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Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

 

Welsh poet and prose writer whose works are known for musical quality of the language, comic or visionary scenes and sensual images. Dylan Thomas died in the United States on a tour on November 9, 1953. His death resulted much from his alcoholism, which have gained mythic proportions. The Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea even serves pints of Dylan's smooth ale. It has been claimed that the famous American famous songwriter and musician Bob Dylan, who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, named himself after the Welsh poet, but Dylan himself had denied it.

"The hand that signet the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death."

(in 'The Hand That Signed the Paper', 1936)

Dylan Mariais Thomas was born in the seaport town Swansea, West Glamorgan. The "Marlais" was the name used by his great uncle, William Thomas, and the name of two Welsh rivers. His father, David John Thomas, was the senior English master at Swansea Grammar School, where Thomas was educated. His parents had a Welsh-speaking country background from Carmarthhenshire, but they adopted English language and culture. Although Thomas could not speak Welsh, he picked up the rhytms of the language, and started to write poetry while still at school. 

Thomas received little formal education. When he was twelve, his poem was published in the Western Mail. Actually the work was copied from the Boy's Own Paper. Other verse, original without any doubts, he wrote for the Grammar School magazine. Ignoring his father's advice to attend university, he left his studies and worked as a trainee newspaper reporter on the South Wales Evening Post. His first book, dreamlike and sensuous 18 Poems (1934), marked the appearance of an energetic new voice in English literature. Thomas wrote the poems when he was nineteen and twenty years old. In 'I see the boys of summer' Thomas identifies himself with doomed Welshmen, victims of time. "Awake, my sleepers, to the sun, / A worker in the morning town, / And leave the poppied pickthank where he lies; / The fences of the light are down, / All but the briskest riders thrown, / And worlds hang on the trees."

After establishing his reputation with Twenty-five Poems (1936),  Thomas moved to London where he worked as a broadcaster, prose writer, poet, and lecturer. With the writer Pamela Hansford Johnson, he started correspondence and a love affair. "Charming, very young looking with the most enchanting voice," she wrote in her diary when they met. Later she married Lord (C.P.) Snow. In 1937 Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara, whom he called in a letter "Betty Boop". For a while the couple settled at Laugharne in Wales, returning there permanently after many wanderings in 1949. The marriage was stormy; Thomas was a natural bohemian and eventually Caitlin became tired in her husband's frecklessness. Thomas's earnings were irregular, his earnings just melted away, and he had to borrow money from his friends.

By the end of the 1930s, Thomas had gained fame in the literary circles, but he also suffered from depression and was afraid of losing inspiration. He became later a highly public figure due to his radio work and readings. His romantic, rhetorical style won a large following. Some writers, among them Philip Larkin, rejected his work as too subjective.

Unfit for active service, Thomas worked during World War II as a documentary film script writer. With Alan Osbiston he directed the documentary These Are The Men (1943), an attack on the Nazi leaders, which used shots from Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will (1935). Sporadically Thomas was employed by the BBC, where his striking, melodic voice made him a media star. After the German planes had firebombed London, Thomas composed the lines: "Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter, Robed in the long friends, / The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother, / Of the riding Thames. / After the first death, there is no other." (from 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London', 1946) In the 1940s Thomas wrote some of his best works. To Laurence Pollinger, who was was standing in for his regular agent, David Higham, he assured that his publishers would see a short novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, "quite soon". However, he was still working on the book in 1953.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) was a collection of largely autobiographical short stories, paying homage to James Joyce. Thomas worked on the book while staying with Richard Hughes at Castle House in Laugharne. Deaths and Entrances (1946) drew from religious imagery and took its subjects among others from the bombing of London, or from the loss of childhood world as in the poem 'Fern Hill'. Another pastoral ode, 'Poems in October,' expressed Thomas's nostalgia for lost youth.

In 1947, when Thomas contributed to more than 50 features for the BBC, he suffered a mental breakdown, and moved to Oxford. He returned to Wales in 1949 and made his first American tour next year, mostly because of financial pressures. In 1950, 1952, and 1953 Thomas continued his popular reading tours on American college campuses, managing to hide that he did not like reading his own work, but unable to resist the temptation to live up to his own reputation for being wild and drunken. Before a reading at Pomona College, Claremont, he lost his books and notes. In New York, he spent a lot of time at the Chelsea Hotel Bar. The tours were financially profitable and he met such celebrities as Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin. At Chaplin's, he was seen urinating on a plant. Thomas died at St. Vincent's Hospital, after spending four days in a coma. According to a story, he had boasted to his American girlfriend, Liz Reitell, that he had drunk 18 straight whiskies in a bar in Manhattan. At the hospital a doctor had given him various drugs and an injection of morphine. In spite of Thomas's heavy drinking, the autopsy revealed that he did not suffer from serious cirrhosis of the liver. Caitlin Macnamara Thomas died in 1994.

His last four years Thomas spent at the Boat House in Laugharne, where he later was buried. The cottage was purchased for the family by Margaret Taylor, the wife of the historian A.J.P. Taylor. Shortly before his death in New York, Thomas took part in a reading of what was to be his most famous single work. Under Milk Wood (1954) was a return to the Welsh landscape, and a celebration of domestic life and dreams of ordinary people. It was published posthumously as his reminiscence A Child's Christmas in Wales  (1955). His Notebooks, edited by Ralph Maud, came out in 1968. A new edition of The Poems of Dylan Thomas (1971) included personal comments by his friend and early collaborator, the composer Daniel Jones. The musician John Cale has set several of Thomas's poems to music. "As to the Thomas heritage industry: ouch!" Cale has said.

Thomas's poetry is marked by vivid metaphors, the use of Christian and Freudian imagery, and celebration of the mystical power of growth and death. "My poetry," Thomas once said, "is the record of my individual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light." Although Thomas's poems appear to be freely flowing, his work sheets reveal much work behind his mixture of the vernacular and literary. To Pamela Hansford Johnson he once said in the 1930s, that he wrote at the rate of two lines an hour. Among his best-known individual poems are 'And death shall have no dominion,' 'Altarwise by owllight' (a sonnet sequence), 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,' 'Do not go gentle into that good night,' 'In My Craft and Sullen Art,' and 'Fern Hill.' His own role and gift as a poet Thomas paralleled with the forces of nature: "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." (from 'Fern Hill')

Thomas also wrote short stories, essays, and a roman à clef, Adventures in the Skin Trade (1955), which was left unfinished. Thomas's radio play Under the Milk Wood portrayed a small Welsh coastal town and was adapted to screen 1971 starring Richard Burton and Elizabet Taylor. His own film scripts concerned less personal subjects. No Room at the Inn (1948), directed by Daniel Birt and scripted by Thomas and Ivan Foxwell, was adapted from a stage play by Joan Temple. The Doctor and the Devils (1953), set in the late eighteenth century Edinburgh, examined the theme of 'the ends justify the means'. It was based on the case of the murderers Burke and Hare. In the story a surgeon starts to pay for bodies, which he uses as cadavers for dissection. The trial also touched foundations of the whole society: "SECOND PROFESSOR: ... and if a member of the royal family is accused of a commoner's crime, then it is the whole family that is accused. An elaborate smile - but you see my point?" After Thomas's death, the rights of The Beach of Falesá (1963), a murder story set in the South Pacific, were bought by the actor Richard Burton. He enlisted Christopher Isherwood to work on it but the script never reached the screen.

For further reading: Dylan Thomas: "Dog among the Fairies" by H. Treece (1949); The Poetry of Dylan Thomas by E. Olson (1954); Dylan Thomas by D. Stanford (1954); Dylan Thomas in America by J.M. Brinnin (1955); A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas by W.Y. Tindall (1962); The Life of Dylan Thomas by C. FitzGibbon (1965); Saga of Prayer by R.K. Burdette (1972); Dylan Thomas by P. Ferris (1977); The Oxford Companion to Literature of Wales by Meic Stephens (1986); Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work by J. Ackerman (1996); A Reference Companion to Dylan Thomas by James A. Davies (1998); Dylan Thomas' Wales y Hilary Laurie (1999); Dylan Thomas: An Original Language by Barbara Nathan Hardy (2000); Dylan Thomas: A New Life by Andrew Lycewtt (2004). See also: Amos Tutuola, whose novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard required the support of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas to secure its publication in Britain. Other Welsh writers: Roald Dahl (1916-1990), Rhys Davies (1901-1978), Dick Francis (1920-2010), Erik Linklater (1899-1974), Richard Llewellyn (1907-1983), John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), Kate Roberts (1891-1985), Howard Spring (1889-1965), Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981),  R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). Suom.: Marja-Leena Mikkola suomentanut Dylan Thomasin runoja teoksessa Rakkaus on viimeinen valo josta puhutaan (1990).

Selected works:

  • 18 Poems, 1934
  • Twenty-Five Poems, 1935
  • The Map of Love: Verse and Prose, 1939
  • The World I Breathe, 1939
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, 1940
    - Taiteilijan omakuva penikkavuosilta (suom. Veli Sandell, 1963)
  • New Poems, 1943
  • Deaths and Entrances, 1946 (introduction by John L. Sweeney)
  • Selected Writings of Dylan Thomas, 1946
  • Twenty-Six Poems, 1950
  • Collected Poems, 1934–1952, 1952
  • In Country Sleep, and Other Poems, 1952
  • The Doctor and the Devils, 1953 (film script, from the story by Donald Taylor)
    - Film 1985, prod. Brooksfilms, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. by Freddie Francis, screenplay Dylan Thomas, Ronald Harwood, starring Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Twiggy, Julian Sands 
  • Quite Early One Morning, 1954 (radio essays)
  • Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, 1954
    - Maitometsä (suom. Anselm Hollo, 1992)
    - Films: TV film 1957, prod. BBC, dir. David J. Thomas, starring  Doland Hurston, Gareth Jones, William Squire; TV drama, 1964, in TV series Festival, starring Donald Houston and Darryl Read; 1971, prod. Timon Productions, dir. by Andrew Sinclair, starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O'Toole. "Oh, isn't life a terrible thing, thank God?"; TV movie, 1992, prod. Siriol Animation Ltd., dir. Les Orton, starring Richard Burton, Philip Burton and Meredith Edwards; Hotel Chelsea, 2001, based on Under Milk Wood and Lament, prod. Chelsea Walls Inc., IFC Productions, InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment), dir. Ethan Hawke, screenplay Nocole Burdette, starring Paz de la Huerta, Vincent D'Onofrio, Bianca Hunter, Kevin Corrigan, Rosario Dawson
  • A Prospect of the Sea, 1955
    - film: The Mouse and the Woman, 1980, prod. Alvicar, dir. Karl Francis, starring Peter Sproule, Joffre Swales, Basil Painting, Bob Mason, Karen Allen
  • A Child's Christmas in Wales, 1955
    - TV film 1987, prod. Atlantis Films, Cypress Films (I), Harlech Television (HTV), dir. Don McBrearty, adaptation Jon Glascoe, starring Denholm Elliott, Mathonwy Reeves and Glynis Davies
  • Adventures In The Skin Trade And Other Stories, 1955
  • Letters to Vernon Watkins, 1957 (edited with an introd. by Vernon Watkins)
  • The Beach of Falesá, 1963 (screenplay, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson; radio play, BBC Radio 3, May 2014)
  • Miscellany: Poems, Stories, Broadcasts, 1963
  • The Colour of Saying, an Anthology of Verse Spoken by Dylan Thomas , 1963
  • Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas, 1963
  • A Film Script of Twenty Years A-growing: From the Story by Maurice O'Sullivan, 1964
  • Rebecca's Daughters, 1965
    - film 1992, prod. Rebecca's Daughters Ltd., dir. Karl Francis, starring Peter O'Toole, Paul Rhys, Joely Richardson, Dafydd Hywel  
  • Me and My Bike, 1965 (unfinished film script; foreword by Sydney Box. illustrated by Leonora Box)
  • Selected Letters, 1966 (edited by Constantine Fitzgibbon)
  • Miscellany Two: a Visit to Grandpa's and Other Stories and Poems, 1966
  • Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas, 1968 (edited by Ralph Maud)
  • The Year of Love, 1969
  • Twelve More Letters, 1970
  • Dylan Thomas: The Poems, 1971 (UK title; edited with an introduction and notes by Daniel Jones)
  • Dylan Thomas: Early Prose Writings, 1971 (edited by Walford Davies)
  • Living and Writing: Dylan Thomas, 1972 (edited by Christopher Copeman)
  • Selected Poems, 1975 (edited with an introduction and notes by Walford Davies)
  • The Death of the King's Canary, 1976 (with John Davenport)
  • Miscellany Three: Poems and Stories, 1978
  • The Collected Stories, 1980 (illustrated by Paul Hogarth)
  • The Collected Letters, 1985 (edited by Paul Ferris)
  • Dylan Thomas - The Filmscripts, 1995 (edited by John Ackerman)
  • The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas, 2001


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