Dylan Thomas and the search for ‘lost Welshness’

To mark the 100-year anniversary of Dylan Thomas’ birth, Wales – or, more accurately, the BBC – has been gripped with an attempt to align the poet’s life and work with the country of his birth. There is nothing untoward about this initiative in itself – anniversary-governed programming plays a huge role in the BBC’s arts output – but the tying of Thomas to Wales and its national and cultural identity doesn’t quite work here, and belies a quiet desperation to inject a dose of nationalism into a subject that doesn’t quite warrant it.

While plenty of the documentaries and dramas associated with this anniversary programming do engage with the poet’s work, the overriding purpose of this ‘Dylan Thomas season’ is ultimately not to engage with his literature, but to clumsily assimilate the myth of Dylan Thomas into the BBC’s simplistic image of what it means to be Welsh.

This is problematic in many ways, but most obviously in that we cannot categorise Thomas unequivocally as a ‘Welsh poet’, whatever that might mean. If the conflicting analysis of the Welsh influence in Thomas’ work tells us nothing else, it is that framing him or his work as being emblematic of Welsh literature or Welsh culture is rather misleading and disingenuous. Though Thomas was known to denounce Welsh nationalism (especially of the politicised variety), elements of Wales and its literary heritage do seep into his work.[1] If anything then, Thomas’ work is emblematic of the way in which Welsh identity itself is multifarious, and difficult to define and authenticate, especially for those of us from south Wales. As Geoffrey Moore writes of Thomas:

He was never a professional Welshman. The Swansea or Cardiff boy, living in a city that is as much English as Welsh, is apt to feel that the “true” Wales, not merely the Wales of coracles and Eisteddfodan, but the Wales of the Rhondda and the pitted valleys might be real for other Welshmen, but not for him.[2]

In memorialising Thomas in this way, the BBC not only glosses over this nuanced and complex make-up of Welsh identity, but also develops a second layer of falsehood to its presentation, in which Thomas is not just a poet who is Welsh, but a ‘Welsh poet’, a key component in the BBC’s homogenous, mythological image of what it means to be Welsh.

The advert for the season shown above is particularly cloying, ignoring entirely any questions of, as Moore intimates, the ‘“true” Wales’[3] in favour of a stilted reading of ‘’ by a fairly random assortment of Welsh celebrities, most of whom exhibit the sort of passion and understanding of the text that you’d normally find in a primary school play. Nothing about it feels quite real or authentic: the speakers are all wide-eyed but devoid of pathos, and one is left wondering how often – and intimately – the readers here have come into contact with Thomas’ work before. The subtext of this reading would therefore appear to be that Thomas is indelibly tied to the readers’ own sense of Welshness, regardless of their own familiarity and understanding of his poetry. It is in this sense that the link between Thomas and what the BBC would like to think of as ‘Welshness’ can be seen as largely fictitious. I can only speak for myself, but Thomas has never really seeped into my own personal ‘cultural subconscious’: he was never on the syllabus when I was in school, for example, and his work has never reached me through other method in any meaningful way.

The bending of Thomas’ life and work to fit a confused patriotism thus strikes of a desperation to carve out a specific cultural image for a country in which a confused sense of identity is itself a significant identifier. Welsh literature – especially that in the English language – is also rather elusive and difficult to categorise in the context of a country so fragmented in its own sense of itself, and Thomas’ work is symptomatic of that if nothing else.

It is this that forms the true identity of Wales: a culture of flux, nostalgia and myth. As another example, I’ve always found it apt that the most popular chant at Wales rugby games is a song about the songs we sing when we watch Wales rugby games, rather than a ‘song-in-itself’. Thus in the same way, the attempt to ‘nationalise’ Dylan Thomas is an approximation of culture, not an authentic expression of ‘culture-in-itself’.

As a brief update, the latest issue of the Wales Arts Review has some interesting articles related to the recent Thomas commemorations, in which reservations similar to mine are touched upon briefly:

The Dylan Thomas celebrations hit their peak this last Monday, with BBC Wales’ flagship celebrity celebration extravaganza, a new televisual production of Under Milk Wood. The roller deck at the Llandaff production office must have sparked like a Catherine Wheel as it spun over, apparently not missing out a single living Welsh television personality. Some of them, even, were actors, although many of the iconic roles were reserved for anybody who had ever appeared on Saturday Night prime time television (Tom Jones, Katherine Jenkins, Charlotte Church etc). There was indeed a danger that this was Welshness as the English see it – Shirley Bassey must have been washing her hair.

[1] Geoffrey Moore, ‘Dylan Thomas’, The Kenyon Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Spring, 1955), pp. 258-277.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.