Dylan Thomas is one of the most important Anglo-American writers of the twentieth century, a poet who helped free his craft from the opacity and inaccessibility imposed by Modernism and a writer who helped bring spirit and personality back into English literature. At the same time, he was a drinker and womanizer whose legends loom even larger than his work. Andrew Lycett does an admirable job balancing these two Thomases, recognizing Dylan's importance at the same time that he cuts through the myths that have grown up about him since his death to paint an accurate picture of the poet's life. What results is a first-rate biography which will probably become the standard for some time.
Thomas found fame early, burned like a meteor, and was dead by the time he was thirty-nine. Raised in an English-speaking home in Swansea, south Wales, by a coddling mother and a distant schoolmaster father, Thomas became a published poet while still in his teens. He hit the London literary world in the early 1930's as something of a literary rocket. Soon after his arrival, he was a part of the avant garde, where artists and writers experimented with Surrealism and other movements and were open to new voices and techniques. “A Welshman who mixed modernism and lyricism and had a musical way with words fitted the bill. But none of the existing schools particularly attracted Dylan who had his own subject-matter and his own style, and was unlikely to change them.” He came of age in a terribly political decade, as Lycett shows, but he managed to build a career and express himself outside its major concerns.
Poetry in England in the 1930's was heavily politicized by such events as the worldwide economic depression and the consequent rise of fascism in Europe. The dominant British poets of the decade—like W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender—saw poetry as a vehicle for social and political change. With his Celtic energy and unique voice, Dylan showed that poetry did not have to be overtly political, and poems like “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines” and “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives” helped to push poetry at the same time beyond impersonal modernist models like T. S. Eliot. Dylan's voice was unique from its inception, and it would become a force for change in the forms and concerns of poetry for the following forty years at least.
His first book was published in 1934, before Thomas was twenty-one, and by the end of the 1930's he had established himself as a significant poet in collections such as Twenty-five Poems (1936) and The Map of Love (1939). Unfortunately, he had also proved himself a selfish and finally self-destructive man. His marriage to Caitlin Macnamara was alcoholic and abusive from the beginning. When he met her, Caitlin was the mistress of the artist Augustus John, and Dylan's courtship of her was just a prelude to the tempestuous twenty years to come. Thomas was capable of drunken binges—he claimed to have been drunk for two weeks after the birth of his first child—and he suffered chronic alcohol poisoning, on and off, for almost twenty years. His infidelities were well-documented and were matched by his wife's anger and revenge. On top of alcoholism and infidelity, Thomas's major problem in his short life was lack of money, and he often borrowed from friends without repaying. All in all, his behavior—the penchant for drinking, brawling, accosting women in bars, and not paying his bills—made for a life that is interesting to read but must have been extremely difficult to experience.
Eventually, the life would overwhelm the poetry. Much of Thomas's best poetry and prose (like the stories collected in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in 1940) were completed before World War II. By the time he made the first of his four tours to the United States, in 1950, most of his best work was done. In his last years, Thomas became performer rather than poet. That role certainly fitted him well. In many broadcasts for the BBC (as of “A Child's Christmas in Wales”), and in hundreds of readings in the United States (recordings are fortunately available of many), Thomas's powerful Welsh voice gave an energy and excitement...
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