Dylan Thomas was born on October 14, 1914, in Upland, Swansea. His father, David John Thomas, received a degree at University College Aberystwyth and was valedictorian in English, he taught English at Swansea Grammar School. His father, quick tempered and intimidating had a beautiful, sonorous voice for reading aloud (which Dylan inherited). Florence Hannah Williams, Thomas?s mother, was a tailor before she was married. Thomas was a troublesome child. He stole money from his mother?s purse, and lied about it. While his mother was in denial about this, his sister Nancy was becoming very irritated. From 1925-1931,he attended Swansea grammar school, where his father taught. He was a small, pretty boy, and was bullied at school, until he became aggressive and rebellious. (Merric, 1)
In 1931 seventeen year old Dylan Thomas left school and became a reporter on the South Wales Evening Post, although he was not successful. He reported a lacrosse game once, except that he was in a pub and the game had been cancelled! He was later fired. (Merric, 1)
He began drinking around the age of fifteen. He would sneak into pubs with a friend. He later entered amateur dramatics, and appeared with his sister in Hay Fever. In Shakespeare?s The Merchant of Venice, Thomas was in a pub again, and missed his cue. (Merric, 1)
In 1933, Thomas began publishing some of his poetry. He submitted a poem to a BBC competition, and it was read on the air. During 1934, he moved to London, where alcohol took over his life. While he was in London Thomas published his first volume of 18 Poems. This was his first taste of success. Three years after living in London he met his future wife, Caitlin Macnamara. (Merric, 1)
Thomas?s first broadcast was in 1937 for the BBC. His job was to read other poets? works on the air. He began to read his own works with the company of well-known poets like Auden and Spencer. (Merric, 1)
When WWII began, Thomas was worried that he would be drafted, fortunate for him he was judged medically unfit. Some of his neighbors thought that he was a ?conchie? (?concienting? objector) and was often attacked. For a while he thought that he would have to work in a Mauritius factory. Thomas said, ?deary me, I?d rather be a poet any day and live on guile and beer.? Instead, he worked in a documentary film unit under one of John Griersons five disciples, Donald Taylor. Thomas began to sober up and became serious and focused on his writing. During this time, he was living with friends, however it was said that he was abusing their hospitality. (Ferris 2, 59)
During 1943, he began his career in freelance broadcasts on national radio. His voice was perfect. Being short of funds, Thomas always asked for his money in cash and in advance. In 1946, Thomas?s poem, Deaths and Entrances was a success for him and his publisher J.N. Dents. Soon he began touring through the United States. He was spending a lot of money on alcohol, was fired, and asked to moderate his lifestyle. The number of people who showed up at his tour confirmed his reputation as a charismatic leader of poetry who was charming but disruptive. Thomas was a heavy drunk, and on his last show in the U.S., he collapsed with alcohol poisoning, dying shortly after being taken to a hospital in New York. He was thirty-six years old. Dylan Thomas was buried at St. Martins Church in Laugharne. (Ferris 2, 61)
Dylan Thomas was a man with a certain talent. He was a poet. Some say he was brilliant and others say he wrote nonsense. Whether he was a genius, or an idiot, we may never know. However, many critics say he was a brilliant man who had a problem. On the other hand, some authorities feel his influence could have been derived from his Welsh background or from being an alcoholic. With many poets, love might have been another influence as well.
?Religion, such as he knew it, was direct and natural; the symbolism of religion, as he uses it, is poetry, direct knowledge. Religion is not to be used: it is simply part of life, part of himself; it is like a tree; take it or leave it, it is there.? ? Karl Shapiro (Cox, p. 26)
In order to understand Thomas? poetry you have to understand his religious background. Karl Shapiro says that it is essential to know Thomas?s religious beliefs, otherwise you do not know what Thomas?s thoughts are reflecting on or from where they are coming. (Cox, p 27). He also says that religion is not something Thomas does, it is what Thomas is, and therefor religion is going to be part of his poetry, because that is what he knows. Puritanism directed Welsh life and thought. The Puritanism influence was inescapable. (Walters, p.6)
An example of his religious poetry is the poem Incarnate Devil. It is about the Garden of Eden, and the snake, representing the devil, trying to persuade a man to eat the forbidden fruit. The fruit is god in disguise, and he comes from this fruit and turns into a fiddling warden. This poem has biblical influence including the Garden of Eden. Thomas could not have been inspired from anything but religion when he wrote this poem.
Thomas? Welsh background was a direct influence on his poems, also along with the Welsh culture and tradition were the Anglo-Welsh writers that affected him. (Moynoban, p. 74). Geoffrey Moore wrote in an article:
The national felling engendered by so many hundreds of years of Welsh speaking survives now without the actual bond of language. The harp of Wales sounds in the ears of Welshmen whether they are archdruids from Bangor or boyos from the back streets of Cardiff. Without being hopelessly mystical about race, one can with some confidence assert that both it and environment have an effect on the nature of a people and the art that springs from them?the spirit of place and of country is an inescapable influence. To this degree, and to the degree that Dylan Thomas opened himself to the scenes and people and manners of the place in which he was born, it is meaningful to talk about the Welsh quality of his work. (Cox, p. 27)
Thomas? earliest works show his strong Welsh influence, but he was less aware of it. When he moved from Wales, he realized that his poetry was strongly affected by his Welsh culture. He felt himself belonging to his native culture. (Ferris 1, p. 67). In a note with his Collected Poems, he writes:
I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: ?I?d be a damn? fool if I didn?t!? These poems, with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I?d be a damn? fool if they weren?t. (Cox, p. 29)
Thomas was very careful to have evidence of his statement before setting it forth. His estimation of his poetry comes from his Welsh tradition, life, and thought. This tradition can be explained by Thomas?s confidence in his romantic and apocalyptic manner. ?It was his Welsh environment which offered a background of thought and culture fostering belief in the more primitive, mystical, and romantic conception of the poet?. A feature of old Welsh poetry is the duality of nature, of unity in disunity, of life and death, and of time as an eternal moment rather than as something with a separate past and future. The basis of this is an oxymoron. (Thomas, Dylan (Marlais), p. 17)
The poem, Today, This Insect was written while Thomas was living in Whales, inspired from his Welsh experiences, and his Welsh background. Today, This Insect is about an insect and his loss of ability to write. It says that his thoughts are not producing any sense and this is resulting in the destruction of Genesis and Eden. The Insect feels he is a monster and is being destroyed by his feelings, or thoughts. This poem is also about Thomas being an alcoholic. He came to terms in this poem, saying that his alcoholism is blocking his thoughts and he is destroying his Welsh religion. This is stated when he talks about the destruction of Genesis and Eden. The ?monster? is himself when he is under the influence, and that is when he destroys himself.
In some of Thomas? later poems, the characters are portrayed as being between man and God, a prophet or a man mediating. In the poems Author?s Prologue, Over Sir Johns Hill, and Poem on his Birthday this is exemplified. The subjects in these poems are imbued with a special wisdom. (Thomas, Dylan (Marlais), p. 20)
Thomas let alcohol consume him. His addiction began at age 15 and continued until it killed him. Drinking was an everyday event, stripping him of his money and ability to write. Some critics and poets of Thomas? time say that his poems were too incomprehensible to understand. His poetry went from brilliant poems of love to ungraspable poems of wombs and tombs, and sex and corpses, to try to protect himself from the reality of adulthood. (Middleton, p. 376)
While Thomas was a heavy drunk, his poems also had emphasis on birth, prenatal life, the relation of parent to child, growth, the relation of body and spirit, of life to death, of human and animal to vegetable, and similar themes. A poem that has some of these relationships is This Bread I Break, which talks about the growth of bread, it is not very clear what the poem is saying, but it follows the steps bread takes before it becomes a loaf. The poems he wrote with these themes remain confusing, disturbing, and never completely understood. During his time, the most perceptive critics and poets had little idea of what his poems were about or what he was trying to say.
Thomas?s poem, On a Wedding Anniversary, shows the relationship of a man and a woman, and how in spite of their love for each other, it is no longer lasting. He showed this with the description of a gloomy, stormy day, and described the closing of doors, which was symbolic of the lives of these two people.
In another poem, The Tombstone Told When She Died, the death of a woman brings such pain to her true love that he spends his life thinking of her suicide and how he hurt her. He goes back to her grave, kisses death on the lips, and joins his love.
Thomas?s poems express great love and what people would do for each other. They are not all confusing and hard to understand, but lovely descriptions of what has gone on in the lives of many characters. His religious background influences most of his poems, and the others are from personal experiences or just from the heart.
Some seem to think that alcoholism had an extreme influence on Thomas?s poetry; however, there is no real evidence, or strong argument that can actually hold to this. The use of religion and Welsh background falls right into place. He speaks of God in many of his poems. Every poet is inspired someway by his or her background, which is inescapable. Moreover, Dylan Thomas does not speak of things that are totally irrelevant, only thoughts that are complex.
Thomas shows strong Welsh and religious background in his poetry, along with some poems that are very far-fetched. The only direct influence on his poetry is his background. Being an alcoholic did not influence Thomas as much as some critics say.
BibliographyCox, C.B., ed. Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Ferris, Paul. Dylan Thomas. New York: Dial, 1977.
Ferris, Paul. Dylan Thomas a biography. New York: The Dial Press, 1977.
Merric, Judith. Dylan Thomas. BBC. 1 March 2001 http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/centurious/thomas/thombiog.shtmlMiddleton, David E. ?Dylan Thomas.? DLB. Vol. 20. Michigan: Gale Research comp., 1983. p. 365-394.
Moynoban, William T. Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas. [S.I.]: Cornell, 1966.
?Thomas, Dylan (Marlais) 1914-1953.? Something About the Author. Vol. 60. New York: Gale Research, 1990. p. 163-175.
Thomas, Dylan. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions Pub., 1957.
Walters, Colin. ?Angel or Bad Boy, The Poet Dylan Thomas.? The Washington Times. 14 Jan. 2001, p.6.
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