Dylan Thomas, an Introduction

By Stephen Colbourn

The lyrics of Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) are not to be divorced from the legend of his life or lifestyle. You can visit the Cultural Heritage Boat House at Laugharne to see his grave, have a Welsh cream tea and buy souvenirs. Dylan Marlais Thomas came from Swansea, a port town in South Wales. He never learned to read the Welsh language, (which the English had attempted to suppress,) but he listened to its lilts and rhythms and knew its deep poetic tradition - a tradition of poet as bard and priest. Welsh chapel and the Bible lay at the back of his mind as well, inescapably.

His father was an English master at Swansea Grammar School, which Thomas attended, and introduced his son to poetry. His mother was the daughter of a farmer and took her son into the countryside to visit her parents at what became the poetic 'Fern Hill' in Deaths and Entrances (1946).

Thomas did not do well at school and exerted no effort to study anything that held no interest for him; with the consequence that he acquired a keen knowledge of poetry from self-study but failed all his exams. He kept a schoolboy notebook of ideas which served as source notes for a number of later verses, but he had little by way of formal education and his work is free of erudite references.

On leaving school at 16 he worked as a trainee reporter and wrote for local newspapers. His first two verse publications were 18 Poems (1934) and Twenty Five Poems (1936). Following the appearance of his first book he moved to London where he lived until after the Second World War, always broke, always borrowing money, often drunk. He married Caitlin Macnamara who was to bear him three children and who outlived him by over forty years.

Thomas was unfit for military service and worked for the BBC during the war. His voice had an exceptionally mellifluous quality that survives in many recordings. At the start of the Blitz he composed one of his best-known poems 'Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London'. He thrived on talking to the radio microphone, but, although he went on lecture tours in the US he disliked reading his own works to a live audience.

In 1947 he suffered a nervous collapse brought on by the strains of his marriage, his drinking and his impecunity. He owed back-taxes to the Inland Revenue. The Thomases moved into a garden shed at the house of the historian A. J. P. Taylor in Cambridge. When they had outstayed their welcome, the Taylors bought the Boat House at Laugharne and presented it to Dylan and Caitlin.

Considering the verse, it's as well for a poet to have a few big numbers with a catchy line or two. Memorability ensures durability. Thomas achieved that memorability and a couple of his poems were overworked - 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night', written on the death of his father, and 'And Death Shall Have No Dominion'. The latter was read in 1989 at the funeral of Laurence Olivier who was only the second actor to be interred in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, the other being Edmund Kean in 1833. It served as nominally secular verse in place of the English Bible and Book of Common Prayer.

Thomas's style of verse employs free association and musical concatenations. It sounds musical, but is this its sole effect - as word music where sense is secondary to euphonic syntax? Philip Larkin disapproved of Thomas's style because he felt the verse was too personalised and lacked communicative force; whereas Larkin strove for a condensation or distillation of sense and meaning: he sought the quintessential pinhead not the angels dancing on it.

Thomas was a pioneer in utilising the mass medium of radio along with his BBC colleague Louis MacNeice. He wrote film scripts during the war and completed The Doctor and the Devils in 1947 concerning the Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare; but the post-war policy of avoiding violent subjects left the script on the Rank shelf for nearly four decades. Under Milk Wood - A Play for Voices and A Child's Christmas in Wales were written for radio performance and both work through the ear and not the reader's eye. They did not appear in print until after the author's death. Under Milk Wood was first read at The Poetry Center in New York in 1953. It was performed on BBC Radio in 1954 and filmed with Richard Burton in 1971.

Thomas also wrote essays and short stories and his prose includes The Map Of Love (1939) and Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog (1940). His noveletic collection of stories Adventures in the Skin Trade was incomplete at the time of his death.

In pursuit of money Thomas gave three lecture tours in the United States. He died in New York in 1953, at the age of 39, after allegedly drinking 18 straight whiskies. But there are conflicting accounts of the events leading up to his death to which an overdose of morphine may have contributed.

© Stephen Colbourn, September 2006

Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Hodder Arnold. 2005

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