Browsing the shelves of our bookshop in St Antonin Noble Val, (http://www.theenglishbookshop.org/) I was intrigued to find a book of essays published in 1956 that gave an early assessment of Dylan Thomas’s poetry after the outburst of elegies and appreciations that immediately followed his death three years before.
The writer of the article, David Daiches, A Cambridge academic finished his assessment of Thomas in sober tone. In attempting to answer his own question, ‘was he a great poet?’ he stated, ‘I doubt if he wrote a dozen really first-rate poems,’ before conceding that perhaps ‘it is enough that he wrote some poems that the world will not willingly let die.’
How many poems does one need to write to be called a great poet – or even a competent one, I wonder? There is no doubting the richness or lyricism of Dylan Thomas’s poetry, the joyous extravagance of ‘Under Milk Wood’ and the sobriety of ‘Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ (which I read at the passing of my own father), but whether these poems and a few others he identified, including ‘Fern Hill’, ‘A Refusal to Mourn’, and ‘In the White Giant’s Thigh’ are the beginning of a flowering of the poet who died prematurely or the poet writing at the peak of his powers. Whatever the conclusion, it is enough to say that six decades since his premature death following a prolonged bout of drinking at the age of 39 years, his poetry retains its own distinctive voice. There is no doubt that he has consolidated his reputation as one of the great 20th century poets and one of the truly distinctive voices of Wales.
With next year being the centenary of Thomas’s birth, we are likely to be spolit by radio and television programmes on the poet, his life and his work as well as a plethora of new publications on his life and work. Not surprisingly, after writing on the lives of Emma and Florence Hardy, I have had an interest in the influences at play upon Dylan Thomas and, in particular, that of his extraordinary wife, Caitlin McNamara. More on her later.