Dylan Thomas was the stereotypical Celt – fiery, verbose, richly talented and habitually drunk. Born in 1914 into a middle-class family in Swansea’s Uplands district, Dylan’s first glimmers of literary greatness came when he joined the South Wales Evening Post as a reporter. Some of his most popular tales in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog were inspired during this period.
Rejecting what he perceived as the coarse provincialism of Swansea and Welsh life, Thomas arrived in London as a broke 20-year-old in 1934, weeks before the appearance of his first volume of poetry, which was published as the first prize in a Sunday Referee competition. Another volume followed shortly afterwards, cementing the engaging young Welshman’s reputation in the British literary establishment. Having married in 1937, he returned to Wales and settled in the hushed, provincial backwater of Laugharne. Short stories – crackling with rich and melancholy humour – tumbled out as swiftly as poems, further widening his base of admirers, though, like so many other writers, Thomas only gained star status posthumously. Perhaps better than anyone, he wrote with an identifiably Welsh rhythmic wallow in the language.
Thomas, especially in public, liked to adopt the persona of what he perceived to be an archetypal stage Welshman: sonorous tones, loquacious, romantic and inclined towards a stiff tipple. This role was particularly popular in the United States, where he journeyed on lucrative lecture tours. It was on one of these that he died, in 1953, supposedly from a massive whisky overdose, although it now seems likely he was a victim of pneumonia or diabetes and incompetent doctors. Just one month earlier, he had put the finishing touches to what many regard as his masterpiece: Under Milk Wood, a “play for voices”.