The Enduring Appeal of Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

As We Are Colony releases Set Fire To The Stars; a gleaming, majestic tribute to Wales’ most famous poet, we salute the fiery romanticism for which he should be remembered.

Rambunctious, alcoholic and harbouring a propensity for orgiastic benders, Dylan Thomas did anything but go gently into that good night. It’s a life rife with dramatic potential.

So no wonder there has been many a screen adaptation. From the Keira Knightley/Sienna Miller vehicle The Edge Of Love to BBC 2’s commemoration A Poet in New York and most recently Set Fire To The Stars with Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones, Thomas has proved to be riotously entertaining cinematic fodder. He was a rock star in circles deemed to be academic and rigid; spewing dirty limericks at debonair dinner parties and suffering from the same disease that afflicted the equally hedonistic Henry VIII. But inevitably in the rehashing of a life lived destructively, his poetry becomes a mere footnote, or stylistic flourish to adorn the narrative.

Lest we forget that Dylan Thomas was a master of verse. The Guardian deem him capable of “emotive – and technical – virtuosity”, whilst The Telegraph note his “innovative use of language and deep and lyrical insights into landscape and humanity”.

I discovered Dylan Thomas on my own time. Despite studying poetry at A-level and during my undergraduate degree, he was rarely a feature in academic contexts. Aged 15 and wholly impressionable, I had just watched the aforementioned biopic The Edge Of Love and was quickly enraptured by the bohemian whimsy and rural bliss it depicted. Shortly thereafter I purchased a pair of cable-knit socks and The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas.

The former was relegated to the back of a drawer after a few ill-fated outings, but the latter would become a staple in my literary love affair. Evocative, magisterial and ever-changing, I would read them aloud in a slightly dubious, lilting Welsh accent and see myself transported to a different era and a different place. It felt like I was harbouring a secret, that I was the only one who knew Thomas’ power to provide refuge and escape.

Even today, after years of debate and renewed criticism, Thomas is something of an enigma. A poet who eschewed formal education and ridiculed scholarly conceit, he preferred the joys of the inebriate in public houses, and pub diction frequently littered his poetry.

Excluded from the ‘canon’ and many school syllabi, he didn’t – and perhaps still doesn’t – fit neatly into any particular movement. Welsh-born, but perceived with scepticism for his moral dubiousness by locals and perceived as ‘difficult’ in literary circles who possessed a distaste for his modernist tendencies, Thomas existed on the periphery of convention.

But therein lies his charm, especially for the modern fan. He was a rebel. His words are imbued with a violent passion and a sheer love of language; at times nonsensical and verbose, but able to rouse great emotion in their reader. Fellow Welsh icon and ambassador for the Dylan Thomas 100 Festival Michael Sheen has said “there is no other writer whose work can exhilarate me like his…No one whose vision of this life can fill me with the same sense of awe and appetite”.

Written off at the time for being unintelligible and alienating, Thomas’ poetry is now heralded for its complexity and contradiction – ‘Altarwise By Owl-Light’ particularly evidences this. He is capable of producing images at once grotesque and romantic, exuding a primitive urgency. He is bawdy and bacchanalian, but his poetry isn’t as thoughtless as detractors suggest, rather showing great craft and construction.

Indeed Wikipedia uses ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ as the litmus test against which a villanelle is explained, for it is a perfect example of this highly-structured poetic form. Further testament to its legacy is the poem’s appearance in 2014’s sci-fi epic Interstellar, a suitable companion piece to a film that requires the rescue of our planet considering Thomas’ preoccupation with and awareness of his own mortality.

What’s more, he was a hustler. He might have squandered as much as he ever made, living off the kindness of wealthy friends and fans, but he worked at his craft tirelessly and cultivated a voice that was uniquely his own. Though freelancing for the BBC during WW2, he made his own way in the poetic world and very much forged – and subsequently maligned – his own stardom. Yet he was never so pretentious as to believe that his poetry was important or game-changing, or at least he affected this insouciance.

The myth-making surrounding his life has become an impenetrable quagmire, facilitating only continued myths. A thrill-seeking, disaster-courting drunkard might an enthralling protagonist make, but to appreciate Thomas, you have to get back to the page. Set Fire To The Stars is an elegant and exquisite depiction of a moment in Dylan Thomas’ life. It might not reflect the boisterousness for which he is remembered, but it certainly alludes to the precision and mastery with which he could pen a poem.

In an era when acronyms and emojis are proliferating in our interactions with each other, Thomas’ love of words is both exhilarating and an early indicator of our love of abbreviation. There is no shortage of beautiful phrasings throughout his works: “Flavoured of celluloid give love to the lie”; “The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars”, and of course that urgent and oft-repeated refrain “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Yet he was also a fan of something distinctly more inventive and well, Dylanesque. His use of unconventional adjectives “snouting, velvet dingles”, juxtaposing imagery “mustardseed sun” and compound words “hotwaterbottled body”, “ramshackle sea” lend his work a lyrical quality, but also demonstrate an ability to bring two – sometimes disparate – notions together into coexistence in one synchronous utterance.

Thomas could reinvent and repurpose words to potent effect. His linguistic experimentations and concise, but richly allusive descriptions give you permission to use language playfully, visually and intellectually and to believe in the power of that language to incite, and excite. Through his work, Thomas provides a template for doing things your own way.

The tagline to Set Fire To The Stars reads ‘Never Meet Your Heroes’, and despite his whiskey-fuelled fall from grace, Thomas remains a hero to many. He might have been embedded into popular culture for his rock star persona, but the enduring appeal of Dylan Thomas lies with his words. Intoxication might be the lexicon through which we understand Thomas, but it’s his poetry which enduringly intoxicates.

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