Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) is one of the best-known voices of 20th Century literature, and a new book celebrating the great man’s centenary, featuring all of the old favourites as well as plenty of lesser-known poems, is released by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
The book, as the title suggests, is a collection of Thomas’ best-known and best-loved poems (though it still represents only a sample of his complete works). Here you will find Fern Hill, The Hunchback in the Park and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. It’s obvious, but perhaps advisable to say that it’s not the tome where you will find his (in our opinion, equally beautiful) short stories, nor indeed his cherished radio play for voices, Under Milk Wood. Instead, you’ll find the poems that made up Thomas’ five official volumes as well as dozens more that he penned over the years.
The poems are listed in the order in which they were written. With so many poems on offer, this is probably wise, but Thomas purists may baulk at the change in order of the poems that appear in the canonical collections. Indeed, there’s no separation in this book between the poems and the volumes they belong to, with his best-known, Deaths and Entrances, seeping into other poems written around the same period. Such presentation is, given the scope of the book, perhaps necessary, and the contents and index aid the reader in locating the poems. Nevertheless, breaking up the collections is a shame. On the flip side, reading the poems in chronological order heightens an awareness of Thomas’ constant development as a poet: one who never rested on his laurels but constantly adapted his techniques.
There are poems in the book for everyone. Fern Hill, a poignant recollection of dead childhood and loss of innocence, regularly features in lists of Britain’s favourite poems. Poem in October, written as Thomas turned 30, is an evocative piece about facing up to one’s mortality. The title of one poem about death, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, has become as familiar a phrase in English as any of Shakespeare’s best-known idioms. Thomas was a man of his times too, and living through World War Two influenced his more political works such as The Hand That Signed The Paper.
A lengthy introduction by editor John Goodby is a worthwhile read. He ably conveys something of Thomas the man, without unnecessary focus on the poet’s hellraising ways, and he explains Thomas’ popular appeal, in spite of some of the obscurity of his meaning. The struggles Thomas faced with money, and with his marriage to Caitlin, provide humanising context to the magisterial poems, as does Goodby’s assessment of the (not always positive) contemporary critical reaction to Thomas’ works.
The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas is a beautifully bound and printed hardback book, and stands as a fitting celebration of one of the most distinctive voices, and an essential tome for admirers of Thomas’ poetry. It comes with extensive notes and appendices of segments from Thomas’ letters about his work. The poems themselves sound best when read aloud, but even in your head it’s impossible to hear anything other than a Welsh accent picking out the rhythm of the words. In the sixty years since his passing, Dylan Thomas’ voice has lost none of its power, nor its magic.