Dylan Thomas: ‘lost’ fifth notebook reveals how great Welsh poet changed his style



New insights: Dylan Thomas’s fifth notebook shows how the poet’s creative process developed.
Photo by John Gay © National Portrait Gallery, London

John Goodby, Sheffield Hallam University

It’s the dream of every researcher to get their hands on a hitherto-unknown manuscript by the author in whose work they specialise. As you’d imagine, most never realise that dream. But on December 9 2014 at Sotheby’s auction house in London, I was lucky enough for it to happen to me. A school exercise book that had once belonged to Dylan Thomas, filled with 16 of his poems in his handwriting, was bought by my then-employers, Swansea University, for £85,000 and given to me to edit.

A PhD student, Adrian Osbourne, was funded to help me in my labours. A greater honour, and a more daunting, more thrilling task, would have been hard for either of us to imagine.

To begin at the beginning, however, some context. From April 1930, aged 15, Thomas began copying his completed poems into a series of school exercise books. In his short story, The Fight, the “D. Thomas” character notes how: “In the evening, before calling on my new friend, I sat in my bedroom by the boiler and read through my exercise-books full of poems. There were Danger Don’ts on the backs.”

A red school exercise book belonging to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Lost until 2014: Dylan Thomas’s fifth notebook.
Swansea University, Author provided

In a letter of 1933, Thomas referred to an “innumerable” number of such notebooks. And, unlike most poets, he hung onto his juvenilia, carrying them around with him and raiding them for material until 1941. At that point, in the darkest days of the second world war, hard up and with a family to support, he sold the first four, which run from April 1930 to April 1934, to the library of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Scholars were given access to them and they were published in 1967 as Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas.

No more notebooks emerged during Thomas’s lifetime, nor – despite much speculation – did any appear after his death in 1953. Thus, the Sotheby’s notebook is the only one to have appeared, and it covers the period summer 1934 to August 1935 – making it a direct continuation of the first four.

Scrap paper?

The fifth notebook’s extraordinary nature as an object is matched by the story of its survival. Two notes contained in the Tesco’s bag in which the notebook was found allowed us to establish this. The first, a brief description by Thomas himself, shows that the last time he was in possession of it was early 1938.

After marrying in summer 1937, he and Caitlin Macnamara lived with Caitlin’s mother at her home in Hampshire until early 1938. The second note – by Mrs Macnamara’s maid, Louie King – revealed that after Dylan and Caitlin’s departure she was given the notebook, with other “scrap paper” they left behind, to burn in the kitchen boiler. King, however, withheld the notebook from its fiery fate – out of curiosity, sentiment, or for some other reason we know nothing about. When she died in 1984 the notebook passed to her family, who kept it, still a secret to the outside world, until 2014.

We now had three tasks – to transcribe the notebook poems, deciphering, if possible, Thomas’s many corrections and deletions. We then set out to compare them with the published versions and to work out what light – if any – they shed on Thomas’s poetic development.

It should be said that the fifth notebook poems are all published ones. Unlike its predecessors it contains no unpublished items (this may be why Thomas does not seem to have minded losing it). Where it differed was in the number of corrections it contained. The poems in the first four notebooks are almost always clean copies. In the fifth, many poems undergo radical revision, allowing us to trace Thomas’s creative processes at first hand.

Two pages from a handwritten notebook of poetry containing revisions.
Unlike the four that preceded it, the fifth notebook contains many of Thomas’s revisions.
Swansea University, Author provided

Luckily, we were able to realise most of our aims. Thomas’s handwriting is clear, so most poems and corrections were easy to read. Some problems arose as the notebook progressed, and the poems grew more complex and worked-over. Usually, educated guesswork (not to mention my colleague’s keen eyesight) carried us through – although in a handful of cases we called in a technician armed with a super-photocopier. In the end only five words were unresolved.

Changing style

Among the deleted passages were many of great beauty and originality, some of which Thomas reworked elsewhere. There were also three stanzas, in two of the poems, which had never been seen before.

Everywhere his incredibly rapid development as a poet was evident. Sometimes, even the tiniest item could alter our understanding of a poem; in I Dreamed My Genesis, the notebook confirmed that a comma should replace a full stop found in three print editions, making better sense of eight lines of the poem.

At the other end of the scale of significance, after poem eight, When, Like a Running Grave, we noted that Thomas had, unusually, written out the date in full: “26th October 1934” – the eve of his 20th birthday – with an emphatic line in the centre of the page. We know from the number of poems he wrote about birthdays (they include Poem on His Birthday and Poem in October) that they held great significance for Thomas. So we feel it is no coincidence that the poems that follow this point, beginning with Now and culminating in Altarwise By Owl-Light, the final poem, differ from these before it, and are the most experimental he ever wrote. Agonisingly aware of human mortality, of the end of youth, this emphatic dating marks the exact moment of Thomas’s momentous decision to adopt a more daring style.

The notebook, then, represents a kind of hinge in his early career, and this is something we could only have learned from the notebook itself, since the stylistic shift is completely obscured by the non-chronological order in which When, Like a Running Grave and Now were published. It grants us the privilege of witnessing, for the first time, the young Dylan Thomas at the height of his powers, seizing and reshaping his poetic destiny.The Conversation

John Goodby, Professor of Arts and Culture, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coal mining in Wales: the 1930s writers who depicted the environmental calamity caused by the pits



Llwynypia, South Wales, a colliery village built up around a coal mine.
Shutterstock

Seth Armstrong Twigg, Cardiff University

I come from a family of miners. The last person to work down the pit was my paternal grandfather, who dug coal from the subterranean tunnels hidden deep below the Welsh Marches, which lie along the English border. In comparison to the innumerable collieries that made south Wales at one point the biggest coal-exporting region in the world, ours was the forgotten coalfield.

My grandfather was a proud miner, but he was adamant that none of his children would follow in his footsteps. Thatcher’s obliteration of mining communities was conducted in an appalling manner, but reinstating the industry was not the answer. However, when I moved to south Wales to study, I was conscious of a different attitude towards our national heritage.

Shortly after beginning my master’s degree at Cardiff, I attended an event with a panel of ex-colliers. During the Q&A session, one audience member expressed a desire that mining should return to the area, which was met with approval from others. I was aware that this reflected the reality that large parts of south Wales have never fully recovered from the abrupt removal of industry, but also conscious that, on that occasion, there was hardly anyone arguing the contrary.

The price of coal

Admittedly, the coal industry brought employment, community and a strong sense of identity to parts of Wales. However, this came at the cost of widespread ecological destruction, and, despite the current coronavirus pandemic, the most significant threat to our survival remains climate change. As people, we have a natural tendency to look at the past fondly, but in order to avoid regressing, it is important to remember the negative aspects of history.

Literature about Welsh coal mining has attracted a healthy degree of critical attention over the years. Yet, little consideration has been paid towards the way writers depict the environmental impact of the industry.

Black and white photograph of coal Miner sculpture in Cardiff Bay.
Coal Miner sculpture in Cardiff Bay.
Steve F/Wikimedia, CC BY

Over the past three years, I have examined a series of texts published in the 1930s, a decade that saw an increased demand – beyond Wales – for literature about the harsh realities of life in mining communities. This Welsh industrial writing, as it became known, is usually viewed as a social document of that era. In my view, we should reclassify these writings as early articulations of the man-made changes that have created today’s climate emergency.

Writing environmental catastrophe

Wales was devastated during the 1930s by the Great Depression. The coal industry was in decline and by 1932, nearly half of all men were unemployed. This economic desolation is mirrored by literary depictions of environmental degradation in Welsh industrial writing, which was going through a boom at the time.

Collieries used local rivers to wash coal, whilst also treating water sources as a deposit for waste. As a result, river ecology suffered for generations. Jack Jones’s Black Parade (1935) communicates the deadly reality of this river pollution in Victorian Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales. Throughout Jones’s novel, the presence of the contaminated local river haunts the characters. Human and industrial waste combine to create intolerable living conditions where rats rule supreme.

Portrait of writer Jack Jones.
Jack Jones.
Wikimedia

Throughout the period of industrialisation, large areas of Welsh forest were cleared to produce the wooden props that were used to create underground tunnels for coal mining. In Idris Davies’s extended poem, Gwalia Deserta (1938), the poet draws parallels between the loss of Welsh trees to industry and the deprivation of the local population during the Depression. Davies’s poem serves as a stark warning of what a place becomes when it loses its trees.

Widespread air pollution was a major consequence of Welsh coal mining. BL Coombes’s autobiographical text, These Poor Hands (1939), describes how collieries created innumerable quantities of dust that blackened the natural landscape and nearby communities, whilst below ground, miners were subjected to abject working conditions that caused fatal respiratory diseases.

During the mining of Welsh coal, large amounts of waste material were also removed from the earth and placed on the surface. This resulted in enormous heaps of black dirt, known as spoil tips, which littered the Welsh landscape.

Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939) is criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of mining communities, but as the most widely read account of life in the Welsh coalfield, it deserves attention. The novel focuses throughout on the menacing spoil tip that looms above the protagonist’s house. Published almost 30 years before the Aberfan disaster, in which a spoil tip collapsed onto the Welsh village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults, Llewellyn’s text is unsettlingly prophetic.

Given the urgency of reversing the global climate catastrophe, it is important that we end our reliance on fossil fuels. In Wales, we can be proud of our industrial heritage whilst acknowledging its ecologically destructive realities. Literature, in its ability to engage people, can help us remember the negative aspects of our past, so we avoid taking regressive steps in the future.The Conversation

Seth Armstrong Twigg, Doctoral Researcher in Welsh industrial literature, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Four women poets who will take you on an alternative journey through Welsh history



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Alexander Gold/Shutterstock

Rhea Seren Phillips, Swansea University

Poetry has played an important role in the history of Wales. From the medieval courts, to the ongoing National Eisteddfod (the largest music and poetry festival in Europe), writers have used verse to document the land’s culture. But while male writers, such as the 12th century poets of the princes and more recently Dylan Thomas, have presented one perspective of Welsh history and culture, female poets have documented a very different take on Wales through the centuries. Here are four who bring a different perspective.

1. Gwerful Mechain (est.1462-1500)

Gwerful Mechain is one of the few Welsh medieval poets from whom a substantial body of work has survived to this day. One of the loudest voices speaking up for women of the time, Mechain was also one of the first poets in Wales to write about domestic abuse. To Her Husband for Beating Her is a poignant and powerful poem full of enraged language and energetic imagery.

Born into a noble family, Mechain was free to explore her own poetic interests without the pressure of securing patronage, unlike many of her male contemporaries. She became a prolific writer who was not restricted to one style. Her work includes religious, humorous and socially conscious poetry. One of her most well-known works, To the Vagina, chastises her male counterparts for praising a woman’s body from her hair to her feet but ignoring one hidden feature. She was bold and did not shy away from what some may consider crude imagery, as in her poem, To the Maid as she Shits.

This extract, in Welsh then English, is from Cywydd y cedor (The Female Genitals):

Pob rhyw brydydd, dydd dioed,
Mul frwysg, wladiadd rwysg erioed,
Noethi moliant, nis gwarantwyf,
Anfeidrol reiol, yr wyf

Every poet, drunken fool,
Thinks he is just the king of cool,
(Everyone is such a boor,
He makes me so sick, I’m so demure)

2. Katherine Philips (c.1632 – c.1664)

Born in London, Katherine Philips – who later wrote under the moniker “The Matchless Orinda” – moved to Wales when she was around 15 years old. From her home in Cardigan she became a significant female British poet, as well as the first woman to have a commercial play staged, Pompey.

Despite the stigma against women publishing their work, Philips succeeded by circulating handwritten letters and volumes, as her male contemporaries did, while upholding supposedly feminine virtues such as humility and chastity in her works.

Though she was married with two sons, much discussion around Philips’ poetry and life concentrates on whether she was or was not a lesbian. The emotional focus of her poetry was often on women and the passionate relationships she had with them. Regardless of Philips’ own sexual orientation, her work was the first British poetry to express same-sex love between women.

3. Sarah Jane Rees (“Cranogwen”) (1839–1916)

Sarah Jane Rees (also known by the bardic name Cranogwen) is perhaps one of the most pioneering poets in this list. Born in Llangrannog, west Wales, she spurned all attempts to enforce gender stereotypes – her family wanted her to work as a dressmaker – and instead joined her father on board his ship for two years after leaving school. She continued her education, eventually gaining her master mariner certificate. Returning home by the age of 21, Cranogwen fought against opposition to run her old school, and taught children as well as providing navigation and seamanship education to young men.

In 1865 she entered the Eisteddfod festival as Cranogwen with
Y Fodrwy Briodasal (The Wedding Ring), a satirical poem about a married woman’s destiny. When she was announced as the first woman to win the prize, there was disgust from the established and renowned male writers who had been competing. Cranogwen became famous overnight and a collection of her poems was released in 1870.

The following lines are taken from My Friend:

Ah! Annwyl chwaer, ‘r wyt ti i mi,
Fel lloer I’r lli, yn gyson;
Dy ddilyn heb orphwyso wna
Serchiadau pura’m calon

Oh! My dear sister, you to me
As the moon to the sea, constantly,
Following you restlessly are
My heart’s pure affections

4. Lynette Roberts (1909-1995)

Lynette Roberts was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina to parents of Welsh origin. A friend of Dylan Thomas, during World War II Roberts moved to Carmarthenshire with her then husband, journalist and poet Keidrych Rhys, and stayed in Wales for the rest of her life.

Although now her work is seeing a resurgence, for a long time Roberts has been overlooked. She was a poet ahead of her time and her use of language is refreshing. Roberts was influenced by the rich colours and landscape of her childhood, which she entwined with the rural landscape and culture of Wales during a time of upheaval – World War II.

Roberts’s poem Swansea Raid is perhaps one of her most powerful and insightful works. It depicts a snapshot of a relationship between herself and fellow villager Rosie and the tension between war and home. The changing technological world of war brought out warm, colourful language in her work, setting the colloquialisms of quiet, rural Wales against the starkness of bombing and constant threat of loss. Her most influential work has to be the heroic poem Gods with Stainless Ears, on the war’s disruption of domestic life.

This verse is from Roberts’ 1944 Poem from Llanybri:

Then I’ll do the lights, fill the lamp with oil,
Get coal from the shed, water from the well;
Pluck and draw pigeon, with crop of green foil
This your good supper from the lime-tree fell.The Conversation

Rhea Seren Phillips, PhD Researcher in Welsh Poetry, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humphrey Llwyd: the Renaissance scholar who drew Wales into the atlas, and wrote it into history books



File 20180822 149490 1ueyhja.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Abraham Ortelius’s 1570 world map.
The Library of Congress/Wikimedia

Huw Pryce, Bangor University

As a small country with less than 5% of the UK population, Wales faces major challenges in making its presence felt in the wider world – but this is something that scholars, politicians and the people themselves have been concerned about for centuries.

August 2018 marks the 450th anniversary of the death of Humphrey Llwyd, a remarkable Renaissance scholar who believed that Wales was fundamental to the history and identity of Britain. Llwyd not only drafted the first published map of Wales – which literally set the country on a global stage – but was the first person to write a history of Wales and a topographical account of Britain.

Born to a gentry family in Denbigh in 1527 and educated at Oxford, Llwyd went on to make his career in England, being employed in the household of the cultured and book-loving Henry Fitzalan, the 12th Earl of Arundel. This gave Llwyd the opportunity to develop his interest in learning. It also led to his marriage to Barbara, sister of the earl’s son-in-law, Lord Lumley (who himself was another enthusiastic book collector).

Humphrey Llwyd, as depicted in the 1799 book The Royal Tribes of Wales.
Philip Yorke/Wikimedia

By 1563 Llwyd had set up home back in Denbigh, within the walls of the town’s medieval castle. As MP for the borough, he reportedly facilitated the passage, through the parliament of 1563, of the bill authorising the translation of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer into Welsh.

In 1566–7 Llwyd joined Arundel on a journey to Italy. However, a little over a year after his return to Denbigh, he fell seriously ill, and died on August 21 1568. He was buried just outside the town at the church of Llanfarchell, where the fine monument erected to his memory can still be seen.

Mapping Wales

Like other Welsh Renaissance scholars, Llwyd welcomed the so-called “union” of Wales and England under Henry VIII. Yet precisely because the future of Wales lay in the wider orbit of Britain Llwyd was determined to promote its history and culture as integral parts of the island’s heritage.

That determination was sharpened by his experiences outside Wales. It is no coincidence that the first work conceived of as a history of Wales – Llwyd’s Cronica Walliae (“The Chronicle of Wales”) of 1559 – was written in England, very probably at Arundel’s palace of Nonsuch near London for antiquarian-minded members of the earl’s circle. (Despite its Latin title, the work was written in English.)

The chronicle struck a defiant tone:

I was the first that tocke the province [Wales] in hande to put thees thinges into the Englishe tonge. For that I wolde not have the inhabitantes of this Ile ignorant of the histories and cronicles of the same, wherein I am sure to offende manye because I have oppenede ther ignorance and blindenes thereby …

Llwyd’s final works resulted from commissions by the great Flemish cartographer and “inventor” of the atlas, Abraham Ortelius, whom Llwyd met at Antwerp on his way home from Italy in 1567. These included two maps, one of Wales, the other of England and Wales, which were eventually published in a supplement to Ortelius’s atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (“Theatre of the World”), in 1573.

The map of Wales printed as part of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.
National Library of Wales

Llwyd sent drafts of these from his deathbed in Denbigh, along with notes on the topography of Britain – Commentarioli Britannicae descriptionis fragmentum (“A Fragment of a Little Commentary on the Description of Britain”) – written in Latin and published in Cologne in 1572. This was soon followed by Thomas Twyne’s English translation, The Breviary of Britayne (1573). Significantly, about half of the work was devoted to Wales.

Defending history

One aim of the Breviary was to defend the traditional British history popularised by Geoffrey of Monmouth – which traced the earliest kings of Britain to the Trojan exile Brutus – against the Italian humanist historian Polydore Vergil, “who sought not only to obscure the glory of the British name, but also to defame the Britons themselves with slanderous lies”. Like his compatriot Sir John Prise of Brecon, Llwyd not only cited numerous classical sources but stressed the importance of sources in Welsh, which Vergil could not read.

The Cronica Walliae also took the truth of British history for granted. The work drew heavily on the medieval Welsh chronicles known as Brut y Tywysogyon (“The Chronicle of the Princes”), which were designed as continuations of Geoffrey’s history, though Llwyd also used other sources and imposed his own shape on the whole. In particular, he divided the history by the reigns of the kings and princes whose deeds he related, from Cadwaladr the Blessed in the late seventh century to the failed revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294–5. This allowed Llwyd to present the history of medieval Wales as an unbroken succession of legitimate rulers. It also allowed him to insert the first account of Prince Madog’s alleged discovery of America in the 12th century.

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The Conversation

His final sentence made clear, however, that a separate Welsh history was long over: after 1295 “there was nothinge done in Wales worthy memory, but that is to bee redde in the Englishe Chronicle”. Nevertheless, by commemorating their ancient and medieval history, Llwyd insisted that the Welsh could boast a unique pedigree and status as “the genuine Britons” in the Tudor realm.

Huw Pryce, Professor of Welsh History, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.