July 1st, 2011
A Walk with Dylan Thomasâ€“ The Cadence of Wales
Mumbles, Wales. Local Mumbleites will tell you that if you come to live in Mumbles for awhile, you will lose your ambition.
â€œThatâ€™s what happened to my husband, â€œsaid a Welsh woman sitting next to me on a city bus in Mumbles, â€œWe came for a vacation; we stayed; he lost his ambition.â€
Mumbles possesses a siren-like quality that draws you in and makes you forget where you came from. Call it the myth of the Welsh seascape and the misty landscape, which the Welsh call, â€œsoft days.â€
Mumbles, a derivation of the Danish â€œMummeâ€ and the Latin â€œMammaeâ€ meaning breasts, is a reference to the two rocky islets at the western end of Swansea Bay. In 1807, the inauguration of the horse-drawn passenger train, the first regular passenger railway in the world, brought fame and fortune to Mumbles. On bank holidays in the mid to late 19th century, thousands of people arrived there to enjoy the sea air. The horse-drawn car made its last journey on March 31, 1896.
Wales’ most famous poet, Dylan Thomas, spent many hours in Mumbleâ€™s pubs, and on the Gower Peninsula nearby, â€œone of the loveliest sea-coast stretches in the whole of Britain.â€ In letters from 1934, he reported spending afternoons â€œwalking alone over the very desolate Gower cliffs, communing with the cold and the quietness.â€ Mumbles and Gower played crucial roles in Thomasâ€™ writing. It was here that the germ of an idea for his famous radio play Under Milk Wood was born.
About a five-mile walk along the coast from Mumbles, or a brief city bus ride, will take you to the seaport town of Swansea, population 10,000. Dylan Thomas no doubt walked this walk or climbed aboard the Mumbles train after an evening at the pub. You can still spend a night enjoying dark ale at the Antelope and karaoke at the White Rose.
Scholars have written that Thomas, the most quoted writer in the world after Shakespeare, is the cadence of Wales; readers hear the sound of Wales in his poetry and prose. For him, the sounds of words were as important as meaning. These sea towns, Mumbles, Gower and Swansea were Thomasâ€™ world, and he gave his world to the larger world. He never strayed far nor lived or worked far from his path. As an adult, he always connected back to his childhood. For what else was childhood but a place to share secrets?
Thomas was an intriguing â€œbad boyâ€ of his time. He and his wife Caitlin, evaded debt collectors, lived off the goodwill of friends, partied to excess and lived a Bohemian lifestyle. The Dylan Thomas Heritage Centre in Swanseaâ€™s Maritime Cultural Quarter captures the life and â€œbuzzâ€ created by Thomas after his death in 1953.
The Centre opened on Jan. 2, 2002, with former President Jimmy Carter, also a poet, delivering the keynote address. As you enter the main exhibition room, you face a freestanding mural of famous images of Dylan Thomas, his wife, friends and acquaintances. The last bust on exhibit is cast from Dylanâ€™s death mask, after his death in New York City at age 39. A timeline of Thomasâ€™ life starts with his death and ends with his birth on October 27, 1914.
The son of a schoolmaster, Thomas said the themes of his writings emerged as a record of his â€œindividual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light,â€ themes of life, death, sex, love, nature, childhood, madness, himself. Other prose and poems, Under Milk Wood, Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night and A Childâ€™s Christmas in Wales, surround you as you move through the user friendly interactive exhibit.
â€œI wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words,â€ wrote Thomas. â€œ I cared for the color of the words. Poetry is what makes me laugh, or cry, or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle.â€
Thomas became one of the first British artists to be wildly popular in the United States. He is called the first modern day multi-media star because of the entrancing way he could read his poetry. His voice had a â€œbreathless, boom, boom, boomâ€ quality said one radio commentator.
The exhibit also includes audiovisual displays and a research room containing letters, scripts, a typewriter and Thomasâ€™ publications. The Centre also has a cafÃ© book shop containing 7000 used books, a gift shop and an art gallery with a yearlong program of literary events.
A short bus ride leads to Laugharne (Larn), a sleepy town on Carmarthern Bay, and Laugharne Castle, which is immortalized by its most celebrated inhabitant, Dylan Thomas. It is a steep trek up the path, now called Dylanâ€™s Walk, to the castle Boat House where Dylan and Caitlin lived during the late 1940s. On the way, view the interior of the bright blue work shed through a small glass window to see where Thomas wrote. It has been restored to resemble the shed when Thomas used it, right down to the discarded papers on the floor and an empty bottle of beer. The spectacular view from the shed stretches across Carmarthen Bay. A few hundred yards up the path, the 19th century Boat House, formerly used as a boat building and repair center, nestles under the cliff. This Boat House represents calm in Thomasâ€™ otherwise turbulent life. The Boat House features Thomas memorabilia, a video documentary of his life, a tea room and a gift shop complete with a famous Welsh shop cat, Barnard, who has stories published about him in national newspapers. Be sure to stop and scratch behind his ears as you sign the guest book.
From the Boat House, the path turns inland and returns to town. A grassy track leads up the hill and then right to where the couple is buried in St. Martinâ€™s Church graveyard. The grave, marked by a simple white cross for a complex couple, stands out among the expensive gravestones.
In the church, a plaque commemorates Thomasâ€™ life with words from his poem Quite Early One Morning. â€œAnd some like myself, just came, one day, for the day, and never left; got off the bus, and forgot to get on again.â€
I said goodbye that soft day in Wales to Dylan and Caitlin, to a poet and a country that had somehow captured me. Perhaps someday I will return; I will stay and forget to get back on the bus.
–Merrie Sue Holtan