Climbing along a steep coastal path through a forest in southern Wales, I reached a crest. The sea spread out before me, a moody canvas of blues and gray. White-topped gorse and cherry-red currant bushes gave color to my panorama; the plaintive chorus of sea birds was the only soundtrack.
I’d come to Wales, and to this spot specifically, to follow in the footsteps of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh-born poet who made this walk famous in his 1944 “Poem in October.”
In the piece, which Thomas wrote after taking this trail on his 30th birthday, his mood shifts from ecstatic to melancholic, much like the weather did during his outing. Throughout, he describes the landscape with some of the most lyrical language I have read, and as my 3-year-old son ran joyously ahead, he became a living image of Thomas’ lines:
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
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Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels.
Thomas would have turned 100 this October, and, in celebration of one of its most famous figures, Wales is celebrating this summer and fall with poetry readings; theater performances of “Under Milk Wood,” the play based on his life in a small Welsh fishing village; and a tangle of new hiking trails opened to showcase his native country and haunts. With brilliant precision, Thomas used the lush setting of his childhood as the bucolic backdrops of his poetry, the landscapes of that period as a metaphor for innocence and the loss of that same innocence later in life.
Although Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales’ second-biggest city, and died during a trip to New York, it was the dreamy childhood summers and holidays he spent in the green rolling countryside of Carmarthenshire that inspired some of his most memorable works, and specifically one of his most famous poems, “Fern Hill.”
He also lived the last four years of his short life in Laugharne (the poet died in 1953, at the age of 39), a coastal town across the estuary from his childhood farmhouse. And so my husband, son and I based ourselves there, staying at Brown’s Hotel, a sunny, yellow-painted inn whose cozy, recently renovated rooms are kitted out with Thomas memorabilia.
Nowadays, the Boathouse, an unassuming squat house with teal shutters tucked into the coastline where the Thomases once lived, has been transformed into a small museum. But it’s the tiny one-room wood-shingled shed next door, where Thomas wrote daily, that encapsulates the romance of the setting. Photos and illustrations that inspired him line its simple whitewashed walls, and bookshelves overflow with reference materials and hidden-away mysteries (Thomas loved a light read when he was procrastinating).
Thomas’ poetry makes it abundantly clear that the writer felt an intense connection to Wales’ particular landscapes and topography, but even so, I somehow wasn’t prepared for just how beautiful this region remains.
For me, Thomas’ enduring appeal lies not just in his ability to tie nature to our internal world, or in expressing our inability to stop time, but in his articulation of how deeply and delicately binary the human condition remains: life versus death, idyll versus reality, child versus adult, artist versus flawed man. This Welsh land, wild and beautiful, untamed but full of tradition, a place both boisterous and lyrical, could not better represent the poet’s multifaceted legacy.