THE LIFE AND WORK OF DYLAN THOMAS
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"A bombastic adolescent bohemian... "

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, in Wales on October 27, 1914. He is widely regarded as one of the Twentieth Century's most influential lyrical poets, and amongst the finest as such of all time. His acclaim is partly due to his hallmark of idiosyncratic and surreal introspection, partly by his startling imagery that is brilliant and inspirational. Although Thomas was primarily a poet, he also published short stories, film scripts, publicly performed his works and conducted radio broadcasts. His most renowned work, Under Milk Wood - set in the fictional Welsh seaside village LLareggub, was a radio play for voices which contained a poetic sensibility. His most famous poem is arguably Do not go gentle into that good night - containing the line, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" - an impassioned account of the scene which haunted him at his father's deathbed. The structure of the poem is a classic villanelle, a 19-line poem of fixed form consisting of five tercets and a final quatrain on two rhymes, with the first and third lines of the first tercet repeated alternately as a refrain closing the succeeding stanzas and joined as the final couplet of the quatrain. Thomas further compounds the complexity of structure by having each line contain 10 syllables.
Written for Thomas's dying father, who had been ill for many years, it radiates with intensity and is poignant in the emotional weight the words convey, breathing sadness that comes with the flash of burning life soon blown out with nothing more than a sigh. Imagery, sound, metrics, and tone, are used by Thomas to create the repetitive theme of living and fury, especially through the most forceful two lines, "Do not go gentle into that good night," and "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Thomas's childhood was a happy one, of which he spoke nostalgically in the renowned short stories A Child's Christmas in Wales and A Visit to Grandpa's, and his poem Fern Hill, in which he recalled magical holidays to his father's birthplace, Fernhill farm. His window view provided a splendid panorama of Swansea Bay, a scene which no doubt influenced his early poems of place. He was early steeped in Welsh lore and poetry, and in the bible, all of which left their mark on his rich imagery and driving rhythms. Religion figures largely in his work, but it would be a mistake to assume that his God is the merciful being of the New Testament, or even the stern deity of the Old. In his writings the dark presence of primeval gods often takes a prominent place; the pagan gods of the Celts who were cruel, violent, and savage in their retribution. Certainly, there is little promise of future salvation in his work. Death is inimical, inevitable. He wrote, in an introduction to one of his books of verse, that his poems were written to the glory of God - but we must never visualize his God as the one with which we are familiar.

The boy who later became the most famous poet of Wales was the product of two directly opposed natures and cultures. Despite early maternal guidance, Dylan was influenced most strongly by his irascible father, who refused to have Welsh even spoken in the house. David John Thomas was steeped in the diverse and poetic language of Shakespeare, which he often recited to his son. These sonorous recitations undoubtedly had a lasting effect on Dylan. Long before he began writing, he fell in love with words - powerful, vigorous, and beautiful in their manifold meanings. From the beginning, there was not much doubt about Dylan's future career; he decided he was going to be a writer at a young age. His father's constant efforts to involve Dylan in English literature, at the highest level, were bound to bear fruit. The only subject in which Dylan was interested, and indeed the only one at which he excelled, was English. This was despite the fact that both his given names were Welsh. "Dylan" came from the Mabinogion, a collection of old Welsh myths. His second name, "Marlais," was the name of a river, but Dylan, always eager to self-dramatize, said it meant "prince of darkness." Be that as it may, both "Dylan" and "Marlais" were pre-Christian names. According to Andrew Sinclair both had to do with the mystery of water, the big seas and the rivers of dreams that were to haunt Dylan's imaginings.

It was in the family house on steep Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea's Uplands that Thomas spent his cosseted infant years, leaving it only to explore leafy Cwmdonkin Park and to attend a private school in nearby Mirador Crescent. It was in this house, too, that Thomas penned several hundred poems, and though some of the poems he wrote between the ages of 14 and 19 are full of affectation and rather derivative, it was, without a doubt, the most prolific writing period of his life. Thomas attended The Swansea Grammar School, where his father was senior English Master, and he both published poems in, and edited, the school magazine. In all other subject areas, however, he was unmotivated: he failed the Central Welsh Board exam and left school at the age of sixteen, starting work as a junior reporter for The South Wales Daily Post.

His life in Swansea was a self indulgent one - he would take coffee with his artistic pals at the Kardoma Cafe, idled in the sands of Swansea Bay, went to the movies at the Uplands Cinema, watched cricket at St Helen's rugby and cricket stadium, and spent long hours in the pubs in Mumbles. It is said that Thomas was attracted by Swansea's old docklands, on the less fashionable side of town, for the opportunity to indulge in sexual sin, rather than for the journalistic copy he should have been more industriously preoccupied with. He became an enthusiastic member, too, of the Little Theatre Company, appearing in several of the plays staged by this amateur group which, at the time, was also based in Mumbles. There can be little doubt that it was during his Daily Post and Little Theatre Company days that Thomas, too, was initiated into the hard drinking habits which impaired and ultimately curtailed his writing career. What began as an urge to prove his 'manliness' in the beer-fuelled culture of South Wales, gradually developed into something he could no longer control.

In March 1933 history was made by the New English Weekly, a poetry publication, which became the first to print one of Thomas's works, And death shall have no dominion. They are words that echo scripture; though he pictures the power of death with consummate skill, in its title the poem has a clear reference to the New Testament (Romans 6: 9), which was one of Dylan Thomas's main sources of metaphor. The assertive optimism of the poem can easily be brought into connection with the traditions of evangelical hymns and it seems, that it is this optimism Dylan Thomas is trying to impose on the reader, and, perhaps on himself as well. What draws most attention is the constancy of hope coming from the notion that everything is cyclical: though the individuals perish, 'they shall rise again', and, though loves are lost, love itself continues. The tone of this poem is quite sermon-like, and its atmosphere is rather Christian. Still, its central theme is not religion, nor religious beliefs about death, but the relationship between man and nature, powerfully framed in only 3 stanzas, repetitive and insistent at the beginning and the end, yet full of rich and vivid imagery in between.

By 1934, Thomas was starting to publish his work in poetry magazines but hoped to achieve a literary reputation outside of Wales and avoid being regarded as a provincial poet. In order to further his career, he moved to London to share a flat with two Swansea artist friends. In London, Dylan quickly secured the publishing deals he craved: his first book Eighteen Poems, subjective and sensuous, was published on December 18, 1934, and he achieved immediate acclaim. Two years later, in 1936, his second volume, Twenty-Five Poems, followed, which established his reputation as a poet. Also in 1936, Dylan Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara, who was then the lover of Augustus John - one of the Swansea painters Dylan shared his London flat with. They married in 1937 with no money and few prospects. Initially, they lived in London but Dylan hated the literary life of the capital and was a grotesque misfit there: an impecunious Welsh writer, badly dressed, often drunk, and always trying to borrow money to pay his bills. Though his work was published, it was impossible to live on the proceeds of writing poetry. In 1939 their first son, Llewellyn, was born.

By the end of the 1930s Thomas had gained much fame in literary circles. Although his poems appeared freely flowing and visionary, his work sheets reveal him as an impassioned, even obsessional, craftsman. His romantic, rhetorical style won a large following. Yet, arising from financial necessity, the poet's creative pursuits diversified - there was much money to be made from broadcasting, which he conducted from the BBC Wales Swansea studios in Alexandra Road and from London, between 1937 and his death in 1953.

In the 1940s Thomas wrote some of his best works. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) was a collection of largely autobiographical sketches, paying homage to James Joyce. Adventures in the Skin Trade (published posthumously in 1955) is a collection of fiction with powerful inheritance of Welsh mythology and wild imagination. Deaths and Entrances (1946), an other volume of poetry, used religious imagery and took its subjects among others from the bombing of London during WW II (A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London), or from the loss of childhood world (Fern Hill). G.W. Stonier observed: "Three at least of the poems in this volume must be placed among the outstanding poems written in our time, and there are half a dozen others on a hardly inferior level."

In 1948, fourteen years after he had left Swansea, Thomas insisted that he could only write poetry in Wales and returned to the country of his birth, possibly because it was his greatest source of poetic inspiration and it was during return visits there that his writing had been most productive. He temporarily managed to ease his almost constant financial problems due to the support of Margaret Taylor, a wealthy woman and lover of the arts, who took on the role of his patron. With her help Thomas settled in the pretty village of Laugharne, near the castle and overlooking the expansive estuary of the River Taf, which reunited the author with treasured boyhood memories. Margaret Taylor bought The Boat House for him in 1949, built against the side of a cliff which leads out into Carmarthen Bay.

Thomas worked in a wooden cabin further up the cliff path and judging by the poems he managed to complete during the four years he lived in Laugharne, this place, with its inspiring views, provided the perfect working environment for him. As he wrote in an essay: "A poet must have a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down." The Boat House at Laugharne represented for him the last refuge of life and sanity in a nightmare world. Here, in what he affectionately called, "the romantic, dirty summerhouse," he wrote some of his most memorable poems. Every morning, in the isolation of his cabin, Dylan worked at his poems, striving for an elusive perfection. He would make as many as 500 alterations in a single poem, copying out the entire poem after each alteration, so that he could see his word sculpture taking shape before his eyes. He was a craftsman par excellence. Few poets have labored so mightily or sacrificed so much for their work - that "sullen art," as he called it. Self-indulgence and sacrifice: those contradictory terms describe him accurately, for no one ever drank harder or worked harder than he did.

His Laugharne days were punctuated by bitter arguments with Caitlin and regular drinking sessions at Brown's Hotel in the centre of the village. Their relationship, though passionate, was sometimes tempestuous, partly due to Thomas's philandering and habitual drinking, partly due to his absence, and in no small part to their periods of poverty.
In Laugharne he also continued work on Under Milk Wood, which had, at that time, the working title of The Town That Was Mad. This masterpiece took long to come to maturity. The invertible 'Llareggub', as a place name, already occurs in a story called The Orchards published in 1936. Also his short story Quite Early One Morning, published in 1940, uses lines and characters that later appear in Under Milk Wood. Since the early 1940s Thomas occasionally worked on drafts for his 'play for voices', and in 1943 he outlined it to his friend Richard Hughes, another writer who also lived in Laugharne. By the autumn of 1951, he had conceived of the play's overall structure - that of twenty-four hours in the life of a fictional Welsh seaside village, loosely based on Laugharne which he thought 'the strangest town in Wales', exploring the lives, loves, dreams and aspirations of its inhabitants - but was consistently failing to finish it.

Again, due to financial necessity, Dylan undertook the first of three lecture tours featuring his writing to the U.S., which became legendary. It was during this period he achieved enormous international acclaim, not only for his work, but for his charismatic public performances. In May 1953, the writer first performed Under Milk Wood. Although unfinished at that time, the outstanding evocative quality of his 'play for voices' gave him the greatest success of his career and earned him deserved fame.

Abruptly, Thomas collapsed in New York from exhaustion and excessive drinking while on his third tour in the U.S. in 1953. Shortly after his collapse he slid into a coma, and died on November 9 in St. Vincent's Hospital, New York, consumed by alcoholic poisoning and an injection of morphine. He was aged 39. The poet's body was brought home to Wales, and a simple white cross marks his grave in St. Martin's Cemetery in his beloved Laugharne. The Wales which had offered him such inspiration, but from which he had also, at times, felt the need to escape, finally claimed him. A white cross marks his grave: a surprisingly simple tribute to a poet who lived an undeniably colorful life.



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The Life And Work Of Dylan Thomas written, designed, and copyright (except where otherwise noted) © by Willem Jonkman. All rights reserved. Contact: editor@undermilkwood.net

Copyright for the works of Dylan Thomas on this site © 1937, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1971, 1977 The Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. Copyright for the recording of Under Milk Wood used on this site, © 1963, 1995 BBC Worldwide Ltd. Most works on this site are read by the author, using embedded audio-files which require Adobe Flash Player. Listening is best experienced using a broadband connection (DSL, cable, T1) in order to enjoy seamless play of this site's audio features.

Acknowledgements: Constantine FitzGibbon, The Life Of Dylan Thomas © 1965; Annis Pratt, Dylan Thomas' Early Prose: A Study In Creative Mythology © 1970; Andrew Sinclair, Dylan Thomas © 1975; Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas - A Biography © 1977; John Ackerman, Welsh Dylan © 1979; Susan Richardson, The Legacy Of Dylan Thomas In Wales © 2000; Joan Gooding, Britain's Last Romantic Poet: Dylan Thomas © 2000.