It would seem that for Dylan Thomas being a poet, using words was his way of communicating with other people in the world, a means of evoking feelings in them, a way to make himself heard.
Not for Dylan the usual rough and tumble, interaction of childhood – with a mother who was protective of him, treating him as an invalid – and a father who seemed emotionally remote – a school teacher at the local Grammar School who thought himself worthy and deserving of a better academic position.
His father taught him poetry at the age of two, and Dylan could recite Shakespeare by the age of four.
As Dylan wrote later, to a friend: “I had come to love just the words….what mattered was the very sound of them, as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and quite incomprehensible grown ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world.
By the age of eight or nine he began to write his own poetry – entering the Grammar School in 1925 as a quiet and introspective lad, he wrote many articles for the school magazine.
At 16 he went to work for the South Wales Daily Post. Writing what were often scathing reviews of local plays and concerts, Dylan also spent time in the pub at night – reciting offbeat jokes, stories and obscene limericks. Dylan never wanted people to read his poems – he wanted them to hear him read them.
What Dylan’s father had given him was the gift of poetry – and it was the poetry of words, in their purest form, that Dylan had grown to love.
In 1934, Dylan moved to London and there published his first book 18 poems, it got rave reviews and in 1936, he published a second book 25 poems.
Dylan married a “mother figure”, Caitlin in 1937 and they were like “twin souls”, moving to Laugharne in Wales where, until war broke out, Dylan’s writing flourished. They were poor, but happy.
Aside from his poetry,which was always acclaimed, Dylan had a difficult time in the real world. He attracted the patronage of a Mrs Margaret Taylor, her continued support led to the family eventually living in a boathouse in Laugharne that she purchased for them.
Having avoided conscription in the war to some extent Dylan was regarded as a draft dodger by many, a deranged ex commando once shooting up a cottage in which he was entertaining friends. His marriage was fraught with rows about possible mutual infidelity, and Dylan himself was given to drinking.
Despite the passion and fire of his poetry, Dylan became a heavy drinker. The marriage lasted, despite the drinking, and relative poverty.
With a third child born in 1949, an offer for Dylan to visit the USA, and be paid well was one not to be missed. In February 1950, he was off to America. His irreverent, capricious drunken behavior was a trial to his sponsors – he ended up one night driving a carful of revellers into the tennis nets at a private house party.
Despite this, there was money to be made, if not all by Dylan, and he went on a further tour in 1952, and another in early1953, followed by a series of television appearances..
By then Dylan’s father and sister had died, and his marriage was as rocky as ever. Dylan continued to drink heavily.
In late 1953, Dylan was returned to America, to begin a fourth tour. Dylan was taken ill after complaining for weeks of exhaustion and depletion from his alcoholism and respiratory problems.
Given at first cortisone and then a high dose of morphine, by a doctor that Dylan’s agent had arranged to be responsible for Dylan’s care – Dylan died later in hospital, in the USA in the November of 1953.
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In a book entitled Fatal Neglect, author David Thomas comes out to say that it was greed and neglect on the part of Dylan’s American agent that led directly to Dylan’s early death. Thomas describes the American tours as “a tragic tale of how a sick poet was exploited for financial gain, and academic prestige.
The book says that:
At the time of the fourth tour, he already had a history of blackouts, and chest problems, was using an inhaler to help with his breathing.
The book goes on to say that between Dylan’s agent Brinnin and his assistant Liz Reitell, Dylan was literally worked to death in the lead up to the intended production of Under Milkwood, in New York, with Brinnan keeping away, busy with other interests.
Dylan had collapsed after two Under Milkwood performances, a work that was put on stage before Dylan had actually finished writing it, and Dylan also walked out of a dinner held in honor of his birthday because he was feeling unwell.
While an inquest put the death down to swelling of the brain due to pneumonia, and it was widely reported that Dylan had drunk himself to death – the truth lies somewhere between.
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Brinnin, two years after Dylans death received the Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to Poetry and on the 25th anniversary was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, enjoying in the end a comfortable retirement in Florida.
Dylan was that flawed genius, a brilliant poet from Wales, an alcoholic who died in New York, after drinking 18 glasses of whisky, at the age of thirty nine.