Dylan Thomas was born at 5, Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea, on 27 October 1914. He was the son of David John Thomas (1876-1952) and his wife Florence Hannah (née Williams, 1882-1958), who came from rural Welsh-speaking families in north and south west Carmarthenshire respectively. The parents spoke Welsh to each other, but the father (a First Class Honours English graduate of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth) decided against raising Dylan and his older sister Nancy (1906-1953) to be Welsh-speakers, in the belief that English was the way to ‘get on’ in the world. He also paid for them to have elocution lessons, a middle-class fashion in Swansea at the time, designed to avoid even a Welsh accent. The loss of Welsh in a still considerably bilingual Swansea, especially in what could have been a naturally bilingual home, produced a creative tension in the poet. Explaining later to an English poet friend what he called his ‘cut-glass’ accent, Thomas added revealingly ‘…and I can't speak Welsh either!’ After all, his father was the nephew of William Thomas, the renowned radical preacher-poet Gwilym Marles (hence Dylan's middle name Marlais and that of his sister, Nancy Marles). A few weeks before Thomas's birth, his father served on a committee to welcome Lord Howard de Walden's embryonic Welsh National Theatre to Swansea, when de Walden's opera, Dylan, Son of the Wave, was being performed at Covent Garden: hence ‘Dylan’ - from one of the medieval Welsh tales, Y Mabinogi.
The father was Senior English master at Swansea Grammar School, which Thomas attended from 1925 to 1931. From 1929 Thomas was a precocious co-editor (then editor) of the Swansea Grammar School Magazine, having been a contributing mainstay from his first year. His immediate post-school prominence in Swansea's Little Theatre (1931-1934) also began at school - in its Reading Circle and Dramatic and Debating societies. It was Thomas's only period of formal education, followed by fifteen months as a junior reporter on the South Wales Daily Post in Swansea.
By then, his widening interest in English poetry - the father's positive influence this time - had borne fruit in four school-type exercise books (the kind with mathematical tables and ‘Danger-Donts’ on the back), now known as ‘The Notebooks’. In these, between 1930 and 1934, he entered quickly-maturing poems (a fifth ‘Red’ Notebook was kept for short stories). The sixteen-year-old schoolboy sent some poems to Robert Graves, who blandly deemed them ‘unexceptionable’. But their publication in London periodicals led quickly to his first volume 18 Poems in December 1934. William Empson recalled that ‘What hit the town of London was the child Dylan publishing [in October 1933] “The force that through the green fuse” as a prize poem in the Sunday Referee, and from that day he was a famous poet; I think the incident does some credit to the town, making it look less clumsy than you would think.’
Just before the publication of 18 Poems, the twenty-year-old moved to London to share rooms with two Swansea friends, the artists Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy. They were two of many gifted Swansea friends who in the early 1930s used to meet in the Kardomah Café across the road from the Evening Post offices in Castle Street. Others were the poet Charles Fisher, the musician and teacher Tom Warner, the broadcaster Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, the composer Daniel Jones and, later, the poet Vernon Watkins. Up to 1938, London alternated with Swansea as Thomas's main base. Cosmopolitan artistic life in London was celebrating Surrealism and Picasso in art, ‘Modernist’ Eliot, Pound and Joyce in literature, and Stravinsky in music. But in a decade scarred by the Depression and fears of a second world war, what more directly challenged Thomas was the politically ‘committed’ poetry of the Auden circle. His own socialist politics were no different from Auden's, but he had the advantage of returning to the unusually rich store of the 1930-34 Notebooks - to poems that gave voice to an elemental, pre-political, often prenatal, view of experience. The Notebooks saved him from being absorbed by any particular 1930s poetic ‘fashion’.
Two 1930s volumes followed quickly - Twenty-five Poems (1936) and The Map of Love (1939), the latter accompanied by seven short stories. Alternation between literary/media life in London and more productive periods back home in Wales set a lifetime's pattern. An important correspondence from 1935 with his Swansea friend the poet Vernon Watkins strengthened a creative anchorage in Wales. He always stressed that poetry is primarily a matter of craft - that a poet works ‘out of words’ (creating meaning), not ‘towards words’ (to create atmosphere) - suggesting again something instinctually Welsh in his poetic temperament. As Mallarmé said, ‘poetry is not written with ideas but with words’. Throughout the 1930s, Thomas's fame grew steadily, increased by his numerous book reviews of modern writers in leading London periodicals. A major London editor described him as ‘a swell reviewer’.
In April 1936, in London, he met Caitlin Macnamara (1913-1994). Of Irish Protestant gentry descent, Caitlin was brought up in Hampshire and of decidedly bohemian energies, encouraged under the influence of Augustus John. They were married in Penzance in July 1937. In May 1938 they moved for the first time to live in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, the village now most closely associated with Thomas, and a profound influence on his later work. That year, he was awarded the Blumenthal Poetry Prize of Poetry (Chicago), for whose special ‘English Number’ W. H. Auden and Michael Roberts had chosen ‘We lying by seasand’ - Thomas's first American publication. In Laugharne in 1938 he started writing his greatest prose work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), which he used to call ‘stories towards a Provincial Autobiography’. Though only quasi realistic, these moved away from the surrealist/ mythic flavour of his earlier stories, and also from Caradoc Evans's harsh satiric view of Wales. From 1938, an autobiographical emphasis continued. The last story in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog marked the point at which the teenage Thomas left Swansea for London. An attempt at a sequel in the form of a sub-Dickensian novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade (1955), about his early life in London, was abandoned. But from 1944, a subtler autobiographical vein emerged, in poems (and lyrical prose pieces) that set the poet in recognizable Welsh landscapes.
From 1941 (the year in which he sold his Notebooks) to the end of the war, Thomas had been writing filmscripts for Strand Films, and later for Gryphon Films, under the monopolising aegis of the Ministry of Information. A good example of his success in marrying literary effects to the technical (often propaganda) requirements of wartime film is The Doctor and the Devils (1966). At the same time, he was also writing radio scripts and features and taking part in talks and readings for B.B.C. Radio. His natural strengths on radio - wide knowledge, quick inventiveness and a memorable voice - made him a household name. An outstanding radio work, second only to the posthumously broadcast Under Milk Wood, is ‘Return Journey’ (1947), in which Thomas retraces his vanished youth through a vanished, war-demolished Swansea. In the meantime, wartime had slowed down the writing of poems, yet major elegies such as ‘There was a saviour’, ‘Deaths and Entrances’, ‘Ceremony After a Fire Raid’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’ are among the finest poems to emerge from that war.
Towards the war's end, Wales again became his home. At Llan-gain and New Quay in 1944-45 a new phase of poetic creativity occurred. Along with the 1938-40 period in Laugharne, it was the most productive since the incomparably prolific period of the 1930-1934 Notebooks in Swansea. Thomas's greatest single poetry volume, Deaths and Entrances (1946) increased the attention of America. But as a husband, and father of Llewelyn Edouard (1939-2000) and Aeronwy Bryn (1943-2009), his hope was to earn a living at home in Wales. The wartime work for film and radio had helped in that respect, but had also meant his living within easy reach of London. Between 1946 and 1949, the family lived in or near Oxford, with visits to Ireland, Italy and Prague. But wherever he was, Thomas never stopped working on poems started at home in Wales. It was in Rapallo and Florence that he completed the Welsh-landscaped poem ‘In Country Sleep’.
His solo visit to Prague was as guest of the government, to attend the founding of the Czech Writers' Union. Though perfectly at ease meeting Czech writers and mixing with the Czech people, he disliked the stiffness of bureaucratic Soviet proceedings and interviews. His real grit was shown when he complained about the painful literal-mindedness of the official translator he'd been assigned. He had quickly sensed - another bilingual gulf - that important nuances were being lost between the translator's two languages. But in order to make a serious point comically - one of his still underrated talents as a writer - he climbed onto the Charles Bridge, melodramatically embraced one of its famous statues, and threatened to jump into the Charles River if this particular Official Translator were not replaced.
Back in Wales in May 1949, he moved (thanks to the financial generosity of Margaret Taylor, wife of the Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor) to live in the now iconic Boat House in Laugharne. It was the village in which he had long hoped to settle: he had already rented a house for his parents there, and it was there that his third child Colm Garan Hart (1949-2012) was born. In early 1951 he undertook a five-week visit to Iran to write a filmscript for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. But the inspiration for his own writing was now Laugharne. He acknowledged it as the ‘setting of a radio play I am writing’ - that is, Under Milk Wood. Inspired by a short wartime radio essay about New Quay in 1944, it developed its full form as a radio play via the larger dramatis personae provided by Laugharne, and in the different, nuclear, atmosphere of the Cold War.
Thomas's work had been widely published in America from as early as 1939. His first American tour in February-June 1950 was followed by three more in 1952 and 1953. During the second tour in 1952, his last individual poetry volume In Country Sleep was published - in America only. This completed the five volumes that then made up his Collected Poems 1934-1952 (1952). His prefatory ‘Note’ to that important volume said that these were ‘most of the poems I have written, and all, up to the present year, that I wish to preserve’. The volume represented barely a quarter of the poems he'd written, but his point was that these were the ones he wanted his reputation to rest on. It's a point that deserves respect. He knew where to draw a line, not only this side of juvenilia but between poetry and mere verse. In the 1930-1934 Notebooks, he had unerringly recognized those items that were potentially fine poems. He chose these for his first four volumes. These volumes then, along with the poems in In Country Sleep, comprised his Collected Poems 1934-1952 (1952), confirming that volume's authorial integrity. It won the Foyle's Poetry Prize, to international acclaim.
But an untidy life, and naivety in the matter of money, meant that not even four profitable American visits made things easier back home in Wales. Yet even then, it was in New York in May 1953, and then in November that year (a matter of days before his death), that he completed Under Milk Wood, and gave the definitive performance as narrator in its first public readings. At the same time, the Opera Workshop of Boston University invited him to write a libretto for a new Stravinsky opera - at the suggestion of Stravinsky himself. But on his arrival for the last tour Thomas was clearly tired and ill, the result of an increasing tendency towards heavy drinking. The huge inter-state programme of engagements for all four American tours was itself unnaturally heavy, and the culpability of those who had professional responsibility for his welfare (primarily his agent for the tours, John Malcolm Brinnin) went even further. Thomas's death aged only 39 was by no means inevitable. It was precipitated by the prescription of morphine sulphate by a maverick American doctor. Even for final pain, the correct dose would have been one-sixth of a grain. Thomas's discomfort was treated with three times that amount. It exacerbated breathing difficulties, depriving his brain of oxygen.
Dylan Thomas died in the Catholic St Vincent's Charity Hospital in New York City on 9 November 1953. He was buried at St Martin's Church in Laugharne on 24 November 1953. On St David's Day 1982 a memorial stone was unveiled at Westminster Abbey, set between those to Byron and George Eliot.
Published date: 2014-10-24
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Born 27 October 1914 in Swansea, son of David John Thomas and his wife Florence Hannah (née Williams) who themselves came from rural, Welsh -speaking families in Cardiganshire, and Carmarthenshire. The father, a nephew of William Thomas ‘Gwilym Marles’, was from 1899 to 1936 English master at Swansea grammar school, which Dylan Thomas attended from 1925 to 1931. That was his only period of formal education and was followed by some fifteen months as junior reporter on the South Wales Daily Post. His early interest in English poetry had already borne fruit in the four notebooks in which he entered his first mature poems between 1930 and 1933. These notebooks were to be the major source of poems for his first three published volumes: 18 Poems (London, 1934), Twenty-five poems (London, 1936), and The map of love (short stories and poems) (London, 1939). Publication of individual poems in London periodicals led to his first volume, and that in turn to his arrival in London in November 1934. During the 1930s his work received increasing American as well as British attention and brought invitations to review books for leading London periodicals. Alternation between literary-social life in London and periods of greater actual creativity in Wales was to remain the pattern throughout his career. A close friendship with the poet Vernon Watkins in Swansea started in 1935.
He met Caitlin Macnamara in 1936 and they were m. the following year. In May 1938 they moved for the first time to live in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, the village now most intimately associated with his name, and a deep influence on his later work in verse and prose. He had been awarded the American Blumenthal Poetry Prize, and was writing the autobiographical short stories that were to be published as Portrait of the artist as a young dog (London, 1940). The comic realism of these stories was in marked contrast to the macabre and surrealistic element in his earlier tales, which can be read in A Prospect of the sea (London, 1955). Continuation of autobiographical material in the form of a novel remained unfinished, but was published as Adventures in the skin trade (London, 1955). After the outbreak of World War II he started to write radio scripts for the B.B.C. and to take part in broadcast talks and readings. His popularity as a broadcaster remained to the end of his life, and the quality of his work for radio is reflected in the volume Quite early one morning (London, 1954). From 1942 to the end of the war he was employed as a script-writer for Strand Films in London. An example of his work in this medium is The Doctor and the devils (London, 1953).
The period of war had interrupted his writing of poetry, though towards the end of the war Wales became increasingly his major home. At Llangain and New Quay in 1944-45 a new period of poetic creativity started, the most productive since the early days in Swansea, leading to the publication of Deaths and entrances (London, 1946). At the end of the war, however, he also started to show interest in visiting America, and the need to earn a living (mainly through work for films and radio) meant having to be within reach of London. From 1946 to 1949 therefore the poet and his family lived in or near Oxford. He visited Prague in 1949 as guest of the Czechoslovakian government.
He moved to live in the ‘Boat House’ at Laugharne in May 1949, where his third child was born, and where Thomas hoped to establish a permanent home, helped possibly by visits to America where his reputation as a poet was now firm. The first of these visits was in February-June 1950 and was followed by three more in 1952 and 1953. The individual work which occupied most of his time from 1950 onwards was the radio play Under Milk Wood (London, 1954), the main inspiration for which were the atmosphere and inhabitants of Laugharne itself. During the second American tour his last individual volume of poems was published, in America only, as In country sleep (New York, 1952). This completed the range of volumes that were to make up his Collected poems 1934-1952 (London, 1952) and which won the award of the Foyle's Poetry Prize. The complications of heavy drinking and irresponsibility with money meant, however, that not even the profitable American visits were to remove the financial and personal insecurity which made the poet less and less productive of new work at home. He died in New York on 9 November 1953 and is buried at Laugharne.
Published date: 1997
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