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Thomas, Dylan

Category: Poet

 

 Dylan Thomas (27 October 1914 – 9 November 1953) was a Welsh poet and writer whose works include the poems "Do not go gentle into that good night" and the "play for voices", Under Milk Wood, and stories and radio broadcasts such as A Child's Christmas in Wales.

Thomas was a teenager when many of the poems for which he became famous were published: "And death shall have no dominion", "Before I Knocked" and "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower".

"And death shall have no dominion" appeared in the New English Weekly in May 1933, when he was only 18. When "Light breaks where no sun shines" appeared in The Listener in 1934. His first poetry volume, 18 Poems, was published in December 1934, just after he was 20. 18 Poems was noted for its ‘visionary qualities’.

All these poems were written whilst he was still living at home in Wales with his mother and father.  Thomas had bronchitis and asthma in childhood and struggled with these throughout his life.  His illnesses were serious.  Coughing sometimes confined him to bed and he had a history of bringing up blood and mucus.  But his illnesses had their compensations, as “Thomas was indulged by his mother and enjoyed being coddled, a trait he carried into adulthood”.  So Dylan Thomas thrived on love and affection, safety and security. 

His early years also saw no real stresses, he had a very happy school life.  For example, he went to  Mrs Hole's dame school a private school on Mirador Crescent, a few streets away from his home, of which he said:
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.

Dylan, Caitlin and Dylan's Mum on the beach

Thomas also appears to have benefited in those early years from having a very supportive mother and father. His father had a first-class honours degree in English from University College, Aberystwyth, but he also had frustrated ambitions to be something better than the teacher he had become at the local grammar school.  Thomas’s only sister Nancy was nine years older than him and all those frustrated ambitions appear to have been directed towards Dylan rather than his sister. Thomas' father chose the name Dylan, which could be translated as "son of the sea", after Dylan ail Don, a character in The Mabinogion, which somewhat indicates the pride he had in his son and heir.  Poetry also ran in the family.  His great-uncle, William Thomas, was both a Unitarian minister and poet whose bardic name was Gwilym Marles.

In October 1925, Thomas enrolled at Swansea Grammar School for boys, in Mount Pleasant, where his father taught English.  Dylan had little interest in academic studies, but he did not let school life hamper his real interests or his progress.  Instead he read what he wanted to read. In his first year one of his poems was published in the school's magazine and before he left he became its editor.  During his final school years he began writing poetry in notebooks.  Thomas left school at 16 to become a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post, then left, but continued to work as a freelance journalist for several years during which time he remained at his parent’s house in Cwmdonkin Drive where he continued to add to his notebooks, amassing 200 poems in four books between 1930 and 1934. Of the 90 poems he published, half were written during these years.

 

And then things went pear shaped. 

In spring 1936, Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara (1913–1994), a 22-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed dancer of Irish descent. She had run away from home, intent on making a career in dance, and aged 18 joined the chorus line at the London Palladium.  Introduced by Augustus John, Caitlin's lover, they met in The Wheatsheaf pub on Rathbone Place in London's West End.  Laying his head in her lap, a drunken Thomas proposed.  Thomas liked to boast that he and Caitlin were in bed together ten minutes after they first met. Although Caitlin initially continued her relationship with John, she and Thomas began a correspondence and they married at the register office in Penzance, Cornwall, on 11 July 1937. In spring 1938, they moved to Wales renting a cottage in the village of Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. Their first child, Llewelyn Edouard, was born on 30 January 1939.

Dylan and Caitlin’s relationship was defined by alcoholism and was mutually destructive. Caitlin Thomas' autobiographies, Caitlin Thomas – Leftover Life to Kill (1957) and My Life with Dylan Thomas: Double Drink Story (1997), describe the destructive effect of alcoholism on the poet and on their relationship. "But ours was a drink story, not a love story, just like millions of others. Our one and only true love was drink".

Thomas with Caitlin

In the early part of his marriage, Thomas and his family lived hand-to-mouth. In 1939 The Map of Love appeared as a collection of 16 poems and was followed by Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940).   Sales of both books were poor, resulting in Thomas living on meagre fees from writing and reviewing. At this time, he borrowed heavily from friends and acquaintances.  Hounded by debtors, Thomas and his family left Laugharne in July 1940 and moved to the home of critic John Davenport in Marshfield, Gloucestershire. There Thomas collaborated with Davenport on the satire The Death of the King's Canary, though due to fears of libel, the work was not published until after his death in 1976.

 What is fascinating about Thomas is that he did not thrive on sex, lust, hardship or destitution – the normal meat of the poet’s table. 

 

He suffered, but it produced poetry nowhere near as accomplished as those of his teenage years.  In some respects he lived off his earlier poems and a reputation he conjured up for himself as being eccentric and wild.  He found earning a living as a writer difficult, which resulted in his augmenting his income with reading tours and broadcasts. During the war he was too ill to fight, but did war broadcasts for the BBC.  His radio recordings for the BBC brought him to the public's attention and he was used by the Corporation as a populist voice of the literary scene. He has a good speaking voice, clear and for a Welshman strangely without any accent.  His poems sound more authentically read by Richard Burton than they do read by him.

The Thomas family with Thomas's mother

In May 1941, Thomas and Caitlin moved to London, leaving their son with his grandmother at Blashford in Hampshire.  During this time he wrote scripts for documentaries, for example, This Is Colour (a history of the British dyeing industry) and New Towns For Old (on post-war reconstruction). Like many men who find themselves under stress and failing, he turned to other women for consolation.  In early 1943, Thomas began a relationship with Pamela Glendower, one of several affairs he had during his marriage. The affairs either ran out of steam or were halted after Caitlin discovered his infidelity. In March 1943, Caitlin gave birth to a daughter, Aeronwy in London. They lived in dreadful conditions -  a run-down studio in Chelsea, made up of a single large room with a curtain to separate the kitchen.

In 1944, with the threat of German flying bombs on London, Thomas moved to the family cottage in Blaen Cwm near Llangain.  And here at least he refound a small measure of the security and serenity he had lost in the intervening years.  Thomas resumed writing poetry, completing "Holy Spring" and "Vision and Prayer". In September, Thomas and Caitlin moved to New Quay in West Wales which inspired Thomas to pen the radio piece Quite Early One Morning, a sketch for his later work, Under Milk Wood. Of the poetry written at this time, of note is "Fern Hill", believed to have been started while living in New Quay, but completed at Blaen Cwm in the summer of 1945.

In the second half of 1945, Thomas began reading for the BBC Radio programme, Book of Verse, broadcast weekly to the Far East.  It provided him with a regular income.   On 29 September 1946, the BBC began transmitting the Third Programme, a high-culture network which provided opportunities for Thomas. His new found security and contentment paid dividends.   The publication of Deaths and Entrances in 1946 was a turning point for Thomas. Poet and critic Walter J. Turner commented in The Spectator, "This book alone, in my opinion, ranks him as a major poet”.  In May 1948 Thomas and his family moved to his final home, the Boat House at Laugharne purchased for him at a cost of £2,500 in April 1949 by Margaret Taylor, first wife of historian A. J. P. Taylor. Thomas acquired a garage a hundred yards from the house on a cliff ledge which he turned into his writing shed, and where he penned several of his most acclaimed poems.

 

In 1950, John Brinnin invited Thomas to New York, and they embarked on a lucrative three-month tour of arts centres and campuses. The tour, which began in front of an audience of a thousand at the Kaufmann Auditorium of the Poetry Centre in New York, took in about 40 venues. During the tour Thomas was invited to many parties and functions and on several occasions became drunk, going out of his way to shock people and was ‘a difficult guest’.  Thomas drank before some of his readings, though it is argued he may have pretended to be more intoxicated than he actually was. The writer Elizabeth Hardwick recalled 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?" Caitlin said in her memoir, "Nobody ever needed encouragement less, and he was drowned in it."

Thomas undertook a second tour of the United States in 1952, this time with Caitlin after she had discovered he had been unfaithful on his earlier trip. They drank heavily, and Thomas began to suffer with gout and lung problems. The second tour was the most intensive of the four, taking in 46 engagements.

Reitell

In April 1953, Thomas returned alone for a third tour. He performed a "work in progress" version of Under Milk Wood, solo, for the first time at Harvard University on 3 May. A week later the work was performed with a full cast at the Poetry Centre in New York. He met the deadline only after being locked in a room by Brinnin's assistant, Liz Reitell, and was still editing the script on the afternoon of the performance; its last lines were handed to the actors as they were putting on their makeup.  Thomas spent the last nine or ten days of his third tour in New York mostly in the company of Reitell, with whom he had an affair.  During this time Thomas fractured his arm falling down a flight of stairs when drunk.   He was seen by Reitell's doctor, Milton Feltenstein, who put his arm in plaster and ‘treated him’ for gout and gastritis. 

He was in a melancholy mood about the fourth tour and his health was poor, he was relying on an inhaler to aid his breathing and there were reports that he was suffering from blackouts. On his last night in London, he had another, in the company of his fellow poet Louis MacNeice. When Liz Reitell met Thomas at Idlewild Airport, she was shocked at his appearance, as he "looked pale, delicate and shaky, not his usual robust self." Herb Hannum, a friend from an earlier trip, noticed how sick Thomas looked and suggested an appointment with Feltenstein before the performances of Under Milk Wood. Feltenstein administered injections and Thomas made it through the two performances, but collapsed immediately afterwards.   Reitell later said that Feltenstein was "rather a wild doctor who thought injections would cure anything".  On 4 November, Thomas said he was feeling ill and Feltenstein came to see him three times that day, administering the steroid ACTH by injection and, on his third visit, half a grain (32.4 milligrams) of morphine sulphate, which affected his breathing. At midnight on 5 November, Thomas' breathing became so difficult that his face turned blue. An ambulance was summoned.  Thomas died at noon on 9 November, still in a coma.

His body was returned to Wales where he was buried at the village churchyard in Laugharne.  Thomas' last collection Collected Poems, 1934–1952, published when he was 38, won the Foyle poetry prize.

“Feltenstein's role and actions have been criticised by many sources, especially his incorrect diagnosis of delirium tremens and the high dose of morphine he administered.   Dr B. W. Murphy and Dr C. G. de Gutierrez-Mahoney, the doctors who treated Thomas while at St. Vincents, concluded that Feltenstein's failure to see that Thomas was gravely ill and have him admitted to hospital sooner, "was even more culpable than his use of morphine".”

Death by doctor.

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 behaviour 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.

 

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.

 

 

 

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