In 1934, Dylan Thomas’s first book, 18 Poems (which brought him fame), was published. While other poets of the 30s were mainly focused on social issues, Thomas set about writing poetry dealing with the question of man’s nature, especially the subconscious. Thomas’s central theme is the circle of life and death, being and non-being.
Already in the first collection, a characteristic feature of his work transpires. It is a complex, musical, a-logical poetic language, wherein contradicting images flow into one another:
Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
I who was shapeless as the water
That shaped the Jordan near my home
Was brother to Mnetha's daughter
And sister to the fathering worm. (1, p. 7)
In the next collection, Twenty-Five Poems (1936), his creative manner becomes more mature, and his syntax and imagery grow more complex. In his poems, despair and hope, life and death, and love and darkness are intertwined in most intricate metaphors which are weaved from simple concepts:
Was there a time when dancers with their fiddles
In children’s circuses could stay their troubles?
There was a time they could cry over books,
But time has set its maggot on their track. (1, p. 50)
His imagery reveals a pantheistic worldview, a desire to penetrate into an archetypal substance of the myth, and extraordinary richness of meaning.
In 1939, The Map of Love was published. It is a mixture of poetry and prose, and its protagonists are madmen, children, and poets, who go through fantastic, almost surrealistic experiences.
Thomas’s approach to crafting poetry is well summed up in one of his letters (Thomas, Collected Letters):
I let, perhaps, an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess—let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict. (cited in 2, p. 63)