In This Article Dylan Thomas

  • Introduction
  • Biography, Legend, and Reputation
  • Reference Works
  • Critical Studies
  • Essay Collections
  • Journal Essays
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Book Chapters
  • Intertextual and Individual Poem Studies
  • Feminist and Historicist Studies
  • Psychoanalytic Studies
  • Style and Language
  • Religion
  • Modernism and Surrealism
  • Predecessors, Contemporaries, and Successors
  • Anglo-Welsh Literature and Welsh Writing in English

British and Irish Literature Dylan Thomas
by
John Goodby
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0057

Introduction

Dylan Thomas is a unique example of a “difficult” modernist poet who is also a popular writer. This used to be reflected in a dual appeal to the general reading public and academics, but that has not been the case for several decades. While Thomas remains popular, largely through his later works (poems such as “Fern Hill”; his radio play for voices, Under Milk Wood), his academic reputation has declined severely since its heyday between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s. After W. H. Auden’s death in 1973, Thomas was the main casualty of a critical urge to make the 1930s solely the “age of Auden,” and more recently Welsh writing in English studies has found it difficult to accommodate such an anomalous and hybrid writer as its central canonical figure. These negative judgments have been aided by the potent Thomas legend, which makes it all too easy to personalize the response to the poetry, and have also reinforced a long-standing movement-dominated discourse surrounding British poetry, which still deems the 1940s a “dire decade,” making it almost impossible to contextualize his work. In truth Thomas is best seen as a writer who brilliantly exploited his subaltern origins and the belatedness of Welsh modernism to fuse the “macabre,” pseudo-Jacobean T. S. Eliot with Audenesque traditional form, as noted by Desmond Hawkins in a percipient review of 18 Poems published in the journal Time and Tide in 1935. His writing is clearly in the visionary tradition of William Blake, given expressionist energy and existential angst by virtue of his historical situation in the midst of the Great Depression, fascist upsurge, and looming world war. Offsetting this, often in an anguished manner, is an astonishing verbal power and playfulness derived from James Joyce and surrealism, while the sexual frankness of the work’s revolt against nonconformity also owes much to D. H. Lawrence and the gothic grotesque of Welsh writers, such as Caradoc Evans and Arthur Machen. Theorizing such an overdetermined position would require rethinking the Englishness of midcentury British poetry and the extent of the hybridity of Anglo-Welsh writing. To date, the attempts do so in contemporary criticism terms have been partial only; they have gained momentum in the early 21st century, however, and hopefully will continue, although it is unlikely that Thomas will ever enjoy the kind of academic favor he once did. The aim of this bibliography is to combine late-20th- and early-21st-century theoretical and empirical developments in criticism and scholarship with items illustrating the major debates of the past (including hostile readings) together with those seminal works of the “golden age” of Thomas criticism (between the 1950s and the mid-1970s), which are still the essential starting point for serious study.

Primary Texts

The best of Thomas’s writing is in his poetry. He published four full-length collections (18 Poems, Twenty-Five Poems, The Map of Love, and Deaths and Entrances) and one interim volume (In Country Sleep) during his lifetime, bringing these together with a verse prologue in Collected Poems, 1934–1952 (Thomas 1952). The situation is not as clear-cut as this makes it seem, however. Between 1930 and 1934 Thomas kept notebooks into which he fair copied his best poems. He plundered these for material in writing poems that went into his first four collections, and although the notebook poems were usually substantially revised or completely rewritten in the process, this gives the four notebooks that survive (and which cover all but the second half of 1932) a unique importance. Following contemporary inclusivist editorial practice, however, the totality of Thomas’s poetry should be taken to include not just the work he published in his lifetime and the notebook poems but also poems in his correspondence, the poetry sections of his films, variant poems published in journals, the verses and songs in Under Milk Wood, and so forth. Readers must acquire a number of volumes to get a complete idea of Thomas’s poetic versatility. Fortunately, his other forms of writing are much more clear-cut. Thomas was almost as good a short fiction writer as he was a poet, and his prose ranges from the broodingly visionary early stories to the genial-acidic humor of the later fiction and the hilarious, brilliantly unfair, and sometimes scarily self-accusatory letters. After decades of partial publication, all of the fiction was assembled in The Collected Stories, edited by Walford Davies and Leslie Norris (Thomas 1988), while complete editions of the radio works and film scripts were published in the 1990s by Ralph Maud and John Ackerman (see Thomas 1991 and Thomas 1995, respectively). With Paul Ferris’s The Collected Letters (Thomas 2000) the vast bulk of Thomas’s nonpoetic writings became available in an accessible, appropriately organized form. Thus one of his outstanding features as a writer—the span that takes in “difficult” modernist poetry and popular broadcast genres—is now clear, revealing one of the earliest examples on record of a “serious” writer who embraced the mass media, attempting to balance the hermetic demands of lyric poetry with the performance-oriented demands of what would now be called popular entertainment and celebrity culture.

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