Dylan Marlais Thomas, (October 27, 1914 – November 9, 1953) was an Anglo-Welsh poet who is widely considered one of the most influential English-language poets of the twentieth-century. Although Thomas wrote during the heyday of Modernism, his poetry was radically different from anything produced by the Modernists. Writing deeply personal works fueled by his own troubled emotional life, Thomas produced verse in a highly idiosyncratic style, choosing words often for sound rather than sense and using innovative meters and rhyme schemes similar to those found in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Thomas greatly admired. Along with Yeats, Thomas' sonorous and personal style of poetry tinged with his own knowledge of Welsh language and folklore helped to precipitate the Celtic Revival in British literature. Often considered to be one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century in terms of the sheer beauty of his language, Thomas' influence extends to the present among poets like Seamus Heaney, who attempts to capture the music of ancient poetry in the vocabulary of the present-day.
Dylan Thomas was born in the coastal city of Swansea, Wales. His father David, who was a writer and possessed a degree in English, brought his son up to speak English rather than Thomas's mother's native language, Welsh. His middle name, "Marlais," came from the bardic name of his uncle, the Unitarian minister Gwilym Marles.
Thomas attended the boys-only Swansea Grammar School, in the Mount Pleasant district of the city, where his father taught English Literature. It was in the school's magazine that the young Dylan saw his first poem published. He left school at age 16 to become a reporter for a year and a half.
Thomas' childhood was spent largely in Swansea, with regular summer trips to visit his mother's family on their Carmarthen farm. These rural sojourns, and their contrast with the town life of Swansea, would leave a profound impression on the young Thomas; like Wordsworth, much of Thomas' work would be influenced by his early experiences of the wonders and beauty of the natural world, most notably the critically acclaimed poem, Fern Hill.
Thomas wrote the bulk of his poems and many short stories when he still lived at the family home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive; And death shall have no dominion is one of the best known works written during this time. By the time his first poetry volume, 18 Poems, was published in November 1934, he was already established as one of the most exciting young poets writing in the English language. His poetry was marked from the start by the characteristics that would make Thomas world famous: a talent for sonorous rhymes and musical repetitions, a creative (and at times baffling) use of words chosen for their sound more than their sense, and vivid, deeply symbolic imagery. And Death Shall Have No Dominion, one of the most famous poems of this period, is also one of Thomas' most influential, and a beautiful example of his characteristic voice:
- And death shall have no dominion.
- Dead men naked they shall be one
- With the man in the wind and the west moon;
- When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
- They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
- Though they go mad they shall be sane,
- Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
- Though lovers be lost love shall not;
- And death shall have no dominion.
In 1937 Thomas married Caitlin MacNamara and would have three children with her, although the relationship was very often stormy and littered with affairs. January of 1939 saw the birth of their first child, a boy whom they named Llewelyn (died in 2000). He was followed in March of 1943 by a daughter, Aeronwy. A second son and third child, Colm Garan, was born in July 1949.
He collapsed on November 9, 1953, after drinking heavily while in New York on a promotional tour; Thomas later died at St. Vincent's Hospital, aged 39. The primary cause of his death is recorded as pneumonia. His last words, according to Jack Heliker, were, "After 39 years, this is all I've done." Following his death, his body was brought back to Wales for burial in the village churchyard at Laugharne, Wales, where he had enjoyed his happiest days.
Career and influence
Dylan Thomas is widely considered one of the greatest twentieth-century poets writing in English. He remains the leading figure in Anglo-Welsh literature. His vivid and often fantastic imagery was a rejection of the Modernist trends in twentieth-century verse; while his contemporaries gradually altered their writing to serious topical verse centered on social, political, and philosophical investigations, Thomas gave himself over to his passionate emotions, and his writing is often both intensely personal and fiercely lyrical. Thomas did, nonetheless, write at least four war poems, one of which is especially famous—"A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London":
- Never until the mankind making
- Bird beast and flower
- Fathering and all humbling darkness
- Tells with silence the last light breaking...
Thomas, in many ways, was more in alignment with the Romantics than he was with the poets of his era, and he identified strongly with William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge in particular. Thomas also differed from many major twentieth-century poets in his championing of oral poetry, which constituted a radical break from the visual-oriented poetry that had dominated the field since the emergence of Ezra Pound's Imagist movement decades earlier. In this sense, Thomas was well-adapted to his time; his rise coincides with the improvement and profusion of recording technology and radio. Thomas possessed a marvelous voice for recitation, and he was often recorded decanting both his own poems and those of his contemporaries. The audio-literature company, Caedmon, now a division of HarperCollins, was launched with Thomas's recording of his story "A Child's Christmas in Wales."
Aside from stories and verse, Thomas did a great deal of radio and film work, especially during World War II. His filmscripts were done for Strand Films. One of these, Green Mountain, Black Mountain, is notable for its integration of verse into documentary (similar to Auden and Grierson's Night Mail from the 1930s). Another, These Are the Men, is a singularly creative attack on Nazi leaders. He also experimented with creative filmscripts; his The Doctor and the Devils was filmed in 1985 with Timothy Dalton, Twiggy, and Stephen Rea. His radio broadcasts were generally literary talks; his prose volumes Under Milk Wood and A Child's Christmas in Wales both seem to have originated in radio talks. Thomas also worked on an unfinished novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade. The roughly 60 completed pages are a promising beginning of a comic bildungsroman.
Thomas's circle, sometimes known as the "Kardomah Boys" after the coffee shop where they often met, included the composer and old school friend, Daniel Jones, the poets Vernon Watkins and Charles Fisher as well as the artists Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy.
- Collected Poems 1934 – 1953 (London: Phoenix, 2003)
- Selected Poems (London: Phoenix, 2001) ISBN 0753810581
- Collected Letters ISBN 0026176300
- Collected Stories ISBN 046087330X
- Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog ISBN 0811202070
- Under Milk Wood ISBN 0140188886
- Quite Early One Morning (posthumous) ISBN 0811202089
- Dylan Thomas: Volume I - A Child's Christmas in Wales and Five Poems (Caedmon TC 1002 - 1952)
- Under Milk Wood (Caedmon TC 2005 - 1953)
- Dylan Thomas: Volume II - Selections from the Writings of Dylan Thomas (Caedmon TC 1018 - 1954)
- Dylan Thomas: Volume III - Selections from the Writings of Dylan Thomas (Caedmon TC 1043)
- Dylan Thomas: Volume VI - Selections from the Writings of Dylan Thomas (Caedmon TC 1061)
- Lycett, Andrew. Dylan Thomas: A New Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2005. ISBN 1585675415
- Ferris, Paul. Dylan Thomas: The Biography. London: Phoenix, 2000. ISBN 0753810832
- Tindall, William York. A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996. ISBN 0815604017
All Links Retrieved February 10, 2008.
- The Life and Work of Dylan Thomas
- Dylan Thomas on Poets.org Biography, poems, audio clips, and related essays from the Academy of American Poets.
- The city of Swansea's site on Thomas
- BBC Wales' Dylan Thomas site
- The Dylan Thomas Theatre Company Swansea
- The graves of Dylan and Caitlin from findagrave.com
- French Audio Book (mp3) from Under Milk Wood, translated in French by J.B. Brunius
- "The pub and the hellraiser: The poet, the actor, their pub, a furore" The Independent online edition November 30, 2005
- BBC Wales biography of Caitlin
- Biography (obituary) of son Llewelyn, from Guardian Unlimited (2000)
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