Interesting facts about the life and work of Dylan Thomas
1. Dylan Thomas was born in Dylan Marlais Thomas, in Swansea, in 1914. His middle name was Marlais, which was a nod to his great-uncle, William Thomas, who was also a poet. William Thomas’s bardic name was Gwilym Marles.
2. One of Thomas’s first published poems was apparently plagiarised. Thomas took the poem, ‘His Requiem’, from a magazine called the Boy’s Own Paper and, er, republished it in the Western Mail under his own name four years later. This act of literary theft wasn’t discovered for 40 years. As Jeff Towns writes on the blog site of the Dylan Thomas Society, ‘It was some 40 years later that the theft came to light when his friend Daniel Jones included the poem in his new edition of Thomas’ Poems [Dent 1971]. The daughter of the true author – Lilian Gard, happened to spot her mother’s work and exposed the theft in the national press and Daniel Jones was forced to remove the poem from subsequent printings.’ However, when a few years later his poem (and it was definitely his this time), ‘Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines’, appeared in print, Thomas attracted the attention of T. S. Eliot, author of The Waste Land and poetry editor at Faber and Faber. Thomas, although he clearly took poetry seriously, didn’t think it the most important thing in life. ‘I’d much rather lie in a hot bath reading Agatha Christie and sucking sweets’, he once said.
3. That story about the eighteen straight whiskies may not be wholly true … but it depends on your measures. Thomas’s death, on 9 November 1953 aged just 39, was a result of years of heavy drinking that was brought to a head when Thomas returned home from the White Horse pub in New York to the Hotel Chelsea and announced, ‘I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.’ He then collapsed, and would not get up again. According to John Sutherland in Curiosities of Literature and various other sources, the barman who served Thomas later said that the poet can’t have had more than half that number, and probably no more than six. However, American measures being significantly larger than British ones – even up to three times as large – perhaps Thomas had done the maths (no mean feat after so much whisky) and was telling the truth after all.
4. The village of Llareggub in Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood is ‘buggerall’ backwards. Thomas’s relationship with his homeland of Wales was a fraught one. He famously said, ‘The land of my fathers. My fathers can have it.’ But Under Milk Wood provided the perfect opportunity for Thomas to use the lyrical qualities of the Welsh language (coded references to swear words aside) to reflect the lives and character of the Welsh people. Thomas drew a map of the fictional Llareggub: click on this link to see it.
5. Thomas shares his birthday with another important twentieth-century poet, Sylvia Plath. Plath was born exactly 18 years later, on 27 October 1932. The similarities don’t end there: aside from the fact that both poets would die in their thirties, they both also wrote poems with ‘in October’ in their titles. Here is Thomas reading his ‘Poem in October’, about turning 30, and here is Plath reading her ‘Poppies in October’.
Image: Plaque for Dylan Thomas at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea (author: John Levin), Wikimedia Commons, labelled for reuse.