Fasting for a Dead Poet: The Death of Dylan Thomas

November 9th 2018 marks the 65th anniversary of the death of Dylan Thomas. His death, in New York, at the age of 39, led to an outpouring of tributes from around the world, some of which we share with you here.

¶I was working in my room at Yale when a student came in, weeping and silently pointing at a copy of the New York Times. My first reaction was that the Russians had invaded Germany. Then, when I read the headline, I realised that it was something far more serious, a loss for which there was no substitute.

¶At Fort Bliss, a group of men, most of them New Yorkers and college graduates, were sitting in a mess hall. A young private walked in, ashen-faced, and announced that Dylan Thomas has died; the news that the Korean war had again erupted would have had less impact. Thirty soldiers, some of them in tears, went AWOL. They were eventually found in a library reading Dylan’s poems. They paid with an extra two hours close drill.

¶Dylan Thomas will be honoured by 1,200 girl students at Mount Holyoke College, Mass., tonight. Foregoing their usual three course dinner, the girls will dine on a simple meal by which they hope to save 125 dollars (£45) to be sent to the poet’s widow and three small children.

¶When Dylan Thomas read his own poems over the air, or spouted Shakespeare or Milton in a tavern, he proved that the poet is still the one among us with the most power to unite human beings in sympathy and understanding. People who found their chief satisfaction in a detective novel or a cheap Sunday newspaper, listened to him in wonder. He was able to make them understand beyond their normal capacity, partly because of his honesty, simplicity and passion.

¶On Sunday afternoon, Miss J. Williams read part of Under Milk Wood, which was a continuation of the Handbook lesson on Dylan Thomas. Mrs Holden presided. The Bible lesson was from Proverbs 13.

¶A few nights ago I sat in the stalls listening to Emlyn Williams reciting Dylan Thomas’ poetry and telling his stories to a packed house for nigh on three hours – now, what makes this phenomenon? I think it is a reaction to years of astringent versifying by gentlemen who, although brilliant, had deliberately removed themselves from the world in which the live Dylan had a go. He was as rowdy as Kit Marlowe. Said his contemoraries: “He looks like an unmade bed.” To me he was like a roly-poly, pudgy little butterfly, darting everywhere, too quick for your net. We used to go to pubs together when he grew older and I got to love him, for he was so gentle. We would stand at the bar, silent awhile, like two horses with their heads over a gate, then talk about Thomas Hardy’s poetry which we both loved.

¶He has the overwhelmed look of an unnecessarily hurt child. He was, I think, that perpetual child with an ear for ditties and as though completely victimised by that moment when childhood fatefully recognises, if it refuses to realise, that the cradle will not hold age back. Credit for his lovely childhood expressions, of and for the life of the child, remains a critical affirmation. That was and is his kingdom.

¶In fifteen years of watching television with erratic regularity, I have seen one moment of drama which still sticks in my head. And it was not pre-packaged as such; it was almost an accident. The week that Dylan Thomas died, Alistair Cooke came on with an impromptu postscript at the conclusion of that Sunday’s Omnibus program. With his customary urbanity he told us that a great poet had just died and that we would now hear the voice of Dylan Thomas reading Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Mr Cooke bowed off, and on the screen they showed us a still photo of the poet from the jacket of one of his books. They held it there as that voice which was the voice of Thomas read its poem, and then as it neared the end of the poem they slowly backed the camera away from the photo to make the man seem to draw farther and farther away from us, and as it retreated it became smaller and smaller until finally it dwindled into a pinhole of light and then the pinhole winked out into complete darkness and the poem ended. It was – well, it was the way to do it.

¶He was a picnic and his kindnesses were like so many eggshells scattered round his life. He had an enormous range, had friends in many walks of life…they very often disliked each other intensely, or tried to like each other because of him and failed. When he died one could see men being polite and even reverent to each other, who had never exchanged a word unless it was a sneer, for years. This was the wreath they placed upon his coffin. It was a beautiful thing to behold.


With thanks to Reinhold Becker, Cid Corman, Paul Potts, Melvin Shestack and Jerry Tallmer, as well as The Sunderland Echo, The Rugby Advertiser, The Tatler and The Stage.

By | 2018-10-30T16:08:51+00:00 October 30th, 2018|Guest Blog|0 Comments