7 Famous Welsh poets

R S Thomas

The first of our famous Welsh poets is R S Thomas who was born in Cardiff in 1913 and brought up on Anglesey. He studied Latin at the University of Bangor. He became a priest of the Anglican Church in 1936. He married an art teacher Elsi Eldridge and they had a son together by the name of Gwydion. In 1946 he published his first book of poems and went on to publish a further twenty books during his lifetime. He won the Queen’s Gold medal for Poetry in 1964 and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. His autobiography called Neb (‘no one’ and ‘anyone’) was published in Welsh in 1985.

He learnt Welsh fairly late in life at the age of thirty and he wrote his poems in English. He was admired by the likes of John Betjeman, Ted Hughes and Martin Amis. Ted Hughes stating that Thomas’s poems ‘pierces the heart’.

He was a staunch Welsh nationalist which was echoed in his poetry. He wrote of a dying Wales, referring to the loss of it’s language, and spoke of the threat to its culture by the “scavenging” English. However, the Welsh didn’t get off lightly either as he viewed them with disappointment at the way in which they had let their culture and identity crumble. His fervent nationalism isolated many of his readers highlighted by such incidents as when he publicly supported arsonists that set alight English owned holiday homes in Wales.

He also attacked modern culture and technology in his poems.. There is a sense of isolation in his work and he also frequently explored his relationship with God, especially in his later poetry. He called these poems his ‘linguistic confrontation with ultimate reality’.

For some
it is all darkness: for me too,
it is dark. But there are hands
there I can take, voices to hear
solider than the echoes
without. And sometimes a strange light
shines, purer than the moon,
casting no shadow, that is
the halo upon the bones
of the pioneers who died for truth

Amongst other appraisals he has been called a man of contradiction. For instance, though he was a staunch nationalist he neglected to teach his own son Welsh. Moreover, his son was sent to an English public school and he married an English woman. He died in 2000 at the age of 87 in Pentrefelin.

Books include

The Stone of the Field (1946)
Song at the Year’s Turning (1955)
Ingrowing Thoughts (1985)
Neb (1985)
Mass for Hard Times (1992)

Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff in 1937. She has a daughter and two sons and lives on a small holding in Ceredigion. She is the president of a writer’s centre in North Wales called Ty Newydd; a venture that Ted Hughes helped set up. Gillian is a lecturer at the University of Glamorgan teaching creative writing.

Despite having Welsh speaking parents her mother always encouraged English ahead of Welsh as she thought it opened up more opportunity. Gillian primarily writes in English though is Welsh speaking and incorporates Welsh poetry characteristics in some of her work. She graduated with an English degree from the University of Wales Cardiff.

Nature is a strong theme in her poetry, especially the Welsh landscape. She details real memories thorough descriptions of sensory experiences. Topics also covered include war, birth, the passage of time and childhood. Gillian regards poetry as ‘word music’.
She typically writes from direct experience and from a position of truth as opposed to fiction.
Gillian has written about the role of women on a domestic level incorporating her thoughts in poems such as Letter from a far country (a poem championed by Carol Ann Duffy).

When Gillian was given the role of National Poet of Wales in 2008, she wanted to put her stamp on the position.

“When I was made National Poet of Wales they told me that I didn’t have to write anything, but I regard my work as mending bridges between North Wales and South Wales, Welsh and English language, England and Wales, Wales and the world. I feel that I need to cross boundaries.”

In 2011 Gillian won the Queen’s gold medal for poetry. She currently lives in Talgarreg in Ceredigion running an organic small-holding.

Some notable poems include

Cold Knap Lake
Letter from a far country

Her books include

Snow on the Mountain (1971),
The Sundial (1978),
Letter from a Far Country (1982), Selected Poems (1985),
Letting in the Rumour (1989),
The King of Britain’s Daughter (1993),
Collected Poems (1997),
Five Fields (1998),
Nine Green Gardens (2000)
Owain Glyn Dwr (2000)

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas, possibly the most famous Welsh poet was born in Swansea in 1914 and grew up in Cwmdonkin Drive. Though brought up by parents that both spoke Welsh, Dylan never learned the language because of his father who thought it would be a hindrance to him getting ahead. Consequently Dylan wrote all of his poetry in English. In school he performed unexceptionally but some of his poems were published in the school magazine.

At 16 he left school and became a reporter for a local newspaper and went on to do freelance work. All the while he wrote poetry and prose from his room in Cwmdonkin drive. This was a particularly prolific time for Dylan in terms of his output.

He was still a teenager when he wrote, “And Death shall have no dominion” and “Light breaks where no sun shines”, which caught the eye of T.S.Elliott.

His poetry was quite often obscure and difficult to comprehend. He used a deliberate density of syntax and loved the sound of words making full use of the writer’s tool onomatopoeia. He wrote often about death, life and nostalgia referring to his childhood continuously.

After several of his poems appeared in journals he moved to London at the age of twenty. His first book of poetry called 18 Poems was published in 1934 and in 1936 Twenty five poems was published. Dylan married Caitlin McNamara in 1937 – a marriage that was often marred by drink and adultery on both sides.

In addition to poetry he wrote plays, poems and short stories. A collection of short stories called Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog was published in 1940. His books weren’t big sellers and consequently his poor earnings meant he had to borrow heavily off friends and benefactors. He also did radio work for the BBC, and between 1945 and 1953, he wrote or made appearances in over 200 broadcasts.

He avoided being called up in the 2nd World War due to poor health. He had always suffered from asthma and bronchitis and would sometimes cough up blood.

dylan thomas plaque rage rage against the dying of the light

In 1949 Thomas lived at The Boat House in Laugharne during the last four years of his life with his wife Caitlin and three children;Llewelyn, Aeronwy and Colm. He frequented local public bars such as Brown’s Hotel and wrote poetry in a small green shed overlooking the Taf Estuary.

In 1950 he toured New York for three months giving recitals. He drank heavily and gained a reputation for being drunk and difficult at parties. His tour was successful and the venues needed upgrading due to lack of capacity. He inspired the Beat Poets, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. On returning to the UK he is believed to have started work on the play Under Milk Wood. He made several more tours to New York before passing away there in 1953.

Notable poems and works

And death shall have no dominion
Do not go gentle into that good night
Fern Hill
Light breaks where no sun shines
Poem in October
Under Milk Wood

Vernon Watkins

Vernon Watkins was born in Maesteg and grew up in Swansea in the Gower peninsula. His father was a bank manager. Watkins adored the work of Keats and Shelley whilst growing up. He started writing and compiling poetry at the young age of seven or eight. He was lifelong friends with Dylan Thomas and as youngsters they would meet and explore poetry together. Thomas much admired Vernon Watkin’s work.

He spent a year at Cambridge University studying Modern Languages (French and German), but became so disoriented by the analytical nature of academia that he left.

Not knowing which direction to take next he eventually decided to follow his father’s footsteps and entered the world of banking as a junior clerk in 1925. However, two years in Watkins couldn’t take the strain and suffered a nervous breakdown. This breakdown was regarded as a turning point in Watkin’s poetry ; ‘a revolution of sensibility’ he called it. Watkins would now be a metaphysical poet.

Following periods spent at nursing homes and a further recovery time at his parent’s house in the Gower, Watkins did go onto spend forty years as a bank clerk. His job provided Watkins with a steady income whilst in the evenings he was able to put his full attention to his poetry.

During the Second World War he was part of the unit that broke the enigma code. Just a few months before he joined the RAF at Bletchley Park he published his first book of poetry in 1941 called Ballad Of The Mari Lwyd.

It was at Bletchley that Watkins met his wife Gwendoline Mary Davies. They married in 1944. Dylan Thomas was to be the best man but neglected to turn up to the ceremony. It was thought that Dylan’s shyness kept him away.

His next work was published in late 1945 called the The Lamp And The Veil and in 1948 The Lady With The Unicorn. Watkins continued to release poetry through the 50s and 60s. He spent time in the US at the University of Washington as a visiting poetry professor. On his second invitation to the University in 1967 for a one year contract, he sadly had a heart attack during a game of tennis.

His poetry is known for its reference to Welsh history and mythology, metric inventiveness and his use of traditional structure. He was a perfectionist with his writing with some poems taking around 50 drafts before reaching the final work. He wrote in every known form from sonnets to free form to ballads. He was a Christian and there are references to his faith throughout his work.

His books include

The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd (1941)
The Lamp and the Veil (1945)
The Lady with the Unicorn (1948)
The Death Bell (1954)
Cypress and Acacia (1959)
Affinities (1962)
and Fidelities (1968)

W H Davies

W H Davies was born in Newport South Wales in 1871. He was brought up largely by his grandparents following the death of his father at the age of two. His mother did remarry, but was forced to leave her three children to the care of their grandparents.

He left school at the age of fourteen and began an apprenticeship with a picture framer. It was around this time that his grandfather passed away. Davies worked as an apprentice for five years and on completion moved to Bristol after a short spell in London.

There he began working as a picture framer. However, Davies never much took to work and his time became occupied with drink and prostitutes. After a year he received the news that his grandmother had passed away and left him a share in a property company alongside his two siblings.

The income from the rents provided him with a small private income and he was advanced a sum so that he could travel to the US. After failing to earn any sort of income from a learned trade (a picture framer) he basically became a tramp freight hopping across the US with a new friend called Brum.

Later on in 1899 desperate for an easy way to make money he heard about the Klondike gold rush in Canada. It was on route that a terrible accident befell him. Again freight hopping with a tramp called three-fingered Jack he slipped and severed his right foot. He had to have his leg amputated beneath the knee.

Davies though was not one to give in easily and viewed his new disability as an incentive to come up with another plan to earn a living without the trappings of a day job. It was then that he turned his attention to writing.

Through sheer perseverance following numerous setbacks and rejections, the poet Edward Thomas helped open a door into the literary world. They became great friends and Thomas provided W. H. Davies with free lodging in Kent and introduced him to his literary circle. He also encouraged Davies to write his first book The Autobiography of a Super-tramp which was a success and provided an income.

Davies began to publish poetry and prose including accounts of his experiences on the road as a tramp. He married in 1921 to Helen Payne who was almost three decades younger than him. His later work was sporadic and often repetitive of his earlier work. Nevertheless his work was always in demand and this kept him busy until his death in 1940 at the age of sixty nine.

His prose though repetitive in his later period could often be engaging, inspiring and sometimes shocking. His poetry tackled such topics as nature, love, injustice, prostitution and vagabonds. His poetry was admired by the likes of Dylan Thomas, Joseph Conrad, Edith Sitwell and Robert Frost. He was most successful as a poet during the phase when Georgian poetry was in fashion (around 1910 to 1920). He is perhaps most famous for the lines from the poem leisure;

A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.

w h davies welsh poetry plaque no time to stand to stare

Eccentric to the last he had a pet toad called Jim and fed him saucers of milk.

Prominent works

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp 1908
Leisure 1911

Dafydd ap Gwilym

Dafydd ap Gwilym was born in Llanbadam Fawr in around 1315, on the outskirts of Aberystwyth, which is now marked by an honorary plaque. He is regarded as one of the major famous Welsh poets and European medieval writers. In fact due to his mastery of poetic meter, his virtuosity with expressive language and his great aptitude at describing the human condition, Dafydd is frequently thought of with more regard than any other Welsh poet.

Dafydd was brought up by a family that had done well from serving the Norman conquerors in South West Wales. It has been proposed that Dafydd may have been taken into his Uncle Llewellyn’s care for a time; a man that possessed a good deal of clout being the constable of Newcastle Emlyn. Following his uncle’s death by murder, Dafydd penned an elegy which spoke of his uncle’s mastery of language and skill as a poet. It is also quite possible that Dafydd picked up some of his poetic craft by studying at the Abbey Strata – a location rumoured to hold Dafydd’s remains.

Dafydd is known to have had several patrons due to his praise poems. He would have travelled widely throughout Wales with his love poetry being in considerable demand. Whether he was a professional poet is hard to confirm, but it is certainly feasible based on the situation of his contemporaries. It is known that Dafydd’s supreme patron and great friend was Ifor Ap Llywelyn of Basaleg – a man that Dafydd called Ifor Hael (Ifor the Generous). Dafydd wrote several poems in honour of Ifor Hael and the patron was regarded as a model patron for later poets.

It is likely that Dafydd had patrons in both Gwynedd and Ceredigion too based on his material. He wrote elegies for Angharad and her son Rhydderch – the latter whose tone was satirical. They were from the Carmarthen Glyn Aeron family – patrons that were known to support literary excellence. He wrote for the Dean of Bangor and also celebrated the Anglesey town Newborough.

He was known for his usage of the seven-syllabled rhyming couplet called cywydd. It was Dafydd that popularised this new meter, which is evidenced in over 150 of his surviving poems. There were also other accomplished poets around in this era writing in a similar style, covering the topics of nature and love. Such contemporaries include Gruffudd Gryg, Iolo Goch, Madog Befras and Gruffud ab Adda. However, it was Dafydd’s poetic genius that made him stand out amongst his colleagues.

Dafydd often wrote of nature and used it as a backdrop for his focus on sexual love. He observed and detailed such scenes as woodlands and beds of leaves, using them as the perfect setting to express his thoughts and emotions about sexual rendezvous. As a juxtaposition he could also write about the dark side of life, reflecting on the cruel aspects of existence and the fragility of beauty; underlined by the poem The Ruin.

Though Dafydd often wrote in the first person, he did write from the perspective of different characters, so as to achieve maximum dramatic effect. He made use of such personas as the canny philanderer or the keen but accident prone schemer. One of his traits too was his self- deprecating style which he used to full comedic effect in such poems as the Trouble at an inn.
It was particularly unusual at the time for a poet to write about himself and share his own experiences and feelings.

Famous works

Trouble at an inn

Dannie Abse

Our final seventh famous Welsh poet is Dannie Abse who was born in Cardiff and raised by non Welsh speaking parents. His eldest brother, Leo was MP for Pontypridd and impacted his poetry by making it more political. Wilfred his other brother went onto become a qualified psychiatrist.

Abse’s earlier influences include Dylan Thomas and Rainer Maria Rilke. His first collection of poetry was published in 1948 and called After Every Green Thing. Dannie Abse was a popular and accessible poet. Some of the important themes in his work included both his Welsh and Jewish background alongside his profession as a qualified chest consultant. One essayist points out that Abse’s medical profession was to his poetry as important as trench warfare was to Wilfred Owen’s work. He sometimes introduced humour into his poems and other times he could be dark and focus on such subjects as mortality and racism.

Admitting in an interview that he was at one time fascinated by the existentialists such as Satre and Camus, the absurdity of human life became a theme for some of his poems.‘The Trial’ and ‘Lunch and Afterwards’ are poems that attest to such a theme. Certainly Abse’s sheer versatility and scope is a strength of his poetry.

In one of his more famous works Funland he writes about an insane asylum. The two major characters in the poem are the superintendent Dr. Aquillus and his mentally ill patient Pythagorus Smith, who incidentally believes himself to be the reincarnation of the scientist Pythagorus. This poem touches on his dual role as both doctor and artist; science vs. art.
As the patient is relieved of his illness and ‘normalised’, he loses his creative muse and individuality. The poem questions the legitimacy of medical science and comments on the ways in which the human psyche can be easily manipulated to carry out atrocious acts. Abse also makes reference to the limits of science explaining that the doctor finds it hard to distinguish between the sane and insane.

As well as poetry he wrote novels (often autobiographical) and plays. He married in 1951 to Joan, an art historian and had two children. Joan died in a car accident in 2005. In response he wrote The Presence in 2007, which went onto win the Welsh book of the year in 2008. He passed away in 2014.

Famous poems

Hunt the Thimble
Return to Cardiff
Last words
Pathology of colours
A Night Out


Dafydd ap Gwilym

National Library of Wales website


The Literary context by Huw Meirion Edwards

Vernon Watkins

The Poetry Foundation

BBC website

Gower hidden history

Dylan Thomas

The Dylan Thomas Omnibus (1995)

R S Thomas

The Guardian Orbituary

Independent – Who put the S in R S Thomas? The poet himself

BBC – R S Thomas Wales’s outspoken poet

Gillian Clarke

BBC – Gillian Clarke

BBC – Queen’s Gold Medal for Welsh poet Gillian Clarke

British Council – Gillian Clarke Literature

Dannie Abse

The Poetry of Dannie Abse Critical Essays and Reminiscences (1983)

W H Davies

The True Traveller: A reader (2015)

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