Thomas in Context
A specially compiled timeline by Dr. John Goodby of Cultural, Political and Social events which occurred during Thomas’s life (.pdf)
A Literary Synopsis: DYLAN THOMAS 1914—1953
Drawing on a Welsh bardic tradition that still manifests itself in poetry competitions in the Welsh language, Dylan Thomas also assimilated in his small but remarkably personal and intense body of work a number of European modernist poetic influences. Always remaining close to an oral poetry (witness his unique attentiveness to sound patterning), he nonetheless manifests in his early poems perhaps more than any other English poet of his stature the effects of Continental surrealism. Gerard Manley Hopkins; the complex cadences and structures of Welsh verse; T. S. Eliot’s poems and, in response to the directions of Eliot’s criticism, the English devotional poets of the seventeenth century (Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw); Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses; a visionary Welsh religious tradition that informed the Catholicism of his countryman David Jones, and became in Thomas the basis for a kind of pagan use of Christian mythology — elements of all these are present in his poems and in his few moving and intimate prose works.
Thomas was born in Swansea in Wales and educated at the grammar school there; he then worked as a newspaper reporter, and attracted notice when still quite young for his dense, brilliant, and difficult poetry. Concealed in the meshes of his early verse — the 18 Poems (1934), The Map of Love (1939), and Deaths and Entrances (1946; with its title taken from John Donne’s last sermon, "Death’s Duel") — where an intense sexuality, a linking of sexual themes to religious mythology, and a programmatic modernist obliqueness of reference that use epithet and puzzling kenning* to stand for the object mentioned, and depended upon puns at times almost in the manner of difficult British crossword puzzles. In his poetry published after World War II, and particularly during the last years of his life, when he toured the United States giving flamboyant and resonant readings from his work, a more genial and publicly available mode dominated his work.
Thomas was at home, metrically, both in the iambic rhythms of the seventeenth-century poets he admired, and in a loose accentual "sprung rhythm" (Hopkins’s phrase) involving a good deal of internal rhyming and alliterating of phrases. His long Vision and Prayer even adopts for its stanzas two graphic patterns in the manner of Herbert. He would let his images evolve through strange and anomalous grammatical constructions — the kind that E. E. Cummings had made familiar in American verse during the late 1940’s onwards, but which W. H. Auden and his followers had never wholeheartedly adopted — ranging from the simple phrase "a grief ago" to all sorts of powerful, but wrenched, verbing of nouns and compoundings. The later pieces in his 1957 Collected Poems, his radio play Under Milk Wood and some late prose pieces, e.g. A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1955), gained a wide audience for themselves, but not for his earlier and perhaps more interesting work.