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by Bamber Gascoigne

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)


Welsh poet and prose writer whose works are known for musical quality of the language, comic or visionary scenes and sensual images. Dylan Thomas died in the United States on a tour on November 9, 1953. His death resulted much from his alcoholism, which have gained mythic proportions. The Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea even serves pints of Dylan's smooth ale. 

"The hand that signet the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death."

(from 'The Hand That Signed the Paper', Twenty-Five Poems, J. M. Dent, 1944, p. 33)

Dylan Mariais Thomas was born in the seaport town Swansea, West Glamorgan. The "Marlais" was the name used by his great uncle, William Thomas, and the name of two Welsh rivers. His father, David John Thomas, was a confirmed atheist. He was the senior English master at Swansea Grammar School, where Thomas was educated. Florence Hannah Thomas (née Williams), his mother, was the daughter of  railway porter (later to become an inspector). Differing from her husband, she firmly believed in God.

Thomas' parents had a Welsh-speaking country background, but they adopted English language and culture. Although Thomas could not speak Welsh, he picked up the rhytms of the language, and started to write poetry while still at school. He received little formal education, but he was a voracious reader. "I read indiscriminately and all the time, with my eyes hanging out on stalks." (The Life of Dylan Thomas by Constantine FitzGibbon, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1965, p. 44) He devoured comics and detective stories alonbside Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Dickens, and other classics, which he found from his father's library. His own library included works by W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Edith Sitwell, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, among others. ('The Crucial Anthithesis: Orality/Literary Interaction in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas' by George P. Weck, in Time, Memory, and the Verbal Arts: Essays on the Thought of Walter Ong, edited by Dennis L. Weeks and Jane Susan Hoogestraat, 1998, p. 223)

When Thomas was twelve, his poem was published in the Western Mail. Actually the work was copied from the Boy's Own Paper. Other verse, original without any doubts, he wrote for the Grammar School magazine. Ignoring his father's advice to attend university, he left his studies and worked as a trainee newspaper reporter on the South Wales Evening Post. The dreamlike and imaginative 18 Poems (1934), his first book, tmarked the appearance of an energetic new voice in English literature. Thomas wrote the poems when he was nineteen and twenty years old. In 'I see the boys of summer' Thomas identifies himself with doomed Welshmen: "Awake, my sleeper, to the sun, / A worker in the morning town, / And leave the poppied pickthank where he lies; / The fences of the light are down, / All but the briskest riders thrown, / And worlds hang on the trees."  (Collected Poems 1934-1953, edited by Walford Davies and Ralph Maud, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1989, p. 10)

After establishing his reputation with Twenty-five Poems (1936), Thomas moved to London where he worked as a broadcaster, prose writer, poet, and lecturer. With the writer Pamela Hansford Johnson, he started correspondence and a love affair. "Drinking was, for him, one of the great romantic necessities of the poets image: he fantasticated his drinking," she wrote in her book of memoir. "Later, tragically, the fantasy became the reality. The other two necessities were, to become tubercular, and – extremely oddly – to get fat." (Important to Me: Personalia by Pamela Hansfor Johnson, 1974,  Macmillan, p. 142) Pamela Hansford Johnson's second husband was the novelist and scientist C.P. Snow, perhaps best know as the author of The Two Cultures (1959).

In 1937 Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara, whom he called in a letter "Betty Boop". For a while the couple settled at Laugharne in Wales, returning there permanently after many wanderings in 1949. The marriage was stormy; Thomas was a natural bohemian and eventually Caitlin became tired in his frecklessness. Thomas' earnings were irregular, all the money he had just melted away, and he had to borrow from his friends.

By the end of the 1930s, Thomas had gained fame in the literary circles, but he also suffered from depression and was afraid of losing inspiration. He became later a highly public figure due to his radio work and readings. Thomas' romantic, rhetorical style won a large following. Some writers, among them Philip Larkin, rejected his work as too subjective.

Unfit for active service, Thomas worked during World War II as a documentary film script writer. With Alan Osbiston he directed the documentary These Are The Men (1943), an attack on the Nazi leaders, which used shots from Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will (1935). Sporadically Thomas was employed by the BBC, where his striking, melodic voice made him a media star.

After the German planes had firebombed London, Thomas composed 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'): "Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter, / Robed in the long friends, / The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother, / Secret by the unmourning water / Of the riding Thames. / After the first death, there is no other." (Collected Poems 1934-1953, p. 88) In the 1940s Thomas wrote some of his best works. To Laurence Pollinger, who was standing in for his regular agent, David Higham, he assured that his publishers would see a short novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, "quite soon". However, he was still working on the book in 1953.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) was a collection of largely autobiographical short stories, paying homage to James Joyce. Thomas worked on the book while staying with Richard Hughes at Castle House in Laugharne. Although Dylan published only one collection of stories, he considered himself both a poet and prose writer.

Deaths and Entrances (1946) drew from religious imagery and took its subjects among others from the bombing of London, or from the loss of childhood world as in the poem 'Fern Hill'. Another pastoral ode from the same collection, 'Poems in October', expressed Thomas's nostalgia for lost youth: "It was my thirtieth / Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon / though the town below lay leaved with October blood. / O may my heart's truth / Still be sung / On this high hill in a year's turning." (Collected Poems 1934-1953, p. 88)  At the peak of his career, Thomas complained that he had once been happy and unknown and that he was now miserable and acclaimed.

In 1947, when Thomas contributed to more than 50 features for the BBC, he suffered a mental breakdown, and moved to Oxford. He returned to Wales in 1949 and made his first American tour next year, mostly because of financial pressures. In 1950, 1952, and 1953 Thomas continued his popular reading tours on American college campuses, managing to hide that he did not like reading his own work, but unable to resist the temptation to live up to his own reputation for being wild and drunken. Before a reading at Pomona College, Claremont, he lost his books and notes. In New York, he spent a lot of time at the Chelsea Hotel Bar.

The tours were financially profitable and Thomas met such celebrities as Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin. At Chaplin's, he was seen urinating on a plant. Thomas died at St. Vincent's Hospital, after spending four days in a coma. According to a story, he had boasted to his American girlfriend, Liz Reitell, that he had drunk 18 straight whiskies in a bar in Manhattan. At the hospital a doctor had given him various drugs and an injection of morphine. The actual cause of death was never fully ascertained. In spite of Thomas's heavy drinking, the autopsy revealed that he did not suffer from serious cirrhosis of the liver. Caitlin Macnamara Thomas died in 1994.

His last four years Thomas spent at the Boat House in Laugharne, where he later was buried. The cottage was purchased for the family by Margaret Taylor, the wife of the historian A.J.P. Taylor. Shortly before his death in New York, Thomas took part in a reading of what was to be his most famous single work. Under Milk Wood (1954) was a return to the Welsh landscape, and a celebration of domestic life and dreams of ordinary people. It was published posthumously as his reminiscence A Child's Christmas in Wales  (1955). The name of fictional village of Llareggub in Under the Milkwood was thought to be authentically Welsh, until someone spelled it backward: "A bugger in England is a sodomite and to bugger is to sodomize—in fact, use of the word in print was actionable in England for many years." (The Wordsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, 1997, p. 281)

His Notebooks, edited by Ralph Maud, came out in 1968. A new edition of The Poems of Dylan Thomas (1971) included personal comments by his friend and early collaborator, the composer Daniel Jones. The musician John Cale has set several of Thomas's poems to music. "As to the Thomas heritage industry: ouch!" Cale has said. ('Dylan & me', Independent, 09 November 2003)

Thomas' poetry is marked by vivid metaphors, the use of Christian and Freudian imagery, and celebration of the mystical power of growth and death. "My poetry," Thomas stated in the magazine New Verse in 1934, "is the record of my individual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light, and what of the individual struggle is still to come benefits by the sight and knowledge of the faults and fewer more merits in that concrete record." ('The Crucial Anthithesis: Orality/Literary Interaction in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas' by George P. Weck, in Time, Memory, and the Verbal Arts: Essays on the Thought of Walter Ong, edited by Dennis L. Weeks and Jane Susan Hoogestraat, 1998, p. 235) The poems appear to be freely flowing, but Thomas' work sheets reveal much work behind the mixture of the vernacular and literary. To Pamela Hansford Johnson he once said in the 1930s, that he wrote at the rate of two lines an hour. Among his best-known individual poems are 'And death shall have no dominion,' 'Altarwise by owllight' (a sonnet sequence), 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,' 'Do not go gentle into that good night,' 'In My Craft and Sullen Art,' and 'Fern Hill', in which his own role and gift as a poet Thomas paralleled with the forces of nature: "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, / Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea." (Collected Poems 1934-1953, p. 135)

Thomas' roman à clef, Adventures in the Skin Trade (1955), was left unfinished. The radio play Under the Milk Wood portrayed a small Welsh coastal town and was adapted to screen 1971 starring Richard Burton and Elizabet Taylor. His own film scripts concerned less personal subjects. No Room at the Inn (1948), directed by Daniel Birt and scripted by Thomas and Ivan Foxwell, was adapted from a stage play by Joan Temple. 

The Doctor and the Devils (1953), a screenplay from a story by Donald Taylor, examined the theme of "the ends justify the means". In the story, set in the late eighteenth century Edinburgh, a surgeon starts to pay for bodies, which he uses as cadavers for dissection. The trial of the murderers William Burke and William Hare touched foundations of the whole society: "SECOND PROFESSOR: . . . and if a member of the royal family is accused of a commoner's crime, then it is the whole family that is accused. An elaborate smile - but you see my point?" (Ibid., Dent, 1985, p. 113)

The name of historical Dr. Know, originally called "William Salter" in the script, was changed into "Thomas Rock". "I know the expense wd be considerable; but the script wd, in my opinion, gain enormously in strenght & distinction just from that alteration. I do think it important." (The Film Scripts of Dylan Thomas by Christopher Mark Williams, University of Liverpool, thesis, 1997, p. 63) Reviews of the film were not positive: ". . . the film, a drama about grave robbers in 18th-century England, apparently isn't quite as twisted as its original author intended . . . Thomas' script, says one who worked on the production, "was pretty sick stuff."" (The Washington Post, September 18, 1985) According to the review, the producer Mel Brooks was said to have polished the script. 

After Thomas' death, the rights of The Beach of Falesá (1963), a murder story set in the South Pacific, were bought by the actor Richard Burton. He enlisted Christopher Isherwood to work on it but the script never reached the screen. It has been claimed that the famous American famous songwriter and musician Bob Dylan, who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, named himself after the Welsh poet, but Dylan himself has told Playboy in 1978 that "I haven't read that much of Dylan Thomas. It's a common thing to change your name. It isn't that incredible. . . . I wouldn't pick a name unless I thought I was that person. . . . I just chose that name and it stuck." (Interview with Ron Rosenbaum, Playboy, March 1978, in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott, 2017, p. 221)

For further reading: Dylan Thomas: "Dog Among the Fairies" by Henry Treece (1949); The Poetry of Dylan Thomas by Elder Olson (1954); Dylan Thomas: A Literary Study by Derek Stanford (1954); Dylan Thomas in America by John Malcolm Brinnin (1955); A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas by William York Tindall (1962); The Life of Dylan Thomas by Constantine FitzGibbon (1965); Dylan Thomas' Early Prose: A Study in Creative Mythology by Annis Pratt (1970); Saga of Prayer by Robert K. Burdette (1972); Dylan Thomas by Paul Ferris (1977); The Oxford Companion to Literature of Wales by Meic Stephens (1986); Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work by John Ackerman (1996); A Reference Companion to Dylan Thomas by James A. Davies (1998); Dylan Thomas' Wales by Hilary Laurie (1999); Dylan Thomas: An Original Language by Barbara Nathan Hardy (2000); Dylan Thomas: A New Life by Andrew Lycewtt (2004). See also: Amos Tutuola, whose novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard required the support of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas to secure its publication in Britain. Other Welsh writers: Roald Dahl (1916-1990), Rhys Davies (1901-1978), Dick Francis (1920-2010), Erik Linklater (1899-1974), Richard Llewellyn (1907-1983), John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), Kate Roberts (1891-1985), Howard Spring (1889-1965), Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981),  R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). Suom.: Marja-Leena Mikkola suomentanut Dylan Thomasin runoja teoksessa Rakkaus on viimeinen valo josta puhutaan (1990). Palava lapsi: valitut novellit, suomenranut Mika Korhonen (2024). Rakkauden ensi kuumeesta: valitut runot, suomentanut Mika Korhonen (2024).

Selected works:

  • 18 Poems, 1934
  • Twenty-Five Poems, 1935
  • The Map of Love: Verse and Prose, 1939
  • The World I Breathe, 1939
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, 1940
    - Taiteilijan omakuva penikkavuosilta (suom. Veli Sandell, 1963) / Taiteilijan omakuva nuoruuden koiravuosilta: valitut kertomukset (suom. Ville-Juhani Sutinen, 2024)
  • New Poems, 1943
  • Deaths and Entrances, 1946 (introduction by John L. Sweeney)
  • Selected Writings of Dylan Thomas, 1946
  • Twenty-Six Poems, 1950
  • Collected Poems, 1934–1952, 1952
  • In Country Sleep, and Other Poems, 1952
  • The Doctor and the Devils, 1953 (film script, from the story by Donald Taylor)
    - Film 1985, prod. Brooksfilms, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. by Freddie Francis, screenplay Dylan Thomas, Ronald Harwood, starring Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Twiggy, Julian Sands. 
  • Quite Early One Morning, 1954 (radio essays)
  • Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, 1954
    - Maitometsä (suom. Anselm Hollo, 1992)
    - Films: TV film 1957, prod. BBC, dir. David J. Thomas, starring  Doland Hurston, Gareth Jones, William Squire; TV drama, 1964, in TV series Festival, starring Donald Houston and Darryl Read; 1971, prod. Timon Productions, dir. by Andrew Sinclair, starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O'Toole. "Oh, isn't life a terrible thing, thank God?"; TV movie, 1992, prod. Siriol Animation Ltd., dir. Les Orton, starring Richard Burton, Philip Burton and Meredith Edwards; Hotel Chelsea, 2001, based on Under Milk Wood and Lament, prod. Chelsea Walls Inc., IFC Productions, InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment), dir. Ethan Hawke, screenplay Nocole Burdette, starring Paz de la Huerta, Vincent D'Onofrio, Bianca Hunter, Kevin Corrigan, Rosario Dawson
  • A Prospect of the Sea, 1955
    - film: The Mouse and the Woman, 1980, prod. Alvicar, dir. Karl Francis, starring Peter Sproule, Joffre Swales, Basil Painting, Bob Mason, Karen Allen
  • A Child's Christmas in Wales, 1955
    - TV film 1987, prod. Atlantis Films, Cypress Films (I), Harlech Television (HTV), dir. Don McBrearty, adaptation Jon Glascoe, starring Denholm Elliott, Mathonwy Reeves and Glynis Davies
  • Adventures In The Skin Trade And Other Stories, 1955
  • Letters to Vernon Watkins, 1957 (edited with an introd. by Vernon Watkins)
  • The Beach of Falesá, 1963 (screenplay, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson; radio play, BBC Radio 3, May 2014)
  • Miscellany: Poems, Stories, Broadcasts, 1963
  • The Colour of Saying, an Anthology of Verse Spoken by Dylan Thomas , 1963
  • Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas, 1963
  • A Film Script of Twenty Years A-growing: From the Story by Maurice O'Sullivan, 1964
  • Rebecca's Daughters, 1965
    - film 1992, prod. Rebecca's Daughters Ltd., dir. Karl Francis, starring Peter O'Toole, Paul Rhys, Joely Richardson, Dafydd Hywel  
  • Me and My Bike, 1965 (unfinished film script; foreword by Sydney Box. illustrated by Leonora Box)
  • Selected Letters, 1966 (edited by Constantine Fitzgibbon)
  • Miscellany Two: a Visit to Grandpa's and Other Stories and Poems, 1966
  • Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas, 1968 (edited by Ralph Maud)
  • The Year of Love, 1969
  • Twelve More Letters, 1970
  • Dylan Thomas: The Poems, 1971 (UK title; edited with an introduction and notes by Daniel Jones)
  • Dylan Thomas: Early Prose Writings, 1971 (edited by Walford Davies)
  • Living and Writing: Dylan Thomas, 1972 (edited by Christopher Copeman)
  • Selected Poems, 1975 (edited with an introduction and notes by Walford Davies)
  • The Death of the King's Canary, 1976 (with John Davenport)
  • Miscellany Three: Poems and Stories, 1978
  • The Collected Stories, 1980 (illustrated by Paul Hogarth)
  • The Collected Letters, 1985 (edited by Paul Ferris)
  • Collected Poems, 1934-1953 (edited by Walford Davies and Ralph Maud)
  • On the Air with Dylan Thomas: the Broadcasts, 1992 (edited by Ralph Maud)
  • Dylan Thomas - The Filmscripts, 1995 (edited by John Ackerman)
  • The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas, 2001
  • The Collected poems of Dylan Thomas, 2010 (introduction by Paul Muldoon)
  • A Pearl of Great Price: the Love Letters of Dylan Thomas to Pearl Kazin, 2014 (edited and introduced by Jeff Towns; afterword by David Bell)
  • The Complete Poems of Dylan Thomas: the New Centenary Edition, 2014 (edited by John Goodby)
  • The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, 2014 (edited and annotated by John Goodby)
  • Under Milk Wood, 2019 (publisher: New Directions)
  • The Fifth Notebook of Dylan Thomas: Annotated Manuscript Edition, 2020 (by Dylan Thomas, John Goodby, Adrian Osbourne)
  • Collected Stories, 2023 (publisher: New Directions)
  • Collected Poems 1934-1952, 2024 (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

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