Poet Dylan Thomas - dirty, naughty,always lovable
As famous for a life of heavy drinking and showmanship as his often tender poetry, Dylan Thomas, who died 60 years ago this week, had quite a following. But as Jonathan deBurca Butler discovers, much of the bravado was an act that ultimately killed him
By the age of 20 Dylan Thomas was already something of a celebrity. His first collection of poetry entitled 18 Poems, although initially received without much fuss, had gradually come to be highly-regarded amongst the artists, critics and literati of London. He had moved there from his native Swansea less than a year beforehand and had become as well-known for his drunkenness and his willingness to shock as his poetry. He was, as one of his contemporaries put it, "like a toddler" – always dirty, always naughty but irresistibly loveable.
He was described by agent, friend and editor of poetry magazine New Verse Geoffrey Grigson as a "little runt" who was so "physically unattractive" that he wondered how the Welshman ever "managed to get any girl to sleep with him".
By all accounts, Thomas was notoriously successful in this department, though many blossoming relationships were inevitably quashed because he could not resist, what he called, "Comrade Bottle".
In 1935, having broken out in a rash, the poet was advised by doctors to take time off from his bacchanalian lifestyle. Grigson suggested they travel to Donegal for a two-week holiday and the pair arrived there in July.
Their accommodation was a remote farmer's cottage in Glenlough Valley in the southwest of the county. By day the pair would take long walks across the rugged landscape or fish in the many lakes that surrounded them while by night they would read or converse with the local farmer from whom they were renting the accommodation. On occasion they would make the ten-mile trek to Meenaghneary, the nearest town, to buy supplies and have a drink.
At the end of the two-week period, Dylan convinced Grigson to let him stay on. His intention was to write, and initially, being alone gave him ample opportunity to do so. He lived on potatoes, buttermilk, oatmeal and fish. He grew a beard and lived out his days "to the ticking of the clock" he hadn't got. He built a stone bridge across a nearby stream and watched "gannets and seals and puffins, flying and puffing and playing a quarter of a mile outside [his] window". He talks of a "hill with a huge echo" to which "you shout 'I am dead' and from which the dead Irish answer".
Inevitably, Thomas began to become restless. His weekly stints into Meenaghneary began to take longer as he sought out company in the local bar.
"O'Donnells where Dylan drank still exists," says local historian and director of The Dylan Thomas Trail in Donegal, Peter Alexander. "The landlord claims Thomas and his grand-father became good friends. Apparently, Dylan gave him an exercise book full of his notes and scribblings but sadly that was lost."
Back in his remote cottage, Thomas began seeing ghosts and he became obsessed with things crawling under his skin. According to Alexander he hit "the local poitin so badly, he almost went into a coma and had to be revived by his nearest neighbours with milk". His nights were filled with lonely nightmares. He wanted, as he said himself, to talk to "more than just an echo in August" or "Roger the contaminated sheep" and by late August he had had enough and left to return to London.
"Other than his disdain for the local populace, I doubt his time spent in Donegal, had much long-term effect on him," says Alexander. "I think the loneliness and solitude definitely got to him in the end, but I think most 20-year-olds would have experienced the same disconnect."
"The best story about him is one nobody really talks about," adds Alexander. "It seems there was some form of altercation which took place in Ardara [about 15 miles away]. It was possibly over a woman and it might have led to his rather hasty departure from Donegal. Whatever happened, it probably accounts for his unkindly description of the place as a 'town you can't be too far from'."
The story of his time in Donegal fits snuggly with the popular image of Thomas as a wayward, drunken letch with a talent for dashing off rich and complex verse. It was an image that the poet himself often encouraged in public and yet for those closest to him the private Thomas was a quiet, simple man who edited his work meticulously.
Thomas was born in Uplands, a well-to-do suburb of Swansea on October 27, 1914. His father, DJ was a gruff school master who taught in the local grammar school. Both his father and his mother, Florence, were fluent Welsh speakers but chose to raise their children exclusively in English.
"His father had an aversion to the Welsh language and Thomas himself said that he didn't ever read any Cynghanedd [a literary term for strict metre in Welsh language poetry] or anything like that and it was nothing to do with his work," says Nerys Williams, a lecturer in poetry at University College Dublin.
"Thomas wasn't this parochial Welshman. He never wanted to be seen as of a nation and wanted to be outside the burdens of being a national poet. However, undoubtedly growing up in Wales informed much of what he did. The inflection of Welsh speech is crucial to the drama of his writing. Wales is always very much an imagined space for him. If you look at how many of his early poems get re-edited, often they were written in Wales but get re-imagined elsewhere."
Indeed of the 90 poems that Thomas published in his lifetime, over half of them had been originally drafted in Swansea by the age of 19 – many of them were to be reworked, sometime hundreds of times over.
Although quite a sickly child, with lung trouble that would dog him throughout his life, Thomas recalled his childhood with fondness. As a student he was rather lazy and took full advantage of his father's position within the local grammar school. Fellow pupils recalled him being a foul-mouthed chancer with a propensity for stealing. He was an avid reader and writer and was encouraged in this by his father.
It was probably his father, as editor of the school magazine, who was responsible for publishing his first poem when Thomas was just 11. A year later the Western Mail, a local paper, paid Thomas for a poem entitled His Requiem. It transpired, some 20 years after Thomas's death, that this was in fact plagiarised. Thomas's proclivity for chancing his arm was not limited to the classroom.
At 16, Thomas left education to become a journalist with the South Wales Daily Post. He lasted 18 months and was soon to move into freelancing. All the while he lived at home with his parents, writing and rewriting lines of poetry into his piles of notebooks.
Thomas's break came in May 1933 when his poem And Death Shall Have No Dominion appeared in the New English Weekly and was quickly followed by publication of Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines in the BBC's magazine The Listener. Thomas was contacted by Grigson and TS Eliot who sought to help him publish. 18 Poems was published in December 1934.
When he returned from Donegal, Thomas met and fell in love with Caitlin McNamara, a London-born dancer with a Gallic-Irish background. McNamara was seeing painter Augustus John at the time, but the couple soon embarked on what was to be a famously unpredictable and fiery affair.
"I used to beat the bejayus out of him," Caitlin once said in a BBC interview. "It was always after the pubs. I was quite nervous [at times] that I might have killed him. I think then we'd go to bed, pass out and when we came to we were all over each other, very tender and apologetic."
Eventually the couple married and although Thomas was a serial cheat – Caitlin was no saint herself – they would stay together until Thomas's death in 1953. In 1937, Thomas did his first broadcast for the BBC. It was this relationship as well as his interest in performance that made Thomas a household name both at home and later in the United States.
"I think Thomas's broadcasting makes him such an important poet actually," says Nerys Williams. "I don't want to simplify it and say 'oh it's because he was on the BBC', obviously his poetry as text [has merit] but I myself find his work quite difficult. It's quite opaque but I think it's its musicality that carries you. When you hear that voice it does give you chills down the spine."
At the BBC, Thomas was known, not for his attachment to alcohol, but for his reliability. Between 1945 and 1953 he wrote, produced or performed in some 200 broadcasts involving either drama and/or documentary.
Though Thomas was regularly snowed under with work he was often short of money. There are records of numerous begging letters to fellow poets and to frequently benevolent patrons. In 1949, Margaret Taylor, a wealthy heiress, bought Thomas and Caitlin a boat- house in Laugharne on the south coast of Wales. Caitlin recalled that "he would go into his shed and scrape and scratch and mutter and mumble". As a writer "he was frightfully slow" and might "in one whole afternoon, from maybe two to seven" do just one line or take out just one word or put in one word.
In Laugharne he drank only half pints in the local pub and, according to his daughter, Aeronwy, "he never drank when he worked".
"When I start talking about his routine and his rather temperate drinking, people don't believe me," she recalled in a 2002 interview. "They don't want to believe me. They want my father cast as the icon; they want him to be this terrible person that can be warned against."
He was, as Caitlin remembered him "just a mister everyman until he had to put on the act of the poet".
Nowhere was this act more prevalent than during his stints in the United States. Thomas was lured there by John Malcolm Brinnin, the director of the famous 92nd Street Y poetry centre. It was here that the only known recording of Under Milk Wood involving Thomas himself was performed in May 1953.
Between 1950 and 1953, Thomas did four tours of the country. His schedules were gruelling and involved a strict regime of performance, travelling and glad-handing. The Americans loved him and he loved America.
"You never got that kind of arse licking in England and of course, he really enjoyed it," said Caitlin, who joined him for his second tour just to keep an eye on him. "Trouble with these American women," she once said, "is they don't know how to look after him."
America's image of Thomas was that of the drunken Welsh bard with a cigarette forever jutting out of his mouth and he was only too happy to play up to it. Eventually it took its toll, however, and by the time of his fourth tour, Thomas was a wreck.
"My mother was against him going on that last trip," recalled Aeronwy. "But some devil sent him, some devil in himself."
In early November 1953, Thomas became severely ill. According to a biography written by Brinnin and published in 1955, Thomas had walked into a bar in New York and downed 18 straight whiskeys. Witnesses at the bar later said it was nothing like that. Whatever his condition, Brinnin along with his assistant Liz Reitel and a doctor named Milton Feltinstein decided to medicate the poet in his room at the Chelsea Hotel. Thomas was given a cocktail of cortisone, Benzedrine and morphine which put him into a coma. He died on November 9.