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Vernon Watkins, Swansea's other poet

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 10:55 UK time, Friday, 9 March 2012

This weekend's Sunday Feature on Radio 3 explores the life and works of Vernon Watkins, a Swansea poet and member of the Kardomah Gang often overlooked as 'the friend of Dylan Thomas'.

In the programme Swansea's Other Poet, which will broadcast this Sunday 11 March, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams will present a portrait of Watkins, a poet he regards as one of the 20th century's most brilliant and distinctive yet unjustly neglected voices.

Vernon Watkins, photographed in 1948

Vernon Watkins, photographed in 1948

Vernon Watkins was born on 27 June 1906 in Maesteg, south Wales. His father William was a manager for Lloyd's Bank, and his work meant the family spent time living in Bridgend and Llanelli. William Watkins was eventually transferred to a Swansea branch and the family settled on the Gower Peninsular.

When he was 10, in 1916, Vernon Watkins spent a year at Swansea Grammar School before being sent to Tyttenhanger Lodge, a preparatory school in Sussex. From September 1920 he attended Repton, a public school in Derbyshire where, aside from studying and the development of his poetic and linguistic abilities, he developed a love for tennis and cricket.

Watkins read modern languages (French and German) at Magdalene College, Cambridge from October 1924 but the analytical nature of academia proved disappointing and he left after just one year.

Banking and breakdown

Denied the means for a trip to Italy to write poetry by his father and with little other professional ambition outside of poetry Watkins followed in his father's banking footsteps, becoming a junior clerk in Cardiff in 1925.

However, two years after his entrance into banking the mundane, adult world of work - a world away from the romantic idyll of studying and writing poetry in his final years at Repton - proved too much for Watkins. He suffered a mental breakdown following a return visit to his former school, and entered a nursing home in Derby.

Watkins later referred to his breakdown as a "revolution of sensibility". On his return home to Gower he was transferred to the St Helen's branch of Lloyd's in Swansea so that he could be cared for by his family at home. He went on to serve as a bank clerk for over 40 years in Swansea, retiring in 1966.

Dora Polk, in her book Vernon Watkins and the Spring of Vision, states that Watkins regarded his banking career as his sole means of income. "Never expecting to gain recognition in his lifetime, much less to support himself, by his writing, he successfully managed to meet the competing demands of his life... by the simple expedient of remaining content with a routine job".

The published poet

Watkins dedicated his evenings to writing and meticulously polishing his poetry. In 1941 Faber, the pre-eminent publisher of the period, published Watkins' first volume of poetry, Ballad Of The Mari Lwyd, just months before he embarked for service in the Royal Air Force.

He served in the RAF from 1941 to 1946 during World War Two. During his time in the RAF Intelligence, stationed at Bletchley Park, he met his future wife Gwendoline Mary Davies. They married in London in October 1944. Dylan Thomas, Watkins' close friend whom he had first met in early 1935, was supposed to have been Watkins' best man, yet failed to turn up to the church.

Watkins' second poetry collection The Lamp And The Veil followed in late 1945, with a third, The Lady With The Unicorn, published in 1948.

The Death-Bell (1954) was awarded the Poetry Book Society's first choice accolade. Five years afterwards in 1959 his fifth collection, Cypress And Acacia, was released and Affinities (1962) was the final collection published during his lifetime.

Watkins was made a Fellow of Royal Society of Literature in 1951, and received an honorary D.Litt from the University of Wales in 1967. In 1953 he was awarded the Levinson Prize by Poetry Chicago and in 1957 won the inaugural Guinness Poetry Award for his poem The Tributary Seasons.

He also received travelling scholarships in both 1952 and 1956 from the Society of Authors, plus from March to June 1964 he was - for the first time - the visiting professor of poetry at the University of Washington. In 1966 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Literature from University College, Swansea.

In 1967 he was offered another spell as visiting professor of poetry at the University of Washington, this time a year-long post. Sadly, however, Watkins died of a heart attack on 8 October 1967, during a game of tennis shortly after his arrival in Seattle to take up the post.

Watkins' legacy

Roland Mathias says in his book Vernon Watkins: "The Times of 11th October, in reporting his death in the United States, revealed that he had been one of five or six poets who were being seriously considered for the Poet Laureateship left vacant by the death of John Masefield."

Watkins was buried in the churchyard of his parish church in Pennard, Gower.

Vernon Watkins memorial at Pennard church. Image copyright ceridwen and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Vernon Watkins memorial at Pennard church.
Image: geograph.org.uk, copyright ceridwen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Following his death Uncollected Poems (1969), Selected Verse Translations (1977), The Breaking Of The Wave (1979) and The Ballad Of The Outer Dark (1979) were released, collated from a vast selection of his unpublished poems.

According to the programme details for Radio 3's Swansea's Other Poet, "Kathleen Raine believed Watkins to be 'the greatest lyric poet of her generation', and TS Eliot and Philip Larkin were both admirers. Given such appreciation, the reason why Watkins' poetry slipped quietly into the shadows is something of a mystery."

The programme, presented by Dr Williams, himself a published poet, will explore why Watkins undeservedly remains such an unfamiliar entity to many.

Sunday Feature, Swansea's Other Poet can be heard on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 11 March at 7.45pm, and for seven days after transmission.

Related links

Further reading

  • Vernon Watkins, Roland Matthias (University of Wales Press, 1974)
  • Vernon Watkins and the Spring of Vision, Dora Polk (Christopher Davies, 1977)


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