100 Years of Dylan Thomas

Liam Welsh

The poetry of Dylan Thomas is inextricably linked to the life of the man. His lifestyle and legacy almost parody the stereotype of a romantic poet; drinker, womanizer, inevitably obsessed with death and beauty in equal measure. If you enjoyed hearing about how such luminaries as Keats and Byron met their early demise, Thomas’ story is your twentieth century equivalent.

The 27th of October marked the centenary of his birth, and Thomas continues to be adored in his native Wales, despite his complicated relationship with his homeland. Although both parents were Welsh speakers, they did not pass the language onto their son (Welsh – somewhat like Gaelic – was once regarded as backward and non-conducive to social climbing, which possibly explains why Thomas was not educated in the native tongue of his country). Raised in a Bourgeois part of Swansea, his upbringing was somewhat typical, despite the fact the 10,000 within the town were unemployed, and 2,000 were subjected to means testing. Later, Thomas acknowledged the shaping influence of his hometown when he remarked that if he stood for anything, it was the suburban middle class institutions of the “provincial drive” and the “evening pub”.

So perhaps Thomas was not your typical salt of the earth Welshman, but there is little doubt that he carried affection for Wales and its people. This is perhaps most obvious in his poems on childhood such as “Fern Hill”, where he mythologises his childhood rambles near his aunt’s cottage before notions of mortality impinged on his mind. It is also present in the whimsical play for voices “Under Milk Wood”, striking for both its warm and effortless lyricism, and its unrealistic portrayal of Wales. In fact, one might be inclined to argue that the only quintessentially Welsh period of Thomas’s life was his childhood, and so he could only see his homeland through such an idealised, trouble-free lens. And perhaps it was that stifling suburban air that produced poems with vital diction and solemn themes, like “Death Shall Have No Dominion”.

Beloved by the reading public, Thomas has been neglected by scholars. He does not quite fit into the modernist mould of Eliot, and never wrote politically charged verse like his more immediate contemporaries (such as Auden, for example). His deification of nature has been termed as “Neo-Romantic” but even this is unsatisfactory when we look at early poems like “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines”. Full of bold, contradicting images, we realise Thomas’ poetry is influenced just as much by modernist symbolism from the likes of Rimbaud (both saw the poet as a mystic seer figure) as it is Romanticism.

Thomas passed away on the 9th November 1953. Pneumonia, brain swelling and a fatty liver from years of alcoholism served as contributing factors. Perhaps it’s the difficulty of untangling the man from his work that scares scholars away. Arguably, however, it is just this that pulls so many others to his work. People are drawn to the here-and-gone, quick flash of brilliance that was Dylan Thomas’s career, much as previous generations were with Shelley, which today shows little sign of waning.