Dylan Thomas was born in the coastal city of Swansea, Wales. His father David, who was a writer and possessed a degree in English, brought his son up to speak English rather than Thomas's mother's native language, Welsh. His middle name, "Marlais", came from the bardic name of his uncle, the Unitarian minister Gwilym Marles (whose real name was William Thomas). Thomas was unable to actively fight in World War II because he was considered too frail, however he still served the war effort by writing scripts for government propaganda.
Thomas attended the boys-only Swansea Grammar School, in the Mount Pleasant district of the city, where his father taught English Literature. It was in the school's magazine that the young Dylan saw his first poem published. He left school at age 16 to become a reporter for a year and a half.
Thomas' childhood was spent largely in Swansea, with regular summer trips to visit his mother's family on their Carmarthen farm. These rural sojourns, and their contrast with the town life of Swansea, would inform much of his work, notably many short stories and radio essays and the poem Fern Hill.
Thomas wrote half his poems and many short stories when he lived at the family home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive; And death shall have no dominion is one of the best known works written at this address. By the time his first poetry volume, 18 Poems, was published in November 1934, he was one of the most exciting young poets writing in the English language.
In 1937 Thomas married Caitlin MacNamara and would have three children with her, although the relationship was very often stormy and littered with affairs (Caitlin had an affair with Augustus John before, and quite possibly after, she married Thomas). January of 1939 saw the birth of their first child, a boy whom they named Llewelyn (died in 2000). He was followed in March of 1943 by a daughter, Aeronwy. A second son and third child, Colm Garan, was born in July 1949.
Thomas liked to boast about his drinking. During an incident on November 3, 1953, Thomas returned to the Chelsea Hotel in New York and exclaimed "I've had 18 straight whiskies, I think this is a record".
He collapsed on November 9, 1953 at the White Horse Tavern, in Greenwich Village, Manhattan after drinking heavily while in New York on a promotional tour; Thomas later died at St. Vincent's Hospital, aged 39. The primary cause of his death is recorded as pneumonia, with pressure on the brain and a fatty liver given as contributing factors. His last words, according to Jack Heliker, were: "After 39 years, this is all I've done". Following his death, his body was brought back to Wales for burial in the village churchyard at Laugharne, Wales, where he had enjoyed his happiest days. In 1994, his widow, Caitlin, was buried alongside him.
Career and influence
Dylan Thomas is widely considered one of the greatest twentieth-century poets writing in English. He remains the leading figure in Anglo-Welsh literature. His vivid and often fantastic imagery was a rejection of the trends in twentieth-century verse: while his contemporaries gradually altered their writing to serious topical verse (political and social concerns were often expressed), Thomas gave himself over to his passionately felt emotions, and his writing is often both intensely personal and fiercely lyrical. (Thomas did, nonetheless, write at least four war poems, one of which is especially famous: "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.") Thomas, in many ways, was more in alignment with the Romantics than he was with the poets of his era. Thomas also differed from many major twentieth-century poets (dating from the Imagists onwards) in his championing of oral poetry. In this sense, Thomas was well-adapted to his time: his rise coincides with the improvement and profusion of recording technology and radio. The audio-literature company Caedmon (now a division of HarperCollins) was launched with Thomas's recording of his story "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Thomas' short stories are poetry exploded. Most notable is a semi-autobiographical selection published in 1940 entitled, 'Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog', in which he explores his youth.
Aside from stories and verse, Thomas did a great deal of radio and film work, especially during WWII. His filmscripts (mostly propaganda) were done for Strand Films. One of these, Green Mountain, Black Mountain, is notable for its integration of verse into documentary (similar in this to Auden and Grierson's Night Mail from the 1930s). Another, These Are the Men, is a singularly creative attack on Nazi leaders. He also experimented with creative filmscripts; his The Doctor and the Devils was filmed in 1985 with Timothy Dalton, Twiggy, and Stephen Rea. His radio broadcasts were generally literary talks; Under Milk Wood and A Child's Christmas in Wales both seem to have originated in radio talks. Thomas also worked on an unfinished novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade. The roughly 60 completed pages are a good beginning at a comic Bildungsroman.
Thomas's circle, sometimes known as the "Kardomah Boys" after the coffee shop where they often met, included the composer and old school friend, Daniel Jones, the poets Vernon Watkins and Charles Fisher and the artists Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy.
Brought to the attention of the public by the discerning eye of the English Romantic poet Victor Benjamin Neuburg, the poetry editor of the Sunday Referee, Thomas was invited to London by Neuburg and introduced to the capital's influential literary critics.
He is particularly remembered for the remarkable voice-play Under Milk Wood, for his poem Do not go gentle into that good night which is generally interpreted as a plea to his dying father to hold onto life, and for the short stories A Child's Christmas in Wales and The Outing.