Dylan Thomas - Overview: the poems

Dylan Thomas began his now globally recognised career by writing poems. His poetry was published from 1936 until his death in 1953. A number of these have become known around the world, notably Fern Hill and Do not go gentle into that good night

Other poems that are widely considered to be especially moving and stimulating, as well as being vivid examples of written English, are I see the boys of summer, The force that through the green fuse, Especially when the October wind and Altarwise by owl-light. In each poem, Thomas expresses something essential about the human condition in all of its light and darkness, certainty and doubt.

A large number of Thomas’ poetry needs some time to work through. He is a writer who was widely read and he was always happy to acknowledge the influence of Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Christopher Marlowe and John Keats on his work as well as the work of the Imagist poets. The Imagist poets emphasised the value of blank verse (verse that did not rhyme) and concisely expressed images. Perhaps this kind of approach to written English might make a stimulating set of classroom exercises to develop with your students.

Thomas was also influenced by the language and stories of The Bible and the example of balladry, which is an ancient written and spoken tradition that emphasises the plot-driven song.

Like other poets, Dylan Thomas wrote some of his most powerful and enduring poems before he was 21 years old. He had been writing since his mid-teens. Indeed, more than 40 of the 90 poems in the Collected Poems were written before Thomas left Swansea for London in 1934. Thomas’s work was published in the following volumes: 25 Poems (1936), The Map of Love (1939), Deaths and Entrances (1946)

The scholar William York Tindall has described the variety of Thomas’ poems in the following way: “Some of the poems are indelicate, some socialistic, and some, recounting dreams, dreamlike. “ (1, A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas,Syracuse, Syarcuse Universit Pressp. 1996, p. 27)

Dylan Thomas was fuelled by a sense of vocation about being a poet, and this feeling and drive had been strong within him from an early age. As we look back on his work we can say that his work is both loved for its relevance and resonance to us as well as revered for its precise use of grammar, metaphor and alliteration. Several of his poems have become part of milestones in the lives of ordinary people and Under Milk Wood has taken on particular power.

Like many writers, the power of a particular place was vital to Dylan Thomas’ writing. Arguably his most famous work, the radio play (later published as a hugely successful book) is Under Milk Wood, which is emphatically about a place, and perhaps his most famous poem, Fern Hill, is, too; being a celebration of some of the places that had been powerful forces on Thomas’ imagination and his memory of childhood. In both cases, a sense of nostalgia is essential to the fascination of the writing. For Dylan Thomas, the passing of childhood is a subject that he returned to often across his writing life.

Thomas’ collection of poetry Deaths and Entrances was perhaps the book that secured Thomas’ seriousness as a poet and it certainly made his name in the United States of America. The collection was critically praised and was popular, too. From this project, Thomas was invited to read his work across America in 1950. Between 1950 and 1953, Thomas made three reading tours of North America. It was in America, too, that Thomas sold an essay he had written to Harpers Bazaar magazine. The essay was called A Child’s Memories of Christmas in Wales.

In his biography of Thomas, Paul Ferris writes that ‘He was an answer to the machine; his poems contain few images drawn from the twentieth century… His subject was still himself, as it had always been, but in those last years he filled the background with scenes and creatures from nature, celebrating the world but seeing death in the living.” (pp. 19-20)

Dylan Thomas was named after a character in an ancient Welsh poem. Translated, from the Welsh, ‘Dylan’ means ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’. The watery worlds of rivers and seas remind us of the power of nature as an influence on Thomas’ imagination and of the fluidity with which his language and grammar vividly appealed to poetry’s best life being lived as spoken word.

By James Clarke

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