Lit-Faced: Dylan Thomas
An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do – Dylan Thomas
Welcome to Lit-Faced – a new series that looks into the lives of those great writers who drank as much as they wrote. Not only do we discuss the drinking habits of these literary geniuses, but where and what they would be drinking today while completing their most notorious unfinished works.
There were not many writers whose work was as respected as Dylan Marlais Thomas but whose character was as equally detested. If you are reading this, then I would wager that at one time or another you have heard, Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. This is Dylan Thomas, born in Swansea in southern Wales on October 27, 1914.
Thomas’s first national publication was in a small literary review in the spring of 1933; later that same year his poems found their way into the more prestigious Adelphi and the London newspaper of that time, The Sunday Referee. In January 1933 Thomas wrote an essay for the South Wales Evening Post entitled, “Genius and Madness Akin in the World of Art.” In the piece Thomas discussed the idea that one gifted with genius often tangled with the paradigm of intelligence, saying it is “difficult to differentiate, with any sureness, between insanity and eccentricity,” and that “the borderline of insanity is more difficult to trace than the majority of people, comparatively safe within the barriers of their own common-sensibility, can realise.”
Thomas moved to London in 1934 and it was here when Dylan’s writing career really flourished. His poems, essays, articles and reviews were being published in London and Swansea magazines and newspapers. He diligently pursued publishers and his first book, 18 Poems, was released on December 18, 1934 to rave reviews; one critic called it “one of the most remarkable books of poetry which have appeared for several years.” A second book, Twenty Five Poems followed in 36′; and of course Under Milk Wood and Collected Poems would follow. His next big publication was The Map of Love, a collection of poems and short stories printed in 1939. Unfortunately for the world and Dylan Thomas’s career, it came out a month before the outbreak of World War II, which would overshadow pretty much everything. Thomas took a chance and put out a collection of autobiographical stories called, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in 1940, but that and The Map of Love were failures due to flagging of the literary industry during the war. Paper was rationed, and people cared more about the news than literature and poetry. It was during wartime when Dylan Thomas began writing and reading for radio to compensate for the lack of print.
Thomas found the idea of war ridiculous and knew he could never bring himself to kill another man, and certainly did his best to avoid being drafted, something that eventually caught up with him. The night before his conscription tribunal, Dylan Thomas thought he could sway their sentence if he could show up in diminished health. So he drank excessively, so much so that by the next day he was sweating, shaking, pale and covered in blotches. He was given the exemption he was shooting for. It was a few years after this, when he lived in Wales, when Thomas produced the quintessential poems that established his rank among the Great Poets. They were poems that often reflected on the fantastical days of lost youth: Poem In October, ‘In my craft or sullen art‘, The Conversation of Prayers, and Fern Hill. He was hailed as a genius.
Thomas took his first trip to America in 1950 to lecture at the Poetry Center at the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association in New York City. In November of 1952 his Collected Poems were published and were hailed as a major literary achievement; it was awarded the William Foyle Poetry Prize in 1952 and the Etna-Taormina International Prize later in 1953. The more famous he became, the more Thomas withdrew and the more he drank.
Dylan Thomas first got his taste for alcohol during his days as a reporter on the South Wales Evening Post. Drinking beer was a popular pastime around those parts (where isn’t it?), and he would spend hours at the pubs with his fellow reporters in Swansea. It was a vice that would stay with him and evolve until the time of his death. Thomas reveled in the romantic image of the drunken poet, and many believed (including his wife) he liked the lifestyle that enveloped the drinker more than the drink itself. He would exaggerate excessively about his drinking prowess; even telling friends and fans that he was afflicted with cirrhosis of the liver – a claim his autopsy disproved.
What was interesting about Dylan Thomas was his libation of choice. Although he developed an affinity for whiskey in the latter part of his life, his favorite drink was beer. Many of the great alcoholic writers drank hard spirits as beer simply was not strong enough, although when you drank as much as Dylan did, it was quantity, not quality. Perhaps with the exception of the product of his writing, his alcohol consumption was inextricably connected to his hap hazardous and sometimes volatile relationships with those around him, including his wife Caitlin – at their wedding, both of them were drunk. His professional relationships suffered as well when he drank. Although he could play the charming, good-time Charlie up front, he could quickly transpose imperfectly, becoming equally inflammatory. An unsavory description from a journalist with TIME magazine after spending time with Thomas:
When he settles down to guzzle beer, which is most of the time, his incredible yarns tumble over each other in a wild Welsh dithyramb in which truth and fact become hopelessly smothered in boozy invention. He borrows with no thought of returning what is lent, seldom shows up on time, is a trial to his friends, and a worry to his family.
When he would return to London for public readings, this is where he drank the most. In 1936 he referenced the cities’ bad influence, “When I do come to town, bang go my plans in a horrid alcoholic explosion that scatters all my good intentions like bits of limbs and clothes over the doorsteps and into the saloon bars of the tawdriest pubs in London”. According to biographer Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas told a friend – albeit while drunk – that he drank to reconcile the disorder outside and the order within himself. Some say that Thomas often drank in moderation and that perhaps he was not as dependent on his booze as was thought. Regardless, when he did cross over into drunkenness (which again, was not uncommon) he often behaved disgracefully. On an American tour in 1953, Dylan got drunk on his way to the theater to catch a performance of The Crucible, fell down a flight of stairs and fractured his arm. Upon deciding to continue with the nights plan, he was thrown out after arriving for causing disturbances during the play.
During his last stint in New York, Thomas began drinking heavily, and was unable to stop vomiting during a rehearsal of Under Milk Wood, his beloved radio drama turned stage play, in 1953. On October 26 he called a companion of his, Elizabeth Reitell, from his hotel bar and asked her to come to him. When she arrived, Dylan was drunk on whiskey, delirious and babbling at the guests. He binged for another week or so after that. On November 3rd he spent most of the day in bed, drinking beer and whiskey with his friends. Later on that day he went out to keep two drinking dates, and returned to the Chelsea Hotel later that evening where he proceeded to have a breakdown. At two o’clock the following morning he left the Chelsea for an hour and a half, and when he returned he uttered the words to his friend, Elizabeth Reitell: “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.” The next morning he was taken to the hospital where he fell into a coma for five days. Dylan Thomas died on the fifth day, November 9th while being bathed by a nurse. The only other person with him at the time of his death was the poet John Berryman. A memorial service was held in New York soon after, attended by notables like Tennessee Williams, E. E. Cummings and William Faulkner. Perhaps Truman Capote was onto something when he said of Thomas, “… he is an overgrown baby who’ll destroy every last thing he can get his hands on, including himself.”
Dylan Thomas had an exceptionally close relationship with his father, David, or DJ as he was known by those closest to him; thus the devastation Thomas felt when his father died in 1952. It is known that his father’s passing was the impetus for Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, but it may have also been the entire subject matter for Thomas’s unfinished poem, Elegy.
As part of the Lit-Faced series, we contemplate that if Dylan Thomas were alive today we could find him sitting in the back room of Tap & Handle in Fort Collins starting in the middle of the afternoon, his preferred time to write. He would be hunkered over a pile of discombobulated scraps of paper, fellow patrons would assume it was just another writer visiting the bar, putting to paper the rants of a drunkard, but they would be mistaken. These seemingly innocuous sheets of paper are in fact the final touches on his unfinished opus, Elegy. Thomas is fueled by two different beers that rest at ten and two of his writing table: Odell’s Woodcut No. 4 and Odell’s Bourbon Barrel Stout; the former an excellent 11% Märzen that after brewing is poured to rest in whisky barrels, the latter a limited edition 10.5% imperial stout that has notes of sweet milk chocolate, smooth vanilla and roasted coffee beans, which after brewing is transferred to Kentucky bourbon barrels where it ages for four months. With their heavy alcohol content and inclusivity of both Thomas’s favorite libations, he would have no trouble reaching the level of inebriation he is accustomed to. After a few weeks of daily patronage and long walks back to his cottage, he finally completes his Elegy, at last content with a poem worthy of his father.
Too proud to die; broken and blind he died
The darkest way, and did not turn away,
A cold kind man brave in his narrow pride
On that darkest day, Oh, forever may
He lie lightly, at last, on the last, crossed
Hill, under the grass, in love, and there grow
Young among the long flocks, and never lie lost
Or still all the numberless days of his death, though
Above all he longed for his mother’s breast
Which was rest and dust, and in the kind ground
The darkest justice of death, blind and unblessed.
Let him find no rest but be fathered and found,
I prayed in the crouching room, by his blind bed,
In the muted house, one minute before
Noon, and night, and light. the rivers of the dead
Veined his poor hand I held, and I saw
Through his unseeing eyes to the roots of the sea.
(An old tormented man three-quarters blind,
I am not too proud to cry that He and he
Will never never go out of my mind.
All his bones crying, and poor in all but pain,
Being innocent, he dreaded that he died
Hating his God, but what he was was plain:
An old kind man brave in his burning pride.
The sticks of the house were his; his books he owned.
Even as a baby he had never cried;
Nor did he now, save to his secret wound.
Out of his eyes I saw the last light glide.
Here among the liught of the lording sky
An old man is with me where I go
Walking in the meadows of his son’s eye
On whom a world of ills came down like snow.
He cried as he died, fearing at last the spheres’
Last sound, the world going out without a breath:
Too proud to cry, too frail to check the tears,
And caught between two nights, blindness and death.
O deepest wound of all that he should die
On that darkest day. oh, he could hide
The tears out of his eyes, too proud to cry.
Until I die he will not leave my side.