By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Dylan Thomas was a fascinating man and poet, and his poetry remains much-loved and widely read around the world. But which are his very best poems? In this post, we’ve endeavoured to choose Dylan Thomas’s seven finest poems which we think everyone should read.
Some critics have dismissed Thomas’s poetry as the triumph of sound over sense (a charge levelled at an earlier poet like Swinburne), but in fact Thomas’s poetry is charged with meaning, albeit of an often elusive sort.
‘Charged’ is a good word, too: his poetry positively pulsates with unusual visceral images. These are some of his very best. Follow the title of each poem to read it.
In this, one of Thomas’s best-loved poems, he revisits his childhood, using his visits to his aunt’s farm as the subject-matter. It was written in 1945, just after the end of WWII. ‘Fern Hill’ contains some of the most arresting images in all of Thomas’s poetry (and he was a master of the arresting image!). Look at the ‘fire green as grass’, for instance.
This was Thomas’s breakthrough poem, published in The Listener in March 1934 when Thomas was only nineteen years old. Such was its immediate impact that it attracted the admiring attention of T. S. Eliot, as well as numerous complaints for its ‘obscenity’.
The poem seems to describe the act of conception in highly charged terms, though only very obliquely (although ‘candle in the thighs’ is perhaps a more obvious hint at the poem’s sexual subject-matter).
Written in 1933 while Thomas was still a teenager, and in response to a challenge issued by a friend, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’, as its title suggests, is a poem about immortality. It’s fair to say it’s one of Dylan Thomas’s best-loved poems.
Like Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, the poem was the result of a competition between two friends: Bert Trick was an amateur poet whose day job was a grocer, and it was Trick who suggested that they both have a go at writing a poem on the theme of immortality. Both poems were published; you can read Trick’s effort here.
Written during WWII when London was frequently being bombed by the Germans, this poem – as its title makes clear – rejects the usual response to death, especially the death of a young girl.
What sounds like a heartless premise is anything but: Thomas’s argument in the poem is that it is odd and inappropriate to mourn one particular death (especially when ‘mourning’ in itself does no good) when there is so much suffering in the world, and always has been.
Here the references to Jewish symbols such as the ‘synagogue’ and ‘Zion’ suggest not only Old Testament suffering but, indeed, the suffering of the millions of Jewish people who had been, and were still being, killed in the Holocaust. (News of the atrocities was just beginning to reach London when Thomas wrote the poem.) Listen to Thomas reading this poem here.
One of Dylan Thomas’s most famous and best-loved poems, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is a villanelle, a poem divided into three-line stanzas where the same two repeated lines of verse comprise the last line of each alternating stanza. This poetic form enables Thomas to use the title within the poem as both an instruction (or request) and a simple indicative statement.
A number of Dylan Thomas’s poems offer a sinewy, unsentimental approach to death, but Thomas’s own demise would follow not long after he composed these defiant words for his father, so the poem might also, oddly, be analysed as autobiographical, in a quasi-prophetic sort of way.
Written about the death of Thomas’s own father, the poem was completed not long before Dylan himself would die, aged just 39, in 1953. Hear Thomas reading ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ here. Perhaps Dylan Thomas’s greatest poem?
Few ‘birthday poems‘ have taken the concept quite so literally as Dylan Thomas. In this longer poem, Thomas returns literally to his origins or birth, reimagining the womblike oceanic forces which gave rise to him. Written when Thomas was in his mid-thirties (‘driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age’), it’s a meditation on getting older as much as it is about being born.
Another birthday poem, ‘Poem in October’ was written in 1944 when Thomas turned 30. The poem celebrates his walks in Laugharne, a small Welsh town where Thomas and his wife settled following their marriage in 1937. Listen to a 1945 recording of Thomas reading ‘Poem in October’ here.
If you enjoyed this pick of the finest Dylan Thomas poems, check out more great poetry with the best poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins.