Gilding the legend

Hannah Ellis has edited a book to mark the centenary of the birth of her grandfather, the Welsh poet and legend Dylan Thomas. Blood is indeed thicker than water, finds an underwhelmed JP O’Malley.

Gilding the legend

Dylan Thomas: A Centenary Celebration

Hannah Ellis

Bloomsbury €24

ON November 9, 1953, Dylan Thomas collapsed and later died in Chelsea, New York City, at the age of just 39. He was intoxicated, in poor health, and had being wrongly prescribed morphine shots by doctors who really should have known better. Since that tragic event, his reputation as a writer has been overshadowed by mythology, rumour and gossip.

So trying to critically appraise the Welshman today is a difficult task. Mainly because there is already a mountain of biographies on this subject, and they’re not entirely positive.

Just some of harsher accusations that have been thrown at Thomas — which have all helped cement the legend of the archetypal-bad-boy-poet — include his penchant for excessive drinking; sponging from fellow poets; compulsive womanising; and a schoolboy-like insistence on playing up to his status as a self-parodying clown, who took nobody — least of all himself — seriously.

When taking on the job as editor of Dylan Thomas: A Centenary Celebration, Hannah Ellis, the granddaughter of the famous poet, says she wanted to create a portrait of Thomas that encapsulated all aspects of his personality.

I’m not so sure the book is as balanced as she makes out, but then again, family reputations are at stake here.

“There are many different sides to Dylan Thomas,” she says.

“There is the gentle and sensitive man he was in the seaside towns in Wales, away from the limelight, just writing his poetry. Then there is the roaring Welsh boyo, an image that he created and exaggerated as the years went on.

“But people tend to have this one-dimensional view of my grandfather. So my aim as editor of this book is to focus on the great work that he has left us.”

The collection of essays splits into three sections. The first part looks at Thomas’s early life, from 1914-34.

In a brilliant essay entitled ‘A True Childhood: Dylan’s Peninsularity’, David N Thomas — a biographer of the poet — attempts to understand the geography of Thomas’s early childhood.

The reader is brought on a dazzling journey through the fields of Pentrewyman, then along the coastal path to Llansteffan, and onto other locations such as Laquesnewydd and Mwche.

These were the majestic landscapes where Thomas spent many summers as a young boy working on the farmlands of his relatives. And being surrounded by a predominately rural-chapel-going, Welsh-speaking-community had an enormous influence on his poems, the author argues.

Particularly when one considers that almost two thirds of Thomas’s work had been written by his late teens. Ellis says this essay was something that immediately grabbed her attention in the editorial process.

“I definitely think these quirky little towns where the sea is always near by and where there is lots of very eccentric characters around, were hugely influential in Dylan’s work. These places brought him back to the very basic things that are important in life.

“ And in the huge amount of poems he wrote as a teenager he was always experimenting with lots of different ideas: Looking at light and dark and the power of opposites. And those locations, without a doubt, were extremely important to this style of (abstract) writing.”

The middle section of this book

looks at Thomas’s life from 1934 until his death in 1953.

Antony Penrose recalls Thomas’s relationship with surrealist writers like David Gascoyne; while Andrew Lycett recalls Thomas’s controversial, but equally necessary friendships with his three wealthy female patrons, all of whom were coincidently called Margaret. There is also a touching essay by the poet’s daughter, Aeronwy Thomas, called ‘Reading With Dad’. Here, the gentler side of a doting family man is revealed with intimate detail. Ellis speaks affectionately about this side of her grandfather’s life.

“I think Dylan left the practicalities of rearing the children to his wife, Caitlin, who really was in charge of the family. She understood that Dylan had to do his writing. And he was often quite childlike himself. Many people who knew him described him as a gentle man. And I do know the times my Mum spent with him were precious. She says sometimes they used to just walk through the countryside for miles without speaking. They were very relaxed in each other’s company. “

There is also an intense fascination here from many contributors about the passionate and difficult relationship that existed between Dylan and Caitlin.

Their marriage was complicated by numerous infidelities and problems that arose from living a boozy, bohemian lifestyle while trying to raise children.

When I ask Ellis about their relationship she claims that judging either of her grandparents, so many decades later, would be a pointless task.

“I know it was certainly a fiery relationship between Dylan and Caitlin. But I wonder what I would do if I was put in the position they were placed in during those days. I don’t want to judge them in any way,” she says.

“Despite all their problems, Caitlin was someone who really understood how important writing was for Dylan. She gave him a strong routine. This kept him calm and grounded. And she understood that words and language were crucially important to him. She really took care of him. And when Dylan went to America, unfortunately, he didn’t have anyone to do that.”

The final section of the book analyses the Thomas legacy. There are glowing tributes from the poet Gillian Clarke and the actor Michael Sheen, and there are even a fitting few lines from from former US president Jimmy Carter, who has a portrait of Thomas proudly hanging in his study.

It’s clearly evident that there is definitely a bit of family bias going on in the editorial process. Still, it would be hard to blame Ellis for attempting to portray her grandfather in a positive light. Particularly when one considers some of the vitriol directed at Thomas.

The English poet Stephen Spender once commented that: “Thomas’s poetry is turned on like a tap. It is poetic stuff with no beginning or end, shape or intelligent control.” Robert Graves once referred to Thomas as a “demagogic Welsh masturbator who refused to pay his bills”. And in a famous Oxford lecture he gave in 1989 entitled ‘Dylan The Durable’, Seamus Heaney remarked how Thomas’s legacy had become so embroiled with his romantic cult status that it supplanted anybody’s need to talk about his contribution to the world of poetry.

There appears to be an unanimous verdict which is this: While Thomas’s work is indeed highly musical and filled with a certain magic, many of his ideas are immature, underdeveloped, and lack a definitive meaning.

Ellis believes critics have been too damming on her grandfather, although I’m not entirely sure how seriously one can take these comments. For example, she confesses in the introduction that she had never read any of Thomas’s poems before she took on the editor’s role.

Family pride aside though, Ellis does have a point about putting the work above all else. And no matter how much gossip keeps coming out about one of the most controversial poets of the 20th century, her final words are certainly worth paying attention to.

“I guess how you view Dylan Thomas really depends on how he helps you,” she says.

“The legacy of the work is the most important thing. That is what we must remember him by.”

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