Dylan Thomas was born Dylan Marlais Thomas on October 27, 1914, to his mother Florence Hannah (1882–1958) and father David John Thomas (1876–1952). Dylan grew up in the seaside town of Swansea in Wales and spent many summers at his aunt's farm called Fern Hill. His father is credited for the selection of the name Dylan which means "son of the sea." Dylan Thomas's father taught English literature at a local grammar school and his mother was a seamstress. He had an older sister named Nancy Marles (1906–53) who was eight years older than him.
Thomas was often sickly as a child and suffered from respiratory issues such as asthma and bronchitis which is an inflammation of the lungs. His mother doted on him as a result of his illness and it instilled a love of the spotlight in Thomas. This need for attention followed him the rest of his life.
As a young man in school he began keeping journals of his work. Within these he wrote some of his earliest poetry. His poem "Osiris, come to Isis" (1930) was published in the school's magazine. He would become the magazine's editor as a teenager. Despite these early literary successes, he was only an average student.
Early Literary Career
Thomas's literary career began when he was 16. He left school and took a job as a reporter for a local paper. This job only lasted a little over a year. He continued to work as a freelance journalist for another four years while living with his parents. Many of the poems that would go on to be published much later were written during his time living at his parents' home. Many of his friends from school remained his friends into adulthood and they met regularly in the town pubs and cafes. Thomas also joined a group of other literary types who met at a local cafe. They called themselves the Kardomah Gang because they met at Kardomah Cafe.
A number of Thomas's poems were published while he was still living at home with his parents. Some of the most notable poems included "And death shall have no dominion" (1943) and "Light breaks where no sun shines" (1937). These poems caught the attention of several London literary giants including T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), Stephen Spender (1909–95), and Geoffrey Grigson (1909–85). They sent word to Thomas that they would like to publish a collection of his poems and his first book of poetry was released in December of 1934. The collection was titled 18 Poems. It was an instant success and won the Sunday Referee contest. The Sunday Referee was a local newspaper that began a Poet's Corner section in their publication. Once a year they sponsored a writing contest. This was significant because the newspaper took an interest in his poetry and worked on his behalf to get his first book of poetry published.
In 1935 Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara (1913–94) who would eventually become his wife. She had run away from home to become a star of the dance stage. She was also a writer. When they met in The Wheatsheaf pub in London, she was dancing in the chorus line at the Palladium. She was accompanied by her boyfriend Augustus John (1878–1961). Thomas and Manamara struck up a friendship and began writing letters to one another. A year later she left John, and she and Thomas officially became a couple. They married the following year and moved back to Wales where they started a family. Macnamara gave up her writing and dancing aspirations to support Dylan's career. Their marriage was turbulent and stormy and both of them drank to excess. After Dylan's death she wrote her memoirs called Leftover Life to Kill (1957).
World War II
Thomas developed close ties with the socialist parties in Wales as World War II (1939–45) broke out. As a pacifist he demonstrated against going to war. Scholars suggest the birth of his first child may have prompted this political decision. Later he would write that when war erupted he was worried about having to fight in the war. Part of his concern was for his asthma which had been a lifelong complaint. Because of his asthma, he was placed far down on the list of those who would be called to fight. In a later interview he shared that while the situation suited him as he did not believe in the war, it bothered him to watch all his friends go off to fight. He later wrote in his journal that he felt demeaned. He took to drinking heavily and he and his family struggled financially. He reached out via letters to friends and family to ask for money. He was finally hired by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) to create wartime documentaries and shows; he served in this capacity from 1942–45. He later wrote in his journal that this assistance he gave the Ministry of Information made him feel as if he was doing his bit for the war effort. Swansea was bombed during the course of the war and his beloved Kardomah Cafe was completely destroyed. He moved his family to London.
In 1943 Thomas and Macnamara had their second child, and Thomas had the first of many affairs. Most of the affairs did not last long. When Macnamara discovered them Thomas would apologize and make conciliatory gestures to get back in Macnamara's good graces. While living in London, the threat of bombs was all too real. It was during this period that Thomas would write his well known lyric poem "Fern Hill" about a time when life was simpler and more carefree. At that time he also wrote movie scripts and scripts for the radio. A long-term contract with BBC Home Service radio landed him a job that lasted for a year. After this contract concluded, the BBC kept him on the air as a freelancer. They never hired him permanently though his shows were extremely popular. The station cited his excessive drinking as the reason. Thomas also worked as a voice actor on several radio programs, but despite having a lot of work he drank most of his earnings away.
The Kindness of Friends
Because they were penniless, Thomas and Macnamara went to visit A.J.P. Taylor (1906–90) and Margaret Taylor to ask for a temporary residence. A.J.P Taylor was a noted historian and his wife a socialite who loved Thomas's work and attempted an affair with him. Margaret allowed them to stay in the garden house though her husband disapproved vehemently. The Thomas family would move two more times before finally obtaining a small home in Laugharne called the Boat House. This home was purchased by Margaret for the Thomas family in 1949. Thomas moved both of his parents to live closer to him during this time because of his father's declining health. Macnamara had their third child in 1949 and Thomas's father became gravely ill. He wrote his famous poem "Do not go gentle into that good night" (1947) for his father who died some years later in 1952.
In 1950 Thomas was invited to America to do a series of readings in New York. As a result of his celebrity, he was invited to many parties where he never failed to indulge in alcohol to excess. Often he was obscene, intoxicated while performing, and often shocked the elite who attended such events. He had an affair while in the United States, and Macnamara found out about it. When a second invitation to America was offered in 1952, she went with him just to keep an eye on him. There was much alcohol consumption during that visit to America as well and it exacerbated his asthma. While resting he recorded "A Child's Christmas in Wales" (1952) on vinyl record. He is credited for creating the first audiobook.
The year 1953 was rough for Thomas. His father had died around Christmas the year before, and the loss of Thomas's family members continued into 1953. His sister died of liver cancer, his wife had an abortion, three of his friends died, and a close patron killed herself. Despite the personal tragedies, Thomas's literary career was still on the rise. A collection of poems called Collected Poems 1934–1952 was released to great acclaim. He was awarded the Foyle poetry prize but his health continued to decline.
A third tour of America occured in 1953 without Macnamara by Thomas's side. He had an affair with a colleague's secretary and became so drunk at one point that he fell down a flight of stairs. His mistress had him treated by her doctor for a myriad of medical issues including a broken arm. Upon returning home he finally completed a long-term manuscript called Under Milk Wood and sent it to be copied. He received the manuscript but promptly lost it in a pub. His health continued to decline and there were rumors that he was blacking out on occasion.
Death in America
Thomas's last book tour in America happened at the end of 1953. He went primarily to oversee production of his radio play Under Milk Wood (1954). The blackouts he suffered in London continued to plague him in the United States and were more frequent. One of his former mistresses became his secretary and routinely obtained doctors to treat Thomas's declining health. He celebrated his 39th birthday but did not stay long at the party because he felt unwell. The next few days saw Thomas engaging in non stop drinking appointments. He had difficulty breathing upon returning to his hotel room. His secretary immediately called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital. She also called his wife who flew to America immediately. When Macnamara saw the state her husband was in, she flew into a rage and accused everyone she could think of for killing him. On November 9, 1953 Dylan Thomas slipped into a coma and died in the hospital.The doctors originally ruled Thomas's death was caused by alcohol poisoning. However, it is now thought that he was suffering from pneumonia, bronchitis, and emphysema from years of smoking. Thomas's body was sent back to Wales for burial and the funeral was filmed and shown in theaters.
Dylan Thomas's work continues to resonate throughout the world long after his untimely death because of his work's ability to capture intense emotions and its use of a very musical style. Bob Dylan (b. 1941) was born with the name Robert Zimmerman and changed his name as a tribute to the poet. Paul McCartney (b. 1942) of the Beatles also credits the poetry of Thomas as the reason his bandmate John Lennon (1940–80) started writing songs. Thomas's ability to take the local and ordinary and make them universal is a style that is copied to this day.