Discover a bit more about the life of Wales’ favourite son, Dylan Thomas…
The early years
- Full name – Dylan Marlais Thomas
- Lived 1914-1953
- Born on Cwmdonkin Drive in the rather smart Uplands area of Swansea, South Wales. They even had a maid. There’s posh, see.
- His father, David John Thomas, known to all as DJ, was a teacher at Swansea Grammar School having attained a first-class degree from University College, Aberystwyth.
- David named him after a character called Dylan ail Don in the Mabinogion,a medieval Welsh romance which also provided the inspiration for the Fleetwood Mac hit Rhiannon… The point is, he was named Dylan before it was cool to be called Dylan because of that American chap with a guitar.
- His middle name came from his great uncle, who had been a poet – so young Dylan had the literary ambitions of his father ingrained in his very name itself.
- Although in Welsh the name “Dylan” is normally pronounced “Dullan” (/ˈdəlan/) , his mother feared this sounded to close to “Dull one” and he might be teased at school, so she favoured the anglicised version “Dillan” (/ˈdɪlən/).
- He lived with his father, his seamstress mother, Florence, who he was closest to as something of a mummy’s boy, and his older sister Nancy in the house of his birth until the age of 19.
- Florence encouraged the young Dylan to read as much, and as widely as he could from an early age – even giving him comics to read by himself, whilst his father helped him develop an ear for the sound of words by reading Shakespeare aloud to him.
- In 1925 he became a student at the same grammar school his father taught at in Mount Pleasant.
- He didn’t shine as a student but threw himself into reading and writing poetry.
- At the age of 11, he had his first poem published in the school magazine, just weeks after joining the school. This had nothing to do with his father being the teacher in charge of the publication…
- In 1927 he sold his first poem, His Requiem, to the Western Mail in Cardiff. Although, in 1971 it was discovered that he’d actually succesfully passed off a poem by Lilian Gard as his own. Enterprising chap.
- He left school in 1931 at the age of 16 and worked as a journalist for the South Wales Evening Post.
- He was sacked about eighteen months later as he wasn’t actually a terribly good journalist… However, politicised by his (unfortunately named) friend Bert Trick, he did take the opportunity the platform afforded to him to campaign against the rising tide of fascism both abroad and what he saw as the sympathetic policies of several Swansea councillors.
- He would work on and off as a freelancer in the years to come, but mainly to bring in money to support his poetry.
- He’d begun keeping a notebook of ideas for poems in 1930 and by 1934 had written 200. Incredibly, these contained half of the 90 he would ever ultimately publish.
- When he wasn’t enjoying the hospitality of pubs like the Antelope and Mermaid along Swansea Bay and The Mumbles, Dylan frequented the Kardomah Cafe which served as a meeting place for like minded artists, musicians and writers – The Kardomah Gang.
- In 1933 his poems began to appear in various periodicals and he even won a BBC poetry competition which led to his poem The Romantic Isle being read on the radio.
- In 1934, when he moved to London, he began to make a reputation for himself, as both an accomplished poet, and a drunken boor.
- TS Eliot and Edith Sitwell were among those who praised his first collection 18 Poems, which was published by Fortune Press.
- Perhaps unsurprisingly given that he’d written many of the poems it contained before arriving in London, his second collection, Twenty-five Poems, followed in 1936, published by JM Dent.
- Equally, for a young man alone in London for the first time, given to horrific bouts of writer’s block as well as self-indulgence and introspection, it’s not surprising that he got drunk. A lot. And spectacularly.
- In 1936, at The Wheatsheaf pub in Rathbone Place, he met the 22 year old Caitlin Macnamara.
- On their first meeting, somewhat worse for wear, he put his head in her lap and proposed. Or, according to Dylan, they were in bed together within ten minutes. You decide.
- The latter option may well have been particularly awkward – though not impossible – given that Caitlin was at The Wheatsheaf with her then lover Augustus John.
- Though they appear to have fallen deeply in love, circumstance kept them apart – with Caitlin in Ireland and Dylan moving between Wales and London frequently, until they married on 11th July 1937 in Penzance, Cornwall.
- At the beginning of 1938, the couple moved to a temporarily rented cottage, then their own house, Sea View, in Laugharne, a village in Carmarthenshire.
- Their first child, a boy named Llewelyn Edouard, was born in January 1939. He was “a fat, round, bald, loud child with a spread nose and blue saucer eyes” according to his loving father.
- At the advent of WWII, now living back in London, Dylan managed to escape conscription through his work in a reserved occupation (writing scripts for the BBC), and on medical grounds for what he described as “an unreliable lung”.
- He published two books in 1939 and 1940, The Map Of Love and Portrait Of The Artist As a Young Dog, which showcased collections of both his poetry and short stories.
- Neither of these books managed to reproduce the success of his first two collections and he was reduced to writing begging letters to members of the literary establishment. And drowning his sorrows…
- The February 1941 blitz on Swansea destroyed much of the city centre, including Dylan’s beloved Kardomagh, which he later described as being “raised to the snow” in his radio play Return Journey Home.
- Back in London, Dylan scripted films for the Ministry of Information ranging from the patriotic Our Country, to the (presumably) quite dull This Is Colour, a history of British dyeing…
- In March 1943, whilst they were living in a studio flat in Chelsea, Caitlin gave birth to a daughter, Aeronwy, named after the River Aeron in Carmarthenshire.
- In the meantime, Dylan was having an affair with Pamela Glendower. His successful string of infidelities is at least testament to a triumph of wit and charm over looks…
- In September 1944, having moved back to Wales fearing the bombing in London, Thomas wrote Quite Early One Morning, an early incarnation of the idea that would become Under Milk Wood.
- When Quite Early One Morning was broadcast on BBC Home Service on 31st August 1945 it marked the beginning of a run of over a hundred broadcasts he would do for the corporation – both as a reader of his own poetry and as critic and commentator.
- Things continued to look up for Dylan when in 1946 his next collection Deaths And Entrances received resounding acclaim and his radio appearances became so frequent that he was suddenly a household name.
- Calling on his youthful endeavours in amateur theatre, Thomas even received bit parts in radio dramas – playing Satan in an adaptation of Paradise Lost.
- At the height of his celebrity however, the family moved to another home in Laugharne – the Boat House.
- Revelling in solitude, Dylan bought a shed to write in a short walk away from the house at the top of a cliff.
- Although it was a productive period for his poetry, it wasn’t long before the coffers were once again empty.
Going to America
- In 1950 he undertook the first of four reading tours of America.
- Reading aloud to crowds of up to 1000, Thomas lived a rock and roll lifestyle at least ten years ahead of the British Invasion of the 1960s – regularly drunk before, during and after performances.
- 1952 saw him return for a forty-six date tour from January to May, but with Caitlin who came along to keep him out of trouble. She succeeded in keeping him out of other women’s beds, though she was less successful keeping him out of bars since she herself was partial to a tipple…
- The third trip lasted just six weeks at Caitlin’s request since she said he only wanted to go for “flattery, idleness and infidelity”. Add “boozing” to that list and she was pretty much spot on.
- Whilst away this time however, he performed a work in progress of Under Milk Wood at Harvard and then just a week later oversaw a full cast stage version at the Poetry Centre in New York.
- The toast of New York, Stravinsky asked him to write a libretto for his next work, yet Dylan continued to excel at pulling failure from the jaws of success…
- Drunk, he fell down some stairs and broke his arm.
- Drunk, he disrupted recordings of his own work with his inability to read.
- Drunk, he disturbed a performance of The Crucible and was thrown out. Although perhaps he just found Arthur Miller a bit preachy and wanted to escape…
- He continued to work on the script on his return to Wales, despite losing a copy of it when drunk in a London pub.
- Returning to America once more in October 1953, he was alone and referred to Caitlin, when challenged, as his “widow”.
- He was alone in more ways than one: his father, his sister and three of his closest friends had all passed away at the beginning of the year, and his alcohol dependency was at its highest.
- Staying at the Chelsea Hotel, he suffered chest pains and relied on an inhaler as well as repeated injections from a rather over enthusiastic doctor.
- His infamous last words “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.” were apparently uttered to his then lover Elizabeth Reitell on his return to the Chelsea Hotel after a drinking binge in the morning of 4th November.
- Except… They weren’t his last words…
- He went to bed, slept off the whisky and was treated in bed for the various ailments he was now suffering from.
- Suffering hallucinations and alcohol withdrawal, his last words were in fact “After 39 years, this is all I’ve done.” before he fell unconscious and was taken to hospital.
- Caitlin arrived, apparently wondering (aloud) “Is the bloody man dead yet?”
- Come the 9th November, he was.
Key work: Under Milk Wood – This “play for voices” captures all of Thomas’ melancholy, his wit, his drinking and bawdiness amidst a sea of romantic verse. Listen to the BBC version with Richard Burton and try not to fall in love with the little town of Llareggub and its inhabitants… And Dylan himself.
“Dylan and Caitlin . . . were at a guest house called the Lobster Pot in Mousehole. Off Mousehole lay a small island, once, it was said, occupied by a hermit. After an evening’s drinking in Lamorna, we came down over the hill when a huge, brilliant moon lay over this island, its light reflected with only the faintest tremor in the still waters of the bay. The splendour of the spectacle infuriated Dylan, who made savage remarks about picture-postcards and visual cliches. I also recall a morning occasion in a sunny field above Newlyn. Dylan was carrying around with him and intermittently sipping from a flagon of “champagne wine tonic”, a Penzance herbalist’s highly intoxicating brew sold very cheaply and without licence. Dylan talked copiously, then stopped.
“Somebody’s boring me,” he said. “I think it’s me.” ”
Taken from Rayner Heppenstall, Four Absentees (1960)
DO say: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
DON’T say: “Darling, I wish our relationship was more like the Thomases’.”
Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog
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