Origins & Early Days
Dylan Thomas was a writer of genius whose work never dates, work that is full of summer afternoons, but also of grey wet nights in small Welsh towns, and front parlours, and pubs, and later his boathouse, and the smell of Woodbines and bottled beer, and his booming voice, and the oversized shirt he wears in the photograph on the front cover of one of the books: a shirt borrowed from a friend whose sofa he’d probably slept on the night before the photograph was taken, when he’d had too much drink and lost his shirt.
Another collection of Thomas’s stories and prose pieces called A Prospect of the Sea, again published by Aldine, came out in 1955, with most of them originally written for magazines such as the New English Weekly and The Criterion, in the 1930s and 1940s, with the story that gives the book its title opening thus:
“It was high summer, and the boy was lying in the corn. He was happy because he had no work to do and the weather was hot. He heard the corn sway from side to side above him, and the noise of the birds who whistled from the branches of the trees that hid the house. Lying flat on his back, he stared up into the unbroken blue sky falling over the edge of the corn…”
Which takes us back to Thomas’s great influence, Walt Whitman, and his spears of summer grass on Long Island, and even further back to some of Shakespeare’s wanderings through the bucolic meadows of his 16th century Warwickshire, which, like the rest of England — and Wales — is a favourite place for those poets with a lyrical bent to wander and enjoy, as would Laurie Lee in Gloucestershire, who picked up on Dylan’s themes a decade or two later, albeit well smattered with good intent from the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, as would George Orwell who probably never stretched out in the summer corn looking at the blue skies, he’d have been far too busy giving a well deserved bash at Stalin as he knocked out 1984 through a haze of cigarette smoke.
Dylan Thomas never went anywhere near a Spanish trench, but nevertheless did his bit during WWII working for the BBC propaganda department (as did Orwell) in defense of democracy. But we jump ahead.
Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on October 27th, 1914, at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, in a part of the city called the Uplands. As Constantine Fitzgibbon, Thomas’s biographer, writes:
“ His family on both sides came of rural stock, small or very small farmers from the Welsh-speaking part of South Wales, the counties of western Carmarthen and Cardigan, north and west of English-speaking Swansea…”
Dylan’s father, David John Thomas (known as the ‘Professor’)was a Welsh speaker, his son was not, which was something of a barrier between them, as would be Dylan’s hard drinking which, as his father admitted to his son one day, had been a problem for him as a young man. Dylan was shocked at this as his father explained how he had, through will-power, stopped drinking, thereafter creating a decent life for himself and his family as a respected headmaster and poet.
What father and son did share happily was a love of poetry, and Dylan’s early ability to write some remarkable stuff from the start and, as if to show his father up rather unkindly, when he’d had a few glasses, that he could write poetry, good poetry, and drink to excess at the same time. It didn’t impress his father of course who, nevertheless, ensured his son read such writers as Ernest Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence, and of course, Walt Whitman.
Dylan’s mother Florence, as Fitzgibbon writes, “…was, from all accounts a sweet, gentle and rather childish woman…” whose own deeply felt Christianity was happily accepted by her “…intellectual atheist,” husband, as she his non-belief. Every Sunday she would take the absorptive young Dylan to chapel where (as would Whitman upon his grandmother’s knee)he inhaled the language of the Bible which, when coupled with the landscape in which he lived — the city streets, the loquacious population, the wild countryside, and the roaring sea, he’d turn into lyrically burning poetry.
The young Dylan’s home life was “cosy” in the family’s small terraced house that smelled of dogs, with his father’s books filling every corner.
Dylan Thomas’s early school years were years of listening to his father reading Shakespeare out loud to his class, followed by the very young Thomas and mates, smoking behind the bike-sheds, and as Fitzgibbon reminds us, for Thomas:
“…The cigarette became almost his personal device, the first vice, maybe the worst. Dylan without a cigarette is Joyce without his spectacles…”
Grammar school would be a very different kettle of fish of course, but a place where Dylan would thrive easily with the literary background his father had given him, and it would be a place of friendships, especially that of Daniel Jones (two years Dylan’s senior), whose own future was to be that of an influential writer and composer.
To Be Continued…
Constantine Fitzgibbon — The Life of Dylan Thomas (J.M. Dent, GB, 1965); Michael Holroyd — Augustus John: Vol 2 — The Years of Experience(William Heinemann, London, 1975); Dylan Thomas — Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1940, 1965, 1971); Dylan Thomas (Edited by Daniel Jones — A Prospect of the Sea (J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1955, 1966); Dylan Thomas — Under Milk Wood (J. M. Dent & Sons, London,1954–1968); John Malcolm Brinnin — Dylan Thomas in America ( J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1956,1965, 1971); Dylan Thomas — Collected Poems 1934 -1952 (J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1952, 1971, 1972); Melvyn Bragg — Rich: The Life of Richard Burton (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1988)…