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Dylan Thomas: A New Life
Andrew Lycett
Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press, 2004.
$35.00, 434 pages, ISBN 1-58567-541-5

Denise Ginfray
Clermont II


Andrew Lycett's Dylan Thomas: A New Life reads like a most valuable contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the Welsh poet born in Swansea (27 October 1914) and died prematurely in New York (5 November 1953) just after he had recorded some of his poems and participated in several readings of Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, a long dramatic programme that chronicles the life of a little village in Wales, that was recorded by the BBC in 1963.

This thick volume includes a family tree, a selection of photographs that introduce the reader to Dylan Thomas's public life and intimacy—see for example, the two pictures that contrast "Dylan the genial companion" with "Dylan the consummate professional showman" [243]. The notes [384-415] are quite detailed and provide numerous references to either Thomas's The Collected Letters edited by Paul Ferris (1) in 2000, or to the academic research lodged in the archives of Swansea University Library. The volume concludes with an updated bibliography and a useful index.

This very comprehensive work with a special flavour of its own due to both style and tone, is composed of 22 chapters that trace Thomas's itinerary from his "Swansea Aspirations" to "the Gates of Hell." Lycett's major focus is the many contradictions of a poetic mind conscious of being non-English rather than Welsh or Celtic.

On first reading, one might perhaps argue that this biography is too full of details, anecdotes and embedded stories, even if this is more or less la loi du genre. On closer examination though, it throws convincing light on the vocation of a tormented poet who was first "a petulant child coddled by his mother" [17] before he was overwhelmed by existentialist questioning and doubts about his own creativity. Lycett's account of Thomas's unconventional and unpredictable behaviour, of his addiction to alcohol and drug, of his chronic financial straits, of his sometimes provocative attitude towards institutions of all sorts, draws a pathetic if not melodramatic portrait of the man whose Christian name "Dylan" was borrowed from a mythical prose drama in the Welsh language. Lycett dwells extensively on Thomas's various experiments as reviewer, actor, journalist, scriptwriter, broadcaster for Strand Films and the BBC. He evokes his necessary "Hack Work," his involvement in theatre life, his musical collaborations, cinematic activities and poetry-readings both in Europe and America. Chapter 15, for example, entitled "Oxford, the BBC and Italy," revolves around Thomas's contribution to many poetry-related radio-programmes ("Book of Verse," "Time for Verse," "Living Writers") that gave him the opportunity of declaiming a wide range of poets, from Milton to Walter de la Mare. At that time (1946), he also worked on a short radio drama, The Londoner, that anticipated Under Milk Wood. He thus won a special status at the BBC where he would meet other poets like Louis Mc Neice, musicians or playwrights.

The chapters devoted either fully or partly to Dylan Thomas's lecturing tours in America (2) are particularly illuminating for they concentrate on the poet's confrontation of his own literary references with the emblematic figures of modern American poetry. Lycett tells how, in April 1949, John Malcom Brinnin, an ambitious poet and critic was appointed Director of the Poetry Center in New York, and how he arranged lectures and poetry-reading sessions with Thomas. Chapter 18 ("A Voice on Wheels") relates Thomas's attraction to America's vitality, artistic creativity and humour. There, Thomas spent much of his time "on the lecture treadmill" [288] but he also became acquainted with New York's avant-garde, he visited surrealist exhibitions, travelled across the United States from Boston to the mid-west and to the Pacific coast, came into contact with academic critics (David Daiches, William York Tindall), composers (Igor Stravinsky), or with American poets and writers: John Berryman, Christopher Isherwood, John Crowe Ransom, Theodore Roethke, to name but a few. He also met Malcolm Lowry in Vancouver and Elizabeth Bishop, the Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress in Washington. Each time he charmed his audience and he enjoyed his fame as "this small overweight Welshman was feted as a Promethean god" [286]. The last chapter is set in a different mood. It focuses on Thomas's fourth visit to New York in 1953 where his days passed in a blur owing to the alcoholic damage and to symptoms of mental disorder that were soon followed by death.

Likewise, Lycett insists on his "Marriage Pangs," on the alternation of joys and rows with his wife Caitlin Macnamara, on the poet's sexual frustrations and many love affairs, but also on the harassing bouts of writing fever spent at the Boat House—his little cottage set in Laugharne on the South Wales coast—a very emotional place still suffused today with the poet's ghostly presence.

As a matter of fact, the many qualities of Lycett's work lie beyond dispute. One of them is the fine evocation of the cultural and linguistic background that informed Thomas's poetic imagination. Thomas was a precocious child who experienced the linguistic hegemony of the English idiom—a "blatant piece of cultural colonialism" in Lycett's own words [7]—which was partly responsible for Thomas's relentless quest for his roots. He received a formal education in English since teaching in Welsh had been banned by the Blue Books in 1847, and he soon became a prolific young writer who indulged in poems and ballads largely influenced by John Donne, G.M. Hopkins, W.B.Yeats, Robert Bridges, or T.S. Eliot. As his biographer notes, Dylan Thomas was fully aware that "English verse was going through a period of profound change" [33], and the truth is that he proved very critical of the type of poetry written by politically engaged poets like Louis McNeice, Stephen Spender or William Auden, and recommended a redefinition of the aesthetics and ethics of poetry. However, all this stirred his intellectual curiosity and, quite paradoxically, led him to publish short poems full of the elemental qualities of rural Wales with its myths and legends, even though he claimed that he had not the Celtic mind. This is most perceptible in his famous "Fern Hill" (Horizon, October 1945) that celebrates the bygone days of innocence and re-enacts childhood scenes. This was also the intention behind his tentative book on Wales or in "In Memory of Ann Jones" (The Map of Love, 1939) where the imagery intertwines the pulses of nature and the reification of the things of the world imposed by death.

The second merit of this biography is to foreground the complexities of Dylan's imagination beset by antagonistic forces like: love and reason, birth and death, inner life and the external world, religious faith and extreme doubt, betrayal and loneliness, emotional exuberance and fits of depression, defence of national identity and attachment to universal values, harsh criticism of and deep compassion for his fellow men, worldly aspirations and metaphysical issues.

Lycett insists on all the facts that eventually composed the very substance of Thomas's poetry, notably the trauma of war-time central to Deaths and Entrances (1946) with its impressive combination of Christian motifs and images linked to the "Modern Apocalyse," or to "Ceremony After a Fire Aid" (May 1944). "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" (1945) proceeds from a similar sense of grief and sorrow; "Vision and Prayer" (1945) with its pictographic stanzas is another attempt to overcome his fear of violence through the effects that rise from the sound and shape of words.

I would argue that the major asset of Lycett's work is his penetrating analysis of what remained essential to Dylan Thomas; a special care for the synthesis of all arts. His involvement in drama, broadcasting, the film-industry, poetry-writing and -reading, stems from a sense of performance combined with the dramatic awareness of the flight of his own life. Lycett's portrait of Thomas as both man and artist highlights his anxiety about the power of language to do and undo social bonds. It emphasizes his extreme sensitivity to the magic of idioms, to the musical qualities of language itself which, he thought, came as a soothing compensation for social strife and horrific war-time. As Lycett aptly recalls, he was "stirred by the music of words" [26], obsessed by their suggestive power and at their full mercy, always dissatisfied with his work and ready to redefine his own style and investigate new forms of poetic diction. He was delighted whenever he declaimed verse (both modern British and or American poems and selections from his own) in his singing voice, and it is still utter enjoyment for us to listen to his highly lyrical and often complex, experimental poetry that illustrates so well his enduring concern with the power of the human voice, well aware as he was of the interplay of body language and verbal language.

In the Introduction to his work, Lycett claims that "[his] main task has been to explain how the public wild boy, "the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive," could co-exist with the private poet of such sensitivity" [2]. It can be argued that not only does Lycett's biography provide deep insight into Dylan Thomas's charismatic personality; it brings us in touch with the poet whose hectic life and career were devoted to his "[…] craft and sullen art / Exercised in the still night." In his own words, Dylan Thomas was "a writer of words, and nothing else," (Early Prose Writings, 1971) whose labour was to probe the depths of the human heart:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
(Life and Letters Today, October 1945)

1/. Paul Ferris is the author of a Biography of Dylan Thomas first published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1977; a more recent edition is in Penguin Books, 1987.

2/. Chapter 20, " Battle Against American Hospitality," 323-347; chapter 21, "To Begin at the Beginning," 348-361; chapter 22, "The Gates of Hell," 362-383



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