Thomas, Dylan (Poetry Criticism)
Dylan Thomas 1914-1953
Welsh poet, short story writer, dramatist, journalist, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents criticism from 1967 to 2000 on Thomas's life and works. For more criticism prior to 1987, see PC, Volume 2.
Although Thomas wrote short stories and film scripts in addition to poetry, he is best remembered today for his verse and his reputation as a hard-drinking philanderer whose alcoholism precipitated his early death at the age of 39. Among Thomas's most famous poems are “Fern Hill,” “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” and “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”
Born on October 27, 1914, in a middle-class area of Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Wales, Dylan Marlais Thomas was the second child of David John (D. J.) Thomas, an English teacher at the local grammar school, and Florence Williams Thomas; his sister Nancy was nine years older. As a child, Thomas appears to have been overindulged by his mother and intimidated by his father, who was himself a frustrated poet. Thomas received his formal education at Swansea Grammar School, which he attended from 1925 to 1931, although he often claimed that he learned more in his father's library, which included an impressive collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry. While at Swansea, he began writing poetry and publishing it in the school magazine, which he also helped edit. From the time Thomas left school in 1931 until he went to London in 1934, he produced more verse, much of it highly original, than during any other three-year period in his life. Familiar locations, such as the family home at No. 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the neighborhood park, and his uncle's farm Fernhill, provided the inspiration, as well as the settings, for many of Thomas's poems. During these years, too, Thomas began drinking, smoking, and telling stories—as part of the public persona he was rather self-consciously developing.
In London, Thomas continued writing poetry; his work was published in a variety of periodicals, including T. S. Eliot's Criterion and Victor Neuburg's “Poet's Corner” in the newspaper Sunday Referee. His first collection of poetry, Eighteen Poems, was published in December of 1934. During the next few years, Thomas became a member of London's bohemian community, living with three artist friends and solidifying his reputation as a drinker and a drifter whose personal habits were unhygienic at best and disgusting at worst. In 1937, Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara, a writer and dancer; the couple had two sons, Llewellyn and Colm, and a daughter, Aeron. During the early years of their marriage, the Thomases divided their time between London and Laugharne, and between his parents' home in Swansea and her mother's home in Hampshire. When World War II began, Thomas was determined to avoid serving in the armed forces; he was declared medically unfit, which saved him the necessity of filing for conscientious objector status. Always short of money during the war years, Thomas endured the bombing to write war documentary scripts for Strand Films in London. He continued to produce poetry and prose reminiscences of his childhood, and to do poetry readings for the BBC. After the war, Thomas tried to secure regular employment with the BBC and with various film companies, but was hindered by his reputation as a hard drinker. In 1949, Thomas was invited by John Malcolm Brinnin to New York to give a series of poetry readings in the city and at various American universities. His 1950 tour, and those that followed in 1952 and 1953, were marked by drunkenness, outrageous behavior, and in some cases, brilliant readings. Although Thomas intended to use the profits from his readings in America to pay his mounting debts at home, he squandered most of his earnings before returning to Wales. Thomas died at the age of 39 in New York on November 9, 1953, of pneumonia brought on by alcoholism.
Thomas began publishing individual poems in periodicals such as New Verse and The New English Weekly in the early 1930s. His first published collection was Eighteen Poems featured several revised versions of the poetry originally composed in the penny notebooks he kept after 1930. In 1936, his second collection appeared, Twenty-Five Poems. These early notebook poems, along with the autobiographical sonnet sequence “Altarwise by Owl-light,” are characterized by obscure imagery and the poet's attempt to articulate a romantic poetic consciousness. In 1939, some of the poems inspired by his marriage appeared in The Map of Love, considered part of Thomas's so-called “troubled” middle period, which also includes verse associated with his experiences during World War II. The most notable of the war poems are “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” and “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred,” all collected in the 1946 volume Deaths and Entrances. Some of the final poems of that volume, however, are considered part of Thomas's third stage of poetic development and include some of his best work: “Poem in October,” “A Winter's Tale,” and “Fern Hill.” In these later works, Thomas suggests that it is possible, by means of the poetic imagination, to recapture the lost innocence associated with childhood.
Thomas's short stories, many of them autobiographical, first appeared in periodicals and reappeared in the collections The Map of Love (1939), The World I Breathe (1939), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), and Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories (1955), which included episodes from the unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade.
Thomas's work, particularly his poetry, has been the subject of a great deal of controversy since the poet's death. There is little agreement on whether Thomas was a genius whose verse is on a par with T. S. Eliot's and W. H. Auden's, or a minor talent whose poetry is uneven and confusing. During his lifetime, his work received favorable reviews, although many critics both then and now fault his poetry for a lack of clarity. Paul West (1967), however, finds such criticism inappropriate, claiming that the poet's “very self … precluded everyday lucidity, dispensed with logic, spurned maturity for the child's sense of wonder, disdained consistency as a Procrustean trap, and regarded documentary as a vaulting-board.” Some contemporary critics suspected that Thomas had been influenced by the Surrealists—a charge he denied—because his poetry appeared to be filled with private allusions, thus rendering the verse unintelligible to the average reader. Don McKay (1986), though, suggests that Thomas's use of allusion is far more complicated than that: “It is typical of Thomas to use traditional sources in myth and literature wrenched from context in such an aggressive way that the aggression—the kidnapping—is itself a telling feature of the symbol in its new Thomas-controlled situation.” Walford Davies (1986) believes that Thomas's use of the English language is somewhat adversarial, even though English, not Welsh, was his native tongue. According to Davies, the poet's “hypersensitivity to accidental meanings” and the “punning energy” of the poems suggest that “a strong sense of provincial, cultural, even religious, ‘otherness’ leads to the writer taking revenge as it were (even for the most mixed of motives) on the imperial, standardizing norms of the English language itself.” Eleanor J. McNees (1992) has examined Thomas's use of religious imagery and allusions and contrasts it with that of earlier poets: “Whereas Hopkins and Donne seek to reconcile their individuality with conformity to Christ,” McNees reports, “Thomas uses Christ to reinforce his own individuality, an act the earlier poets would have considered heretical.” While many critics praise Thomas's ability to maintain a child's perspective in his later poetry, Seamus Heaney (1993) believes that Thomas's lack of maturity had unfortunate consequences for his work. “Thomas's anti-intellectualism, for example, is a bad boy's habit wastefully prolonged and this doctrinaire immaturity, which was at once tedious and entertaining in life, was finally retrograde for his art,” claims Heaney. Barbara Hardy (2000), however, takes issue with critics who judge Thomas as immature or infantile. She proposes that “like Wordsworth, but without the sense of loss through growth, Thomas articulated a preserved sense of the childhood intimacy with the natural world …” In her examination of Thomas's green poetry, Hardy praises the poet's originality and sense of unity, as well as his childlike relationship with nature.
Eighteen Poems 1934
Twenty-five Poems 1936
The Map of Love 1939
New Poems 1943
Deaths and Entrances 1946; revised edition 1984
Twenty-six Poems 1950
In Country Sleep and Other Poems 1952
Collected Poems, 1934-1952 1952
Collected Poems 1966
Poem in October 1970
The Poems of Dylan Thomas 1971; revised edition 2003
Poems 1971; revised edition 1974
Selected Poems of Dylan Thomas 1975
Dylan Thomas Selected Poems, 1934-1952 2003
The World I Breathe (short stories) 1939
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (short stories) 1940
Under Milk Wood (play) 1954
Adventures in the Skin Trade, and Other Stories (short stories) 1955
Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas (letters) 1966
The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas (notebooks) 1967
The Collected Prose of Dylan Thomas (short stories and essays) 1969
Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas (letters) 1985
Dylan Thomas: The Filmscripts (screenplays) 1995
Paul West (essay date October 1967)
SOURCE: West, Paul. “Dylan Thomas: The Position in Calamity.” Southern Review 3, no. 4 (October 1967): 922-43.
[In the following essay, West attempts to sort through the varying critical assessments of Thomas's work.]
According to Wordsworth, “all men feel something of an honourable bigotry for the objects which have long continued to please them.” Something of: it is what Englishmen say to maintain their reserve during enthusiasm and what most people say when they want to suggest reservations painlessly. Something of: the phrase comes naturally to the lips for Dylan Thomas, whom his detractors find only something of a...
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Daniel R. Schwarz (essay date spring 1979)
SOURCE: Schwarz, Daniel R. “‘And the Wild Wings Were Raised’: Sources and Meaning in Dylan Thomas' ‘A Winter's Tale.’” Twentieth Century Literature 25, no. 1 (spring 1979): 85-98.
[In the following essay, Schwarz discusses “A Winter's Tale,” maintaining that the poem was written within the tradition of Romanticism, as well as in response to that tradition.]
Dylan Thomas' “A Winter's Tale” (1945), perhaps his greatest work, is a poem that is central to our understanding of how the Romantic tradition perseveres in twentieth-century British poetry as an alternative to the political consciousness of the Auden generation. If Thomas had only written the...
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Don McKay (essay date summer 1986)
SOURCE: McKay, Don. “Crafty Dylan and the Altarwise Sonnets: ‘I build a flying tower and I pull it down.’” University of Toronto Quarterly 55, no. 4 (summer 1986): 375-94.
[In the following essay, McKay compares the structure of Thomas's poetry, particularly the sonnets, with that of Thomas Hardy, reportedly Thomas's favorite poet.]
One interesting entrance to the question of Dylan Thomas's craftsmanship is offered by the place he tends to assume, or be assigned, among modern poets. Donald Davie, in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, finds ‘tragic significance to the fact that Hardy is said to have been Dylan Thomas' favourite poet, whereas Yeats was his...
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Walford Davies (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: Davies, Walford. “Contexts and Conclusions.” In Dylan Thomas, pp. 94-123. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Davies examines Thomas's writings within the geographical context of his origins as well as within the cultural context of Modernism.]
‘I never thought that localities meant so much, nor the genius of places, nor anything like that.’ In the biographical outline at the beginning of this Guide, we allowed that comment by Thomas to direct us quite simply to events and places. In the meantime, we have encountered strong and often strange poems. We are now in a position to consider the more general...
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Paul Volsik (essay date January-March 1989)
SOURCE: Volsik, Paul. “Neo-Romanticism and the Poetry of Dylan Thomas.” Études Anglaises 42, no. 1 (January-March 1989): 39-54.
[In the following essay, Volsik examines Thomas's participation in the British neo-Romanticism movement of the 1930s through the 1950s.]
In this article I do not wish to discuss the much-commented affinities between Dylan Thomas and the poets of High Romanticism—his use of “pantheism,” his (Wordsworthian) use of the themes of childhood and innocence, his sensuous (Keatsian) use of language, his eschewing of the distancing devices of erudition and irony. These possible affiliations, and others, have been the centre of a great deal of...
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Gareth Thomas (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Thomas, Gareth. “A Freak User of Words.” In Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art, edited by Alan Bold, pp. 65-88. London, England: Vision Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Gareth Thomas explores Thomas's writings from a linguistic perspective.]
In a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson, dated 9 May 1934, the precocious 19-year-old Dylan Thomas confessed his doubts and fears about his abilities as a poet:
My lines, all my lines, are of the tenth intensity. They are not the words that express what I want to express; they are the only words I can find that come near to expressing a half. And that's no good. I'm a freak...
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Alan Bold (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Bold, Alan. “Young Heaven's Fold: The Second Childhood of Dylan Thomas.” In Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art, edited by Alan Bold, pp. 156-74. London, England: Vision Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Bold explores the themes within Thomas's poetry of lost childhood innocence and the adult's ability to recapture that innocence through the imagination.]
Since his tragically early death at the age of 39 Dylan Thomas has been treated rather shabbily as public property. Television, for example, has used him as the raw material for programmes illustrating the popular notion of the poet who has more sensuality than sense. Invariably Thomas is portrayed as an...
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John Ackerman (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: Ackerman, John. “Deaths and Entrances.” In A Dylan Thomas Companion: Life, Poetry and Prose, pp. 106-29. Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 1991.
[In the following essay, Ackerman explores the influence of Thomas's World War II experiences on his poetry collection Deaths and Entrances.]
Deaths and Entrances was published in 1946, and the title of the volume is taken, of course, from Donne's sermon Deaths Duell: ‘Our very birth and entrance into this life, is … an issue from death.’1 The poems in this collection show a notable advance in sympathy and understanding due, in part, to the impact of war. Also, in...
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Eleanor J. McNees (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: McNees, Eleanor J. “Wounding Presence: The Sacrificial Poetry of Dylan Thomas.” In Eucharistic Poetry: The Search for Presence in the Writings of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Geoffrey Hill, pp. 110-46. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, McNees discusses religious imagery in Thomas's poetry.]
… the story of the New Testament is part of my life.
Aligned with Donne or Hopkins, Dylan Thomas is at best a religious renegade, a Welsh nonconformist with neither a strictly Anglican nor Roman Catholic...
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Seamus Heaney (essay date fall 1993)
SOURCE: Heaney, Seamus. “Dylan the Durable? On Dylan Thomas.” Salmagundi, no. 100 (fall 1993): 66-85.
[In the following essay, Heaney examines Thomas's critical reputation in the years since his death.]
Dylan Thomas is by now as much a case history as a chapter in the history of poetry. Mention of his name is enough to turn on a multi-channel set of associations. There is Thomas the Voice, Thomas the Booze, Thomas the Debts, Thomas the Jokes, Thomas the Wales, Thomas the Sex, Thomas the Lies—in fact there are so many competing and revisionist inventions of Thomas available, so many more or less corrective, reductive, even punitive versions of the phenomenon that...
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James J. Balakier (essay date winter 1996)
SOURCE: Balakier, James J. “The Ambiguous Reversal of Dylan Thomas's ‘In Country Sleep.’” Papers on Language & Literature 32, no. 1 (winter 1996): 21-44.
[In the following essay, Balakier discusses the conflicted feelings of a father for his daughter in Thomas's “In Country Sleep.”]
Among the relatively few father-daughter poems in the “canon,” Dylan Thomas's “In Country Sleep” is striking for its frank portrayal of a caring though conflicted state of fatherhood. Other poems belonging to this diverse lyric sub-genre, such as Jonson's “On my First Daughter,” Wordsworth's “Surprised by Joy,” Yeats's “A Prayer for My Daughter,” are...
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Marc D. Cyr (essay date spring 1998)
SOURCE: Cyr, Marc D. “Dylan Thomas's ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’: Through ‘Lapis Lazuli’ to King Lear.” Papers on Language & Literature 34, no. 2 (spring 1998): 207-17.
[In the following essay, Cyr contends that Thomas's treatment of impending death in “Do not go gentle into that good night” is more closely connected to Shakespeare's play rather than to Yeats's poetry, as is commonly believed.]
Dylan Thomas's “Do not go gentle into that good night” has been noted to bear the influence of and even echo W. B. Yeats, especially “Lapis Luzuli,” and, secondarily via this poem, Shakespeare's King Lear. One scholar notes...
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Barbara Hardy (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Hardy, Barbara. “The Green Poet.” In Dylan Thomas: An Original Language, pp. 132-52. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Hardy discusses nature themes and imagery in Thomas's poetry.]
THE THEME OF NATURE
There are very few of Thomas's poems which do not offer a meditation on nature. Many can be called poems about nature. As I have been showing, some consider art and nature, with equal or unequal emphasis. More rarely, some are about love and nature.
In “The force that through the green fuse” and “Fern Hill,” Thomas is meditating on art and nature at one and the same...
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Carson, Ricks. “Thomas's ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.’” The Explicator 54, no. 4 (summer 1996): 240-42.
Discusses the complexity of Thomas's views on the afterlife as evidenced by the language of one of his most famous poems.
Greenway, William. “Dylan Thomas and ‘The Flesh's Vision.’” College Literature 16, no. 3 (1989): 274-80.
Exploration of the various perspectives employed by Thomas in his poetry.
Jackaman, Rob. “Man and Mandala: Symbol as Structure in a Poem by Dylan Thomas.” Ariel 7, no. 4 (October 1976): 22-33....
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