Dylan Thomas 100 years on – still beguiling readers with his ‘eloquent fury’

Centenary of the birth of the Welsh poet, who ‘manages to juxtapose the sonorous tones of the pulpit with the intimate squeak of a mouse’

Passion and an urgent rhetorical preoccupation with life's defiance of death inspire the work of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who was born 100 years ago today.

His eloquent fury continues to beguile and excite; readers love him while his fellow poets are alert to the glorious contradictions, the magic, the fluent rhythms and the bluster.

His deliberate, crafted poems convey complex emotion while his use of words, often so exact, can also bewilder. Thomas manages to juxtapose the sonorous tones of the pulpit with the intimate squeak of a mouse. He saw the man yet always remembered the child.

Seamus Heaney explained the dilemma. Thomas, he argued, had become more case study than artist. Heaney, in his role as teacher, lecturing his students at Oxford, regretted that Thomas's work had become overshadowed by the grim farce of his heavy drinking, wild living and early death in November 1953, only 12 days after his 39th birthday.


Thomas the man died young, but the poet could be said to have perished even earlier. Several of his greatest poems were written in his late teens and early 20s.

Born to a Welsh-speaking schoolmaster father, who taught English literature at Swansea Grammar, which Thomas also attended, the poet did not speak Welsh. The lilting cadences and rhythms of his verse were more influenced by his reading of Hopkins than by his native tongue.

Thomas also loved the poetry of Thomas Hardy and often quoted it during public readings of his own work. His earliest memories, Thomas often said, were of his father reading Shakespeare to him.

He had begun writing poetry as a boy and although he left school at 16, he continued to read and particularly admired the intensity of DH Lawrence as well as Yeats’s lyricism.

Thomas worked as a reporter on a local newspaper. By the age of 19 he had already written half his body of work, including And Death Shall Have No Dominion. It was at about that age that he left home and went to London to become a part of the literary scene. His debut collection, 18 Poems, was published in the same year, 1934.

Rich, deep voice

He quickly established himself; he was an able broadcaster and spoke in a rich, deep, assured voice with little trace of an accent. Thomas belonged to no school of literary style. He was a romantic and unlike TS Eliot and WH Auden he was not drawn to issues.

For all his travelling and the notorious poetry reading tours to the US – he died during the fourth – he always claimed to best love little Welsh villages and he captured the lives lived in them in many poems – most brilliantly in his quicksilver radio verse play Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, which was first broadcast on January 25th, 1954.

His artistic manifesto is probably best explained in a comment he once offered: “I make one image – though ‘make’ is not the right word: I let, perhaps, an image to be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess – let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image and out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict.”

In 1936 he met Caitlin Macnamara, a dancer who was at that time the mistress of artist Augustus John.

Sickly child

He had introduced Thomas to her, describing the poet as a “bright young spark”. Thomas, a sickly child plagued by asthma, had grown into a slight, short man whose intellectual confidence was countered by a little-boy-lost routine that worked well with women.

He was a year younger than Caitlin. They married and had three children– a marriage sustained for a while by alcohol but destroyed by infidelity.

Thomas was also an able prose writer. The Map of Love (1939) is a collection of prose and verse, while Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) consists of largely autobiographical short stories that reflect Thomas's engaging and opportunistic feel for colour in the local, particularly his flair for characterisation so evident in Under Milk Wood and A Child's Christmas in Wales.

Fern Hill, published in 1945 when Thomas was only 31, was inspired by his visits to his aunt's house. It is both a personal memoir and also a wider, more universal lament to lost youth, acted out "In the sun that is young once only."

Another of his most loved poems is Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (1951), written for his father, who died only two years before he did.

“Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times