Dylan Thomas

On this day in 1933 Dylan Thomas’s “The force that through the green fuse” was published. Now one of his most anthologized poems, its publication in a London newspaper just two days after Thomas’s nineteenth birthday caused the scholar William Empson to mark the literary calendar: “What hit the town of London was the child Dylan publishing ‘The force that through the green fuse’ … and from that day he was a famous poet.”

Everyone who writes about Thomas sooner or later arrives at “child.” He published fewer than a hundred poems, many of them written from age sixteen-and-a-half to nineteen-and-a-half. “Three-quarters of his work as a poet,” writes biographer Paul Ferris, “dates in style, concept, and often in composition from these three years.” Pamela Hansford Johnson, Thomas’s first love (and later wife of C. P. Snow), wrote that she and her family loved Thomas as one would a child, and despite “Comrade Bottle.” Wife Caitlin said that, until the end, she was willing to run Thomas’s bath and give him his tray of sweets every night, no matter what. The list of things he would do or leave undone were endless, and of such thorough irresponsibility as to be almost funny: desert his rooftop shift as fire-watcher during WWII to have sex in his fire-watcher’s cot; pawn this friend’s possessions or not show up to be best man at that friend’s wedding; not only not show up to bring Caitlin home after the birth of their second child but let her come home alone to “dirty dishes everywhere, empty beer bottles, cigarette ends strewn all over the carpet, old newspapers thrown here, there and everywhere; I only had to take one look at our crumpled bed to realize that Dylan had had some other woman in it while I’d been in hospital.”

Thomas would sometimes regret his childishness, and the myth he had made of his childhood. He described the famous Augustus John portrait as his “fucking cherub painting.” He told his American audience that he’d so over-written his “whole wing-gonging Welsh sing-songing world” that it seemed to belong to someone else. His “Poem in October,” commemorating his thirtieth birthday, balances the “long dead child” and the summery, hill-top childhood against the cold, October wind sweeping through the valley below; the poem’s last lines:

…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.