Even before Dylan was born, future contradictions cast their shadow. His father, David John Thomas, was totally Anglicized and a teacher of English literature at Swansea Grammar School. He was atheistic in the extreme, a lifelong opponent of religion, whether pagan or Christian, who was always ‘railing against God. His angry rejection took the form of continual cursing against the damp Welsh weather. Staring at the rain streaming down the windows of the family house in Swansea, he would shout, It’s raining, blast Him!
Dylan’s mother, on the other hand, was a staunch Christian chapel-goer. Her road to salvation was narrow and Non-Conformist but undeviating. She imposed some of her religious influence on her gifted son. Florence Thomas gave Dylan his totally unformulated love of God, in complete contrast to his father’s explicit atheism. This must have led to great turbulence within the marriage, and it is easy to understand why Dylan’s poetry and his personality were so ambivalent.
Religion figures largely in his work, but it would be a mistake to assume that his God is the merciful being of the New Testament, or even the stern desert deity of the Old. In his writings we may detect the dark presence of primeval gods; the pagan gods of the Celts who were cruel, violent, and savage in their retribution. Certainly, there is little promise of future salvation in his work. Death is inimical, inevitable. He wrote, in an introduction to one of his books of verse, that his poems were written to the glory of God–but we must never visualize his God as the one with which we are familiar.
The small boy who later became the most famous poet of Wales was the product of two directly opposed natures; two directly opposed cultures. Despite early maternal guidance, Dylan was influenced most strongly by his irascible father, who refused to have Welsh even spoken in the house. David John Thomas was steeped in the diverse and poetic language of Shakespeare, which he often recited to his small son. These sonorous recitations undoubtedly had a lasting effect on Dylan. Long before he began writing, he fell in love with words–powerful, vigorous, and beautiful in their manifold meanings.
Dylan Thomas was born on 27th October under the zodiacal sign of Scorpio. Certainly, he seems to have had many Scorpio characteristics–passion, lust, violence, insight, and profundity. The dark nature of Scorpio might be said to have found a natural home in Dylan.
One must also take into account influences outside the home in an effort to understand this most interesting of writers. As Andrew Sinclair tells us in his book Dylan Thomas: Poet of His People:
The Welsh were in fear of their dark desires, their natural bawdiness, of their love of drink and chat and copulation [yet]after Wesley, seem to have lept first into a hell-fire puritanism and then a suffocating respectability that was the condition of . . . Swansea society, in which Dylan was born, and from which he fled, against which he rebelled, out of which he could never escape.
This perceptive comment sums up the archetypal Welshman and it sums up the complex character of Dylan Thomas. Certainly the drunkenness that is said to be a perennial weakness of the Celts was a fatal flaw in his character. The Celtic liking for a drink was even remarked upon by the Romans (themselves no mean tipplers) and hard drinking was prevalent among the miners of the South Wales valleys, near which Dylan grew up.
From the beginning, there was not much doubt about Dylan’s future career. His father’s constant efforts to involve Dylan in English literature, at the highest level, were bound to bear fruit. The only subject in which Dylan was interested, and indeed the only one at which he excelled, was English.
This was despite the fact that both his given names were Welsh. Dylan came from the Mabinogion, a collection of old Welsh myths. His second name, Marlais, was the name of a river, but Dylan, always eager to self-dramatize, said it meant prince of darkness. Be that as it may, both Dylan and Marlais were pre-Christian names. According to Andrew Sinclair: Both had to do with the mystery of water, the big seas and the rivers of dreams that were to haunt Dylan’s imaginings.
He must have been something of an oddity in Swansea, apart from his early addiction to heavy drinking. His contemporaries understood that only too well. He spoke no Welsh . . . he inherited the contradictions of the history of his country and his family. Speaking Welsh, in Swansea, was thought somehow a little common.
The future poet’s habit of writing and speaking in high English, the literary expression of the English middle class, was formed. It would have been unthinkable for Dylan to learn Welsh and to write using the convoluted techniques of the old Celtic bards. What he strove for was the technique of the great English poets and he worked harder than most to achieve it. Nevertheless, his rhythms and phrasings, his choice of metaphor and odd matchings of words, have that Celtic run and lilt . . . .
As a social animal, Dylan was a hidden Puritan. Yet, imprisoned always in his contradictory nature, he was a mighty drinker and rioter. Early in his youth, he sowed the seeds of his own future disaster. It has been said that Dylan Thomas had a death wish. He ran into the arms of death like a lover and put all the agonies of his journey toward dissolution into his poetry.
A great reader, he loved the verses of William Blake and George Herbert. These and the Romantics of the early 19th century shaped his future work. His father was there to help and advise. Dylan considered, at first, being a local journalist but abandoned the idea when he recognized where his true vocation lay. During his school days he published poems in the school magazine. By 1933 his poetry appeared in print in London.
After a youthful bout with bronchitis, Dylan’s health gave some cause for concern. He always believed he would meet a premature death and was a dedicated hypochondriac, with a firm conviction that he would die young of consumption. He did develop a fearsome cough, but it was from smoking. Asthma and excessive smoking from the age of 15 ruined his lungs. His obsession with the poet John Keats resulted in his identification with the young genius who died of tuberculosis. Whenever tuberculosis was mentioned, Dylan always said that he had already had more of it than Keats.
Dylan married in 1937, with no money and few prospects. Initially, he and his wife Caitlin Macnamara lived in London but Dylan hated the literary life of the capital and was a grotesque misfit there: an impecunious Welsh writer, badly dressed, often drunk, always trying to borrow money to pay his bills. Though his work was published, it was impossible to live on the proceeds of writing poetry.
Caitlin, too, was a Celt. She was not Welsh, however, but Irish. It was perhaps a fatal combination, yet their relationship was a close and passionate one. She possessed great beauty, as did Dylan at that time. There is a famous portrait of him by Augustus John. Though idealized, it gives a clear impression of his youthful charm. Slim, with a mop of thick curls, a cherubic face and retrousse nose, it contrasts sadly with photographs taken only a few years later of the aging, overweight poet.
Caitlin, on the other hand, did not age like Dylan. Her fine-boned, delicate beauty managed to rise above the poverty, the demands of a young family of two sons and a daughter, and the strain of supporting a dedicated poet throughout all his struggles to write. If Dylan Thomas became a legend, then the myth owes a debt to Caitlin, without whom he could not have survived as long as he did.
In 1949 they returned to Wales, where rents and living expenses were cheap. Their home was called The Boat House, and overlooked the sea at Laugharne, a South Wales fishing village on the coast beyond Carmarthen. Despite the proceeds of his work for the BBC, reading poetry, and writing scripts for films, there was never enough money. Dylan needed funds to support his twin addictions to nicotine and alcohol, apart from the needs of his family. Caitlin, despite her fragile appearance, displayed an iron will and tremendous character. Few women would have endured her circumstances.
Yet Laugharne provided the perfect working environment for Dylan. As he wrote in an essay: A poet must have a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down. The Boat House at Laugharne, it was said, represented for him the last refuge of life and sanity in a nightmare world. Here, in what he called, the romantic, dirty summerhouse, he wrote some of his most memorable poems.
The main attractions at Laugharne, apart from the sea, were two public houses: The Cross House Inn and Brown’s Hotel, where Dylan satisfied his taste for alcohol and his equally important need to entertain, to hold forth upon any subject that appealed to his fertile imagination. He was well known in the tap room at Brown’s Hotel. There may still be people at Laugharne who can boast that they heard a discourse by Britain’s last romantic poet.
Every morning, in the isolation of his summerhouse (affectionately called the shack), Dylan worked at his poems, striving for an elusive perfection. He would make as many as 500 alterations in a single poem, copying out the entire poem after each alteration, so that he could see his word sculpture taking shape before his eyes. He was a craftsman par excellence. Few poets have labored so mightily or sacrificed so much for their work–that sullen art, as he called it. Self-indulgence and sacrifice: those contradictory terms describe him accurately, for no one ever drank harder or worked harder than he did.
There is a photograph of Dylan, taken at Laugharne during his most intensive period of work, which has a deeply disturbing and pathetic aspect. It is the picture of a sacrificial victim and the victim knows it. The clown and bar-room entertainer wears a half-smile but this does nothing to conceal the tragedy of his pose.
His work may appear to be obscure but not when one understands the ambivalence of his thought. He aimed at conflict and contradiction in his poems, choosing not only words capable of opposite interpretations but also subjects that aroused conflicting emotions. His poem In the White Giant’s Thigh is an example. It relates to the Neolithic Age Man carved into a chalk hillside on England’s
South Downs. The giant figure, located at Cerne Abbas in Dorset, just north of Dorchester, is explicitly sexual. Dylan found humor in the fact that the feet of this ancient artifact, probably used in fertility rites, actually touch the walls of the Christian abbey there, mocking the sanctity and sexual abstinence of the monks.
Many Americans feel a deep personal interest in Dylan. He made grueling lecture tours in the States, like Charles Dickens before him–and, as with Dickens, they proved fatal. Drink and adulation were put before Dylan in vast quantities and he thrived on both. His grotesque figure–badly dressed and obese–as well as his wonderfully middle-class, literary English voice exerted a fascination over Americans that was almost without precedent.
The end came after a binge of almost monumental proportions. He said: I’ve had 18 straight whiskies, I think that’s the record. His last words were: After 39 years this is all I’ve done. He lay in an alcohol-induce coma for a week before he died, at age 39, in New York.
Dylan lies buried in the cemetery at St. Martin’s Church, Laugharne. Caitlin had the satisfaction of knowing that she helped a remarkable poet create his own view of life and of nature in the workroom overlooking the sea that he loved so much.