This coming October 27th, 2013 would have been Dylan Thomas’ 99th birthday, or as the very man himself would call it, his “99th year to Heaven”. Born in Swansea, Glamorgan and a pupil of the local grammar school where his father was the headmaster, Thomas was a contributor and later editor of the school newspaper. He carried his wordsmith abilities over the threshold into the adult world: he left school at the age of 16 to work for the South Wales Daily Post. His poem Before I knocked is about a child in utero and is not the only Thomas poem to be published when its author was still in the neo-childhood teenage years. This poem uses clever imagery of ironmongery and nature to convey coming into being; “The leaden stars, the rainy hammer”. Here, the references to ironmongery symbolise a traditional male adolescence in “rainy” Wales, for they conjure up an image of the household tools that will later replace the childhood toys. This is an example of Expressionism, a poetic approach which Thomas used unabashedly.
Childhood is also the subject of Thomas’ famous short story, A child’s Christmas in Wales. It can now be said that he wrote of a traditional British childhood; the childhood of his generation in the post Great War era. This is made evident by his extremely pictorial references to the low-budget “useless presents”, smoking pipes, attending church on Christmas morning and “the same uncles at Christmas”. Thomas, in this piece, conveys with undertones of complaining the very fine line he senses between the traditions of British life after the First World War and the monotony (and, by attachment, boredom) inevitably carried therewith. However, a reader of today would have to be either a complete philistine or über-technophile to read this piece and not visualise with fondness, desire and affection the traditional British Yuletide that Thomas paints with his pen. Therefore, this piece causes a reader of today to question whether we in Britain really are any happier with more variety in our lives.
It is curious how a poet who writes so fondly and at length about childhood was a prodigy, wise beyond his young years. He must have had a child’s thought process for a very short time span. His prematurely developed adult mind was able to gage, assess, beautifully define and express the experiences of childhood that most children simply undergo unawares.
Thomas said of the Expressionist and Surrealist movements; “I let an image 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, bred out of the other two together a fourth, contradictory image, and let them all with all my imposed formal limits, conflict.” In his poem Prayer and vision, the lines of words take the shape of a diamond. The critic Edith Sitwell, writing in 1936 maintains; “the form of many of the poems is superb.” Here, form may refer to either formation or syntax and layers of words in the poem. In both cases, Ms Sitwell is most certainly correct in her assessment.
It is no secret that Dylan Thomas was an infamous alcoholic and adulterer, his famous last words being; “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies tonight. I think that’s the record.” His wordsmith abilities evidently had the ability to form not only expressionist verse but also unique definitions that many dictionary writers would fervently dispute; “An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do” is another of his most famous quotations. However, we must not allow these words, though highly amusing, to overshadow those that make up the lines of his landmark poetry.