Vernon Watkins was born in Maesteg in Glamorgan, and brought up mainly in Swansea. His birth coincided with slight earth tremors; another baby born that night was christened John Earthquake Jones. Watkins' mother was Sarah ("Sally") daughter of Esther Thomas and James Phillips of Sarnau, Meidrim. Her father, a Congregationalist, was reputed to know most of the Welsh Bible by heart. Sarah had a love of poetry and literature, her headmistress arranged for her to spend two years as a pupil-teacher in Germany. Sarah married William Watkins in 1902, and they had three children: Vernon, Marjorie and Dorothy. William was a manager for Lloyds Bank in Wind Street, Swansea, and the family lived at "Redcliffe", a large Victorian house about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Swansea, at Caswell Bay.
Watkins read fluently by the age of four, and at five announced that he would be a poet, although he did not wish to be published until after his death. He wrote poetry and read widely from eight or nine years of age and was especially fond of the works of John Keats and Shelley. He received his later education at a preparatory school in Sussex, Repton School in Derbyshire, and Magdalene College, Cambridge.
In his early years at Repton, Watkins' quiet, gentle character provoked regular bullying from older boys, though in his last years he attained more popularity as he was able to show capacity in tennis and cricket. After he died, in 1968, the school wrote that he was "perhaps the best poet Repton has had". His headmaster at Repton was Geoffrey Fisher, who became Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite his parents being Nonconformists, Watkins' school experiences influenced him to join the Church of England. He read modern languages at Cambridge, but left before completing his degree.
He met Dylan Thomas, who was to be a close friend, in 1935 when Watkins had returned to a job in a bank in Swansea. About once a week Dylan would come to Vernon's parents' house, situated on the very top of the cliffs of the beautiful Gower peninsula. Vernon was the only person from whom Dylan took advice when writing poetry and he was invariably the first to read his finished work. They remained lifelong friends, despite Thomas's failure, in the capacity of best man, to turn up to the wedding of Vernon and Gwen in 1944. Dylan used to laugh affectionately at his friend's gossamer-like personality and extreme sensibility. A story is told that one evening in Chelsea, during the war time blackout, they were walking along and Vernon tripped over something and fell to the ground. Dylan looked with a torch to see what the offending object was and to his delight all that they could find was a small, black feather (FitzGibbon 1966). Vernon was godfather to Dylan's son Llewelyn, the others being Richard Hughes and Augustus John. Letters to Vernon Watkins by Thomas was published in 1957. The 1983 book Portrait of a Friend by Watkins' wife Gwen(doline) (née Davies) deals with the relationship.
Others in the Swansea group known as the "Kardomah boys" were the composer Daniel Jenkyn Jones, writer Charles Fisher and the artists Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy. Vernon wrote the obituary for Dylan Thomas and when he died, Philip Larkin wrote his obituary.
Watkins met Gwen, who came from Harborne, Birmingham, at Bletchley Park, where he worked during the Second World War as a cryptographer. They were married at the Church of St Bartholomew the Great in London on 2 October 1944. The couple had five children.
His ambitions were for his poetry; in critical terms they were not to be fulfilled. On the other hand, he became a major figure for the Anglo-Welsh poetry tradition, and his poems were included in major anthologies. During the war he was for a time associated with the New Apocalyptics group. With his first book Ballad of the Mari Llwyd (1941) accepted by Faber and Faber, he had a publisher with a policy of sticking by their authors. In his case this may be considered to have had an adverse long-term effect on his reputation, in that it is generally thought that he over-published.
He wrote poetry for several hours every night and by way of contrast, Caitlin, Dylan Thomas's wife, could not recall her husband staying in even for one night during their whole married life. Vernon knew W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Philip Larkin. He was awarded a University of Wales honorary Doctorate of Literature in 1966 after retiring from his job at the bank. He was being considered for Poet Laureate at the time of his death.
A poem by Watkins from The Anglo-Welsh Review; the widow mentioned may be Caitlin Thomas.
Watkins had developed a serious heart condition, which he made light of, insisting on playing his beloved tennis and squash with his usual vigour. He died on 8 October 1967, aged 61, playing tennis in Seattle, where he had gone to teach a course on modern poetry at the University of Washington.
His body was returned to Britain, and was buried in the Gower, at St Mary's Church, Pennard. A small granite memorial to him stands at Hunt's Bay, Gower, on which are inscribed two lines from his poem "Taliesin in Gower": "I have been taught the script of stones, and I know the tongue of the wave."
A portrait of Watkins by his friend Alfred Janes may be seen in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea. A group portrait of the Kardomah Boys by Jeff Phillips was unveiled at Tapestri Arts Centre in Swansea in June 2011. Featured in the painting are Vernon Watkins, John Pritchard, Dylan Thomas, Daniel Jones and Alfred Janes. The picture is based on a BBC Radio Times front cover from October 1949.
In March 2012, in the BBC Radio 3 programme Swansea's Other Poet, Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, presented a portrait of Watkins. Williams regards Watkins as "one of the 20th century's most brilliant and distinctive yet unjustly neglected voices".
In October 2014 Swansea Council unveiled a blue plaque for Watkins outside the building on the corner of St Helen's Road and Beach Street in the city, where he spent 38 years working for Lloyds Bank. On 3 November 2014 the "Poem of the Week" in The Guardian was Watkins' "Three Harps".
Most of Watkins's manuscripts are held by the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd and other poems (1941, Faber and Faber)
The Lady with the Unicorn (1948, Faber and Faber)
The Death Bell (1954, Faber and Faber)
The North Sea (1955, New Directions) - verse translation by Watkins from Heinrich Heine
Cypress and Acacia (1959, New Directions)
Affinities (1962, New Directions)
Fidelities (1968, Faber and Faber)
Uncollected Poems (1969, Enitharmon Press, limited edition)
Vernon Watkins Selected Verse Translations with an Essay on the Translation of Poetry (1977)
The Ballad of the Outer Dark and Other Poems (1979, Enitharmon Press)
The Breaking of the Wave (1979, Golgonooza Press]
The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins' (1986) - reprinted as paperback Golgonooza Press, 2000 ands 2005 ISBN 0-903880-73-3
LMNTRE Poems by Vernon Watkins Illustrated by Alan Perry (1999, Ty Llen Publications) - chiefly poems for children
Taliesin and the Mockers by Vernon Watkins ... images by Glenys Cour (2004, Old Stile Press)
Vernon Watkins New Selected Poems Edited ... by Richard Ramsbotham (2006, Carcanet) ISBN 1-85754-847-7
'Four Unpublished Poems by Vernon Watkins', in The Anglo-Welsh Review; vol. 22 no. 50 (date), p. 65–69.