Dylan Marlais Thomas, born in Swansea, Wales, in 1914, is widely considered to be the greatest British poet of his generation. In addition to poetry, he wrote a famous radio play (Under Milk Wood), an autobiography, and highly imaginative short stories as well as screenplays and essays. He gained celebrity in Great Britain for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio broadcasts of his and other poets’ works and received international acclaim for his public readings in the United States, where he died on November 9, 1953, of alcohol abuse and related causes.
Though Thomas’s total poetic output is modest, he was not so much a slow writer as a careful one, altering some of his poems more than two hundred times. He insisted that his work be read at its face value, preferably aloud. (Thomas once said that he wanted to be read, not read into.) His lyrical gifts are often linked to his Welsh background, along with the influence of particular poets, notably Gerard Manley Hopkins. Much of the criticism of the obscurity of his work has been irrelevant, because readers are supposed to allow the words to work on them, which they do in spite of the many private and esoteric references. Still, Thomas’s painstakingly crafted poetry was the product of a highly dialectical intellect and holds up to close rational analysis.
Thomas was a complex figure, a man of effusive good will who suffered agonies of guilt. While he tortuously worked through to a celebration of Christian belief in God and nature, his personal life revealed a man who wished to believe, to find faith, but could not without great difficulty. Extremely sensitive, he projected his own guilt onto the world at large–its hypocrisy and greed, its general inhumanity. Two symptoms of this paradox were his telling the truth beyond the edge of tact and his profligate wastefulness of money, though he was miserable when the first resulted in hurt feelings and the second in poverty.
Many of Thomas’s poems reflect his love of the Welsh countryside. The setting of one of his most famous poems, “Fern Hill,” is his aunt and uncle’s farm, which he visited as a child. Much of what he had to say in these poems is concerned with that Edenic country world–its harmony with the rhythm of the earth in its emphasis on birth, marriage, death, rebirth, and a simple faith in God–or with the lost world of childhood innocence.
Thomas was educated in the Swansea grammar school, in which his strict, agnostic father was an English master. His juvenile poetry and prose were published frequently in the grammar school literary magazine. When his first volume, Eighteen Poems, appeared, it was received enthusiastically by critics such as Edith Sitwell, though not by the general public, some of whom wrote virulent abuses to the Sunday Times. His poetry of this period was concerned almost entirely with personal problems and was made perhaps deliberately obscure by private imagery and a highly personalized rhetorical style.
Until World War II Thomas lived in London much of the time. Short but broad, of huge energy, he had experiences that were in many ways those of any proud rural innocent; always scornful of hypocrisy and the unnatural, he found much to reject in the city. At the same time, his great warmth and talent made him many friends among its literary leaders. His way of adapting to this life was to mock convention with droll acts. During the war he served as an antiaircraft gunner; the sight of the war’s courage and suffering induced his second creative phase, one which revealed poignant feelings for others. When he began reading poetry over the BBC, he developed a following among the general public. With the publication of Deaths and Entrances in 1946, which contains some of his most celebrated poems, Thomas’s literary reputation grew considerably.
With the printing of Collected Poems in 1952 he became a major public figure on the basis of the book’s enthusiastic reception by reviewers and critics. His later poetry had begun to reveal the change in his attitude from one of doubt and fear to faith and hope, with love of God gained through love of humankind and the world of nature. It also was more accessible. It was at this time, however, that he became unbearably dissatisfied with life. Part of this feeling may have been due to his growing fear of alienation from his Irish-born wife, Caitlin, and their three children; part of it may have been the effect of his fear of losing his powers. In addition, he was miserable as a public figure. He was anxious before strangers. Although he was deeply appreciated by the audiences he read to, most of these people were interested in the poet of public fame, not in the private man. For a man with a huge capacity and need to love and be loved, this experience may have been devastating. Whatever the causes, Thomas produced mostly fiction and verse plays the last few years of his life. Of these, the unfinished Adventures in the Skin Trade deals with his urban experiences, Under Milk Wood with his village reminiscences. Both these works, along with his unfinished series of poems titled “In Country Heaven” (of which In Country Sleep, published in 1952, was a part), are celebrations of “the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.”