Dylan Thomas' spirit still lingers over Swansea, Wales

  • Article by: WILLIAM HAGEMAN , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2014 - 11:11 AM

The poet’s hometown of Swansea, Wales, lured him back throughout his life, and now draws fans to visit on the 100th anniversary of his birth.


Dylan Thomas was born in this house in Swansea in 1914. The second-floor window is the bedroom where he was born and where he did his early writing.

– 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.

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