From Tintern Abbey to A Boathouse in Laugharne

OCTOBER 11, 1998
R.M. FEWKES


Last June I reported to you on the first half of my sabbatical trip abroad to Romania and Transylvania during the last two weeks in April, visiting our partner church in the village of Kadacs, and the Romanian Unitarian Church headquarters in Kolozsvar. This morning I want to share with you some highlights from my three week visit to England and Wales for the better part of the month of May.

After finishing up the first part of my journey in Budapest I met my wife in London where we had five marvelous days in that amazing city of shows and museums and the Houses of Parliament which we visited while in session. We observed the House of Commons debate the question of England's participation in the new Euro market system, and then the House of Lords argue about whether to list for consumers the ingredients in English chocolate, quite an interesting contrast in issues to say the least. We saw three terrific shows, including Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Phantom of the Opera", and a comedic rendition of "The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged". I never laughed so much in all my life. While in London we were able to take a tour of the new Globe Theatre modeled as near as possible to the original 17th century stage where Shakespeare first performed his dramatic productions. We would have taken in a play there, but the new season did not begin until the day we left England. We got some religion while in London by attending two Evensong services, one at St. Martin's in the Field church across from the National Gallery of Art, and the other at St. Paul's Cathedral. When it comes to liturgy and music the Anglicans do a first rate job even if the theology is not exactly to our taste.

From London we took the train up to Stoke-on-Trent where we met our dear friends Rob and Brenda Fincham with whom we stayed for the next week. Among other things they took us to the Birmingham Art Museum to see an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite Paintings which I absolutely loved, and then to a tour of the Quarry Bank Cotton Mill which was originally established by 18th Century Unitarian entrepreneurs who were quite progressive for their time in that they provided both education, health care, and reasonably decent housing for their workers and their children. I preached twice while in England, once at the Unitarian Chapel in Newcastle-under-Lyme on the 2nd of May, on Emerson, and then again at the Stockton Unitarian Church in Cheadale. This time I had to do it spontaneously off the cuff to fill in for a minister who failed to show. I told them about my recent trip to Romania and the struggle and example of our Unitarian brothers and sisters over the past 425 years. They loved my message and gave me a round of applause.

The highlight of our visit to Britain was a five day excursion along the western coast of Wales. We stayed in a cottage in Dinas Cross high up in the Purcelli Hills overlooking the Irish Sea. We shared our view with scores of sheep who roamed the hills around our cottage. From there we explored many beautiful and interesting parts of the Welsh seacoast and the towns and villages along the way. Fishguard was the nearest point of civilization from where we were staying in the Purcelli Hills. Our vacation nearly ended there before it started when we parked our car on the quay which overlooks the harbor. Rob got out of the car and forgot to put on the parking brake. There was a slight incline on the quay and the car started to roll towards the edge of the pier with the rest of us still in the vehicle. I quickly stretched my foot over from the passenger side of the car to the brake on the driver's side and stopped the car before we all ended up in the drink. We all laughed about it afterwards, but it was as close to full immersion baptism as I ever want to get.

In addition to the gorgeous countryside and sea views in Wales we went to two sites that had important spiritual, artistic and literary connections to English and Welsh history both ancient and modern. The first site we went to was Tintern Abbey which we took in on the first day of our journey into Wales. For those of you who are not familiar with Tintern Abbey it is a shell and a ruin of an original Cistercian monastic community that was founded in 1131. Tintern Abbey went through many periods of building, and expansion and restoration before it was finally abandoned in 1521 when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and declared himself supreme head of the Church in England. At one time Tintern Abbey was the fifth wealthiest monastery in Wales.

Though Tintern Abbey is only a shell--the roof is gone but the walls are still standing--it is a hauntingly beautiful sight to behold. Tintern Abbey is situated in the Wye valley with a river running through it. In the days before automobiles were invented scenic boat tours of the Abbey would be organized and many tourists and artists would come to view and paint the monastic ruin and its environs. Among the artists who came there on a number occasions was J.M.W. Turner who was famous for his paintings of the English countryside. He was only 17 years old during his first visit and made pencil sketches of Tintern which provided the raw material for subsequent watercolors which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1794-95. Turner returned to the Wye valley a number of times in the course of his career. We bought one of Turner's prints of Tintern Abbey, had it framed, and it now hangs in the parsonage. For those who are interested Turner's print and the booklet on Tintern Abbey will be on a card table in the parish hall.

There is something about the atmosphere and ambiance of Tintern Abbey that touches the soul. While we were there we observed white doves flying in and out of the corners and archways of the former worship center. It was as if the Holy Spirit was making a visit to this former spiritual center and saying to us that the divine was still present in this place. I could imagine monks in white robes, which is what they wore in the Cistertian order, still singing Gregorian chants and anthems, and praising God for the gift of a new day and the opportunity to praise the Lord in both work and prayer.

Certainly the most celebrated and well known late 18th-century visitor to Tintern Abbey was the noted Romantic nature poet, William Wordsworth, who made two visits to the Wye valley, the first in 1793 when he was a troubled young man of 23, and the second in 1798 when he returned with his sister Dorothy during happier times. Following his graduation from St. John's College in Cambridge, Wordsworth had spent 13 months in France where he became "an ardent supporter of the republican cause" and was caught up "in a passionate love affair with a young French woman who gave birth to their daughter in December 1792." He was troubled by thoughts of his abandoned lover and child and was distressed with financial difficulties. It was during his second visit in 1798 that he wrote his famous poem on "Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey". In the poem he refers to his previous visit as a time of "thoughtless youth" during which he was "more like a man flying from something that he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved." Now he was in a new place, he had made peace with his past, reunited with his sister, had contemplated "the still sad music of humanity", and found great comfort and strength in "the power of Nature to feed both mind and soul."

It has been noted by a literary critic that "neither Tintern Abbey, nor even the sylvan Wye, is the subject of the poem", but rather Wordsworth himself, who had come "to express with such assurance the faith on which everything--his poetry, his sense of self, his awareness of vocation--was now grounded." Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" marked the true turning point in his vocation as a poet. What Wordsworth found in the power and beauty of Nature at Tintern Abbey and the Wye Valley was the power and beauty in his own soul. The change and transformation that had taken place within him was mirrored in the transformative powers of Nature which he found and remembered at Tintern.

The oversoul in Nature connects with the deep soul in the human heart and mind. That is the way it is with all of us and that is why Wordsworth's reference to his feeling of "a presence that disturbs" one "with the joy of elevated thoughts..., whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,...the round ocean, and the living air", touches us to the quick. What he found in Nature and in himself at Tintern Abbey we also find in ourselves and the beauty of Nature that surround us. Wordsworth may have been writing about himself, but he was also writing about something that we his readers can find and experience in ourselves. Tintern Abbey is a beautiful site in the heart of Wales, but it is also a point of transformation in the heart of the human soul. To find it we have but to look deep within and then see it reflected in the beauty and majesty of the world around us. Where do you find your Tintern Abbey?

The next literary shrine we visited was the Boat House and Writing Shed in Laugharne where Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, lived with his family and worked on finishing his literary masterpiece, UNDER MILK WOOD, a play for voices, during the last four years of his life, from 1949-53. The Boat House overlooks a wide salt water estuary embraced by lovely green hills. The day we were there it was hazy all around and quite ethereal. It was indeed a magical mystical spot comparable to what Wordsworth found at Tintern Abbey, but in an entirely different setting. During this period Thomas had been "recognized as the greatest lyric poet of the younger generation." He had been working on the writing of UNDER MILK WOOD for the better part of a decade and was completing the final revisions on the play when he died tragically at age 39 during a visit to New York City in November 1953. He had a toxic reaction to excessive drinking the night before and the city hospital was unable to save him. Two months later the first production of Thomas' play with a distinguished all-Welsh cast was broadcast on Welsh radio.

Dylan Thomas was born in 1914 in the Welsh seaport of Swansea where he was steeped in Welsh lore and poetry and the vivid imagery of a seacoast existence. His formal education never went beyond the Swansea Grammar school, but his native genius nonetheless found him working as a newspaper reporter, a "hack writer," and a documentary film script- writer. Thomas' resonant "Welsh-singing" voice led to his well deserved reputation as a reader of other poet's works as well as his own on the B.B.C. and then in New York City where he had developed a following of affectionate poetry lovers.

Thomas had spent the last 15 or so years of his life at Laugharne where as he amusingly put it, he "just came, one day, for the day, and never left; got off the bus, and forgot to get on again." The Boat House is now a literary memorial to his poetic genius--books, tapes, videos, cards, prints and paintings are all available, and, of course, cream tea in the Boat House tea room. We definitely took advantage of the latter and bought our share of the former.

About 20 or so years ago the First Parish Players did a public play reading of Dylan Thomas' UNDER MILK WOOD. This was even before we attempted the Night on Broadway musical productions. Bruce Hawthorne, Ruth and Rollin Bailey, myself and others took parts in the Reading. It was great fun. There are so many gems of poetry and prose throughout the play. To give you a flavor I share with you one of my favorites about "Lord Cut-Glass, in his kitchen full of time," who...
"...listens to the voices of his sixty-six clocks--(one for each year of his loony age)--and watches, with love, their black-and white moony loudlipped faces tocking the earth away: slow clocks, quick clocks, pendulumed heart-knocks, china, alarm, grandfather, cuckoo;...clocks that bicker in marble ships, clocks in the wombs of glass women, hourglass chimers, tu-wit-tu-woo clocks, clocks that pluck tunes, Vesuvius clocks all black bells and lava, Niagra clocks that cataract their ticks, old time-weeping clocks with ebony beards, clocks with no hands for ever drumming out time without ever knowing what time it is. His sixty-six singers are all set at different hours. Lord Cut-Glass lives in a house and a life at siege. Any minute or dark day now, the unknown enemy will loot and savage downhill, but they will not catch him napping. Sixty-six different times in his fish-slimy kitchen ping, strike, tick, chime, and tock."

Dylan Thomas was poignantly aware of the passing of time and the transient nature of human existence. In one of his poems he talks about:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer. And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Like Freud he was aware that the life force and the drive towards death come out of the same mysterious ground: "The lips of time leech to the fountain head;/ And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind/ How time has ticked a heaven round the stars."

I can't tell you how delighted we were to have the opportunity to explore the green hills and seacoast of the Welsh countryside. From Tintern Abbey to a Boathouse at Laugharne we discovered something of that mysterious force of life and death that holds us in its arms and accompanies all of us on our journey from time into eternity.