In a follow up to my blog – Like Eggs Laid By Tigers: How Dylan Thomas’s Language Filled Early Years Shaped his Poetry – below is a biography of Dylan’s later life from 1939 until his death in November 1953.
Dylan Thomas’s life – 1939-1953
By 1939, Dylan had become a father for the first time and Europe was at war. There was little time to focus on his poetry, as it was essential that he take on more responsibilities and help with the war effort.
Unable to fight owing to poor health, Dylan was given the task of creating wartime documentaries for the Ministry of Information. It was serious and enduring work that required total professionalism and the need to work in a team. As well as writing scripts, Dylan contributed as director, compiler, producer and voice over narrator. It was a hectic schedule, in their busiest period in 1942; Strand Films produced seventy-five films.
Dylan had arrived in London on Saturday 7th September 1940, which as an unfortunate coincidence was the first night of the blitz. As a result, Dylan was greeted with a baptism of fire. He continued to observe, with rising horror, the Luftwaffe attacks while working as a Firewatcher looking across the city from his office rooftop. He was also hugely affected by a dreadful onslaught on his hometown of Swansea. He later communicated what he had seen through his haunting war poems and a powerful broadcast, Return Journey.
Throughout the war, Dylan was on high alert. He was desperately affected by the on going bombing and the constant fear of an imminent invasion. It became imperative that Dylan and his family leave London, especially as the introduction of V1 rockets made their glass roofed studio in Chelsea far too dangerous a home.
From summer 1944 until autumn 1945, the family lived in two areas that allowed Dylan the peace and tranquillity to focus on his poetry: the seaside town of New Quay in Ceredigion and Llangain, a rural village in Carmarthenshire. This period at the end of the war was a second flowering, very much like the one in his teenage years. He finished ten poems, which are regarded as some of his finest. The poems of this time were usually much longer, more complex and polished. They provided nearly half the poems for Deaths and Entrances, the publication that established his reputation as a major poet of the era.
While living in New Quay, the Thomas home was shot at while the family were inside, with the bullets going straight through its thin walls. Although no one was physically hurt, the incident made Dylan decide that New Quay was not for him again.
Dylan and Caitlin left Wales and spent much of the next four years living in or close to Oxford. This allowed him to commute regularly to London to continue his film work and to broadcast on the radio. In the years that followed Dylan made one hundred and forty five separate engagements with the BBC including writing scripts, reading poetry and stories, as well as acting. He also became a regular on many panel discussions making him a well-known radio personality.
In 1949, Dylan returned permanently to Wales. He moved to the Boathouse in Laugharne, which was to be his final home. He worked in a small writing shed that had remarkable views across the Taf estuary. On one side, he could gaze across at the Llansteffan Peninsula, the place of his childhood holidays, and on the other he could see Worm’s Head, the heart of his favourite Swansea beach, Rhosilli.
The four and a half years until his death in November 1953 were dominated by four trips to America, where he worked extremely hard through an exhausting schedule of poetry readings and lectures that were top and tailed by lunches, dinners, parties and receptions where he was expected to be “the great poet” and to entertain. It was during these tours that Dylan had the chance to showcase his play-for-voices, Under Milk Wood.
Unfortunately, the strains of the gruelling travel and endless socialising were causing Dylan to become very depressed. Alcohol was one of the ways he was dealing with his worries. Money was also an issue because it simply went out more rapidly than it came in. He was physical ill too using an inhaler to help his breathing. He would have coughing fits that “racked the whole length of his body, brought tears to his eyes and left him momentarily speechless”.
So, by the time of Dylan’s final tour in October and November 1953, he was desperately unwell. He was bloated, vomiting (often with blood), having difficulty waking from deep sleeps and experiencing regular black outs.
Dylan Thomas died on 9th November 1953 in New York aged just 39. The popular myth about how Dylan died was that he spent the night downing whiskies at the White Horse Tavern and then immediately fell into a coma. The truth, as with everything concerning Dylan Thomas’s life, is much more complex. There are many theories about the cause of his death; including alcohol poisoning (though this is largely disputed now) and many people believe he was an un-diagnosed diabetic. What is certainly clear is that when Dylan died he had a badly impaired respiratory system. He arrived in New York with bronchitis, which was further exacerbated by self-neglect as he continued to drink too much, eat and sleep very little and smoke. The record smog levels in the city certainly did not help. There have also been suggestions of medical neglect. Two books, The Death of Dylan Thomas and Fatal Neglect explore this more thoroughly.
Dylan’s funeral was held in Laugharne on November 24th 1953, after his body had been brought home from New York on the SS United States, and he was buried in St Martin’s church. In 1982 a plaque was unveiled in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey and he sits amongst an esteemed group.
Dylan Thomas’s work has inspired poets, writers, musicians, artists and performers alike, as well as being translated into over forty major and minor European languages, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, which is more than any other modern British poet.
In 2014, to mark his centenary, there was a year-long festival, Dylan Thomas 100 that introduced his work to new audiences. Each year on May 14th, the date Under Milk Wood was first performed in New York, there is an International Dylan Thomas Day – an annual celebration to remember his life and work.
Hannah Ellis – 12th June 2017.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – www.lovethewords.co.uk