Dylan Thomas (1914 - 1953)

A survey of his life and work

By Ian Mackean
 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
[The force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower]

 

Dylan Marlais Thomas is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, and also one of the most controversial, supporters and detractors having strong feelings regarding both the merits of his poetry, and his qualities as a man.  He gained a reputation for wildness, drunkenness, womanising, and borrowing money.  The reputation undoubtedly had some truth behind it, but was exaggerated by those to whom the romantic image of a wild bohemian poet appealed, and has been disputed by people with whom he lived and worked.  His daughter Aeronwy observed that no one ever wants to hear about the Thomas she knew, who enjoyed domestic routines, drank in moderation, worked diligently, and was devoted to his parents. Similarly, those who worked with him at the BBC emphasise that he was known for being reliable, professional, sober, and conscientious. [1]

The story of Thomas’s death after a night’s drinking in a bar in Manhattan, as told by John Malcolm Brinnin in Dylan Thomas in America (1965), may also be a distorted version of the truth.  He apparently boasted to his American girlfriend, Liz Reitell, that he had drunk 18 straight whiskies (the equivalent of 18 British ‘doubles’), but the story cannot be corroborated, and it is also probable that a doctor had, unwisely, given him various drugs, including an injection of morphine. [2]

Thomas grew up in a suburb of Swansea, in South Wales, and wrote profusely even in childhood.  His father, a school teacher, was by all accounts an ill-humoured man, but an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher of English literature.  Thomas paid little attention to school subjects other than English, at which he excelled, and had no desire to go to university.  He was determined to be a poet, and he found his gift early, being only 19 when one of his best-known poems, ‘And Death Shall Have no Dominion’ was published in 1933. 

Thomas did not speak Welsh, his father having discouraged him from learning it in the belief that it would impede his progress, but the tone of his poetry shows that he had absorbed the lyrical style of Welsh preachers, a style which probably also influenced his father, who read Shakespeare to him from an early age.  Thomas claimed not to be religious, but his poems, in which biblical imagery occasionally appears, often convey a sense of awe, and he said in the introduction to his Collected Poems of 1952, that he wrote 'for the love of man and in praise of God'.

Thomas’s first volume of poetry, 18 Poems, was published in 1934, and he continued to publish poetry through the 1930s.  Had he been faced with serving in World War II he would have been a conscientious objector, but he was found unfit for active service, and worked as a documentary film script writer.  The poems he wrote in the period leading up to, and during the war, particularly those included in Deaths and Entrances (1946), gained him the attention of the literary establishment.  The volume contained some of his best-known poems such as ‘Fern Hill’, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, and ‘Poem in October’.  Where his earlier poetry had often been obscure and difficult, to the extent that some critics had seen little more in it than experiments with words, he was now writing poems which conveyed an accessible meaning, and rapidly becoming the foremost poet of the ‘40s.

Thomas's work was striking and new, appealing to the emotions and conveying a tone of almost religious wonder; a distinct break from the emotional restraint and religious intent of the later T. S. Eliot, and the politically-orientated poetry of W. H. Auden and his followers.  His poems had the quality of song and celebration, liberating poetry from the baggage of political and intellectual concerns.

Thomas’s technique, influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, makes use of startling juxtapositions of words and images.

   It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
[From ‘Poem in October’]

Thomas deals with elemental themes, such as birth, growth, sensuality, the passing of time, and decay, conveying a sense of how individual life is connected to natural processes.    With his striking use of words, and his concern with childhood, and with the mystical power of nature, his work can sometimes seem like an amalgam of Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Wordsworth.  Many of his poems are untitled, indicating that he was not prepared to give the reader a preconceived idea through which to approach them, but wanted them to experience them in the reading.

In 1937, when Thomas was living in London, and a well-known figure on the literary scene, he married Caitlin Macnamara, with whom he had a daughter and two sons.  Being always short of money they moved from place to place, often depending on the hospitality of others.  In 1949 they settled in a cottage, ‘The Boat House’, at Laugharne, on the south coast of Wales, which was purchased for them by Margaret Taylor, the wife of the historian A J P Taylor. 

Thomas became particularly well-known to the  British public as a regular broadcaster for the BBC.  He enjoyed performing for the microphone, and gained the status of a media star.  He had a striking, resonant voice, which made his live readings immensely popular, and one can perhaps best appreciate the power of his poems by listening to recordings.  His mastery of the medium of radio is particularly apparent in his well-known radio play, Under Milk Wood, first performed in America in 1953, and published posthumously in 1954.  The play, like the stories of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) show his humour, and his ability to present a community of characters, while his poems always convey personal individual experience.

His American tours between 1950 and 1953 were hugely popular, drawing large audiences and elevating him to celebrity status.  But having earned the reputation of being wild and drunken he felt under pressure to live up to it, and the constant round of performances and partying took a toll on his health. 

Thomas directly inspired several contemporary poets, such as George Barker, and W. S. Graham, who went under the name New Romantics, and Henry Treece, and J. F. Hendry who adopted the name New Apocalypse, but their work is generally considered by critics to be poor, and their prominence was short-lived, being taken over by the more sober and restrained poets of The Movement, such as Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis.

Thomas also inspired artists in the field of pop music.  Bob Dylan, whose real name is Robert Zimmerman, was inspired to use the name ‘Dylan’ out of respect for Thomas, and Thomas’s face appears among the images of influential people on the pop art cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band  LP of 1967.

As Nigel Williams observed [3], Thomas’s wild uncontrollable streak may have been due to part of his personality never having matured from childhood, but on the other side of the coin, his ability to retain a connection to his childhood joy, awe, and fascination with the world, and with words, may also have lain at the heart of his poetic inspiration,

References:

1. Williams, Nigel. (Presenter).  Arena. Dylan Thomas: From the Grave to the Cradle. BBC2.  Broadcast 22nd November 2003.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

Selected works: Eighteen Poems (1934); Twenty-Five Poems (1935); The Map Of Love (1939); The World I Breathe (1939); Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog (1940); New Poems (1943); Deaths And Entrances (1946); Selected Writings (1946); Twenty-Six Poems (1950); Collected Poems (1952); In Country Sleep (1952); The Doctor And The Devils (1953). Posthumous publications: Quite Early One Morning (radio essays) (1954); Under Milk Wood (1954); A Prospect Of The Sea (1955); A Child's Christmas In Wales (1955); Adventures In The Skin Trade (1955); Letters To Vernon Watkins (1957); The Beach Of Falesá (1963); Miscellany (1963); The Colour Of Saying (1963); Selected Letters (1963); The Notebooks Of Dylan Thomas 1930-34 (1968); Dylan Thomas: The Complete Screenplays (1995); The Love Letters Of Dylan Thomas (2002).

Further reading:
Lycett, Andrew.  Dylan Thomas: A New Life. Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 2003

© Ian Mackean 2005

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