Who Was Dylan Thomas?

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on 27th October 1914 in Swansea, just after the outbreak of the First World War. No doubt, the social changes brought by the Great War impacted on his family and childhood, as it did for everyone in the UK during those years. His parents, fluent Welsh speakers who originated from Carmarthenshire, gave him his Welsh christian name, believed to mean ‘son of the waves’. However, in line with the thinking of those times, Dylan was not brought up to speak Welsh, which explains why one of the most famous of Welshmen wrote exclusively in English. Happily for the English-speaking world, this accident of destiny made his works internationally accessible.

Dylan Thomas statue at the Maritime Quarter, Swansea.
Dylan Thomas statue at the Maritime Quarter, Swansea. Image Copyright Stu’s Images, via Wikimedia Commons

He shared a similar middle name with his elder sister, Nancy Marles (Dylan Marlais) Thomas, given to them both in honour of their great-uncle, William Thomas – a minister and poet whose bardic name was Gwilym Marles. Could he have been Dylan’s inspiration for the character of Rev. Eli Jenkins, a Reverend and poet, in ‘Under Milk Wood‘?

Dylan’s father, David John Thomas, was Senior English Master at Swansea Grammar School, where Dylan went to school.

Study at birthplace of Dylan Thomas, 5 CwmdonkinDrive, Swansea
Study at birthplace of Dylan Thomas, 5 CwmdonkinDrive, Swansea. © Crown copyright (2014) Visit Wales (www.visitwales.com)

An educated and literate upbringing no doubt paved the way for the writing that would follow.

The works of Dylan Thomas – a brief overview

Dylan began writing early in his school life, eventually becoming editor of his school’s magazine. He was a prolific poet between 1930-34, producing 200 poems in those years, while still only 16-20 years old.

Dylan Thomas' desk in the Writing Shed - the Boathouse at Laugharne
Dylan Thomas’ desk in the Writing Shed – the Boathouse at Laugharne. © Crown copyright (2014) Visit Wales (www.visitwales.com)

His later works, too numerous to detail in full here, include the famous ‘play for voices’ Under Milk Wood, the collection of stories Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, the poems ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘The hunchback in the park’ and, of course, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.

A common misconception about this latter work has been clarified by his grand-daughter, Hannah Ellis. Dylan was not, apparently, referring to death in his poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, he was witnessing his father’s gradual descent into blindness and that was the ‘dying light’ he wrote to ‘rage, rage against’.

For a full overview of his works, visit the official Dylan Thomas website.

A literary legacy

He died prematurely on 9 November 1953 in St Vincent’s Hospital, New York, four days after collapsing and just 12 days after his 39th birthday. His wife, Caitlin, brought his body back for burial in Laugharne, Wales, where they had lived for various periods during their marriage.

The Boathouse at Laugharne.
The Boathouse at Laugharne. © Crown copyright (2014) Visit Wales (www.visitwales.com)
Cross on Dylan Thomas' grave at Laugharne, Carmarthenshire
Cross on Dylan Thomas’ grave at Laugharne, Carmarthenshire. © Crown copyright (2014) Visit Wales (www.visitwales.com)

How sad that the life of such a creative and original talent was cut short, but what a legacy of work he has left to the literary world!

The Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea.
The Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea. © Crown copyright (2014) Visit Wales (www.visitwales.com)

The Coin to Commemorate Dylan Thomas 100

The Royal Mint has created a commemorative coin in collaboration with Dylan Thomas’ grand-daughter Hannah Ellis, Patron of Dylan Thomas 100, the initiative formed to co-ordinate the festival of celebration and all related activity.

Our own Royal Mint Engraver, Lee R Jones – himself a lover of Dylan’s works – found inspiration for his coin design in the visual aspect of Dylan’s poetry and in his name. Lee captured the abundant waves in Dylan’s hair in his coin design, giving it energy and vitality as he passionately wished to convey those aspects of Dylan’s character and work. The ferns in the background of the design will immediately resonate with those familiar with one of Dylan’s most famous works ‘Fern Hill’. A quirky detail is the bow tie worn by Dylan, which was suggested by his grand-daughter as a touch of humour. Hannah recently visited the mint to strike one of the coins that commemorate the 100th anniversary of her grand-father’s birth.

dylan coverThey are a wonderful addition to any collection; the perfect gift for someone with a passion for Dylan or literature – or could maybe even capture the imagination of a future great writer?

  • Charles Robert Baker

    Dear Joanne Thomas,
    I admire your work and I am especially grateful to you for this piece on Dylan Thomas; in the interest of accuracy, however, I believe it should read “…and twelve days after his 39th birthday.” If it is possible for you to make a correction, I will gladly delete this message.
    Best regards,
    Charles

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  • Dear Charles, I was delighted to read your comments, thank you so much for taking the time to write – there’s nothing like encouragement to keep you going! Your memories of knowing Dylan’s work through your grandmother are priceless; how lucky you are to have had that influence in your life. Also, your previous comment has been acted on, many thanks for that too – it was equally appreciated! I’ll be posting a Q&A interview with the coin designer soon, that I hope will also please you. The designer, Lee Jones, is a passionate admirer of Dylan’s work and his answers brought some amazing insights into the design. I look forward to your response! Best Regards, Jo