Today is International Dylan Thomas Day! A notorious man of drink and free-spirited action, Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a poet, a craftsman of the creative, and an innovator of thought and language. Living in the 20th century, Thomas experienced some of the greatest trials and triumphs of modern history. Though both modernist and romantic in his poetry, Thomas followed his own rules, while simultaneously acknowledging the roles of outside forces in his life. In his poetry, for which he was most famous, Thomas dabbled with the deep, as he controlled the uncontrollable world through his poems on life, death, and memory. Thomas’s love for words, imagery, and symbolism truly memorialize him as a great poet and man of the English language. Here are five poems by Dylan Thomas that celebrate the art of freedom and power of humankind.
- “Fern Hill” (1946)
Nostalgia is both a blessing and a curse. In a paradoxical paradigm, it both affirms memory and lies about its contents. It has a reputation for making things seem better than they were. In this poem from 1946, Thomas addresses his bittersweet encounter with nostalgia itself. He reflects on his happy childhood, but this joy fades when he realizes his naïve neglect of passing time. Never again would he experience such joy. Though Thomas makes a valid point, I think we owe it to ourselves to push beyond this prison of feeling locked in the past. We deserve a future of happiness, triumph, and joy. Though no fern hill may ever be the same, there will be more, and they will be special in a new and beautiful way.
- “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (1951)
In the face of the unknown, it is easier to run away than it is to confront fate. It is easier to succumb to fate’s wrath than to fight against a heinous villain. But, sometimes the unknown is known by its certainty. Thomas wrote this 1951 villanelle for his dying father. He reminds us all that death is a good night, a truly necessary inevitability. Though death is uncontrollable, we can control how we approach its grip. We cannot run or succumb. We must not go gentle. We must fight. We must “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
- “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (1933)
Sometimes, it’s hard to stay positive when tragedy is a rampant enemy. But, tragedy is not victorious. In his first published poem from 1933, Thomas makes clear that death will not reign over us. Whether death is brutal or brisk or slow, death cannot succeed. In a cosmic, cyclic life of death and rising again, we continually defeat death. Death shall not have dominion, but it shall suffer its own domination by our very existence. Though we cannot control death, like “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” reminds us, death also cannot control us.
- “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” (1934)
Time is a tricky thing. Whether it is a miserable reality or an anticipatory companion, time seems to be a shadow of existence, always one step ahead of us on the darkest trails. Thomas wrote this rather complex, yet powerful, poem in 1934 to tackle the relationship of time to life and death. Through its use of imagery and metaphor, this poem suggests that there is a greater force at work, both in nature and in human life. Eventually, this poem crescendos into the slightly sad realization that death lies at the end of our life journey. I like to pair this poem with “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” because they share a common theme — inevitability does not mean victory.
- “In My Craft or Sullen Art” (1946)
The best advice I got when I began writing was not to write but to read. Some of the most helpful words I have read are the ones that speak to the craft of creation itself. In 1946, Thomas wrote this sonnet as a testament to act of writing itself. Writing is truly a craft– it requires meticulous attention and care. Money, fame, even success are not the goals for writing- writing ought to exist for the sake of art alone. Sometimes, writers may be lonely, with only the moon for companionship. But, in this sweet, silent solitude, writers produce a voice that belongs to the night, the written word set ablaze for the world.
Dylan Thomas was a man of art and linguistic architecture. In dark times and in light, may we always use Thomas’s wise words of agency and reflection to remind ourselves of our own capabilities.
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