In the second of Jasper Rees’ interviews centred around the celebrations of Dylan Thomas’ centenary, for National Eisteddfod Archdruid, T James Jones discusses the poets’ ‘Welshness’, as well as his own translations of Under Milk Wood into Welsh.
Jasper Rees: How did you come to translate Under Milk Wood the first time round?
T James Jones: I was playing the First Voice in Laugharne in the triennial festival production of Under Milk Wood. They started in 1958 and subsequently the second festival was held then within three years. That takes us to ‘61, then to ‘64. And the producer asked me whether I would be interested in translating. I said yes, and in ‘67 it was produced alongside the English production at the same time in the same festival. And we even had one bilingual where some characters would speak Welsh and other characters would speak in English. In 1967, Dan y Wenallt was performed twice during the week of that festival. The next festival was to be 1970 but Carmarthenshire Community Council, who were sponsoring the festival, decided that they wanted to join in the festivities of the investiture in 1969. And the English Under Milk Wood was performed as part of the investiture but I refused, I didn’t give permission for Dan y Wenallt and I didn’t play in the English either, because I had started translating it around 1964, ‘65, well into the Sixties civil rights protest and I regarded it as part of that, because I was restoring the language to a village that had lost its Welshness, to Llareggub. So I felt that to take part in the investiture just wasn’t on. And so that’s why I refused to take part.
What was the upshot?
I had a letter form Dafydd Iwan to congratulate me on my stand. When I first read Under Milk Wood I was a minister and many of my colleagues thought it very odd that I was interested in this drunkard. And then I realised that most of these characters would translate easily back into Welsh because of course he’s spent his nine months in Newquay when he was starting to write Under Milk Wood. I don’t deny that Laugharne plays a big part in the background and the influences on Under Milk Wood – of course it has. But Newquay at that time was a predominantly Welsh-speaking community and I felt that most of the characters just translated easily back into Welsh. That was my motive.
How does Dylan Thomas’s English have such Welsh sonorities? In what way is his writing adjacent to the Welsh language?
For example, he uses a lot of cynghanedd, the art form which is the strict meter in Welsh. He uses a lot of it in his work. Take ‘Fern Hill’ for example. You have the last line, an example of cynghanedd, and it also describes what cynghanedd is: ‘Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’ It’s cynghanedd and it’s a description of cynghanedd. It’s writing within rules but once one masters the rules one is released by the muse, as it were, as Mererid Hopwood says in [her book] Singing in Chains. And there are so many lines. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ Another example of cynghanedd.
How will he have known this?
Now then, I think he does. Gerard Manley Hopkins bothered to learn Welsh in order to get to know what cynghanedd was. Gerard Manley Hopkins was one of his poetic heroes as it were. He admired his work and I’m sure he knew of cynghanedd through his work. He would have been introduced even by his father who had decided NOT to give him any Welsh. But on the other hand DJ, his father, named him Dylan to be begin with, and that name hadn’t been used since The Mabinogion. It’s really hit me, I hadn’t realised that. It hadn’t been used. The first time since The Mabinogion!
No instance at all?
No! It is extraordinary, that. And of course in a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson, who asked him, ‘What does it mean?’, he says, ‘the prince of darkness’. So he knew that. Now his father may have told him that. His father was a Welsh scholar. He was head of English in the grammar school. He taught Welsh in evening classes, so he would have known.
Why did DJ decide not to bring up his son in the Welsh language?
Well he lived at the beginning of the 20th century where people had this idea that Welsh was a hindrance rather than an advantage. There’s a nice story where he played a lot with Rhoes’s son in the Uplands in Swansea – Rhoes the archdruid and so forth – and he damaged his nose by falling on the landing apparently, and I wonder how much Welsh he heard on that hearth. And then of course he went to Fern Hill. Auntie Annie wouldn’t have spoken to him anything but Welsh. She took him to chapel in Smyrna three times apparently on a Sunday. She spent his holidays there. Idris the very odd cousin – he uses the character in ‘The Peaches’ and calls him William – preached to him in the barn in Welsh. He must have. I’ve been writing a radio play on Dylan coming on holiday to Fern Hill and it’s all in Welsh.
And Dylan will have to be able to speak Welsh.
Yes, a 12-year-old Dylan.
And your contention is that that’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
So what was it about this dissolute drunkard who was as horizontal as vertical in pubs…?
I exaggerate… but why did he appeal to you, the weinidog, in the 1960s?
Because he was a genius with words. And in my ministry I had started writing as well and I knew he was a Welsh magician with words and that’s why I was so interested in him.
What denomination was your ministry?
Congregational, or Welsh independents. I started in Swansea and then I moved to Carmarthen. I was in the ministry for about 15 years and then I moved to Trinity College Carmarthen to teach drama and Welsh. So I had an interest in drama anyway. I would regard Dylan as my muse in a way. He got me really writing. And when I translated Under Milk Wood I was told that I had some talent on the strength of that translation.
So you have a great deal to be grateful to him for.
A great deal. I owe him many pints.
Has his vastness, the fact that outside Wales for some he stands for all Wales, that there are people who know nothing of Welsh literature other than this poet, been a problem as well as a calling card for Welsh literature?
I think now he’s a bridge between the two cultures, the two languages. He’s been accepted. Dan y Wenallt was included in the official programme of the 1968 Barry Eisteddfod. I played in it during that week, so it was included in the all-Welsh event as far back as 1968.
What do you say to the suggestion that he’s an English poet?
Good heavens, no. His use of language is proof that he wasn’t English. He’s an odd character in his style. It’s part of the difficulty of understanding him at times, I think.
He’s writing Welsh that happens to be translated into English?
Yes, that’s the feel I get. Of course I’ve translated many other things since Under Milk Wood. ‘Visit to Grandpa’s’ is about DJ’s father, his grandfather. Well, the grandfather obviously gave his son Welsh because DJ was a fluent Welsh speaker and was a scholar in Welsh. I translated then ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, which imagines Dylan speaking to his father in Welsh, which didn’t happen. It’s ironical. And then of course I translated ‘Fern Hill’ because I think that’s one of his greatest poems but it’s a Welsh poem. It reminds me of Waldo Williams’s ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ – the spirit, the optimism, the happiness of ‘Fern Hill’, although there’s a dark underlay to it as well.
Is there a gift that he give to the Welsh language in this centenary year when he’s on call everywhere else too?
I come back to his ability with words. As it inspired me fifty years ago, I think Dylan’s words should inspire Welsh poets in Welsh even, because I think that that bridge has been crossed.
How about selling the Welsh language abroad? Does his poetry have the ability to do that? The perception of the rest of the world is that Dylan wrote in English.
It’s the selling of Welshness, I think. That’ll happen. One cannot deny him his Welshness.
Although he attempted to do it himself…
Oh he did, but is there a consistent person alive? It depends on one’s moods. Yes of course he did. But on the other hand he felt right at the very end of his short career that he had to be in Wales to really be at his best as a poet and ‘Over St John’s Hill’ for example was a late poem which he’s just looking out through that window from the shack at St John’s Hill and he’s produced one of the greatest poems in the English language, but still it’s located in Laugharne and in Wales. And just over the hill you had Llansteffan and Llangain, predominantly Welsh-speaking areas at that time when he was living in Laugharne.
How do you respond to the suggestion put about by detractors that he’s a Welsh windbag?
A windbag has nothing to say. It’s emptiness. Dylan had a hell of a lot to say. For example Under Milk Wood could be regarded as a romp but underneath it’s deadly serious and he wrote it during the war of course when he was an evacuee; he knew of the ravages suffered in London and in Swansea. It was in that context that he wrote Under Milk Wood and between the lines you sense that death is so very near. It’s in all his work, and it was actually near, wasn’t it? The other point I would like to make is about Dylan’s performance of Under Milk Wood in New York. For example, he took the role of what I would call the cyfarwydd, the Welsh storyteller. The traditional storyteller would use songs, he would use poetry, he would use a story, he would use narrative – and he took that role. And he was the voice in those two productions right at the very end. And although the first Under Milk Wood scripts have two voices, First and Second Voice, it was just practically impossible for him I expect at that time to have read the whole lot so he asked for assistance. But the Walford Davies definitive edition has just one voice, his voice.
Why have you worked on a new translation?
My first translation was too lazy. I feel it’s much nearer what Dylan himself intended. I was otherwise engaged as a minister of course, I wasn’t a full-time writer at the time. And I was very inexperienced as well. For example I couldn’t for the life of me offer a translation of bible black, which is crucial in Under Milk Wood. I avoided it. I avoided it!
You literally left it out.
I left it out.
What’s wrong with beibl-du?
‘Dwylled â beibl’ is the new one: as dark as the bible. And I think it adds to the image. It doesn’t improve it, no.
What did Dylan make of the world of the gorsedd of which you have been so central a part, especially in your three years as archdruid?
He wrote a piece about the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen for radio. He visited the Fishguard Eisteddfod with Augustus John and Dewi Emrys, because Augustus John was the adjudicator of the art section in Abergwaun.
What would he have made of the costumed aspect?
He mentions it in Under Milk Wood. The first word uttered by Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood is ‘eisteddfodau’. That’s his dream. And then of course he does mention the druids. When he was in Newquay the most prominent congregational minister at that time would have been Orchwi Bowen, and he was the father of Geraint Bowen, who became an archdruid and he won the chair, and Euros Bowen, who won the crown twice – very famous Welsh poets living in Newquay at the time. Geraint Bowen was a conscientious objector who came back to live with his father and mother in 1944, the exact year that Dylan was there. And in his autobiography he mentions that was the year that Orchwy Bowen spent more or less a year not quite confined to his house, but all he could do was open the front door and have a look out at his parish. That’s Dylan’s image of Eli Jenkins. Could it be Orchwy Bowen? I think he was the original Eli, and the original Eli then would have been the father of two very prominent poets in the Eisteddfod world. It’s another bridge. I am very interested in this bridging of the two cultures and I hope that that will be the main contribution [of the centenary].
Because the bridge always need attention?
Yes of course. And rebuilding at times.
And why is that?
Do you have a favourite poem of Dylan’s?
It used to be ‘Fern Hill’, but now since working on it and translating it ‘The Hunchback in the Park’, and I love the title in Welsh. Just listen to it: ‘Y Crwca yn y Parc’. It cracks!
original illustration by Dean Lewis