Dylan Thomas: Artist or Roustabout?

tags: alcoholism, Dylan Thomas

Mary Lynne Evans holds Masters Degrees in English and Social Work. She retired from Urban Planning after 30y ears work in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

This year all of Wales is celebrating the centenary of the poet, Dylan Thomas (born Oct 27, 1914, Swansea, Wales.)   Festivals, readings, staging of his plays, movie showings, seminars, tours, visitations, and pilgrimages are occurring throughout the year.
For me, Dylan Thomas has long been a confusing figure.   Was he a gifted poet of the land, or only a roustabout whose personal life brought more notoriety than his talent deserved?  One might think 100 years after his birth, some of the ambiguity about the man might be resolved.
At least that is what I sought as I arrived at Trinity St David College, University of Wales, Lampeter.  I had signed up for the 2014 Dylan Thomas International Summer School, hosted by Dr. Pamela Petra, and Dr. Menna Elfyn, Director of the Master of Arts in Creative Writing.  “Dylan’s voice was carved by the salt-cries of wild West Wales…come to experience its splendor for yourself and to fully absorb Dylan’s world, “ Dr. Elfyn had written.

Taking her invitation, fifteen Americans from coast to coast arrived and began our rigorous two weeks on the campus where Dylan once strolled.
In the mornings we emerged ourselves in Welsh language; the ancient Welsh saga, the Mabanogion; the unique concepts of Welsh hiraeth and loss;  Thomas’s life and place. In the evenings the best of contemporary Welsh authors gave readings.   
In the afternoons we visited numerous places in Wales, which Dylan used as settings.  We learned how he devised plot lines from his own experiences; crafted characters from his relatives, neighbors, friends; augmented life with the magical fertility of his mind, aided perhaps by alcohol.  
We drove to his aunt and uncle’s farm where he summered as a child. Though the house is closed to visitors, bracken ferns glistened by the side of the road and farm gates invited walks into the fields. This place inspired these lines from the poem Fern Hill:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs 

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…


Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, 

Time held me green and dying 

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

 We journeyed to New Quay, the village thought to be his model for the BBC play, Under Milk Wood.  Cozy row houses with bright doors, climbed the hill from the harbor.  He described a cottage:

the parlour with a preserved sheepdog, where mothballs fly at night…. 

And the Bible opens at Revelation.”   

His sturdy family home in Swansea fronts on Cwymdonkin Park, immortalized in 
The Hunchback in the Park: 

a solitary mister.

eating bread from a newspaper,

drinking water from a chained cup…


slept at night in a dog kennel

But nobody chained him up.

At Laugharne, he wrote in a converted garage, with a view of the sea.   Preserved as when he was there, the floor was littered with crumpled drafts.   Seven species of birds wheeled in the currents outside.

Many of his best writings were penned here, including these lines: 

and there, on the hare-

Heeled winds the rooks

Cawing from their black bethels soaring, the holy books of birds!”

We viewed his early notebooks, written from ages 13-19.  Sold by Thomas later in his life to cover his crippling debts, they are now owned by an American university. They were displayed for the first time in Wales in the Dylan Thomas Center, Swansea to mark the centenary.   In stunningly neat handwriting, the young Thomas worked out mature subjects with an almost casual realization.  Themes of childhood joy and innocence were woven with death and loss, a remarkably prescient exploring for one so young. 
Though dealing with heavy themes, the teenaged poet did not neglect poetic craft.  He polished poems like a master jeweler.   In one draft poem, he had circled a single word.  Underneath he had listed 11 substitutes, each producing a different rhythm, rhyme, nuance.  The next draft showed his substitution, crossed out again as he searched for diction-crisp, bell-toned phrases. Though written in English, the poems revealed his knowledge of an old Welsh poetic form, the cynghanedd, with its alliterative patterns, repetition of sound and rhyme, precise syllable counts per line.  On the back of one page, Thomas had procrastinated momentarily and devised a crossword puzzle using the words he was considering. 
He had a clear sense of himself as a poet even in these teenage writings.   One letter to his early girlfriend Pamela Hansford Johnson, he laments,  “It is hard to read your poetry to an audience who thinks a trochee is a type of lawn grass.” (A trochee is a metrical foot used in poetry consisting of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.)
And yet, parallel with his writings are the facts of his non-writing life.  He had a mischievous childhood, an indifferent, even rebellious school history.  He married a beautiful Irish dancer, herself an anarchist.  Their marriage was tumultuous, troubled.  Mutual infidelities, his fondness for pub life, alcohol, his periodic neglect of his children, his mistreatment of his friends and relatives, his occasional barbaric drunken behavior, his constant financial woes, his rantings against his countrymen and his snide remarks about Wales are well known.   
For many, these facts obliterate his artistic achievements. When I asked a grandmother next to me on the bus if she had studied Dylan Thomas as a girl, she replied, “Oh no.  We were not allowed to read him.  He was, how should I say, not very Methodist.”  The customs officer at Heathrow asked why I had come to the UK.  When I told him I had come to study Dylan Thomas, he said, “Oh, my grandfather ran a pub in Mumbles.   Thomas was always in there.   He must have drunk away a fortune. I don’t know any of his poems.”   “You see this picture of his funeral,” a man next to me at the Dylan Thomas Center remarked.   “See this old woman the last to leave?   It was his mother. He broke her heart with the drink he did.”
If not always feted in Wales, Thomas found an appreciative audience in the United States.  Almost as a précis of his contradictory life, these readings often ended with bouts of marathon drinking.  On November 3, 1953, Thomas reportedly finished 18 whiskeys, (the number varies)  and a day later lapsed into a coma under suspicious circumstances.  His wife, Caitlin, summoned from Wales, miraculously arrived before he died on November 9.  She is reported to have been drunk herself at the hospital, and seeing his condition, created a commotion that resulted in her detention. Perhaps her anger was justified, as his actual cause of death is contested to this day.  His body was returned to Wales, and he is buried at Laugharne.
Artist or roustabout?  During my two weeks in Wales I had answered the question for myself.  I had new respect for his artistry, for the Welsh people, heritage  and country that shaped him, for his writing discipline, for his unerring ear for dialogue and music, his vivid characters,  his messages, and literary legacy.  His flawed life retreated into the background of his soaring language.  The splendor of both his voice and the country of west Wales had been revealed. 

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