist in that he was not nearly as lionized in life as he was in death. People loved his writing and prose, and he was a respected poet, but all that did not necessarily have much of a pay-off. He and wife Caitlin barely got by, living respectably, but always desperately.
So maybe it was simple economics that he and wife Caitlin moved from Swansea to the tiny seaside hamlet of Laugharne. But that’s for the next installment.