"But time has set its maggot on their track." -- Dylan Thomas
Dylan Marlais Thomas (27 October 1914 — 9 November 1953) was a Welsh poet and writer who wrote exclusively in English. In addition to poetry, he wrote short stories and scripts for film and radio, which he often performed himself. His public readings, particularly in America, won him great acclaim; his sonorous voice with a subtle Welsh lilt became almost as famous as his works. His best-known works include the "play for voices" Under Milk Wood and the celebrated villanelle for his dying father, "Do not go gentle into that good night". Appreciative critics have also noted the superb craftsmanship and compression of poems such as "In my Craft or Sullen Art" and the rhapsodic lyricism of "Fern Hill'".
"An alcoholic is someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do.""Do not go gentle into that good night.""Don't be too harsh to these poems until they're typed. I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear to be bad with conviction.""Dylan talked copiously, then stopped. 'Somebody's boring me,' he said, 'I think it's me.'""Go on thinking that you don't need to be read and you'll find that it may become quite true: no one will feel the need tom read it because it is written for yourself alone; and the public won't feel any impulse to gate crash such a private party.""Great is the hand that holds dominion over man by a scribbled name.""He who seeks rest finds boredom. He who seeks work finds rest.""I went on all over the States, ranting poems to enthusiastic audiences that, the week before, had been equally enthusiastic about lectures on Railway Development or the Modern Turkish Essay.""I've just had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that's the record.""My education was the liberty I had to read indiscriminately and all the time, with my eyes hanging out.""Never be lucid, never state, if you would be regarded great.""Rage, rage against the dying of the light.""Somebody's boring me. I think it's me.""The function of posterity is to look after itself.""The land of my fathers. My fathers can have it.""There is only one position for an artist anywhere; and that is upright.""These 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 damn' fool if they weren't.""Though lovers be lost love shall not.""Wales is the land of my fathers. And my fathers can have it.""Washington isn't a city, it's an abstraction.""Whatever talents I possess may suddenly diminish or suddenly increase. I can with ease become an ordinary fool. I may be one now. But it doesn't do to upset one's own vanity.""When one burns one's bridges, what a very nice fire it makes."
Dylan Thomas was born at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in the Uplands area of Swansea, South Wales, on 27 October 1914 just a few months after the Thomas family had bought the house. Uplands was, and still is, one of the more affluent areas of the city, away from the more industrial areas. His father, David John ('DJ') Thomas, was an English master who taught English literature at the local grammar school. His mother, Florence Hannah Thomas (née Williams), was a seamstress born in Swansea. Nancy, Thomas's sister, was nine years older than he. Their father brought up both children to speak English only, even though both parents also knew Welsh and DJ was known to give Welsh lessons at home.
Dylan is pronounced ?d?lan in Welsh, and in the early part of his career some announcers introduced him using this pronunciation. However, Thomas himself favoured the anglicised pronunciation . A review of a biography by Andrew Lycett (2004) notes "Florence, the boy’s mother, had her doubts about the odd name: the correct Welsh pronunciation, which the family used, is “Dullan,” and she worried that other children would tease him by calling him “dull one.” Later, when broadcasting on the Welsh service of the BBC, Dylan Thomas had to instruct the announcers to say “Dillan,” the way he himself pronounced it". His middle name, Marlais, was given to him in honour of his great-uncle, Unitarian minister William Thomas, whose bardic name was Gwilym Marles.
His childhood was spent largely in Swansea, with regular summer trips to visit his maternal aunts' Carmarthenshire farms. These rural sojourns and the contrast with the town life of Swansea provided inspiration for much of his work, notably many short stories, radio essays, and the poem Fern Hill. Thomas was known to be a sickly child who shied away from school and preferred reading on his own and was considered too frail to fight in World War II, instead serving the war effort by writing scripts for the government. He suffered from bronchitis and asthma. Thomas's formal education began at Mrs. Hole's Dame school, a private school which was situated a few streets away on Mirador Crescent. He described his experience there in Quite Early One Morning
Never was there such a dame school as ours, so firm and kind and smelling of galoshes, with the sweet and fumbled music of the piano lessons drifting down from upstairs to the lonely schoolroom, where only the sometimes tearful wicked sat over undone sums, or to repent a little crime ... the pulling of a girl's hair during geography, the sly shin kick under the table during English literature."
In October 1925, Thomas attended the single-sex Swansea Grammar School, in the Mount Pleasant district of the city. Thomas's first poem was published in the school's magazine. He later became its editor. He left school at 16 to become a reporter for the local newspaper, the South Wales Daily Post only to leave the job under pressure 18 months later in 1932. He then joined an amateur dramatic group in Mumbles, but still continued to work as a freelance journalist for a few more years.Thomas spent his time visiting the cinema in the Uplands, walking along Swansea Bay, visiting a theatre where he used to perform, and frequenting Swansea's pubs. He especially patronised those in the Mumbles area such the Antelope Hotel and the Mermaid Hotel. A short walk from the local newspaper where he worked was the Kardomah Café in Castle Street, central Swansea. At the cafe he met with various artist contemporaries, such as his good friend and poet Vernon Watkins. These writers, musicians, and artists became known as 'The Kardomah Gang'. In 1932, Thomas embarked on what would be one of his various visits to London.
In February 1941, Swansea was bombed by the German Luftwaffe in a "three nights' blitz". Castle Street was just one of the many streets in Swansea that suffered badly; the rows of shops, including the 'Kardomah Café', were destroyed. Thomas later wrote about this in his radio play Return Journey Home, in which he describes the café as being "razed to the snow". Return Journey Home was first broadcast on 15 June 1947, having been written soon after the bombing raids. Thomas walked through the bombed-out shell of the town centre with his friend Bert Trick. Upset at the sight, he concluded, "Our Swansea is dead". The Kardomah Café later reopened on Portland street, not far from the original location.
Career and family
It is often commented that Thomas was indulged like a child and he was, in fact, still a teenager when he published many of the poems he would become famous for: “And Death Shall Have No Dominion" “Before I Knocked” and “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower". He saw his work in The Listener in 1934 and caught the attention of two of the most senior poets of the day T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender. His highly acclaimed first poetry volume, 18 Poems, was published on 18 December 1934, and went on to win a contest run by The Sunday Referee, netting him new admirers from the London poetry world, including Edith Sitwell. His passionate musical lyricism caused a sensation in these years of desiccated Modernism; the critic Desmond Hawkins said it was “the sort of bomb that bursts no more than once in three years”. In all he wrote half of his poems while living at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive before he moved to London. It was also the time that Thomas' reputation for heavy drinking developed.
In the spring of 1936, Dylan Thomas met the dancer Caitlin MacNamara in the Wheatsheaf pub, in the Fitzrovia area of London's West End. They were introduced by Augustus John, who was MacNamara's lover at the time (there were rumours that she continued her relationship with John after she married Thomas). A drunken Thomas proposed to MacNamara on the spot, and the two began a courtship. On 11 July 1937, Thomas married MacNamara in a registry office in Penzance, Cornwall. In 1938, the couple rented a cottage in the village of Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, West Wales. Their first child, Llewelyn Edouard, was born on 30 January 1939 (d. 2000). Their daughter, Aeronwy Thomas-Ellis, was born on 3 March 1943 (d. 2009). A second son, Colm Garan Hart, was born on 24 July 1949.
At the outset of the Second World War, Thomas was designated C3, which meant that although he could, in theory, be called up for service he would be in one of the last groups to be so. He was saddened to see his friends enter active service leaving him behind and drank whilst struggling to support his family. He wrote to the director of the films division of the Ministry of Information asking for employment but after a rebuff eventually ended up working for Strand Films. Strand produced films for the Ministry of Information and Thomas scripted at least five in 1942 with titles such as This Is Colour (about dye), New Towns For Old, These Are The Men and Our Country (a sentimental tour of Britain).
The publication of Deaths and Entrances in 1946 was a major turning point for Thomas. Critic W. J. Turner commented in The Spectator "This book alone, in my opinion, ranks him as a major poet". Thomas was well known for being a versatile and dynamic speaker, best known for his poetry readings. His powerful voice would captivate American audiences during his speaking tours of the early 1950s and he made over 200 broadcasts for the BBC.
Often considered his greatest single work, Under Milk Wood, a radio play featuring the characters of Llareggub, is set in a fictional Welsh fishing village ( 'Llareggub' is 'Bugger All' backwards, implying that there is absolutely nothing to do there). The BBC credited their producer Stella Hillier with ensuring the play actually materialised. Assigned "some of the more wayward characters who were then writing for the BBC", she dragged the notoriously unreliable Thomas out of the pub and back to her office to finish the work. The play took several years to write, the first half mostly in South Leigh, Oxford, in 1948, whilst the second half was mostly written in America in May 1953. Fewer than 300 lines were written in Laugharne, according to one account, which also explains the influence of New Quay on the play. Thomas performed Under Milk Wood solo for the first time on 3 May at Harvard during his early 1953 US tour, and then with a cast at the Poetry Centre in New York on 14 May. He worked on the play in England, and returned to the States in October, but died in New York on 5 November, before the BBC could record the play. Richard Burton starred in the first broadcast in 1954 and was joined by Elizabeth Taylor in a subsequent film.
Thomas arrived in New York on 20 October 1953, to take part in a performance of Under Milk Wood at the city's prestigious Poetry Centre. He was already ill and had a history of blackouts and heart problems, using an inhaler in New York to help his breathing. Thomas had liked to boast of his addiction to drinking, saying "An alcoholic is someone you don't like, who drinks as much as you do." He "liked the taste of whisky" and had a powerful reputation for his drinking. The writer Elizabeth Hardwick recalled how intoxicating performer he was and how the tension would build before a performance: “Would he arrive only to break down on the stage? Would some dismaying scene take place at the faculty party? Would he be offensive, violent, obscene? These were alarming and yet exciting possibilities.” His wife Caitlin said in her embittered memoir “Nobody ever needed encouragement less, and he was drowned in it.” Thomas “exhibited the excesses and experienced the adulation which would later be associated with rock stars,” however the amount he is supposed to have drunk in his lifetime and in New York before his death, may well have been exaggerated as Thomas became mythologised.
On October 28, he took part in Poetry And The Film, a recorded symposium at Cinema 16, which included panellists Amos Vogel, Maya Deren, Parker Tyler, and Willard Maas. The director of the Poetry Centre, John Brinnin, was also Thomas's tour agent. Brinnin didn't travel to New York, remaining at home in Boston and handed responsibility to his assistant, Liz Reitell. Reitell met Thomas at Idlewild Airport (now JFK airport) and he told her that he had had a terrible week, had missed her terribly and wanted to go to bed with her. Despite Reitell's previous misgivings about their relationship they spent the rest of the day and night together at the Chelsea Hotel. The next day she invited him to her apartment but he declined, saying that he was not feeling well and retired to his bed for the rest of the afternoon. After spending the night with him at the hotel Reitell went back to her own apartment for a change of clothes. At breakfast Herb Hannum noticed how sick Thomas looked and suggested a visit to a Dr. Feltenstein before the performance of Under Milk Wood that evening. The doctor went to work with his needle, and Thomas made it through the two performances of Under Milk Wood, but collapsed straight afterwards. Reitell would later describe Feltenstein as a wild doctor who believed injections could cure anything.
On the evening of 27 October 1953, Thomas's 39th birthday, the poet attended a party in his honour but felt so unwell that he returned to his hotel. A turning point came on 2 November. Air pollution in New York had risen significantly and exacerbated chest illnesses, such as Thomas had. By the end of the month, over two hundred New Yorkers had died from the smog. On 3 November, Thomas returned to the Chelsea, after drinking at the White Horse Tavern, a favourite pub he'd found through Scottish poet Ruthven Todd. Thomas declared, "I've had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that is a record!" The barman and the owner of the pub who served Thomas at the time, later told Todd that Thomas couldn't have imbibed more than half that amount. Thomas had an appointment to visit a clam house in New Jersey on 4 November. When phoned at the Chelsea that morning, he said that he was feeling awful and asked to take a rain-check. Later, he did go drinking with Reitell at the White Horse and, feeling sick again, returned to the hotel. Dr. Feltenstein came to see him three times that day, on the third call prescribing morphine, which seriously affected Thomas's breathing. At midnight on 5 November, his breathing became more difficult and his face turned blue. Reitell unsuccessfully tried to get hold of Feltenstein. By 01:58 Thomas had been admitted to the emergency ward at nearby St Vincent's hospital, by which time he was comatose. The duty doctors found bronchitis in all parts of his bronchial tree, both left and right sides. An X-ray showed pneumonia, and a raised white cell count confirmed the presence of an infection. The pneumonia worsened and Thomas died on 9 November.
The first rumours to circulate were of a brain haemorrhage, followed by reports that he had been mugged and soon stories began to fly that he had drunk himself to death. Later, there were speculations about drugs and diabetes. At the post-mortem, the pathologist found that the immediate cause of death was swelling of the brain, caused by the pneumonia reducing the supply of oxygen. Despite his heavy drinking his liver showed little sign of cirrhosis. His biographer Lycett, ascribed the demise of Dylan's health to an alcoholic co-dependent relationship with his wife Caitlin, who deeply resented his affairs. In Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas?, David N Thomas refutes the idea that alcoholism contributed to the poet's death. The book suggests Dylan Thomas was the victim of Dr. Feltenstein who administered morphine for delirium tremens, when Thomas in fact had pneumonia. He also suggests that Feltenstein covered his tracks by pressuring other doctors to agree that it was an alcohol-related death. He points to John Brinnin's culpability, as Thomas's agent, and suggests Brinnin neglected his duty of care. Caitlin Thomas's two searing autobiographies -Double Drink Story: My life with Dylan and Caitlin Thomas - Leftover Life to Kill - both describe the highly destructive effect of alcoholism to the poet and to their relationship. "Ours was not only a love story, it was also a drink story", she writes. "The bar was our altar".
Following his death, his body was brought back to Wales for his burial in the village churchyard at Laugharne on 25 November. One of the last people to stay at his graveside after the funeral was his mother, Florence. Thomas's obituary was written by his long-time friend and Welsh poet Vernon Watkins. His wife, Caitlin, died in 1994 and was buried alongside him.
Thomas's verbal style played against strict verse forms, such as in the villanelle Do not go gentle into that good night. His images were carefully ordered in a patterned sequence, and his major theme was the unity of all life, the continuing process of life and death and new life that linked the generations. Thomas saw biology as a magical transformation producing unity out of diversity, and in his poetry he sought a poetic ritual to celebrate this unity. He saw men and women locked in cycles of growth, love, procreation, new growth, death, and new life again. Therefore, each image engenders its opposite. Thomas derived his closely woven, sometimes self-contradictory images from the Bible, Welsh folklore and preaching, and Freud. Thomas's poetry is notable for its musicality, most clear in poems such as Fern Hill, In Country Sleep, Ballad of the Long-legged Bait or In the White Giant's Thigh from Under Milkwood:
Who once were a bloom of wayside brides in the hawed houseand heard the lewd, wooed field flow to the coming frost,the scurrying, furred small friars squeal in the dowseof day, in the thistle aisles, till the white owl crossed
Thomas once confided that the poems which had most influenced him were Mother Goose rhymes which his parents taught him when he was a child:
I should say I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words. The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes and before I could read them for myself I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance. [...] I fell in love, that is the only expression I can think of, at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behavior very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. And, when I began to read the nursery rhymes for myself, and, later, to read other verses and ballads, I knew that I had discovered the most important things, to me, that could be ever.
A statue of Thomas is in the city's maritime quarter. The Dylan Thomas (Little) Theatre and the Dylan Thomas Centre, formerly the town's Guildhall, are also found in Swansea. The latter is now a literature centre, where exhibitions and lectures are held, and is the setting for an 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 a small rock in a closed-off garden, set within the park. The rock is inscribed with the closing lines from "Fern Hill":
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his meansTime held me green and dyingThough I sang in my chains like the sea.
Thomas's home in Laugharne, the Boat House, has been made a memorial. Several of the pubs in Swansea also have associations with the poet. One of Swansea's oldest pubs, 'The No Sign Bar' (since renamed 'The No Sign Wine Bar') was a regular haunt of Thomas's and is mentioned in his story "The Followers". A class 153 diesel multiple unit was named Dylan Thomas 1914—1953 and in 2004 the Dylan Thomas Prize was created in honour of the poet, awarded to the best published writer in English under the age of 30. Following this, in 2005, the Dylan Thomas Screenplay Award was established. The prize is administered by the Dylan Thomas Centre, and is awarded at the annual Swansea Bay Film Festival. In 1982, a plaque was unveiled in honour of Dylan Thomas, in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.
1993 - Eight Stories[The New Directions Bibelots - Includes: The End of The River, The School for Witches, The Peaches, Just Like Little Dogs, Old Garbo, One Warm Saturday, Plenty of Furniture, The Followers](Paperback)