Dylan Thomas 1914-1953
(Full name Dylan Marlais Thomas) Welsh poet, short story writer, dramatist, screenplay writer, critic, and novelist.
The following entry presents criticism of Thomas's prose works. See also Dylan Thomas Short Story Criticism and Dylan Thomas Poetry Criticism.
Remembered as a poet who pursued a bohemian lifestyle that included heavy alcohol drinking and womanizing, Thomas also created several respected works of short fiction. In the 1930s, when such poets as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender established a trend of socially and politically conscious poetry, Thomas pursued more personal themes whose source was his own memory and imagination. The worlds of childhood, dream, and nature are pervasive throughout his poetry and prose, and are celebrated in a rich and often abstruse literary style.
Thomas was born and raised in Swansea, South Wales. His father was a grammar school English teacher. Thomas's first poems were printed in small literary journals and he published his first volume of poetry, 18 Poems (1934), when he was nineteen. In 1939 Thomas moved to London to work for the BBC, writing and performing radio broadcasts. After World War II, financial need prompted him to devote more energy to his lucrative short stories and screenplays rather than to his poetry. Later Thomas gained public attention as a captivating reader of his own poetry and prose. At the height of his popularity in the early 1950s, Thomas agreed to a series of public poetry readings in America, bringing about a revival of the oral reading of poetry. Though Thomas was well-received on tour, his biographers report, he drank prodigiously and behaved outrageously. In late 1953, Thomas died of a brain hemorrhage.
Thomas's early work, 18 Poems, belongs to his Swansea period of 1930-1934, when he drew upon his childhood and adolescent experiences for his poetry. Often described as incantatory, these poems record Thomas's experimentation with vibrant imagery and with sound as “verbal music.” A slightly later work, The Map of Love (1939), a collection of poetry and short stories, displays signs of his dabbling in surrealistic technique.
The physical and psychic havoc of World War II deeply affected Thomas, a conscientious objector, and shaped the major work of his middle period, which began with Deaths and Entrances (1946). In this volume Thomas's language and imagery became simpler, calmer, and more intelligible as he directs his vision and poetry toward the events and individuals around him. In his final volume of poems, In Country Sleep (1952), Thomas comes to terms with life while confronting the reality of his own death.
Thomas wrote mostly prose and screenplays during the last years of his life. Previous to this period, his most important prose pieces were his semiautobiographical short stories, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), which stylistically and thematically bear comparison to James Joyce's Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Both Joyce's and Thomas's works offer negative views of their respective backgrounds—Ireland and Wales—each depicting what “for artists,” as Kenneth Seib observed, “is a world of death, sterility, and spiritual debasement.” The most popular prose piece to issue from Thomas's later period is his play for voices, Under Milk Wood (1954). Again critics noted the similarities between Thomas and James Joyce. In Under Milk Wood and Joyce's Ulysses, each author captures the life of a whole society as it is reflected in a single day; for Joyce it is the urban life in Dublin, while for Thomas it is the Welsh village of Llaregyub.
From the outset of Thomas's career there has been much critical disagreement as to his stature as a poet and short story writer. Many commentators cite Thomas's work as being too narrow and unvarying; he essentially confines himself to the lyric expression of what Stephen Spender labeled “certain primary, dithyrambic occasions,” chiefly birth, love, and death. Edith Sitwell spoke for many critics as she puzzled over the poet's distorted syntax and religious symbolism. The influence of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets is often cited in connection with Thomas's unorthodox religious imagery; while the influence of the Romantic poets is seen in his recurrent vision of a pristine beauty in childhood and nature. Thomas's vivid imagery, involved word play, fractured syntax, and personal symbology did, however, change the course of modern poetry. Though a poet of undetermined rank, he set a new standard for many mid-twentieth-century poets. His prose work is often viewed by critics as financial enterprises, although it shares much thematically with his more respected poetry.