#68: Dylan Thomas’ Underwear
What is there to discover in a poet’s long johns?
I stared at the long johns swaying softly in the breeze and wondered what Dylan Thomas would have thought. They certainly had a lovely view of the Taf estuary, hung outside the boathouse that the poet had lived in during the last four years of his life.
I visited the boathouse in Laugharne a few days ago. Like the other tourists wandering through the building and past his writing shed, I suppose I expected to absorb something of his genius, somehow preserved in the paint on the walls, or the wooden slats of his shed. I suppose I thought the remarkable man would have left a mark in his territory. I suppose I wanted to
‘Open the leaves of water at a passage
Of psalms and shadows among the pincered sandcrabs prancing’.
And I suppose, in a way, I did.
I peaked in his writing shed on the way to the boathouse, preserved as if he had just popped out for a sandwich, or knowing Dylan, a quick drink. There were photos pinned to the walls, papers flung across the desk, and a view of the estuary spread before the window, wide and empty, waiting for the words that would no longer come. I thought of Katie’s table and the inspiration we get from our working environment. I wondered if I would find this shed a respite from reality, or if this little box, with the blank landscape, would make me crave company beyond the nooks of my own brain.
Then we walked down the lane to his boathouse, and there, fluttering jollily between two trees, were Dylan Thomas’ long johns, and I just had to stop. In all honesty, I am not convinced they were ever his, but there was something so obscure in trying to retain the spirit of the poet in the house, trying to let visitors imagine he might be inside, grumpily waiting for his underwear to dry, that made me wonder.
Was it strange to visit this man’s house? To sit in his backyard and eat soup from the café now taking over the bottom floor? To peruse postcards and tea towels bearing his name, before stepping into his unoccupied parlour? Would I not be honouring the man better by staying at home to study his poetry?
In fact, entering the parlour, it was not as unoccupied as I expected: Dylan Thomas’ Welsh vowels filled the room, a voice that apparently had not gone gentle into that good night. His voice, a voice that had fed his family through lecture tours around America, is preserved on several recordings. I had listened to it that morning, the booming actor’s voice affirming that
‘Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion’
as I sank my spoon into my muesli. Perhaps it is a better representation of the man than this small house.
I also read ‘Poem in October’ on a bench overlooking the estuary. The poem is about a walk Thomas took in the area on his thirtieth birthday. Admittedly, it is impossible to read the text of the poem and look up at the scenery simultaneously, but it was quite an experience to imagine the landscape as I read, and then to glance up and be greeted with the reality of it. And yet what I read was Dylan Thomas’ reality, Laugharne as experienced by him over seventy years ago, not the 2017 version I saw now. And the long johns waving at the water were not of Dylan Thomas’ reality either: who’s to say they ever hung there? Perhaps they would lie on the wall surrounding the yard, or strung from a banister?
And yet, being there, in that house, in that town, the very town that inspired Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas became a reality to me, a man that had walked down that path and written in that shed. And now as I read his poetry, there will always be something of the long john toting Welshman lurking behind the words.
(The two quotations are from ‘Over Sir John’s hill’ and ‘And death shall have no dominion’. Under Milk Wood is a radio drama produced in 1954 for the BBC.)