The British poet Dylan Marlais Thomas (1914-1953) has been acclaimed as one of the most important poets of the century. His lyrics rank among the most powerful and captivating of modern poetry.
Dylan Thomas was born in the Welsh seaport of Swansea, Carmarthenshire, on Oct. 27, 1914. His father was an English teacher and a would-be poet, from whom Dylan inherited his intellect and literary abilities. From his mother, a simple and religious woman, Dylan inherited his disposition, temperament, and Celtic sentimentality. He attended the Swansea Grammar School, where he received all of his formal education. As a student, he made contributions to the school magazine and was keenly interested in local folklore. He said that as a boy he was "small, thin, indecisively active, quick to get dirty, curly."
After leaving school Thomas supported himself as an actor, reporter, reviewer, and scriptwriter and with various odd jobs. When he was 22 years old, he married Caitlin Macnamara, by whom he had two sons, Llewelyn and Colm, and a daughter, Aeron. After his marriage, Thomas moved to the fishing village of Laugharne, Carmarthenshire.
The need to support his growing family forced Thomas to write radio scripts for the Ministry of Information and documentaries for the British government. During World War II he served as an antiaircraft gunner. After the war he became a commentator on poetry for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In 1950 Thomas made the first of three lecture tours through the United States—the others were in 1952 and 1953—in which he gave more than 100 poetry readings. In these recitals he half declaimed, half sang the lines in his "Welsh singing" voice. Many critics have attested to the rolling vigor of his voice, its melodic subtlety, and its almost hypnotic power of incantation.
The English poet Edith Sitwell described Thomas as follows: "He was not tall, but was extremely broad, and gave an impression of extraordinary strength, sturdiness, and superabundant life. (His reddish-amber curls, strong as the curls on the brow of a young bull, his proud, but not despising, bearing, emphasized this.) Mr. Augustus John's portrait of him is beautiful but gives him a cherubic aspect, which though pleasing, does not convey … Dylan's look of archangelic power. In full face he looked much as William Blake must have looked as a young man. He had full eyes— like those of Blake—giving him at first the impression of being unseeing, but seeing all, looking over immeasurable distances."
Thomas's poetic output was not large. He wrote only six poems in the last 6 years of his life. Dissipation and a grueling lecture schedule hindered his literary output in these years. His conviction that he would die young led him to create "instant Dylan"—the persona of the wild young Welsh bard, damned by drink and women, that he believed his public wanted. When he was 35 years old, he described himself as "old, small, dark, intelligent, and darting-doting-dotting eyed … balding and toothlessing." He had grown corpulent but retained his grace of movement.
During his visit to the United States in 1953, Thomas was scheduled to read his own and other poetry in some 40 university towns throughout the country. He also intended to work on the libretto of an opera for Igor Stravinsky in the latter's California home. Thomas celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday in New York City in a mood of gay exhilaration following the phenomenal success of his just-published Collected Poems. The festivities ended in collapse and illness, and on Nov. 9, 1953, he died in St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City. Some reports attribute his death to pneumonia induced by acute alcoholism, others to encephalopathy, a virulent brain disease. His body was returned to Laugharne, Wales, for burial.
Thomas published his first book of poetry, Eighteen Poems (1934), when he was not yet 20 years old. "The reeling excitement of a poetry-intoxicated schoolboy smote the Philistine as hard a blow with one small book as Swinburne had with Poems and Ballads, " wrote Kenneth Rexroth. Thomas's second and third volumes were Twenty-five Poems (1936) and The Map of Love (1939). The poems of his first three volumes were collected in The World I Breathe (1939).
By this time, Thomas was being hailed as the most spectacular of the surrealist poets. He acknowledged his debt to James Joyce and strewed his pages with invented words and fused puns. Thomas also acknowledged his debt to Sigmund Freud, stating: "Poetry is the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from an overclothed blindness to a naked vision…. Poetry must drag further into the clear nakedness of light more even of the hidden causes than Freud could realize."
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) is a collection of humorous autobiographical sketches. Thomas loved the wild landscape of Wales, and he put much of his childhood and youth into these stories. He published two more new collections of poetry, both of which contained some of his finest work: Deaths and Entrances (1946) and In Country Sleep (1951). Collected Poems, 1934-1953 (1953) contains all of his poetry that he wished to preserve.
Themes and Style
Thomas claimed that his poetry was "the record of my individual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light…. To be stripped of darkness is to be clean, to strip of darkness is to make clean." He also wrote that his poems "with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damned fool if they weren't." Passionate and intense, vivid and violent, Thomas wrote that he became a poet because "I had fallen in love with words." His sense of the richness and variety and flexibility of the English language shines through all of his work.
The theme of all of Thomas's poetry is the celebration of the divine purpose that he saw in all human and natural processes. The cycle of birth and flowering and death, of love and death, suffuses his poems. He celebrated life in the seas and fields and hills and towns of his native Wales. In some of his shorter poems, he sought to recapture a child's innocent vision of the world.
Thomas was passionately dedicated to his "sullen art, " and he was a competent, finished, and occasionally intricate craftsman. He made, for example, more than 200 versions of "Fern Hill" before he was satisfied with it. His early poems are relatively obscure and complex in sense and simple and obvious in auditory patterns. His later poems, on the other hand, are simple in sense but complex in sounds.
Under Milk Wood, a radio play commissioned by the BBC (published 1954), was Thomas's last completed work. This poem-play is not a drama but a pageant of eccentric, outrageous, and charming Welsh villagers. During the 24 hours presented in the play, the characters reminisce about the casual and crucial moments of their lives. Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories (1955) contains all the uncollected stories and shows the wit and humor that made Thomas an enchanting companion.
Further Reading on Dylan Marlais Thomas
Some of Thomas's correspondence is available in Selected Letters, edited with commentary by Constantine Fitzgibbon (1966). The authorized biography, written by a friend, is Fitzgibbon's The Life of Dylan Thomas (1965). Other important biographical works include John Malcolm Brinnin, Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal (1955), a candid and illuminating reminiscence; Caitlin Thomas, Leftover Life to Kill (1957); T. H. Jones, Dylan Thomas (1963); Bill Read, The Days of Dylan Thomas (1964), a compact, readable sketch useful as an introduction; and John Ackerman's comprehensive study, Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work (1964).
Among the most important critical studies are Derek Stanford, Dylan Thomas (1954; rev. ed. 1964); Elder Olson, The Poetry of Dylan Thomas (1954); John Malcolm Brinnin, ed., A Casebook on Dylan Thomas (1960); William York Tindall, A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas (1962); Clark Emery, The World of Dylan Thomas (1962); David Holbrook, Dylan Thomas and Poetic Dissociation (1964); C. B. Cox, ed., Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966); Aneirin Talfan Davies, Dylan: Druid of the Broken Body (1966); William T. Moynihan, The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas (1966); and Louise B. Murdy, Sound and Sense in Dylan Thomas's Poetry (1966).