If Dylan Thomas hadn’t drunk himself to death in 1953, he might be celebrating his ninety-sixth birthday today, perhaps with a successor to the grand and glorious poem he wrote to celebrate his thirtieth.
He left us with a small number of poems so heart-wrenching that I cannot read them, even for the two hundredth time, without all of the symptoms of an emotional crisis. Take In Country Sleep, where a father reassures his daughter that she has nothing to fear from fairy tale villains—but only from the Thief who comes in multiple guises to take her faith and ultimately to leave her “naked and forsaken to grieve he will not come”. In Country Sleep was a standard bedtime poem in our house, and my daughter soon learned to anticipate “the part where Daddy cries”.
Then there’s the prose. Nobody is better at nostalgia and grief for time’s relentlessness:
The lane was always the place to tell your secrets; if you did not have any, you invented them. Occassionally now I dream that I am turning out of school into the lane of confidences when I say to the boys of my class ‘At last, I have a real secret!’
“What is it? What is it?”
“I can fly!”
And when they do not believe me, I flap my arms and slowly leave the ground, only a few inches at first, then gaining air until I fly waving my cap, level with the upper windows of the school, peering in until the mistress at the piano screams, and the metronome falls to the ground and stops, and there is no more time.
And finally there’s the voice, the great booming melliflous irresistible voice lovingly preserved by Caedmon on about a dozen CDs that you will thank yourself for buying. The Caedmon collection includes a performance of the haunting “play for voices” Under Milk Wood narrated by Thomas himself (free e-book here); for an even greater treat, get the BBC Radio version with Richard Burton (Warning: Do not rent the highly regrettable movie version with Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.)
For a brief 39 years, as Time held him green and dying, Dylan Thomas spun words and images of surpassing beauty that will live as long as the English language. He sang in his chains like the sea.
(First written and posted six years ago today; this is a slightly updated version.)