Dylan Thomas and so much more – a St David’s Day salute to Welsh writers
Eileen Battersby looks at and beyond the three great Thomases – Dylan, RS and Gwyn – to celebrate the rich literary tradition of our Celtic cousins
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) in 1946: Mere mention of Wales for many is sufficient to ponder on the greatness of Dylan Thomas, a wayward genius whose eloquent fury continues to beguile, excite and inspire. Photograph: Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Today is Saint David’s Day and in honour of our close neighbours, fellow Celts and rugby rivals, and to (hopefully) compensate for the coming despair which may be inflicted when the Irish take on Wales in Cardiff in two weeks’ time in this season’s Six Nations, we salute the writers of Wales, a beautiful country with a dramatic coastline and mysterious valleys, which has nurtured great poets, singers, storytellers, life celebrants from Gwyn Thomas to Max Boyce, and some pretty good rugby players.
As with the Irish and the Scots, the Welsh have a rich literary tradition and national literature which is a living culture – the Welsh language is currently spoken on a national level by approximately 20 per cent of the population and this fluency is as high as between 60 per cent and 70 per cent, reaching even 80 per cent in some villages in north and northwest Wales. The Welsh accent, lilting and melodic, possesses a rhythmic ease which makes it easy to see why singing and poetry is so much a part of the culture of Wales. Music and words; myth and story are second nature to the Welsh.
1. Dylan Thomas.
Mere mention of Wales for many is sufficient to ponder on the greatness of Dylan Thomas, a wayward genius whose eloquent fury continues to beguile, excite and inspire. One of the major English-language poets of the 20th century, Thomas defied all schools of literary style; his deliberate, crafted poems convey complex emotion. There is a high philosophical intent.
He did not speak Welsh; his cadences were honed by the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Aware that it drives people crazy, I am compelled to say, as I have so many times, Thomas juxtaposed the sonorous tones of the pulpit with the intimate squeak of the mouse. He died in November 1953, only 12 days after his 39th birthday. Such a brief life: almost half of his body of work, including And Death Shall Have No Dominion, was written by the time he was 19. His debut collection, 18 Poems, was published in London in 1934, when he was barely 20 – it is, on reflection, staggering. Fern Hill was written when he was 34. For him artistic maturity came early; think of Bob Dylan; think of Mozart. As a poet he scales the heights of profundity in Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (1951) written for his father who died only two years before he died himself. That poem has been spoken at many a graveside. It is ironic that a poet, whose work has given such comfort, battled so many demons in his life.
In addition, though, to the great poetry was his ease with prose. Thomas had an engaging feel for the autobiographical anecdote. Although he was cosmopolitan by inclination, this son of a Welsh-speaking, English literature-teaching father loved the little Welsh villages. How brilliantly he immortalised them in his dazzling radio verse play Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, which was first broadcast on January 25th, 1954, by which time he was already dead. It is a fantastic work, Joycean in concept; Welsh in execution – the citizens of a tiny village dream their hopes and fears.
It may well have inspired Mexican writer Juan Rulfo‘s marvel, Pedro Paramo (1955), a short novel in which a son returns to meet the father he never knew. It all takes place in a small town inhabited by the very lively dead. My point is that to read Pedro Paramo, is also to think of Dylan Thomas. His voice and vision live on in those rare artists who appear to have been touched by an elusive element that could perhaps best be described as magic.
2. RS Thomas
Born in 1913, a year before Dylan Thomas, Ronald Stuart Thomas was academic by nature and studied classics. He also became a rector, and spent his life as a working churchman. His poetry is cerebral and he has a metaphysical and political response to change and the destruction of the natural.
Seamus Heaney had a huge regard for Thomas, the poet of clarity, who is one of the most rewarding of poets once a reader engages with the moral worth and linguistic precision. Ingrowing Thoughts (1985) is a fascinating collection. Hints as to the man himself emerge in The Echoes Return Slow (1988). RS Thomas was a contender for the Nobel Prize in 1996, when he was 83 and retired from the church. He wrote several autobiographical pieces including a formal autobiography, Neb (No One), in Welsh, using a laconic third person. He often referred to the narrowness of his work. Well, Jane Austen also adhered to a narrow canvas and it did not lessen her achievement. RS Thomas as a poet should be required reading.
3. Gwyn Thomas
What, a third Thomas? Yes indeed and one whose work as a writer, broadcaster, storyteller and witness to the social history of Wales throughout the Depression, which helped shaped his kindly black humour, gives an invaluable insight in attempting to understand the uniqueness of Wales and the Welsh.
Author of a brilliant autobiography, A Few Selected Exits (1968), the personality and public appeal of Gwyn Thomas as the guest who delighted many a chat show host, has overshadowed the work. He wrote 15 novels, including The Dark Philosophers (1946), The Alone to the Alone (1947), A Frost on My Frolic (1953) and the posthumously published Sorrow for Thy Sons (1986) and The Thinker and The Thrush (1987).
The 12th and final child of a Welsh miner in the Rhondda Valley who tended the pit ponies down in the mine shafts, he was born a year before Dylan and died in 1981 at 67. Gwyn Thomas is a most under-rated writer, not because his life was larger than the work as Heaney always said of Dylan Thomas but because he had a huge personality that did deflect from the melancholic perceptions at the heart of his work.
4. Angharad Price
Novelist, critic, academic and translator, Angharad Price writes most of her work in Welsh. In her beautiful second novel, The Life of Rebecca Jones, which was published in Welsh in 2002 and brilliantly translated by Lloyd Jones in 2010, she tells the story of a family which has farmed the Maeglasau Valley for more than 1,000 years.
It is a family history, shaped by memory, lyric grace, reality and an inspired re-imagining as it is told through a character who, though long dead, has been retrieved from death. Rebecca Jones tells us about a life she might have had had she lived. There are three brothers who grapple with congenital blindness. It is about family loyalty confronted by a hunger for education.
Price has woven art and memorial. Anyone who has read this book has come away feeling moved and privileged; remarkable is too puny a word. If ever a novel spoke to any person who feared for the loss of a culture, a way of life, a language, it is this delicate, softly-spoken book which is giant in its daunting grace – the tractor, the telephone, the television are seen harbingers of change that could even prove destructive.
Sometimes a book appears that has a whisper greater than any amount of hype – here is one of them. A bestseller in Welsh where it was immediately recognised as a classic, it is even more than that, it is majestic in its dignity.
5. Raymond Williams
A son of the Black Mountains, Raymond Williams, born in Pandy, was one of the most influential thinkers and critics of the 20th century. Generations of university students have clutched copies of his famous study, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970). Williams was also a gifted novelist of epic vision. People of the Black Mountains is the story of the country in which he was born. He follows the land of Wales and its people in an epic work that begins with recorded time itself.
People of the Black Mountains: Volume 1 - The Beginning… was published in 1989 – he died before it was published. The second volume, People of the Black Mountains: Volume 2, The Eggs of the Eagle, overseen by his widow, appeared the following year. Myth and magic, memory and story, plague and invasion, life and death; it reads as a remarkable alternative book of Genesis. One of the most important British prose works of the 20th century, it is a dark and powerful reading experience in which the mythic becomes real.
6. Owen Martell
Having published two novels in Welsh, Owen Martell from south Wales wrote Intermission, his third novel in English. It is based on the death of a jazz musician, Scott LaFaro, who was killed in a car crash in 1961. He was only 25 but already a vital part of the Bill Evans Trio and a very talented bass player.
His death was a tragedy. But this ambitious novel is more about the impact the accident had on Evans, who was devastated beyond words. His grief not only unhinged him, it affected his brother, father and mother. It is a novel shaped by the response and inner thoughts of the characters. Many novels, not even half as good as this one, received far more attention. It has echoes of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (1976).
If one were asked to nominate one, just one, excellent English-language novel of recent years, in the age of hype, that was seriously ignored and would have salvaged many a disappointing shortlist, it is Intermission: daring, subtle, convincing and simply, very good. Martell took facts as his basic material and moulded them into an imaginative, unsettling novel.
7. Trezza Azzopardi
Born in Cardiff to Maltese emigrants, Azzopardi earned a place on the 2000 Booker shortlist with a lively debut that soared. Told through the eyes of the youngest daughter of a family which emigrated from Malta to Cardiff, it recalls the experiences of a displaced family. 1960s Cardiff comes to life. The novel took everyone by surprise; it has life, humour, pathos and such candour. It is possible to even smell the grim docklands of Tiger Bay.
In Remember Me (2004), her second novel, Azzopardi created the wonderful Winnie, a resilient 72-year-old who begins her narrative: “I‘m not infirm, you know: I am my grandfather’s age. That‘s not so old. And the girl didn’t frighten me….. I don‘t know how long I lay there. I only heard her, first. The door at the front of the house was stiff; you had to put all your weight on it, come winter, just to shift it an inch. It groaned if anyone came in. The girl made it groan… I wasn’t afraid: there was nothing to steal.”
Very quickly it becomes clear that there is something precious to steal – Winnie. She is the endearing heart of a novel that charms and moves in equal measure.
Simple question: why are Welsh writers so good? In common with all writers, they love language yet there is an additional quality, a playful feel for words. It is even in their spoken speech. Must be a Celtic thing.