Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Vernon Watkins - Gower vol 65 2014


Swansea’s other poet’: Vernon Watkins   Gower Journal vol 65 - 2014

In marketing the Swansea area to visitors, much attention is given to Dylan Thomas, especially since the Old Guildhall was transformed into first Tŷ Llên, then the Dylan Thomas Centre, after Swansea hosted the 1995 Year of Literature.  With October 27th 2014 being the centenary of his birth, there is currently particular focus on this major poet.  But Swansea had another fine twentieth century poet, Dylan’s good friend Vernon Watkins, so this article will concern ‘Swansea’s Other Poet’.

Though Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins were good friends who shared a love of poetry, they were very different characters.  Vernon’s life might have seemed less ‘colourful’ than that of Dylan, eight years younger.  Perhaps Vernon’s comparatively orthodox lifestyle – he had a steady job in a bank - meant that he has not captured the public’s imagination to the same extent.  Perhaps also because Vernon was a metaphysical poet, as with Scottish poet Andrew Young his poems would not have the same appeal as those of say John Betjeman and others.

A further difference is that Dylan added to his literary output of poems, short stories and film scripts another dimension with that unique ‘play for voices’ Under Milk Wood.  Dylan recited part of that to Vernon and Daniel Jones while they were watching Glamorgan play cricket at St Helen’s ground, Swansea - perhaps it was ‘rain stopped play’, or maybe Gilbert Parkhouse[i] had been dismissed early.  Vernon enjoyed games and sports – not just as a spectator but also playing tennis, hockey, cricket, table tennis, and in the winter board games like ludo and scrabble: he was very competitive.

Vernon’s parents were both Welsh speakers – his father William Watkins was a bank manager, while his mother Sarah (Sally) was from Carmarthen.  After leaving school she spent two years as a pupil-teacher at a school in Germany,[ii] becoming fluent in that language.  This was significant, for Vernon would also become fluent in the language, which would lead to his wartime service, and to his domestic happiness.  William and Sally Watkins’ first child Marjorie was born in 1903, Vernon was born in Maesteg on 27th June 1906, and a second daughter Dorothy was born three years later.  The children were not encouraged to learn Welsh, as their parents held to the opinion prevalent at that time that to study Welsh might make a person parochial.  But Vernon was to become proficient in several languages, even bringing out a volume of his translations of a German poet. 

The Watkins family moved from Maesteg to Bridgend, then in 1912 for a year to Llanelli, and from there when Vernon was aged seven to Swansea.  His father was appointed manager of Lloyds Bank in Wind Street (where the Revolution Bar stands now), and he was to work there until his retirement nearly 20 years later.  The family lived initially in Eaton Grove, now part of Eaton Crescent, in the Uplands.

Vernon was an avid reader by the age of five, interested in poetry immediately, and especially as he grew older that of Keats and Shelley.  He started writing verses and poems when aged seven or eight, and built up a collection of the works of the major English poets by giving volumes of their verse to family members for birthday and Christmas gifts!  His poetry tended to be written in the style of whichever poet he was reading at the time.

In the Uplands, at the corner with The Grove, stood a branch of Lloyds Bank.  This was formerly the site of the Uplands Cinema, frequented by Vernon in the days of black-and-white silent films, and the Saturday serials.  He wrote:

‘When I pass a bank and see, not yet erased from the wall, the words Uplands Cinema, I am made conscious, not only of the First World War when silent films were shown there, but particularly the Saturday afternoon serials featuring Pearl White.  At the age of 9 or 10 I was a regular Saturday patron. There was then, outside the cinema, a brass railing which seemed to have been designed to keep the Swansea mob of children at bay, and over this we swarmed at two o’clock when the doors opened.  Our excitement was great.  Not for a week had there been any hope for the hero and heroine of our film.  On the previous Saturday they had innocently fallen into the trap of the masked villain, deaf to our united cries, and had been finally shown in a situation which offered no solution but death, as the words ‘to be continued next week’ flashed on the screen.  Pearl White was the particular heroine of many of us; we were alarmed for her, but perhaps I was even more concerned than the rest, as I was more credulous.  So, when we all rushed in, a majority audience of children, some of whom were regularly thrown out, even in the uproar I could not for a moment forget Pearl White, the American actress who really threw herself off bridges into rivers and risked her life in the making of the film.  It was wartime, and in our mock battles she became the centre of many fights and battles.

I grew up out of her memory.  Then, one day more than 20 years later, when the threat of a new war was coming nearer, I suddenly saw on a newspaper poster the four words ‘Pearl White is dead’,[iii] and this prompted, soon afterwards, the poem which I had always owed her’.  It is called Elergy on the heroine of childhood (in memory of Pearl White).  The second verse reads:

Four words catch hold. Dead exile, you would excite

In the red darkness, through the filtered light,

Our round, terrified eyes, when some

Demon of the rocks would come

And lock you in the house with moving walls:

You taught us first how loudly a pin falls.[iv]

The Watkins family looked to move to Gower, and after a stay out of season in the now demolished Osborne Hotel in Rotherslade, they settled in 1919 at Redcliffe, on the edge of Caswell Bay.  The 32 room house later became a hotel, before after subsidence making way for the Redcliffe flats.  In September 1920 Vernon was sent to boarding school, Repton School in Derbyshire.  A contemporary at Repton – two months younger - was ‘Bunny’ Austin, Wimbledon finalist in 1938, the last British men’s finalist until Andy Murray in 2012.  ‘Bunny’ Austin was the first man to play at Wimbledon wearing shorts instead of long white trousers.

Vernon was a better-than-average tennis player,[v] and when home from school during the summer holidays he would play tennis in the garden, before literally going over the garden wall to swim in Caswell Bay.  In some of his later poetry he harks back to that idyllic time when the family lived at Redcliffe.  Though his parents may have hoped he might follow his elder sister to Oxford University, he went instead up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, to read Modern Languages (French and German).  Although enjoying university life, he found there was too much emphasis on language rather than on the literature, and the analytical approach to studying literature - dissecting and analysing the writings of Goethe, Racine, Molière - was anathema to him.

After a year he took the decision to leave Cambridge, and Vernon asked if his father would fund him to travel in Italy in order to acquire experience for his poetry.  His father, who had not been consulted about the decision to leave University, declined, and instead arranged in the autumn of 1925 for Vernon aged 19 to become a junior clerk at Lloyds Bank in Butetown, Cardiff.  Vernon was good with figures and mental arithmetic, able to calculate rows of pounds, shillings and pence swiftly and accurately – an important ability for a bank worker in the days before adding machines and calculators. 

But it was a huge contrast to being a Cambridge undergraduate, and was the start of an unhappy period of his life, although his family was unaware of how isolated from people of like mind Vernon became in Cardiff.

Two years later the crisis came, after he had visited his sisters over Easter at Menton on the French Riviera.  His elder sister Marjorie had gone to Menton to recover from pleurisy, accompanied by their younger sister Dorothy, who had just finished school and celebrated her 18th birthday there.[vi]  After Vernon left them he visited the Protestant cemetery in Rome, to see the graves of Shelley and Keats, before returning to bank work in Cardiff.

Things came to a head one Saturday evening in the autumn of 1927, when Vernon believed that he could now control his destiny - and that of others.  A motor cyclist crashed and was killed outside his lodgings, 73 Connaught Road in Roath.  This unhinged Vernon, who felt responsible, felt that in his efforts to conquer time that he had caused this.[vii]  Leaving the bank keys at his lodgings, Vernon took the Sunday train to make an unannounced visit to Repton School.  The headmaster Dr Fisher (a future Archbishop of Canterbury) recognised a nervous breakdown, contacted the family, and had Vernon sectioned.  During months in a Derbyshire nursing home Vernon experienced what he described as ‘a revolution of sensibility’.  Gwen Watkins felt this was the mainspring of his life, a near-death experience, a breakdown that was a breakthrough, for Vernon then discarded or destroyed most of his earlier poetry (about a thousand poems),[viii] feeling that they had been mainly derivative, especially from the poetry of Shelley and Blake, and dominated by time.  He commented in 1961: ‘I repudiated the verse I had written and knew that I could never again write a poem which would be dominated by time’.[ix]  Vernon rejected the temporal, for he felt that his poetry was now transformed: he was now a metaphysical poet - and content to be unfashionable.

After Vernon had spent nearly a year recovering, his father persuaded Lloyds Bank (with some difficulty) to take him back and to place him in a local branch.  So that he could be looked after sympathetically at home, Vernon was transferred to Swansea’s St Helen’s Road branch,[x] opposite what is now Home Gower, but was then Swansea Infirmary.  

When his father retired in 1931 the family moved to a smaller house ‘Heatherslade’ in Pennard – it is now the much enlarged Heatherslade Residential Home, near the bus terminus in Southgate.  A plaque outside the building states that the poet Vernon Watkins used to live there, though the dates stated should be 1931 to 1941.  Vernon would travel each weekday at 8.20am on the Swan bus, later the number 64 United Welsh bus, from Pennard to Hospital Square, to work at the St Helen’s Road branch (now the premises of William Hill), where he was remembered as a courteous and gentlemanly bank clerk. 

With the move to Pennard in the 1930s he got to know Wyn Lewis, who in Gower volume 58 describes Vernon’s reaction on first meeting Dylan.  In February 1935 during his lunch break Vernon had first seen a new poetry book in Morgan and Higgs bookshop in 18 Heathfield Street (now part of the Kingsway), with to his surprise the prominent words ‘Local Author’.  Entitled 18 Poems, it was Dylan’s first collection of poems, containing ‘Especially when the October wind’ and ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’.  Wyn Lewis lived at ‘Windyridge’ in Southgate, almost opposite the bead shop Jewels by the Sea that was visited by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in July 2006. 

Wyn wrote: ‘Vernon and I were close friends, he was a few years older than I, we used to do a lot of bathing, tennis, playing croquet together.

Vernon was a great asset because he used to bring all sorts of interesting people down to Pennard – poets and musicians, artists, people of that sort.  Vernon was very much in that coterie around Dylan, Fred Janes, etc.  Vernon very often called into our house on his way back from work in the bank, the St Helen’s Road branch of Lloyds Bank.  One evening I met Vernon on the way back, coming bursting into the house. He said ‘Wyn, I’ve met a genius’, and that was the first day that he met Dylan – they became very, very close friends.  Dylan was always down at their house; he very often came over to our house, and played croquet, of which he became quite fond, he and Caitlin. She was his fiancée at that time.  She came with him, and attempted to get on terms with the strange game that we used to play.  It was great fun.  But I always remember the way Vernon burst into the house, how excited he was at having discovered that there was someone who he considered potentially a major poet.  He was very supportive of Dylan, and he lived as a poet in the shadow of him.  Vernon was a great man and one of the largest hearted and most generous – and he befriended Dylan to such an extent.’[xi]                         

During the 1930s Vernon was part of the group of talented young Swansea writers and poets that included Dylan Thomas, journalist Charles Fisher, painters Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy, future BBC war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, musician Tom Warner, that was dubbed ‘The Kardomah Boys’.  Composer Daniel Jones was abroad at the time, studying music in Italy and Austria,[xii] though he was often mentioned.[xiii]  Vernon would join them during his lunch break on Wednesdays, upstairs at the Kardomah Café in Castle Street.[xiv]  Just as in lower St Helen’s Road the premises of Leon Atkins’ former church, St Paul’s congregational, were for many years used as an Indian restaurant, so the Kardomah Café had been Castle Street Congregational Church, where in 1903 Dylan Thomas’ parents were married.

Vernon’s widow Mrs Gwen Watkins, aged ninety-one in December 2014, recalls the house Heatherslade in an article in Gower volume 48.  She wonderedwhether the residents who sit in the conservatory realise they are sitting where Vernon and Dylan Thomas spent so many evenings discussing their poems, and where Vernon was to type out from Dylan’s manuscripts most of the poems for his new book.  The garden too is virtually unchanged, where Dylan, Caitlin and Vernon played so many games of croquet, often until the growing dusk made it imperative for a handkerchief to be held before the hoop so the player could see where to hit the ball.  It was along this cliff path to Pobbles Bay that Vernon took so many cliff-walks with Dylan in the spring and summer of 1935.’[xv]

Vernon did not write for public acclaim.  He told Dylana good poem is one which can never be fashionable’ and said that a poet need have only one enemy - his reputation. He advisedIf you want a reputation for ten years, put something ingenious into your line; but if you want permanence, for goodness sake take it out!’ 

He persuaded Dylan to give titles to his poems, instead of just numbers, and in turn Dylan persuaded him to have his poems published.  In summer 1937 Dylan sent off two of Vernon’s poems to Keidrych Rhys for the first issue of the new magazine Wales - but he changed two lines of ‘Griefs of the Sea’.  When Vernon received his own copy he was incensed, and went into Morgan and Higgs of 18 Heathfield Street and W.H. Smith’s, then at 11 High Street, and changed each copy back to as he wanted it!  Dylan apologised in a letter of 15 July 1937 which also gave news of his marriage to Caitlin.  Vernon’s poems also appeared in periodicals like Atlantic Monthly and The London Mercury, before in book form. 

His first volume of poems, The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd and other Poems, was published in 1941 by the major publishing house Faber and Faber, who had T.S. Eliot on their board.  It contained 41 poems written between 1934 and 1941, and the impact of the long poem The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd has been compared to that of W.H. Auden’s first published work Paid on both sides in 1930.  Dr Rowan Williams considers The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd one of Vernon’s greatest poems, and ‘one of the outstanding poems of the century, it draws together the folk-ritual of the New Year, the Christian Eucharist, the uneasy frontier between living and dead, so as to present a model of what poetry itself is - frontier work between death and life, old year and new, bread and body.’[xvi]   

At the start of the Second World War, Vernon served in the Home Guard, and witnessed the ‘Three Nights Blitz’ on Swansea in February 1941 while on duty on the Gower cliffs.  He was called up by the RAF in December 1941, the last of the ‘Kardomah Boys’ to leave the town.  The only RAF vacancies were as a cook or in the police, so he joined the RAF Police.  Initially with his otherworldliness he was a round peg in square hole (as were many persons who had been called up). 

On one occasion during his time in the RAF Police Vernon came on parade without his rifle; on another he had great trouble in raising the flag, which incurred a torrent of abusive language from the Flight-Sergeant: Vernon mildly enquired would he care to try and do better?[xvii]

Thankfully Vernon’s fluency in German (after leaving Cambridge he spent several walking holidays in Germany and France with his sister Dorothy) and his numerical skills were to provide deliverance.  Early in 1943 he was transferred to RAF Intelligence, in the government de-coding centre at Bletchley Park near present-day Milton Keynes.  There the absence of any sort of military discipline suited a gathering of talented, gifted, even eccentric persons, as well as those of genius.  Flight-Sergeant Watkins found life much more conducive in the Air Section, in Block F.  He met Dylan’s friend Daniel Jones, a captain in the Intelligence Corps, and he had companions of like mind.  He described his time at Bletchley Park as ‘a situation, an era and an excitement which cannot be repeated’.[xviii]

In his RAF hut Vernon drafted translations of the 18th century German poet Heinrich Heine’s ‘North Sea’ poems.  Heine’s books were among those burned by the Nazis in May 1933 in Berlin’s Bebelplatz (‘Babylon plaza’ – now colloquially known as the Opernplatz), where words from an 1821 Heine play are inscribed: in translation it reads: ‘That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also’.  The volume of Vernon’s translations of Heine was initially published in America before publication in Britain in 1951.

At Bletchley he also wrote ‘Yeats in Dublin’, a poem about meeting with W.B. Yeats in July 1938, the year before his death.  It was in the Sergeant’s Mess in Bletchley that Vernon met his future wife Gwendoline Davies, from Harborne, Birmingham.  Though she was 17 years younger than him, they married in London in October 1944.  Dylan should have been there as best man, but after catching the train in Coventry he apparently got into a muddle over hotels, dates and times: a friend from Bletchley Park had to step in.  When released from the RAF in January 1946, Vernon and Gwen Watkins lived for a year at 131 Glanmor Road in the Uplands, before settling down on Pennard cliffs in ‘The Garth’, at that time a bungalow at the far end of what was later named Westcliff, above Heatherslade Bay.  It is now number 17, the fourth building from the end (although the end house is number 18).  Vernon and Gwen had four sons and one daughter.

One of Dylan’s poem in the style of Yeats is entitled ‘In my craft or sullen art’.  For Vernon writing poetry was certainly craft.  In introducing his second volume of poetry his publishers Faber wrote: ‘We happen to know he writes a good deal of verse, though he publishes little; he is a stern critic of his own work, more inclined to revise or to discard than to publish.  It is only with some difficulty that we have persuaded him to publish this selection from the miscellaneous poems which he has written since his last publication.’

Vernon was a painstaking writer, whose poems could go through 50 or more drafts.[xix]  He told his poetry students in America: ‘Paper is cheap.  Write hundreds of drafts.  Your final draft should look as if you had never revised at all’.  He was never in any doubt when a poem had reached its final form.  He was single-minded, not allowing any poem to be published until he felt it was complete.

One of his poems was inspired by the death of Vernon’s old landlord in Pennard.  Alfred Tomlinson had been a musician for thirty years before retiring to do market gardening and to potter about the field next to ‘The Garth’, until his health broke down.  One night before Christmas Vernon found him in his wooden bungalow sitting in pitch darkness at the point of death; he was rushed to hospital where he died within the hour.  The poem A Man with a Field is included in Gwen Watkins’ article on page 21 of Gower volume 48.  The first verse reads:

If I close my eyes I can see a man with a load of hay

Cross this garden, guiding his wheelbarrow through the copse

To a long, low green-house littered with earthenware, glass and clay,

Then prop his scythe near the sycamore to enter it, potted with seeds,

And pause where chrysanthemums grow, with tomatoes’ dragonish beads.

Stooping to fasten the door, he turns on the path which leads

To his rain-pitted bedroom of cellos, and low jugs catching the drops.

A former bank colleague said “no one at the branch ever pretended to understand Vernon’s poetry.  But they respected his work, and admired the man for his modesty. I asked him to explain his poetry to me once, but it was beyond me.  Vernon didn’t really mind and certainly didn’t think any the less of me.  We used to feel that his mind was way above ours.”

After the war, along with Dylan, Vernon was on the panel for the BBC radio programme ‘Swansea and the Arts’, with painter Alfred Janes, composer Daniel Jones, and writer John Pritchard, on October 6th 1949.  This was recorded at a makeshift studio in the Uplands at Ebeneser Newydd/Y Llanerch in The Grove, which leads from where the Uplands cinema stood to Cwmdonkin Park.  The painting by Jeff Phillips of the photo that was on the cover of Radio Times in October 1949 used to be in Swansea’s Tapestri Arts Centre, opposite the BBC Studio in Alexandra Road.  Here is part of what Vernon contributed:

Swansea is a town where art is alive.  If it became a cultural centre or a resort where art was fashionable and where it was always being discussed but never created, it would be a town where art was dead.  Such a Swansea, such a Salzburg-on-the-Tawe I could not imagine; but a Swansea without art I cannot imagine either.  There is no room in Swansea to be pompous without it being ludicrous.  But the town itself, the town of windows between hills and the sea, is unforgettable.  What should Swansea become?  It should, I think, generate its own species and become what it is now, a town where art is alive.  If you give Swansea more power, make it the capital of Wales, then you spoil everything.  I want Swansea to be, not the capital, but the interest of Wales.’[xx]

Swansea Little Theatre put on a production of Vernon’s long poem Ballad of the Mari Llwyd in the early 1950s, produced by Elizabeth Iorwerth Jones, with music by Daniel Jones.

In 1951 Vernon was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  A modern metaphysical poet, much of his best work is a response to three traumatic experiences: his nervous breakdown, the destruction of the heart of old Swansea during the blitz, and the death of Dylan Thomas.[xxi]  While Dylan was in a coma in St Vincent’s Hospital in New York Vernon was asked by The Times newspaper to write his obituary: Vernon protested that Dylan was still alive.

Twentieth century literature can boast few figures as brilliant, romantic and tragic as Dylan Thomas who died on 9 November, 1953, aged 39.  During his short life Mr Thomas produced some of the greatest poems of the modern age – meticulously crafted works of deep-felt emotional lyricism and stunning imagery.  He also produced fiction, short stories and a play for voices Under Milk Wood which would cement his place among the literary greats of his or any generation.

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born in a bedroom at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, on 27 October, 1914. His father, known as DJ, was an English teacher at Swansea Grammar School and his mother Florence was a Welsh speaker and a seamstress by trade.  From 1925 he attended Swansea Grammar School where he saw his first poem published in the school magazine.  Summers spent in the idyllic surroundings of his mother’s family farm had a profound effect on the development of the young poet.  He left school at the age of 16 and began working as a reporter on the South Wales Evening Post.

In 1933 Mr Thomas’ poetry began to receive greater exposure and some, including And Death Shall Have No Dominion, were published in periodicals.  One poem, submitted to the BBC, was read aloud on air.

Mr Thomas moved to London the following year and though his work was receiving praise in some quarters, his reputation was more as a drunken boor than a poet.  His first volume of poetry, 18 Poems, was published on 18 November, 1934.                        His second volume of poetry, 25 Poems, was published in 1936 and he made his first radio broadcast, Life and the Modern Poet, the following year.  He married Irish dancer, Caitlin Macnamara, in 1937 and the following year they moved to the coastal village of Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, a location which would inspire Mr Thomas to produce some of his finest work.  

Over the following years his stock as a poet continued to rise and he became particularly famous in America where he began to tour regularly.  And it was in New York, November 1953, that he embarked upon the drinking binge that led to his death.  Many sources cite Mr Thomas’ last words as being: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies; I think that’s the record.” Others say his last words were in fact: “After 39 years, this is all I’ve done.”  Mr Thomas left his widow Caitlin and three children –Llewelyn, Colm and Aeronwy.  He was buried in St Martin’s Church in Laugharne, his grave marked by a simple white cross.  He also left some of the most evocative poems, including Fern Hill and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, that have ever been produced.                                                                                                       

Numerous festivals, art centres and poetry awards have been named after Dylan Thomas but it is the poetry, the beautiful poetry that will stand the test of time.      

In the Uplands in Cwmdonkin Park stands the Dylan Thomas Memorial Stone.  This carved block of Pennant Sandstone was paid for by two elderly ladies who ran Caedman Press in America.  On Dylan's death, they sent £50 (that is £50 in the early 1960s) for Vernon to choose a suitable monument to honour the poet and author in his home town.  The block of stone was purchased from Cwmrhydyceirw Quarry and carved by local sculptor Ronald Cour, whilst Vernon chose the lines inscribed upon its face from Dylan's poem Fern Hill.  He read Dylan’s poem The Hunchback in the Park at the unveiling in November 1963, utterly undistracted as rain began to fall and some people put on raincoats or raised their umbrellas.  

At a social occasion a hostess once enquired if Vernon was ever tired of all the adulation of Dylan; he replied “no, not at all.  He was my friend, and I admired his mind and skill”.  The questioner felt chastened by his modesty.

Opposite the bank where he worked, near the police box and the hospital, stood two large chestnut trees.  When these were unexpectedly felled in the 1960s it prompted the poem Trees in a Town, published posthumously in Fidelities in 1968.  It begins:

Why must they fell two chestnuts on the road?

I did not see the lorry and its load

Before a wall had grown where they had stood.

I wish I thought that sphinx-like block was good

Builders have raised, to brood upon the loss

Of those two chestnuts, where the two roads cross.

In spite of all the gain some say has been,

How can my eyes accept the altered scene?

Several of his poems refer to Gower places, making mention of the gales and winds experienced by those living on the cliffs.  Vernon’s favourite bay was Pwll Du – though he would often sit on the clifftop overlooking Hunts Bay and looking west towards Oxwich Point; he said of the area to Dunvant-born painter Ceri Richards, who had a summer cottage on Eastcliff in Pennard, ‘If I had the choice I would never leave this’.

During the term March to June 1964 Vernon visited Seattle in North America as visiting professor of literature at the University of Washington, to lecture on W.B. Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  While there he visited his contemporary W.H. Auden, who had become an American citizen after the Second World War.       

A former Seattle student Loren Webster recalls:  ‘Of all the poetry teachers I had, Welsh poet Vernon Watkins, a guest professor for one quarter, may have been my favorite because his classes seemed like friendly discussions rather than lectures from above.  Amazingly, you could actually visit him during office hours and have a discussion with him without feeling that you were interrupting his day.  For instance, after he questioned my interpretation of a line in a WB Yeats poem, I went to talk to him in his office, and he not only raised my grade, he spent an hour talking about Yeats’ poetry.  That may have been my most memorable hour as an undergraduate.’[xxii]

Vernon retired from the bank in 1966 once he reached 60.  His former manager J.M. Bowen recalled ‘he was a delightful character – one of the world’s gentlemen, it was a joy to know him’.  A career of yearly appointments in universities beckoned - that October he took up a Gulbenkian Fellowship in poetry at University College, Swansea, who awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Literature.  He had asked Philip Larkin to sponsor him for a Fulbright scholarship, to cover his travelling expenses for a full year lecturing in Seattle.  With Gwen and three of their children they flew out in the autumn of 1967.  Recurrent bronchitis had weakened his heart, and he had been warned about a serious cardiac condition.  Soon after arriving in Seattle he played a game of tennis, but after two hours of mixed doubles in hot conditions he collapsed, and died on 8th October, aged 61.  At that time his name was being canvassed, along with others, as a possible Poet Laureate following the death of John Masefield (who died in May 1967 aged 88, having been Poet Laureate for 37 years).  Cecil Day Lewis was appointed the following year.

Vernon’s obituary was written by Phillip Larkin, and the Welsh poet Rev. R.S Thomas gave the address at the funeral.  Part of his obituary in the South Wales Evening Post says ‘Vernon Watkins was not everybody’s poet.  His thought was deep, concentrated and sometimes subtle.  But there were times when his poetry sounded forth with the trumpet-clear assurance of his faith, as in this verse which ends the selection of his poems that he made for a paperback publication, a verse which might serve as his own epitaph:

Now the soul knows the fire that first composed it

Sinks not with time but is renewed hereafter.

Death cannot steal the light which love has kindled

Nor the years change it.

Those lines on the plaque inside Pennard church are from his poem Great Nights Returning, initially published in Cypress and Acacia.

The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins was published in 1986.  He has been the subject of a lecture at Swansea University by Dr Rowan Williams, who wrote the foreword to New Selected Poems, published in 2006 for the centenary of Vernon’s birth.  Dr Williams also chaired a Radio Three programme entitled Swansea’s Other Poet in March 2012.   

From Vernon’s fourth volume, the 1954 publication The Death Bell, the opening verses of Taliesin in Gower evoke much of the locality of the peninsula:

Late I return, O violent, colossal, reverberant, eavesdropping sea.

My country is here.  I am foal and violet.  Hawthorn breaks from my hands.

I watch the inquisitive cormorant pry from the praying rock of Pwlldu,

Then skim to the gulls’ white colony, to Oxwich’s cockle-strewn sands.

I have seen the curlew’s triangular print, I know every inch of his way.

I have gone through the door of the foundered ship, I have slept in the winch of the cave

With pine-log and unicorn-spiral shell secreting the colours of day;

I have been taught the script of the stones, and I know the tongue of the wave.[xxiii]

That final line was inscribed by Ronald Cour on the granite memorial above Hunts Bay, at the place where Vernon often sat looking across to Oxwich Head, gathering inspiration for his poetry. 

A master craftsman, Vernon Watkins devoted a lifetime to poetry, writing in every known form, from free verse to sonnets and ballads.  Rather than describing himself as an Anglo-Welsh poet, he would say he was ‘a Welshman and an English poet’.  The critic, poet and scholar Kathleen Raine believed him to be the greatest lyric poet of her generation. 

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of his death, Richard Ramsbotham, who wrote the introduction to and edited New Selected Poems in 2006, is writing his authorised biography.  That should ensure recognition for the person described by Dylan Thomas as ‘the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English’: that is Vernon Watkins - ‘Swansea’s Other Poet’.

                                               

Sources

Roland Matthias, Vernon Watkins in the ‘Writers of Wales’ series (Cardiff, 1974)

Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (London, 2010)

Leslie Norris (Ed.), Vernon Watkins 1906-1967 (London, 1970)

J.E. Ross, Letters from Swansea (Llandybie, 1983)

Meic Stephens (Ed.), The New Companion to the Literature of Wales (Cardiff, 1998)

Jeff Towns, Vernon Watkins’ Swansea (Swansea, 2006)

Dorothy Watkins, Vernon Phillips Watkins: The Early Years (Falmouth, n.d.)

Gwen Watkins, Portrait of a Friend (1983)

Gwen Watkins & Jeff Towns (Ed.), Vernon Watkins on Dylan Thomas and other poets (Cardigan, 2013)

Vernon Watkins, The Collected Poems (Ipswich, 1986)

Vernon Watkins, New Selected Poems (Manchester, 2006)                    



[i] W.G.A. Parkhouse was Glamorgan’s foremost batsman during the 1950s, an England player.
[ii]  Dorothy Watkins, Vernon Phillips Watkins: The Early Years (Falmouth, n.d.), p2
[iii] Pearl White, who did her own stunts, died at the American hospital in Paris aged 49 in 1938.
[iv] Jeff Towns, Vernon Watkins’ Swansea (Swansea, 2006) p10, 20
[v] Roland Matthias, Vernon Watkins in the ‘Writers of Wales’ series (Cardiff, 1974) p15.
[vi] Dorothy Watkins, Vernon Phillips Watkins: The Early Years (Falmouth, n.d.), p16
[vii] Some details of his breakdown are from Richard Ramsbotham’s forthcoming biography
[viii] Gwen Watkins & Jeff Towns (Ed.), Vernon Watkins on Dylan Thomas and other poets (Cardigan, 2013), p138
[ix] Ibid p155
[x] The branch of Lloyds Bank was originally further east along St Helen’s Road, before it re-located to number 77, at the corner of Beach Street.
[xi] J.C. Wyn Lewis, My Pennard Memories in Gower vol. 58 (2007)
[xii] Gwen Watkins & Jeff Towns (Ed.), Vernon Watkins on Dylan Thomas and other poets (2013) p28
[xiii] Recollections of Gwen Watkins in South Wales  Evening Post  January 30, 1998
[xiv] The premises were later destroyed during the ‘Three Nights Blitz’ of 19th - 21st February 1941, and the Kardomah Café re-located to Portland Street. 
[xv] Gwen Watkins, Taliesin in Gower in Gower vol. 48 (1997)
[xvi] Introduction to Vernon Watkins, New Selected Poems (2006), p ix
[xvii] Leslie Norris (Ed.), Vernon Watkins 1906-1967 (London, 1970) p17
[xviii] Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (2010) p314
[xix] Roland Matthias, Vernon Watkins in the ‘Writers of Wales’ series (Cardiff, 1974) p34
[xx] Jeff Towns, Vernon Watkins’ Swansea (Swansea, 2006) p28
[xxi] Meic Stephens (Ed.), The New Companion to the Literature of Wales (Cardiff, 1998) p768
[xxii] Loren Webster blog, Memories of the poet written by a student, November 2 , 2001
[xxiii] Gwen Watkins, Taliesin in Gower in Gower vol. 48 (1997)

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