An accidental year of Dylan Thomas pilgrimages
While we have needed to stay safe at home, I have been reminiscing about places I have visited over the past few years. In 2019, I went on holiday to Wales with my family. My father is from Swansea and my childhood summers were spent on the beach at Langland, Caswell, Oxwich and Three Cliffs Bay, and it was during those holidays that my grandma recited poems that she had learnt by heart and have stayed with me to this day. I remember ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in particular and ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, which she loved because my grandpa had sent it to her when they were courting. During our trip we went on a tour of all the places they had lived in Mumbles, West Cross, Sketty and in the Uplands where they lived just round the corner from Cwmdonkin Park. On a slate-grey Welsh summer day we crossed the park and ended up at Dylan Thomas’ house at number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive and that was the start of a year of accidental Dylan Thomas pilgrimage
from ‘Fern Hill’
‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.’
Dylan Thomas’ house is fascinating – it is the house where he was born, was his home for twenty-three years and was where he wrote two-thirds of his published work. Poems such as ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ were written when he was still a teenager. Here’s a photo of the outside and a picture of his bedroom as it would have been in 1934.
from A Child’s Christmas in Wales
‘It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.’
Later that week, a very rainy day led us to take cover in the Dylan Thomas Centre where we visited the ‘Love the Words’ exhibition, which included wonderful recordings of Thomas reading his poems including Prologue – here is an extract:
We had gone somewhere else entirely the day we ended up at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne where Thomas, his wife Caitlin and their three children lived from 1949 until his death. Laugharne is of course the real-life model for Milkwood. It is a lovely house set in a cliff overlooking the Taf estuary and just up the hill is his writing shed (photos of both below). We took a different route back to the car and found ourselves at the cemetery of St. Martin’s church where he is buried.
From ‘Poem on his birthday’
‘In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks’
The final part of our accidental pilgrimage happened in November that year in New York where we had gone to Greenwich Village for a literary pub crawl to see where Jack Kerouac, Edna St Vincent Millay, Hart Crane and others lived and drank. The meeting place was The White Horse Tavern – reading our guide book while waiting for the rest of the tour party to assemble, we realised that it was exactly 66 years to the day since Dylan Thomas had died at St Vincent’s hospital just up the street. The White Horse was where he frequently drank in New York and where he had spent his last evening before being taken ill. He was 39 years old.
From ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’
‘Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
All these poems can be found in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The Centenary Edition published by Weinfeld & Nicolson and A Child’s Christmas in Wales published by Orion Children’s Books.
Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.