January 9, 2014
Dylan Thomas: A Beast, An Angel, A Madman
“Is the bloody man dead yet”? These words, uttered by Dylan Thomas’s wife Caitlin, speak volumes about the life and tribulations of one of the twentieth century’s most famous poets.
Thomas had become seriously ill while staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York and had been rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital at midnight in early November 1953. On receiving a telegram telling her the news, Caitlin flew to America to see him even though their tempestuous relationship had suffered after years of drinking and Thomas’s womanising.
Caitlin, too, was a heavy drinker and years later said “Ours was a drink story, not a love story”. She visited Thomas briefly on her first morning in New York but when she returned in the afternoon she was in a drunken rage. So wild was Caitlin that she had to be placed in a straitjacket and committed to River Crest psychiatric hospital. Thomas died on November 9th at the age of 39. Like many a rock star that followed, he had burned out too soon and it seems he had a premonition of his imminent death when he made his final visit to New York apparently referring to Caitlin as “my widow”. The post mortem gave the causes of death as pneumonia, pressure on the brain, and a fatty liver.
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of Thomas’s birth and in his native South Wales plans are well under way to attract people from all over the world. The organisers are hoping that visitors from America, where Thomas is still highly regarded, will attend the celebrations and rumour has it that Bill Clinton who is a big fan, will be there at some time. He would not be the first President tempted to Wales by Thomas’s legacy – Jimmy Carter opened the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea in 1965.
Although the anniversary will inevitably bring back memories of Thomas’s alcohol fuelled hell-raising, the focus will be on his unique brand of emotional and evocative poetry. Every Thomas fan has his favourite line or quote. Perhaps the most famous quotation is his call to defy the fear of death: “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” – an impassioned response to the death of his father whose own heavy drinking is often thought to have been a bad influence on the young Dylan.
But his tormented life is reflected in other quotes such as “I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me”. Thomas also had a quirky and mischievous sense of humour as in “I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my bother down and then we had tea”. The fictional village in his wonderful Under Milk Wood is called Llarregub – which needs to be read backwards to get the joke.
Although he was well known and respected during his lifetime, Dylan Thomas was constantly struggling for money and his family bore the burden of his poverty and wild ways. When he died his estate amounted to only £100, but his legacy is huge and his words will live on as long as men love the magic of language and poetry.
His final words were “After 39 years, this is all I’ve done”.
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