In the Graveyard of Verse
- The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins
Golgonooza, 495 pp, £16.95, October 2000, ISBN 0 903880 73 3
Some writers attract faint praise. Vernon Watkins is more damned by it than most: he is the serene Watkins, walking the Gower peninsula in a cloud of unworldly Christianity, Yeats and (very) late Symbolism; he is also the worthy Watkins, the man who spent his adult life working in a bank, refusing all promotion while perfecting his poetic craft. Good behaviour and a friendship with Philip Larkin have allowed the image of Watkins as a hard-working, pleasant and largely irrelevant anachronism to prevail, and for poets and critics to forgive him, by forgetting how in the 1930s and 1940s, under the influence of Dylan Thomas, he was an eager perpetrator of New Romanticism.
Watkins was at Repton and Cambridge with Christopher Isherwood, and makes a cameo appearance as the gullible Percival in Lions and Shadows. Nevertheless, he had little in common with the Auden generation or with Cambridge. His last eighteen months at school were, in retrospect, an idyll, but the course in modern languages at Magdalene was unsuited to his romantic temperament. He left after a year with plans to go to Italy and write. His father, a bank manager, was unimpressed by this scheme and Watkins became a cashier in Cardiff. Failure to adjust to his new life, an obsession with time, and too much William Blake led to fantasies of omnipotence and to a physical assault on his old headmaster. This breakdown – and the vision of redemption that accompanied it – lies behind his later statement that ‘in my 23rd year I suddenly experienced a complete revolution of sensibility. I repudiated the verse I had written and knew that I could never again write a poem which could be dominated by time.’ After a stay in a nursing home, Watkins returned home to Swansea, took another bank job, allowed Yeats to supplant Blake as the greatest god in his pantheon and would, it seems, have resigned himself to lifelong obscurity, consoled only by the thought of posthumous fame. In 1935, however, he found a volume by a local poet in a Swansea bookshop and arranged to meet its author.
Dylan Thomas could be breathtakingly inconsiderate in his treatment of Watkins. He sponged money from him and even failed to show up as best man at his wedding. Yet Watkins always idolised Thomas. He wrote him numerous poems both before and after his death and edited his letters (Thomas, true to form, failed to keep Watkins’s). There have been different explanations for this devotion. Thomas and his wife thought Watkins homosexual until a bed-sharing experiment failed to achieve results. Watkins’s own wife, Gwen, blamed his poet-worship. But Watkins’s devotion was in a way quite just; meeting Dylan Thomas was the best thing that ever happened to him. Thomas, the younger of the two by eight years, persuaded Watkins to publish. And while Watkins’s reading expanded Thomas’s range of reference – he introduced Thomas to Rilke and Lorca among others and became a valued reader of his drafts – Thomas’s attentions were vital to Watkins’s poetic development.