The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died in New York on Nov. 9, 1953, at age 39. Already a celebrity, Thomas was turned into a legend.
Did he die as a result of 18 double whiskies drunk neat in the White Horse Tavern?
Or was the cause half a grain of morphine (enough to lay out a horse) administered by an incompetent physician?
Did another doctor really say that the poet was dying of “a serious insult to the brain”?
Reports conflict, myth balloons. Thomas’ put-upon physique took several days to finally give up its ghost, time enough for hundreds to flock to the doors of his hospital ward, to pay their respects, perhaps, or to glimpse the roaring boy in his ruin, and for his glamorous and equally tempestuous wife, Caitlin ( Uma Thurman and Lindsay Lohan are among the actress who have down the years been slated to play her, in bio-pics that — this being the story of a great love, and Dylan Thomas — always seem to fall apart at the last minute), to fly in from England, freak out and almost get herself committed to Bellevue. Thus was enacted a tragic death, which had been preceded by a life of fame, love, booze, debts.
It’s dramatic, crazy stuff, and no wonder people are always trying to make films about this guy. The odd thing, though, as Paul Muldoon points out in his introduction to a lovely new edition of Thomas’ “Collected Poems” (New Directions: 240 pp, $14.95 paper), is that all this still doesn’t prepare us for the turbo-charged, high-octane fuel of the poetry:
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
(“The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”)
Thomas, born in a small but comfortable house on Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea, found his poetic voice, or, rather, the first of his poetic voices, early and began publishing when in his teens. The subjects that came most naturally to him were those guaranteed to grab attention — sex, death and nature and how the three mix up together. Poets have seized on these primal themes, and Thomas, freighting himself the influence of Joyce, Yeats, Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins. John Donne, and the King James Bible, sought to rise beyond both the provincial obscurity in which he was raised and the thriving metropolis, London, which he knew would soon beckon. From the start he went for an ecstatic reverie that seems secret yet somehow still universal:
I see you boys of summer in your ruin,
Man in his maggot’s barren,
And boys are full and foreign in the pouch.
I am the man your father was.
We are the sons of flint and pitch.
O see the poles are kissing as they cross.
(“I See the Boys of Summer”)
Thomas melds disparate images through rhythm, repetition, alliteration and odd little half-rhymes and internal rhymes, and even shapes. Wild in his living he might have been, but as a poet he is very formal, and this adds to the shock that readers felt back then (and still do). Here’s the end of the renegade-Christian “Before I Knocked”:
You who bow down at cross and altar,
Remember me and pity Him
Who took my flesh and bone for armour
And doublecrossed my mother’s womb.
His poems fall into groups, cycles that reflect the pattern of his life: the adolescent stuff; swimming in testosterone; the beautiful, shattering war poems; love poems; poems about poetry; and elegies for those he knew who had died or were dying. Thomas loved film and worked as a scriptwriter during WW2 (he would have been a conscientious objectorbut was spared from having to make that stand when he failed the army medical) and lived through the Blitz. Watching London burn, he observed the flames and death with an pop-eyed gaze that typically blends wonder and horror:
Among the street burned to tireless death
A child of a few hours
With its kneading mouth
Charred on the black breast of the grave
The mother dug, and its arms full of fires.
(“Ceremony After a Fire Raid”)
From the start people wanted to cast Thomas as an icon, a self-destructive genius, and he duly played to the role, boozing it up, chasing skirt, raising his fists in the pubs of Fitzrovia, staging flat-out public fights with Caitlin, stealing money when he didn’t have it and freely giving it away when he did.
When asked why he kept coming back to America (he made four hectic trips here in the early 1950s, the final one culminating in his death), he said: “Because of my eternal search for naked women in diaphanous mackintoshes.” That’s a very funny line, but it tells only a small part of the Dylan Thomas story. In London, he drank. In New York, he drank. On the campuses of California and in the Midwest, he drank. But at home, in South Wales, in his writing shed, he scraped, scratched, intoned and changed. His discipline was obsessive. He wrote and rewrote, producing, for instance, more than 200 versions of the great 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,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heyday of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
Thomas’ range is narrow, and he can be over the top; he never really grew up, and he never really left behind Cwmdonkin Drive and the small-town life and gossip he would lovingly report in his play for voices “Under Milk Wood.” Like Scott Fitzgerald, another doomed prince, he had something gorgeous about him, there from the start, a quality that mutated and evolved with maturity but went on producing the memorable and the instantly recognizable.
Muldoon reckons that Thomas’ most famous poem, the one that ends, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light / Do not go gentle into that good night,” is read at two out of three British funerals and no doubt plenty of American ones too. Thomas inspired Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, to name but a few, and he’s so much a part of the cultural furniture that we can forget how fresh his voice still sounds when we attend to it. This is how he described his teenage self, looking back on those giddy years when he was Swansea’s self-styled Rimbaud:
“About medium height, thick blubber-lips, snub-nose, mouse-brown curly hair, one front tooth broke, speaks rather fancy, truculent, plausible, a bombastic adolescent provincial bohemian with a thick-knotted tie made of his sister’s scarf, a gabbing, ambitious, pretentious, mock-tough young man.”
It’s the “thick-knotted tie” that clinches it; Thomas perceived even life’s most mundane details, but transformed them, into humor, and more often into rapture.
Rayner is the author of many books, including “A Bright and Guilty Place.” Paperback Writers appears at https://www.latimes.com.