Dylan Thomas: A New Life

When he died in New York in 1953, Thomas was only thirty-nine years old, and the myths soon took hold: he became the Keats and the Byron of his generation—the romantic poet who died too young, his potential unfulfilled. Making masterful use of original material from archives and personal papers, Lycett describes the development of the young poet, brings invaluable new insights to Thomas’s youthful poetry and the themes that continued to appear in his work, and unearth fascinating details about the poet’s many affairs and his tempestuous marriage to his passionate Irish wife, Caitlin.
The result is a poignant yet stirring portrait of the chaos of Thomas’s personal life and a welcome re-evaluation of the lyricism and experimentalism of his poetry, plays, and short stories.

A Terrible Thing, Thank God

by Adam Phillips

Kingsley Amis called Dylan Thomas’s life, the life told by Thomas’s first thorough biographer Paul Ferris, ‘a hilarious, shocking, sad story’. Thomas was very important to the Amis-Larkin club partly because he seemed determined not to be seen to be taking anything, including himself, too seriously. In 1941, Larkin refers to Thomas coming to the English Club at Oxford: ‘Hell of a fine man: little, snubby, hopelessly pissed bloke who made hundreds of cracks and read parodies of everybody in appropriate voices.’ But as a poet Thomas was a significant puzzle to Larkin. ‘I think there is no man in England now who can „stick words into us like pins” … like he can,’ he wrote to Amis in 1948, ‘but he doesn’t use his words to any advantage. I think a man ought to use good words to make what he means impressive: Dylan Thos. just makes you wonder what he means, very hard.’ What, if anything, Dylan Thomas’s poems meant; and what, if anything, his life as a poet meant to him seems to have been as confounding to Thomas and the people who knew him as it has been to his readers and his biographers. Several friends and acquaintances of Thomas quoted in this new but not new enough biography talk about Thomas’s ‘sweetness’ as a man: but so many more, including the biographer himself, are suspicious of him and what he was really up to. Like all very amusing people, he made people wary; he had so many appropriate and inappropriate voices, and couldn’t always tell them apart. If the disapproval he seems fated to meet in his biographers is to be more than some soppy nostalgia for a lost dignity, something new has to be said about why bad behaviour is also often impressive.

‘I know what you’re thinking, you poor little milky creature,’ Polly Garter says to her baby in Under Milk Wood. ‘You’re thinking, you’re no better than you should be, Polly, and that’s good enough for me. Oh, isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?’ Dylan Thomas’s biographers have mostly thought of him as a big baby – ‘infantile’ is Andrew Lycett’s preferred word, though he has others – who was nothing like as good as he should have been; and whose life, a terrible thing with all its fecklessness and boozing and blathering, was redeemed only by the extraordinary things that were his poems. Because being interested in bad behaviour often makes people feel rather complicit – is, indeed, one of the safer ways of behaving badly oneself – Thomas’s many biographers have tended to be rather too moralistic where they might have been a little more curious. Clearly, choosing Thomas as one’s subject is not going to be a good idea if disapproval is the best one can do; when people are not all that they might be – and Thomas seems to have been something of a genius at getting people to imagine what he might have been if he hadn’t been who he was – it is too self-regarding to be merely disappointed or contemptuous. So when Lycett refers to Thomas as ‘a snivelling wreck’ as he begins to collapse on one of the reckless reading tours of America which eventually killed him, and then qualifies this with ‘– a not unprecedented fate among poets (Chatterton and Rimbaud were earlier examples), but Dylan’s troubles seemed self-inflicted’ – we are in no doubt that there are things Lycett just won’t put up with. The trouble is that he doesn’t like so many of the things that were part of Thomas – excessive, insistent drinking, compulsive facetiousness, schoolboy lechery, marital violence, sponging, stealing his host’s shirts etc. It might be misleading to think of Thomas as the Genet of Swansea, but it’s worth taking seriously his evident pleasure in his life as a terrible thing; and his sense that there was nothing much to him except his poems. And that that was the point and not the problem.

Every distinctive poet notices something new about the language: Thomas’s notion was that if you looked after the sound it didn’t matter whether the sense took care of itself; that it was possible to write great poems without worrying too much what they meant. The pleasure one gets from a Thomas poem has nothing to do with the pleasure of working it out or even the sense that one day one will be able to work it out; and because it isn’t just a matter of time before you get it – as is the case, say, with John Ashbery – you can’t get much literary criticism out of a Thomas poem. (Nothing reveals the banality of paraphrase more than a commentary on one of his poems; his best critics – Empson, Lowell, MacNeice – are inclined to say that they don’t know what can be said.) So for those people in the 1930s and 1940s who wanted poetry either to replace religion as a source of belief, or to restore an eloquence to politics – people who had grown up on Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Auden – Thomas was a fascinating phenomenon, a poet who wrote (some) utterly convincing poems from which no one could extract any kind of message. Either this was poetry as a new kind of consolation – without belief or prophecy, a music of words without ideas – or it was fraudulent, the poetry of a con artist, the work of a man who Paul Ferris, still Thomas’s best biographer, referred to as ‘a chronic liar’. Writing Thomas’s biography, in other words, was always going to be unusually challenging for anyone who believed that people should behave reasonably well, that poems should have meanings, and that they have something to do with the lives of the poets who write them. ‘Dylan Thomas is now as much a case history,’ Seamus Heaney began his wonderful Oxford lecture, ‘Dylan the Durable?’, ‘as a chapter in the history of poetry.’ In this dutifully chronological new biography it’s not obvious what Thomas was a case history of, and no real case is made for the poetry, or for the history of which the poetry is such an important part.

One of the most interesting things about Thomas was the amount of hope invested in him by other, often younger poets. For MacNeice and Empson and Larkin and W.S. Graham – and for Lowell and Berryman and Jarrell in America – Thomas was the real but inexplicable thing. And yet all of them in different ways were baffled about what it was that they had recognised and were celebrating. ‘Nothing could be more wrongheaded,’ Lowell wrote in 1947, ‘than the English disputes about Dylan Thomas’s greatness . . . He is a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding.’ It wasn’t that he was trying to write archly ineffable poems, or the then fashionable Sitwellian waffle (though Edith Sitwell, to her credit, was one of Thomas’s most consistent admirers), but that his poems sounded uniquely eloquent and unpretentious and mystifying. Modern poems in 1936 did not have lines in them like ‘The insect certain is the plague of fables’ or sonnets that opened with such couplets as:…..

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download Andrew Lycett

Published in Britain (hardback) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2003)
Published in Britain (paperback) by Phoenix (2004)
Published in the United States (hardback and paperback) by Overlook (2004)
‘My biography of the year…….majestically thorough, readable and compassionate.’ Jan Morris, The Times

‘Remarkably good. Lycett’s book – apart from being a gripping, unputdownable read – is a comprehensive guide to what made the man and his verse……Frankly, stunning. There is no other appropriate adjective.’ Martin Booth, Literary Review

‘This is the best biography of the poet I have ever read. Andrew Lycett has turned up plenty of scandalous new material about Thomas’s private life….More importantly……he seems actually to like and understand Thomas’s poems……..All in all, this a book that no one interested in Dylan Thoimas can afford to be without.’ Robert Nye, Scotsman

‘A model of scholarly objectivity…..Lycett’s definitive, revealing and painful biography reminds us all of the human cost of such art.’ John Carey, Sunday Times

‘Andrew Lycett’s excellent new life, brutally clear in many places, though never short of compassion.’ Angus Calder, Sunday Herald

‘Lycett tells a familiar tale with energy and a sympathetic wit. He recreates Thomas’s world in vivid colour……..Both thorough and compelling. It also offers a genuinely new perspective……The great merit of Andrew Lycett’s biography is that it is so pugnacious and ultimately effective in its ambition to restore Dylan Thomas to his proper place as a great Welsh lyric poet in English.’ Andrew Hussey, New Welsh Review

‘Compelling……anecdote-rich book.’ Duncan Hamilton, Yorkshire Post

‘His portrait of Thoimas is sympathetic and supportive…….Particularly good on the complex and co-dependent relationship between Thomas and his wife, Caitlin……..Lycett has produced an absorbing page-turner on the poet.’
Vanessa Curtis, Herald


by the same author:

Ian Fleming
Published in Britain (hardback) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1995)
Published in Britain (paperback) by Phoenix (1996)
Published in the United States (hardback) by St Martin’s Press (2013)
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Rudyard Kipling
Published in Britain (hardback) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1999)
Published in Britain (paperback) by Phoenix (2000)
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Dylan Thomas – A New Life
Published in Britain (hardback) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2003)
Published in Britain (paperback) by Phoenix (2004)
Published in the United States (hardback and paperback) by Overlook (2004)
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Conan Doyle The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes
Published in Britain (hardback) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2007)
Published in Britain (paperback) by Phoenix (2008)
Published in the United States (hardback and paperback) by Free Press (2008)
also available in Italian
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Kipling Abroad – Traffics and Discoveries from Burma to Brazil
Published in Britain (hardback) by I.B. Tauris (2010)
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Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution (with David Blundy)
published in Britain (hardback) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (199x)
published in Britain (paperback) by Sphere
published in the United States (hardback and paperback) by Little, Brown

Other books by or edited by Andrew Lycett – or including chapters or introductions by him:

From Diamond Sculls to Golden Handcuffs – A History of Rowe & Pitman (Robert Hale, 1997)
Barrack Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling (Signet Classic, 2003) edited and introduction
The Selected Poems of Rudyard Kipling (Folio Society, 2004) edited and introduction
Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007 (Indiana University Press, 2005) introduction
The Collected Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling (five volumes) (Folio Society, 2005) edited and introduction
Sherlock Holmes Stories (White’s Books, 2009) introduction
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Folio Society, 2010) introduction
Julian Barnes Contemporary Critical Perspective (Continuum, 2011) afterword
Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi-Media Afterlives (Palgrave, forthcoming) chapter on Conan Doyle and spiritualism