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Dylan Swansea
A statue of Dylan Thomas
Maritime Quarter, Swansea - geograph.org.uk - 220934
Statue of Dylan Thomas in Swansea
Dylan Thomas portrait
Portrait of Dylan Thomas by Italian artist Gianpiero Actis

Dylan Marlais Thomas (27 October 1914 - 9 November 1953) was a Welsh poet. He was born in the town of Swansea. He published his first book of poetry in 1932. In addition to writing poetry, he was an excellent speaker. He toured the United Kingdom and the United States reciting his poems. He wrote works for radio including "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "Under Milk Wood" Thomas is one of the famous people who appears on the cover of The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Life and Career

Early life

Dylan thomas birthplace
5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, birthplace of Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas was born on 27 October 1914 in Swansea, the son of Florence Hannah (née Williams; 1882–1958), a seamstress, and David John Thomas (1876–1952), a teacher. His father had a first-class honours degree in English from University College, Aberystwyth and ambitions to rise above his position teaching English literature at the local grammar school. Thomas had one sibling, Nancy Marles (1906–1953), who was eight years his senior. The children spoke only English, though their parents were bilingual in English and Welsh, and David Thomas gave Welsh lessons at home. Thomas's father chose the name Dylan, which could be translated as "son of the sea", after Dylan ail Don, a character in The Mabinogion. His middle name, Marlais, was given in honour of his great-uncle, William Thomas, a Unitarian minister and poet whose bardic name was Gwilym Marles. Dylan, pronounced ˈ [ˈdəlan] (Dull-an) in Welsh, caused his mother to worry that he might be teased as the "dull one". When he broadcast on Welsh BBC, early in his career, he was introduced using this pronunciation. Thomas favoured the Anglicised pronunciation and gave instructions that it should be Dillan /ˈdɪlən/.

The red-brick semi-detached house at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive (in the respectable area of the Uplands), in which Thomas was born and lived until he was 19, had been bought by his parents a few months before his birth. His childhood was spent in Swansea, with summer trips to Carmarthenshire to visit Fernhill, a dairy farm owned by his maternal aunt, Ann Jones, the memory of which is used for the 1945 lyrical poem "Fern Hill". Thomas had bronchitis and asthma in childhood and struggled with these throughout his life. Thomas was indulged by his mother and enjoyed being mollycoddled, a trait he carried into adulthood, and he was skilful in gaining attention and sympathy. Thomas' formal education began at Mrs Hole's dame school, a private school on Mirador Crescent, a few streets away from his home. He described his experience there in Quite Early One Morning:

Never was there such a dame school as ours, so firm and kind and smelling of galoshes, with the sweet and fumbled music of the piano lessons drifting down from upstairs to the lonely schoolroom, where only the sometimes tearful wicked sat over undone sums, or to repent a little crime – the pulling of a girl's hair during geography, the sly shin kick under the table during English literature.

Dylan Thomas Theatre Home of Swansea Little Theatre
Dylan Thomas Theatre

In October 1925, Thomas enrolled at Swansea Grammar School for boys, in Mount Pleasant, where his father taught English. He was an undistinguished pupil who shied away from school, preferring reading. In his first year one of his poems was published in the school's magazine, and before he left he became its editor. During his final school years he began writing poetry in notebooks; the first poem, dated 27 April (1930), is entitled "Osiris, come to Isis". In June 1928 Thomas won the school's mile race, held at St. Helen's Ground; he carried a newspaper photograph of his victory with him until his death. In 1931, when he was 16, Thomas left school to become a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post, only to leave under pressure 18 months later. Thomas continued to work as a freelance journalist for several years, during which time he remained at Cwmdonkin Drive and continued to add to his notebooks, amassing 200 poems in four books between 1930 and 1934. Of the 90 poems he published, half were written during these years.

In his free time, he joined the amateur dramatic group at the Little Theatre in Mumbles, visited the cinema in Uplands, took walks along Swansea Bay, and frequented Swansea's pubs, especially the Antelope and the Mermaid Hotels in Mumbles. In the Kardomah Café, close to the newspaper office in Castle Street, he met his creative contemporaries, including his friend the poet Vernon Watkins. The group of writers, musicians and artists became known as "The Kardomah Gang". In 1933, Thomas visited London for probably the first time.

1933–1939

Thomas was a teenager when many of the poems for which he became famous were published: "And death shall have no dominion", "Before I Knocked" and "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower". "And death shall have no dominion" appeared in the New English Weekly in May 1933. When "Light breaks where no sun shines" appeared in The Listener in 1934, it caught the attention of three senior figures in literary London, T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Grigson and Stephen Spender. They contacted Thomas and his first poetry volume, 18 Poems, was published in December 1934. 18 Poems was noted for its visionary qualities which led to critic Desmond Hawkins writing that the work was "the sort of bomb that bursts no more than once in three years". The volume was critically acclaimed and won a contest run by the Sunday Referee, netting him new admirers from the London poetry world, including Edith Sitwell and Edwin Muir. The anthology was published by Fortune Press, in part a vanity publisher that did not pay its writers and expected them to buy a certain number of copies themselves. A similar arrangement was used by other new authors including Philip Larkin. In September 1935, Thomas met Vernon Watkins, thus beginning a lifelong friendship. Thomas introduced Watkins, working at Lloyds Bank at the time, to his friends, now known as The Kardomah Gang. In those days, Thomas used to frequent the cinema on Mondays with Tom Warner who, like Watkins, had recently suffered a nervous breakdown. After these trips, Warner would bring Thomas back for supper with his aunt. On one occasion, when she served him a boiled egg, she had to cut its top off for him, as Thomas did not know how to do this. This was because his mother had done it for him all his life, an example of her coddling him. Years later, his wife Caitlin would still have to prepare his eggs for him. In December 1935 Thomas contributed the poem "The Hand That Signed the Paper" to Issue 18 of the bi-monthly New Verse. In 1936, his next collection Twenty-five Poems, published by J. M. Dent, also received much critical praise. In all, he wrote half his poems while living at Cwmdonkin Drive before moving to London. It was the time that Thomas's reputation for heavy drinking developed.

In early 1936, Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara (1913–1994), a 22-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed dancer of Irish descent. She had run away from home, intent on making a career in dance, and aged 18 joined the chorus line at the London Palladium. Introduced by Augustus John, Caitlin's lover, they met in The Wheatsheaf pub on Rathbone Place in London's West End. Laying his head in her lap, a drunken Thomas proposed. Thomas liked to comment that he and Caitlin were in bed together ten minutes after they first met. Although Caitlin initially continued her relationship with John, she and Thomas began a correspondence, and in the second half of 1936 were courting. They married at the register office in Penzance, Cornwall, on 11 July 1937. In early 1938 they moved to Wales, renting a cottage in the village of Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. Their first child, Llewelyn Edouard, was born on 30 January 1939.

By the late 1930s, Thomas was embraced as the "poetic herald" for a group of English poets, the New Apocalyptics. Thomas refused to align himself with them and declined to sign their manifesto. He later stated that he believed they were "intellectual muckpots leaning on a theory". Despite this, many of the group, including Henry Treece, modelled their work on Thomas.

Wartime, 1939–1945

In 1939 The Map of Love appeared as a collection of 16 poems and seven of the 20 short stories published by Thomas in magazines since 1934. Ten stories in his next book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), were based less on lavish fantasy than The Map of Love and more on real-life romances featuring himself in Wales. Sales of both books were poor, resulting in Thomas living on meagre fees from writing and reviewing. At this time he borrowed heavily from friends and acquaintances. Hounded by creditors, Thomas and his family left Laugharne in July 1940 and moved to the home of critic John Davenport in Marshfield, Gloucestershire. There Thomas collaborated with Davenport on the satire The Death of the King's Canary, though due to fears of libel the work was not published until 1976.

At the outset of the Second World War, Thomas was worried about conscription, and referred to his ailment as "an unreliable lung". Coughing sometimes confined him to bed, and he had a history of bringing up blood and mucus. After initially seeking employment in a reserved occupation, he managed to be classified Grade III, which meant that he would be among the last to be called up for service. Saddened to see his friends going on active service, he continued drinking and struggled to support his family. He wrote begging letters to random literary figures asking for support, a plan he hoped would provide a long-term regular income. Thomas supplemented his income by writing scripts for the BBC, which not only gave him additional earnings but also provided evidence that he was engaged in essential war work.

In February 1941, Swansea was bombed by the Luftwaffe in a "three nights' blitz". Castle Street was one of many streets that suffered badly; rows of shops, including the Kardomah Café, were destroyed. Thomas walked through the bombed-out shell of the town centre with his friend Bert Trick. Upset at the sight, he concluded: "Our Swansea is dead". Soon after the bombing raids, Thomas wrote a radio play, Return Journey Home, which described the café as being "razed to the snow". The play was first broadcast on 15 June 1947. The Kardomah Café reopened on Portland Street after the war.

In May 1941, Thomas and Caitlin moved to London, leaving their son with his grandmother at Blashford in Hampshire. Thomas hoped to find employment in the film industry and wrote to the director of the films division of the Ministry of Information (MOI). After being rebuffed, he found work with Strand Films, providing him with his first regular income since the Daily Post. Strand produced films for the MOI; Thomas scripted at least five films in 1942, This Is Colour (a history of the British dyeing industry) and New Towns For Old (on post-war reconstruction). These Are The Men (1943) was a more ambitious piece in which Thomas's verse accompanies Leni Riefenstahl's footage of an early Nuremberg Rally. Conquest of a Germ (1944) explored the use of early antibiotics in the fight against pneumonia and tuberculosis. Our Country (1945) was a romantic tour of Britain set to Thomas's poetry.

In early 1943 Thomas began a relationship with Pamela Glendower, one of several affairs he had during his marriage. The affairs either ran out of steam or were halted after Caitlin discovered his infidelity. In March 1943 Caitlin gave birth to a daughter, Aeronwy, in London. They lived in a run-down studio in Chelsea, made up of a single large room with a curtain to separate the kitchen.

In 1944, with the threat of German flying bombs on London, Thomas moved to the family cottage at Blaen Cwm near Llangain, where Thomas resumed writing poetry, completing "Holy Spring" and "Vision and Prayer". In September Thomas and Caitlin moved to New Quay in Cardiganshire (Ceredigion), which inspired Thomas to pen the radio piece Quite Early One Morning, a sketch for his later work, Under Milk Wood. Of the poetry written at this time, of note is "Fern Hill", believed to have been started while living in New Quay, but completed at Blaen Cwm in mid-1945.

Broadcasting years 1945–1949

Blick auf das Dylan Thomas Boathouse und die Trichtermündung des Taf, Wales
The Boat House, Laugharne, the Thomas family home from 1949

Although Thomas had previously written for the BBC, it was a minor and intermittent source of income. In 1943 he wrote and recorded a 15-minute talk entitled "Reminiscences of Childhood" for the Welsh BBC. In December 1944 he recorded Quite Early One Morning (produced by Aneirin Talfan Davies, again for the Welsh BBC) but when Davies offered it for national broadcast BBC London turned it down. On 31 August 1945 the BBC Home Service broadcast Quite Early One Morning, and in the three years beginning October 1945, Thomas made over a hundred broadcasts for the corporation. Thomas was employed not only for his poetry readings, but for discussions and critiques.

Dylan Thomas Writing Shed (7896674354)
Thomas's £5 writing shed in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire

By late September 1945 the Thomases had left Wales and were living with various friends in London. The publication of Deaths and Entrances in 1946 was a turning point for Thomas. Poet and critic Walter J. Turner commented in The Spectator, "This book alone, in my opinion, ranks him as a major poet".

In the second half of 1945, Thomas began reading for the BBC Radio programme, Book of Verse, broadcast weekly to the Far East. This provided Thomas with a regular income and brought him into contact with Louis MacNeice, a congenial drinking companion whose advice Thomas cherished. On 29 September 1946, the BBC began transmitting the Third Programme, a high-culture network which provided opportunities for Thomas. He appeared in the play Comus for the Third Programme, the day after the network launched, and his rich, sonorous voice led to character parts, including the lead in Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Satan in an adaptation of Paradise Lost. Thomas remained a popular guest on radio talk shows for the BBC, who regarded him as "useful should a younger generation poet be needed". He had an uneasy relationship with BBC management and a staff job was never an option, with drinking cited as the problem. Despite this, Thomas became a familiar radio voice and within Britain was "in every sense a celebrity".

Thomas visited the home of historian A. J. P. Taylor in Disley. Although Taylor disliked him intensely, he stayed for a month, drinking "on a monumental scale", up to 15 or 20 pints of beer a day. In late 1946 Thomas turned up at the Taylors' again, this time homeless and with Caitlin. Margaret Taylor let them take up residence in the garden summerhouse. In May 1949 Thomas and his family moved to his final home, the Boat House at Laugharne, purchased for him at a cost of £2,500 in April 1949 by Margaret Taylor. Thomas acquired a garage a hundred yards from the house on a cliff ledge which he turned into his writing shed, and where he wrote several of his most acclaimed poems. Just before moving into there, Thomas rented "Pelican House" opposite his regular drinking den, Brown's Hotel, for his parents who lived there from 1949 until 1953. It was there that his father died and the funeral was held. Caitlin gave birth to their third child, a boy named Colm Garan Hart, on 25 July 1949.

Death

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Thomas's grave at the churchyard in Laugharne, in 2011

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

From "And death shall have no dominion"
Twenty-five Poems (1936)

Thomas arrived in New York on 20 October 1953 to undertake another tour of poetry-reading and talks, organised by Brinnin. Although he complained of chest trouble and gout while still in Britain, there is no record that he received medical treatment for either condition. He was in a melancholy mood about the trip and his health was poor; he relied on an inhaler to aid his breathing and there were reports that he was suffering from blackouts. His visit to say goodbye to BBC producer Philip Burton, a few days before he left for New York, was interrupted by a blackout. On his last night in London he had another in the company of his fellow poet Louis MacNeice. The next day he visited a doctor for a smallpox-vaccination certificate.

WhiteHorseTavern2008
The White Horse Tavern, Greenwich Village

At midnight on 5 November Thomas's breathing became more difficult and his face turned blue. An ambulance was summoned.

Thomas was admitted to the emergency ward at St Vincent's Hospital at 1:58 am.

Thomas died at noon on 9 November, still in a coma.

Aftermath

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Dylan Thomas's writing shed in Laugharne, largely untouched since his death

Following his death, Thomas's body was brought back to Wales for burial in the village churchyard at Laugharne. Thomas's funeral, which Brinnin did not attend, took place at St Martin's Church in Laugharne on 24 November. Thomas's coffin was carried by six friends from the village. Caitlin, without her customary hat, walked behind the coffin, with his childhood friend Daniel Jones at her arm and her mother by her side. The procession to the church was filmed and the wake took place at Brown's Hotel. Thomas's obituary in The Times was written by fellow poet and long-time friend Vernon Watkins.

His widow, Caitlin, died in 1994 and was buried alongside him. Thomas's father "DJ" died on 16 December 1952 and his mother Florence in August 1958. Thomas's elder son, Llewelyn, died in 2000, his daughter, Aeronwy in 2009 and his youngest son Colm in 2012.

Poetry

Poetic style and influences

Thomas's refusal to align with any literary group or movement has made him and his work difficult to categorize. Although influenced by the modern symbolism and surrealism movement he refused to follow its creed. Instead Thomas is viewed as part of the modernism and romanticism movements, though attempts to pigeon-hole him within a particular neo-romantic school have been unsuccessful. Elder Olson, in his 1954 critical study of Thomas's poetry, wrote "... a further characteristic which distinguished Thomas's work from that of other poets. It was unclassifiable." Olson continued that in a postmodern age that continually attempted to demand that poetry have social reference, none could be found in Thomas's work, and that his work was so obscure that critics could not explicate it.

Thomas's verbal style played against strict verse forms, such as in the villanelle "Do not go gentle into that good night". His images were carefully ordered in a patterned sequence, and his major theme was the unity of all life, the continuing process of life and death and new life that linked the generations. Thomas saw biology as a magical transformation producing unity out of diversity, and in his poetry sought a poetic ritual to celebrate this unity. He saw men and women locked in cycles of growth, love, procreation, new growth, death, and new life. Therefore, each image engenders its opposite. Thomas derived his closely woven, sometimes self-contradictory images from the Bible, Welsh folklore, preaching, and Sigmund Freud. Explaining the source of his imagery, Thomas wrote in a letter to Glyn Jones: "My own obscurity is quite an unfashionable one, based, as it is, on a preconceived symbolism derived (I'm afraid all this sounds wooly and pretentious) from the cosmic significance of the human anatomy".

Who once were a bloom of wayside brides in the hawed house
And heard the lewd, wooed field flow to the coming frost,
The scurrying, furred small friars squeal in the dowse
Of day, in the thistle aisles, till the white owl crossed

From "In the white giant's thigh" (1950)

Thomas's early poetry was noted for its verbal density, alliteration, sprung rhythm and internal rhyme, and he was described by some critics as having been influenced by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is attributed to Hopkins, who taught himself Welsh and who used sprung verse, bringing some features of Welsh poetic metre into his work. When Henry Treece wrote to Thomas comparing his style to that of Hopkins, Thomas wrote back denying any such influence. One poet Thomas greatly admired, and who is regarded as an influence, was Thomas Hardy. When Thomas travelled in America, he recited Hardy's work in his readings.

Other poets from whom critics believe Thomas drew influence include James Joyce, Arthur Rimbaud and D. H. Lawrence. William York Tindall, in his 1962 study, A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas, finds comparison between Thomas's and Joyce's wordplay, while he notes the themes of rebirth and nature are common to the works of Lawrence and Thomas. Although Thomas described himself as the "Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive", he stated that the phrase "Swansea's Rimbaud" was coined by poet Roy Campbell. Critics have explored the connection between the creation of Thomas's mythological pasts into his works such as "The Orchards", which Ann Elizabeth Mayer believes reflects the Welsh myths of the Mabinogion. Thomas's poetry is notable for its musicality, most clear in "Fern Hill", "In Country Sleep", "Ballad of the Long-legged Bait" and "In the White Giant's Thigh" from Under Milk Wood.

Thomas once confided that the poems which had most influenced him were Mother Goose rhymes which his parents taught him when he was a child:

I should say I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words. The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes and before I could read them for myself I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance ... I fell in love, that is the only expression I can think of, at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. And, when I began to read the nursery rhymes for myself, and, later, to read other verses and ballads, I knew that I had discovered the most important things, to me, that could be ever.

Thomas was an accomplished writer of prose poetry, with collections such as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) and Quite Early One Morning (1954) showing he was capable of writing moving short stories. His first published prose work was After the Fair, printed in The New English Weekly on 15 March 1934. Jacob Korg believes that Thomas's fiction work can be classified into two main bodies, vigorous fantasies in a poetic style and, after 1939, more straightforward narratives. Korg surmises that Thomas approached his prose writing as an alternate poetic form, which allowed him to produce complex, involuted narratives that do not allow the reader to rest.

As a 'Welsh' poet

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

From "In my Craft or Sullen Art"
Deaths and Entrances, 1946

Thomas disliked being regarded as a provincial poet, and decried any notion of 'Welshness' in his poetry. When he wrote to Stephen Spender in 1952, thanking him for a review of his Collected Poems, he added "Oh, & I forgot. I'm not influenced by Welsh bardic poetry. I can't read Welsh." Despite this his work was rooted in the geography of Wales. Thomas acknowledged that he returned to Wales when he had difficulty writing, and John Ackerman argues that "His inspiration and imagination were rooted in his Welsh background". Caitlin Thomas wrote that he worked "in a fanatically narrow groove, although there was nothing narrow about the depth and understanding of his feelings. The groove of direct hereditary descent in the land of his birth, which he never in thought, and hardly in body, moved out of."

Head of Programmes Wales at the BBC, Aneirin Talfan Davies, who commissioned several of Thomas's early radio talks, believed that the poet's "whole attitude is that of the medieval bards." Kenneth O. Morgan counter-argues that it is a 'difficult enterprise' to find traces of cynghanedd (consonant harmony) or cerdd dafod (tongue-craft) in Thomas's poetry. Instead he believes his work, especially his earlier more autobiographical poems, are rooted in a changing country which echoes the Welshness of the past and the Anglicisation of the new industrial nation: "rural and urban, chapel-going and profane, Welsh and English, Unforgiving and deeply compassionate." Fellow poet and critic Glyn Jones believed that any traces of cynghanedd in Thomas's work were accidental, although he felt Thomas consciously employed one element of Welsh metrics; that of counting syllables per line instead of feet. Constantine Fitzgibbon, Thomas's first in-depth biographer, wrote "No major English poet has ever been as Welsh as Dylan".

Although Thomas had a deep connection with Wales, he disliked Welsh nationalism. He once wrote, "Land of my fathers, and my fathers can keep it". While often attributed to Thomas himself, this line actually comes from the character Owen Morgan-Vaughan, in the screenplay Thomas wrote for the 1948 British melodrama The Three Weird Sisters. Robert Pocock, a friend from the BBC, recalled "I only once heard Dylan express an opinion on Welsh Nationalism. He used three words. Two of them were Welsh Nationalism." Although not expressed as strongly, Glyn Jones believed that he and Thomas's friendship cooled in the later years as he had not 'rejected enough' of the elements that Thomas disliked – "Welsh nationalism and a sort of hill farm morality". Apologetically, in a letter to Keidrych Rhys, editor of literary magazine Wales, Thomas's father wrote that he was "afraid Dylan isn't much of a Welshman". Though FitzGibbon asserts that Thomas's negativity towards Welsh nationalism was fostered by his father's hostility towards the Welsh language.


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