27 June 1906|
Maesteg, South Wales, UK.
|Died||8 October 1967
|Spouse||Gwendoline Mary Davies|
Vernon Phillips Watkins (27 June 1906 – 8 October 1967) was a British poet, translator and painter. He was a close friend of Dylan Thomas, who described him as "the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English".
Early life and studies
Vernon Watkins was born in Maesteg in Glamorgan, and brought up mainly in Swansea. His birth coincided with slight earth tremors; another baby born that night was christened John Earthquake Jones. His mother was Sarah ("Sally") daughter of Esther Thomas and James Phillips of Sarnau, Meidrim. Her father, a Congregationalist, was reputed to know most of the Welsh bible by heart. Sarah had a love of poetry and literature, her headmistress arranged for her to spend two years as a pupil-teacher in Germany. Sarah married William Watkins in 1902 they had three children, Vernon, Marjorie and Dorothy. William was a manager for Lloyds Bank in Wind Street, Swansea, and the family lived at "Redcliffe", a large Victorian house about four miles from Swansea, at Caswell Bay.
Watkins read fluently by the age of four, and at five announced that he would be a poet, although he did not wish to be published until after his death. He wrote poetry and read widely from eight or nine years of age and was especially fond of the works of Keats and Shelley.
Vernon was educated at a preparatory school in Sussex, Repton School in Derbyshire, and Magdalene College, Cambridge. His headmaster at Repton was Geoffrey Fisher, who became Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite his parents being Nonconformists, his school experiences influenced him to join the Church of England. He read modern languages at Cambridge: but left before completing his degree, the start of a troubled period in his life at the end of the 1920s. His sister Dorothy wrote,
Although intellectually advanced he was in most ways very immature. His absorption in poetry and a total lack of knowledge of all practical aspects of real life made him quite unfit to cope with the demands of self-sufficiency in university life –Vernon Watkins, the Early Years, a privately published booklet.
Early career and breakdown
He wanted to travel, but family pressure made him take a bank job in Cardiff which ended in a breakdown that marked him permanently. One evening after reading poetry he became increasingly manic. He started shouting that he had conquered time and could now control his own destiny and that of others. At that moment he heard a crash outside and through the window saw a motor-cyclist dead on the road and his bloodstained passenger staggering up the path towards him. Vernon, convinced he had willed this to happen, promptly collapsed. The next day he took a train to Repton, attended chapel, and burst into Dr Fisher's study and attacked him. He was committed to a mental hospital in Derbyshire. He tried to leap from a window to see if angels would save him. After a year he returned home to Cardiff.
He started work at Lloyds Bank in autumn 1925 and, after transferring to the St Helen's Road branch in Swansea, he remained there, with little responsibility, for much of his life. He joked that his father had been the bank's youngest manager and he was its oldest cashier. He battled with managers who wanted to promote him as his only interest was having sufficient time to work on his poetry.
Dylan Thomas and the Swansea group
He met Dylan Thomas, who was to be a close friend, in 1935 when Watkins had returned to a job in a bank in Swansea. About once a week Dylan would come to Vernon's parents' house, situated on the very top of the cliffs of the beautiful Gower peninsula. Vernon was the only person from whom Dylan took advice when writing poetry and he was invariably the first to read his finished work. They remained lifelong friends, despite Thomas's failure, in the capacity of best man, to turn up to the wedding of Vernon and Gwen in 1944. Dylan used to laugh affectionately at his friend's gossamer-like personality and extreme sensibility. A story is told that one evening in Chelsea, during the war time blackout, they were walking along and Vernon tripped over something and fell to the ground. Dylan looked with a torch to see what the offending object was and to his delight all that they could find was a small, black feather (FitzGibbon 1966). Vernon was godfather to Dylan's son Llewelyn, the others being Richard Hughes and Augustus John. Letters to Vernon Watkins by Thomas was published in 1957. The 1983 book Portrait of a Friend by Watkins' wife Gwen(doline) (née Davies) deals with the relationship.
Others in the Swansea group known as the "Kardomah boys" were the composer Daniel Jenkyn Jones, writer Charles Fisher and the artists Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy. Vernon wrote the obituary for Dylan Thomas and when he died, Philip Larkin wrote his obituary.
Bletchley Park and marriage
Watkins met Gwen, who came from Harborne, Birmingham at Bletchley Park, where he worked during World War II as part of the cryptographic team. They were married at the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great in London on 2 October 1944. The couple had five children, Rhiannon Mary, Gareth Vernon. William Tristran David, Dylan Valentine and Conrad Meredith.
His ambitions were for his poetry; in critical terms they were not to be fulfilled. On the other hand, he became a major figure for the Anglo-Welsh poetry tradition, and his poems were included in major anthologies. During the war he was for a time associated with the New Apocalyptics group. With his first book Ballad of the Mari Llwyd (1941) accepted by Faber and Faber, he had a publisher with a policy of sticking by their authors. In his case this may be considered to have had an adverse long-term effect on his reputation, in that it is generally thought that he over-published.
He wrote poetry for several hours every night and by way of contrast, Caitlin, Dylan Thomas's wife, could not recall her husband staying in even for one night during their whole married life! Vernon knew William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Philip Larkin. He was awarded a University of Wales honorary Doctorate of Literature in 1966 after retiring from the Bank. He was being considered for Poet Laureate at the time of his death.
Death and memorial
Vernon had developed a serious heart condition which he made light of, insisting on playing his beloved tennis and squash with his usual vigour. He died on 8 October 1967, aged 61, playing tennis in Seattle, where he had gone to teach a course in Modern Poetry at the University of Washington.
His body was returned to Britain, and was buried in Gower, at St Mary's Church, Pennard. A small granite memorial to him stands at Hunt's Bay, Gower, on which are inscribed two lines from his poem "Taliesin in Gower": I have been taught the script of stones, and I know the tongue of the wave.
A portrait of Vernon Watkins by his friend Alfred Janes may be seen in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea. A group portrait of the Kardomah Boys by Jeff Phillips was unveiled at Tapestri Arts Centre in Swansea in June 2011. Featured in the painting are Vernon Watkins, John Pritchard, Dylan Thomas, Daniel Jones and Alfred Janes. The picture is based on a BBC Radio Times front cover from October 1949.
In March 2012, in the BBC Radio 3 programme Swansea's Other Poet, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams presented a portrait of Watkins. Williams regarded Watkins as "one of the 20th century's most brilliant and distinctive yet unjustly neglected voices."
Most of Watkins's manuscripts are held by the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
- The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd (1941)
- The Lady with the Unicorn (1948)
- The Death Bell (1954)
- The North Sea (1955) [verse translation by Watkins from H. Heine]
- Cypress and Acacia (1959)
- Affinities (1962)
- Fidelities (1968)
- Uncollected Poems (1969)
- Vernon Watkins Selected Verse Translations with an Essay on the Translation of Poetry (1977)
- The Ballad of the Outer Dark and Other Poems" (1979)
- The Breaking of the Wave (1979)
- The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins' (1986) [reprinted as paperback Golgonooza Press, Ipswich 2000. ISBN 0-903880-73-3, and 2005]
- LMNTRE Poems by Vernon Watkins Illustrated by Alan Perry (1999) [chiefly poems for children]
- Taliesin and the Mockers by Vernon Watkins ... images by Glenys Cour (Old Stile Press, 2004)
- Vernon Watkins New Selected Poems Edited ... by Richard Ramsbotham (Carcanet, 2006) ISBN 1-85754-847-7
- 'Four Unpublished Poems by Vernon Watkins', in The Anglo-Welsh Review; vol. 22 no. 50 (date), p. 65–69.
- Welsh Biography Online Retrieved : 27 February 2011
- Laura Chamberlain. "Blogs – Wales – Vernon Watkins, Swansea's other poet". BBC. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
- Rowan Williams, 'Swansea's Other Poet: Vernon Watkins ...', in Welsh Writing in English; 8 (2003)
- B. Keeble, Vernon Watkins Inspiration as Poetry, Poetry as Inspiration (Temenos Academy, 1997)
- J. Harris, A Bibliographical Guide to Twenty-Four Modern Anglo-Welsh Writers (1994)
- Kathleen Raine, 'Vernon Watkins and the Bardic Tradition', in Defending Ancient Springs (1985)
- G. Watkins, Portrait of a Friend (1983) [republished as Dylan Thomas: Portrait of a Friend, 2005]
- P. Evans, A History of the Thomas Family [privately published and distributed]
- D. Park, Vernon Watkins and the Spring of Vision (1977)
- David Jones Letters to Vernon Watkins (1976)
- R. Mathias, Vernon Watkins (1974)
- G. Watkins, Poet of the Elegiac Muse (1973)
- L. Norris, ed., Vernon Watkins 1906–1967 (1970)
- C. FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas (1965)
- Dylan Thomas Letters to Vernon Watkins (1957)
- Memories of the poet written by a student
- Portrait of Vernon Watkins Retrieved : 2011-02-27
- Archival material relating to Vernon Watkins listed at the UK National Archives