For thirty years, from 1953 to 1983, there were no British winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the whole history of the prize, it has never been awarded to anyone hailing from Wales. Partly this was due to the premature demise of poet, playwright and broadcaster Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) who died at the age of 39 sixty years ago.
Thomas’ death, like his life, was tinged with booze-sodden decadence. His purported last words were “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies! I think that’s the record!” In recent years, this legend has been challenged. It now seems that the death of Thomas may also have been brought about through pneumonia and medicinal drugs that he was taking.
Whatever the true cause, with his death the world lost one of the finest poets of the twentieth century. Thomas’ verse has made the great species leap from the forgotten tomes of the poetry section to the collective imagination of the English-speaking world. Many of his lines are burned into our gestalt memory, just like the great speeches from Shakespeare.
Though lovers be lost love shall not
And death shall have no dominion
from Death shall have no dominion (1943)
Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
from Do not go gentle into that good night (1952)
Thomas’ natural medium was always the short poem. In his lifetime as now, poetry was unlikely to make one wealthy, so he also tried his hand at prose pieces and journalism. Short stories were never his strength, and many of his are suffused with the wilful obtuseness of modernism. Dylan’s early stories are vague, often pointless meditations that are designed to create an effect rather than produce any sort of a narrative.
It was only when he came to draw on his own childhood and early life that Dylan Thomas produced great works of prose. As a writer, Thomas had it all. Take this character sketch of his grandpa from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940):
Over a white flannel nightshirt he was wearing a red waistcoat with walnut-sized brass buttons. The over-filled bowl of his pipe smouldered among his whiskers like a little, burning hayrick on a stick.
He stared at me mildly. Then he blew down his pipe, scattering the sparks and making a high, wet dog-whistle of the stem, and shouted ‘Ask no questions.’
After a pause, he said slyly: ‘Do you ever have nightmares, boy?’
I said: ‘No.’
‘Oh, yes, you do,’ he said.
Later, Thomas would capture the thick snowfalls in the seaside village of his youth in the memoir, A Child’s Christmas in Wales:
‘But that was not the same snow.’ I say. ‘Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down from the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.’
A Child’s Christmas in Wales was prepared as a radio broadcast for the BBC, one of a series of recordings that Dylan Thomas was making in the 1950s. Most famous among them was Under Milk Wood.
This play was in many ways the culmination of his life’s work. Reading through his other writing, we often see scraps and lines, images and characters that would crop again in this ‘Play for Voices’.
Under Milk Wood portrays a day in the life of the fictional Welsh town of Llareggub (read it backwards). As a play, it is more like a piece of music than a narrative work, as it moves from voices to thoughts to sounds and songs.
It shows Thomas’ feeling for the precious moment:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobblestones silent and the
hunched, courters’-and rabbits’ wood limping
invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black,
crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.
From there, we visit each of the locals in their daily life, at their breakfast table, in their memories and in their dreams.
There is the blind retired sailor:
Captain Cat, at his window thrown wide to the sun
and the clippered seas he sailed long ago when his
eyes were blue and bright, slumbers and voyages;
ear-ringed and rolling, I love you Rosie Probert
tattooed on his belly…
… He weeps as he sleeps and sails.
Along with the melancholy, there is joy, such as in the life of Mr Mog Edwards:
‘I am a draper, mad with love!’
Or Mrs Dai Bread Two:
‘brown as a berry’.
Amidst it all, there is humour even in the malevolent Mr Pugh. He plans to do away with his wife, using a copy of Lives of the Great Poisoners:
‘He has bound a plain brown-paper cover around the book.’
Not fully produced on stage until after his death, Under Milk Wood is Thomas’ masterpiece, as well as a taste of the greatness that was yet to come. Had he lived, Dylan Thomas would surely have won the Nobel Prize. Both his poetry and his prose have a richness and depth that is unattainable by most other writers. Dylan Thomas had the magic.