Seventy miles from historic St. David’s Cathedral, the town of Swansea—birthplace of Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)—looks out over the sea. It was along this coastline that Thomas, the country’s most famous poet, drew inspiration during his relatively short life. (He died at age 39 from pneumonia after a drinking binge in New York City.)
The year 2014 marks the centenary of his birth. In current and previous commemorations, he’s been called the James Joyce of Wales and compared to his own hero, John Keats.
Thomas’ descriptions of what he observed along the coast are memorable: “tall birds on the heron priested shore”; “a sea wet church the size of a snail”; and “the sloe-back, slow, black, crowblack, fishboat-bobbing sea.”
His poetry also dealt with universal themes: love, death and the celebration—and passing—of childhood. But what stands out are his unusual metaphors and his ability to create impressionistic sketches—and sounds—with his imaginative choice of words.
He once wrote: “What words stood for, symbolized or meant was of secondary importance; what mattered was the sound of them. Words were to me as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea and rain, the rattle of milk carts, the clopping of hooves on cobblestones, the fingering of branches on a window pane might be to someone, deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing.”
In fact, Thomas’ poetry reminds us of the impressionistic music of Ravel (Gaspard de la Nuit/Ondine, La Valse) and Debussy (Reflet Dans L’eau, L’Isle Joyeux) or the watercolors of American painter Charles Burchfield, whose brushstrokes magically evoke the sights and sounds of nature.
It’s impossible to forget what is perhaps Thomas’ best known poem, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, written for his dying father, in which he exhorts: “Rage, rage at the dying of the light.”
Or—one of our favorites—Fern Hill, which both celebrates childhood and laments its loss:
“Now I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes.”
“In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hill barked clear and cold,
And the Sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.”
“…Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means
Time held me green and dying,
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
Check out The Poems of Dylan Thomas, edited by Dylan Thomas’ life-long friend, Daniel Jones (available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble). The book includes a CD with Thomas reciting several of his poems. He was always known for his evocative readings of his own work.