Dylan Marlais Thomas
(1914 - 1953)
While Dylan Thomas possessed immense gifts and talent which made him a professional success as a writer, he was often a disappointment on a personal level. Much of this personal failure could have stemmed from an inability to deal with the extreme demands that came with sudden fame. Some explanation must also lie in the various ways his personality have been described: alternately as humble, shy, confused and insecure on the inside, but outwardly neglectful, selfish, and egotistical -- yet always, and extremely, charming.
His older sister Nancy was eight years old when Dylan was born on the 27th of October, 1914 in Swansea in southern Wales. His mother, Florence Williams, was a housewife and his father, David John Thomas (also known as "D.J." or "Jack"), was an English Literature teacher at Swansea Grammar School. Both were from Welsh backgrounds, surrounded by dozens of relatives in nearby towns and heavily influenced by religion and tradition. D.J. was known as a strict school teacher but was supposedly unsatisfied in this position since he believed his education and background warranted a higher place in the academic world.
With his pretty blond curls and precocious manner, Dylan found he could get away with many things, and so he took advantage of this. Because his mother thought of him as a sickly child, he was soon conditioned to plead illness as a way of both garnering attention and getting himself out of anything he considered unpleasant, such as school.
His father exposed him to poetry as early as the age of two, and by four Dylan was reciting verses from Shakespeare. He was always fascinated by words, as he wrote many years later to an American admirer:
The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes, and before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolised, or meant was of very secondary importance -- what mattered was the very sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and quite incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world. And those words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milkcarts, the clapping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a window pane, might be to someone deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing.
By the age of eight or nine he was writing his own poetry, even before he entered the Grammar School in 1925. A quiet and introspective student, he was a frequent contributor to the school's magazine.
He left school at sixteen and worked on the staff of the South Wales Daily Post (later the South Wales Evening Post), sometimes writing scathing reviews and critiques of local plays, concerts and writers which needed be edited to keep from offending the subjects under scrutiny. During this very productive writing period of Dylan's life, he also became known locally for the offbeat jokes, stories and obscene limericks he told in the pubs at night. He would read poems he was working on aloud to friends and relatives, not wanting them to read the work he'd done, but instead to hear it. Along with writing, Thomas was also involved with local theater, both writing and acting.
In a January 1933 essay in the South Wales Evening Post entitled "Genius and Madness Akin in the World of Art" Thomas discussed the idea that one gifted with genius often walked a line where it was "difficult to differentiate, with any sureness, between insanity and eccentricity." He asserted that "the borderline of insanity is more difficult to trace than the majority of people, comparatively safe within the barriers of their own common-sensibility, can realise."
Dylan's first national publication was in a small literary review in the spring of 1933. Later that year his poems were published in the more prestigious Adelphi and the London newspaper The Sunday Referee. Around this time he started corresponding with a young woman named Pamela Hansford Johnson, who contacted him after reading some of his work. Their letters back and forth made them feel quite close to each other before they even met. When they finally did meet in London they spent a pleasant night together drinking, listening to records and talking late into the night. Although he later spent six weeks staying with her and her family in London, and there was talk of marriage, the relationship eventually ended after two years when Johnson became fed up with the thoughtless and unreliable side of Dylan Thomas.
“ ... an overgrown baby who'll destroy every last thing he can get his hands on, including himself. ” ~ Truman Capote, of Dylan Thomas ~
Still, after moving to London in 1934 in pursuit of better opportunities, Dylan's writing career continued to flourish. His poems, essays, articles and reviews were being published in London and Swansea magazines and newspapers. Asserting one of his dearest held beliefs that the best poetry was music to the ears, he wrote in a 1934 poetry review that:
Too much poetry to-day is flat on the page, a black and white thing of words created by intelligences that no longer think it necessary for a poem to be read and understood by anything but eyes.
His hard work in pursuing publishers paid off when his first book, 18 Poems was released on the 18th of December 1934. The work received rave reviews, one critic even calling it "one of the most remarkable books of poetry which have appeared for several years." A second book Twenty-five Poems was to appear in Autumn of 1936, around the time that he and his future wife began living their lives together.
Dylan Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara in the Spring of 1936 in the London pub The Wheatsheaf. Caitlin's previous experiences with men led her to believe that "all men were bastards," yet from the moment she met him she felt Dylan was somehow different. Within hours of their first meeting Dylan, his head in her lap, kept drunkenly insisting that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever met and that he was going to marry her -- to which she offered no objections. The slightly older Caitlin, a physically strong, trained dancer with a fiery and unpredictable temper found the impoverished poet vulnerable and sweet, if a bit needy. They spent the next five days and nights together, going from pub to pub and hardly eating at all. Later that summer when he and Caitlin met again in Wales, Dylan had a run-in with Augustus John, a painter and friend of her parents with whom Caitlin had been having an affair. Caitlin and Dylan eventually started living together near the end of 1936.
In April of 1937 Thomas recorded his first broadcast for BBC Wales, "Life And The Modern Poet". Radio broadcasting was eventually to play a major role in his career. Though he and Caitlin had no formal engagement and his parents were against the idea, Dylan bought two very cheap imitation silver rings, made arrangements, and was married to Caitlin on July 11, 1937 in a simple ceremony. In May 1938 the Thomases moved to Laugharne in Wales, a tiny, somewhat eccentric waterside town that seemed perfect for the couple. Indeed, Caitlin has described the years living at "Sea View" in Laugharne as their only really happy time. In the early years of their marriage the pair was inseparable, Caitlin described their relationship as that of "twin souls".
By now Thomas had developed a fairly regular daily routine: sleep in in the morning, wake and get lunch (if there was enough money), then writing in the afternoon. The couple's first child, Llewelyn Edouard, was born on January 30, 1939. Meanwhile, Thomas continued to occasionally record for the BBC, review books, write, and publish his own work, including getting published in the United States. His next book The Map of Love, a collection of poems and short stories, was printed in 1939. The outbreak of war, however, was soon to overshadow everything.
The Map of Love, published the month before war was declared on 3 September 1939 and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (autobiographical stories) released in 1940 were both commercial failures due to flagging of the literary industry during the war years. Paper was rationed, and people generally had more hunger for news than the desire to spend what earnings they had on literature and poetry. Many publishing houses and literary magazines shut down either temporarily or permanently.
Faced with either finding writer's work or conscription, it was during wartime when Dylan Thomas began his work writing and reading for radio in earnest. As for Thomas' desire to avoid being drafted into the armed forces, it may have not been so much cowardice on his part as much as a complete lack of any patriotic or political interest or emotion. Thomas found the idea of war ridiculous and knew he could never bring himself to kill another man.
The night before he was to face his conscription tribunal, Dylan Thomas attempted to sway things in his favor by drinking so heavily that by the next day he was sweating, shaking, pale and covered in blotches. He was given an exemption on medical grounds, but his biggest mistake was to boast of "getting away" with this. Around tiny Laugharne, families had been watching their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands march off to war and die for their country. Such remarks made Thomas an unpopular man and he and Caitlin eventually left Laugharne.
The couple spent some time in the summer of 1940 on an estate in southern England where artists and writers were gathered. An incident where Caitlin was nearly unfaithful to Dylan led to violent, physical and tearful fights. He could not get over the thought that she could have been unfaithful to him... and the trust between them was gone. Now they started to spend days and often weeks apart from each other.
By 1941 Thomas had found regular work writing scripts for wartime documentaries and occasionally performing on radio. The couple's second child, daughter Aeronwy Bryn, was born in 1943, giving Caitlin something to focus on besides her faltering marriage. Meanwhile, the couple moved around often -- sometimes together and sometimes separately. The bombings in London and Swansea were unnerving, and in late 1944 the couple moved into a bungalow in New Quay in Wales. Their residence here came to an end after a now infamous incident in 1945 where an unstable and agitated ex-commando neighbor fired twenty rounds into the bungalow and then threatened to blow Thomas and his visiting friends up with a hand grenade. The man was charged with attempted murder and the Thomases moved away when the case came to trial.
“ ... Dylan Thomas made poetry come alive. Listening to his beautiful voice, I was touched deep in my heart by poetry, not in my head ... ” ~ An American student after a Thomas lecture. ~
It was during this period in Wales, however, when Dylan Thomas produced many of the poems that were to establish his place among the ranks of great poets. They were poems that often reflected on the fantasy-days of childhood lost: Poem In October, 'In my craft or sullen art', The Conversation of Prayers, and Fern Hill. When these works and others were released in the 1946 collection Deaths and Entrances, Dylan's popularity exploded. He was hailed as a genius and a great poet. Back in London, he continued to work for the BBC, becoming as well known for his radio work as for his poetry. Even though he craved affection and attention, Thomas found this world-wide fame overwhelming. The more famous he became, the more he would withdraw -- perhaps in an attempt to keep his private, inner world his own.
Near the end of 1945, the Thomases began living largely off the generosity of Mrs. Margaret Taylor, a wealthy benefactress who was a fan of Dylan's work. Taylor's patronage did little to help her own marriage however, which eventually ended after the strain created by her relationship with the Thomases. From 1945 to 1947 Dylan and Caitlin lived in Oxford. Llewelyn, who had been staying with Caitlin's family since 1941, now came to live with his parents again.
Thomas took his first trip abroad in April 1947 as he spent several months in Italy with his family. Thomas found he didn't enjoy travelling, and would spend his time indoors listening to cricket on the radio while everyone else went sightseeing or off to the beach. While in Italy he also composed the poem In Country Heaven. Later that year Margaret Taylor bought the family a house in South Leigh. When they learned six months later that The Boat House in Laugharne was available, Mrs. Taylor managed to sell the South Leigh house to purchase The Boat House for them. In 1949 the Thomases, Caitlin now seven months pregnant, moved back to Laugharne -- into the whitewashed house overlooking the tidal waters of the River Taf.
Back in Wales and back in Laugharne, Thomas easily fell into his old routines. He used the shed along the road from the Boat House to the village as his place of work, again writing mostly in the afternoons. His parents had moved to a house across from Laugharne's Brown Hotel. At night his mother would keep watch behind her lace curtains to see if Dylan fell over on his drunken way down the steps of the hotel. When he drank into the small hours of the morning he would tip-toe home, carrying his shoes so as not to wake the neighbors. Yet sometimes they would awaken -- only to peer out their windows and see an inebriated man relieving himself on the town's prized cherry trees. Though their third child, son Colm Garan Hart, was born in July of 1949, the tension between Caitlin and Dylan was as high as ever. Money was still tight, so when a generous offer arrived from the United States, a country which Thomas had wanted to visit for years, it was readily accepted.
John Malcolm Brinnin, director of the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association in New York City had written asking Thomas to lecture and read at the Association's Poetry Centre. So on February 21, 1950 the wild Welsh poet arrived in America. Thomas did not hesitate to comment on his new experiences in this country whose lifestyle and culture was quite different to his own. He described skyscrapers as "phallic towers" and said he found it strange that in the U.S. "everybody uses the telephone all the time". In a letter home he observed:
There seems, at first, to be no reality at all in the life here: it is all an enormous façade of speed and efficiency & power behind which millions of little individuals are wrestling, in vain, with their own anxieties.
At various times America seemed to both overwhelm and amuse Thomas.
Over the next three months he traveled coast-to-coast, in New York and California, giving readings at over forty universities, schools and colleges. After a night on stage he would relax by drinking, singing songs and telling his ribald jokes and stories before stumbling off to any bed he could find. Most of the American literati were disappointed by Thomas' behavior off-stage, as they did not find his brand of humor nor his constant use of four-letter words appealing. Thomas, however, couldn't have cared less. Despite his ability to mesmerize and enchant audiences at readings, this was also a man who afterwards once made a lewd comment to a female undergraduate about wanting to suckle her breasts, and at another time horrified the group he was with by "not quite making it to the bathroom".
Two incidents during one week in California further demonstrate Dylan's sometimes complete lack of tact or social grace. The first took place at a dinner where Thomas was introduced to the actress Shelley Winters. When she asked him why he had come to Hollywood, his reply was "To touch the titties of a beautiful blonde starlet and to meet Charlie Chaplin." Later that evening when Winters granted his first wish, he proclaimed "I do not believe it's necessary for me to meet Charlie Chaplin now". Yet he did meet Chaplin soon after, arriving quite drunk at the residence after a meal enjoyed with Winters, Marilyn Monroe and several martinis and bottles of beer and wine. Upon arrival, Thomas crashed the car they were in into the net of Chaplin's tennis court. Inside, though there were several notable Hollywood figures there that night, Thomas insisted he was only interested in meeting Chaplin. After later being rebuked for "rude, drunken behavior" by Chaplin himself, Dylan promptly walked out into the solarium and relieved himself on a large plant.
“ ... he can best be described as suffering from a character neurosis, with increasing depression, dangerous alcoholic acting out, tormenting worry, progressive creative inhibition, indicating a sense of neurotic helplesness ... ” ~ Dr. B. W. Murphy on Dylan Thomas ~
It was while on this first tour of the United States that Thomas apparently became engaged in a serious affair with an American woman whom he later met up with in London. After hearing about this and being told that Dylan and the woman were seen together in London pubs where she was well known, Caitlin felt humiliated and was suspicious and mistrustful of her husband for the rest of their time together. Any trust that had been left was now gone. Their fights became more frequent and more violent.
Caitlin accompanied Dylan on his second U.S. tour from January to May 1952, though the travelling was stressful and she found that she did not like America very much. In November his Collected Poems were published and hailed as a major literary achievement. The book was awarded the William Foyle Poetry Prize in 1952 and the Etna-Taormina International Prize later in 1953. Yet just as his fame was growing even greater, Thomas had to deal with personal tragedy. His close relationship with his father had continued after moving back to Laugharne, with daily visits to discuss his work and relax by doing crossword puzzles and talking. The ailing D.J. Thomas died on December 16, 1952 at the age of 76, with his son holding his hand. As per the elder Thomas' wishes, his body was cremated, though this too turned out to be a traumatic experience for Dylan. He was told that his father's head had exploded in the oven and he ended up becoming violently ill when the wind shifted and started blowing the oven's smoke in his direction. He asked his wife to ensure that "nothing like that ever happens to me".
The strong emotions he experienced during the lengthy illness and death of his father helped Thomas produce two of his most well-known poems: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and the unfinished Elegy. Tragedy struck again just before his third U.S. tour when Dylan's sister Nancy died in Bombay. Dylan was now all his mother had left of their family, and even this was not to last long.
From April to June of 1953 Thomas spent six weeks in the U.S. promoting the American publication of Collected Poems. While there, his unfinished play Under Milk Wood, a project which he had been constructing on and off for thirteen years, was staged in its world premiere on the 3rd of May at Harvard's Fogg Museum. The play's original working title was "The Town That Was Mad" -- the town being largely based upon Laugharne. For years Thomas had been spotted at the pub quickly jotting something down on any scrap of paper he could find. The locals dismissed it as one of the writer's quirks, little suspecting that over time he was collecting material for his play. Thomas wanted to capture the particular way they spoke, the intonation and the rhythms.
In 1953 Thomas began making several television appearances, further boosting his celebrity. He was also featured in a rather unflattering article in Time magazine in which the journalist wrote:
When he settles down to guzzle beer, which is most of the time, his incredible yarns tumble over each other in a wild Welsh dithyramb in which truth and fact become hopelessly smothered in boozy invention. He borrows with no thought of returning what is lent, seldom shows up on time, is a trial to his friends, and a worry to his family.
Regardless of the reputation Dylan Thomas had gained, the article was full of gross exaggeration and the poet began proceedings to sue the magazine for libel. In return, Time hired a private detective to follow Thomas on his fourth U.S. Tour in late 1953 -- which is perhaps one of the only reasons we know some details about the final days of Dylan Thomas' life.
During his fourth visit to the United States, Dylan planned on staying and working in New York for several weeks, then travelling on to California to work on a major project writing the libretto of an opera for which Igor Stranvinsky would write the score. He would stay for an extended length of time and informed Caitlin that he would send for her as soon as he had enough money, which of course made her livid. When he boarded the plane on October 19, 1953, she believed that the marriage was over.
While he worked on rehearsals of Under Milk Wood in the weeks after arriving in New York, he often complained of being tired and spent much of the time resting in his hotel. He would get sick and vomit when drinking. On November 3, Thomas signed a contract for future lecture tours that would bring him $1,000 a week and should have brought an end to his financial problems.
Much speculation has been and is still made about the events of the next several days. Thomas had been receiving cortisone injections as treatment for his illness and tiredness while in New York, though they were not wholly successful in alleviating the problems. On November 4 after being up until 4 or 5 a.m. the night before, he was given another cortisone shot, after which he kept vomiting and started to seem delirious. The doctor was summoned again later in the day, and Thomas asked to be "put out". He was apparently given half-a-grain of morphine -- which doctors now confirm was approximately three times the appropriate dose and would cause anyone to be violently ill. Some have also speculated that Thomas had been using certain drugs like sleeping and "pep" pills, which may have contributed to his condition. At 2:30 a.m. on November 5 an ambulance was summoned to take him to St. Vincent's Hospital. Thomas had fallen into a coma.
Earlier that year during his third U.S. tour, Thomas started an affair with Liz Reitell, John Brinnin's assistant. It was she who had summon the doctor and called for the ambulance. She now held a beside vigil at the hospital until Caitlin arrived on November 8th. Dylan Thomas died at 12:40 p.m. on November 9, 1953 while a nurse was bathing him. The only other person in the room at the time was the poet John Berryman. A memorial service held in New York soon after was attended by notable writers such as Tennessee Williams, e. e. cummings and William Faulkner. The distraught Caitlin accompanied Dylan's body back to Wales on the S.S. United States and he was buried in a churchyard in Laugharne on November 24.
There are many things said and written about Dylan Thomas, and it is difficult to know what is really true and what is not. There is perhaps some small grain of truth found in each story or assessment. Though he was witty, charming, and a great writer and performer, he was at the same time insecure, neglectful and irresponsible. Thanks to his talents with the spoken and written word, however, his works are sure outlive his reputation.