September 01, 2012

Vernon Watkins

Vernon Watkins - 1906 - 1967

Heatherslade Residential Home 1, West Cliff, Southgate, Swansea, West Glamorgan SA3 2AN

Poet. He was born in Maesteg, Glam., but the frequent postings of his father, who was a bank manager, took the family to live at Bridgend and Llanelli before they settled, in 1913, in Swansea. Ten years later they moved out to Redcliffe, Caswell Bay and finally, in 1931, on his father's retirement, to Heatherslade on Pennard Cliffs. It was the shoreline of Gower, which he knew as a resident from the age of seventeen and had often visited previously, which was to provide the illustrative material of Vernon Watkins's poetry, the more nostalgically because, after a year at Swansea Grammar School, he was despatched first to Tyttenhanger Lodge, Seaford, Sussex, and then to Repton School in Derbyshire. Both his parents were Welsh-speaking but Vernon, a victim of that contemporary parental belief that it was necessary to escape from the parochiality of Wales, never spoke or learned the language. The only Welsh source he was able later to use in his poetry was the story of Taliesin, of which his beloved Gower provided a variant.

At Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read French and German, he found the course's emphasis on criticism to be uncongenial and, despite satisfactory examination results at the end of his first year, decided to abandon Cambridge and tried to persuade his father to allow him to travel to Italy in order to acquire experience for the poetry to which he was already committed. His father's response was unsympathetic; in the autumn of 1925 Vernon Watkins became a junior clerk in the Butetown branch of Lloyds Bank in Cardiff. Associating poetry with the idyllic experience of his last eighteen months at Repton - retrospectively a golden and heroic society - and desperate at both the need to grow up and the glum reality of a working life, he suffered a nervous breakdown which necessitated his removal, after six months' absence, to the branch of Lloyds Bank at St. Helen's, Swansea, so that he could live and be cared for at home. He remained in that employment, except for military service during the Second World War, until his retirement and he lived the rest of his life at Pennard. He always spoke of his nervous breakdown as a 'revolution of sensibility': his poetry, when it came, was to be devoted to 'the conquest of time', by which he meant, at first, the immortalization of the Eden-like memories of youth and the validation of all that he had known and loved. The 'grief' he felt was the genesis of all that followed. Gradually the paganism of the Romantic poets who had nourished him (despite the Christian background of his home) gave way to Neoplatonism (with the idea of the replica and the moment which is all moments) and that to a more Christian, if always unorthodox, view of life. The defeat of time was integral, in his view, to the function of the poet.

His first volume of poetry, Ballad of the Mari Lwyd (1941), appeared after he had left the bombed town of Swansea for service in the RAF Police: the title-poem is a striking adaptation of the familiar Welsh folk-ceremony to the validation of the dead. The Lamp and the Veil (1945) consists of three long poems (one to his sister Dorothy) and was succeeded by Selected Poems (1948), The North Sea (translations from Heine, 1951) and two collections which are his most successful, The Lady with the Unicorn (1948) and The Death Bell (1954), the title-poem of which commemorates his father. He also published Cypress and Acacia (1959) and Affinities (1962); Fidelities (1968) appeared posthumously, although the selection was made by the poet himself.

Although a meticulous craftsman and as much a master of poetic form as Dylan Thomas, by whom he was for long overshadowed, Vernon Watkins became nevertheless a very different kind of poet - a modern metaphysical, whose insight-symbols from the Gower shoreline carried his 'grief' towards an immortality which, in Christianizing itself, gradually calmed the original impetus. His later poetry maintained its formal excellence but the weakening of the emotional impulse, a tendency to short-cut the metaphysical argument and an increasing emphasis on the centrality of the poet's role make it both less accessible and less attractive. Much of his best work is a response to three traumatic experiences: his nervous breakdown, the destruction of old Swansea during the blitz, and the death of Dylan Thomas. His overall achievement throughout a lifetime of 'toil' makes him one of the greatest of Welsh poets in English as well as one of the most unusual. At the time of his death in Seattle, during a second visit as Professor of Poetry at the University of Washington, his name was being canvassed, with others, for the Poet Laureateship. After his death, Uncollected Poems (1969), Selected Verse Translations (1977), The Breaking of the Wave (1979) and The Ballad of the Outer Dark (1979) were all put together from a mass of unpublished material, while I That Was Born in Wales (1976) and Unity of the Stream (1978) were selections made from his published works. The Collected Poems were published in 1986.

(Information taken from Meic Stephens’ New Companion to the Literature of Wales, University of Wales Press, 1998)

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Clarissa Aykroyd

    I love Vernon Watkins, ever since reading ‘Foal’ in university – in fact, his poetry has grown on me much more than that of Dylan Thomas, though I wonder if he is slightly more dated. Thanks for this.

    06 Oct 2012, 13:17

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