Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Marlais Thomas’s father, John David Thomas, was an embittered schoolmaster, emotionally remote from his son, but he possessed a fine library of contemporary fiction and poetry in which his son was free to read. His father’s distance and unhappiness may have made Thomas more susceptible to the indulgences of his mother, Florence Williams Thomas. It is her family who appears in Thomas’s work as the chapel-going farmers, and it is her oldest sister whose husband owned the farm near Llangain where the young Thomas often spent summer vacations. Thomas also had a sister, Nancy, nine years older than he. The family home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, was across the street from the park which sometimes appears in his poems (“The Hunchback in the Park,” for example). Likewise the beautiful Gower peninsula and his aunt’s farm appeared in his adult work as subjects for his poetry and memoirs (most notably in “Fern Hill”). Thomas’s early life in Wales furnished him with material that surfaced in his work for the rest of his life.

Thomas was a lackadaisical student at Swansea Grammar School. Talented in English, he edited the school magazine while he was there, and he began to keep the notebooks that reveal his early attempts to form his style, but he gave little attention to subjects that did not interest him. It was at school that he began his friendship with Dan Jones with whom he composed poems and played elaborate word games. In adulthood, Jones became Dr. Daniel Jones, musical composer and editor of Thomas’s work.

Thomas left school in 1931 to work—not very successfully—as a reporter for the South Wales Evening Post, a job which gave him material for many of his stories. During the next three years, he also experienced a period of exciting poetic growth, learning about Welsh poets of the past and producing much work of his own. Late in 1934, he moved to London where he cultivated a conscious bohemianism and began to gain a reputation as drinker, brilliant conversationalist, and poet of merit. Through the rest of his life, the two parts of his personality—the serious poet who cared about his craft and the hard-drinking bohemian—were at odds in dominating his behavior.

In 1937, he married Caitlin Macnamara, a strong-willed, passionate dancer with whom he was intensely in love. They had three children—Llewelyn, Aeron, and Colm. During the war, Thomas, a conscientious objector, wrote mostly prose. Afterward, his life alternated between London and the Welsh fishing village of Laugharne, where he lived with his family and did his most profitable work. In London, when he was in need of money (as he usually was), he often worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation, but there too, his drinking began to cause him more and more troubles.

In 1950, he made the first of four tours to the United States, reading his work at colleges and universities. It was an enormous success, but it documented his reputation as an “outlaw” poet—a hard drinker and womanizer who spent the proceeds of his readings on women and whiskey while his family went without necessities. The subsequent tours intensified that legend. He died of alcohol poisoning in St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City in 1953.

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