Dylan Marlais Thomas is firmly identified in many minds as the Welsh poet par excellence, as the voice of modern Wales speaking in the bardic tradition of The Mabinogion (c. twelfth and thirteenth centuries) and in the Renaissance tradition of William Shakespeare’s mystic, Owen Glendower. In fact, Thomas’s poetry is scarcely Welsh at all, although the poet loved Wales. Biographers have noted that Thomas’s life and times have only a limited relevance to his poetry, and what influence there is, is transformed into a personal inner world. “Fern Hill,” “Over Sir John’s Hill,” and a few other poems are set in the countryside and seashore that Thomas knew, and “Hold Hand, These Ancient Minutes in the Cuckoo’s Month” speaks accurately of the brutality of the Welsh winter and spring, but rarely does Thomas’s poetry treat in any serious way either the real or mythical history and countryside of Wales, the realities of the depressed industrial Wales he knew as an adolescent, or the postwar Wales he returned to after the horrors of the London bombing or the triumph of the American tours. The rough and intimate life of the family and village he treats so graphically in other genres seems to lie outside his idea of poetic fitness.
Thomas was born and reared in Swansea, in southern Wales, east by a few miles from Carmarthen and its environs, Fern Hill and Laugharne, which were to play such an important part in his personal life. Swansea, urban and industrial, contrasts strongly with the idyllic Carmarthenshire. Thomas’s immediate family consisted of his father, David John Thomas; his mother, Florence Thomas (née Williams); and an older sister, Nancy. He was liberally supplied with aunts, uncles, and cousins of all sorts, and shared the usual family closeness of the Welsh, though his wife, Caitlin, recorded in Leftover Life to Kill (1957) that he tried hard but unsuccessfully to free himself from its puritanical background.
Thomas’s paternal grandfather was, among a number of other vocations, a poet, not especially distinguished, who took for himself the bardic name “Gwilym Marles.” “Gwilym” is William and “Marles” was taken from the Welsh stream Marlais, which, in its proper spelling, later became Thomas’s middle name. Thomas’s father had poetic ambitions of his own and was determined that his son should have his chance to become a poet. Disappointed in his hope for a distinguished career in education, he had settled with some lasting bitterness for a schoolmastership in the south of Wales. Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” furnishes some measure of his bitterness at his father’s lingering death from cancer and of the son’s reciprocation of the father’s love.
Thomas’s school days were unusual only in that he began to write poetry early. His close friend in grammar school was Daniel Jones, who was later to edit The Poems of Dylan Thomas. They wrote more than two hundred poems together, each contributing alternate lines—Jones odd, Thomas even.
Thomas left school in 1931 and worked until 1932 for the South Wales Daily Post. The period of his most intense activity as a poet had already begun in 1930 and was to extend to 1934. Daniel Jones calculated that during this period Thomas’s output was four times greater than that of the last nineteen years of his life. Ralph Maud edited the four so-called Buffalo Notebooks, which contain working drafts of Thomas’s poems from 1930 to August, 1933—except for the period of July, 1932, to January, 1933—publishing them, with other manuscript material, in Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas (1968). Maud observed that Thomas came to think of these poems as a sort of mine of early drafts and drew on them, generally with some revision, for a number of poems in Twenty-five Poems; he continued to do so until the notebooks were purchased in 1941 by the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Thomas’s last two years in Swansea, 1932 to 1934, foreshadowed the importance of the theater in his life. Thomas was actively interested in acting and playwriting while he was still in school, then joined a community theater group, the Mumbles Stage Society. By all accounts, Thomas rapidly became a competent actor, but the bohemianism that was to mar his personal life had already become established and caused his expulsion from the group.
In 1933, Thomas began to place poems in British papers and magazines that had more than local circulation. In September, 1933, he began a correspondence with the future novelist Pamela Hanford Johnson, who eventually married another novelist, C. P. Snow. The correspondence ripened into a friendship, which in turn became a love affair after visits in...