Vernon Watkins (June 27, 1906 — October 8, 1967), was a Welsh poet, commonly known for his friendship with his fellow Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, and was considered to be a great but underexposed writer of his age. During his lifetime he published eight volumes of poetry, and several others were released after his death.
Known for his optimistic, lyrical writing style he was highly praised by peers. Employed in the financial field, his writing was limited by his lack of time. Nonetheless, he earned a place among some of the most remarkable poetic figures of the twentieth century, especially within the realm of New Apocalypse poetry.
Lacking the drama that many celebrities bring to the public eye, Watkins led a placid life: one wife, five children, a love of sports and of the sea. Perhaps the secret to his one-of-a-kind poetry was the contentment brought to his life through his relationship with both his family and creation.
Early Life and Education
Watkins was born and raised in the Welsh town of Maesteg, Glamorgan. It remained his preferred residence throughout most of his life. His parents, William and Sarah Watkins, raised Vernon and his two sisters, Marjorie and Dorothy, in the typical Welsh cultural context of the time.
As a youngster, Watkins was educated at a preparatory school in Sussex and later at Repton School in Derbyshire. He went on to attend Magdalene College, Cambridge from 1924 to 1925 where he studied modern languages. He left school before completing his degree, as personal problems began to plague him.
Watkins' family encouraged him to take a job under the tutelage of his father at Lloyds Bank. Having been concerned with his difficulties at college and his inability to complete his studies, they felt it better for him to be near his family.
Unable to handle day-to-day stress, Watkins soon suffered a nervous breakdown. When a motorcycle crashed in his front yard and the driver died, he believed it was his responsibility. His delusional state then came to a head and he was placed in a special home, under restraint, for a year.
Marriage and Later Life
In 1944, Watkins married the woman who was to be his lifelong mate, Gwen Watkins. Together they had five children, Rhiannon Mary, Gareth Vernon, William Tristran David, Dylan Valentine, and Conrad Meredith. The family was raised in his beloved Glamorgon home.
Watkins was a visiting professor of poetry at the University of Washington (U.S.A.) in 1963 and 1967. While in Seattle on October 8, 1967, he suffered a fatal heart attack following a game of tennis. At the time of his death he was under consideration to be named Poet Laureate.
He was buried in Pennard churchyard. A small granite memorial to him stands at Hunt's Bay, Gower, on which are quoted two lines from Vernon's poem, "Taliesin in Gower;"
- "I have been taught the script of stones
- and I know the tongue of the wave."
Following Watkins' recovery from his breakdown, he returned to Lloyds Bank, where he would remain for much of his life. While using the job for a steady base of income, he dismissed the several promotions offered to him during his tenure there. His first priority was his poetry, which he wrote in his spare time. He was concerned that the increased responsibilities that would accompany a promotion would consume his writing time.
Watkins wrote some 1,000 poems prior to publishing his first volume in 1941, The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd and Other Poems. He continued to publish his works, primarily under Faber & Faber, for the remainder of his life. Watkins continuously revised his poems, both new and unpublished works as well as previously published ones. As he was such a recursive writer, he would spend several hours on a single work and put out collections for the public every few years.
In addition to his growing accumulation of volumes, Watkins also translated European verse into English and eventually outgrew his under-appreciated state as a poet, being awarded a number of poetry prizes, including the Levinson prize in 1953 and the Guinness Poetry Prize in 1957.
Friendship Among Poets
Through Watkins' pursuit of poetry, he began to develop several relationships with his poetic peers of the time, some of the most significant being William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Kathleen Raine, and Dylan Thomas.
He and Thomas were in continuous communication regarding their poetry and both held the other in high regard. Though conflict did arise from time to time, both in the vein of differing poetic views and in the sense that Thomas' tendency was to vacillate in his desire to associate with Watkins, their relationship was one notable enough to have been written and published about. Watkins was the only person from whom Thomas took advice when writing poetry and he was invariably the first to read his finished work. They remained life-long friends, despite Thomas's failure, in the capacity of best man, to turn up to the wedding of Vernon and Gwen in 1944.
Thomas had written "Letters to Vernon Watkins," which was published by J. M. Dent & Sons of London in 1957, and later Waktin's wife had "Portrait of a Friend" published by Gomer Press in 1983, both of which were important descriptions of the arduous relationship between Watkins and Thomas.
It is said that Thomas considered Watkins to be "the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English."
Although Watkins' poetry was to remain relatively unknown through most of his lifetime, his particular and unique style named him easily praiseworthy by his peers, and especially notable in his commencing of Welsh legends as inspiration.
His works were primarily composed using lyrical images directed toward themes portraying paradoxical truths of life and its simple benevolences—a sharp contrast to many of his fellow writers whose poems were essentially the opposite, investigating and emphasizing life's pessimistic qualities. Quite possibly, Vernon Watkins was discerned between the rest of the poets of his time in that he had a deep love for poetry and was truly moved by the beauty experienced in different combinations of words, even to the extent of tears, as when delving into his passion for the art.
Its therefore not surprising that his ecstatic theory of poetry extended into the way he viewed the world. His poems were his earnest attempts to instigate contemplation in those who viewed life and death as subtleties, and the musical and rhythmic nature of his writing elicited genuine emotion when describing life in a truly embracing way that would move the readers' heart. Throughout his poetry, he ambitiously utilized his talent for composing words, lyrically producing images which were geared towards reflecting the natural and original content in what made the world such a phenomenal place in his perspective. One of Watkins' colleagues, Kathleen Raine, quoted him to be "the greatest lyric poet of our generation," and Philip Larkin wrote:
- "In Vernon's presence poetry seemed like a living stream, in which one had only to dip the vessel of one's devotion. He made it clear how one could, in fact, 'live by poetry'; it was a vocation, at once difficult as sainthood and easy as breathing."
Collections of poetry published during Vernon Watkins' lifetime:
- The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd and Other Poems (1941) - Watkins' first volume of poetry and publication
- The Lamp and the Veil (1945)
- Selected Poems (1948)
- The Lady with the Unicorn (1948)
- The Death Bell (1954)
- Cypress and Acacia (1959)
- Affinities (1962)
The following are assortments of collected poems that were published after Watkins' death:
- Fidelities (1968)
- Uncollected Poems (1969)
- The Breaking of the Wave (1979)
- The Ballad of the Outer Dark (1979)
- New Selected Poems (2006) - selectively picked anthology of poems found in the previous eleven collections. Many were chosen by Watkins' wife, Gwen, and were said to essentially encapsulate his life story. It was published as an attempt to resurrect Watkins' poetry and reintroduce it to a new generation of readers.
Watkins also translated European verse into English, including
- Heine's The North Sea (1955), and after his death,
- Selected Verse Translations was published in 1977.
- Evans, Philip. A History of the Thomas Family. Privately published, 1994
- Fitzgibbon, Constantine. 1965. The Life of Dylan Thomas. Boston. Readers Union. OCLC 367245
- Stanford, Donald E. 1983. British poets, 1914-1945. Dictionary of literary biography, v. 20. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Co. ISBN 0810317028
- Watkins, Vernon. The Anglo-Welsh review. 1958. Pembroke Dock: Dock Leaves Press.
All links retrieved May 8, 2020.
- Webster, Loren, The Real Job – Lorenwebster.
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