History of Literature

Dylan Thomas



Dylan Thomas


Dylan Thomas

British author
in full Dylan Marlais Thomas
born October 27, 1914, Swansea, Glamorgan [now in Swansea], Wales
died November 9, 1953, New York, New York, U.S.

Welsh poet and prose writer whose work is known for its comic exuberance, rhapsodic lilt, and pathos. His personal life, especially his reckless bouts of drinking (he died of an overdose of alcohol), was notorious.

Thomas spent his childhood in southwestern Wales. His father taught English at the Swansea grammar school, which in due course the boy attended. Because Dylan’s mother was a farmer’s daughter, he had a country home he could go to when on holiday. His poem “Fern Hill” (1946) describes its joys.

Although he edited the school magazine, contributing poetry and prose to it, Thomas did badly at school since he was always intellectually lazy with regard to any subject that did not directly concern him. His practical knowledge of English poetry was enormous, however. He had begun writing poems at a very early age, and scholars have shown that the bulk of his poetic output was completed, at least in embryonic form, by the time he moved to London at the age of 21. At age 16 he left school to work as a reporter on the South Wales Evening Post.

Thomas’s first book, 18 Poems, appeared in 1934, and it announced a strikingly new and individual, if not always comprehensible, voice in English poetry. His original style was further developed in Twenty-Five Poems (1936) and The Map of Love (1939). Thomas’s work, in its overtly emotional impact, its insistence on the importance of sound and rhythm, its primitivism, and the tensions between its biblical echoes and its sexual imagery, owed more to his Welsh background than to the prevailing taste in English literature for grim social commentary. Therein lay its originality. The poetry written up to 1939 is concerned with introspective, obsessive, sexual, and religious currents of feeling; and Thomas seems to be arguing rhetorically with himself on the subjects of sex and death, sin and redemption, the natural processes, creation and decay. The writing shows prodigious energy, but the final effect is sometimes obscure or diffuse.

Thomas basically made London his home for some 10 years from about 1936. In 1937 he married the Irishwoman Caitlin Macnamara, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. He had become famous in literary circles, was sociable, and was very poor, with a wife and growing family to support. His attempts to make money with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and as a film scriptwriter were not sufficiently remunerative. He wrote film scripts during World War II, having been excused from military service owing to a lung condition. Unfortunately, he was totally lacking in any sort of business acumen. He fell badly behind with his income tax returns, and what money he managed to make was snatched from him, at source, by the British Exchequer. He took to drinking more heavily and to borrowing from richer friends. Still, he continued to work, though in his maturity the composition of his poems became an ever-slower and more painstaking business.

The poems collected in Deaths and Entrances (1946) show a greater lucidity and confirm Thomas as a religious poet. This book reveals an advance in sympathy and understanding due, in part, to the impact of World War II and to the deepening harmony between the poet and his Welsh environment, for he writes generally in a mood of reconciliation and acceptance. He often adopts a bardic tone and is a true romantic in claiming a high, almost priestlike function for the poet. He also makes extensive use of Christian myth and symbolism and often sounds a note of formal ritual and incantation in his poems. The re-creation of childhood experience produces a visionary, mystical poetry in which the landscapes of youth and infancy assume the holiness of the first Eden (“Poem in October,” “Fern Hill”); for Thomas, childhood, with its intimations of immortality, is a state of innocence and grace. But the rhapsodic lilt and music of the later verse derives from a complex technical discipline, so that Thomas’ absorption in his craft produces verbal harmonies that are unique in English poetry.

Meanwhile the London or London-based atmosphere became increasingly dangerous and uncongenial both to Thomas and to his wife. As early as 1946 he was talking of emigrating to the United States, and in 1947 he had what would seem to be a nervous breakdown but refused psychiatric assistance. He moved to Oxford, where he was given a cottage by the distinguished historian A.J.P. Taylor. His trips to London, however, principally in connection with his BBC work, were grueling, exhausting, and increasingly alcoholic. In 1949 Taylor’s wife financed the purchase of a cottage, the Boat House, Laugharne, and Thomas returned to Wales. In the following year his first American tour was arranged, and for a while it seemed as if a happy compromise had been arranged between American money and Welsh tranquillity.

The prose that Thomas wrote is linked with his development as a poet, and his first stories, included in The Map of Love and A Prospect of the Sea (1955), are a by-product of the early poetry. But in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), the half-mythical Welsh landscapes of the early stories have been replaced by realistically and humorously observed scenes. A poet’s growing consciousness of himself, of the real seriousness hidden behind his mask of comedy, and of the world around him is presented with that characteristic blend of humour and pathos which is later given such lively expression in his “play for voices,” Under Milk Wood (1954). This play, which evokes the lives of the inhabitants of a small Welsh town, shows Thomas’s full powers as an artist in comedy; it is richly imaginative in language, dramatic in characterization, and fertile in comic invention.

Under Milk Wood was presented at the Poetry Center in New York City in 1953, and its final version was broadcast by the BBC in 1954. In 1952 Thomas published his Collected Poems, which exhibited the deeper insight and superb craftsmanship of a major 20th-century English poet. The volume was an immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic. But, because of the insistence of the Inland Revenue, his monetary difficulties persisted. He coped with his exhausting American tours by indulging in reckless drinking bouts. There were far too many people who seem to have derived pleasure from making the famous poet drunk. His personal despair mounted, his marriage was in peril, and at last, while in New York City and far from his Welsh home, he took such an overdose of hard liquor that he died.



Type of work: Poetry
Author: Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
First published: 1952

When Dylan Thomas died at the age of thirty-nine he was, for a poet in the twentieth century, extraordinarily popular. His poetry had been read and admired for years; a paean of praise greeted his collected works, and still more appreciation was accorded him after his death. However, many reputable critics, fellow poets, and general readers have disliked, derided, and dismissed his work on the grounds that it is merely sibylline raving. These contradictory reactions are explained by the fact that Thomas was primarily a violently emotional poet. The strength of his feelings thus either forcibly attracts or repels his readers.
The poems make an emotional impact, on first reading, that subsequent analyses will not displace. With the exception of Ezra Pound, Thomas is probably the most obscure of the prominent poets of this century. Whether he is a major or a minor poet will be established only by the evaluation of critics in the future, as no contemporary can have the necessary perspective to place a poet accurately in such a hierarchy.
A poet who is both very obscure and very popular is an anomaly. Thomas is not in this position by virtue of belonging to a particular school of verse, nor by writing in a recognized poetic convention. Nor is he socially or politically committed. His poetry is an affirmation of life: "These poems are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn' fool if they weren't." The truth of this assertion in the introductory note to his volume of collected verse is shown in every successful poem that he wrote. His early poetry is egocentric; he was writing of his own private feelings in these poems of birth, death, and sex, and the glory he found in these themes was entirely personal. His later poems show a far wider human interest and an increasing concern for mankind.
Throughout his work a unity of vision is apparent. He sees death in birth and resurrection in death. He is aware of the hate in all love and of the power of love to transcend suffering. He comprehends the simultaneous glory and corruption in life, and the fact that all forms of life are interdependent and inseparable. "I see the boys of summer" is a dialogue between the young poet who sees the destruction of the future in the present, and the adolescent boys living their first passionate and confusing loves. The successive images of light and dark, heat and cold, throughout the poem emphasize this contrast. The poem is filled with pleasure and pain conjoined, and with gain and loss. The polarity of these emotions is explicitly stated in the final, joyful image:

О see the poles are kissing as they cross.

"If I were tickled by the rub of love" is a difficult poem, to be understood by remembering the comprehensiveness of Thomas' idea of life. In the context of the poem, "tickled" appears to mean completely involved with, or wholly absorbed by, but the term necessarily retains the connotations of amusement and enjoyment. "Rub," as well as having sensual implications, also means doubt, difficulty, or strain. The poet says that if he were "tickled by the rub of love," he would not fear the fall from Eden or the flood; if he were "tickled" by the birth of a child, he would not fear death or war. Desire is spoken of as devilish and is provoked by

. . . the drug that's smoking in a girl
And curling round the bud that forks her eye.

This harsh image is followed by a statement of the poet's consciousness that he carries his own old age and death already within him.

An old man's shank one-marrowed with my bone,
And all the herrings smelling in the sea,
I sit and watch the worm beneath my nail
Wearing the quick away.

The feeling of fear is strong, and neither love, sex, beauty, nor birth is the "rub"; the solution is in wholeness or unity:

I would be tickled by the love that is:
Man be my metaphor.

Thomas' poetical development is unusual in that the thought in his later poems is usually not at all obscure. These poems are also less clotted with material; there are fewer esoteric symbols; ideas are developed at greater length, and tension is relaxed. The close attention to rhythm and structure persists, and the evocative power of his language is enhanced. Thomas' genius lay in the brilliant and highly personal use of the words with which his penetrating perception is communicated. The ambiguity of his language parallels the reciprocal nature of his images. He delights in punning and the various meanings of a word or image will often reverberate throughout an entire stanza.
"Poem on his birthday" is a good example of Thomas' method. The last poems are often, as this one is, set in the Welsh countryside. The heron is always in his poems a religious or priestly symbol. In the first stanza "herons spire and spear"; in the third, "herons walk in their shroud,"and in the ninth he writes of the "druid herons' vows" and of his "tumbledown tongue"—this last a beautifully fused image of the action of the tongue of a pealing bell and the impetuous voice of the poet. In the tenth stanza he speaks of the "nimbus bell" which is a magical goal. By this use of compound images Thomas explores and thoroughly penetrates his subject. All aspects of the experience are involved, and pain, happiness, grief, and joy are equally present in this expression of unified sensibility.
This inclusive view of the universe is sometimes incoherent in his early poems, sometimes illuminating. One of the finest of his early poems is titled "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower." The symbolism here is not obscure and the emotions are controlled by the form of the poem. The third line of each of the four five-line stanzas has only three or four words and is the main clause of the three-line sentence in which the theme of each stanza is stated. The last two lines of each stanza begin with the words "And I am dumb. . . ." After the dramatic first two lines the short solemn third lines ready the reader for the equally forceful antithesis. The poem ends with a rhyming couplet:

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb,
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

The theme of the poem is that the forces of nature are the same as those that drive man and that these forces both create and destroy. The careful structure of this poem is typical of Thomas' craftsmanship. He has been called undisciplined. He is not, but his unfettered imagination can confuse his meaning and his symbolism remains, in spite of painstaking analysis, almost inexplicable.
The sonnet sequence, "Altarwise by owl-light," is Thomas' most difficult poetry. The sonnets contain lines and passages of great beauty, and the overall movement, from horror and suffering toward the idea of the redemption of man by the Resurrection of Christ after the Crucifixion, is clear. But the sequence as a whole remains too compressed and fragmentary to be successful. Thomas has failed mainly to communicate the bases of the intense suffering and hope that he so obviously felt.
In "After the funeral," an elegy for a cousin, Ann Jones, Thomas expresses both his own grief and the character of the dead woman. It is, as the poet points out, written with a magniloquence that exceeds the subject's,

Though this for her is a monstrous image blindly
Magnified out of praise. . . .

This manner contrasts so sharply with the humble and suffering woman that the poignancy of the portrait is increased. His grief

Shakes a desolate boy who slit his throat
In the dark of the coffin and sheds dry leaves.

The clear-sighted description of the woman after the expression of such grief is very moving:

I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
Lie with religion in their cramp, her thread-bare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain.

The sonnet sequence and the elegy give some indication of Thomas' later themes, where religious faith and a concern for mankind are evident.
During the second world war Thomas spent several years in London, where he was deeply moved by German air raids on the city. This reaction is very clear in his fourth volume, Deaths and Entrances. The well-known "A refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" is both an affirmation of Christian faith and an expression of cold fury at such a death. The poet feels that the event was too great for grief and that no elegy should be written for the child until the end of the world. Writing of grief at the time would be as if to murder her again:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth.

The child is representative of all mankind and of all London's dead, a view which gives her a certain greatness:

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter.

The last line of the poem is ambivalent; it communicates both the irrevocability, finality, and cruelty of death and the Christian belief of the deathlessness of the soul:

After the first death there is no other.

After the war Thomas was concerned with recapturing in his poetry the world of his childhood. The rhythm of these poems is more relaxed and flowing than that of his early work, and the landscapes are glowing and full of color and wonder. These lyrics are poems in praise of the created world. Thomas' skill with words and rhythm evokes the whole Welsh countryside, and his unique imaginative vision makes the places his own. He has here communicated his great reverence and love of life. The unified vision of life remains, and Thomas is still aware of the presence of death in life, although this is no longer a cause of anguish as it was in the early poems.
In "Fern Hill," Thomas describes his youth on a farm.

He has re-created youthful feeling that the whole world was his; there is an atmosphere of timelessness, a lulling of the consciousness of time's destruction, which the poet in recapturing his youthful feeling has conveyed without negating his manhood's knowledge.
Dylan Thomas was a highly emotional poet whose lyrics express a unified vision of life. His poetry contains many of the aspects of birth and death, fear, grief, joy, and beauty. From the violent, anguished poems of his youth, his power over his "craft or sullen art" increased until he was able to channel his special mode of feeling in ways which enabled him to speak for all men:

And you shall wake, from country sleep, this
dawn and each first dawn,
Your faith as deathless as the outcry of the
ruled sun.










This day winding down now
At God speeded summer's end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my seashaken house
On a breakneck of rocks
Tangled with chirrup and fruit,
Froth, flute, fin, and quill
At a wood's dancing hoof,
By scummed, starfish sands
With their fishwife cross
Gulls, pipers, cockles, and snails,
Out there, crow black, men
Tackled with clouds, who kneel
To the sunset nets,
Geese nearly in heaven, boys
Stabbing, and herons, and shells
That speak seven seas,
Eternal waters away
From the cities of nine
Days' night whose towers will catch
In the religious wind
Like stalks of tall, dry straw,
At poor peace I sing
To you strangers (though song
Is a burning and crested act,
The fire of birds in
The world's turning wood,
For my sawn, splay sounds),
Out of these seathumbed leaves
That will fly and fall
Like leaves of trees and as soon
Crumble and undie
Into the dogdayed night.
Seaward the salmon, sucked sun slips,
And the dumb swans drub blue
My dabbed bay's dusk, as I hack
This rumpus of shapes
For you to know
How I, a spinning man,
Glory also this star, bird
Roared, sea born, man torn, blood blest.
Hark: I trumpet the place,
From fish to jumping hill! Look:
I build my bellowing ark
To the best of my love
As the flood begins,
Out of the fountainhead
Of fear, rage red, manalive,
Molten and mountainous to stream
Over the wound asleep
Sheep white hollow farms
To Wales in my arms.
Hoo, there, in castle keep,
You king singsong owls, who moonbeam
The flickering runs and dive
The dingle furred deer dead!
Huloo, on plumbed bryns,
O my ruffled ring dove
In the hooting, nearly dark
With Welsh and reverent rook,
Coo rooing the woods' praise,
Who moons her blue notes from her nest
Down to the curlew herd!
Ho, hullaballoing clan
Agape, with woe
In your beaks, on the gabbing capes!
Heigh, on horseback hill, jack
Whisking hare! who
Hears, there, this fox light, my flood ship's
Clangour as I hew and smite
(A clash of anvils for my
Hubbub and fiddle, this tune
On a tongued puffball)
But animals thick as thieves
On God's rough tumbling grounds
(Hail to His beasthood).
Beasts who sleep good and thin,
Hist, in hogsback woods! The haystacked
Hollow farms in a throng
Of waters cluck and cling,
And barnroofs cockcrow war!
O kingdom of neighbors, finned
Felled and quilled, flash to my patch
Work art and the moonshine
Drinking Noah of the bay,
With pelt, and scale, and fleece:
Only the drowned deep bells
Of sheep and churches noise
Poor peace as the sun sets
And dark shoals every holy field.
We will ride out alone and then,
Under the stars of Wales,
Cry, Multitudes of arks! Across
The water lidded lands,
Manned with their loves they'll move,
Like wooden islands, hill to hill.
Huloo, my proud dove with a flute!
Ahoy, old, sea-legged fox,
Tom tit and Dai mouse!
My ark sings in the sun
At God speeded summer's end
And the flood flowers now.







It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill's shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart's truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year's turning.








Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
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.








The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.








Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy