Dennis Sellwood, a student at Cardiff in the 1950’s relives the day when Welsh poet Dylan Thomas addressed the University’s English Society
I was an undergraduate in Cardiff in the early 1950s. A memorable occasion at the University was the reading Dylan Thomas gave to the English Society in March 1953.
My first impression of him was one of thickness: thick legs, thick trunk, thick head. He had a red face and a mop of curly hair and, when he sat down, a fold of flesh under the chin. He was wearing a blue suit and a check shirt, the collar of which, though unbuttoned, was not turned down over the coat. This degree informality was slightly shocking to my generation of students! While sitting on the platform waiting for the President to finish his Society announcements and introduction, his face wore an expression of weariness or boredom. His manner of holding a cigarette in the corner of his mouth would, in a person held in less awe, have been considered slovenly.
He made no acknowledgement of the applause which followed the introduction but plunged at once into an amazing, amusing attack upon what he called the “culture-vultures” of the United States of America; though not on them alone, for all sorts of literary and social humbugs, especially the rich ones, received the stinging lash of his wit. The style of this piece was rich in alliteration, rhyme and play on words. Thomas never once paused so that our laughter might not drown his next phrase; he read as if we were not there.
When he had finished that piece he told us that it was only a rather long introduction to some American poems he wished to read. His choice of poems was intended, I think, to surprise us; they were all a little unusual. There were two of Ezra Pound’s, two by Edwin Arlington Robinson, one by Auden which received a spontaneous acclamation and two by Robert Graves.
He concluded by reading a long passage from a play in manuscript which was only quarter-finished. The action, he told us was to last 24 hours and the part he read concerned the dreams of several of the characters, inhabitants of a little Welsh seaside village. It was in a light, satiric vein, not savage like his first piece, ridiculing the triviality of some of the village characters.
His only response to our delighted applause was to rise once or twice from his chair, smile very shyly and murmur ‘Thank you’. His expression now was one of coyness.
When the meeting had been disbanded I saw that Thomas had been trapped on the stage by admirers, so I dashed off to fetch my copy of the Collected Poems and joined the group who stood waiting on him with theirs. He was very polite. He might have thought we were culture-vultures but he answered every request with a ‘Most delighted…you’re most kind.’
I learned many years later from reading the Collected Letters that Dylan left his manuscript of Under Milk Wood in the Park Hotel where he had stayed overnight from his home in Laugharne. He wrote to the Society president asking him to retrieve it for him. On another occasion he left it in a Soho pub!