The Dylan Thomas notebook, on display at the Council Chamber in the Abbey at Swansea University in May 2015. © James Davies

In 2014, the 100th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s birth in Swansea, a previously unknown notebook of his poetry came up for sale at auction. Handwritten by Thomas in his distinctive, and thankfully extremely legible, manner, the notebook was purchased by Swansea University for a total of £104,500 and came home. As this notebook follows on chronologically from four extant notebooks that were sold to the State University of New York in Buffalo in 1941, it has become known as Thomas’s Fifth Notebook (“N5” for short).

Thomas entered his first poem in N5 around May 1934, when he was 19 years old, and the last page was completed in August 1935, before he turned 21. During this time, his first collection, 18 Poems (1934), exploded on the London poetry scene like a “sort of bomb”, according to the critic Desmond Hawkins, while not long after N5’s completion, Thomas’s growing reputation was further enhanced by the publication of his second collection Twenty-five Poems (1936). All the poems entered into N5 were published in either 18 Poems or Twenty-five Poems, indicating the consistent quality the precocious Thomas was capable of from the start of his career.

Instead of having N5 merely adorn the Swansea University archives, the Cultural Institute in the College of Arts & Humanities generously funded a PhD to work on co-editing a critical edition of it for publication, enabling this manuscript to become more widely accessible and turning cultural capital into scholarly resource for academic and aficionado alike. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the person entrusted with this enviable task and I began my PhD under the supervision of Dylan Thomas expert Professor John Goodby in October 2015.

Not long after I had begun, I came face-to-face with N5 in the Swansea University archives and was able to lay careful (and clean) hands on the manuscript. It was a special feeling to know that I was holding (only when turning a page) something that Thomas had touched – and probably thrown, sat on, and all the other interactions that might befall a notebook that had journeyed from Swansea to London to Cheshire to Ireland and back again. A shopping list, a phone number, the address of a café all provide evidence that N5 also doubled up as an emergency notebook for the quotidian, these mundane entries only throwing into sharper relief the complex Modernist poetry that surrounded them. And despite the active life N5 had once led, resulting in a missing cover and a few torn pages, it was now a delicate object, allowed only to see the light for so many hours per year due to the sensitive nature of 1930s paper and ink. As such, my day-to-day work relied predominantly on the hi-res photographs taken of N5 when it had entered the archives, with only the occasional recourse to the original manuscript when a word or some other matter needed further investigation.

Pages from the notebook, showing an early version of “Altarwise by Owl light” © Swansea University

As mentioned, Thomas’s neat handwriting was a sanity-saving factor for the vast majority of my research into N5, and very often the crossings out were also done in a light way, as if to help the future scholar. There are still some heavily cancelled lines, such as in “Eleven” (“I, in my intricate image”) and “Nineteen” (sonnet V of “Altarwise by owl-light”), and much effort was expended in uncovering what lay beneath. But thanks to Thomas’s consistent letter formation, some technological assistance, and a little squinting, Professor Goodby and I could decipher these mysteries with a sufficient degree of certainty. The end result has been the publication of The Fifth Notebook of Dylan Thomas: Annotated Manuscript Edition, in which the reproduction, transcription, and annotation of N5 has aimed to illuminate and examine the processes of Thomas’s poetic creativity so that further, deserved appreciation of his craft can take place.

Dr Adrian Osbourne

Swansea, 2021.