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His master's vowels: on listening to Dylan Thomas's voice

Thirty years after his death, Richard Burton remains one of the very few actors, along with Ralph Fiennes, Viggo Mortensen and Stephen Dil­lane, able to deliver poetry in a high-impact way that also makes them seem like they somehow own it themselves.

Dylan Thomas at the Gotham Book Shop in New York in 1952. Photo: Getty
Dylan Thomas at the Gotham Book Shop in New York in 1952. Photo: Getty

The numerous Dylan Thomas centenary programmes on BBC Radio 3 included a special edition of The Verb (5 May, 10pm) for a live audience at Laugharne on the estuary of the River Tâf, where the poet used to live, and a series of The Essay (5-9 May, 10.45pm) in which the New Jersey-born activist Kevin Powell spoke about Thomas’s far-reaching influence on black American poets. An archive recording of Richard Burton reading “Fern Hill” was superb:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green . . .

Thirty years after his death, Burton remains one of the very few actors, along with Ralph Fiennes, Viggo Mortensen and Stephen Dil­lane, able to deliver poetry in a high-impact way that also makes them seem like they somehow own it themselves.

I recently spoke with Tom Hollander, who plays Thomas in a forthcoming BBC TV movie about the poet’s last excessive days in New York in 1953. The actor has a recording of Thomas at the house of a NYC socialite who increasingly plies the poet with drink while capturing him on tape reading from John Donne. Hollander said it was Thomas’s (“pretty pissed”) lines of in-between chat that gripped him most. Never particularly Welsh-sounding, Thomas had the kind of voice that does not exist any more: Home Service grand. It is worth noting how deep that voice went culturally, all through the British middle class as much as the upper classes and right into the 1970s. An arch, musical timbre that over the past 30 years has been brutally culled. “Every so often you do still hear it,” noted Hollander. “I was speaking to a friend the other day who went to a book launch in Nepal and said that literally everybody there sounded like that . . .”

The empire voice. When, on Bank Holiday Monday afternoon, we eventually heard Thomas reading “There Was a Saviour”, that august, over-freighted fruitiness was there; also, the great poet’s ability to disappear entirely into his lines, as Yeats or Tennyson could. A voice with tremendous reserves of patience. A voice that abolished everything but the ear.

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