Dylan Thomas

Dylan’s Grave. Photograph © Vivien

Dylan Thomas
Dylan Marlais Thomas (October 27, 1914 – November 9, 1953) was a Welsh poet and writer.Dylan Thomas was born in the coastal city of Swansea, Wales. His father David, who was a writer and possessed a degree in English, brought his son up to speak English rather than Thomas’s mother’s native language, Welsh. His middle name, “Marlais”, came from the bardic name of his uncle, the Unitarian minister Gwilym Marles (whose real name was William Thomas). Thomas was unable to actively fight in World War II because he was considered too frail, however he still served the war effort by writing scripts for government propaganda.Thomas attended the boys-only Swansea Grammar School, in the Mount Pleasant district of the city, where his father taught English Literature. It was in the school’s magazine that Thomas saw his first poem published. He left school at age 16 to become a reporter for a year and a half.

Thomas’ childhood was spent largely in Swansea, with regular summer trips to visit his mother’s family on their Carmarthen farm. These rural sojourns, and their contrast with the town life of Swansea, provided substance for much of his work, notably many short stories and radio essays and the poem Fern Hill.

Thomas wrote half his poems and many short stories when he lived at the family home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive; And death shall have no dominion is one of the best known works written at this address. His highly acclaimed first poetry volume, 18 Poems, was published in November 1934. The publication of Deaths and Entrances in 1946 was a major turning point in his career, with widespread recognition that a great poet had indeed emerged. Thomas “became a very successful orator…was extremely well-known during his life for being a versatile and dynamic speaker and he was best known for his poetry readings.” His immensely striking and powerful voice would captivate American audiences during his speaking tours of the early 1950s. He made over two hundred broadcasts for the BBC

Marriage & children
Dylan Thomas met his wife and “the love affair started in a Bloomsbury pub in the spring of 1936. A young Irish dancer called Caitlin Macnamara sat on a stool at the bar: blonde, blue-eyed and drinking gin. To the drunken Welsh poet who staggered towards her through the smokey fug of The Wheatsheaf, she appeared an angelic beauty. And when finally the poet reached her, eccentrically laying his head in her lap, he mumbled a proposal of marriage. This unorthodox first encounter between Dylan Thomas and his wife is a central part of the Bohemian mythology that surrounds the memory of one of Britain’s best loved creative talents.”

In 1937, Thomas married MacNamara and would have three children with her, although the marriage was tempestuous. There were affairs and rumours of affairs on both sides; Caitlin had an affair with Augustus John before, and quite possibly after, she married Thomas. In January of 1939 came the birth of their first child, a boy whom they named Llewelyn (died in 2000). He was followed in March of 1943 by a daughter, Aeronwy. A second son and third child, Colm Garan, was born in July 1949.

Drink and death
Thomas liked to boast about his drinking. He was known to comment, “An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” During an incident on November 3, 1953, Thomas returned to the Chelsea Hotel in New York and exclaimed “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies; I think this is a record.”

He collapsed on November 9, 1953 at the White Horse Tavern, in Greenwich Village, Manhattan after drinking heavily while on a promotional speaking tour; Thomas later died at St. Vincent’s Hospital. The primary cause of his death is recorded as pneumonia, with pressure on the brain and a fatty liver given as contributing factors. His last words, according to Jack Heliker, were: “After 39 years, this is all I’ve done.” Following his death, his body was brought back to Wales for burial in the village churchyard at Laugharne. His wife, Caitlin, died in 1994, and was buried alongside him.

Poetry
On whom Thomas writes for: see “In My Craft Or Sullen Art:

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Here is an exemplary excerpt, from “In the White Giant’s Thigh:

 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 aisle till the white owl crossed…

Perhaps no other poem depicts so clearly the innate spirituality, the romantic and the metaphysical nature of Thomas as a poet than And Death Shall Have no Dominion, for it is especially in this poem that he expresses his wide and deep love of humanity and the immortalist sentiment that death shall never triumph over life. For example, the lines:

And death shall have no dominion
Dead men 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 also in the second verse: 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. Certainly, therefore, this poem convey a certainty that human life is indestructible.

Thomas memorials
As would be expected of a famous poet whose best known line is “Do not go gentle into that good night”, many memorials have been constructed or converted to honour Thomas. Tourists in his home town of Swansea can visit a statue in the maritime quarter, the Dylan Thomas Theatre, and the Dylan Thomas Centre, formerly the town’s guildhall. The latter is now a literature centre, where exhibitions and lectures are held and is the setting for the city’s annual Dylan Thomas Festival. Another monument to Thomas stands in Cwmdonkin Park, one of his favourite childhood haunts, close to his birthplace at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. The memorial is inscribed with the closing lines from one of his best-loved poems, Fern Hill: “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.” This is inscribed on a rock in a closed-off garden within the park. Thomas’s home in Laugharne, the Boat House, is also a memorial. The Powerful Coolmore Stud have a Colt (horse) called Dylan Thomas which won the Irish Derby on the 2nd July 2006.

Several of the pubs in Swansea also have associations with the poet. One of Swansea’s oldest pubs, the No Sign Bar, was a regular haunt, renamed the Wine Vaults in his story The Followers.

In 2004 a new literary prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, was created in honour of the poet. It is awarded to the best published writer in English under the age of 30.

His obituary was written by his long term friend Vernon Watkins.

A class 153 locomotive was named Dylan Thomas 1914 – 1953.

A song by a Welsh rock band, The Rambones, pays tribute to Thomas in the final line, as they sing, “I choose to go gentle, but I promise/It’s with no offense to Dylan Thomas.”

The cover of the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band contains a photograph of Dylan Thomas.

Bibliography
Poetry
   * Collected Poems 1934 – 1953 (London: Phoenix, 2003)
* Selected Poems (London: Phoenix, 2001)

Prose
* Collected Letters
* Collected Stories
* Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940 Dent)
* Under Milk Wood
* Quite Early One Morning (posthumous)
* Adventures In The Skin Trade And Other Stories (1955, posthumous)
* Rebecca’s Daughters (1965)

Drama
* The Doctor and the Devils (1964)