Self-titled "the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive", Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on27 October 1914in suburbanSwansea,South Wales, and educated atSwanseaGrammar School, where his father was the senior English master. After leaving school at the age of sixteen in 1931, Dylan worked as a journalist for aSwanseaevening newspaper and acted in a local theatre company before attempting to make a living out of his writing. His late teenage years were to prove unquestionably his most productive. In 1934, Dylan’s first book of poems was published, and he moved fromSwanseatoLondon. There he cultivated his bohemian reputation at the expense of his literary output, before embarking on the gypsy life he would later share with his wife, Caitlin Macnamara, whom he married in 1937, and with their three children, Llewelyn, Aeronwy, and Colm. Dylan found money hard to earn and easy to spend, depending for his family’s survival on the goodwill of friends and benefactors, one of whom bought the Boat House in his favourite village of Laugharne as a home for his family. The nearby garage became an inspirational writing hut.

The same Boat House in Laugharne has since become identified with his name and is now the site of a museum in his honour, while the former Guildhall inSwanseanow houses the impressive Dylan Thomas Centre.

The war years were spent largely in London, with Dylan writing scripts for documentaries and some feature films and writing and broadcasting for BBC radio. It was during this time that he acquired a reputation for reading over the air in what he called his “cut-glass accent”, at once precise and yet richly resonant - a reputation that only added to those he had acquired already for his bold poetry and heavy drinking. Later, during his first three notorious lecture tours of Americaundertaken in the early 1950s to make money, that reputation for reading aloud was confirmed before huge audiences.

It was in New York at the beginning of a fourth tour of America that on 9 November 1953, having barely reached the age of thirty-nine, the poet Dylan Thomas died. He had just signed a contract promising him $1000 a week for future American lecture tours, his celebrity status was growing in Britain, and his new writings in lighter vein had greatly increased his already considerable earning potential. Even given his proven inability to manage money, his financial problems seemed to be over. He was also looking forward to staying with Stravinsky in California to write the libretto of a new opera. At the same time, he had frequently claimed that he did not want to live to the age of 40. In the end, medical malpractice, coupled with his heavy drinking and smoking and underlying health problems, saw that death wish fulfilled.


by William Christie

Thomas had begun writing poetry as a child and was especially prolific during his adolescent years, filling many notebooks that would continue to furnish him with material for his poems until he chose, wisely as it turned out, to break with his past and sell them in 1940. Thomas's first published volume, 18 Poems, appeared in 1934, the same year he quit his parents' house in Swansea to live in London. By 1936 and the publication of his second volume, Twenty-five Poems, his assured and unmistakable style had attracted the attention both of influential eccentrics like Edith Sitwell and of major critics and poets, including William Empson and T. S. Eliot, and had made a number of his early poems the compulsory anthology pieces they have remained ever since: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower"; "Before I knocked"; "The hand that signed the paper"; "And death shall have no dominion". Less successful was the selection of poems published along with some stories as The Map of Love in 1939, so that the critical renown and more extensive readership that came with a confirmation of his gifts had to wait until the publication of Deaths and Entrances in 1946, which contained such perennial additions to the Thomas canon as "A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London", "Poem in October", "This side of truth", "The hunchback in the park", "In my craft or sullen art", and "Fern Hill". His last volume of original poems, In Country Sleep (1952), added "Over Sir John's Hill' and the inimitable "Do not go gentle into that good night".

By the time Thomas brought out his Collected Poems 1934­-1952 there were few, if any, doubters amongst reviewers, critics, and the poetry reading public. They would come later, and largely from within the academy, when Thomas became the whipping-boy for a number of ethico-critical evangelisms. Their main focus was on the earlier, always elaborate and frequently obscure poems – poems influenced by the Metaphysicals Donne and Herbert, by Blake and by Hopkins, amongst others; poems combining bardic self­-consciousness and intricate prosody in a way characteristic of the Welsh poetic tradition (though Thomas neither read nor spoke Welsh himself). Influenced also by Freud and Jung and, to a lesser extent, by surrealism, these early poems deploy a strange fusion of archetypal Christian symbolism with biological or bodily and sometimes industrial imagery, appearing to celebrate and simulate vital (and mortal) energies in a way that has often been described as 'Romantic'. The Romanticism is at times subtly ironized, however, occasionally even openly mocked, and along with his obscurity it was the mocking, 'nogood boyo' persona relished by Thomas in literature as in life that provoked censure. (The later more accessible poetry, on the other hand, was dismissed by some critics as popular and sentimental only.)

In spite of the critical reaction, however, the minutely, indeed obsessively crafted "accidental magic" of his best poems - for which, as with all poets, the failures are the price he paid - has secured Thomas a place in Keats's “Immortal freemasonry" of major poets. And this, even without taking into account his most famous single work, the "play for voices" Under Milk Wood composed over the final years of his short life and still being amended when Thomas died.