Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Deathday: Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas 1953

Dylan Marlais Thomas (27 October 1914 – 9 November 1953) was a Welsh poet and writer who wrote exclusively in English. In addition to poetry, he wrote short stories and scripts for film and radio, which he often performed himself. His public readings, particularly in America, won him great acclaim; his sonorous voice with a subtle Welsh lilt became almost as famous as his works. His best-known works include the "play for voices" Under Milk Wood and the celebrated villanelle for his dying father, "Do not go gentle into that good night". Appreciative critics have also noted the superb craftsmanship and compression of poems such as "In my Craft or Sullen Art" and the rhapsodic lyricism of "Fern Hill.'


Thomas's image on the pub sign of his Laugharne 'local', Browns Hotel.Thomas arrived in New York on 20 October 1953, to take part in a performance of Under Milk Wood at the city's prestigious Poetry Centre. He was already ill and had a history of blackouts and heart problems, using an inhaler in New York to help his breathing. Thomas had liked to boast of his addiction to drinking, saying "An alcoholic is someone you don't like, who drinks as much as you do."  He "liked the taste of whisky" and had a powerful reputation for his drinking. The writer Elizabeth Hardwick recalled how intoxicating performer he was and how the tension would build before a performance: “Would he arrive only to break down on the stage? Would some dismaying scene take place at the faculty party? Would he be offensive, violent, obscene? These were alarming and yet exciting possibilities.” His wife Caitlin said in her embittered memoir “Nobody ever needed encouragement less, and he was drowned in it.” Thomas “exhibited the excesses and experienced the adulation which would later be associated with rock stars,” however the amount he is supposed to have drunk in his lifetime and in New York before his death, may well have been exaggerated as Thomas became mythologised.

On October 28, he took part in Poetry And The Film, a recorded symposium at Cinema 16, which included panellists Amos Vogel, Maya Deren, Parker Tyler, and Willard Maas. The director of the Poetry Centre, John Brinnin, was also Thomas's tour agent. Brinnin didn't travel to New York, remaining at home in Boston and handed responsibility to his assistant, Liz Reitell. Reitell met Thomas at Idlewild Airport (now JFK airport) and he told her that he had had a terrible week, had missed her terribly and wanted to go to bed with her. Despite Reitell's previous misgivings about their relationship they spent the rest of the day and night together at the Chelsea Hotel. The next day she invited him to her apartment but he declined, saying that he was not feeling well and retired to his bed for the rest of the afternoon. After spending the night with him at the hotel Reitell went back to her own apartment for a change of clothes. At breakfast Herb Hannum noticed how sick Thomas looked and suggested a visit to a Dr. Feltenstein before the performance of Under Milk Wood that evening. The doctor went to work with his needle, and Thomas made it through the two performances of Under Milk Wood, but collapsed straight afterwards. Reitell would later describe Feltenstein as a wild doctor who believed injections could cure anything.

On the evening of 27 October 1953, Thomas's 39th birthday, the poet attended a party in his honour but felt so unwell that he returned to his hotel. A turning point came on 2 November. Air pollution in New York had risen significantly and exacerbated chest illnesses, such as Thomas had. By the end of the month, over two hundred New Yorkers had died from the smog. On 3 November, Thomas returned to the Chelsea, after drinking at the White Horse Tavern, a favourite pub he'd found through Scottish poet Ruthven Todd. Thomas declared, "I've had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that is a record!"  The barman and the owner of the pub who served Thomas at the time, later told Todd that Thomas couldn't have imbibed more than half that amount. Thomas had an appointment to visit a clam house in New Jersey on 4 November. When phoned at the Chelsea that morning, he said that he was feeling awful and asked to take a rain-check. Later, he did go drinking with Reitell at the White Horse and, feeling sick again, returned to the hotel. Dr. Feltenstein came to see him three times that day, on the third call prescribing morphine, which seriously affected Thomas's breathing. At midnight on 5 November, his breathing became more difficult and his face turned blue. Reitell unsuccessfully tried to get hold of Feltenstein. By 01:58 Thomas had been admitted to the emergency ward at nearby St Vincent's hospital, by which time he was comatose. The duty doctors found bronchitis in all parts of his bronchial tree, both left and right sides. An X-ray showed pneumonia, and a raised white cell count confirmed the presence of an infection. The pneumonia worsened and Thomas died on 9 November.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

“”From "And death shall have no dominion"

Twenty-five Poems (1936)

The first rumours to circulate were of a brain haemorrhage, followed by reports that he had been mugged and soon stories began to fly that he had drunk himself to death. Later, there were speculations about drugs and diabetes. At the post-mortem, the pathologist found that the immediate cause of death was swelling of the brain, caused by the pneumonia reducing the supply of oxygen. Despite his heavy drinking his liver showed little sign of cirrhosis. His biographer Lycett, ascribed the demise of Dylan's health to an alcoholic co-dependent relationship with his wife Caitlin, who deeply resented his affairs. In Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas?, David N Thomas refutes the idea that alcoholism contributed to the poet's death. The book suggests Dylan Thomas was the victim of Dr. Feltenstein who administered morphine for delirium tremens, when Thomas in fact had pneumonia. He also suggests that Feltenstein covered his tracks by pressuring other doctors to agree that it was an alcohol-related death. He points to John Brinnin's culpability, as Thomas's agent, and suggests Brinnin neglected his duty of care. Caitlin Thomas's two searing autobiographies -Double Drink Story: My life with Dylan and Caitlin Thomas - Leftover Life to Kill - both describe the highly destructive effect of alcoholism to the poet and to their relationship. "Ours was not only a love story, it was also a drink story," she writes. "The bar was our altar."

Following his death, his body was brought back to Wales for his burial in the village churchyard at Laugharne on 25 November. One of the last people to stay at his graveside after the funeral was his mother, Florence. Thomas's obituary was written by his long-time friend and Welsh poet Vernon Watkins. His wife, Caitlin, died in 1994 and was buried alongside him.

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