Dylan Thomas was born on this day in 1914 in Swansea, South Wales. The family was poor, but Thomas was no Welsh pit boy: he had a poet uncle, a schoolteacher father with a full library, Shakespeare for his bedtime story, and elocution lessons for his local accent. Because he was bronchial, frail-boned, and unenthusiastic about school, he would often stay home with real or faked illness, or be allowed to run his “heedless ways” on his Aunt’s tumble-down Fern Hill farm, “green and golden” and truant.
Thomas’s mother recalled that he was always reading or writing poetry — one, she remembers, about the kitchen sink, another about an onion. Thomas remembered himself as “a bombastic adolescent provincial Bohemian with a thick-knotted artist’s tie made out of his sister’s scarf…and a cricket-shirt dyed bottlegreen.” But he did more than dress the part of the poet. In a three-year period starting at age sixteen and a half, he wrote all the poems for his first book of poetry, most for his second book, and early versions of many of his later poems. “Three-quarters of his work as a poet,” writes one biographer, “dates in style, concept, and often in composition from these three years.” The darker view of Thomas’s early poetic development is that there was so little later. Some famous poems lay ahead, but more than a few critics spot a stalled, repetitive tone in many others.
The lines below are from “Poem in October,” written in commemoration of Thomas’s thirtieth birthday. In the early stanzas he recalls earlier birthdays spent “in the twice-told fields of infancy” — hearing “the birds of the winged trees flying my name / Above the farms and the white horses,” walking with his mother “Through the parables / Of sunlight / And the legends of the green chapels.” But then the unstable October weather turns, and the child is suddenly thirty-one:
…And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.