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  Dylan Marlais Thomas (1914–1953), by Augustus John, 1937–8 Dylan Marlais Thomas (1914–1953), by Augustus John, 1937–8
Thomas, Dylan Marlais (1914–1953), poet, was born on 27 October 1914 at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, the second child and only son of David John (Jack) Thomas (1876–1952), schoolmaster, and his wife, Florence Hannah (1882–1958), daughter of George Williams, railwayman, and his wife, Hannah. Both sides of the family had their roots in rural south Wales. Jack Thomas, the clever son of another railwayman, Evan, and his wife, Ann, came from a bilingual background where English was seen as the language of progress. To his disappointment, a first-class honours degree in English at University College, Aberystwyth, led only to a schoolmaster's career, teaching English at the grammar school in Swansea, a comparatively Anglicized town, where he concealed the fact that he spoke Welsh. His model was the English man of letters.

Early years and early poetry

At an early age Dylan was being told about English prosody. A poem from his childhood, preserved by Florence Thomas, rhymed ‘real’ with ‘steel’; on the manuscript the father wrote, ‘Real is two syllables and cannot rhyme with steel’. There were Celtic influences as well. Jack Thomas named his son after a minor figure in the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh tales, more or less inventing Dylan as a forename. The original Welsh pronunciation was ‘Dullan’, but Thomas as an adult preferred ‘Dillan’. His second name acknowledged a paternal great-uncle William, a preacher-poet in the Welsh language whose bardic pseudonym, Gwilym Marles, derived from the local River Marlais.

Dylan Thomas's upbringing in the Uplands, a genteel district on rising ground a mile west of Swansea's town centre, was suburban and orthodox. A garrulous sister, Nancy Marles (1906–1953), outshone him at first. Commonplace scenes and characters from childhood recur in his writing: the park that adjoins Cwmdonkin Drive; the bay and sands that were visible from the windows; a maternal aunt he visited, Ann Jones, a farmer's wife at Fernhill, in Carmarthenshire. His juvenilia was accomplished, as in ‘The Mishap’, about ‘little sonny’ who blew himself up by mistake:
Ask of the breeze from foreign shores
Where sonny lingers?
North tells of nose, East speaks of toes,
West whispers fingers.
An undistinguished pupil at the school where his father taught (although he edited the school magazine), Thomas left in the summer of 1931, aged sixteen, to work for the local evening newspaper. There he wrote on literary topics whenever he could, and cultivated a mock-journalistic manner. The autobiographical stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog show a self-conscious transition from shy child to tormented adolescent, a would-be provincial rebel hoping that drunkenness and loud shirts would shock his elders.

Thomas's private life as a poet was already underway. As he wrote each poem he copied it, with the date, into a student's exercise book, an orderliness that contrasted sharply with his louche exterior. Eventually there were four such notebooks, running from 1930 to 1934, containing more than 200 poems. After his brief career as a journalist ended early in 1933 he continued to live at home, ostensibly unemployed, filling the notebooks faster than ever. Half the ninety published poems by which he is known were written, in one form or another, during these early years. His imagery often dwelt on the body—the ‘lily bones’ of an unborn child, man's ‘candle in the thighs’, the ‘darkness in the weather of the eye’. Echoes of Blake and Donne could be detected, but his voice was his own. It was very personal poetry, indifferent to the social and political concerns of the day. He was painfully aware of sex, time, decay, and death; he also had a powerful sense of his vocation as a poet, easily caricatured by detractors later on.

Gaining fame as a poet and as a personality

Thomas's first poem to be seen in London, the bombastic ‘And death shall have no dominion’, was published by the New English Weekly in May 1933. A more characteristic piece, ‘The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’, in which he saw the same energies at work in nature and in the flesh, was published by a newspaper, the Sunday Referee, in October the same year, two days after his nineteenth birthday. In March 1934 the BBC's journal, The Listener, printed another of his ‘organic’ poems:
Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides.
As a result, T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender wrote to Thomas, and a selection of his verse, sponsored by the Referee, appeared later in the year as Eighteen Poems. This was followed in 1936 by Twenty-Five Poems, establishing his reputation in literary circles, although elsewhere he remained unknown. A visionary quality was noted, along with his verbal skills; so was intermittent obscurity. Because Thomas was digging deep into the notebooks, many of the poems published in the second volume had been written before those published in the first. He was never again as fecund as in the Swansea years.

An impish, scandalous figure on the London literary scene of the mid-1930s, Thomas lived by tiny fees for poems and stories, occasional book reviewing, and frequent borrowing from friends. Swansea was always available for home comforts. His early friendships there were enduring, notably with Alfred Janes, the painter, Daniel Jones, the composer, and Vernon Watkins, the poet. In appearance Thomas was slight and cherubic, with wavy hair and luminous eyes. A passivity of nature, together with a convenient conviction that the poet's vocation called for charitable treatment, made him unashamedly dependent on others.

Dylan Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara [see ], a fiery woman with artistic tastes, on 11 July 1937, having met her in a London pub the previous year, and came to rely on her strength of character. Initially Thomas liked to see them as two innocents in a wicked world, a fantasy that soon wore thin. The relationship was passionate, stormy, and ultimately dysfunctional. Married life before the Second World War found them scraping along in poverty, staying with her divorced mother at Blashford in the New Forest or with his parents in Swansea. In Laugharne, a small township on the Carmarthenshire coast not far from his family origins, they lived in rented houses, first Eros and then Sea View (Thomas never owned a property of any kind), with intermittent binges in London: ‘city of the restless dead’, as he called it in a 1938 letter to Vernon Watkins, adding that ‘its intelligentsia is so hurried in the head that nothing stays there; its glamour smells of goat’ (Collected Letters, 392–3). His drinking and clowning were indispensable to him, but they were only half the story; ‘I am as domestic as a slipper’ (Ferris, Dylan Thomas, 155–6) he once observed, with some truth. In this he was the opposite of his wife.

A further sixteen poems, together with seven short stories, made up The Map of Love (1939). ‘I make this in a warring absence’, originally published as ‘Poem (for Caitlin)’, expressed forgiveness for her sexual infidelity, of which Thomas was evidently aware. But the lavish imagery of the poem, and of others in the collection, required the skills of a cipher clerk to interpret. There were exceptions, notably the elegiac ‘After the Funeral’, a reworking of a notebook poem from 1933 that commemorated Ann Jones, the aunt at Fernhill. The seven stories, selected from the twenty or so that magazines had published since 1934, were baroque fantasies, often tiresome. The ten stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) have proved more durable: nostalgic, amusing, largely true-life romances about himself in Wales.

Living on guile and beer

In the Second World War, Thomas used subterfuge and his recurrent asthma to avoid military service. Work in a munitions factory would have been almost as distasteful. ‘[D]eary me,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘I'd rather be a poet anyday and live on guile and beer’ (Collected Letters, 540). Even before wartime conditions jeopardized literary earnings, Thomas had begun to develop begging as a form of income. His ‘Five Bob Fund’ envisaged twelve benefactors (Peggy Guggenheim, Augustus John, and Lord Tredegar were on the list) who would each send him 5s. a week; the resulting £3 promised security. When the scheme failed to mature, he wrote at random to literary figures. Hearing that the author Alec Waugh had suggested Dylan ‘write more stories and fewer letters’, he suggested tartly that Alec ‘write fewer stories and more letters’ (ibid., 538).

Salvation came from a film company, where Thomas wrote morale-building scripts for the Ministry of Information. For the first time since his journalist days he had a regular income, and he (and sometimes his wife) were in London for much of the war, staying with friends or renting squalid rooms of their own. The legend of the outrageous poet, which Thomas actively encouraged, has made his life seem even more disorganized than it was. His reputation as a saloon-bar raconteur was well established. But in wartime London he kept appointments, respected deadlines, and, if he was occasionally unfaithful to his wife, quickly crept back to the safety of the marriage.

Throughout his life, few of Thomas's poems were written outside Wales. Towards the end of the war he lived in west Wales for a year—at Llangain, near Carmarthen, then at New Quay, on Cardigan Bay—enjoying a burst of creativity that would not be repeated. The seven poems he wrote included two that came to be enjoyed by many who were deterred by his more complex work. ‘Poem in October’ celebrated his thirtieth year, and ‘Fern Hill’, Thomas's best-known poem, dwelt on the Carmarthenshire farm and his childhood. Both pieces were direct and alluring (although ‘Fern Hill’ is a meditation on time as well as an exercise in nostalgia), and were open to charges of sentimentality. Their themes suggest a turning away from wartime privations, as well as the gathering disquiet of a former enfant terrible.

These seven poems, together with seventeen others, were collected into a tiny pocket-sized volume, Deaths and Entrances, in 1946. Three of the pieces, including ‘The Hunchback in the Park’—the Cwmdonkin Park where Thomas had played as a child—originated in the early notebooks, the last of his work to carry these echoes. The collection ranged widely. Another of the late poems, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, cunningly verbose, had the ring of a funeral oration with Christian trappings:
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
A religious poet, or at least a poet making religious gestures, can be detected in Deaths and Entrances. But by 1946 Thomas's progress in any direction had begun to waver. His domestic affairs were increasingly muddled. There were now two small children, a son, Llewelyn, and a daughter, Aeronwy, to accompany their nomadic parents. Caitlin was impatient of her husband's fecklessness. Dylan himself toyed with the idea that the family could escape to America—where his poems, together with some prose, had already appeared in two collections, The World I Breathe (1939) and New Poems (1943)—but nothing came of this idea.

The BBC and writing in the post-war years

Work for radio kept Thomas busy. The BBC used him to write scripts for its overseas services during the war, and came to see his more general potential as a broadcaster. A number of separate reminiscences—where he talked about childhood, Christmas, holidays—drew on the same nostalgia as the poems to produce softer-edged memories, affectionate and humorous. His florid style of reading had its critics at the BBC, where an executive spoke of ‘that breathless poetic voice’ (Maud, On the Air, 9). Thomas learned to temper it, but the booming delivery was still there, with its overstressed syllables and elegant enunciation, a Welsh accent lurking within. He was continually in demand to read and discuss verse and to act in the literary plays and features that were then in their heyday at the BBC, which invented its Third Programme in 1946 to cater for such things. Among his many roles was Satan in a serial version of Paradise Lost. Thomas's voice became familiar to many who had never read the poetry.

Broadcasting helped keep Thomas afloat after the war. It also gave him frequent excuses to be in London, visiting studios and moving on to convivial pubs around Broadcasting House. His wife, at home with the children in Oxford—where the Thomases temporarily settled—suffered, although not in silence. The composer Elisabeth Lutyens, one of his drinking companions, saw Dylan about to leave for home, carrying a battered briefcase with a gift that was meant to placate Caitlin. Lutyens looked inside. It contained two cans of soup.

For two years after ‘Fern Hill’ Thomas wrote no poetry. In 1947 Edith Sitwell arranged a travelling scholarship and recommended he seek inspiration in Italy, where he and his family stayed for four months. He spent much of his time groaning at the heat and writing comic letters of complaint to friends. The visit produced one long and rather laboured poem, ‘In Country Sleep’. On their returning to England the Thomases were housed at the expense of Margaret Taylor, wife of the Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor, who (to her husband's dismay) had become Thomas's friend and patron. Previously she had let them live in a summerhouse at the bottom of the Taylors' garden, and when Thomas was in Italy she bought a cottage in the village of South Leigh, 10 miles from Oxford, and let it to him for a token rent, often unpaid.

Despite his permanent air of a man facing financial ruin, Thomas was far from destitute. For a period he wrote feature-film treatments and additional dialogue. A script about the body-snatchers Burke and Hare was taken up by the Rank organization and then abandoned; later it was published as The Doctor and the Devils. Altogether his declared earnings in the fiscal year 1947–8 were £2400, a respectable income for a self-employed writer at the time.

By 1948 Thomas had decided that his only hope as a poet was to return to Wales. Mrs Taylor (who was not rich) bought a property for him to occupy in Laugharne, the Boat House, and the Thomases moved there in spring 1949, where he promptly wrote a topographical poem about the town, ‘Over Sir John's Hill’. Caitlin's third child, a boy, Colm, was born in July. In Laugharne, Thomas's life fell into disarray. His letters breathe anxiety, and four further poems took another two years to write. Money was swallowed up by private education for the children as well as by taxis, alcohol, and his wife's clothes, and unpaid tax on earlier income had to be found. Meanwhile scripts paid for by the BBC went unwritten.

When John Malcolm Brinnin, newly appointed director of the Poetry Center at the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association in New York city, invited him to visit America, Thomas accepted at once, and went there in 1950. His readings at the centre, and on campuses across the country, introduced him to young, enthusiastic audiences and gave rise to a legend, exaggerated in the telling, of the wild poet behaving badly. The three-month tour was lucrative, but once again the taxman was waiting. His wife accompanied him on a second visit in 1952, having learned that he had slept with a woman in New York two years earlier. The adulation of student audiences, ‘screaming at him as though he was a pop singer’ aroused her jealousy (Ferris, Caitlin, 126). This time the tour lasted four months, wearying Thomas. Both he and his wife drank heavily, as though competing. At one lecture, at the University of Utah, he described himself as ‘a little fat man come to make a fool of himself’ (Ferris, Dylan Thomas, 287).

Thomas's health was deteriorating. He coughed and wheezed, suffered bouts of gout and gastritis, and had long since ballooned into a caricature of the pretty young poet whom Augustus John had painted. The publication of Collected Poems, 1934–1952, just after his thirty-eighth birthday, offered a respite, assembling the contents of his three earlier volumes, together with the five new Laugharne poems. In general the critics approved. Philip Toynbee thought him ‘the greatest living poet in the English language’ (Observer, 11 Nov 1952). The collection won the Foyle's poetry prize.

Among the late poems was an elegy to his dying father, in the rare form of a villanelle, which began, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, a line that became a figure of speech. Jack Thomas died shortly after the book was published. Other work that would give Dylan Thomas a popular currency which transcended literary opinion was in the making. In America he had recorded A Child's Christmas in Wales, cobbled together from a radio reminiscence and a magazine article.

Under Milk Wood, final years, and reputation

In particular there was a BBC ‘play for voices’ that Thomas had been trying to finish for years, essentially a series of comic sketches with darker undertones about twenty-four hours in the life of a town called Llareggub—a backwards-reading joke that he resurrected from an early story. The play became Under Milk Wood, a poor relation to the poetry, in Thomas's view, but the work by which he is best known. It was completed in spring 1953, during a third visit to America, and first performed there on the stage. (From 1954 it was also broadcast many times on BBC radio in a production with Richard Burton as narrator.) A love affair that Thomas began with Brinnin's assistant, Elizabeth Reitell, was matched by Caitlin's blatant infidelities in Laugharne.

Fears about the future run through letters and manuscript notes of Thomas's last years. After 1951 he failed to complete another poem. Finding himself unable or unwilling to mature as a poet who would meet the exacting, unrealistic standards of what he saw as his vocation, he let despair lead him towards self-destruction. In October he returned to America, Reitell, and exhaustion. Drinking heavily, he became ill and intermittently deranged about the time of his thirty-ninth birthday at the end of the month. On 4 November a doctor unwisely sedated him by injecting half a grain of morphine, which was to prove fatal. He collapsed and went into a coma, and died in St Vincent's Hospital, New York, on 9 November. Pial oedema (swollen brain tissue) was given as the immediate cause of death, with fatty liver and pneumonia as antecedent causes. No mention was made of the morphine. Later suggestions that undiagnosed diabetes was significant can be discounted. His body was returned to Wales and interred at Laugharne on 24 November 1953.

A memorial plaque in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey was dedicated in 1982. The Boat House at Laugharne has been restored for visitors, and in Swansea a Dylan Thomas Centre with a permanent exhibition of written and visual material was opened in 1996. The ‘Anglo-Welsh’ literary tradition, which is Welsh in spirit but not in language, has found an emblem in Thomas. His Welshness, however, owes more to nostalgia for the countryside of his childhood than to any national consciousness, and his work has little to commend it to modern Welsh separatists.

In wider terms Thomas's popular reputation has continued to grow, even if critics have not always been kind. Some had already found his work too florid by the time of his death, and the British Movement poets (Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, and others) began a dismissive tendency that has persisted among those who prefer their poetry served cold.

Paradoxically, it is Thomas's rhetoric and romanticism that appeal so widely to the non-specialist reader, and his more accessible poems are widely anthologized. His position in the English tradition seems secure; Donne, Blake, and Yeats are among the precursors cited, with reservations. His own wry assessment—using a metaphor from cricket, the only game that interested him—that he was ‘top of the second eleven’ (Fitzgibbon, 49) may be near the truth.

Paul Ferris

Sources  

private information (2004) · P. Ferris, Dylan Thomas, rev. edn (1999) · The collected letters of Dylan Thomas, ed. P. Ferris, rev. edn (2000) · P. Ferris, Caitlin: the life of Caitlin Thomas (1993) · D. M. Thomas, Portrait of the artist as a young dog (1940) · C. FitzGibbon, The life of Dylan Thomas (1965) · J. M. Brinnin, Dylan Thomas in America (1956) · Dylan Thomas: the notebook poems, 1930–1934, ed. R. Maud (1989) · Dylan Thomas: collected poems, 1934–1953, ed. W. Davies and R. Maud (1989) · D. Thomas, Under Milk Wood, ed. W. Davies and R. Maud (1995) · R. Maud, Dylan Thomas in print: a bibliographical history (1970) · G. Watkins, Portrait of a friend (1983) · D. Jones, My friend Dylan Thomas (1977) · On the air with Dylan Thomas: the broadcasts, ed. R. Maud (1991) · J. Nashold and G. Tremlett, The death of Dylan Thomas (1997) · d. cert., New York department of health, bureau of records and statistics

Archives  

Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp., poems, and papers · NL Wales, letters · Ransom HRC, papers of and relating to Thomas · University of Toronto, Victoria University, letters |  BL, letters to Vernon Watkins, Add. MS 52612 · NL Wales, letters to Desmond Hawkins; letters to Percy Eynon Smart  

FILM

 

BFINA

 

SOUND

 

NL Wales, Aberystwyth, Colin Edwards Collection, extensive biographical information in the tapes of


Likenesses  

A. John, portrait, 1937–8, NMG Wales [see illus.] · photographs, 1946–52, Hult. Arch. · E. Agar, portrait, Tate collection · M. Ayrton, drawing, NPG · A. Janes, drawing, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea · A. Janes, portrait, NMG Wales · A. John, portrait, second version, NMG Wales · M. Levy, drawing, NPG · M. Levy, drawing, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea · M. Levy, drawing, NMG Wales · R. Shephard, portrait, NPG · R. Shephard, two drawings, NMG Wales · D. Slivka and I. Lassaw, bronze bust (after death mask), NMG Wales · T. G. Stuart, portrait, NPG

Wealth at death  

£100: administration, 7 Dec 1953, CGPLA Eng. & Wales