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.