A century after his birth, the myths of Dylan Thomas’s life still eclipse his work, writes Dani Garavelli
IN THE cemetery of St Martin’s Church in the town of Laugharne in south Wales, a simple white cross marks the grave of the poet Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin. It is difficult to imagine a more peaceful setting. The green hills dotted with white farmhouses roll down towards the still, sweeping sands of the Taf estuary. The plot itself is as untarnished as the landscape. A shared mound of grass, their names on either side of the cross, speaks of soulmates as indivisible in death as in life. But Thomas’s life was full of stories: the stories he told himself as well as stories he invented for others. And this tableau is just one more story, imposing a narrative of tranquil unity on one of the most turbulent and destructive relationships in literary history.
A much starker insight into the chaos of the couple’s existence is contained in accounts of Thomas’s protracted death, at the age of 39, thousands of miles from his burial place, in St Vincent’s Hospital, New York, in 1953 – a death which rivalled Michael Jackson’s in its grotesqueness. As he lay in a coma, the poet was surrounded by feuding friends, an incompetent doctor and a drunken, unhinged wife, whose first words on arriving were, “Is the bloody man dead, yet?” and whose violent outbursts meant she had been carted off to a private mental hospital by the time the bloody man obliged. It was a rock and roll ending for a rock and roll poet, some commentators said.
Yet maybe the rock and roll perception of Thomas isn’t the whole truth either, because some of those who knew him well claim he didn’t drink as much or bed as many women as he led people to believe. They say his reputation as a “roistering, drunken and doomed poet” was one he worked hard to achieve, deliberately acting up in pubs and poetry readings to secure the myth.
However contrived, the image of him as a tortured genius is the one that endures; it is this image which captured the imaginations of the Beat poets and the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who famously took his name; this image which led to his poem And Death Shall Have No Dominion being quoted in the film Solaris and an excerpt from his play Under Milk Wood being used in a Volkswagen advert. It is the legend, rather than the literature, that brings thousands of visitors a year to his birthplace in Swansea and to Laugharne, where they can visit the shed he wrote in before shuffling off to Browns Hotel.
Thomas was one of the finest poets of the 20th century. And yet, 100 years after his birth, his life story has arguably eclipsed his literary legacy. Yes, a handful of his works – most notably the biographical ones such as Fern Hill and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night – are still popular with those who like their poetry unashamedly “poetic”, but, says Professor John Goodby, author of The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall, the public fascination lies principally with his alcoholism, his philandering, his rabble-rousing. Always falling between two stools – too Welsh for the English, too English for the Welsh – the vast body of his life’s work has long been neglected, rarely taught at universities or written about by academics.
In the meantime, the publishing of memoirs and love letters to mistresses has served as much to obscure as to illuminate his personality. Was Thomas a mesmerising story-teller or a drunken bore, a swaggering ladies’ man or a terrified man-child who needed looking after?
To mark the centenary of his birth, dozens of Thomas-themed events are being held across the country in 2014: his long-forgotten adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson short story The Beach Of Falesa will be performed on Radio 3, a new drama by Andrew Davies will explore the months leading up to his death and a replica of his shed is going on tour. The question is, will all this attention bring us any closer to separating the man from the myth, inspire a resurgence of interest in his work, or help us reach a consensus on his place in the pantheon of poets?
That Thomas’s apparent amorality should intrigue is hardly surprising. Ever since Percy Bysshe Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife to run off to Europe, his teenage lover Mary in tow, before drowning off the coast of Italy, we have liked our poets to be both Bohemian and doomed. And you couldn’t get much more boho and doomed than the Thomases. Brought up in a middle-class home, Dylan’s early life was stable. Though he left school at 16, the quality of early poems such as And Death Shall Have No Dominion and, a few years later, Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines was recognised by the likes of TS Eliot and Stephen Spender. At the age of 21, he had one poetry volume under his belt and written more than half of his 90 published poems.
By the time he moved to London in 1935, however, Thomas had already developed a reputation for heavy drinking and, though the couple believed from the beginning they were destined for one another, hooking up with his muse-cum-nemesis Caitlin Macnamara was perhaps the worst thing he could have done. Unlike him, Caitlin had a disastrous childhood, abandoned by her father and raped by the painter John Augustus with whom she went on to have a relationship. Wilder than Thomas, and less bothered about what people thought, she was scarcely going to be the one to ground him. With their shared love of the bottle, they were the ultimate thrill-seekers, going out of their way to shock. Constantly drinking and brawling, it didn’t take long for their relationship to turn into “red raw bleeding meat”.
Tensions mounted as they had three children and moved from one shoddy house to another, in London, Swansea, New Quay and Laugharne, living hand to mouth on the little he made from his writing. Thomas’s infidelity – he had affairs with teenager Pamela Glendower, literary critic Pearl Kazin, and Liz Reitell, the secretary of a New York poetry centre – further fuelled Caitlin’s resentment.
Just as it has been suggested Thomas exaggerated his drinking, so it is claimed he was no great lover, his affairs born more of his terror of being alone than his voracious sexual appetite. But his behaviour was unrestrained and cruel, sleeping with Glendower when his wife was in hospital giving birth to their daughter. To a significant extent he seems to have bought into a conceit of himself as a genius who could live by his own rules and be forgiven anything. For her part, Caitlin became increasingly erratic. When Thomas wasn’t paying her enough attention, she would sleep with random men.
Having persuaded Thomas to take her on his second of his famed New York tours, she flew into violent rages. Then, when Thomas left for the third and final tour without her, she penned him a note. “You have left me no alternative but suicide or the streets. Hate. Caitlin”.
The Thomas myth, already compelling, was, of course, sealed by his early death in circumstances that are as murky today as they were 50 years ago. Though for a long time most people believed Thomas drank himself to death - his favoured watering hole in New York was the White Horse Tavern at Hudson and 11th Street – the accepted version today seems to be that he was killed by the misjudgement of celebrity doctor Milton Feltenstein. Feltenstein was brought in when Dylan complained of breathing difficulties, probably caused by chronic bronchitis. Believing him to be suffering from the effects of alcohol, the doctor gave him three shots of morphine which, it is suggested, further depressed his breathing and sent him into a coma, from which he never awakened. As ever, Thomas was partly responsible for the false impression, having earlier told Reitell, his then lover, that he’d “drunk 18 straight whiskies,” which was a gross exaggeration.
With all this drama, it’s little wonder the serious analysis of Thomas’s work got lost along the way. And yet, he wrote throughout his life, finishing the last lines of Under Milk Wood just minutes before its premiere in New York in May, 1953.
“I don’t resent the way Thomas’s life has taken over. He is interesting because he is a cultural phenomenon, a popular icon as well as being an important poet,” says Goodby, who is based at Swansea University. “But I’d like to see a greater appreciation of his work. I’d like people to wrestle a bit more with poems that aren’t fiendishly difficult, but demand a little bit more of them.”
In any case, Goodby accepts the dominance of Thomas’s personal life is not the only reason his poetry has been overlooked. “Thomas doesn’t fit neatly into any kind of category,” he says. “He is a hybrid writer, a writer of in-between states. He’s an archetypal suburban poet who likes the countryside and his language is quite daring and experimental, but it’s not fully modernist or mainstream. Whereas I think that makes him provocative and challenging, most people want to be able to put people in various stable positions.”
In England, Thomas suffered at the hands of critics who wanted to promote WH Auden as the English rival to TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. At the same time, in the Wales of the 1980s and 1990s, a time when the resurgence of nationalism was focused on the country’s linguistic heritage, he was regarded as something of a sell-out because he didn’t write in Welsh.
Thomas’s work, which influenced a slew of younger black American writers, was also popular with contemporary Scottish poets including WS Graham and Ruthven Todd, his London and New York drinking chum. It was to Graham that he first read his masterpiece Fern Hill, while Todd was at his side at St Vincent’s hospital.
The centenary should provide an opportunity for a reappraisal of Thomas’s work, but there are some who feel the Welsh organisers, perhaps with their eye on the tourism opportunities, are once again allowing the legend to dominate. There are kayaking trips to Laugharne, pony trap rides to Fern Hill farm and musical and dance performances inspired by his works, but not much exploration of the works themselves. “It’s as if there’s something in the national psyche, a sort of post-colonial thing of wanting to be liked but not being prepared to be serious,” Goodby says. “There are historical reasons for that in Wales, but it seems to me in 2014 we should start taking Dylan Thomas seriously and not play up to this slightly buffoonish stereotype that gets between us and the writing.”
Yet, even if Thomas’s genius were better acknowledged, it seems unlikely our obsession with his demons would diminish. The relentlesss pursuit of salacious tidbits over the decades meant his three children – Llewelyn, Aeronwy and Colm – were sought out for interviews until the last of them died in 2012. Though she moved to Italy, remarried and had another child at the age of 49, Caitlin had to put up with journalists beating a path to her door well into her seventies .
For years she told them the same story of loathing. And yet, not long after Thomas’s death, she wrote: “God, oh Dylan, you must be so cold. It is cold enough on top, in November. If only I could take you a bowl of your bread, and milk, and salt … to warm you up.” Then, when she died in 1994, everyone expected her to be buried in Italy, yet her will demanded she be brought back to Laugharne and interred with Thomas. It was the last unpredictable act in an unpredictable life and a sign perhaps that, for all its wanton destructiveness, their relationship was indeed both fated and eternal. «