Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
Dylan Marlais Thomas (27 October 1914 – 9 November 1953) was a Welsh poet and writer who wrote exclusively in English. In addition to poetry, he wrote short stories and scripts for film and radio, which he often performed himself. His public readings, particularly in America, won him great acclaim; his sonorous voice with a subtle Welsh lilt became almost as famous as his works. His best-known works include the “play for voices” Under Milk Wood and the celebrated villanelle for his dying father, “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Appreciative critics have also noted the craftsmanship and compression of poems such as “In my Craft or Sullen Art” and the rhapsodic lyricism of “Fern Hill'”.
Dylan Thomas was born at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in the Uplands area of Swansea, South Wales, on 27 October 1914 just a few months after the Thomas family had bought the house. Uplands was, and still is, one of the more affluent areas of the city, away from the more industrial areas. His father, David John (‘DJ’) Thomas, was an English master who taught English literature at the local grammar school. His mother, Florence Hannah Thomas (née Williams), was a seamstress born in Swansea. Nancy, Thomas’s sister, was nine years older than he. Their father brought up both children to speak English only, even though both parents also knew Welsh and DJ was known to give Welsh lessons at home.
Dylan is pronounced ˈdəlan in Welsh, and in the early part of his career some announcers introduced him using this pronunciation. However, Thomas himself favoured the anglicised pronunciation English pronunciation: /ˈdɪlən/. A review of a biography by Andrew Lycett (2004) notes “Florence, the boy’s mother, had her doubts about the odd name: the correct Welsh pronunciation, which the family used, is “Dullan,” and she worried that other children would tease him by calling him “dull one.” Later, when broadcasting on the Welsh service of the BBC, Dylan Thomas had to instruct the announcers to say “Dillan,” the way he himself pronounced it”. His middle name, Marlais, was given to him in honour of his great-uncle, Unitarian minister William Thomas, whose bardic name was Gwilym Marles.
His childhood was spent largely in Swansea, with regular summer trips to visit his maternal aunts’ Carmarthenshire farms. These rural sojourns and the contrast with the town life of Swansea provided inspiration for much of his work, notably many short stories, radio essays, and the poem Fern Hill. Thomas was known to be a sickly child who shied away from school and preferred reading on his own and was considered too frail to fight in World War II, instead serving the war effort by writing scripts for the government. He suffered from bronchitis and asthma. Thomas’s formal education began at Mrs. Hole’s Dame school, a private school which was situated a few streets away on Mirador Crescent. He described his experience there in Quite Early One Morning.
Never was there such a dame school as ours, so firm and kind and smelling of galoshes, with the sweet and fumbled music of the piano lessons drifting down from upstairs to the lonely schoolroom, where only the sometimes tearful wicked sat over undone sums, or to repent a little crime — the pulling of a girl’s hair during geography, the sly shin kick under the table during English literature.”
In October 1925, Thomas attended the single-sex Swansea Grammar School, in the Mount Pleasant district of the city. Thomas’s first poem was published in the school’s magazine. He later became its editor. He left school at 16 to become a reporter for the local newspaper, the South Wales Daily Post only to leave the job under pressure 18 months later in 1932. He then joined an amateur dramatic group in Mumbles, but still continued to work as a freelance journalist for a few more years.
Thomas spent his time visiting the cinema in the Uplands, walking along Swansea Bay, visiting a theatre where he used to perform, and frequenting Swansea’s pubs. He especially patronised those in the Mumbles area such the Antelope Hotel and the Mermaid Hotel. A short walk from the local newspaper where he worked was the Kardomah Café in Castle Street, central Swansea. At the cafe he met with various artist contemporaries, such as his good friend and poet Vernon Watkins. These writers, musicians, and artists became known as ‘The Kardomah Gang’. In 1932, Thomas embarked on what would be one of his various visits to London.
In February 1941, Swansea was bombed by the German Luftwaffe in a “three nights’ blitz”. Castle Street was just one of the many streets in Swansea that suffered badly; the rows of shops, including the ‘Kardomah Café’, were destroyed. Thomas later wrote about this in his radio play Return Journey Home, in which he describes the café as being “razed to the snow”. Return Journey Home was first broadcast on 15 June 1947, having been written soon after the bombing raids. Thomas walked through the bombed-out shell of the town centre with his friend Bert Trick. Upset at the sight, he concluded, “Our Swansea is dead”. The Kardomah Café later reopened on Portland street, not far from the original location.
It is often commented that Thomas was indulged like a child and he was, in fact, still a teenager when he published many of the poems he would become famous for: “And death shall have no dominion” “Before I Knocked” and “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”. He saw his work in The Listener in 1934 and caught the attention of two of the most senior poets of the day T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender. His highly acclaimed first poetry volume, 18 Poems, was published on 18 December 1934, and went on to win a contest run by The Sunday Referee, netting him new admirers from the London poetry world, including Edith Sitwell. His passionate musical lyricism caused a sensation in these years of desiccated Modernism; the critic Desmond Hawkins said it was “the sort of bomb that bursts no more than once in three years”. In all he wrote half of his poems while living at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive before he moved to London. It was also the time that Thomas’ reputation for heavy drinking developed.
In the spring of 1936, Dylan Thomas met the dancer Caitlin Macnamara in the Wheatsheaf pub, in the Fitzrovia area of London’s West End. They were introduced by Augustus John, who was Macnamara’s lover at the time (there were rumours that she continued her relationship with John after she married Thomas). A drunken Thomas proposed to Macnamara on the spot, and the two began a courtship. On 11 July 1937, Thomas married Macnamara in a registry office in Penzance, Cornwall. In 1938, the couple rented a cottage in the village of Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, West Wales. Their first child, Llewelyn Edouard, was born on 30 January 1939 (d. 2000). Their daughter, Aeronwy Thomas-Ellis, was born on 3 March 1943 (d. 2009). A second son, Colm Garan Hart, was born on 24 July 1949.
At the outset of the Second World War, Thomas was designated C3, which meant that although he could, in theory, be called up for service he would be in one of the last groups to be so. He was saddened to see his friends enter active service leaving him behind and drank whilst struggling to support his family. He wrote to the director of the films division of the Ministry of Information asking for employment but after a rebuff eventually ended up working for Strand Films. Strand produced films for the Ministry of Information and Thomas scripted at least five in 1942 with titles such as This Is Colour (about dye), New Towns For Old, These Are The Men and Our Country (a sentimental tour of Britain).
The publication of Deaths and Entrances in 1946 was a major turning point for Thomas. Critic W. J. Turner commented in The Spectator “This book alone, in my opinion, ranks him as a major poet”.Thomas was well known for being a versatile and dynamic speaker, best known for his poetry readings. His powerful voice would captivate American audiences during his speaking tours of the early 1950s and he made over 200 broadcasts for the BBC.
Often considered his greatest single work, Under Milk Wood, a radio play featuring the characters of Llareggub, is set in a fictional Welsh fishing village (‘Llareggub’ is ‘Bugger All’ backwards, implying that there is absolutely nothing to do there). The BBC credited their producer Stella Hillier with ensuring the play actually materialised. Assigned “some of the more wayward characters who were then writing for the BBC”, she dragged the notoriously unreliable Thomas out of the pub and back to her office to finish the work.The play took several years to write, the first half mostly in South Leigh, Oxford, in 1948, whilst the second half was mostly written in America in May 1953. Fewer than 300 lines were written in Laugharne, according to one account, which also explains the influence of New Quay on the play.Thomas performed Under Milk Wood solo for the first time on 3 May at Harvard during his early 1953 US tour, and then with a cast at the Poetry Centre in New York on 14 May. He worked on the play in England, and returned to the States in October, but died in New York on 5 November, before the BBC could record the play. Richard Burton starred in the first broadcast in 1954 and was joined by Elizabeth Taylor in a subsequent film.
Thomas arrived in New York on 20 October 1953, to take part in a performance of Under Milk Wood at the city’s prestigious Poetry Centre. He was already ill and had a history of blackouts and heart problems, using an inhaler in New York to help his breathing. Thomas had liked to boast of his addiction to drinking, saying “An alcoholic is someone you don’t like, who drinks as much as you do.” He “liked the taste of whisky” and had a powerful reputation for his drinking. The writer Elizabeth Hardwick recalled how intoxicating a performer he was and how the tension would build before a performance: “Would he arrive only to break down on the stage? Would some dismaying scene take place at the faculty party? Would he be offensive, violent, obscene? These were alarming and yet exciting possibilities.” His wife Caitlin said in her embittered memoir “Nobody ever needed encouragement less, and he was drowned in it.” Thomas “exhibited the excesses and experienced the adulation which would later be associated with rock stars,” however the amount he is supposed to have drunk in his lifetime and in New York before his death, may well have been exaggerated as Thomas became mythologised.
On 28 October, he took part in Poetry And The Film, a recorded symposium at Cinema 16, which included panellists Amos Vogel, Maya Deren, Parker Tyler, and Willard Maas. The director of the Poetry Centre, John Brinnin, was also Thomas’s tour agent. Brinnin didn’t travel to New York, remaining at home in Boston and handed responsibility to his assistant, Liz Reitell.Reitell met Thomas at Idlewild Airport (now JFK airport) and he told her that he had had a terrible week, had missed her terribly and wanted to go to bed with her. Despite Reitell’s previous misgivings about their relationship they spent the rest of the day and night together at the Chelsea Hotel. The next day she invited him to her apartment but he declined, saying that he was not feeling well and retired to his bed for the rest of the afternoon. After spending the night with him at the hotel Reitell went back to her own apartment for a change of clothes. At breakfast Herb Hannum noticed how sick Thomas looked and suggested a visit to a Dr. Feltenstein before the performance of Under Milk Wood that evening. The doctor went to work with his needle, and Thomas made it through the two performances of Under Milk Wood, but collapsed straight afterwards. Reitell would later describe Feltenstein as a wild doctor who believed injections could cure anything.
On the evening of 27 October 1953, Thomas’s 39th birthday, the poet attended a party in his honour but felt so unwell that he returned to his hotel. A turning point came on 2 November. Air pollution in New York had risen significantly and exacerbated chest illnesses, such as Thomas had. By the end of the month, over two hundred New Yorkers had died from the smog. On 3 November, Thomas returned to the Chelsea, after drinking at the White Horse Tavern, a favourite pub he’d found through Scottish poet Ruthven Todd. Thomas declared, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that is a record!” The barman and the owner of the pub who served Thomas at the time, later told Todd that Thomas couldn’t have imbibed more than half that amount. Thomas had an appointment to visit a clam house in New Jersey on 4 November. When phoned at the Chelsea that morning, he said that he was feeling awful and asked to take a rain-check. Later, he did go drinking with Reitell at the White Horse and, feeling sick again, returned to the hotel. Dr. Feltenstein came to see him three times that day, on the third call prescribing morphine, which seriously affected Thomas’s breathing. At midnight on 5 November, his breathing became more difficult and his face turned blue. Reitell unsuccessfully tried to get hold of Feltenstein. By 01:58 Thomas had been admitted to the emergency ward at nearby St Vincent’s hospital, by which time he was comatose. The duty doctors found bronchitis in all parts of his bronchial tree, both left and right sides. An X-ray showed pneumonia, and a raised white cell count confirmed the presence of an infection. The pneumonia worsened and Thomas died on 9 November.
The first rumours to circulate were of a brain haemorrhage, followed by reports that he had been mugged and soon stories began to fly that he had drunk himself to death. Later, there were speculations about drugs and diabetes. At the post-mortem, the pathologist found that the immediate cause of death was swelling of the brain, caused by the pneumonia reducing the supply of oxygen. Despite his heavy drinking his liver showed little sign of cirrhosis. His biographer Lycett, ascribed the demise of Dylan’s health to an alcoholic co-dependent relationship with his wife Caitlin, who deeply resented his affairs. In Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas?, David N Thomas refutes the idea that alcoholism contributed to the poet’s death. The book suggests Dylan Thomas was the victim of Dr. Feltenstein who administered morphine for delirium tremens, when Thomas in fact had pneumonia. He also suggests that Feltenstein covered his tracks by pressuring other doctors to agree that it was an alcohol-related death. He points to John Brinnin’s culpability, as Thomas’s agent, and suggests Brinnin neglected his duty of care. Caitlin Thomas’s two searing autobiographies –Double Drink Story: My life with Dylan and Caitlin Thomas – Leftover Life to Kill – both describe the highly destructive effect of alcoholism to the poet and to their relationship. “Ours was not only a love story, it was also a drink story”, she writes. “The bar was our altar”.
Following his death, his body was brought back to Wales for his burial in the village churchyard at Laugharne on 25 November. One of the last people to stay at his graveside after the funeral was his mother, Florence. Thomas’s obituary was written by his long-time friend and Welsh poet Vernon Watkins. His wife, Caitlin, died in 1994 and was buried alongside him.
Thomas’s verbal style played against strict verse forms, such as in the villanelle Do not go gentle into that good night. His images were carefully ordered in a patterned sequence, and his major theme was the unity of all life, the continuing process of life and death and new life that linked the generations. Thomas saw biology as a magical transformation producing unity out of diversity, and in his poetry he sought a poetic ritual to celebrate this unity. He saw men and women locked in cycles of growth, love, procreation, new growth, death, and new life again. Therefore, each image engenders its opposite. Thomas derived his closely woven, sometimes self-contradictory images from the Bible, Welsh folklore and preaching, and Freud.Thomas’s poetry is notable for its musicality, most clear in poems such as Fern Hill, In Country Sleep, Ballad of the Long-legged Bait or In the White Giant’s Thigh from Under Milkwood:
Who once were a bloom of wayside brides in the hawed house
and heard the lewd, wooed field flow to the coming frost,
the scurrying, furred small friars squeal in the dowse
of day, in the thistle aisles, till the white owl crossed
Thomas once confided that the poems which had most influenced him were Mother Goose rhymes which his parents taught him when he was a child:
I should say I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words. The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes and before I could read them for myself I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance. […] I fell in love, that is the only expression I can think of, at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behavior very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. And, when I began to read the nursery rhymes for myself, and, later, to read other verses and ballads, I knew that I had discovered the most important things, to me, that could be ever.
And Death Shall Have No Dominion
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead mean naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Through they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.
When I was a windy boy and a bit
And the black spit of the chapel fold,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of women),
I tiptoed shy in the gooseberry wood,
The rude owl cried like a tell-tale tit,
I skipped in a blush as the big girls rolled
Nine-pin down on donkey’s common,
And on seesaw sunday nights I wooed
Whoever I would with my wicked eyes,
The whole of the moon I could love and leave
All the green leaved little weddings’ wives
In the coal black bush and let them grieve.
When I was a gusty man and a half
And the black beast of the beetles’ pews
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of bitches),
Not a boy and a bit in the wick-
Dipping moon and drunk as a new dropped calf,
I whistled all night in the twisted flues,
Midwives grew in the midnight ditches,
And the sizzling sheets of the town cried, Quick!-
Whenever I dove in a breast high shoal,
Wherever I ramped in the clover quilts,
Whatsoever I did in the coal-
Black night, I left my quivering prints.
When I was a man you could call a man
And the black cross of the holy house,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of welcome),
Brandy and ripe in my bright, bass prime,
No springtailed tom in the red hot town
With every simmering woman his mouse
But a hillocky bull in the swelter
Of summer come in his great good time
To the sultry, biding herds, I said,
Oh, time enough when the blood runs cold,
And I lie down but to sleep in bed,
For my sulking, skulking, coal black soul!
When I was half the man I was
And serve me right as the preachers warn,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of downfall),
No flailing calf or cat in a flame
Or hickory bull in milky grass
But a black sheep with a crumpled horn,
At last the soul from its foul mousehole
Slunk pouting out when the limp time came;
And I gave my soul a blind, slashed eye,
Gristle and rind, and a roarers’ life,
And I shoved it into the coal black sky
To find a woman’s soul for a wife.
Now I am a man no more no more
And a black reward for a roaring life,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of strangers),
Tidy and cursed in my dove cooed room
I lie down thin and hear the good bells jaw–
For, oh, my soul found a sunday wife
In the coal black sky and she bore angels!
Harpies around me out of her womb!
Chastity prays for me, piety sings,
Innocence sweetens my last black breath,
Modesty hides my thighs in her wings,
And all the deadly virtues plague my death!
Love In the Asylum
A stranger has come
To share my room in the house not right in the head,
A girl mad as birds
Bolting the night of the door with her arm her plume.
Strait in the mazed bed
She deludes the heaven-proof house with entering clouds
Yet she deludes with walking the nightmarish room,
At large as the dead,
Or rides the imagined oceans of the male wards.
She has come possessed
Who admits the delusive light through the bouncing wall,
Possessed by the skies
She sleeps in the narrow trough yet she walks the dust
Yet raves at her will
On the madhouse boards worn thin by my walking tears.
And taken by light in her arms at long and dear last
I may without fail
Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars.
A Refusal to Mourn
1934 18 Poems
1936 Twenty-Five Poems
1939 The Map of Love
1943 New Poems
1946 Deaths and Entrances
1950 Twenty-Six Poems
1952 In Country Sleep
1952 Collected Poems, 1934–1952
1940 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Dent
1946 Selected Writings of Dylan Thomas, New Directions
1953 Adventures In The Skin Trade And Other Stories (Adventures In The Skin Trade, an unfinished novel). New Directions
1954 Quite Early One Morning (Planned by Thomas, posthumously published). New Directions
1955 A Child’s Christmas in Wales, New Directions
1955 A Prospect of the Sea and other stories and prose writings, Dent
1957 Letters to Vernon Watkins, Dent
1965 Rebecca’s Daughters, Triton
1954 Under Milk Wood (Radio play)
1953 The Doctor and the Devils and Other Scripts
1964 The Beach of Falesa (Screenplay)
Further reading: collections
1966 Dylan Thomas: a Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Charles B. Cox
1971 The Poems of Dylan Thomas W. W. Norton & Co
1982 Selected Works, Guild Publishing, London
1984 The Collected Stories of Dylan Thomas, New Directions Publishing
1986 Collected Letters. Edited by Paul Ferris. MacMillan
1992 On the Air With Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts, Ed. Ralph Maud New Directions Publishing
1994 Eight Stories, W. W. Norton & Co
1995 Dylan Thomas: The Complete Screenplays, Ed. John Ackerman. Applause Books
1997 Fern Hill: An Illustrated edition of the Dylan Thomas poem. Red Deer College Press, Canada
2000 Collected Poems 1934-1953, London: Phoenix
2000 Selected Poems London: Phoenix
Brinnin, J M Dylan Thomas in America: an intimate journal, 1957
Gilbar & Stewart Literary Santa Barbara 1998, pp. 248–252
Lycett, Andrew. Dylan Thomas: A new life, 2003
Thomas, Caitlin Leftover Life to Kill, 1957
Thomas, David N. Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas? David N. Thomas, Seren 2008
Thomas, David N. Dylan Remembered, Volume 2: 1935-1953, Seren 2004
Thomas, David N. Dylan Remembered, Volume 1: 1913- 1934, Seren 2003
Thomas, David N. The Dylan Thomas Murders, Seren 2002
Thomas, David N. Dylan Thomas: A Farm, Two Mansions and a Bungalow, Seren 2000
Dylan Thomas: Volume I — A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Five Poems (Caedmon TC 1002–1952)
Under Milk Wood (Caedmon TC 2005–1953)
Dylan Thomas: Volume II — Selections from the Writings of Dylan Thomas (Caedmon TC 1018–1954)
Dylan Thomas: Volume III — Selections from the Writings of Dylan Thomas (Caedmon TC 1043)
Dylan Thomas: Volume IV — Selections from the Writings of Dylan Thomas (Caedmon TC 1061)
Dylan Thomas: Quite early one morning and other memories (Caedmon TC 1132–1960)
Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood and other plays (Naxos Audiobooks NA288712 – 2008) (originally BBC – 1954)
Posthumous film adaptations
1972 Under Milk Wood, 1972, starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole
1987 A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Directed by Don McBrearty.
1992 Rebecca’s Daughters starring Peter O’Toole and Joely Richardson
2007 Dylan Thomas: A War Films Anthology (DDHE/IWM D23702 – 2006
1964: Dylan, a Broadway play by Sidney Michaels, starring Alec Guinness as Dylan Thomas.
1978: Dylan, film of Thomas’s final visit to America. Directed by Richard Lewis.
1990–91: Dylan Thomas: Return Journey, a one-man stage show featuring Bob Kingdom as Thomas and directed by Anthony Hopkins.
2008: The Edge of Love starring Matthew Rhys as the poet, directed by John Maybury, written by Sharman Macdonald.
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