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 year-long series of events leading to the 100th anniversary of his birth on Oct. 27, 1914.
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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.
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. It adds up to a fascinating man.
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 (themselves) 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. Cwndonkin 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."
Echoes of 1914
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.'"
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.
"We went to (rummage) sales, charity shops, auctions. A friend's mother died at 90. She lived in the same house all her life — and her parents did as well. So we were able to buy a lot of wonderful furniture. Slowly we started piecing things together."
Haden said that what they tried to do was re-create a scene where "the Thomas family has slipped out for an hour, and we're just looking around before they come back."
A suit, a crayon drawing
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.
All these objects add to the picture of a man who, as the exhibit title suggests, still has a bit of mystery to him. That he died unexpectedly at 39 — following a night of heavy drinking, according to legend — simply adds to his mystique.
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 to his death (he also had pulmonary issues and had been administered drugs by a physician in the days before his death).
"Huge legends and myths have been created about him — some by himself — and that's what makes him fascinating," Furber said. For example, she explained, he cultivated a persona that he thought poets should have.
"He'd have one pint, make it last all evening, then if he met some friends on his way home, he'd pretend to be drunk."
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.
"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. More may be in the offing.
"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."
'Not a drink in sight'
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.
"The writing shed was just up the road from the Boathouse," Furber said. "His children recalled tiptoeing past the shed and hearing him trying out lines for things he was writing."
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."
The plan was to do one portrait, Stuart said, because Thomas was busy with "Under Milk Wood." But they did three sittings that resulted in four sketches, two of which are now in university collections, one of which is in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Stuart has the last.
"Dylan said, 'How do you want me to sit?' Profile. And he was very fine. He sat very still, was very well-behaved. Not a drink in sight. We did the last one in the writing shed," the artist said. A few weeks later, Stuart got word that Thomas had died.
William Hageman is a lifestyles reporter for the Tribune.
Visiting Dylan Thomas country
A visitor doesn't need to have a strong affinity for Thomas to enjoy Wales. It's a beautiful, most welcoming country.
But anyone with even a passing interest in the man and his work must see Swansea.
The best place to start is Thomas' birthplace. One of my wife's most memorable nights on a recent two-week trip to the United Kingdom was spent in the parlor of the house, sitting by the fire and reading Thomas' poems and letters for several hours late into the night.
Look out his parents' bedroom window, out to Swansea Bay, the north Devon coast in the distance. The landscape hasn't changed. You see what he saw. This is what fascinated and inspired Dylan Thomas, the boy; this is what he wrote about.
From the house on the hill, walk down to town. Visit the No Sign Wine Bar, The Uplands Tavern and other pubs he frequented. Have a quiet pint and reflect.
Walk the narrow streets. Slowly. You will gain a greater appreciation of the man, the poet.
Sites worth visiting
•The Dylan Thomas birthplace (Swansea): It's open for overnight stays, events and tours. 5cwmdonkindrive.com
•The Dylan Thomas Centre (Swansea): In addition to its permanent exhibit, new material is on loan from U.S. institutions. http://www.dylanthomas.com
•The Boathouse (Laugharne): This is where Thomas spent the last four years of his life. http://www.dylanthomasboathouse.com
Events worth considering
•Dylan Thomas Boathouse and Touring Writing Shed: The Boathouse will host a variety of events over the next year , and the writing shed will tour the country through December 2014. http://www.dylanthomasboathouse.com
•Peter Blake Exhibition: Llareggub: Blake's 25-year project goes on exhibit for the first time. It includes pencil portraits of each of the 60 characters from "Under Milk Wood" as well as a series of watercolors and a group of collages of the fictional village. National Museum Cardiff through March 16 (with additional related events). tinyurl.com/n7nzxkp .
•Dylan Thomas 2014: A yearlong event with the Thomas Festival, through Nov. 9, as its focal point. Various locations around Swansea. http://www.dylanthomas.com
•"Under Milk Wood": A live mix of broadcast, film and performance in various locations in Wales and New York. Spring 2014. nationaltheatrewales.org
•"Under Milk Wood, An Opera": Premiers at the Taliesin Arts Centre, in Swansea, April 3, then goes on tour. taliesinartscentre.co.uk
•The Laugharne Weekend: A three-day arts festival, April 4-6, focusing on literature and music, in the town where Thomas spent his last four years. Three festivals will be added for the centenary. thelaugharneweekend.com
Visit dylanthomas100.org for regularly updated listings.
"A Child's Christmas in Wales:" An excerpt
For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons,
put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among
festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o'-war, following the Instructions
for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.
— Dylan ThomasCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun