Dylan Thomas - 1914 - 53

5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, SA2 0RA

Poet and prose-writer. He was born in Swansea, Glam., to parents whose family roots were in rural Welsh-speaking Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire, places to which the poet returned in life and art after the early shaping years in Swansea. His father, a nephew of Gwilym Marles (William Thomas; 1834-79), was Senior English Master at Swansea Grammar School, where Dylan Thomas was a pupil between 1925 and 1931. He had no other period of formal education and the fifteen months he spent as a junior reporter on the South Wales Daily Post, after leaving school, were to be his only term of full-time employment.

His passion for English poetry, fostered early by his father's more than professional interest, had already manifested itself in four notebooks in which schoolboy verse suddenly matured into original poems between 1930 and 1934. These notebooks remained the major source of his output to the end of the 10302, feeding his first three published volumes, 18 Poems (1934), Twenty-five Poems (1936) and The Map of Love (1939). This prolonged mining of early material accounts for the intensity of the sexually assertive themes and the atmosphere of adolescence now so much associated with Dylan Thomas's work. The originality of these early poems, on the other hand, lay in their conflation of the processes of the human body with those of the natual world. Drawing on the notebooks for so long was also made necessary because of the slowness with which the complicated structural forms of his verse allowed new work to be written. Some striking single poems published in London periodicals in 1933 and 1934 led to his first volume, to his first move to London in November 1934, and to invitations to review books for leading periodicals such as New Verse and the Adelphi. The pattern whereby literary-social life in London alternated with more creative periods in Wales was to continue throughout his career. The liveliness of the young poet's personality and literary interests as they must have struck Swansea and London society in the 1930s is reflected in the earlier part of his Collected Letters (1985) and in Letters to Vernon Watkins (1957).

In 1937 Dylan Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara and, in May of the following year, moved for the first time to live in Laugharne, Carms., the village now most closely identified with his name and a profound influence on the atmosphere of his last poems. Even in 1938 and 1939 his childhood and holiday memories of the Carmarthenshire countryside were added to the urban and suburban experience of Swansea in the autobiographical short stories published as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940). Their comic realism marked a decisive shift away from the dark, surrealistic imaginings of his earlier short stories, collected posthumously in A Prospect of the Sea (1955) and in Dylan Thomas: Early Prose Writings (ed. Walford Davies, 1971). Around 1938 some of the new poems, too, expressed the need to break out from their private, verbally autonomous world.

The writing of poetry was interrupted during the period of the Second World War, when Dylan Thomas started to write radio scripts and to take part in broadcast talks and readings for the BBC. He remained a popular, prolific and professionally effective broadcaster to the end of his life; some of his best work for this medium is found in the volume Quite Early One Morning (1954). As an impressive reader of his own and other poets' work, he was to be a significant influence on the growth in popularity of live and recorded readings of poetry. From 1942 to the end of the war he was also employed as a script-writer for Strand Films in London; The Doctor and the Devils (1953) is probably the best example of several scripts and scenarios later published in book form.

Towards the end of the war, Wales again became his principal home: at Llan-gain, Carms., and New Quay, Cards., in 1944-45, a new period of poetic creativity started, the most productive since the early notebooks, which made possible his fourth volume of poetry, Deaths and Entrances (1946). Once again, however, work for films and radio made proximity to London necessary, and between 1946 and 1949 the poet lived in or near Oxford. It was in May 1949 that he moved to live in the Boat House at Laugharne, now a Dylan Thomas museum. By this time the father of three children, he planned to make Laugharne his permanent home. His growing reputation in the USA made lecture visits to that country appear a new and profitable source of income. An American tour (Feb.-June 1950) was followed by three more in 1952 and 1953. Most of his attention from onwards, however, was given to the 'play for voices', Under Milk Wood (1954), which drew on his experience of New Quay as well as of Laugharne. But new poems were also written in this last creative phase, poems of place celebrating emblems of life and death in the landscapes and seascapes of Laugharne. Although he did not complete a plan to link some of these poems in a composite structure to be called 'In Country Heaven', they made possible his last individual volume of poems, published during his second American tour, and in America only, as In Country Sleep (1952). This book was added to his four earlier volumes of poetry to make up the Collected Poems 1934-1952 (1952), for which Dylan Thomas was awarded Foyle's Poetry Prize. But heavy drinking and his irresponsibility in financial matters also brought their problems. He died in New York, after a bout of excessive drinking, on 9 November 1953. His body was brought back for burial in the churchyard at Laugharne. A memorial stone in his honour was placed in Poets' Corner at West minster Abbey in 1982.

The standing of Dylan Thomas as one of the most important and challenging of twentieth-century poets in English is assured. The meticulous craftmanship of his work shows a delight in firmly achieved structures and an unembarrassed belief in the emotional power of the musical resources of languages. A reaction against that emotional power was provoked to some degree by the ballyhoo which marked his premature death and the subsequent growth of anecdotes concerning his bohemian way of life; but some critical reservations had been made about his writing even before then. The generation of poets who either survived or succeeded him felt that they needed to escape from the kind of verbal archness which, whether or not it derived from his direct influence, tended to be identifiable with his powerful reputation. The English poets who came into prominence in the 1950s and 1960s reacted by turning to the more sober strategies of restrained diction, irony and understatement, and to less obviously 'poetic' themes. But Dylan Thomas himself already represented one side of a similar split between intellect and emotion. In the work of his two great predecessors, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, these qualities had been more comprehensively unified. The Yeatsian ideal of 'blood, imagination, intellect, running together' had diverged during the 1930s into W. H. Auden's emphasis on ideas and beliefs and, on the other hand, into Thomas's emphasis on more instinctive, elemental themes. Certainly, part of the Welshman's significance is the uncompromising way in which he stood out against intellectualization of poetry and any thinning of its textural and musical delights. In terms more specifically of Anglo-Welsh writing, a particular power in his poetry derives from the unresolved tensions which come from living imaginatively on the blurred edge between two cultures. Although English was his only language, the different linguistic instincts of Wales, its society and topography, run deep in his poetry, where the Welshness of his materials is less self-consciously capitalized upon than in his prose. But with respect to the prose and the poetry alike, renewed interest in the regional forces shaping British literature in English continues to enrich their appeal.

(Information taken from Meic Stephens’ New Companion to the Literature of Wales, University of Wales Press, 1998)

History of the Dylan Thomas Plaque in Swansea:

The original handpainted plaque on 5 Cwmdonkin Drive was erected by TWW, of whom Wynford Vaughan Thomas was a director, in the 1970s. This described Dylan as 'Poet'. The house has since been restored to its condition as a new house in 1914 - the year the Thomas' moved in.

As part of that restoration a new plaque was commissioned (from Ned Heywood of Chepstow who has made many of the London blue plaques), upon which Dylan is described as 'A man of words'.
The new plaque was unveiled by Dylan's daughter - the late Aeronwy Thomas - on 27 October 2008, which was the 94th anniversary of Thomas's birth.

5 Cwndonkin Drive is open for house tours: click here for further information.

Information provided by Anne and Geoff Haden.


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