SWANSEA, Wales – Around these parts, everyone knows about Dylan Thomas, Wales’ greatest poet.
Gordon Stuart not only knows about Dylan Thomas, he knew him.
Sitting in his living room, the 89-year-old artist recalled the Thomas he knew — and who sat for him just weeks before his death.
“He was gentle, charming,” Stuart said. “All the nice things. And his lovely voice, even though he put it on occasionally when he was reading poetry. His natural voice had a lovely quality as well. He was delightful to listen to.”
Thomas, the Welsh poet, playwright and man of letters, is being remembered and celebrated in a yearlong series of events leading to the 100th anniversary of his birth on Oct. 27, 1914.
Sixty years after his death — on Nov. 9, 1953, in New York — Thomas’ influence is still felt. John Lennon and Paul McCartney read his work. Poet Sylvia Plath mimicked him. Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. Thomas’ poems have been translated into 30 languages. He is mostly regarded as a poet, though he also wrote radio scripts and plays, short stories and for films. He also was a prolific letter-writer. His poetry includes “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” His most famous play is “Under Milk Wood,” and his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is a classic.
A prodigy and a legend
Beyond his body of work, the life Thomas led adds to his legend: He was a poetry-writing child prodigy and a charismatic, hard-drinking womanizer who was in his grave before he was 40.
All of Wales will celebrate Thomas’ centenary with concerts, readings, performances in disused pubs, hiking tours, a major exhibition of Thomas material at the National Library of Wales, and more. But Swansea is the epicenter.
It is where Dylan Marlais Thomas was born, where he played as a child and drank as a young man, where he wrote most of his poetry. The city in the past has been accused of not giving him his due, but that seems to be changing.
“I think it’s one of the things the city hangs onto because he’s so incredibly famous,” said Rhiannon Morris, who tends bar at the No Sign Wine Bar on Wind Street, one of Thomas’ hangouts. “I think a lot of pubs like to associate with him. ‘He came here,’ so they cling on, and rightly so.
“He probably went to a lot of pubs. But this old building hasn’t changed in 50 or 60 years. Anyplace else would have changed hands and been changed. This place has stayed the same. It has a nice feel to it.”
The same can be said for Thomas’ birthplace at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive.
The Thomas family moved into the new house in the Uplands section of town in August 1914. His father was a schoolmaster, his mother ran the house, and Dylan was born in the upstairs front bedroom. The house looks small from the outside, but it is spacious and well-appointed inside, more than one might expect a schoolteacher to own.
Geoff Haden, who began restoring the house in 2005 and opened it in 2008, says that Dylan’s father, David John Thomas, was a frustrated academician, a man for whom life did not match his dreams.
“His writing never happened. His poetry never happened,” Haden explained. “And two things came out of that: He channeled all his ambition into his son, and he had this house to give him status.”
Both parents doted on their boy. His mother spoiled him; his father instilled in him a love of language and words.
“His father read him Shakespeare at a very young age — in the womb, some say — but at a very early age nonetheless,” said Jo Furber, Swansea Council literature officer.
Young Dylan flourished in that environment.
“His father must have put something into Dylan, because at 16 he was writing world-class poetry,” Haden said.
Thomas’ first book of poetry was published when he was 20. He moved to London, became a celebrity and hobnobbed with the rich and famous. But the house, where Haden says he wrote two-thirds of his published work, is where he always returned.
“There’s a Welsh word, cwtch [pronounced kutch],” Haden said. “It means hug. And he’d come back here for that cwtch. In 1937, they moved, and he lost that cwtch.”
The house and its environs show up in Thomas’ work. Cwmdonkin Park, where he played cowboys and Indians as a child and which he mentioned in several works, lies just across the street. The front parlor of the house, directly below the room he was born in, is central to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” He wrote about his tiny bedroom, “the bedroom by the boiler,” and the frightening door under the stairs (“animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs where the gas meter ticked”). Looking out over Swansea Bay from his parents’ room, one can see where he came up with the image of ships sailing over rooftops, as mentioned in one of his letters.
Haden believes that Dylan’s father’s study would have been the most important room in his life.
“It’s the room where his father used to bring him from the age of 4 to read Shakespeare,” Haden said. “He started writing poetry at 6 or 7. And his father allowed him as a teenager to bring friends in to discuss literature.”
The rooms at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive are as they would have looked when the Thomas family lived there. Over the years the house had several owners, but none was wealthy enough to “modernize” the place, as Haden put it. It was in less-than-welcoming condition — it had been a B & B for a time and later served as student housing — when Haden and his former wife began restoring it. The first thing they did was research the house. They got help from a woman who had been a teenage maid for the Thomases in the 1930s.
“She knew the layout, the furnishings, the routine of the house,” he said. “She was a godsend. … She said, when I first met her, ‘Don’t say anything bad about him. He was a lovely boy.’ She was wagging her finger. ‘And [his parents] were lovely, too.’ ”
House carefully restored
The Hadens meticulously brought the house back to 1914, down to the walls’ colors and the books in the study, seeking out items representative of the era, things that would not have been out of place in the Thomas household.
Haden said they tried to re-create a scene where “the Thomas family has slipped out for an hour, and we’re just looking around before they come back.”
Since 2001, the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea has offered “Dylan Thomas, Man and Myth,” a permanent exhibit.
Upon entering, visitors find a showcase displaying a Harris Tweed suit. It comes with a great story.
Shortly before his death, Thomas was in New York, staying at the Chelsea Hotel. As was typical, said Furber, who curated “Man and Myth,” Thomas found himself out of clean clothes and borrowed a suit belonging to another hotel guest, painter Jorge Fick. After Thomas’ sudden death a few days later, the suit was returned to Fick, and it was Fick’s widow who donated it to the Centre in 2006. Intriguingly, the lining of the right pants pocket has a large ink stain. Did Thomas’ pen leak? Was it Fick’s pen? Or maybe someone else’s? No matter; it adds to the charm.
The rest of the exhibit features equally intriguing items — a watercolor and a crayon drawing Thomas did as a child; his death mask; copies of the last photos taken of him, in the White Horse Tavern in New York; a restaurant tablecloth on which he and some friends doodled.
As the story goes, on the night he died, he came back to his hotel and, according to the BBC, proclaimed to a companion that he’d set a record by drinking 18 whiskeys. Shortly after, he collapsed into a coma. A White Horse bartender contested the claim of 18 whiskeys, but an autopsy suggested alcohol abuse was a contributing factor in his death (he also had pulmonary ailments and had been administered drugs by a physician in the days before his death).
The Centre will be adding several more items for the 100th anniversary celebration, including Thomas’ notebooks, which will be on loan from the University at Buffalo, N.Y.
“It’s quite amazing,” Furber said. “There’s a manuscript with a crossword on the back. … People haven’t had a chance to look at these things before.”
There may be other items as well. The tweed suit, after all, was a fairly recent discovery. .
“There are still things in people’s attics,” she said. “One thing we’re hoping for is film of him. He made BBC appearances, but they were [lost]. We have a brief clip from his funeral, also from the BBC, but it would be nice if we got something more.”
Thomas’ last home
Another stop for Thomas devotees is Laugharne, some 25 miles northwest of Swansea. It was here that Thomas spent the last four years of his life with his family — he was married and had three children — living in the Boathouse and working in his writing shed, a small former garage.
Among the work he produced there were the poems “Do Not Go Gentle” — for his dying father — and “Over Sir John’s Hill.” He also put the finishing touches on the play “Under Milk Wood.”
Laugharne is also where Thomas sat for Gordon Stuart.
Stuart said he was passing through Wales and sought out the family of an old Scoutmaster. One of the family members knew Thomas and took Stuart to Laugharne.
“Dylan was in a pub,” he recalled. “He said hello, and I told him I had done a sketch.”
Thomas liked the sketch, and the two hit it off. Stuart asked him if he’d sit for a portrait, and they settled on a day in early September 1953.
Stuart arrived at Dylan’s house in Laugharne and knocked, and Dylan’s wife opened the door, then slammed it. “ ‘Bloody artists,’ she said,” Stuart recalled. “But she was going to London, so that left us the house.”
They did three sittings that resulted in four sketches, two of which are now in university collections, and one of which is in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Stuart has the last.
A few weeks later, Stuart got word that Thomas had died.