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Dylan Thomas

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, Literature on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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This edited article about Dylan Thomas originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

pub, picture, image, illustration

A scene in a London Pub during the Forties, by Peter Jackson

When Dylan Thomas came to London in 1934, he had just published a slim volume of verse called simply 18 Poems. All over London, refined society hostesses threw open their houses to the astonishing Welsh poet whose filthy nails and bad language belied his cherubic appearance.

Thomas’ poetry seemed to explode with raw power – every line crackled with energy, as did the poet himself. With calculated theatricality, he told his polite audiences that he would “be dead within two years, drinking, exploring and going to the devil.”

As it turned out, he was wrong. The young man of 20 actually lived for 19 more years until his health finally gave out in New York in 1953, the inevitable result of a lifetime of hard living and hard drinking.

Between his meteoric arrival in London and tragic death in New York, Dylan Thomas carved himself a reputation as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. His constant refusal to conform, and his delight in shocking people, attracted a whole new generation of readers to his poetry.

He especially appealed to young people. It was no coincidence that an unknown folk singer decided to change his name to Bob Dylan after the man whose poetry had so inspired him. Thomas’s early poems seemed to capture exactly the incoherence and power of adolescence, the time when a young person undergoes a series of profound bodily changes before becoming a fully-grown, physically mature adult.

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born in 1914, in a house in a middle-class street in suburban Swansea, the industrial town in South Wales.

His father was the head of the English department at Swansea Grammar School, where Thomas himself was later to be educated. Right from the start, however, young Dylan knew what his course in life would be – he was going to be a poet.

Dylan set to work at his self-appointed task. In his autobiography Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog, he tells us that his room at home was full of books of verse by all the great poets. He read all of them, devouring everything that came his way.

At the same time he was assembling an enormous collection of notes, jottings and ideas that later provided him with much of his raw material. Most of the poems in his first book have their origins in the notebooks of his teenage years.

After taking various exams, editing the school magazine and winning the cross-country prize, Dylan went to work as a reporter on the local paper, the South Wales Post. He did not stay there long, but his forays into Swansea in search of a story provided him with more valuable material.

But these excursions also introduced Dylan to the instrument of his ultimate downfall – alcohol. After a few pints of beer in the pubs, Thomas found that his conversation seemed to sparkle and shine. Dylan was especially prone to believing that he was more gifted when he had had too much to drink.

In Swansea, leaning against the bars of innumerable public houses, Thomas planned his career. It was here that the myth of Dylan Thomas the Welsh roaring boy and poet began.

It could not fail to attract attention. One hostess remembers his appearance at a special dinner given in his honour: “On that occasion he wore a very grubby green jersey of the kind supplied to Wolf Cubs and his nails were certainly blacker than ever.” After insulting most of the guests, the poet then proceeded to throw pellets of bread at them.

The trouble with such an image was that after a while people forgot to look at what lay behind it. For underneath that strange and dazzling exterior lay the still, calm waters of a childlike innocence. It was this unique feature that saved his poetry even after years of abusing his talent.

Dylan Thomas’ downfall was ultimately due to lack of money – for until 1949, with the publication of the collection called Deaths And Entrances, his writing had hardly brought him a penny.

To make ends meet, Dylan embarked on a series of exhausting tours of American colleges. At these lectures, he would read from his work and discuss it with the audience – but the travelling and the monotony of endless hotels eventually ruined his health.

One evening in New York he left the room where he was staying, telling his hostess that he would be back in 90 minutes. On his return, he told her that he had just drunk 18 glasses of whisky.

Shortly afterwards he went into a coma from which he never regained consciousness. At the age of 39, Dylan Thomas was dead. He was buried in Laugharne, the town he had immortalised as Llaregyb in what was probably his most famous work of all, Under Milk Wood.

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