Wales: More than Just Dylan Thomas
April 14, 2014
The global literary community is abuzz this year over the birthday of Dylan Thomas. Wales's most renowned writer would have turned 100 this year. Thomas is famous for his poems, his BBC radio plays, and his sonorous voice that captivated American audiences before his early death in 1953.
Thomas's centenary prompted Dr. Janice Fuller, Catawba Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence, to plan an honors course on Welsh culture and to take the course's 12 students on a nine-day trip to Wales in March. The course focused on a full range of Welsh culture with a special concentration on the Welsh-language tradition that still flourishes.
Catawba's Associate Provost Dr. Steve Coggin and his wife Diane accompanied the group. They were joined for the entire trip by Sally Baker, who founded Tŷ Newydd, Wales's national writing school, 25 years ago.
The Dylan Thomas Trail
In Cardiff at the New Theatre, they watched the National Theatre Wales's production of Thomas's "play for voices," Under Milk Wood, currently celebrating its 60th anniversary. During their stay in Wales, the group visited the two villages that inspired the play — New Quay and Laugharne.
In Laugharne, they explored the boathouse where Thomas and wife Caitlin raised their children and his renowned writing shed. The group ate lunch at Brown's Hotel, Thomas's favorite haunt for drinking and playing cards with the owners and his parents.
One of the most interesting parts about experiencing the true Wales was eating cawl at Brown's Hotel, sitting in the same place as Dylan Thomas, eating something that he probably ate regularly. This traditional soup, both delicious and nutritious, opened up the opportunity to feel like part of Wales.
On the edge of town, the group visited Dylan Thomas's grave marked by a simple white cross. In the half-fog, student Patrick Gassaway read "Now," a lesser-known Thomas poem which includes the lines
"No say sir,
Yea the dead stir,
And this, nor this, is shade, the landed crow. . ."
In Swansea, the group lingered at Thomas's birthplace at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. Geoff Haden offered them a private tour of the house he has lovingly restored, encouraging them to sit on the beds, encouraging Shaun Cammack to play the family piano. A filmmaker shot scenes of the group for a documentary about the centenary. Patrick Gassaway recited one of his own poems, Steven Gibson read his favorite Thomas poem "Do Not Go Gentle," and Shakeisha Gray read "Hunchback in the Park" for the camera.
Hannah Ellis, Thomas's granddaughter, drove from her home in England to join the group at the house and the adjacent Cwmdonkin Park, where Thomas played as a boy. She spent hours with them, telling family stories about her grandfather's life and her own continued connection to Dylan's "sacred places."
Seeing where Dylan Thomas lived and meeting his granddaughter really made him seem alive to me. Hannah's resemblance to Dylan was mesmerizing. Hearing her talk about her family and the house made his work resonate even more because seeing everything helped me place it in the real world. Walking around Cwmdonkin Park with Hannah on a gorgeous afternoon was a highlight of the day.
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Dylan Thomas's father discouraged him from learning Welsh because of the disadvantage he thought it would bring him in the early 20th century. At about the same time, a Welshman — David Lloyd George — became Prime Minister of Great Britain and championed the language. The Catawba group spent the first four days of the trip in residence at Tŷ Newydd, Lloyd George's last home in Llanystumdwy, the small village in north Wales where he grew up.
The group visited Lloyd George's nearby grave, and two West Scholars Michelle Newberger and Anna Field were invited into the primary school Lloyd George attended as a child, Ysgol Llanystumdwy.
The school's smallness fostered a sense of community in the school with the older students helping the younger. What struck me was the fluidity that the students and teachers had when switching back and forth between Welsh and English. You could see how committed the children were to the Welsh language. A lot of them seemed to be thinking in Welsh and then translating it into English. I think this is a good thing because if these children take ownership of the language at such an early age, they will most likely perpetuate it through their own children.
Like Dylan, his contemporary — poet R.S. Thomas — didn't grow up speaking Welsh and never felt at ease writing poems in Welsh. Many of his poems reveal his bitterness that the English had made his father's speech "a stranger at my lips." The reclusive vicar, who lived to be 87, was fiercely nationalistic, curmudgeonly, and self-effacing — everything Dylan wasn't — but he was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature and proclaimed one of the great English-language poets of the 20th Century.
The Catawba group traveled to the little stone chapel where R.S. long served as vicar, a rugged outpost in Aberdaron at the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, where the wind has blown slate grave stones aslant. The travelers sat transfixed inside the chapel listening to the sounds of the sea and to award-winning poet Christine Evans, talking about her encounters with RS and reading his poems and hers.
Afterwards, the group climbed to the heights of the dramatic headland Uwchmynydd and looked out toward Bardsey Island (Enlli, in Welsh), long a destination for religious pilgrims.
When we were looking out at Bardsey Island, Christine Evans told us about the spring down below. We could see the outline of the ruins of a mediaeval church and the cliff below it that met the violent sea. There is an old legend that if you drink from the spring and run all the way up the hill to the remains of the church with the water still in your mouth then you will have good luck for a year.
aturally I had to climb down the cliffside to witness the spring for myself. While the tide remained too high to drink from the spring, it was definitely there and as beautiful as I had imagined. The spring helped represent the mythical druidic tradition and how the Welsh people cherished legends as a way to attempt to make sense of things unknown.
Welsh-language Musicians and Poets
The Welsh-language bardic tradition is one of the oldest continuous literary traditions in Europe. During the week, some of the most famous Welsh-language poets and musicians offered the group private performances and long conversations over dinner and in the local pub. The first night of the trip, poet andsinger-songwriter Gwyneth Glyn (former Poet Laureate for Children and a featured guest at DC's Smithsonian Festival) moved the group with her folk songs and talked at length with each student.
On another night at Tŷ Newydd, the Welsh-language bard Twm Morys (winner of Wales highest honor for poetry — the chair at the Eisteddfod) played the guitar and the traditional small Welsh harp. He also explained the intricacies of cynghanedd, the sound patterns (more complex than any poetic system in the world) that have guided Welsh-language poetry since the sixth century.
In every town we visited in north Wales, Welsh was the primary language spoken between shopkeepers and patrons with the musicality of the language flowering from every mouth that spoke it. Gwyneth Glyn and Twm Morys sang entirely in Welsh. Throughout our evening with Twm Morys, he conversed with his seven-year-old daughter, Dyddgu, solely in Welsh. Many times we tried to get her to speak English, but she was rarely willing to switch tongues. As her shyness prevailed, she would always switch back to the language she was most comfortable speaking: Welsh. The idea that a young girl would revert to speaking Welsh when she was put under the duress of spending time with 15 Americans spoke volumes about the importance of the Welsh language to the Welsh identity.
The struggle for autonomy and identity was evident in the four dramatic Welsh and English castles the group explored along the coast of north Wales — Cricieth, Harlech, Beaumaris, and Caernarfon. But the Catawba visitors came to learn that the linguistic battles over Welshness were just as important. During the 1960s and 1970s Welsh-language activists fought for bilingual signage, a Welsh-language television station, and Welsh instruction in the schools. Thanks to them, Welsh today has more native speakers than all of the other Celtic languages combined.
One of those activists — poet, playwright, and librettist Menna Elfyn — is the most famous Welsh-language poet in the world with her work translated into 18 different languages. In Carmarthen, Elfyn moved from table to table during dinner to talk to each group of students and then read her poems — beginning each poem in Welsh, switching to English, and ending in Welsh.
Menna Elfyn's thoughts about universal language usage in her poems were the soundtrack in my mind as the Welsh language swirled around me in pubs, museums, and restaurants. Her suggestion that each nation should learn its neighbor's language until this pay-it-forward effect creates a more united world was in my thoughts. Her poems illustrated for me a world that could respect and incorporate bilingualism without losing pride for a native or minority language, like Welsh.
The last night's concert
Then trip ended with an emotional private performance at Swansea's Morgan Hotel by the accomplished mother-daughter duo DnA — Delyth and Angharad Jenkins — playing on harp and fiddle traditional Welsh tunes as well as Angharad's experimental compositions.
Angharad's father — poet, scholar, and essayist Nigel Jenkins, one of Wales's cultural giants — died from cancer a few weeks before the trip. Before his short illness, he had planned to accompany the Catawba group during their four days in south Wales. The night of the concert, DnA decided to supplement their instrumental music with some of Nigel's poems, including "Where Poems Came From." According to Nigel, poems come not from chalk dust or London but from "the tricks the sky played with stone" and from the "farmer's voice as he sat drinking tea."
Catawba's students were fortunate enough to experience that source of poetry, that Wales that Nigel Jenkins so loved, during their many days of travel.
The recent Catawba College trip to Wales began back in 1997 when three Welsh poets — Nigel Jenkins, Menna Elfyn, and Iwan Lloyd — brought Welsh culture to Salisbury, where they were hosted by Dr. Fuller and Shakespeare Professor Dr. Bethany Sinnott. Since that time Fuller has been awarded a Summer Study grant from Catawba to study Dylan Thomas in Laugharne and has taught almost every year at Tŷ Newydd. In March, her fourth book of poetry, On the Bevel, was published by Cinnamon Press in north Wales.