Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas was above all else a poet. His main collections of poems are Eighteen Poems (1934), Twenty-five Poems (1936), The Map of Love (1939), New Poems (1943), Deaths and Entrances (1946), Twenty-six Poems (1950), In Country Sleep (1952), Collected Poems, 1934-1952 (1952), and The Poems of Dylan Thomas (1971), a posthumous collection edited by Daniel Jones.

Thomas was also a writer of prose. With John Davenport, he wrote a novel, The Death of the King’s Canary (1976), published more than twenty years after Thomas’s death. Among his major collections of short stories are Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) and two collections published posthumously, A Prospect of the Sea and Other Stories (1955) and Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories (1955). A definitive edition of his short fiction, The Collected Stories, was published in 1984.

Particularly germane to a consideration of Thomas the dramatist are his radio scripts. The collection Quite Early One Morning (1954) contains twenty-two scripts for broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Two of these scripts, Quite Early One Morning (1944) and Return Journey (1947), contributed to the evolution of Under Milk Wood. A third radio script, The Londoner (1946), also contributed to the evolution of the play and is included in the volume “The Doctor and the Devils” and Other Scripts (1966). This volume also contains two film scripts, The Doctor and the Devils (1953) and Twenty Years A’Growing (1964). Other film scripts by Thomas include three published posthumously: The Beach at Falesá, published in 1963; Rebecca’s Daughters, published in 1965; and Me and My Bike, also published in 1965. Thomas also wrote two potboilers, Three Weird Sisters (1948), with Louise Birt and David Evans, and No Room at the Inn (1948), with Ivan Foxwell for British National.

Thomas’s notebooks and letters have also been published: Letters to Vernon Watkins (1957), edited by Watkins; Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas (1966), edited by Constantine FitzGibbon; Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas (1968), edited by Ralph Maud; and Twelve More Letters by Dylan Thomas (1969), edited by FitzGibbon.


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Dylan Thomas is probably one of the half-dozen most significant poets to have written in English in the twentieth century, although critical opinion about his work has been divided. By the end of his life, Thomas had become a popular poet. The sales of his Collected Poems, 1934-1952, published the year before he died, showed that the popularity of his work was unequaled by any other serious modern poet in English. The interest in Thomas was partly a result of the “legend” that developed during his lifetime, fostered by Thomas’s eccentric mode of life, his striking originality, and his extraordinary ability to read his poetry aloud. Perhaps in reaction to the Thomas cult, academic critics in Great Britain were slower than were their American counterparts to recognize his status as a major poet.

Although Thomas wrote only one play, its incorporation into the repertory of most theaters was extremely rapid after its initial performance in 1953. More so than the poetic dramas of T. S. Eliot or Christopher Fry, Under Milk Wood has become one of the major contemporary challenges to conventional notions of theater. It is likely that Under Milk Wood will remain the primary example and measure for future experiments in this important domain of the theater.

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to his short fiction, Dylan Thomas published several collections of poetry, including Eighteen Poems (1934), Twenty-five Poems (1936), New Poems (1943), and Collected Poems: 1934-1952 (1952). Under Milk Wood (1954) is a verse drama that affectionately portrays a day in the life of the inhabitants of a tiny Welsh fishing village. Thomas also wrote many screenplays, most notably The Doctor and the Devils (1953) and...

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a comic detective novelThe Death of the King’s Canary (1976).


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The lyricism of Dylan Thomas’s poetry probably constitutes his most powerful contribution to twentieth century verse and is also a notable characteristic of his prose. One source of that lyric quality is surely Thomas’s Welsh origins and his awareness of the depth and richness of Welsh poetic traditions. He also paid homage to Wales in his short fiction, lovingly (if sometimes satirically) describing it in works such as A Child’s Christmas in Wales and in the stories that make up Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Adventures in the Skin Trade. In those works appear characters and events from his childhood in Swansea and his early work as a news reporter.

His poetry won the “Poet’s Corner” Prize of the Sunday Referee in 1934, the Blumenthal Poetry Prize in 1938, the Levinson Poetry Prize in 1945, and Foyle’s Poetry Prize (for Collected Poems: 1934-1952) in 1952. Thomas also received a grant from The Authors’ Society Traveling Scholarship Fund in 1947.

Other literary forms

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Dylan Thomas wrote one novel, The Death of the King’s Canary (1976), in collaboration with John Davenport. His stories and collections of stories include the very popular, essentially autobiographical, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) and many posthumous publications. Scripts include the extremely popular Under Milk Wood (pr. 1953); The Doctor and the Devils (1953), which has been translated into German, Czech, and Spanish and was republished with four additional scripts in 1966; and Quite Early One Morning (1944), which has variant English and American versions. Thomas’s letters are rich with biographical materials and critical insights. There are three important collections: Letters to Vernon Watkins (1957), written to, and edited by, Vernon Watkins, his friend and fellow poet; Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas (1966), edited by Constantine FitzGibbon, his “official” biographer; and Twelve More Letters by Dylan Thomas (1969), a limited edition supplemental to the FitzGibbon collection. Many other articles, poems, letters, scripts, and stories are widely scattered in manuscripts, anthologies, newspapers, and magazines.


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Whatever else may be said about the poetry of Dylan Thomas, it had the qualities needed to bring its author to the attention of the English-speaking world by the time he was twenty-two years old. Whether it was simply his tone, his subject matter, or a bit of both, Thomas’s poems elicited a marked response in readers caught in a fierce economic depression. In any immediate sense, the poems were not optimistic; they sang of no golden age in the offing. Instead, mildly outrageous in subject matter and language, defiant of the ugly processes of life and death, and apparently even more defiant of conventional poetic forms, they seemed to project a knowledge of the inner workings of the universe denied to other mortals but toughly shared.

Small wonder, then, that Thomas gained a hearing as poet and seer in the literary world and among general readers. Although the initial impact of Eighteen Poems was slight, Twenty-five Poems established Thomas as a writer to be reckoned with. The book generated several critical questions. Did the world have a new John Keats on its hands, a poet who came almost at once to literary maturity and whose works would be permanent? Was Thomas simply a minor poet who had struck a rich topical vein that would soon be exhausted? Was Thomas, worst of all, as seemed to some most likely, a mere wordmonger whose obscure rantings would soon become mere curiosities, interesting, if at all, only to literary historians? He received the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1945. By the twenty-first century, Thomas had been firmly established as a true poet, but discussion of the ultimate value of his poetry continues. What is clear is that he had a strong hold on the public imagination for roughly two decades and, during that time, helped to shape the idea of what poetry is or can aspire to be.

Discussion Topics

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How does Dylan Thomas make “Poem in October” a birthday poem for himself yet avoid egoism?

Examine the significance of the color green in “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” and in “Fern Hill.”

Study the relationship between the meter and the rhythm of Thomas’s poetry, especially in “Fern Hill.”

What is a villanelle? How does this complicated poetic form contribute to “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”?

What does the subtitle signify in Thomas’s Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices?

Listen to recordings of Thomas reading his own poems and determine how much the experience expands an understanding of them.


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Ackerman, John. Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A biography describing the life and writings of Thomas.

Ackerman, John. Welsh Dylan: Dylan Thomas’s Life, Writing, and His Wales. 2d ed. Bridgend, Wales: Seren, 1998. This biography of Dylan looks at his homeland, Wales, and shows how the area influenced his writings.

Davies, Walford. Dylan Thomas. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1986. A biography and an introduction are followed by several chapters on the poems: poems on poetry, early poetry, comparisons of early and late poems, “Fern Hill,” and the last poems. The final chapter attempts to put Thomas’s work in context and to draw some conclusions regarding the poet in relationship to society, his style, and the way he uses language. Good notes contain bibliographical references.

Davies, Walford. A Reference Companion to Dylan Thomas. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. A valuable aid to understanding Thomas’s troubled life and enduring body of work. Begins with an insightful biography that provides a useful context for studying his writings. The second section provides a systematic overview of his works, while the third section summarizes the critical and scholarly response to his writings. The volume concludes with a bibliography of the most helpful general studies.

Ferris, Paul. Dylan Thomas: The Biography. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000. This excellent biography contains material found in American archives and also those of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Ferris interviewed more than two hundred people who either knew Thomas or worked with him. He attempts to separate the facts from the legendary reputation of Thomas. This book elaborates on, and enhances, the “approved” biography by Constantine FitzGibbon (The Life of Dylan Thomas, 1965), the personal memoirs by Caitlin Thomas (Leftover Life to Kill, 1957), and John Malcolm Brinnin (Dylan Thomas in America, 1955).

Hardy, Barbara Nathan. Dylan Thomas: An Original Language. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. Hardy looks at Thomas’s use of language in his writings, including his use of Welsh-derived terms. Includes bibliography and index.

Jones, R. F. G. Time Passes: Dylan Thomas’s Journey to “Under Milk Wood.” Sydney: Woodworm Press, 1994. An account of the literary development of Thomas, including analysis of Under Milk Wood. Includes bibliography and index.

Korg, Jacob. Dylan Thomas. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1992. A basic biography of Thomas that covers his life and works. Includes bibliography and index.

Lycett, Andrew. Dylan Thomas: A New Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2004. A major new Thomas biography, well-researched and acclaimed.

Sinclair, Andrew. Dylan the Bard: A Life of Dylan Thomas. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000. Sinclair provides the story of Thomas’s life as a poet and writer. Includes bibliography and index.


Critical Essays